Peter Minev on scaling tech: “There is no silver bullet”

In October, Peter Minev, head of platform engineering at Careem will be speaking at Leaders in Tech | Berlin. His talk “Scaling tech: planning for uncertainty”, will draw from Peter’s experience starting Careem’s engineering office in Berlin which grew from 0 to 130 in less than two years, attracting talent and growing technical teams when no one knew the company. He’ll offer insight into how he approached this challenge, and how he developed a strategy that took uncertainty into account.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
 
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be where you are now.
I started my career long ago, probably too long ago, as an engineer. In the early days, I held different engineering positions: C++ engineer, Java engineer, later on architect. At some point, I switched to management roles. I worked in big companies and small startups in various domains. I spent six years in automotive, managing different teams in different geographies. In my work at VMware where I spent also 6 years, I was managing teams in India, in the US, and in Europe. 
 
Was there a point in your career when you concretely decided to go from engineering into management?
I don’t think that there was a strict point where I said, this is really what I want to do. It happened gradually, so from an engineer to an architect to a project manager, and then into engineering management. One day when I woke up, I realized I was managing teams in different continents and different geographies. 
It’s not only when you switch from engineering to management that you need new skills, but also when you broaden your responsibilities.  Bigger teams, remote teams, managing and building remote teams, several teams, different cultures, different geographies, etc. This requires new skills, building on top of your existing capabilities. Many of these are not strictly related to engineering. You need to know a little bit of finance, a little bit of business management, business strategy. All this, the learning process, I find very fascinating. 
 
What are the biggest challenges you faced in growing Careem?
When I convinced the founders of Careem to open an office in Berlin, it was quite an exciting journey. Careem was not a popular brand in Germany at all. Nobody knew Careem, and that was the first big challenge that I had to overcome. Whenever I and our recruitment team approached candidates, the first question was, „What is Careem?“ We had to explain what Careem is in the first place before even talking about the specific positions. Building the engineering brand of Careem here in Europe and in Berlin was a big challenge. 
The second challenge: in all my career so far, I was joining established companies and established offices, where I was building engineering teams. Here, we didn’t have a company in Germany at all. I needed to do a lot of other things before I even hired the first engineer. You need to establish the company, to find offices, to find and establish the HR team, the recruitment team, the finance team, the legal team, office management – you need to have all this before hiring the first engineer. 
You cannot hire an engineer if you don’t have a company or an office. It was exciting – you have this tension, you don’t have the patience to wait. You want to hire the teams, you want to form the projects and you want to jump into this initial phase as quickly as possible.
Then, an even bigger challenge was how to grow so fast, from 0 to 130 people in Berlin in two years while keeping healthy engineering teams at the same time. There are many books that tell you, if you grow more than 2x per year, it is suicide. Teams will be destroyed, they will not be productive or efficient, you will have high attrition. 
Is it possible to quickly build a large team of super strong engineers without lowering the bar, but at the same time make these teams extremely productive, efficient, and healthy? This was an extremely big challenge. I think in the end, it was successful, and I am very happy about this journey because I accumulated a lot of learnings along the way.
 
I would have also said growing a team from 0 to 130 in two years is a terrible idea. How did you develop a successful strategy to make this happen?

There is no silver bullet. This was a series of actions which I took, hoping that they would make it successful in the end. I don’t believe that you can start such activity without any strategy at all. You should, even if you have a lot of uncertainties, list your best guesses, list your most probable hypotheses, and then start with this. I needed to have an initial strategy, but also continuously, all the time, I needed to improve the strategy. 
I have a very simple rule for this. In every single moment, I need to know the top three problems for my team, for my company – the top three. Not the top 30. Not the top 300. The top three. 
You’ll be surprised that this gives you a lot of focus because there might be thousands of problems. But what are your top three problems?  As a company evolves, especially so fast, very often these top three problems will change completely. Six months from now, you will have completely different problems from your top three now. In every given moment you have to have these top three problems. When you resolve these three problems, basically what you are doing, is evolving your strategy.
These top three problems are not what you think that are problems. You have to have data, real data that shows you that these are real problems, not only problems that you think in your head. 
It’s a combination between starting with the best that you can, your best shot, and then always evolving this strategy by knowing your top three problems. 
 
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to include for people considering coming to the talk?
From what I saw of previous events there are many people who are quite experienced.  I don’t see this event as me only sharing my experiences. What I’d rather do is to share what I’ve learned, but I also would be very happy for people to share their experiences, more like a discussion. I can contribute what we did here with Careem in Berlin.
I don’t see it like a playbook: that this is what we did in Careem, and this is the one golden rule, go and apply it by the book in your companies. I see it as some key learnings that I applied in some specific situations. If people can take these learnings, think through them, and apply them in their context, I think this will be super useful for many people.
To learn more about scaling technology teams and planning for uncertainty from Peter, join Leaders in Tech | Berlin on Wednesday October 23rd, 2019: 
To join contact [email protected]