5 February, 2021
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This Focus episode, Daniel Rizea (Director of Software Engineering at Fitbit) and David Bizer (CEO & Founder at Talent Fountain) talk about how to identify, grow and scale tech leadership from small to big teams, and what are the most desired traits when hiring for senior tech roles.
Fitbit is a provider of health and fitness devices. The company’s platform combines connected health and fitness devices with software and services. Its platform includes a family of wearable devices which include health and fitness trackers and smartwatches, enable the users to view data about their daily activity, exercise and sleep in real-time. The company software and services which include an online dashboard and mobile app, provide users with data analytics, motivational and social tools, and virtual coaching through customised fitness plans and interactive workouts.
Daniel and David went behind the scenes and shared invaluable insights into where leadership stands on the tech management career ladder and outside of it. Here is a sneak peek into their discussion:
Watch the full discussion on our YouTube channel here.
Listen to the full discussion on Spotify and Apple Podcasts too.
3 takeaways from Daniel and David’s discussion:
►”But you can give him this chance at start and see how that works out. It’s also a matter of timing. I mean, waiting for the perfect candidate? You’re going to run out have money. I mean, you know, it’s unicorn! I mean, you’re never gonna get the perfect candidate. You have to get somebody that’s good enough. I have this kind of, let’s say, philosophy – smart and get things done. You’re going to empower him with this trust, and most likely he’s going to work out if you support them. And you just don’t throw him in the pond and let him swim by himself. ” Daniel, on hiring for potential and less for perfection, while providing the right kind of nurturing and support.
►”I remember myself, when I joined Google, a looong time ago. I think we were only about 10 people in the Paris office, and I bought the first coffee machine. You know, I said: ‘Look, you know, in California, they’ve got food and everything, we don’t even have coffee’. I’m like, hell, I’m gonna go buy the damn coffee machine. And, you know, you just whatever you need to do. To, like you said, get people together and make things happen. I think makes it makes a big difference.” David, on the small things that make a big difference in holding teams together.
►”Because those common values will be common ground. You can be in discussion, you know, a VP from Engineering can be in a discussion with VP from Product. One side will be interested on the technical capabilities and, let’s say, the stability of the systems; the other would be interested in growth, let’s say, OKRs. But they both can find that common ground if an OKR or a value would be ‘take care of the customer’, right? Then both can have that common ground and discussion, and say ‘Okay, then I’m going to compromise on my part. We’ll do the best for the customer.” Daniel, on the role of company culture and common values in the overall organisational functioning and efficient collaboration.
Are you more into Reading? The Full Transcript is below!
David: Hey, Daniel, how you doing?
Daniel: Hi, David. Great. How are you?
David: Good. Thanks! So we’ve got we’ve got an hour to talk about leadership in the technology functions, technology organisations. And I’ve got a lot of things I want to ask you, Daniel. You’ve had a really interesting career so far. And it’s just about to get more interesting, as I understand that you’re going to move to Google officially in a couple of days. So I’m sure you’ve got a lot to share. But maybe what we could start with is just having a general discussion about leadership, and what that means in technology. Because, you know, people talk about leadership, people talk about management, people talk.. We need to hire leaders, we need to develop leaders. But you know, how do you define leadership in technology? What does that mean to you?
Daniel: So David, I will not necessarily, you know, tie leadership only to the management role, because there’s multiple ways where you can be a leader in technology. Right? I’ve seen, in my career, brilliant ICs that had the ability to push large projects, and they hadn’t, you know, direct reporting ties to the people they work with. They were not, let’s say, empowered somehow, by the companies – all the people who are reporting into them. But they manage through their convincing power to share a vision of that project, to align everybody in pushing those projects forward. So just to get, you know, this common ground, I think that leadership stands more about pushing the vision and getting buy in from people and giving back to them. I mean, everybody kind of joins you in a quest, because there’s also something in it for them, right? And great leaders make this obvious to people. I mean, let’s, you know, join forces, and everybody gets better off in the end. I think that’s, that’s an important factor. And that’s something that, you know, managers can also use, and become great leaders. ICS can also use that thing, and also have those leadership skills where they are having a very powerful capacity of pushing things for organisations or doing things in startups. It doesn’t matter the size of the company, but the impact can be, you know, can be powerful.
David: So, so you you’ve been around for a while, you’ve seen different types of organisations. When did you feel personally that you have become a leader?
