August 16, 2020

Scale up, hire smart

Great vision without great people is irrelevant.

This quote by James C Collins reiterates what most successful companies already know; to achieve great things, you need great people.

As a company grows there is an increasing need to do more great things; more customers to acquire, features to deliver, ways to differentiate yourself from your competitors — and you need to do all of these things faster than you were doing them before.

Scaling a company typically involves hiring more people. However, scaling-up doesn’t just mean an increase in headcount. To do it well, you also need to scale your processes and your mindset. Each stage of growth brings with it a different set of challenges.

This article draws on my experience scaling the engineering team at Checkout.com, a rapidly growing fintech company. It aims to offer managers guidance on how to make informed hiring decisions that set themselves and their team up for success.

Why do you need to hire?

It may sound counterintuitive but often the right hiring decision is not hiring. The most common reasons for scaling a team are to handle increased workloads or the need to do more things in parallel. Whilst hiring may be the solution, there are some important data points you should know beforehand:

  • What are your target delivery dates and how do they align with your other roadmap priorities?
  • Is the work well-defined?
  • What is the velocity of your existing team?
  • Without this information hiring may prove more costly and slower than solving your problems in a different way, for example, getting further clarification on deliverables may present a way of sequencing your work so that you don’t need as many parallel work streams. Equally a poor velocity (or simply not knowing it) may also indicate a process problem within your team.

It often helps to put yourself in the position of the person holding the company cheque book. What justification or data would you expect to be provided before signing off a hiring proposal?

What if you don’t hire?

Hiring requisitions should point out the business impact of hiring. They should also include the risks of not hiring and ways in which these could be mitigated.

Managers should be able to think creatively about resourcing problems. Doubling the size of your team may be one way to handle an ever-growing roadmap but what about increasing your productivity instead?

The decision to hire can often masquerade other problems that may be impacting the effectiveness of your team, for example:

  • Is your team happy?
  • What is eating into your team’s time, for example, how much of their time is being spent in inefficient meetings?
  • Are you or other managers in your team getting in the way? Could you better empower your team to make more decisions without you so they can move faster?
  • How much time is being wasted starting projects without upfront requirements?
  • How often are priorities shifting after a project starts?

Rapidly scaling companies can often appear to slow down. Every new person that joins a company further increases the need for process (often for good reason) and makes effective decision making, communication and collaboration more of a challenge. Make sure you perform a health check of your existing team before looking to increase its size. For example, if you’re already becoming a bottleneck this is only going to be further compounded with more people.

Don’t use long-term (permanent) hires for short-term goals

Hiring takes time. If hiring for a permanent contract is your solution to next quarter’s deliverables, you should consider alternative options. Aside from the time involved in finding the right candidates and putting them through the interview process, it is common for people to have a 3–6 month notice period.

Plan ahead and forecast your hiring needs alongside your roadmap. Doing this frequently (e.g. once a quarter) will allow you to scale your team in a healthy way.

Can you afford to hire now?

Even with a dedicated recruitment team, hiring is a process that will impact many people in your organisation, from hiring managers defining job specifications, to team members conducting phone screens, interviews and reviewing tests.

This requires a significant time investment and should be factored into your decision to hire. If you’re hiring for the future, ask yourself whether you can afford to do this now or whether it could be deferred to a time when your team has more bandwidth.

Hiring may require more hiring

The more engineers you have the more output you produce; at least that’s the hope. This output needs to have requirements written, be planned and prioritised, tested and eventually deployed into production. In cross-functional teams the delivery process involves more software engineers:

  • Product managers / analysts
  • Project/Delivery managers
  • QA Engineers
  • DevOps Engineers

As you hire, make sure these other roles scale in parallel. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for managers themselves to become the bottleneck. Amazon’s famous Two Pizza Rule is a good rule of thumb to ensure your team doesn’t get too big at which point you may need to consider splitting your team and introducing additional leadership.

Boost your team fast

If you need to boost your team for short term goals, hiring a contractor may be the solution for you.

