The War For (Diverse) Teams At Early Stage Companies…and Beyond

Note: Diversity is a term used 30+ times in this piece and refers to all types of diversity, beyond just gender.

In 2004, there was a post-bubble burst resurgence of well funded startups and VMware, like many other companies in the Silicon Valley, was struggling to compete for talent against Google, Yahoo and others in their space. The hot conversation in the weekly e-staff meeting in Palo Alto was about maintaining the bar and hiring the very best talent they could find. This was well before diversity and inclusion was trending as a hiring pain point. There was a war on talent.

To combat this war, the leadership team at VMware got creative. There was an urgency to bring on talent and just competing on compensation and equity wasn’t enough when that talent pool itself was sparse. So, leveraging ties to several of the team members’ east coast roots, they tried an experiment and opened an office in Cambridge, MA.

As the Site Director hired to build out that office at the start of 2005, I was charged with bringing on at least a dozen engineers by the end of the year. I had strict guidance on who to hire first;  the first six hires had to be at least a Staff level engineer, which at that time was like a Principal at most other companies. Even though we were desperate to bring on more talent, the leadership team insisted we still keep the bar high. There were no compromises – hire the best, no matter what.

By the end of 2005, we ended up hiring over 20 seasoned engineers and were well poised to scale that location with more junior talent and expand into other regions across the globe. It was a hard push to win the war, but we won it and many would say that getting scrappy, maintaining the bar and taking risks outside of Palo Alto to hire great talent was one of the key factors that led to VMware becoming the multi-billion dollar success story it is today.

Getting Scrappy And Taking Risks To Create Diverse Teams

Flash forward to 2017, and the talent war is still on, but it’s not just about hiring top talent, it’s about hiring for diversity. There’s plenty of science to prove that diverse teams are what separate average companies from the big success stories. Once there’s diversity in teams, you attract more candidates from underrepresented groups. But there is a catch-22 when companies and teams with no diversity can’t hire candidates from underrepresented groups, in part, because they have no diversity in their current teams!

I was at an event recently where I sat in a breakout session about diversity and inclusion where most of the fifteen or so participants were white, male, CEO-Founders of very early stage companies. These leaders were complaining that despite best efforts, they were not able to find/hire qualified, candidates from underrepresented groups for their open positions. Investors were on their back to meet deadlines and reach revenue goals and the push for building diverse teams was not a high enough priority to push back. They had to hire the best talent they could find, and get coding!

But what if that talent didn’t exist? What if it was 2004 and there were no engineers to hire, never mind engineers from underrepresented groups? How do companies, like VMware did back then, combat this war vs. becoming complacent? What can companies do today to be creative, continue to scale, and develop a diverse team? What if CEOs, their leadership team and their boards held the line on diversity metrics, no matter what?

Starting From The Top

A company that is committed to diversity must demonstrate that commitment from the top, down. CEOs set the tone for the organization’s culture by demonstrating a commitment to diversity and inclusion. They don’t just say they care about the problem and acknowledge the importance of solving it, but they force it to happen. VMware’s founding CEO, Diane Greene, was adamant that we hire only the best talent from day one, and CEOs today need to do the same when it comes to hiring diverse talent.

One of the most compelling reasons for any strong candidate to join a company is knowing there’s diversity at the senior most levels. Having Diane at the helm played a huge role in my decision to join VMware. She was a role model and inspiration to everyone at the company as she balanced the complex demands of scaling our business with her family and other commitments outside of work. We were not only inspired to follow her drive and passion for the business, but the company naturally attracted other strong, candidates because of her leadership.

Whether you are an early stage company, mature business or even just a growing team within a maturing business, committing to diversity at the top is critical. Here are some suggestions on how to do that:

  • The founding team: Diversity does not just have to exist between your co-founding team, it should be among your first hires, your advisors, customers and/or friends of the company. The more diverse the team, the more likely you will be to attract new team members from under represented groups. Introduce prospects to these company “community” members to begin to demonstrate your commitment to this metric at the start. For example, I frequently join interview panels for early stage companies I advise to ensure not just a great hire, but to add diversity to the panel itself.
  • Set and hold the diversity bar for leadership hires: Don’t say “it would be really great to fill the next senior role with a diverse candidate”, rather make it mandatory to create a diverse organization. “We will not hire another manager, director, VP, etc. unless they bring diversity into our team.” Get scrappy and go hard to build these teams (see below). Stop looking for just culture fit and homogenous pattern matching and seek those different than you – they are sure to be additive to your organization beyond just their skills and experiences. Yes, it may take longer to find that person, but hold out for it – it’s worth it!

Note to VCs & Board Members

It is great to see so many VCs and board members stepping up to foster diversity in their portfolios. They are committing to invest in more women founded companies, hosting “diversity events”, making the Decency Pledge and some are creating special funds for diverse entrepreneurs. I believe many VCs are sincerely interested in this effort and not just creating PR tactics to position firms to appear supportive. While those efforts are important to further the cause (don’t stop doing them!), I challenge them to set the bar higher; implementing hard accountability metrics for diversity in their firms and in their portfolio companies. To not be complacent in the reality that it’s “hard to find qualified  candidates from underrepresented groups”, but rather force change to happen. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Mandate that your partnership be a diverse team. Studies continue to come out on how diversity in investment teams have stronger exit outcomes. Get scrappy and find ways to build diverse teams for your firms. The more diverse your team, the more likely your firm, will attract a more diverse group of entrepreneurs into your deal flow. And don’t stop at one – keep forging ahead and strive for a more balanced group of partners; a token diversity hire isn’t enough. Also, each partner from an underrepresented group on your team allows for more diversity on your portfolio companies’ boards. While there’s great debate on whether there’s a direct correlation with diversity on boards and company performance, it is a sure thing that diverse boards add new perspective and new ideas to help the organization succeed.
  • Refuse to fund a non-diverse team (!). Yes, you may have to get your LPs to sign off on this, but many LPs are now pressuring the funds they’re in to push harder on the diversity front. So, take the lead, be proactive and tell them you’re holding the bar. Even if it means an initial slow down on deal flow and longer lead times to exit. The data proves that those investments are far likely to pay off in a bigger way than the non-diverse team investments you’re making today.
  • Set your portfolio teams up for success and help find candidates from underrepresented groups for your investments. Extend runway with a bridge loan or other means until the company has had at least six months to try to shore up their team. Make this a priority of your firm. This too is likely to improve deal flow if you offer this type of support to entrepreneurs as many entrepreneurs are not even coming to you because they don’t have the requisite co-founder, never mind a co-founder/founding team that is diverse.
  • Cover the cost to augment teams during the recruiting process. Not only encourage your portfolio companies to bring in consultants/contractors from underrepresented groups as part of their core team until they demonstrate diversity in their teams, but pay for it! Invest in your teams beyond the equity round.
  • Note to Founders: Depending on urgency to raise capital, you might consider refusing to take money from funds that don’t walk the talk – will your board be diverse? Would non-diverse investment group allow you to fill their board seat with an alternate who brings diversity into the board? The more senior candidates you are courting to join your company will examine board composition carefully – especially if your investors play an active role in the day-to-day of your company (It happens more than we think!). How hard are you willing to work to get a diverse board? Also consider creating a seat for an independent board member from day one to be used if needed to round out your team.

Beyond The Leadership Team And Investors

How are you set up to source for and hire diverse teams? Are you looking in all the right places? In 2015, I wrote a whole primer on hiring for startups (much of which is also applicable for later stage companies), but here are some specific tips on getting creative on hiring for diverse teams:

  • Diversity in your interview panel: Most hiring managers these days know it’s ideal to have a diverse interview panel to help sell a candidate on the role and company, but if your team lacks diversity, consider augmenting the interview team with diverse “community” members – either from other teams in your company or by inviting board members, advisors, friends of the company, etc. to participate. More good info on the hiring process for diversity here.
  • Join, sponsor or network with diversity orgs: There are countless non-profit organizations that cater to diversity hiring causes. For example, joining the National Center for Women in Technology’s Entrepreneurial Alliance which is designed for both startups and incubators/accelerators, provides access to job forums, invitations to their events and connections with over 600 other membership companies. Blackengineer.com has a jobs board, as does lgbtconnect.com. There are loooong lists of other organizations you can tap into to support diversity hiring efforts here, here and here.
  • Bring on Diverse Contractors: To me this is a win-win. You can start getting some work done and having diversity in the office can allay concerns when members of underrepresented groups come in to interview. I’ve heard countless stories of a candidate going for an interview and saying “the whole office was dudes or all white” …you get the visual. I’ve also heard many stories of contractors who fall in love with the company they’re working with (and vice versa) and join full time! (and as noted above, maybe you can get your investors to pay for it!).
  • Never miss the opportunity of a passive candidate: So many companies fail to build diverse teams because they wait for applicants vs. seeking out great people. Troll LinkedIn, go to meetups related to your company’s area, hire sourcers to look for great candidates who may not even know they might want a change until they get a call from your company! Don’t wait for these candidates to come to you.

The First Diverse Hire

Once you reach success and start to hire diverse team members, remember, for many of them, they may be the first one – whether it’s at your company as a whole or perhaps just in one team. There can be an ominous feeling when one thinks they’ve been courted or hired as the token diverse candidate/employee. What will you do to ensure that they are set up for success?