Daniel: My journey started, I’ll go back to the Vector Watch days, that were acquired by Fitbit, and that’s how, you know, the Bucharest Fitbit Office took place, with that acquisition. So at Vector Watch – you know, it’s a startup, there is a lot of stuff to do there. And somehow, I took it upon myself, Okay, I’m gonna do that. I’m gonna do that. I mean, from from a minute, I was, you know, doing architectures. The second minute I was ordering, you know, food, and making sure we have water and stuff like that, because it’s a startup. I mean, I didn’t mind. I mean, I just wanted the team to be successful. And I really didn’t mind what ever I was, you know, I was supposed to do. From doing architectures, from, I don’t know, ordering pizzas. I mean, that’s that. And this is something what, you know, great managers should do. I mean, get their team in a place, order pizza, and make sure the discussions are flowing. I mean, that’s how you get great ideas. But you know, in time, I’ve seen the fact that I was able to push ideas. I’ve seen the fact also that I was able to get things from my team. So, if you asked me back then if I would necessarily want to be a leader, I’m not sure what I would have answered. But I was definitely wanting my team to be successful. Everybody from.. it wasn’t even my team, we were all the same. I mean, they were not reporting necessarily to me, but I wanted everybody in Vector Watch to be successful, and that’s why I wanted to do whatever I could for that team to be successful. And I think things evolved from this. Leadership is also, you know, this ties also a bit to the management philosophy. It’s a, you know, servant leader model. I mean, you have to support your team. I mean, you’re doing things for the team and for the greater good. So back, back then, this is how something I think naturally evolved into this place. I mean, I was kind of the person that had to make sure the team is successful and everybody in it is successful.
David: It’s funny when you talk about doing whatever It takes and ordering pizzas. I remember myself, when I joined Google, a looong time ago. I think we were only about 10 people in the Paris office, and I bought the first coffee machine. You know, I said: ‘Look, you know, in California, they’ve got food and everything, we don’t even have coffee’. I’m like, hell, I’m gonna go buy the damn coffee machine. And, you know, you just whatever you need to do. To, like you said, get people together and make things happen. I think makes it makes a big difference. When you were starting out at Vector Watch, and you’re talking about, you know, making sure people are excited about it, getting people you know, together, did you feel like there were other people within the organisation who were also pushing you to be a leader? Do you feel like you were getting that kind of, you know, incentive, or, or direction?
Daniel: So I’ve got a lot of this, I mean, from, from a person that also was my mentor for a long time. So he is, he was the founder of Vector, his name is Andrei Pitis. So he mentored me through all of this, let’s say, through all of this journey. He kind of, he was the one that coached me and taught, me mentored me to management. So I was, you know, I was an IC when we started, when I started that Vector Watch. And he helped me understand the things, you know, the things that are on the management side. And also in time helped me scale. I mean, let’s say, have a bigger vision of being more ambitious. And, a very important thing, get things done. I mean, you’re not just talking about it. Because most of the time, I’ve seen this, you know, in every place, also, in startups that are mentoring, or in bigger organisations. A lot of people, you know, have a lot of ideas, talk about them, they’re good. But they don’t get them done. I mean, they don’t go all the way. And that’s, that’s a very important trait. I mean, in a startup, you’re building product, or you’re selling, I mean, there’s no in between. There is no talking. I mean, you have to sell or build stuff. So I had a mentor. And I think that’s important. I think it’s important for everyone that wants to, you know, go on this leadership path or management path, to get a mentor. It could be your manager, it could be somebody outside of your organisation, or your business unit, or even the company. But it’s good to have a mentor that can tell you how it is because it’s a mind shift. It’s a bit hard at the start, how to get that mental map. So you have to find somebody that has that mental map of what’s to be a good manager.
David: Hmm, I’m fascinated with mentors, okay? Or mentorship in general. You know, because so many people talk about it in startups, that’s the that’s the big deal, right? If you join an accelerator or programme – that they’re gonna get you mentors. So how did you get your mentor?
Daniel: It was also, I mean, it was also a necessity. I think Andrei needed me to up my levels. Not to be successful, I mean. But it was also something, I think we clicked – that’s important. We had some chemistry there. I mean, and it’s something – I think, also the mentorship model has to be laid on a relationship of trust. Otherwise, it’s not gonna work. Another factor that’s important is also proximity. You have to spend some time with that person. It’s like, you know, it’s like, you’re learning a new, let’s say, you’re learning new skills. You have to be in that proximity to kind of catch the nuances around it, because not everything can be told right now. I mean, things you know, you kind of have to steal the traits of the business. And that’s why also it helps with proximity around that. But I would say you have to have some chemistry there for it to work. I know, we had that chemistry from the start, and that was fantastic.
