Growing and scaling high performance teams

My learnings from growing a startup while leading a high performance team

When I started PetroPredict with Dominic, we were just a team of two co-founders looking to use technologies we used in tech companies and Silicon Valley to optimize decision making in the oil and gas industry. Since then we added on 4 others, effectively tripling our team. Over the past couple of months we were able to run a high performance team enabling our company to grow and scale.

New Skillset as a Leader

Leading and building high performance teams was new to me, but as any new skill, with effort, it is possible to acquire. The very best thing about being a leader is you can reflect on leadership and management that you have experienced while working in previous roles. By reflecting on the techniques used by your previous managers, you can effectively outline what techniques you would like to use. Over my work terms in highschool co-op, summer jobs and university co-op I had a great opportunity to work in different corporate environment and with many different leaders and mentors. Learning from the past is one of the best ways to optimize the future.

Startup = Growth

“ A startup is a company designed to grow fast.” — Paul Graham

The biggest thing that a startup has is the ability to grow and scale. It is obvious that companies can scale in technology, customers and sales, but almost every aspect of a startup has to scale. A great example of this is when Chris Cox (Chief Product Officer at Facebook) told me about the idea of scaling company culture from a handful of employees to a couple of thousand.

Growing Knowledge

One aspect I wanted to elaborate on is growing knowledge. Working at a startup means that you are going to have to take many roles and have a diverse number of skills. The other thing is that the company is moving so fast that you have to have the actionable skills as soon as possible. When new members come on the team they have to gain certain knowledge before they can contribute. Even if you take an iterative approach, where you learn a little, do a little, it can still be difficult for rapid knowledge acquirement at the speed of the start up.

Udacity and MOOCs

A great solution to this is by the use of MOOCs (massively open online courses). We are lucky to be in a time where there is free access to very useful courses. Specifically I found that Udacity was one of the very best ways to allow team members to gain knowledge.

For example when our highschool summer student, Kevin Peng, joined the team, he never used GIT or version control before. Instead of having to spend time on reading boring documentation or guides learning git, he made his own version of 2048 in a couple of hours by taking Udacity’s course. This fun iterative approach allowed him to have a great summer co-op experience and enabled to complete a technically difficult project.

Eating your own dogfood

A great philosophy I learnt at Facebook is the idea of “eating your own dog food”, or using your own product to validate the quality and capabilities of the product. While we do use data informed decision making techniques in running the company, this also can be applied to being a leader. Being a leader means setting an example to others, so throughout the term, I used Udacity to scale my own knowledge.

It began by taking Steve Blank’s course on How to Build a Startup, and was able to apply the teachings to my own start up. One of the biggest learnings was the idea of minimal viable product and market validation. By taking the advice from the course, we were able to make demos and presentations and found many other applications for our technology which companies are very interested in.

As Jonathan Estralla (our GIS developer) and I found, Udacity provides many other courses in topics such and data science, web development, and even machine learning. Udacity really helps scale knowledge as every lesson is a very short video (usually less than 5 minute) and has quick quizzes and application based assignments. Sometimes there are only a couple of topics we would need to brush up on, we could just watch specific topics which allowed us to complete the task at hand. Udacity in combination of other online resources enables our team to gain the required skills to be successful.

Running Mean, Lean and Agile

Running lean and agile as now become colloquial in software development and startups and is fundamental to running high performance teams. The biggest idea behind these techniques is another Facebook philosophy: focus on impact. Understanding what is the most important and valuable thing at the moment and executing as quick as you can. Here are some techniques I found to be useful for running high performing teams by running lean and Agile:

Beginning of term goal setting – Get team members to set goals in the beginning of the term, and help motivate them to achieve their goals

Weekly reports – At the end of the week do a quick summary of what was worked on during the week and set goals for the next week.

Weekly meetings – At the beginning of the week, summarize what went on last week and the high level goals for this week. This is also a great opportunity to talk about company news

Daily goals – Daily scrum meetings or stand ups can be used effectively to get to low level goal setting. It also provides an opportunity for members talk about issues or roadblocks they are facing or opportunities for collaboration.

Asana – Asana is a great product management and collaboration tool. It works great as our team works remotely

Company wiki – Setting up and running a central source of knowledge for the company enables quick collaboration and opportunity for knowledge capture

The Most Powerful Technique of All

Finally, the biggest take away from running a startup is learning from the past by getting advice from mentors and experts. Using information from the past to make better decisions is one of the most powerful things anyone can do.

Throughout the term I have been fortunate to get advice from many mentors from the the University of Waterloo, the Velocity Program, the Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre, companies out of the Velocity Garage and many work colleges and friends. While I do not have room here to name everyone, I wanted to thank everyone for their help and support throughout the term!