  • Acknowledge the problem from the start. The first time you diversify your team, especially for a small company, the individual will know they are bringing diversity to the table. Speaking from experience, it’s fine to call it out, as long as it’s clear that this is not THE reason they are in consideration. Needing a strong technical leader, or someone who has specific domain expertise is the priority, diversity is simply a value add to the team/company…but don’t dwell on it.
  • Consider how you operate today and whether there are any conscious or unconscious biases towards the current homogeneity of your company/team. Are there activities that happen at work or after hours such as fantasy leagues, spa trips or perhaps even non-family friendly activities that keep the first diverse hire from feeling comfortable or the outlier? Does your office decor offend or intimidate? Carefully examine how your company culture, rituals and environment is setup to be as friendly as possible.
  • You’re not done – the first hire that creates diversity in your team should not check a box and then you move on. Keep at it and for God’s sake please do not make that hire the ambassador for all future diversity activities! It is still the hiring manager/leadership team’s responsibility to keep the momentum.
  • Finally, focus on retaining those great hires.

Make diversity a priority. Hold yourself, your team, your investors and your board accountable. Set standards, get scrappy and change things for the better.

This is a war on for diverse teams. Treat it that way.

Reply in the comments if you have other creative suggestions on how to win the war on creating diverse teams.

Opening Doors & Taking Action

open doorsAs the news unfolded in the past week over Susan Fowler’s recent blog post about her experiences at Uber, I have been thinking deeply about finding my voice on the matter. I recalled the countless times I had been harassed and never said a thing to anyone, let alone the HR rep at whatever company I was working at the time. I have dozens and dozens of stories of inappropriate, sexually charged, comments from colleagues, winks, suggestive touches, crass jokes, and pictures shared with me that I wish I could unsee. I never called them out.

Fear of gaslighting – being accused of being oversensitive, crazy, blowing things out of proportion – is probably one of the top reasons for not reporting the umpteen incidents employees experience in the workplace. It seems no matter how high we climb the corporate ladder, we still hold back. Whether it’s gaslighting, possible retaliation, or as in Susan Fowler’s case, being totally ignored, we doubt we will be heard.

On those rare occasions when we are heard, those who fall victim to bad behavior or blatant harassment are often “handled” quietly, if at all. Issues are swept under the rug before anyone knows. So, regardless of whether the bad actor gets a warning or more severe action is taken, no one else learns from this lesson. Organizations and leaders desperate to protect their reputations and avoid litigation make it go away a fast as possible. Perhaps those who helped “clean it up” get a reality check, but as long as there is no exposure, no public shaming, no admission of guilt, we will continue to see situations like Ms. Fowler’s persist.

It was a bold move for Ms. Fowler to publicly share her story about Uber and its leadership team’s lack of attention towards her situation. The ubiquity of Uber, and attention the company is already getting in other forums, certainly gave fuel to this issue, but this is not just about tech companies gone bad. It was a rallying cry for leaders at any company, big or small, to not only open the doors for employees to be heard, but to make it clear that crossing the line is no longer tolerated and when it is crossed, action is taken.

Opening Doors
Building a culture of open doors is not just about telling employees “my door is always open,” but actually opening that door. We had a thoughtful series of conversations on this topic at DigitalOcean (DO) over the past week. At our company all hands, we emphasized a zero-tolerance for any harassing behaviors that make our employees feel unsafe and our CEO and I both committed that, while we want people to talk with their managers and our People team first, we are 100% available to talk with any employee who is uncomfortable and prefers to talk with either of us about any issue.

Our commitment to our employees this past week has been well received, but executives making statements about their open doors is only part of the equation. Opening doors is also about ensuring a safe and inclusive work environment by proactively mitigating issues. Ensuring a safe work environment involves everything from setting policies and guidelines to conducting cross-company training beyond the online course we are required to click through when we start a new job.

studentdiscussion_250One of my former employers offered a training using situational role playing to develop understanding and empathy for those who may not appreciate the severity of certain actions. It was an invaluable exercise and we do something similar with the unconscious bias training we provide to all new employees as part of their on-boarding at DO. We’ve found by raising awareness of these behaviors in realistic settings we can do a lot to set clear expectations on what acceptable and unacceptable is, and make people more aware of their impact on others.

If you see something, say something.
Despite proactive efforts, open doors, trainings and policies, harassment still happens. Sometimes, it’s an innocent mistake where a young/inexperienced employee just doesn’t realize they’ve said something wrong. Sometimes, it’s an experienced executive who’s never been called out thus doesn’t appreciate the impact of their behavior. Regardless, we cannot stay silent.

I believe every manager is accountable for reporting any incident that they observe or is reported to them as soon as possible. I also believe it’s every employee’s right to know that their company is taking action to ensure a safe workplace. However, because of corporate policy and privacy protection, we often lack the transparency of how organizations are handling situations and whether they are operating a safe place of work. We cannot, for many reasons, publicly call out every person who crosses a line, but there could be methods(*) to get ahead of this such as:

  • Providing a safe forum for any employee to report an incident they’ve experienced or observed.
  • Tracking anonymized incident data to look for trends including frequency of issues and resolution timeframes.
  • Implementing and broadly communicating Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide hot lines, advocacy and legal counsel.
  • Internal or even public communication on a company’s performance regarding harassment situations. Imagine a world where companies own unfortunate situations and say how they are resolving them and share improvement data. Scary as that may sound, I bet that if more companies shared this information, the trend of incidents would go down.

The beat goes on…
Whether it was in Twitter or in an intimate setting among friends, Susan Fowler’s story is not the first we’ve heard like this nor will it be the last. We need to continue to bring these topics front and center and commit to continuous improvement in the workplace. I’d love to hear how other leaders are handling this topic at their companies. We all benefit from learning from each other, so please share your stories in the comments.

(*) These are just suggestions, I leave the real policy and program design work to the experts 🙂

The CTO to VP Engineering Fork

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[This blog was first posted in 2016, updated in 2018 and in 2020]

There comes a time in every scaling tech start-up’s life when an engineering team begins to show signs of needing help. The symptoms can include lost velocity in releasing new products/features, attrition or morale issues, fragile code or lack of innovation. I frequently hear CEOs and founders say “we need a new CTO” or “should we hire a VP of Engineering?”. But what does that really mean? A title is one thing, but the skills necessary to cure the symptoms is a whole other challenge.

Most tech startups have someone serving as CTO — whether it is one of the co-founders or a first senior hire. The role of the CTO is not straightforward and as a company scales, it’s unreasonable for that role to be the end-all-be-all. In the early days of a startup, the CTO is often the chief cook and bottle washer for all things technical. She is coding, serving as the de facto IT person and project manager as well as meeting customers alongside the CEO and helping with hiring decisions. She is expected to be deeply technical and often a domain expert. Firing on all of these cylinders may meet your company’s needs in the short-term, but quite often, there reaches a point where your CTO is no longer being excellent at what they came to your company to do.

In my experience, there tends to be two types of CTOs that evolve as a company grows:

The Evangelist — The shameless promoter of your product, this CTO is out on the road meeting prospects, existing customers and partners and marketing your product. At the same time, they are gathering valuable insight into your product, its pain-points and understanding how it compares to the competition. They are mindful of industry trends and the ecosystem of which your product belongs. They are the ultimate voice of the customer and are keenly aware of the product priorities. They set the vision for the “.next” of your product and the long-term roadmap. They may have once been a coder and understand the basics of your technology architecture. They can go head-to-head with other technology leaders in your space and represent your company at technology conferences. They also tend to be a recruiting magnet for engineering talent.

This CTO works hand-in-hand with the CEO and sales and marketing leads to set the strategy for the company — from market direction to the operations and scale of the business. They are financially savvy and comfortable presenting to and working with your Board of Directors.

The Expert — Often a domain expert or technical guru, this CTO is heads down with your engineering team ensuring your products are built to perform at scale. They may code, sit in code reviews, and mentor junior engineers. They are either designing your underlying architecture or at the very least leading that conversation and signing off on proposed plans. Also talent magnets, they attract senior engineers who wish to learn from this CTO’s experience. They may be key contributors to the open source community, prolific in filing patents, publishing technical papers and speaking at technical and academic conferences. While they enjoy meeting customers and value the insight from those meetings, they prefer more intimate meetings with technical members of customer teams and whiteboard sessions to brainstorm solutions vs. “selling” your products.

This CTO works closely with the sales and support team and often leaves the company strategy and growth discussions to the CEO and other leaders of the organization. They have an opinion on where the company should go, and they’re not afraid to share that, but they leave the details up to “management”.

