Massive tomes have been written on engineering management, but I thought it might be helpful to take a brief minute to discuss setting up your Founding Engineers (FE) for success. For this post I define FEs as the first wave of engineers hired after the founding team. This round of hiring usually takes place after seed funding has been secured and some semblance of initial product/market fit has been achieved. If chosen wisely, an FE can provide the backbone necessary to grow the business through Series A and beyond. They can be the first in line for career growth opportunities and they will help set the tone as leaders to future engineers.
Most engineers think of joining a startup in terms of potential financial rewards and those are real, but the learning opportunity is often more tangible and rewarding in the near term. On the flip side, most Founders think of hiring FEs in terms of closing a gap or getting another set of hands in the door to help with the mountain of work. At Speedscale, we consider an additional dimension – can we catapult the people we work with to the next level in their careers? How can we invest in the individual to reset the course of their career?
After a few rounds happily engaging with this challenge, here are some observations on what works for us:
- Articulate goals for the FE in terms of concrete customer impact during and after the interview process. There are three reasons why this works: 1) you stop and think about what the business needs instead of flying by the seat of your pants…which are usually on fire at a growing startup, 2) the FE knows how to establish themselves as a rock star early in their tenure and 3) you can design the interview process to discover whether they are able to stay focused on the customer outcome. Be aware that a superstar FE is different than a superstar Principal Engineer because the FE works without the guard rails of Product Managers, coding standards, Definitions of Done and emotionally balanced co-workers. The last one was a joke, or at least I hope it’s a joke.
- Ownership is best when given away. Founders often succeed in the pre-seed stage because we obsess over every detail of the customer experience. The FE needs to experience the same level of ownership and its the Founder’s job to find a way to give it to them. We do this in different ways but the easiest is to give the FE total autonomy over a microservice, feature, area of the code, etc.
- Commit 25% of a Founder’s time to “pair design” for about 6 weeks. I’ve found limited utility in trying to train FEs because we select them because they are internally motivated and would rather read the code than listen to me talk. Having said that, there needs to be a Founder that is their go-to resource for questions big and small about how a complicated system works. Both parties must be active and ask questions, don’t sit back and expect great things to happen.
- View early code as a prototype that FE’s will reimagine for higher scale. Early on we started calling most components of our products “prototype alpha.” We did this as a mental trick to let us run experiments on what worked for customers without getting overly prideful of a particular piece of code or approach. As you gain customers, you will need FEs to make massive upgrades in areas that you might think are already good. Use language that lets them know it’s ok to do it their way if its better and fits in with your business goals. As an example, here’s a snippet from a recent conversation with one of our FEs:
Startups aren’t easy, but hopefully this post helps with a small part of the journey. Good luck!