David: Totally agree on the chemistry. At the same time, have you done anything where you put mentorship programmes in place or build a structure that allows for mentorship? Because it’s not easy for anyone, or some people, to just say ‘Oh, I’m going to go find myself a mentor’. Right? So do you do something to promote that within your teams?
Daniel: I am pushing for that. It’s something a bit more informal. But, for example, when somebody is joining Fitbit, you get your manager that’s helping with onboarding. You also get a buddy that helps you know how to navigate around the new company, how to navigate around the processes, how to meet new people, because that’s also important. Somebody has to introduce you to a lot of folks. So this is not necessarily on the mentorship side. But from what I’ve seen things evolve naturally. In in a culture of trust and transparency, people will reach out to other people asking for help, people will engage and say ‘Hey, I’d really like to set some one on ones with you’. You know, just for me to understand things better. And people on the other side would be open to offer them. So I think the best thing you can do before doing, you know, the process and everything, make sure the culture is there, where people are okay to ask for these kind of mentoring sessions. Or it could be, not even, you know, you can just cannot say mentorship. I’m pretty sure most of the folks that are doing these kinds of sessions don’t even qualify them as mentoring session. They’re qualifying as ‘Hey, let’s grab a coffee, chat. Let me tell you about, you know, a thing that you can help me with, I want to pick your brain on that stuff’. It’s not even official, but the results are even better, or the same as it would be official. So yeah.
David: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So let’s let’s talk a little bit about hiring in general. Because I think this is an issue for big companies, small companies, startups, companies that have been around forever. You know, everyone talks about hiring, especially in engineering organisations, and how difficult it is because there’s limited supply. But also, there’s really a lot of talk around what makes a great hire, right? Now, this is a huge topic. So let’s talk about it in a couple of different different ways, right? First, I’m really interested in hiring senior people, so called senior people, into an engineering organisation. And what people need to think about when they decide ‘Okay, I’m going to hire a Director of Engineering, or a Head of Engineering, or a VP of Engineering’. You know, how do you start that process? How do you get to the point where you say ‘I need to hire this senior leader in our engineering organisation’?
Daniel: I think there are multiple factors there, and causes, for needing a you know, a senior leader. One of the most usual causes that I’ve seen in the space is from startups, right? They grow to a certain amount of, let’s say, a number of people, and from there, their productivity gets impacted. And nobody knows why. Okay, from you know, next day, you’re throwing 10, or 15 more people into the mix, and your productivity is not going higher, but is going lower. Why? Because it’s a bit of chaos. I mean, the chaos that kind of propelled the startup in the first day, because they have to iterate fast, they have to find product market fit, they have to figure it out. Otherwise, they’re gonna run out of money. If you’re going to put processes on top of it, it’s not necessarily going to be helpful. But they’re reaching a certain point where you need some structure, you need some order into it, to advance further and to scale. I think that’s the place where some companies are thinking about bringing some, let’s say, more senior talent that ‘been there, done that’, right? Because that’s what they’re bringing to the table, that can help the organisation grow. And it may be the fact that organisation also has to grow globally. And that talent or the the requirements of how to scale an organisation with offices that are remote and unnecessary in one place, like it was in the early days of a startup, has changed. And that’s when you look for those leaders, to bring their value in how to grow and how to scale. So I think that’s, that’s a case. And that’s interesting. And I think we should talk about one. Now, apart from, let’s say, the no know hows, I mean, if you’re looking for somebody that knows how to scale from 15, or 30 people, to 100 plus people, then that’s your target. You know exactly the individual. Let’s say you know what things you have to ask from from that skill set. But what you have to be careful is also for that person to share at least the basic cultural values of the existing team. Because you don’t want to bring somebody and you know, for everybody else to leave. You want to bring somebody that will be able to help grow the existing team. So they have to have a common language, you know, the 90 day plan. That leader will have to prove some stuff in 90 days. So you will have to get somebody from those people. And it’s a lot on also his strategy. I will go for somebody, you know, I will actually ask him this in the interview ‘Come on, you got the job. 90 days. What do you want to accomplish? And how do you want to accomplish it?’ Because that’s also important. And that’s something that I’ll be very careful about. The next thing that I’ll be very careful about is, as you said, I mean, I would like to bring in a leader, not just a manager. So I would like to see his vision. So I would like me, let’s say I’m a founder, or I’m somebody with a very high decision making power in this hiring process. I would like to get a bit inspired by that person and his vision. I would like him to bring a fresh breath inside the organisation, new views, things that are novel, but are still aligned from a cultural perspective with the team that’s there. I mean, you cannot, if, you know, the team did some things – I mean, they were not necessarily agile – but they were iterating fast. And somebody brings agile. That’s a mix, I mean, that’s a match, right? It’s just a bit of process to do a bit more, but it’s still agile, it’s not waterfall. If the team, you know, a startup team, they were not using necessarily a process, and you bring somebody that brings waterfall. You know, it could work from some organisations, but not for a startup. That’s a wrestler. And he has to be authentic. I mean, he has to be authentic. He has to be trustworthy in his organisation. Because otherwise he’s not going to be able to scale. People will have to trust him, and he has to gain the trust of those people. And I’d be interested in how he’s gonna do that, in an interview.