In both cases above, it’s rare when one of these types of CTOs is also a master at execution. This is when it is important to have a VP of Engineering (VPE). While a VPE can often be someone who can serve as a voice of the customer, be a technical expert and/or represent the company in technical forums, the VPE’s focus is on GSD. Key characteristics of a VP of Engineering that can often differ from a CTO are:

  • Process oriented — highly organized around priorities, velocity, quality and meeting deadlines. They have strong project management and communication skills.
  • Great at hiring — pattern matching skills for not just technical expertise, but for people who are collaborative and mission-driven. Knows how to ID the prima donna engineer from the eager-to-learn engineer and when to say “no” even with a great looking resume. Being additive to the team is paramount to success.
  • Great at growing their team — this isn’t just about about going from 10 to 40 or 100+ engineers. This is about career development. They’ve got a track record for bringing junior engineers into an organization and developing them into technology leaders and domain experts. Their former engineers have followed them from company to company because they are great to work with. They know how to have fun, but also how to appropriately push a team towards meeting a deadline with urgency and not burn them out.
  • Challenges the status-quo — they won’t just keep building what the co-founders started, but will question both the what and the how. They understand the impact that technical debt can have on the long term scalability of your products. They also know how to tune processes without slowing the company with process. They are motivated to deliver products and features that customers not only need, but love. They partner well with their PM colleagues and both respect and appreciate the inputs from outside engineering (sales, support, the CTO…).
  • Not afraid to get their hands dirty — they lead/attend code reviews, can code if there is an emergency, enjoy tinkering with competitors’ products to understand advantages/challenges of your own products, and appreciate the fine art of squashing bugs. They come in early and stay late when there’s a deadline — even if it’s just to make sure engineers are getting food and coffee.
  • Strategic thinker — while a VP of Engineering may not be at the the table deciding the long term strategy of the company, they are part of the discussion. They understand tradeoffs of time-to-market vs. quality and value the need to get a MVP out the door to garner customer feedback early on. They may push for a product, feature or carving out time to catch up on tech-debt, but also respect the larger vision of the roadmap and know when to let go of something that isn’t a priority — in fact, the really good VPE’s kill things sooner than a CTO or CEO may like for the sake of velocity and GSD.

When you’ve decided it’s time to fork that technology leadership role and have both a CTO and a VPE, look for someone eager to create a partnership who prefers to lean into GSD and growing teams and who values the technology leadership, vision and evangelism of your CTO. That person may be a strong leader within your engineering organization or you’ll have to recruit for the position. If recruiting from outside of your company, be leery of career CTOs who seek a role as VPE at your company — they may say they’re willing to be in charge of GSD, but could struggle to partner with your CTO. Look for examples of their past engineering leadership roles as managers or tech leads. Have their former employees followed them to different companies? Also look for measurable achievements like improved velocity rates, quality improvements or hiring/team development metrics. Those are telltale signs that you’ve got a solid VPE candidate.

Sometimes it takes a lot of soul searching for a founding CTO to realize they’re not serving the company well around VPE-types of activities. I’ve seen plenty of CTOs worried that with a VPE on board, they’re not sure what’s next for them at the company. I’ve also seen CTOs excel when partnered with a great VPE where they can set the vision and execution strategy in tandem. Similarly, I have seen companies bring in a great CTO when their current head of engineering is just not ready for or interested in that role (internal or external facing). It can be a great mentoring opportunity for the head of engineering and/or allows them to keep focusing on GSD.

One more thing to consider (added in 2020): Whether they more closely associate with the Evangelist or the Expert, CTOs can also be great leaders of VPs (Engineering, Product, Design, etc.). They can “glue” these teams together to ensure that the vision and execution of products move well together. These CTOs can also serve as bridges to other teams — fostering healthy working relationships with support, sales, marketing, etc.. However, not every CTO is (or wants to be) a great people/team leader, even at a higher and more strategic level. In these situations, VPs may be better served by reporting to CEO or COO. When the organization is designed this way, the CTO would typically report directly to the CEO and could still have a team of individual contributors (architects, scientists, mini-CTOs) report to them if the need/desire arises.

Have you struggled with the CTO to VPE fork? Share your experience in the comments!

Scaling Another Rocket Ship: Hello DO!

Every once and awhile, I meet a company so exciting, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking non-stop about its potential to scale, massively. Fortunately for me, I ended up joining two of them that turned out to be great success stories and I think I just found my third. Starting this month, I am joining the ranks at DigitalOcean as their CTO.

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Anyone who knows me well would agree that as much as I am an organizer and planner, I am also a risk taker. I love diving into challenges and creating results that require skill, agility and building relationships. While business savvy and technical skill are paramount to growing a successful tech company, understanding the human element and building high performing teams is what separates the good from the great.

In 1999, with a three year-old and an infant, I quit my healthcare IT job to go to Akamai to help them get organized before our IPO. Most of my friends and colleagues thought I was nuts, but I was hungry for bringing order to chaos and building something that made an impact. My three years at Akamai were among the toughest and most rewarding years of my career. We created the world’s first CDN for businesses and turned it into the backbone of the internet. The teams I led and partnered with were some of the smartest and coolest humans I’ve had the pleasure to work with. We pulled all-nighters together, cried together when we lost our CTO-Founder Danny Lewin on 9/11 and still celebrate the company’s success together at our annual “Akamai Pre-2002’ish Employees” reunion.

In 2005, I landed at VMware right after the EMC acquisition to help them figure out how to run a global engineering team. I took a leap of faith that we would not get fully absorbed into EMC (which was their MO at the time) and that I could help build another company made to last. What I found when I interviewed at VMware was the same good vibe I had at Akamai. Super smart people, fun, passion and humility…and of course, a wicked cool product. I still remember my final interview in Palo Alto – a last minute “Diane Greene would like to meet you” – that threw me for a curve. I was pretty frank with Diane that I wasn’t sure I could balance my role at VMware with three small children. She assured me that VMware would make it work, and they did. Both my career and the company flourished over my eight year tenure at VMware. When I joined the company, we had just over 800 employees and around $200M in revenue. Today, it boasts close to 19K employees and 2015 revenues were $6.57B. It was an incredible ride to help scale something that spectacular.

When I left VMware in 2013, I felt very lucky to have been part of two incredible rocket ship stories in the technology industry. After much soul searching around “Julia.next”, I settled into the startup ecosystem in Boston. I became a mentor at TechStars and recently began teaching a Product Management course at Harvard Business School. Until recently, I was fairly certain this was the tail end of my journey, but something was gnawing at me that I had at least one more in me. One more amazing rocket ship I could help scale.

Over the past few years, I’ve made a few investments and became a formal advisor to the founders of several local startups. It was one of these founders who introduced me to Moisey Uretsky, DigitalOcean’s co-founder and Chief Product Officer. For those who don’t know Moisey, let’s just say brilliance and tenacity is an understatement. Despite my protests against working with a company in NYC, Moisey convinced me to come to DigitalOcean HQ back in January to meet his equally brilliant and tenacious brother and co-founder-CEO, Ben, and get to know the business. One visit became several and within a matter of a few weeks, I was fully enamored and signed up to advise the company.

During my early work with the DigitalOcean team, my instincts told me that this is going to be another winner. It is beyond impressive how, in just four short years, DigitalOcean has built such a strong platform and community. Ben, Moisey and I – along with the other key members of the DigitalOcean leadership team – began to work together to forge a partnership that will enable us to super-scale this company. The achievements we’ve made to grow the business so far left me unable to resist the temptation to join full time to help take it all the way. So now here I am, honored and excited to be DigitalOcean’s new CTO.

So what is it about DigitalOcean that gets me so excited?

In addition to our tremendous business growth, strong culture, talented team and impressive list of investors, the most striking is the simplicity of DigitalOcean’s features that developers love. We let developers create, automate, and manage a robust cloud server infrastructure out of the box with floating IP addresses, shared private networking, tier-1 bandwidth, team accounts and SSD hard drives which all come as standard. And all of our services can be provisioned in as little as 55 seconds with a plan for as low as $5 a month.

I am continuously blown away at the reaction I get from people in our industry who hear I am working with this company.

“I love how easy it is to spin up a Droplet to build software!” – MIT graduate student building software for his own startup

“I have 6 Droplets of my own!” – Boston VC

“Their tutorials and community engagement is the best in the industry” – Engineer building a neuroscience application

“DigitalOcean gets developers – they give us what we need with no BS” – SaaS application developer

In addition to our core feature offerings, our multiple data centers around the world and a 99.99% guaranteed uptime enable companies to build and scale robust SaaS applications. Even more exciting is what’s to come. Our storage capabilities will begin to roll out this summer and what follows is a list of features that developers building production applications will surely love. Because at DigitalOcean, it’s all about love…

This is going to be another incredible journey of risk, opportunity and balance for me. We are an organization that values learning and what better way to hold that true than to continue teaching my course at HBS (fear not, @teisenmann & PM101’ers!). And, while I’ll certainly be spending a lot of time at our HQ in NYC, I will remain living in Cambridge and to continue to be an active member of the Boston area startup community.

Finally, I am hiring! We’re looking for amazing talent across the company. Check out our current career opportunities both in and outside of NYC.

Will DigitalOcean be another massively scaling rocket ship ? I’m pretty bullish about it. So check back here soon for updates on how it’s going!

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Adding Value By Transforming Your Business

business-transformationIn addition to creating a new company that is disrupting the status quo, many founders are also challenging the old norms of how businesses operate in order to add value. When you are struggling to raise capital, hire, and scale your business, is there time and energy available to also rethink how you do business in general? How much effort do you want to put in to stand out as a company not only creating something spectacular, but also a company that differentiates itself as an employer? What truly matters in the end is whether that transformational effort adds value.