Keep in mind that contractors, like any new member of the team, still require support and should have some work defined up front. Not only will this help you find the right contractor (e.g. someone with payments experience) but it also means they can hit the ground running.

Managers are often against using contractors because the domain is complex or the knowledge ramp-up is high. Whilst this may be the case, it’s worth noting that experienced contractors are used to getting up to speed quickly. After all, it’s in their best interest to deliver value as soon as possible before you start questioning their day rate!

You can also use contractors to free-up your existing team to work on more critical items. If 25% of your team’s time is spent on maintenance or investigating production issues, could this be handed off to a contractor instead?

The importance of internal mobility

Internal mobility refers to the movement of employees across different roles, teams and even locations within an organisation. It’s proven to be an effective way of not only enabling employees to achieve their career goals but also improve retention.

When it comes to hiring our first move is often to look outside the organisation. External hires require an upfront investment in order to successfully onboard them into the team. Internal mobility can fast-track the onboarding process since they are already familiar with the company and its processes. For product and engineering teams it is also possible that they already possess some knowledge about your product or domain.

Internal mobility should not be considered a “hire fast” solution. It should be aligned with an individual’s career goals established through regular 1:1s and in collaboration with other hiring managers to ensure a fluid transition for both teams.

When one of your team members is considering moving to another team, help support them in this decision and try not to take it personally. Remember that their role in your team represents just one step in their career path. If the decision feels sudden however, it’s possible that there has been a communications gap between the two of you and you should ask for feedback on how you could have better understood their long term goals.

For more inspiration on this topic, check out The Alliance, a book by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman that covers how LinkedIn uses “Tours of duty” to create new and exciting “missions” that are mutually beneficial for an individual and the organisation.

Look beyond experience

A common pattern I see in teams under pressure is the desire to only hire very experienced (senior) engineers. This is largely a byproduct of hiring in a reactive way since the assumption is that an engineer with more experience is going to be able to deliver faster.

Once you start planning ahead and hiring becomes an iterative process you can think beyond the current role and consider the dynamic of the team you are hoping to scale.

Hiring lesser experienced engineers or associates provides new opportunities for senior members of your team such as developing their leadership and mentoring skills. Junior engineers bring in a fresh perspective and can allow your more experienced team members to focus on more appropriate topics. Whilst it’s true that they require more of an upfront investment, this pays off in retention and the positive impact on company culture.

It may be beneficial to find candidates who already have experience in your industry/domain/tech, but I would avoid making this a requisite as in my experience it’s far better to look for passionate individuals with a positive attitude who have demonstrated the ability to learn.

The productivity dip

Scaling your team may pay dividends in productivity. Before you move faster however, be prepared to go slower.

To get the most out of your new hire you need to give them a first-class onboarding experience aimed at integrating them into the team and delivering value as soon as possible. This is why you’ll often hear engineering teams advocate having new hires ship something to production in their first few weeks, no matter how small. It’s a great way to learn your end-to-end delivery process rather than just reading about it, involves collaborating with others and provides immense satisfaction to the new hire.

A good onboarding process should include:

  • Someone who can provide the high level picture/goals of the team, typically the engineering manager
  • Someone to train and support the new hire in their first weeks (aka “The buddy”)
  • Good documentation
  • A well defined mission for their first 90 days

All of this takes time and should be factored into your hiring plan and the start date of your new hires. The drop in productivity you will initially experience should also be factored into your roadmap.

Scheduling this during the delivery of a key project will not only put you and your team under more pressure but will also lead to a terrible experience for your new hire.

Remember that in those first few weeks your new hire is evaluating you as much as you are them. First impressions are everything and that period of time could set the tone for your relationship with your new team member and their perception of the company.

Regularly seeking feedback from new team members on their onboarding experience, can help optimise your hiring process and reduce the productivity dip over time.

Conclusion

The bedrock of any successful company is its people. In order to scale you must think longer term and make informed hiring decisions to ensure that you hire the right people when you most need them. Don’t let headcount become a vanity metric and make sure that your processes and company culture also scale in tandem.

© 2020 Ben Foster