Building + leading tech teams at scale

May 28, 2019 · 4 min read

Insights from our AirTime portfolio breakfast with Hugh Williams

A few months back we held another AirTime event to discuss the challenges of building and leading a tech team at scale. We had over 30 tech leads from our portfolio join us for the session and we were lucky enough to have Hugh Williams host.

Hugh Williams presenting at our AirTime portfolio breakfast

When Hugh first moved to the US in 2004, he was one of the early engineers to join the search effort at Microsoft. 15 years later he’s held several high-profile roles including VP Engineering and Product roles at Google Maps, eBay, Tinder and Pivotal. Hugh has now returned to Australia with a mission to help high school teachers develop their confidence and competence in teaching computer science — read more here.

The discussion ranged from improving alignment between the Engineering team and PMs, to creating the right-sized teams for impact.

Here are a few key highlights:

Successful companies always have big, hairy, audacious goals

Company goals must have six things:

This ensures that teams are not just working hard, but working on the things that are the highest priority to the company.

The 60:30:10 ratio

For Engineering leaders, getting the right balance for how you should spend your engineering resources is the hardest problem to solve.

A simple solution is to avoid the conversation about whose priority is more important (Product vs Engineering) and just agree on the split of energy you’ll spend working on the following:

From experience, the ratio for the split of energy should be the following 60:30:10:

There are times when the balance should swing to other ratios. For example, if everything is going great in the Engineering team it may mean you can spend a bit more energy on product (i.e. make it 70:20:10).

The right-size for your teams

From experience, it’s 6–8 people. If it gets larger, the complexity of point-to-point communication slows it down. If it’s smaller, teams don’t have enough resources to change the world.

When you have a tech team of 400 it’s not about managing a team of 400, it’s about setting up small 6–8 person organisations that feel independent, have customer-centric goals (so the lines between the teams are right), and can run really really fast.

It’s about the people

At a high level, when interviewing engineers make sure you look out for four things:

Above all, hire people with raw horsepower.

These people that can do anything if they’re given the opportunity and the coaching.

Creating a strong, sustainable culture

There’s no silver bullet, but some basic principles are:

When things go wrong, always ask yourself in hindsight “why didn’t somebody fix that?”, and “why didn’t somebody keep celebrating the things that were important?”.

The Richmond Tigers (Melbourne AFL team) have a pretty inspirational story about turning their culture around. Have a read of the book “Yellow and Black” — it’s not just a story of a sports team, but how to get your team culture working again.

We’ll be continuing other AirTree community events throughout the course of 2019! Sign up to our newsletter or follow us @airtreevc for updates :)

A full list of AirTree’s Open Source VC resources can be accessed here.


A venture capital fund in Aus and NZ.

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