How to build high-performing tech teams with Travis CI co-founder, Mathias Meyer
Our Slack community, Teams at Work, recently had the pleasure of hosting an async AMA with Mathias Meyer. has experience leading high-performance tech teams and has led in co-founder, CEO, and CTO roles. He’s had 2 successful exits, and was one of the co-founders of Travis CI! He’s just launched The Intentional Organization to help other leaders be successful with their teams.
Here are some of the highlights from the AMA with Mathias:
🍎 On helping your team develop their skills and careers
Q: How do you create space for colleagues to learn new skills when everyone is focussed on delivering the current roadmap?
Mathias: I think you know the answer to this one already. You can’t create space if everyone is busy all the time. You need to schedule in time for people to learn. Otherwise this isn’t going to be happening. If it’s one day a week or one day a month, that’s up to you. But you can’t expect them to create the space if the signal is that the current roadmap always comes first. Then that’s exactly what will happen, the roadmap always comes first, meaning nothing else comes second.
People optimize for what is communicated as the most important thing to focus on.
I’ve found it helpful, also as a manager, to create space not just for the team (e.g. Fridays as a learning/Slack day, every week, every two weeks, whatever works best), but also for myself. I used to be “out of office” on Fridays, giving myself a long stretch of thinking and reflection time where I would let my mind wander and think about what’s been going on, what patterns I see, what may need adjustment, or just a problem that’s been on my mind.
Q: If the CTO is more of a “code crunching” person and less experienced in managing a team and delegating tasks: Would you rather suggest taking things off the CTO’s plate code-wise and let them develop more into a “managing role” or would you rather get a seasoned project / product manager on board?
Mathias: I would suggest not to force someone into a management role if they’re not really into it. There are different levels of a CTO and where they put their focus, management can but doesn’t need to be one of them. For a growing team, it does pay to start adding managers to the engineering team, or to look for a VPE/Director-level person to take the management work off the CTO’s plate entirely so that they can focus on where they are most valuable.
Looking at where someone can provide the most value (in addition to looking at what they want to do and what is the business needs) is a healthy way to look at where they can position themselves and, in turn, where they need to hire to fill the other gaps, like in management, or product, or project management, etc.
Also, as an aside, I’d recommend not waiting to hire managers until your team approaches ten people. By then you’re offloading a sizeable team to a new manager, likely overloading them right from the get to. It does pay to think about this early on, when you can also first focus on hiring an experienced manager than finding a senior level or VP type person.
Q: What do you see as the next horizon for executive careers post-pandemic?
Mathias: The biggest shift in executive and management careers will be working in environments where you have very little levers of control with so many folks not being accessible in person.
Trust will play a big part in the future of knowledge work, and thankfully, many folks have had to adjust to a reality where they can’t rely on old tools of control that exist solely by virtue of sitting close to a person and having direct access to everyone working for you.
This applies to long term goal setting and strategy as well as the progress on every day work.
This in turn, leads to executives having to basically reinvent their roles in a way that focuses much less on control and much more on influence and having a supporting role, without having a large presence that speaks for itself. All this will no doubt be a challenge for folks who have a particular style of management that isn’t fully compatible with these requirements.
I’m speaking here from my own experience building and managing teams across the globe, so this has basically been the transformation I had to go through.
Q: Do you have any insight to share as you navigated folks into senior leadership jobs? What did the career progress look like?
Mathias: There is no one path to go into leadership roles, and my experience in coaching and also working with the people around me reflects that. I’ve worked with great engineers with a knack for management, with people ops managers who have a knack for engineering management, with process engineers who have a knack for customer support and success, with former baristas who are just excellent with people. These are just some examples. Some people opted for these paths, others landed there by accident, or by sheer necessity, as does happen in fast-growing startups.
Q: How do you help an engineer decide if they’d like to continue as an IC or take on more of a ‘standard’ leadership role (ie. management)?
Mathias: I think one key question here is whether you truly enjoy working with people. If you get joy out of coaching others, talking to others (in your team and around you), putting your own work in the background in the support of the people on your team, helping others overcome hurdles, and so on.
Honestly, I didn’t know that I would enjoy this work so much when I moved from being an engineer into a full time management and leadership role as CEO. Over time, working directly with and helping and coaching people have become my favourite things about the jobs I held.There are other aspects involved like:
- Dealing with uncertainty and managing upwards.
- Saying no. Which you will have to do to all kinds of things, incoming work items, requests for promotions or raises (ideally you say no with a clear plan of how they can get there, another thing to focus on as manager).
- Career development.
Not all of these you’ll know about upfront, some you’ll only find out whether you enjoy them and are good at them on the job. If that’s not the case, then there’s always the option (I hope!) to move back into an IC role.As an aside, the skills and traits I outlined above don’t only apply to management roles, they can be useful skills in other leadership roles that aren’t directly people management, like product, tech leads, senior engineers, etc.
🧠 On building a culture of learning (and failure acceptance)
Q: How can you nurture a culture of failure acceptance?
Mathias: There are two sides to this. One is about a culture of failure, the other about what you’re doing with what you learn.
The question I would ask myself and the team is:
- Why do our tests (however often) end up in failures?
- Where did we guess wrong?
- What have our assumptions been that turned out wrong?
- What was the likelihood of a failure vs. success?
And it can be quite freeing for everyone to state upfront that this has been a frustrating streak of failures and that, before you dive into the next one, you want to review and change the process, together, to make your guesses more educated and your tests (hopefully) more successful.