In 2012, the gaming company Valve published their novel Employee Handbook  which outlined their organization structure (or lack thereof). Valve challenged the notion of having assigned projects to work on or managers to report to. Many other companies have taken similar approaches not only to attempt to operate more efficiently, but also to attract and retain talent by differentiating their companies from the mainstream.

Whether or not the super flat organization or self-directed projects works, these companies have challenged the standard on how business are “supposed” to run. One could argue that these attempts to be different are distracting and time consuming when the work just needs to get done. However, by taking a chance at doing something different, not only are they attracting new talent, these companies are fueling creativity and innovation across their organizations.

Transforming your business doesn’t always have to be time consuming or distracting. The company Amplitude challenged how businesses handle equity compensation by extending the company options exercise windows to TEN years vs. the standard 90-day window most companies offer. Amplitude also helps employees understand the complexity of their equity plans by outlining in detail the possible scenarios and potential outcomes of their particular grants. The message here is A) you add value to this company and should benefit from it well into the future and B) we want to be sure you fully understand that value as an important member of our team. I imagine neither the window extension or transparency tactics were very time consuming or distracting to implement (well, perhaps the former took some selling to their investors!), but they certainly make this company stand out as an employer and innovator.

Most recently, eShares has stepped up their game by revamping the offer letter. CEO Henry Ward decided that, being in the business of equity management, they should excel in helping job candidates and new employees fully understand what it means to have options in their company. There’s even more to it though, as the offer letter outlines very clearly where a new hire will sit in the organization and what their first week of work will look like. The have transformed the on-boarding process by starting with the offer letter vs. waiting for a new employee to sign and come on board. Perhaps this is an attempt at self fulfilling prophesy (if we tell them about their first week, they’re more likely to accept our offer!), but regardless, the effort to be transparent sets this company apart from so many of the humdrum companies doing the same old thing.

Just because it’s been done that way forever, doesn’t always mean it’s the best way to do business and it certainly won’t set you apart from your competitors. Many entrepreneurs are getting advice from old-school investors and advisors who saw it done a certain way that worked in their day, but that doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be done. If you choose to take a new approach, don’t do it for the sake of being different, do it because it either enables your company to run more efficiently and/or it adds value for your employees or customers.

Have you transformed your business beyond the new products and services you offer to your customers? Share what you’ve done in the comments.

 

Note To Parents: When The Helicopter Flies Too Close To Work

Last week I had the pleasure of co-hosting an event with the wonderful team from Inteligent.ly. Our goal was to pull together local Chief People Officer types from startups (COOs and CFOs included) to get a conversation going around scaling organizations. It was a wonderful dialogue centered around talent acquisition, development and retention as companies scale. I think most of the attendees would agree, we could have talked for hours if we had the time. One striking take-away from the evening, however, was the topic of parents involvement in the hiring process.

Yes, you heard me, parents are flying their helicopters too close to the work place.helicopter_PNG5313

The topic on the table was “hiring and working with millennials” and the question was how far to go to cater to this demographic. One attendee told a story of a recent job candidate with approximately 5 years of experience who was shopping his offer from his company around to others to see what kind of deal he could get. The experienced, C-level, leader telling the story had given this candidate a short window to make a decision – he either wanted the job or he didn’t. When the candidate didn’t respond by the deadline, he was informed via email that the offer had been rescinded. The candidate responded with a detailed email on why he needed more time. When the leader questioned the rationale for needing more time, the candidate responded with “that’s what my parents told me to say”.

Most of the group hearing this story were not surprised. Many of them have been in hiring or manager roles of some sort in the past ten years and reported that it is becoming more common for those helicopter parents who harassed teachers about grades or college professors about assignments to continue on to the workplace and be over involved.

Another dinner attendee asked the group how many of them have received a phone call from an irate parent about the salary or benefits their child was being offered. I was aghast at how many nodding heads there were around the table. Seriously?

Every summer, my daughters attend an all-girls, sleep away camp in the Berkshires that develops young women to be independent thinkers and leaders. When the girls “age out” of camper status, they have the option of applying for a Leader in Training (LIT) program. There are only ~30 positions available for this coveted program and an average of 2-3 times that number of former campers apply. Each year, the camp director sends a very stern email to parents that explains the selection process and the competitive nature of the few spots in comparison to the number of applicants. She makes it clear to parents that she welcomes a call “from your child” if she is not selected and wants feedback or guidance on other leadership pursuits that summer. Yet, the camp director says that every year, without fail, parents continue to call on behalf of their daughters.

Certainly it is a big disappointment when your child doesn’t get what they want or you want for them. When one of my daughters did not get into the camp LIT program it was a very mournful day (more like a week) in the Austin household, but my daughter grew tremendously from the experience. She not only learned how to accept rejection, but she became more aware of who she was and what she really wanted to pursue. It was a pivotal moment in her life and one I am so grateful for her to have experienced at such a formative age. She has since applied to programs more thoughtfully (she ended up spending that summer doing a program with NYFA and is now a sophomore in NYU-Tisch‘s Film and Television program) and is now experiencing the job application process with mixed results (“how does one get their first barista job if they all require prior barista experience??”). It has been entertaining and sometimes heartbreaking to watch her trip and fall as she gains her legs as an adult, but hey, we watched her learn to toddle a long time ago. We never did the walking for her.

One of my favorite parenting books read when my girls were very young is The Blessing of A Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel, PhD. She writes of over-indulgence in today’s society (too much stuff, over-nurturing and soft structure) and how it leads to bless_knee_coverchildren actually feeling unlovable, needing constant affirmation, lack skills and lack self-sufficiency. Many managers of young professionals today, express frustration with these characteristics of their work force – needing constant affirmation and lacking that self-starting grit that comes from many a skinned knee.

Our job as parents is to provide our children with tools to handle what life brings them. To be empathetic and good listeners when they’re thrown a curve ball and to make suggestions and offer guidance when things are tough. If we do it all for them or augment their work, how will they ever be self reliant, confident, members of society?

So, put that phone down and delete that draft email ,moms and dads! Go fly that helicopter over the Grand Canyon or some other joyful place. Let your kids skin their knees, get rejection and suffer the consequences. My bet is, most of you did that when you were their age and you became capable adults through the process.

Mastering the 1:1

manager one-on-oneWhether you’re a CEO or a line manager, your team is just as important as a group as its members are as individuals. Today’s tech companies offer many perks to attract and retain the best employees. We offer competitive salaries, training and the promise of success – professionally and financially. But how we treat them as individuals can determine the way their DNA will impact the fabric of your organization. What are you doing, as their manager, to make sure they are satisfied and making the best contribution to your organization?

I have managed over 100 direct reports over the course of my career. From the nerdiest, most introverted engineer to the highly extroverted sales executive. They’ve been on either side of up to 20 years senior or junior to me, varying genders and from as far away as India and China to as near as the office next door. No matter what their role, experience, proximity or personality, I have always made their one-on-ones (1:1’s) a priority. Why are 1:1’s so important?

  • Whether it’s an hour a week or 30 minutes once a month, making time for an individual says you give a damn about them as a person.
  • The 1:1 is the only forum where you can have an honest, private, conversation with each other about what’s really going on – professionally and personally.
  • This is a routine opportunity for you, as a manager, to assess the parts (your employees) that lead to the productive whole (your team) – which we all know is more powerful than the sum of said parts.
  • A leader who makes time for their team members – especially those who are also leaders – is less likely to suffer poor team performance because of ambiguity and mistrust. Each 1:1 is an opportunity to clarify the goals of the organization, your performance expectations and build a trusting relationship with your employees by getting to know them as people, not just workers.
  • Finally, constructive 1:1s throughout the year makes performance reviews a breeze. With routine 1:1s, review time can be more about goals and the year ahead instead of constructive feedback from the past.

Don’t just schedule these important meetings with your direct reports, be thoughtful about how these sessions play out. Below is the guidance I give to new managers on conducting 1:1’s.

Set Expectations
Whether your employee has worked for you for awhile and you’re just kicking off 1:1s, or they are a new hire and you’re rolling them into the fold, set expectations up front.

  • I am a big believer in being clear about behavior changes. If this is a new process you are putting in place at your company/in your team, be transparent about it. Otherwise, people worry something bad is going to happen (getting fired) if you all of sudden start scheduling 1:1s. Announce it at a team meeting/all-hands or send out an email/slack being clear about why these are important to do.
  • This meeting is for them as much as it is for you. Be clear that you do this with all employees who work directly for you. No one is being singled out.
  • Book a regular cadence of 1:1s. They should not be ad-hoc. It’s ok to skip one every once and awhile, but having it locked into the calendar is your commitment to being there for your employee.
  • Decide the best cadence with them (weekly or every other week? 30 minutes or an hour?) and what the format should be – your office or theirs, a walk, or maybe grabbing coffee. Different formats work for different employees and they can always be changed as you get into a groove. [see below on remote employees]. Just don’t do after work drinks – that suggests a less serious discussion.

The Agenda
If a meeting is important enough to have, it should have an agenda.

