Building a technology team from zero to 130 strong in two years, for most companies and managers, sounds like a huge challenge, if not downright impossible. In October, Peter Minev shared his experience doing just that as Director of Engineering at Careem’s R&D Center in Berlin. The group of technology leaders in Berlin was gathered on the top floor of Omio’s office in Berlin-Mitte to listen to what Peter cautioned is “not a cookbook… it always depends on the context and your domain.”
Despite this “warning”, the evening was full of useful insights and anecdotes about what it was like to build an engineering team from scratch, in a country where no one had heard of Careem or used its service. Peter’s talk for Leaders in Tech was called “Scaling tech: planning for uncertainty” and in addition to speaking about what he learned and experienced at Careem, he also invited the attending managers, CTOs, department heads, and engineering leads to talk about what they’ve learned from leading growing tech teams.
Careem began as a ride-hailing company, but is now expanding its services across its platform, including payments, delivery and mass transportation. Peter brings years of experience as an engineer and a manager to the subject, from working in a variety of organizations like VMWare and SAP as well as his own startup.
Susi Krieg, Senior Regional Director North for Austin Fraser in Germany, officially kicked off the evening’s proceedings, introducing the event host, Omio’s VP of Engineering Tomas Vocetk, who then spoke briefly about Omio’s vision for travel.
Building successful tech organizations: 11 lessons in scaling tech and planning for uncertainty
Peter divided his talk into 11 main lessons across the six phases of his journey at Careem. The six phases are 1) forming the non-engineering functions, 2) forming engineering teams, 3) recognising it’s a marathon, not a sprint, 4) balancing between advance planning and continuous adaptation, 5) scaling and dealing with organisational debt, and 6) getting and keeping an exceptional team.
Forming the non-engineering functions
When Peter joined Careem, his job was to build up an engineering team in Berlin. But without a subsidiary or any of the regular processes or people in place that a company needs in order to work, his first task was to create these non-engineering functions like an office, legal, recruiting, and finance. There were three lessons from this phase:
- Never (ever) underestimate non-engineering functions
- Don’t take shortcuts, do them correctly from the start
- Don’t lose sight that they’re prerequisites to the actual goal, so get through them as quickly as possible
Forming engineering teams
Once the fundamentals are in place, the question becomes how to hire the right teams and give them meaningful work to do. Especially when the company is headquartered somewhere else, it’s hard to build trust with key stakeholders early on to get new, interesting areas to work and to be able to work autonomously. There are also three lessons in this section of the talk:
- The Berlin teams proved their capabilities by working with other teams on some areas, this helped them when they wanted to open up new domains
- Even though it might take a long time and be quite difficult to get there, keep striving to make the teams as autonomous as possible
- You need to continuously gain trust: both with the rest of the company and with the team you’re building.
Recognising it’s a marathon, not a sprint
It’s easy to get caught up in single issues or what’s right in front of you, but building a large team is a long-term goal and needs to be treated as a marathon. While you should always be making progress, there are key principles you shouldn’t compromise on, like
- Never lower the bar to hire faster
- Never optimize for individuals, you’re building a company
- Celebrate achievements!
The main takeaway from this phase of Careem’s development:
- We never compromised long-term results for short-term gains.
Balancing between advance planning and continuous adaptation
Peter spoke on this subject for a while, explaining that there’s a big difference between thinking through your plans rigorously and overplanning, making you inflexible and rigid. HIs trick for always adjusting to the most pressing issues is his second lesson below:
- Do your best upfront planning… but be prepared that it will change dramatically
- Always base your 3 top problems on data, not on assumptions.
Scaling and dealing with organisational debt
Nothing is static, so there are many areas which need to keep evolving as an organisation grows, like architectural alignment, performance management, the principles around which teams are formed, roles and responsibilities, and how remote sites work with HQ and vice versa.
The lesson around this is:
- Continuously rethink your organizational design
- What worked yesterday, doesn’t work today and will kill you tomorrow.
- Organisational debt works similarly to technical debt.
Getting and keeping an exceptional team
The final lesson in the sixth phase of scaling an organisation is making sure that hires have the right behaviors, and that mindset is an important part of acquiring and retaining a talented team. Key behaviours that Careem looked out for were adaptiveness (since the company was growing and evolving quickly), learning (again growth required continuously, fast learning), ownership (it’s a small and nimble organisation without a safety net), and service mindset (to colleagues and customers).
Want to see more? You can also watch the entirety of Peter Minev’s “Scaling tech: planning for uncertainty” talk.
Peter also was kind enough to share his presentation slides. They’re available here.
Kevin Olsen, Director of Labs Advisory Services at Pivotal Software had this to say about the October event:
“The discussion around cross-office scaling, how to create new teams that earn the trust of the ‘mothership’ was probably the highlight for me. It was a great reminder about the importance of getting facetime between the two offices and building relationships, as well as delivering some initial wins to earn trust. Also, the moment when the main office does finally delegate a project is a real turning point, and Peter’s point that it’s a high stakes moment for the new office, and requires the new team to really deliver to keep that momentum and earn more trust and autonomy.”
Marcel Toben, Lead Engineering Manager for Product & Growth at ResearchGate, decided to attend this Leaders in Tech meetup because he said the title really accurately described his current challenge with the teams he works with. After attending this talk (his third), he said, “I would recommend Leaders in Tech to friends and colleagues. I already did actually! The talks are top-notch and the meetup has a special welcoming & communicative flair. I’ve met many nice and smart people.”
Austin Fraser is creating a community with Leaders in Tech, bringing together CTOs, CIOs, VPs, heads of IT and all kinds of leaders in technology. At these events, attendees hear from speakers who are engaging in key issues in business and technology. They also have the chance to connect with others who deal with similar problems in their work.
If you’d like to read more about Peter Minev, check out the interview with him on the Austin Fraser blog, “Scaling tech: There is no silver bullet.”
After the talk was over, many of the attendees stuck around to chat with each other about the talk, and quite a few had more stories to share with Peter about their own experience scaling teams. Thanks to Austin Fraser and Omio for a great event!