NBA legend Phil Jackson soon after becoming Chicago Bulls head coach. (Photograph by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Tales of a First Time Tech Lead (part 1)

When I uprooted my life from the small city of Évora, Portugal and relocated to the big, eclectic Berlin during the dawn of the very first day of 2015, I had no idea what was ahead of me other than a temporary bedroom and a damn heavy suitcase. I had just signed a contract with a Berlin-based startup (which still employs me to this day) as a backend developer and was well aware that my professional experience, despite extending about ten years in my past, had hardly prepared me for whatever awaited. I had never worked at a startup or any big company before, much less abroad. Those years were a mixed bag of comically tragic freelance gigs and gut wrenching, slow years in the public sector. Coupled with a tough economic climate at the time, making ends meet was not only difficult, it was sometimes downright impossible.

In hindsight, I was not wrong in my assumption. There’s a climactic scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Vertigo”, where the British film director used a neat trick (by 1958 standards, anyway) of zooming the lens in while at the same time physically pulling the camera back — creating an illusion of the tower walls approaching and receding at the same time. This scene comes to my mind every time I find myself trying to describe the last two and a half years of working and living in Berlin. Because so much has happened, it feels like decades have passed but at the same time it’s been such a fascinating, bumpy ride that it feels like I arrived only yesterday.

Enter the fast track

Long story short, after eight months of backend development I became a newly minted (and soon disgruntled) data engineer helping to build a data warehouse from scratch. Not finding that to be my calling, I was seeking a different opportunity which soon came from my CTO when in January 2016 he asked me to start building a team and the whole technology stack from scratch for our CRM, which had had virtually no IT support until that point in the company’s life.

Why I was trusted with such responsibility I honestly couldn’t fathom at the time. I had never led a team before, much less build one from the ground up. But I must say I didn’t feel exactly overwhelmed by that prospect. In fact, I felt incredibly excited and energized, despite being a complete newbie in it.

The particulars of that journey, which lasted almost exactly one year, I will detail in a future post. Suffice to say that I spent the first 6 months coding like a madman, then also acting as project manager and then, as the team started to grow, I became more of an engineering manager, barely touching code. I must say I was blessed with an incredible team. I doubt I will ever lead a better group of people.

Team of Teams

As the company started to really ramp up the hiring, I found myself increasingly involved in the inner circles of engineering. It became very apparent to us that to sustainably grow, we would not only need to step up in our technology but also to significantly restructure our organization. What happened next has been remarkably described by our CTO in a post on our engineering blog.

So we took a page off the Spotify book, gave it our own spin and ended up with a tribe structure that groups different squads under common product-driven missions. In our case, each tribe has a product lead and a tech lead, together responsible for a set of squads. Long story short, I became one of the tech leads (we call it Director of Engineering to the outside) and, yet again in a (too) short amount of time, going one order of magnitude up in terms of responsibility — and accountability.

Things had gone pretty smooth the year before while leading one team, with a modest degree of success, so it couldn’t be that difficult, right?

Wrong.

It’s been incredibly difficult. And equally rewarding.

Brave New World

The only thing that remained the same was that I was still working for the same company out of the same office. Everything else changed.

  • The products were different. CRM is a far-reaching but overarching topic. I would now be working on specific consumer-facing products, focusing on customer experience and retention. This had a whole different set of questions, challenges, goals and KPIs.
  • The technology stack was different and already there. The year before I didn’t have to contend with a lot of legacy as my team set out to build an event-driven system basically from scratch. Now I would not only be knee deep in the legacy — that I would need to understand — I would also have to find ways to move beyond it.
  • The people were also already there. I had built a team from scratch of which I was the first member — everyone else arrived after. Now I would become the manager of a considerably larger number of existing people, a lot of whom had never worked with me before. How they felt about this and about me specifically, I could only guess and hope for the best.
  • Multiple teams. I had led a single team before, now I’d have to juggle four to begin with. Also, the overall number of people increased by a factor of 4.
  • Multiple capacities. My previous team had pretty much 100% backend developers and I was no exception to that myself. Now I would work with frontend and mobile engineers, and also with UX.
  • The tech lead role was undefined. Despite the very significant size and market share of the company, the startup spirit still runs rampant in many ways. Moving fast sometimes means that not everything is entirely clear and defined. We simply had an intuitive idea of each role.

I’m not one to shy away from a good challenge, so despite all of the above I again felt pretty confident that I could eventually get a grip on this. I also knew I wouldn’t be alone, and I had a lot of respect for the entire leadership team.

But I must confess I had my doubts early on when I travelled to our NYC office in mid December last year. All of a sudden, I found myself in multiple meetings with our founder and global CEO, and also the CEO and COO for the US market. Let’s just say that given my then inexperience with the topics at hand, I was basically trying to listen a lot, talk very little and hopefully not look entirely stupid in the process. Fortunately, I survived and had the time since to get up to speed with things.

First Things First

Although I like to believe I possess a relatively good intuition, I am not one to be without a plan. In the beginning, I simply focused on bridging my knowledge gap about our platform and our products — I had worked with some of it in my backend dev days, but the company grew so fast that so much of it was new. I had homework to do.

But one thing that my previous experience made me understand crystal clear is that there’s no technology without people. While the “tech” in tech lead leaves no room for ambiguity, the people side of it is way trickier. I knew that in order to build anything worthwhile, people had to trust me and I had to trust them. For the former to happen, they would first need to know me and what my “philosophy” was. For the latter, I made a point of always assuming good intentions and trust by default. I would certainly have time to get to know each person better and hopefully understand their different needs.

I also knew that there would be absolutely no way to succeed without keeping my feet firmly on the ground, working hard (but smart) and always having a growth mindset. As the Greek lyrical poet Archilochus said:

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

Game Plan

I needed something to guide me and I also wanted the engineers to feel I had a plan, that I could be an enabler for them and help get us to the next level. It became very apparent to me that I’d need to “obsess” over people, processes and technology, in that order. So, early on, I spent a few days thinking, reading a lot, thinking, talking to people and then thinking some more. This resulted in the formulation of my three core principles of engineering, which have guided everything the team and myself have done in the last six months and I’m certain will continue to do so in the future. I wasn’t entirely sure of anything at the time (to a large degree that’s still true), but I felt I had the foundation I needed.

But more on that in the next post.

If you got this far, thank you so much for reading and I hope it has been useful for you in some tiny way.