David: Yeah. So you said something that I actually wrote, in my notes, preparing our talk today. You said ‘been there, done that’. And this is something that I think about a lot. And in fact, you know, I placed a candidate , not a VP of engineering, but a VP of professional services recently, with a company, and I was so happy that they hired someone who hadn’t had the ‘been there, done that’, or at least all of it, right? The guy came from kind of a different sector, different type of businesses, different types of management. But they said, you know, this is a smart guy, and he’s going to figure it out. He’s going to learn what he needs to learn about our business and our way of working, and he’s going to make an impact. So what do you think about that in engineering? Because, you know, so many times people say, I want everything that we’re going to face going forward to come in this package that you’re going to find me, right? So, you know, you mentioned the scaling bit. So if your company is going to scale from 30 to 60, does that mean you’ve got to hire someone who’s already been to 60? Because if not, how are they going to do it? How do you look at this, this concept of ‘been there, done that’ and what’s necessary when you hire?
Daniel: I think, as you said, I mean ‘been there, done that’, but not entirely, right?Because also the candidate that’s coming in, he has to feel a challenge, right? Because if it’s actually ‘been there, done that’, it’s nothing that he gets out of it. He’s not going to be that, you know, like he deserves to join. He also has to get something out of it, joining the startup. Maybe, as you said, from 30 to 60, he may be ‘been there, done that’. But from 60 to 200, he hasn’t, right? And he can get that opportunity to do it. And what you’re talking about is also hiring a lot of potential. And I’m a very big fan of it. You know, I have colleagues, there are pros and cons. I’m a very big fan of potential and believing in people .And every time I gave somebody the chance to prove themselves, they did it. I don’t think I have a failure in this disregard. So I honestly believe in this potential, and it’s pretty hard to assess it. Right? It’s pretty hard to respond. And that’s, I think, the most challenging part. Because potential, it’s difficult. He’s gonna prove it after she’s joining. Right? It’s in the fact of how that person talks about it. If he’s very passionate about it, if he truly shows interest, he will go the extra mile. You have to understand, and this is, again, a hard one, you have to understand his motive. So why is he doing that? And if it’s for the right motives, definitely, you know, give the person a chance. But it’s a risk, it’s a risk that you have to assume yourself. I mean, it may be that the future of the startup, you know, kind of falls into that, but you can mitigate it somehow. Maybe he’s not going to be the head of all engineering. In case it doesn’t work out, he just, you know, go with one of the departments, and then you can raise another, somebody internally on the other department, and then get another person on top of it. But you can give him this chance at start and see how that works out. It’s also a matter of timing. I mean, waiting for the perfect candidate? You’re going to run out have money. I mean, you know, it’s unicorn! I mean, you’re never gonna get the perfect candidate. You have to get somebody that’s good enough. I have this kind of, let’s say, philosophy – smart and get things done. You’re going to empower him with this trust, and most likely he’s going to work out if you support them. And you just don’t throw him in the pond and let him swim by himself. If you support them, and it depends on the degree of support, I think it’s gonna work work out. I mean, I’m pretty on hiring for potential.
David: Okay, great. And you said, you have to understand people’s motives. And one of the things in motives that I try to understand is, you know, what place do titles take in people’s decision making? So for example, you know, a startup, you probably have a co-founder, who’s the CTO. And at some point, you decide to hire a VP Engineering or a Head of Engineering. Do you think that people look at these opportunities and say: ‘Well, if I can’t be the CTO, then I don’t want this opportunity’. Or, you know, ‘I need to be called a VP Engineering instead of a Head of Engineering’. You know, there seem to be plenty of people out there who are really worried about those titles, and not that that’s a negative thing, right? They’re worried about them, because they see it as part of their career trajectory. And that the next thing on their CV should be a level up, because, you know, that shows they’re making progress. But have you encountered anything like that? Or do you see it as an issue within within startups, where people are focused a little too much on titles?