And then to use that data to improve your process, not just the tests you do. What can you change in the process to make better guesses about your tests? Who can you talk to to collect more data before you even run the test?
People do need a win over time, that’s for sure. I would see my job here not as that of a motivator but as that of the steward who’s focusing on the process rather than just on the outcomes.
It can, if that hasn’t happened already, help to just openly admit all of that. A culture of failure also starts with admitting where you’ve gone wrong (for you as the leader) and trying to find out how you can do better, all that without pushing the blame to the team. E.g. maybe you’ve pushed the team too hard and need to let off a bit to create more space to set up better experiments. A culture of failure starts at the top and trickles down.
🤲 On diversity and inclusion on high-performing teams
Q: What’s the best way to increase inclusion without losing momentum? (i.e. if everyone’s opinion is included in every decision, then a business will likely grind to a halt)
Mathias: First off, I’d say that most decisions are not of a magnitude that they should halt an entire business. Most decisions that happen in a business’s every day life have a small group of people who are impacted by themThe larger decisions that need to be made, then, have the benefit of not needing to be made in a rush. They do have time to stir, to sink in, and to gather perspectives.
The key to making sure that decisions, whatever the scope, have boundaries around them. If you leave important decisions open and unfinished for an infinite amount of time, then your business may indeed be grinding to a halt.
What are those boundaries?
- Time: How long do we keep this decision open for feedback and discussions? Depending on the scope and the number of people or teams or departments impacted, you may be looking at days, weeks, sometimes even months. A large strategic shift, for instance, likely isn’t something you want to rush out the door.
- People: Who needs to be heard for us to make this decision? It pays to be explicit here and to approach people who have a key interest or perspective on something, rather than say, push out a generic call for feedback and hoping that the right people will find it in time (as everyone’s busy with their own stuff, don’t count on this to happen)
- Impact: What is the scope of this decisions, who is impacted by it? The larger the scope, the more time you can leave for people to provide feedback and to keep a discussion going.
- Decision Prerequisites: Who gets to make the final call? Who must have weighed in before the decision is made? How does feedback need to be addressed before the final call is made (i.e. does every concern warrant a change or can it also be addressed with an explicit reason why it has been dismissed)?
That’s the kind of framework I like to use. What is important is that it’s clear what’s an acceptable turnaround for what kind of decision, and that decisions with a certain larger impact need to consider sufficiently wide sources of feedback.As a last note I want to point out that decision making is only one aspect of inclusion. An important one, but only one of them.
Q: How has the quest for increased diversity shaped the C-Suite experience?
Mathias: Some key things come to mind here:
- Executives needing to work on themselves, educating themselves, seeking coaching, seeking broader perspectives, avoiding becoming islands of top-down decision making, removing the buddy system in hiring (the easiest path is to bring in folks you’ve worked with at past job, which tend to be more folks like you, for better and for worse).
- Actively seeking feedback rather than relying on the grapevine. Being present and talking to everyone and not just the people reporting to you. Information tends to thin out as it moves further to the top.
- Being clear on context and why things are done. Transparency is a key tenet here and allows for the next point.
- Being open to be challenged and admitting when you’re wrong. Plus, actually improving to reduce the odds of that happening again.
- An openness to failure, both with yourself and your team (I guess more on this will be in the answer to another question).
- Learning, tinkering, debugging, influencing. Finding lots of little ways and things of how you can improve an organization without dictating and shifting course on a whim. A culture of experimentation, so to speak.
💻 On remote work and communication
Q: What artefacts/meetings do you recommend using for communicating a company’s current long, medium, and short-term goals?
Mathias: This depends a bit on how an organizations sets its goals. Using OKRs, KPIs, Scrum, or other, similar processes, determines a part of what artefacts you need and what meetings you have.
In general, it is a good idea to regularly review the goals and how you’re progressing against them, in an honest and candid way, without reprimand, so that you can learn what’s happening and what you can improve to be better in reaching your goals.In general, and especially for teams and organizations who are just starting out with goal setting, I recommend having these artefacts in place:
- Vision and mission of where you’re looking to go. (Long term)
- A concise strategy of what you’re doing to achieve those goals. (12 to 18 months)
- A set of key organizational objectives (3–5) that you’re trying to move the needle on. Ideally those are measurable, but I don’t consider that 100% important. You need to be able to discuss how and whether you’re progressing against them. (3–6 months)
That’s the short of it. I like simplicity, and I argue against using exact targets and goals in whatever frameworks you use, but I guess that’s a topic for a different kind of question.
🌱 On lessons from the leadership trenches
Q: What new skills did you have to learn? What are you still learning?
Mathias: Letting go of my own judgements and ideas of how something should be done. Whatever company they’re involved in isn’t mind to save. I’m only there to help them face the reality they’re in and find a way forward.
I’m still learning where I’m most helpful as a coach and how I work with the different personalities among my clients. Everyone requires a different approach, and coming up with those frameworks and tailoring them to the person is what I’m still working on, and I guess always will be.
Q: Is there anything you wish you’d known as a manager?
Mathias: I was lucky enough to start working with a coach myself as soon as I moved into the role of sole CEO full time, so I got a peek into the work early on in my management career. So I’m not sure I have many things now that I would look back on. My favourite tool has always been to ask questions, even though that can be frustrating to folks, even more so when they report to you and were hoping for a quick answer or decision. Asking questions seemed weird to many at the time, but they’ve come to appreciate it to help them unpack their own view of the world.
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