Interview with Kevin Goldsmith, former Vice President Engineering Spotify

On the one hand you are a tech guy, on the other — leaderhip proffessional. I don’t even know which one of those two is more appropriate topic.
Certainly, since I came to Spotify, I focused a lot more on talking about and writing about the leadership, because there is plenty better people to talk about tech, do tech and write about tech in Spotify. So it’s more appropriate to talk about the staff I’m more involved in.

Can we talk about some specific issues that concern more tech teams then other teams?
Part of tech teams is personalities of developers. This occupation attracts very certain kind of people that are different. Figuring out how to motivate them and work together and collaborate is a challenge. A lot of things around leadership I talk about would work in lots of different kind of teams. My experience is with tech teams which is why I focus on that. You have to work a little bit harder in tech teams.

What motivates tech people to bring the best of them in projects?
They really want to feel like they are in control what they are working on and they have the ability to make decisions about it. They want to own it and want to feel like it’s theirs. When I work in team, I want to drive it not only be told what to do.

So what leaders of the company or department can do to make tech people work productively?
One of the things I’ve really focused on and tried to bring into other companies I’ve worked as well, for example, in Microsoft and Adobe, is figuring out how to give the team protective bubble to let them do what they work on and do not interfere to get approvals on the stuff or to be quick. A lot of times I talk to other companies and they are struggling with something, they usually say — we want our teams to go really fast or we want to give our teams autonomy, but they are not doing what they supposed to do. It’s really easy to say — we want our teams to be innovative and we want them to have control on what they work on. Go and innovate! The team goes tries to invent something new, be innovative and fail, because it is part of innovation. In that minute companies say that this isn’t working. If you are inventing something new, you will always screw up a few times before you figure it out. Company often punishes the team for the failure and it tells basically everybody else — you are not really allowed to do innovative things. So the company says one thing, but acts differently. I see it happen a lot. Senior leadership actually have to understand what they mean — if you want your teams to be innovative, it means you actually have to let them fail and you have to let them make decisions what to do after that.

So decision making also in a case of the failure should also be left to the team?
Yes. It is something we struggle even in Spotify sometimes. I’m fairly opinionated about the product. I have Chief Product Officer and CEO — they all have ideas what we should do. The hardest part is stepping back or presenting it as just an idea — take it or leave it! It’s hard. Any time somebody like me comes and says that I have an idea. Team doesn’t have to do it! But I’m the boss and they are going to automatically do it rather than think if they need to do it. Even our teams which we really train to be in control of everything. That’s another big challenge.

When did you join the Spotify?
I’ve been with Spotify for three years now. When I joined the company, it was certainly growing, but it wasn’t nearly as big as it is now. A lot of things weren’t in a place. I tried out some ideas in other companies. When Spotify approached me I decided I have to go there because they are dealing with things I have tried to do. When I joined, I became tribe leader — I was running the team of 50 people. I was responsible for full time management. Most of people — managers that worked for me — were also developers. I was the first full time manager. I was ultimately responsible for making sure that organization works, teams and people were happy and we are all making good decisions. Organization grew and we created new organizational model. For now I have three tribes consisting of 16 teams in Stockholm, Goteborg and New York. They all report to me and I have to make sure that they have all the information they need for them to make choices at team level. I also run consumer engineering — it is much more strategic looking at where we need to take the product.

And where are you taking the Spotify now?
I can’t talk about anything we haven’t released yet. I can say that we’ve been pretty clear that the things that we’ve been doing around personalization of product, for example, “Discover Weekly”, we have done extremely well. We will continue on that. If you been using Spotify for a while, we actually know the music you like and we going to bring it through the whole product to give the feeling — wow, Spotify really knows me and it is giving me good choices all the time. We launched the video and podcasts — we will keep moving in that direction as well. Also we are doing a lot for the product to become easier to use — we already have launched much simpler navigation.

What are things you’ve been proud of personally while working in Spotify?
I think that parties I’ve been most proud of you haven’t seen or you don’t know about them. One of the things I’m responsible for is a congestion, storage and playback. One of the things that makes Spotify exceptionally good is that we really focus on giving the customer really high quality service. From the beginning where you hit “play” and you get music immediately, it should feel that you are playing file on your phone not coming through the cloud. There’s been a tremendous work which no one sees. People just can tell that if it feels good. That’s one thing I’m proud of. Launch of the video was massive. I’m very proud of that as well. Actually, there are a lot of small things I’ve been really passionate and proud about.

If we come back to the tech team management, startups are now big thing. I believe you have definitely seen them a lot. What is your impression about those new passionate teams forming?
What I have seen is very natural. It is understandable that you are forming startup, you are cofounder and you are doing well. You bring one more person, one more person and one more person to the team. Hopefully you are growing, you are on the ride and you are not even considering what’s next. You are product focused, you have new challenges — you have to get or raise more money. And you don’t even think about — oh, we are hiring these people, why are we hiring them, what are they going to do and what are we building here. Companies I have seen become really innovative, but they have to think early or at the beginning what kind of company are we trying to build not just what kind of product we are trying to build. At certain point — you don’t have to be very big — you start to feel that you are slowing down. Some arguments appear, because nobody actually have thought about many things that are not obvious. That’s a mistake I see all the time.

The other mistake I see with techies all the time is focusing too much on technologies. You get too specific and it drives you and you don’t get practical or pragmatic. And then it brings you to the corner where you are just a company that uses technology.

You always have to choose when hiring, who to bring to the team — the one who is the smartest guy or the one who fits the most. What would you suggest?
I’ll always go for the fit. I would rather hire somebody that’s going to work well in the team and have to learn some things then to bring in somebody that knows a lot in this specific area, but he is going to create a tension or arguments in the team. I think some of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made as a manager were keeping somebody around or hiring somebody that I knew it’s going to be a challenge for the team. On the other hand — he is knowledgeable in the area that we need help. But afterwards I’ve ended up spending the majority of my time dealing with situations caused by this person. One time I built a team that was bunch of really smart people, but they worked horribly together. I got really good on figuring out how to manage all their egos so that they work together, but that’s all I did all the time — I fixed arguments and just kept the team going. I felt we were doing pretty well, but it have been much better if I had put together really nicely talented people that worked really well together.

What about firing? There comes a time when you have to do that and it’s hard…
I struggled with it every time until I saw talk from Patty McCord who is Head of HR at Netflix. She actually gave me a completely new angle how to feel a lot better about it. It always happens and you have to do it. You try not to do it as long as you can. But what I realized was that keeping these people in the team — and they know that they are not doing well and I’m constantly have to tell them — you have to improve, you have to improve, you have to improve — I’m not doing them any favors. All I’m doing is punishing them while keeping them around. They are not happy. Everyone else is not happy. I’m unhappy. And they know it! They know that they are in trouble and they are not improving. Best thing you can do for them is fire them. The hardest part is that somebody is good — either good developer or good person. And you feel bad because it is your own failure as a manager for hiring him. Especially if he is a good person and you want to help him, because you like him, but you are not really helping him. You also have to think — you may like this person, but they are hurting your team whether they mean it or not. You are hurting everyone else around them. So probably firing is just the best thing to do. And once I did it from this perspective, I turned myself out and we hired much better people.

Originally published in latvian newspaper “Dienas Bizness”, 10.06.2016.