Daniel: Even in the startup early days, I mean, when I was at my first startup ‘Pollution Track’. I was talking, me and my team, it was just me and another two guys. I mean, in a startup, you want to look bigger from the outside than you actually are. Because you want to be able to get the a lot of buzz, a lot of press, a lot of, you know, marketing around, and it depends on the person. I mean, I agree that there are people that are more hanging to the titles. But, you know, being a VP and coordinating only a team of three engineers, is not necessarily a VP. I mean, even if you’re going with that title, it’s also important about the work that you’re doing, right? And the impact that you’re getting. You could be a VP of three engineers and bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, and then okay, you’re doing something right. Or you can be the VP of Engineering of a thing that hasn’t launched, and will never launch. It’s also about the results that you’re getting from those positions. And in the startup early days, you don’t kind of have a career ladder, right? You don’t kind of have this organisation. Everybody’s a software developer and contributing. Even the CEO and the CTO, at core, they’re software developers, if they’re software developers, having a technical background. So I will not get hanged up in the titles in the in the startup early days, because those are really not important. Just doing the the job and having success as a team with the product that you’re building. Which means, you know, getting the next round of investment, or launching the product, getting 10 key customers and so forth. Once in organisations, those are, let’s say, more structured. You have career ladders. Like, let’s say, we have at Fitbit, we have a dual career ladder, right. And I believe all healthy tech organisations should have dual career ladders. You can have the management ladder, and the individual contributor career ladder. Because, you also hear this from the industry, or at least in Romania, we hear this ‘Oh, so I topped out my IC, you know, career. I have to go to management’. Don’t go to management! If that’s your only reason, you’re gonna save yourself from a lot of pain and the team that you’re going to manage. So that’s a no no. Don’t go into management for the wrong reason. And on these ladders, let’s say their correspondence. I mean, you can be a manager, you can be an IC, you’re getting the same page, same recognition. You can be a technical leader, as we started talking, you can be on the management track or you can be on the IC track. You can report directly to the CTO, while a manager reports in a senior manager. You can be an IC, because of the impact that you are bringing, because of the value that you’re giving from a career level. Just to come back to this, I think more it’s about the value that you’re bringing to the table in your current company, for another company, when you’re interviewing, and not necessarily the title. Because this is going to be reflected in the interview. You’re going to get questions around the work that you have done, how much impact you brought there, and so forth. So I don’t believe that title is, you know, reflective of a person’s achievements. But I also agree that there are folks that are considering titles important. And again, you have to understand what that person you know, is driven by. And usually people that are joining, let’s say, later stage startups, are getting higher titles then they would get in a big company. That also, let’s say, a perk of joining a company. Which is fine. I mean, it’s fine. It’s how it is in the industry.
David: Yeah, for sure. So okay, so we’ve got these, we’ve been talking about these leaders, right, and what they’re made of. A big part of their role, at least in a healthy growing organisation, is hiring in ICs, or managers, or what have you, right? And a lot of these startups that are doing really well are having to hire a lot of people and fast. So what do you need to do as a leader to ramp up or to scale up your organisation? What kind of process do you need to put in place? And how do you start hiring for the team, or continue to hire for the team, at a rapid pace and ensure that you’re bringing in the kind of people that you want to bring in?
