Toby Oliver (CTO @ Typeform) on hiring, managing, and scaling engineering teams

At the Startup Grind BCN event in Barcelona, Toby Oliver (CTO @ Typeform) talked about hiring and inspiring engineers, how Typeform teams are structured (spoiler alert: there are bees involved), and how being in Barcelona influences Typeform’s hiring process.

Here are my notes from his talk.

Tony Oliver, CTO at Typeform, at the @StartupGrindBCN event

1. Hiring tech talent

Things that worked well for Typeform

  1. Hosting meetups. When you choose an office, make sure you have a big meeting space. Typeform hosts meetups as a way to let people learn more about their product, expand their reach, build a community, and bring talent into the company.
  2. Not ignoring recruiters. Although it’s hard to have an internal recruiter when you’re a small startup, if you want to grow fast you need someone who’s dedicated to it full-time. “To have really good hires, you need to chase them down.” Typeform has worked with recruiters since its early days, and brought some of them in-house eventually.

Things that didn’t work for Typeform

  1. Participating in (some) recruitment events. Toby referred to one event in London in particular (but didn’t mention any names). They spent a considerable amount of time and money to participate, but didn’t get the expected results. These events probably work well for big names, but not as well for less known startups.
  2. Stack Overflow. Despite its large user base, the recruitment consulting services offered by Stack Overflow were expensive and not as efficient as expected.

2. How to find a tech co-founder

What potential tech co-founders look for in a company is always very personal/subjective.
Toby, for example, usually looks for:

  • Interesting technology.
  • Interesting business opportunity: can this startup grow and potentially disrupt its market? (After the talk, in a smaller group, we also discussed the importance of giving shares to employees. It appears that in Barcelona this opportunity is not considered as interesting by employees as it is in the US and other countries).
  • People he can learn from.
  • Meaningful projects he can contribute to.

3. “What type of CTO are you? Hands-on or a more political/managerial one?”

  • He’d love to be first one, but is mainly the second one, currently with a strong focus on hiring talent.
  • The reason for this is that if you want to grow fast you need to do a lot of recruiting.
  • As a C level you need to not become a bottle-neck, which means to stop being hands-on. Your mission becomes to be an enabler for the rest of the team.

4. Advice on finding a CTO

  • The type of CTO you need depends on what stage your company is at. You need different CTOs at different stages:
    - At the beginning: you need a hands-on CTO (i.e. one who can code).
    - When you grow: you need someone who can grow the team, with strong self-discipline to pull-back when they need to.

To find CTOs:

  • Reach out to them directly.
  • Ask current employees if they know someone who might be a good fit. Your employees are often a great way to find talent.
  • There are some communities where CTOs aggregate, for example CTO meetups in the UK.

5. What to look for in new hires (and what to offer them)

  • Don’t rely on money/high salaries as a motivation tool. People motivated by this will leave as soon as they can get a higher-paid job.
  • Typeform focuses on culture. Typeform has a very diverse culture, with staff from all over the world (apparently from over 30 countries). Their leadership team is divided into three areas: business product, strategy, and culture. The purpose of the culture team is to maintain the culture, and to think of ways to infuse their values into everything they do.
    It’s important to actively do that, because as the company grows your identity evolves too.
  • What he looks for in new hires is smartness and the right kind of culture.
  • As a new potential hire, you don’t need to know everything, but you need the potential to get there.

6. What’s Typeform’s tech stack like?

Typeform uses:

  • PHP, Node
  • REACT, REDUX
  • Go, Ruby
  • AWS

7. How does the choice of languages impact your hiring?

The choice to use less-known languages is a double-edged sword.
For example, almost everyone knows and uses Java, but in order to know Go you have to be curious, and that’s the type of person you want to hire. However, the limitation with languages like Go is that you don’t have a huge pool of candidates.
React is another example: although it’s becoming increasingly popular in recent years, not many people have done significant projects with it.

8. How much time do you invest into refactoring the product?

Typeform’s approach is “Always leave the code better than you started.”
However, the amount of time spent on refactoring depends on a number of factors, which include:

  • Bugs density — are bugs concentrated in the same section of code?
  • Core functionality — is it a critical area of the app/website that needs refactoring (e.g. login, signup)?

9. Does Typeform encourage work on side projects?

Some of the initiatives they have at Typeform include:

  • Prototyping challenges.
  • Fridays for people to work on something they’re interested in and share it with the rest of the organization.
  • Hackathons.
  • Once a month, Fridays to work on open-source projects.
A marketing hackhathon organized by Typeform

10. ”What was the biggest “oh f**k” moment you had (and how did you solve it)”?

  • At one point, it was decided that all data from all forms in Typeform would get stored into one table in the database. Different views would be created for every single form.
  • This worked well for the first few months, but as the product grew they ended up with a database containing millions of tables.
  • At one point Typeform thought they wouldn’t be able to handle their data. They weren’t sure MySQL would be able to support the volume of data.
  • The problem was solved by changing the code that was creating the tables in the first place.

11. Something Typeform totally crushed instead

They’ve recently reengineered Typeform to work with APIs and opened it up to external devs. Jason Harmon, previously head of API design at PayPal and now CPO at Typeform, helped with the architecture.

12. How are teams structured at Typeform?

  • Typeform currently has around 40 devs and 10 QAs.
  • They tried the Spotify model, but had some difficulties: the Spotify model was quite focused around technical features, while they wanted to be focused around user journeys.
  • One problem they had when their model was based around components and features was that people often didn’t know who to talk to, while with the journey-base model it’s a lot clearer.
  • Teams at Typeform are structured into swarms, colonies, hives and honeycombs.
  • The core unit is a swarm, a cross-functional teams formed by designers, devs, QAs.
(Source)

- Multiple swarms form a colony, which takes care of a user journey, e.g. creating forms, or visualizing results.

(Source)
  • People in the same hive share the same manager. Every engineer belongs to a hive, but engineers from one hive might work in different swarms.
(Source)

Putting it all together…

13. How do you prioritize tasks at Typeform?

  • Over time they’ve tried different methods, but what works best is a very good relationship and trust between the PO and the team.
  • When making priority calls, it’s important to make the technical debt visible (especially important when building MVPs).
  • One way to make technical debt visible is to label it as such on post-its, hang them on the wall, and let them pile up as the debt accumulates. This will make the urgency to work on the technical debt visible not only to devs, but also to the PO and to non-devs in general.

14. How does being based in Barcelona affect your recruitment?

  • Locals account for less than 50% off all devs at Typeform.
  • Most recruitment happens overseas: mainly East Europe, South America, and UK (where Toby Oliver comes from).
  • Some companies think they will just relocate to Barcelona and throw a lot of money at hiring senior talent. This doesn’t usually work.
  • Getting senior people is the main challenge. It’s easier for people who are less established in their lives to move to Barcelona, while it’s harder for senior people. Also, the uncertainty of the current political situation in Catalunya doesn’t help.
Typeform HQ in Barcelona

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International User Researcher & Strategist.