4 Chief Technical Officers on Managing and Motivating Teams and Their Best Advice for Startup Founders

At the InterFace18 NYC with Google Cloud for Startups event hosted by WeWork Labs, Will Koffel, head of the Google Cloud for Startups Program, moderated a panel of New York CTOs: Nick Rockwell, CTO of The New York Times, Yvette Pasqua, CTO of Meetup, Eliot Horowitz, cofounder and CTO of MongoDB, and Mahmoud Arram, cofounder and CTO of Bluecore. They shared their thoughts on growing from developers and engineers into managers, how important a computer science degree really is for CTOs, and their best advice for startup founders.

How they juggle the many hats of a CTO
As a CTO, you’re expected to be the technologist and chief architect, the VP of engineering who hires the team and executes on the strategy, and the external face interacting with customers and building partnerships. Koffel asked the panelists how they handle those roles and whether they ever reached a point where they realized they couldn’t do it all and needed to hand some tasks off to others. “Somewhat early in my career I realized that I was really good at some things and not as good at others,” Pasqua said. “I’m much better at growing and leading teams and other leaders”, adding, “I realized pretty quickly, wow I’m a lot better at that than I was at the hands on technical architecture side relative to my peers, and I love doing that.”

Arram shared that he initially struggled with the transition from developer to manager. “In the early days when it was two of us, one was selling and one was building and we hired engineers. I continued to build and then someone needed to make sure work was getting done and we were building things that made sense for customers,” he said. He had to rethink the value he brought to the company when he wasn’t writing code anymore. And he also had to realize which of his new responsibilities energized him, and which didn’t. He found that managing people and schedules wasn’t his strength, so Bluecore hired a VP of engineering to handle them.

On whether you need a computer science degree to be a CTO
After an audience member asked about their educational backgrounds, Rockwell shared that his degree was actually in literary theory. Pasqua studied biology and neuroscience. Horowitz said that he does have a computer science degree, but that among CTOs, that makes him “the exception, not the rule.” Arram said that “a formal education in computer science is helpful in the early years but if you become a manager, none of that stuff you really learn in school, even MBA school.” And Rockwell added that “it’s more important to know how to learn than it is to hold onto something you learned a long time ago.”

And if you’re a non-technical founder managing a technical team, the panelists offered some advice for you, too. Think about the value you can provide outside of technical know-how, Arram said. “A lot of technical teams need that business acumen or that business skill in order to really take of.” Pasqua had a similar approach of focusing on where you can add value. “Get really close to your customers,” she said. “It’s an invaluable thing no matter what stage you’re at or what your skills are. If you know your customers better than anyone on the planet you’re going to be able to lead the company really, really well and teach and impart that on others.” Rockwell offered a slightly different point of view. “Get a little more technical,” he said. “It’s not a gene that you have or don't and it’s not binary.”

How to motivate tech teams as they grow
At MongoDB, “the most important thing we do is we make everyone make decisions,” Horowitz said. Every engineer is involved in quarterly planning meetings where they decide what their teams will work on—it helps create buy-in and personal investment in projects. At Bluecore, Arram has “autonomous teams that can make their own decision even if that leads to a little bit of chaos,” and makes sure that teams understand how their work connects back to the mission of the company and key KPIs. “The worst thing is to feel like they’re working on something that doesn't matter,” he said. With his team at The New York Times, Rockwell said that “a sense of urgency or enthusiasm is mostly innate and it can also be quashed.” You feed it by giving people autonomy and a clear sense of growth, and you crush it by withholding those same things. He also said that you can also motivate teams by putting people with that innate sense of urgency and enthusiasm in key positions within the organization, because those traits can be contagious.

Their top advice for founders
Horowitz prefaced his advice with a story of one of the worst candidate interviews he’s ever had. Everything was going great—the candidate seemed smart and capable, and the conversation about a key product change the candidate made at their previous job was going well, until Horowitz asked what problem they’d solved with that change. The candidate didn’t have an answer. The lesson: Everyone on your team needs to understand what your users are doing and why you’re building what you’re building for them. “Otherwise you'll build random things that don't make sense,” Horowitz said.

Along with finding a cofounder to help make the experience of building a company less difficult and lonely, Arram recommended that founders “master the skill of recruiting and closing,” and be “very careful with the early hires because they set the culture.”

Pasqua told the crowd that her “advice is as early as you can, embrace failing fast.” She said that founders have to create a “blameless culture” where failing fast and learning is celebrated. “Giving people the space to do that, I think, is the only way to innovate.”

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