  • Topics in a 1:1 should be about professional growth, personal connection and for giving each other feedback. Do not use the meeting to re-hash things from a group meeting or standup unless there are specific things you took off-line in that meeting or need to provide/get constructive feedback.
  • 24 hours or so before the meeting, email the employee a list of what you’d like to cover. Try to do a split between strategic, tactical and personal items and always ask your employee what they want to cover too. For efficiency, let them know if you need them to bring/read/do something before the meeting. For example:

Jessica, for our 1:1 tomorrow, I’d like to cover the following:
– Review a potential change to the product roadmap for next quarter and how that might impact your team. Please bring the latest roadmap with you.
– Walk through the training presentation deck you are preparing for your new hires. Please send me your latest version tonight if you can?
– Get feedback on whether the budget changes I made for you were helpful. Let me know if there are new numbers I should look at before we meet.
– Hear about your vacation! Your pics looked awesome.

Let me know what else you’d like to cover. Looking forward to catching up!

The 1:1 Meeting
With an agenda set and materials pre-reviewed/in-hand, you are ready for a productive session.

  • Walk through the agenda. Ask if there’s anything else to add before you dig in. Always leave a door open – sometimes an employee is holding back on something.
  • If there are hard things to discuss (maybe some tough performance feedback), try to bookend it with two positive topics. That way, the close of the meeting doesn’t leave your employee feeling down. You’ve given them good feedback and some things to work on.
  • Do not monopolize the conversation. This is for you each to get time to talk. Pause often and make sure there is opportunity for discussion and questions.
  • Always end the meeting asking them how things are going overall and if there is anything else you can do to make them successful. Sounds awkward, but that’s your job! If your employees are a success, you are success.

After the Meeting
It is important to always follow up any 1:1 (or scheduled meeting, for that matter) with notes on what was discussed, decisions made and, if relevant, any constructive feedback that will be measured going forward. Keep it short and sweet:

Jessica, good meeting today! From what we discussed:
– Sounds like the roadmap change won’t slip the schedule much. Please share the new schedule on slack so the team can digest it before our Product group meeting.
– Love the training deck! Let me know if you want to practice with me before you present next week. You’re going to crush it.
– Sounds like those budget tweaks aren’t cutting it for your team’s needs. I’ll try to adjust next quarter, but right now you are going to have to work with what you have. Manage your spend carefully.
– Thanks for letting me know you’re working on a personnel issue on your team. Let me know if I can help. Otherwise, keep me posted on how it plays out.

A recap ensures that you’re both on the same page and it serves as an audit trail if/when anything goes off the rails. Do this with ALL your employees. Otherwise, some may wonder why they’re getting follow up emails and others are not. Consistency in leadership is critical!

Remote Employees and Non-Directs

  • 1:1s with remote employees can be tricky. I recommend using video whenever possible and, if possible, 1-2 in-person 1:1s a year to maintain the personal connection. All other suggestions above apply for the remote employee.
  • It is perfectly OK to have 1:1s with junior people who do not work directly for you. Just remember, you are NOT their manager. Be clear about why you are requesting the meeting.Perhaps you are the CEO and want to have a 1:1 with a lead engineer to get a better understanding of a product challenge:
    • Make sure the engineer’s manager knows why you want to have the meeting.
    • Make sure the engineer understands you would like to get the detail directly vs. through other people. You are not going around their boss who knows you are requesting this meeting.
    • Be very careful about feedback. Always end such meetings with next steps being how you’ll follow up with the employee’s manager if there are any action items. Never undermine someone’s manager by giving specific direction without consulting with their manager. Especially if you are the CEO/CTO or other senior position. Often, the most simple “that sounds cool” can be heard as “do it!” from someone more senior than your boss.

Invest in Your Team
One-on-ones can make all the difference in how you lead. Your time invested in doing them right will pay off not only with each individual, but with how your organization functions as a team.

Have other tips on running successful 1:1s or good lessons learned from not having them? Please share in the comments.


See Part Two in this series, Mastering The Team Meeting, published in Feb 2018

Hard To Do, And Easy To Screw Up; A Primer On Hiring For Startups

One of the most popular conversations I have with entrepreneurs I work with is how to improve their recruiting and hiring strategy. I love when they dive into this topic early on because it’s one of the hardest parts of running any company, no matter how small or big, and super easy to screw up. It’s also extra hard these days for tech companies when talent is sparse and you’re trying to create a culture of diversity. The blog post below is definitely not comprehensive and also not a replacement for a company-specific conversation tailored to your business, products and team, but in most cases these tips should be useful.

Herewith, a primer on hiring for startups.

business-people-sitting

Your Hiring Strategy

How much time have you put into thinking about what roles you will hire and when? It’s easy to say “we just raised x-million dollars, let’s hire!”. Then, oops, twelve months in you realize you have a bunch of people you don’t really need or worse, you’re running out of cash. Take some time to think about your hiring strategy. Don’t just plot out how much money you’ll spend per quarter on “heads”, but consider what roles they’ll play and how senior or junior each one will be. Also think about what roles could be filled by contractors vs. full time hires.

One exercise I often ask entrepreneurs to do is to draw an org chart of what their company might look like 12 months from now. Then, plot out the growth stages in hiring along the way. While their company will almost certainly change a lot between when they start and what it will look like along the way, having some idea of which and when roles may be added, and what they will cost, is a good way to think about how to prioritize your hires.

org_phase1

Org. Phase 1 (first 6-12 months)

org_phase2

Org Phase 2 (Months 12-18)

Beyond budgeting for growth (and compensation – including equity – each role may require), you should also consider time invested in getting those hires and lead time to fill the positions. Assume you and/or your team will spend a lot of time finding the right people, interviewing, selling candidates on the opportunity and getting them on board. Ask any first-time founder and they’ll tell you hiring consumed way more of their time early on than they ever expected. Further, just because you’ve got a position open, doesn’t mean you’ll fill it right away; especially if you keep the bar high and don’t settle for just anyone for the role. Resist the temptation to hire too fast for key positions. The opportunity cost associated with letting the wrong hire go and starting over is extremely high.

The Job Description

Once you know what roles you want to fill and when, you should write a basic job description (JD). This not only gives you a tangible to market the position, but it also serves as a communication tool with your team to be clear on what the role is and what you’ll be looking for in the candidates they may be helping you interview.

No matter where you post or share the JD, if it doesn’t attract the right people to apply for the job, you’ve failed right out of the gate. You want as many candidates to apply for the job as possible. Some tips on writing a good JD:

  • Avoid overt and subtle gender bias
    • Don’t use specific pronouns. Just don’t.
    • Test your job description for gender themed words and other potential biases. Try to keep it neutral.
  • Highlight a need for aptitude and attitude over must-have tech skills
    • Fast learner, dedication, multi-faceted skills – all good ways to suggest you care about potential.
    • Research shows that women, specifically, generally won’t apply for jobs where they don’t meet all the required skills. Don’t create an exhaustive list. Only highlight critical skills. You can always prod for more specifics once they’re in for an interview.
  • Highlight training opportunities – this suggests you can get them there vs. absolute required skills.
  • Avoid superlatives – “Ninja” “Expert” “top in their field” can all be deterrents to someone applying for the role. While we all want to hire people with high self esteem, some people are very humble and may not think they are an expert. Even if they are!

Sourcing

Sourcing candidates is a complex process that goes well beyond just posting the JD on your website or AngelList.

  • Make your “jobs” or “careers” page GREAT. Candidates who go there should feel like “I want to work with those people!” Two of my favorite career sites right now are DigitalOcean and Wistia. Both convey a strong sense of culture as well as make it very clear what positions are open.
  • Think about posting on other sites that are related to your industry. Perhaps affinity or user group sites. For example, She Geeks Out has a Slack site that has a jobs channel. Only women geeks are on that site and many are looking for jobs! Or maybe a hardware meet-up site or industry association site.
  • Your best hires will come from people you know. Consider using a networking tool like Drafted to tap into your network and your friends’ networks to find the right people. Even a small bounty can be a big incentive to get the right referrals.
  • Think about having a BIZZpage or post on the Jobs Board on VentureFizz (Boston) or similar sites to get more local visibility.
  • Most VCs have job postings on their website for their portfolio companies. If you’re venture backed, leverage this!
  • Don’t just promote the job on your social media channels but ask your network (including advisors, mentors and your board) to do so as well. Make it easy for them by creating the tweet, FB post, etc, with the appropriate text and links.
  • Campus recruiting is an awesome way to get young talent – especially here in Boston! Try to get resumes of students who will be at job fairs in advance. If you see some you like, reach out ahead of time and make contact. Maybe ask them their t-shirt size (if you have wearable swag) and tell them you’re exited to see them at the job fair. It’s a great way to get candidates to actually stop by your booth. Have swag at your booth and, most importantly, have people who know your company and understand the roles you’re trying to fill.
  • On whether to use outsourced vs. in-house recruiters, it depends on what your hiring strategy is.
    • If you think you’re going to have a regular cadence of hires over the next 1-2 years or more, hire a permanent recruiter who can manage the entire lifecycle – from helping with job descriptions, to sourcing, managing the interview process and on boarding your new hire. Someone who’s in-house will understand your product, your culture and the kinds of people you hire. They will save you gobs of time and energy when it comes to finding and hiring the best candidates.
    • Outsourced recruiters are great for targeted, high ranking, positions like a head of sales or a VP of Engineering. Don’t waste your time combing your network for these people unless you find someone right away. That’s what these guys are good at. Have them work on a fee for placement contract vs. a retainer up front. This is a good way to motivate the recruiter and the best ones will be happy to work this way.
  • Finally, leverage your team. Remind everyone at your company that they are on the hook to always be looking for talent and selling your company as a great place to work. The best hires often come from internal referrals. Consider offering a referral bonus for referrals who are hired and stay on board >90 days. Remember, though, some cash or cash equivalents (e.g., gift cards) are considered taxable income!

