When stretched so thin, first time founders often unintentionally alienate their engineering teams. I asked four CTOs to share practical advice to help first time founders maximize the productivity of engineering teams.
Here are the top four things they told me:
1. Manage up and out.
"We always talk about startups as technology companies, but often product, marketing, or sales run the show. The CTO's job is not to do what you're told and deliver features. It's to make sure the company's business goals are ones the engineering team can achieve" says LearnVest's CTO Emilia Sherifova.
To do that, founders need to include CTOs in the company's overall strategy planning. Otherwise, engineering teams will end up frustrated, stressed and overworked trying to live up to unrealistic expectations.
2. Speak the same language.
Your non-technical and technical teams can't collaborate if they don't speak the same language. Daniel Doubrovkine, CTO of art collection and education website Artsy, realized just how important a shared vocabulary was when he watched a product manager and engineer debate the definition of an artist's print. That means a very specific thing in the art world, and a misunderstanding could have had major product implications.
To prevent similar situations, Artsy scheduled a series of hour-long sessions to define key terms. Representatives from every team hashed out a shared definition and repeated the process until they ran out of contentious points.
3. Walk a mile in someone else's shoes.
Encourage every engineer to learn about sales and customer support. Nobody likes to be told to attend meetings, so Gavin Cowie, CTO of customer service consulting firm StellaService, suggests you gamify the process.
Start by defining the critical steps in the customer lifecycle so that each interaction with a customer represents a column in a spreadsheet. For example, the sales process might consist of three steps: discovery, demo, and follow-up. Then add a row for each engineer to create a bingo board.
The first engineer to participate in each step of the sales process wins a prize. Just make sure it's a prize your team will actually care about, like an Oculus Rift or bottle of 18 year-old Scotch. Set a deadline of six months. Why six months? Because by then the sales process will probably change.
4. The proof is in the pudding when it comes to product.
Defining the product roadmap can be a contentious process. "When confronted with feature requests you disagree with, it can be tempting to reply in absolutist terms: we can't do that; shouldn't do that; it's crazy. Sometimes you can win an argument through force of personality, but it doesn't work with really smart people" says Managed By Q's CTO, Phil Sarin. That sort of response can easily alienate your team.
Instead, Doubrovkine suggests, run parallel projects for three weeks. "At the end, it's usually very clear that one approach is tremendously better," he says. "That way I don't need to make a big decision, just a small decision whether to try a parallel experiment."