Growing an Engineering Team From 0 to 120
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Matias di Tada is the VP of Product Engineering at Avature, an innovative company building platforms for strategic HR. He started there as a software developer in 2007 and worked his way up. Previously, he taught as an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Buenos Aires.Creating leaders in development teams are Matias’ specialty, and he shared with us how he effectively nurtures teams and talent to lead Avature into the future.
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Short on time? Here are three key takeaways from Matias’ interview; what he does to build and maintain effective development teams for a large and complex product:
- Matias creates small teams that address a single module in a product and are co-managed by technical and project leaders. As the company grew, Avature wanted to keep the efficiency of small teams, so they began to break projects up into small modules for each function, and dedicate a team to each. They also have two co-leaders, one for project management and another for technical management.
- He finds leaders internally by identifying their skills in that area. Matias shared that they find their best leaders by looking for existing employees who show the soft skills needed to manage people. He has found that you can teach technical skills, but you can’t teach the soft ones.
- He knows that leaders should know themselves before they lead. One key lesson for Matias’s leadership journey has been the importance of self-awareness. If you do not know yourself, you can not help others.
What follows is a long-form write up of the key topics we discussed in our interview.
When Matias di Tada began his career as a Java developer thirteen years ago, he did not predict that he would enjoy a full range of technical and management roles at the same company. As Avature grew from ten employees to over 600, Matias’s responsibilities grew.
He managed small teams, conducted product planning, served as a product architect, and eventually took on his current position as Vice President of Product Engineering. He now drives the technical product vision for Avature and technical management of the 120-person technical staff.
Over those years, he has developed some successful approaches to leadership, growing leaders, and structuring an organization to deal with large and complex software products. He does this all while keeping communication open and preserving the culture that was so critical to the company’s success.
Structuring Small Teams
Matias pointed out that when the company was small, “We were all sitting next to each other… all of the dev, and it worked to a certain point.” When the company grew, they started “seeing specialization, and that is when you realize that something needs to be reorganized.”
They chose to break their product into modules that had a single function and build complete teams around each one that was responsible for all aspects of that module. They then put two leaders in charge of each of said teams; a technical lead and project manager. Both of these leaders have equal rank and responsibility and work together to obtain the best performance from the team. The team is given dominion over their module.
“It worked, we replicated what we had when we were ten, communicating… really, controlling, having ownership of that piece of code..."
This approach grew over time—now they have 24 teams. All of the teams are, in turn, led by both a project and technical Vice President. The number of teams has reached a level where they are looking to add a new layer of dual managers that will allow similar teams to be grouped and coordinated together.
Finding and Encouraging New Leaders
With so many teams and two managers per team, Matias is always looking to identify potential new leaders from within Avature. He feels elevating people, demonstrating career progression, has helped keep their turnover low.
He acknowledges that there are different skills needed for each role and focuses on the unique capabilities needed to drive technology or manage projects. But he points out that both roles must have the same soft skills: the interpersonal skills that make a manager a leader.
"You are really trying to find someone that is really aware of the team's needs, attentive to their needs. And of course, trying to make the whole team better."
When looking for potential leaders, he explained, “You need to find out the skills, because not everyone has the skills, not everyone I think can learn the skills to become a leader.” Once identified, he gives his perspective leaders small training or management tasks to develop and encourage the capabilities shown. Also, he finds that having them work side by side with the people they will lead builds trust and makes the transition into the new role easier. In his organization,
“We want you to get your hands dirty before you try to lead the team.”
Parenting, Leadership, and Mindfulness
While discussing how he became a leader, Matias shared that being a parent was a significant contributor to developing his management skills. He learned that he could not tell his teams or his child what to do. He had to be patient, attempt to understand why they are doing what they do, then guide them in a better direction.
“Tell your team what to do, and let them figure out how to do it. You have to really trust them. Give them tools. Parenting is the same."
He also learned the importance of being self-aware when you are a leader. Matias commented that “you cannot lead people; you cannot try to guide them or find their skills unless you know what is going on with yourself.” Being mindful of their own actions works well for him and his leaders. He did note that getting to the point where you are an effective, self-aware leader takes time, “It is a journey, you can't go to a one-day course, and that is it. It is a journey of self-discovery first.”
Excellent team management, Matias feels, is also about leading with the consent of the team. He revealed, "I think consent is a great word about this. You are trying to find the best solution for everyone. It is not ruling, about the majority, about finding consensus." A good leader, he has learned, works with the team to find a solution everyone is comfortable with.
Culture and Hiring
With so much growth — from ten to over 120 engineers — Avature found themselves hiring many new team members while trying to maintain the culture that was contributing to that growth. Matias observed that “when you start getting bigger, there is this feeling that you are going to be different, you are going to lose the way you do things. That is hard to fix if you lose that culture you had. So you have to pay attention to who gets on board the team."
Avature achieves this with a well-defined hiring process that uncovers the potential employee’s fit in their culture.
“We can not teach to listen, to try to be engaged in a solution, or to be curious and ask good questions."
Avature’s hiring process includes four steps. After a pre-screening, they do a phone interview where they learn about the applicant's history, why they made the career choices they have made, and what their hobbies are.
This is followed by a technical evaluation using Codility, which effectively and efficiently assesses whether a candidate can do the job. Matias points out that this step is not a filter, but rather an indication of the level of technical capability.
The final step is an on-site interview that uses a detailed form to capture how the applicant responds to questions that measure things like listening, problem-solving, and curiosity. He says they use this approach because “you want people who are engaged in finding a solution.”
Becoming the Leader of a Large Organization
The interview finished with a simple question, “What advice would you give to a person who wants to be a VP of Product Engineering?” In response, Matias emphasized how vital “self-awareness, mindfulness, and being present” were to his developing the critical leadership skill of self-knowledge.
Matias then emphasized that any technical knowledge or expertise needed can be learned. However, what really matters are the people skills. He concluded by saying that his leadership journey taught him that “We are always trying to improve ourselves first. But then you have to pay attention to your team.”
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