Resume Review

Fewer candidates are relying on paper resumes these days in favor of LinkedIn, but you will still see the standard resume for awhile. Here’s what I look for when I read resumes, as well as LinkedIn and Github profiles and Google searches:

  • A summary paragraph should help me understand a candidate’s brand. Are they a builder and leader of teams? A technology architect that knows how to build something from the ground up and to scale? Can they close a deal or build a relationship with strategic partners?
  • Track record is important. These days, it’s not unusual to see someone 1-2 years one place and then another. I look for “jumpers” though – people who have been <1 year in a few places tells me they either can’t fit in or they have made a lot of bad judgment calls on the companies they’ve joined. One or two jumps among longer stints are OK though. Especially if it’s someone who had a long track record somewhere else, and is now trying to find their next home.
  • resume_reviewI want to see more about what someone has accomplished than their responsibilities – ideally with metrics. For example, they wrote a coding standards guide or implemented a scrum process that improved code release velocity by X% or created a sales strategy that improved MRR by Y. What someone was/is responsible for is not as powerful as what they actually got done!
    • Unless they just graduated or I’m hiring for a research position, I don’t want to see education on the top. I care more about what they’ve actually done than where they’ve been educated or their GPA. Anyone with no work experience, even if a recent grad, is suspect for a startup. It questions how hungry this person is and how hard they’re willing to work.
  • If it is a research type of role, then I do look for publications with others, patent filings (even if provisional) and conference experience. This tells me they’re serious about their work, can collaborate, can bring something to a conclusion and present their ideas. Without all of this, I’d worry they are more into experimenting and not getting anything of significance done and/or able to work with others.
  • On LinkedIn, I often get the general resume/CV info I need, but more importantly, I look for how the candidate has chosen to present themselves; like a good summary and a full story of their job history, education and groups they’re a part of. If they are an active candidate looking for a job (vs. a passive candidate I’m trying to lure away from a comfortable job), then I expect their profile to be up-to-date and clean. They should be savvy enough to know that hiring managers and recruiters will be searching for them on LinkedIn. I expect to see alignment with the resume/CV they provided. I also expect to see a few, current, recommendations for active candidates. Finally, I look for mutual connections who could be good back door references (more on this below).
  • Regarding Github, it’s a nice way to see how an engineer contributes to open source projects or their coding style or community followers. However, keep in mind it is a not always an indicator of someone’s professional work. For a very technical role, I still have engineers provide real coding samples and/or do a small coding exercise with one of my engineers to see how they code in the real world.
  • Finally, Googling a candidate for anything “suspect” never hurts. Bigger companies do background checks. As a startup, a good check can be just looking to see if you can find arrest records or other behaviors that may not gel with your company culture. However, not every bad find on a web search is a flag not to hire. Some people drank too much in college and have gone on to have wonderfully successful professional lives 😉

The Interview and Candidate Experience

So many companies underestimate how important candidate experience is to landing the best hires. From the first blush with the candidate in an email or phone screen, to their onsite and offer process. This is as much about you finding the right person as it is them falling in love with your company and the opportunity.

  • Phone Screens: Whether you have a recruiter do it or you’re doing them yourself, you should have phone screen standards to ensure there’s consistency across candidates. Your goal with a phone screen is to not waste anyone’s time – yours, your company’s or the candidate – and to decide whether someone should come in or not for a full on interview. There are some good tips here on phone screens.
  • The Onsite Interview:  Be organized!job_interview_woman-smiling
    • Line up the right people to interview the candidate. No more than 2-3 people who will work with them.
    • Be clear to each of the interviewers on what their role is for the interview – for example, Joe will test their coding skills, Mary will talk with them about their teamwork and collaboration, and Bob will dig more into accomplishments at last job(s) and what they want out of this role. All interviewers should see the JD and candidate resumes at least a day before the interview.
    • Everyone is responsible for A) assessing culture fit and B) selling the job, company and opportunity. Make sure less experienced interviewers know the basics around what they can and can’t share about your product roadmap, financials, etc. Drill into their heads that if they don’t know the answer, tell the candidate they or someone else will get back to them. Don’t make stuff up!
    • Make sure everyone who interviews candidates knows what’s illegal to ask!
    • Optional: Have them sign a NDA before they come in or before interviews start so you can share more with the candidate about the role and what you’re building.
    • Have an agenda for the candidate when they come in. The recruiter or hiring manager should walk them through it and explain who they’re meeting with and why (e.g., “Joe is a developer you’d work with” or “Mary is the team leader from our product team).
    • Make sure the last person they meet with knows what to do in terms of walking them out, handing them back off to the recruiter, etc.
    • Whomever wraps up should NEVER make any promises. Just tell them it was great to meet them and whomever is the hiring manager or the recruiter will be in touch soon.
    • Only the recruiter and/or hiring manager should inquire about compensation requirements, start dates, etc.
    • Nice touch: Give them materials/swag they can take with them after the interview. Perhaps a white paper on the space you’re going after or a fun t-shirt to remind them how cool your company is.
    • NOTE ON REMOTE HIRES: If at all possible, have them come in for face-to-face interviews and pay the expenses associated with this visit. If not, all the same rules apply for a video interview as in face-to-face.
  • After the Interviews:
    • Have everyone send feedback to the hiring manager/recruiter without biasing others. Don’t walk by the next interviewer and say “she’s awesome!” or roll your eyes.
    • Keep feedback consistent: Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and a Hire or Not Hire statement. No neutrals! Each interviewer either wants to work with this person or not.
    • If there is a big divide on a candidate (50-50 hire/not hire), then have a roundtable discussion so everyone can understand each other’s point of view. The hiring manager should read back everyone’s feedback and then ask people to share more details on concern or passions about the candidate. Ultimately though, it’s the manager’s call.
    • Fast turnaround is important! Do not leave a candidate hanging more than a day or so. Immediate follow up and next actions can make or break landing someone good and it leaves an impression on your company that can travel with the candidate. Follow up with a thank you for their time. If you’re passing, just say they are not a fit for the role and move on. If an offer is coming, ask for references and be specific on when you plan to make a decision. Let them know when they should expect to see an offer as well.

Regular and Backdoor Reference Checks

Although it did happen to me once where this was not the case, most references are going to be with people the candidate can trust to say great things. So, use those references as an opportunity to learn more about the candidate. A few key, but not all, questions I usually ask:

  • Confirm the role they were in with the reference and how they worked with the candidate (manager-employee, peer, etc.)
  • Ask them to highlight a particular accomplishment or contribution the candidate made and why it stuck out.
  • As their potential manager, what areas you should focus on to help grow the candidate in this role. (this is a great way to uncover weaknesses without asking directly!)
  • Would you hire him/her again if you had the chance?

Note that some companies have strict rules about references and won’t let someone do more than confirm title and dates of employment. The only time I read into someone not wanting to give details as a negative is if they explicitly say they prefer not to give a reference or have nothing they can share. I will usually ask if it’s company policy and if not, read between the lines!

Finally, on backdoor references, I highly recommend them. Be respectful of the candidate though – especially if they are still employed – and don’t blow their cover. Only ask someone to introduce you to someone who knows the candidate if they can trust that the person will respect the candidate as well and give you honest feedback. I rarely make a hire without at least one backdoor reference.

Your First Experienced (Senior) Hire – Don’t Be Ageist

A lot of startups come from young, inexperienced, founders with little to no prior work experience. It can be a little daunting when you decide (or your Board tells you) that you have to start hiring people 10+ years older and more experienced than the founding team. The idea of someone older or with more experience than you can cause all sorts of worry about culture fit, being patronized or steamrolled into doing things you don’t want to do. The best advice I can offer is experience and culture fit trump age. Many older candidates have worked at companies with much younger people before and if they’re hired to be the expert in a particular field, let them be the expert, but you are still the boss. It may mean they’re not keen on beer pong on Friday nights or can’t relate to the cat GIFs your team shares on Slack, but if they get along with everyone and meet the needs of your company, get past it. Those senior hires are going to take your company from good to great.

Making the Offer & Closing the Deal

Making the right offer for a startup hire is HARD. An experienced candidate has to make tradeoffs between salary and equity and no two candidates are the same. I could do a whole blog post just on this topic! Instead, I will give you a few things to think about and point you to a few resources:

  • Decide what kind of company you will be in terms of compensation. Is equity something you want your employees to value more than salary? Is parity among team members important? (because they will talk, trust me!).
  • Are you willing/able to pay market rates for a couple of key hires? If you can’t, can you set expectations that you will adjust salaries upon future fundraising/revenue growth? Will you be able to explain to earlier hires who have more equity than comp that an experienced key hire is getting market rates when they’re not? job_offer
  • How much equity will you put aside to refresh grants/hire future team members?
  • How willing are you to negotiate? Will it be a take it or leave it offer, or will you build in some room to adjust comp/equity up/down depending on the candidate’s needs?
  • What other compensation will you offer like healthcare, 401K or maybe Uber and food reimbursement for late night work? Not all startups can afford perks, but if you have some to offer it can make a huge difference for some candidates.
  • Resources: Understanding Equity, AngelList Salary Data, more tips on startup salaries and equity from my buddy @payne92.

A Quick Note on “Try Before You Buy”

A more common practice is to ask someone to work on a small project as a consultant so you can try each other out before either party commits. This can be very helpful – especially if they get some work done for you in the process! Be super clear on expectations here. Hire them as a contractor and pay them. Make sure they sign a simple contract that makes it clear they assign all of the work to your company and it’s under NDA. Set a timeline and agreed upon outputs (code check in, documentation, white paper, whatever…). Make sure they understand what you expect to see and that if it passes, they will get an offer. Do not be the company that keeps hiring “temps” to get work done with no intention to hire.

On-Boarding

Your candidate has accepted the offer! Hurray! You are so close to being done, but not quite over the finish line yet. Make sure your company is everything you promised and more:

  • Send a welcome “package” with general info, maybe some pre-reads about the company, the technology or market. Also include any benefit information (if applicable) in advance so they can think about what they’ll sign up for.
  • Get some info up-front to make the first day easier – like what email address they want (if they get to choose) and maybe a heads up on tools your company uses like Slack, Trello, Github, Intercom, etc, so they have a chance to familiarize themselves if they are new to these tools.
  • Order them a desktop, laptop, or whatever other tools they’ll need (if you cover that expense for your employees) so, ideally, these items are onsite when they start. It’s also nice if you can set them up on various tools, email, etc. before they arrive so they can jump in right away.
  • Figure out where they will sit and who they’ll have lunch with on their first day! So basic, but so welcoming and so often forgotten! Also, tell them what are normal work hours for your team and when should they arrive on their first day.
  • Make their first day and first week feel warm and fuzzy. Take them to lunch, introduce them to the team (locally and on Slack or the like if you have remote peeps). Give them opportunities to get familiar with tools, content and processes. Check in with them at the end of the first week and ask how it went.
  • Most important, ask them how their candidate experience was throughout the process so you can improve things for the next set of hires.

It’s crazy to think this is not what I consider to be an exhaustive list when it comes to the whole hiring process, but I hope it will get you and your company on a good path towards hiring top talent! Have some tips of your own on this topic? Please share in the comments below.

[Updated Nov 2017]

The Three P’s: Lenses to Assess Your Startup’s Performance

I took a bit of a sabbatical this summer and now, refreshed and with a few new topics brewing, it’s time to get back to writing!

LunettesA recurring theme I’ve encountered this summer is which lenses you should apply when evaluating the performance of your growing organization. As an advisor and executive coach to early stage companies, I’m finding more often I am preaching the concept of the “Three P’s: People, Processes and Programs”. Looking at your company or department through each of these lenses and asking yourself how you’re doing in each area can be very telling. It helps you understand where you may need to improve to continue to scale and reach success.

Lens #1 – People

The best leaders of any organization know that their people are what makes or breaks the success of their company. This isn’t just about performance and productivity metrics of each member or as a team, this is about people being in the right roles, having the right training, career path and great peers, bosses and teams to work with. When you ask yourself “are my employees happy?”, consider if you are doing everything you can to ensure greatness. This is well beyond great pay and company perks or weekly beer bashes. Most people want to feel challenged in their roles, but also supported and set up for success. They want equally smart (or often smarter) people to work with and they want to see you get rid of people who don’t work as hard as they do or who are jerks.

Great employees want to work towards growth either as an individual contributor or as a leader. They want to know that they will be rewarded for making solid contributions and for being team players. Growth should not always come from taking on more responsibility or more people to manage. Growth can also come from broadening their knowledge through exposure to new things such as customer visits, interactions with your board, or maybe going to a conference or speaking on a panel with other domain experts. When an employee is not growing or rising to a new challenge, ask yourself if this is a limitation of the individual, or is the system limiting them? Do they need mentorship from someone who’s been in their shoes before to guide them to the next level? Are you micromanaging, thus not giving them a chance to step up and show what they can do?

Happy employees also feel like they have visibility into the vision and direction of the company. They don’t need to know every detail of a product roadmap or the revenue strategy, but they want to understand where the company is headed and how leaders of the organization are measuring success. As a leader of an organization, do you have weekly or monthly all-hands and/or quarterly reviews that include vision and strategy? Do you routinely communicate through company email or on-line forums (e.g., Slack) on big company news like closing a big deal or a great new hire and include why these are important? The more understanding each employee has about the big picture, the more they can calibrate their actions and contribute towards success.

This first lens – evaluating if you are setting up an environment for happy, growing and informed employees – is probably the most important thing you can do to set your company up for long term success.

Lens #2 – Processes

As much as any startup loves being small, nimble and usually pretty organizationally flat, the reality is that implementing processes can be useful. I’m not talking about three ring binders full of protocols and standards. I’m just saying that having a general process for key parts of the business is important. There was probably a time (or maybe your company is there now) where everyone sat around one table and could just talk through how to get something done. Then, all of a sudden, one table becomes a few desks, maybe a few remote employees and a field sales person or two and what used to be a simple chat becomes harder to navigate.

ProcessConsider what processes are in place today that grew organically vs. with intention. If the organic processes work, that’s cool, but keep an eye on them because over time they may not scale. For those set up with intention – e.g., a hiring process or maybe your weekly sprints – reevaluate them on a regular basis. Are they repeatable and do they scale with more people in the company or more bugs to fix? Resist the temptation to keep a process because “that’s how we’ve always done it” or because “our Founder set it up, so how can we kill it?”. Companies that evolve have processes that evolve and what once worked then, may not work now.

Think about how decisions are made, information is disseminated and loops are closed for critical processes first. The most common areas where processes comes more and more into play tend to be product roadmap and execution plans, hiring strategies and go to market strategies. Here are some suggestions for each:

Product Roadmaps

  • Consider monthly, three-months-out roadmap reviews to prioritize new products, major features and release plans. Do not lose sight of the fact that this is not just which designers or engineers are building what, but also how you’ll market and support these products and features.
  • You may have weekly reviews to ensure you’re tracking to the meta-plan and make adjustments if needed. Have some sort of process in place to deal with surprises like a critical bug that bumps a feature or a customer opportunity that may change the priority of a future feature. Set criteria that justifies this type of change so you don’t have to analyze each one on the fly. For a critical bug to bump a priority feature, it might be something like “must impact >50% of our customers or degrade performance more than “20%”. For a customer opportunity it could be “must be a deal worth >$(?) revenue or a customer that will provide undeniable street cred for >50% of our current prospects”.
  • If/when the roadmap changes, have a process for letting people know. Don’t just update Trello and assume everyone will see it – have some sort of change management message that goes out via email/slack that tells the team what and why.
  • It also doesn’t hurt to have a process to track changes to the roadmap so you can see the impact on your initial plan over time. This will contribute to better planning going forward.

Hiring

  • I highly recommend a quarterly hiring plan – not just how many new heads, but actual roles you intend to fill. Given today’s climate where hiring is SO hard, it could take 2-3 months to get that right candidate. So have a process in place to assess where you are with hiring and what new roles you need to ramp on filling.
  • Get in the habit of a regular job description (JD) writing process. Don’t always wait for a role to open up. If people are in the role now, have them write their own job descriptions. This not only helps when it comes to review or promotion time, but you then have these JDs on file if/when needed. I’ve seen major delays with filling a pipeline with good candidates or terribly inefficient candidate interviews simply because no JD exists.
  • Have a hiring process in place that starts with the JD and ends with the on-boarding of this new hire. I’ll write a future post on this with more details, but the short story is that it should include how you’ll post and market the opening, handle phone screens, on-site interviews, making an offer, negotiating terms and how you’ll get that new hire on board and productive as fast as possible.

Go to Market

  • It’s one thing to have a product roadmap that outlines what you’ll build, but it’s another to say how you’ll get those things out there. With every product roadmap, there should be a parallel process for laying out how and when new products/features are publicized, priced (if applicable) and sold.
  • Have a process for content updates such as your website, marketing materials, and demos.
  • What process will you have for telling the world about your new stuff? Do you have a regular list of press or industry bloggers who write about your company or trends in your market? When should they hear about your new product/feature and what’s your plan to share what they write through social media or other channels?  How do your current customers and/or prospects hear about the latest new thing? These are not afterthoughts once the engineering is done, they are just as important processes to get in place as your code check-ins and testing procedures (which you have already, right?).

Looking through the lens of processes and seeing what you have and don’t have in place should tell you whether your company will be able to scale or is heading for a train wreck. Don’t be afraid to pause when you see a gap where a light process could relieve a bottle neck or better prepare your team for future scaling challenges.

Lens #3 – Programs

The Program lens is not used as often as it should. Granted, as a former Program Manager in a past life, I’m a little biased. However, what I often see missing in growing organizations is someone looking across the organization, programmatically, to ensure all the pieces are coming together including people, schedules and money.

A great example of this is the processes I mentioned above around new products or major feature releases. These are often multi-pronged activities involving engineering, sales, support, marketing and maybe finance and operations. You may have program_managerheads of each of these groups, but who is overseeing how they all work towards a common goal or launch date? For many small companies, that’s the CEO or CPO, but (oh by the way), these same people are running your company or out in the field selling or closing your next round of funding.

In the early stage, you may consider rotating the role of Program Manager between different leaders in your organization. Keep in mind, though, not everyone has the knack for project plans and cross-company communication. Make sure you pick the right people to be in this role.  As your organization grows, consider hiring an actual Program Manager. A Program Manager is often one of the unsung heroes of a company because they are in the background instead of on the front lines. They quietly prod and check things off lists. They communicate what’s happening and where there are possible gotchas. Program Managers beat the drum so everyone is marching in the right direction and at the right pace. They are masters in GSD (Getting Sh-t Done) with no task too small or ask too big.

So, don’t just look through the process lens, but also ask yourself what programs are cutting across more than one part of your company and who is orchestrating them. You’d be amazed how productive and efficient your startup will be when programs are well managed.

In Summary….

Startups, when they’re working, develop very quickly – often without enough attention given to people, processes and programs. It’s one thing for an Advisor or Investor to tell you what your company or department is lacking or how you could be doing better, but in the end, you need to ask yourself how YOU think it’s going. Applying these three lenses should help bring things into focus [pun intended].

Have you been using any of these lenses to assess performance or have different lenses that you’ve found effective?  Please share in the comments below!

A Startup’s Guide To Having A Great Summer Internship Program

So, you’ve decided to hire some interns this summer. Well done! Often, early stage companies shy away from hiring summer interns because they dread the idea of “babysitting” on top of everything else that needs to get done. If you’re bringing one or several interns on, you know it is well worth the effort because interns:

  • are potential future full-time hires;
  • can work on stuff no one has time to do, but would be great to have (often referred to as “gravy projects”); and
  • they are walking advertisements of your company and your product(s).

Whether your company is fully established or just getting started, having a well thought out program for your interns will ensure that you get the most out of them and that they get the most from their experience at your company. A great experience means they’ll be talking up your company and your product(s) when they head back to school. Thus, they will be walking advertisements for future hires and future customers.

A Guide to a Great Internship Program

Let’s assume you’ve already made great hiring decisions for the summer and students are coming to work for you for approximately 10 weeks. I’m not going to get into salaries, temporary housing, or other pre-hire logistics in this post, but I will walk you through an outline for a solid internship program. It’s geared towards engineering types of interns, but most applies to any intern role.

The Timeline

  • If you have more than one intern coming on board this summer, try to have them start around or on the same date. This eases the burden of on-boarding processes by orienting everyone as a group and gives them a sense of belonging to a cohort from the get-go.
  • After orienting them to the office and getting them all the necessary logins, etc., do a kick-off lunch with founders and mentors to welcome them to your company.
  • Outline a weekly schedule for the intern program. Many interns have not worked in a business setting before and will need structure with a clear beginning, middle and end to their program. As much as they’ll appreciate a clear understanding of their summer schedule, this should also help your team balance their time around intern commitments. A sample schedule is below (click on the image for a larger view).

Sample Internship  Program ScheduleMentors

  • Every intern should be assigned a mentor. This is not typically their hiring manager, but rather a peer or someone slightly senior to them who can guide them through project specifics (e.g., coding standards or pricing models) and help them assimilate to the company culture or maybe even to a new town if they’ve temporarily relocated for this job.
  • Mentors should be briefed on HOW to be mentors. Make sure they understand the difference between being a guide and being a boss. No one wants two people telling them what to do all the time. Also make sure you pick someone who wants to be a mentor – this is a great growth opportunity for your team, but if they’re not up for it, it could make for a suboptimal experience for your intern.
  • Mentors should be generally available over the summer for ad hoc questions as well as weekly 1:1s. If someone is taking more than 2 weeks off this summer, they should not be a mentor.
  • While it’s nice to do, a mentor does not have to be a domain expert for the intern’s summer project. As long as they know how to help the intern get access to the experts and can guide in other ways, they are qualified!
  • Mentors should be expected to give feedback to their intern’s manager on performance and possible offers to return to your company for another summer or full time role. Mentors should not make such offers themselves. This is the intern’s manager’s role!

The Project

  • It’s good practice for companies to keep a running list of possible intern projects throughout the year. Again, gravy projects are ideal – meaningful and useful projects, but if they are not completed, it does not put your company at risk.
  • Try to offer projects to your interns that will:
    1. Allow them to stretch beyond their comfort zone.
    2. Result in something tangible that others will use such as code that ships, content on a public website or even a tool that helps an internal team be more productive. Ideally, it has a result that can be listed as an accomplishment on their resume and added (or strengthened) a skill.
    3. Encourages them to get to know your company/products (remember, walking advertisements). For example, one that lets them dig into customer data or one that requires them to work with people from other parts of the company such as sales or support.
  • There are two different approaches I like to assigning intern projects. Either have a list of projects to offer when they start and let them ask questions and explore them a bit in the first week, then they pick one. Or, in advance of their start date, ask them questions about what skills they’d like to develop this summer and before they start, you and their mentor can pick the one best suited for their skills and goals.
  • Try to offer one or two meaty projects at most for the whole summer vs. several small projects that could limit their learning experience.
  • Pre-reads: Whether you have a project in mind before they start or a list of possible projects for when they start, it’s nice to send a suggested reading list and some company info to your hired interns a month or so before they start. Don’t overdo it since they are probably cramming to finish the semester. Just send things that will give them a leg up. Even with an NDA they still may be a bit clueless about what not to share, so don’t send them secret sauce information!

Learning and Having FUN

  • Interns chose to be interns instead of scooping ice cream this summer because they want to learn. Invest in them and expect that they want to understand as much as they can about how everything works at your company.Lunch-n-learn
  • Beyond what interns learn doing their project, consider offering weekly lunch-n-learn sessions where food is brought in (or they get their own if your company is being careful about burn!) and have someone do a talk. Change it up and do everything from a technical talk to a business talk to maybe inviting a guest speaker like one of your company advisors or a customer or partner. Also, talks should be relevant and understandable whether you’re a coder or a marketing intern.
  • Look for opportunities for interns to have a unique experience. For example, tagging along on a customer visit or helping out in the company booth at a sales conference. Not only is it nice to have an extra set of hands, but interns will be SO appreciative for these extra opportunity to get different perspectives of your business.
  • Include interns in routine company meetings and off-sites. They are employees of your company and these are also learning experiences.
  • Make time for fun. Take them bowling or a baseball game. If your interns are new to the area, show them the city via a Duck tour. Mentors should come along as well as part of the bonding process. The summer at your company should be memorable for interns beyond the work they did.
  • If your company is based in MA, enroll in TechGen, a program from the NEVCA, which has lots of professional development and social resources for your interns and is also a great place to source talent.

Wrapping Up

  • Throughout the summer, you should schedule time to give your intern feedback on their performance and for them to let you know how they think they’re doing. In addition to weekly 1:1s with their mentor, there should be a mid-summer review and end of summer exit interview. You don’t want to find out at the end of the summer that your intern had a horrible experience! They’re at a startup, so things will undoubtably change unexpectedly. Course correct throughout the summer as needed and help them understand that this is the nature of early stage companies.
  • In preparation for the mid-summer review, ask mentors to feedback to managers how interns are doing. Factor this into a potential decision to re-hire interns for the following summer or offer a full time job for when they graduate. Interns should be told that this is a possibility OR NOT. Do not set false expectations. If your company cannot commit, then make it clear that good interns will be the first people you’ll call when you are hiring.
  • The last week of the internship should be for closing things out. Checking final code in, writing documentation and/or tests, doing a code-walk for whomever will take over when they go, and maybe doing a demo day or poster session so interns can see each other’s work. Also, plan for one last fun outing so people can say goodbyes and feel all warm and fuzzy about their experience. Schedule this last event when most/all of your interns are still around. Even if a student is returning to a nearby campus, it’s not reasonable to expect them to come back to work even if it is for something fun.
  • If you are offering a sign-on bonus for a full time position when they graduate, give 50% of it in their last paycheck with no strings and hold the other 50% for them if they are to return. The second half will be in their first, full-time, paycheck. Start to finalize your plan to offer or not around two weeks before the intern leaves.
  • If your intern(s) are returning to local schools, consider offering them part-time work during school (with potential for full time during breaks). It’s a great way to maintain the relationship and further lock them into a future full time position.

Your company does not have to be big and profitable to be thoughtful about the internship experience. In fact, starting when you’re small and nimble will ensure that a strong internship program is part of the fabric of your company as you grow. Just envision smiling interns back at school raving to their friends about their best summer ever and the returning faces and quality resumes you’ll see next hiring season!

Have you worked (or currently work) for a company with a great internship program?  Share tips and tricks that made it great by replying with a comment.