Daniel: So I can talk a bit, you know, from experience. So when Vector got acquired, the engineering team was around 15 engineers. For most of them, I was part of the interview process. So I hired them. In the Fitbit days, after the Fitbit acquisition, in about two, three years time, we kind of were approaching 300 engineers. So that’s, you know, that’s mostly kind of a 10x, more than 10x growth. It was not an easy road. I mean, there was a high growth part. I mean, in order to scale that those hiring processes we had to put a process in place that’s repeatable, right? I mean, growing the team from, you know, four or five engineers to 15, it’s not that difficult. I mean, you can make it without a very, you know, structured process. Because you’re kind of owning hiring, right? When you want to scale, you want to teach that process to other persons in the organisation. You have to make sure that you are aligned, and that your ideas of how to bring good talent are in the minds of the interviewers. I mean, they understand the principles. You still want to get diversity. Nobody wants to, you know, we don’t want to hire like us. We also want diversity in the team. But there are some principles that they have to kind of checkmark for them to get hired. Like the ‘no asshole’ principle, right? I don’t care how smart you are, I don’t care about your titles or what you’ve done; if you’re an asshole, you’re not a team player and you cannot work in a team. I prefer to say pass to that. So that’s an important principle I’m pushing for all my teams to hire. So it’s around also documentation, for example, we also have to align our hiring processes, right? Because we had to calibrate with our colleagues from Fitbit to see on their processes. So mostly, I was doing interviews, and I had shadows from my colleagues that will be starting doing interviews, observing me in the interviews. Then we were going to the debriefs, and I was also looking for their opinion, and we were getting aligned. I mean, we had a, let’s say, debriefing committee, from where we got the conclusions of that hire. And doing this multiple times, having some structure about the things that you’re asking, having the questions that you’re asking from the interview, having the nuance that you want to go for. Because in most of the cases, you’re not 100% interested to see if the candidate, you know, found out the answer. You’re also interested in the journey. Did he collaborate? Did he ask you something about it? How did he respond it to your heads, and so forth.. I mean, it’s not only the destination, it’s also the journey to where he got that answer. No brain teaser questions. Right? Because you either know the answer or you don’t. And it’s hard for candidates. I mean, they’re under pressure already, because they’re giving the interview. And if you ask them a brainteaser they may get blocked, or scared, or something like that. That’s not valuable. So that’s a major no no for interviews, in my opinion. And that’s how it is. You kind of grow others fot those roles, and train them how to grow others in their own turn. So you can get a team of four or five folks that are gonna start doing interviews in your place. They will shadow you. At a certain point you will have shadowed them. It’s like an interview training, right? And then how you scale is that they, you know, after they finish this, they will also grow other people, depending on the size that you want the organisation to grow to.
David: So, there’s a concept that I’m sure you’re aware of, and it’s been around for a long time, of the ’10x engineer’. And in fact, at the company you will be officially joining, one of the senior vice presidents of engineering at one time said ‘I would rather hire the number one graduate from MIT and pass on all of his 300 other classmates, because that person is going to have such a significant impact that that’s the type of person that I want to hire’. So what do you think about this 10x engineer, right? Or these people who supposedly we can hire, and they’re going to have such a massive impact that they’re going to change the course of the organisation.
Daniel: So I truly believe that the 10x, let’s say, myth is a playable in the industry. Is just not how we regularly think about it. We usually think about the 10x engineer as the engineer that writes code 10 times faster, right? Or have the, you know, 10 times fewer bugs or something like that, which is not necessarily true. In my experience a 10x engineer is somebody that understood the business problem, came up with a solution, even if it’s not something technically difficult, that got implemented, and he 10x-ed the revenue, right? It’s not necessarily that he wrote the code 10x faster, it’s the impact that he had on the business with his knowledge, that 10x-ed, right? Another way to think about that is not necessarily on business metrics, but on engineering metrics. Let’s say that everybody is using a specific technology. And that technology kind of costs developers 20 or 30% engineering time and effort due to support and other complexities. And an engineer comes and says ‘Let’s change that technology. This is a plan, that we can gradually migrate to that new technology. We’re not going to get necessarily a very big business impact, because we cannot stop everything and migrate. Because usually, that means no more features, no more revenue, no more new users’. And at the end, you know, after he coordinates and all the 20 engineers migrate from that technology, that’s a 10x improvement. And is the fact and his ability to coordinate, to get buy in for that solution, to get buy in from developers, to get buy in from business, implement it, that see it through, and you have a 10x input. So it’s possible, but not necessarily only how we think it – that person is going to write 10 times faster. It’s the business impact, it’s the ability for him to push an idea. It’s multiple things, and multiple people have different skill sets. Maybe some are more close to the business and can see business opportunities. Some are more collaborative, like to push, you know, greater projects. Where they have to get in touch with everybody from engineering convince them, sell that solution to them and have those, let’s say, migrations to other technologies or improvements getting done. So I believe in the 10x myth; not necessarily how we think about it in the industry.
David: Fair enough. So talking about, you know, 10x people.. I mean, in general, great engineering leaders are really focused on developing people on their teams. And it’s something that I think we hear more and more when we’re interviewing candidates or just talking to in particular younger people about what they want in a career, what they want in a company. One of the number one responses is always I want to learn, I want to develop, right? So how do engineering leaders make that happen? And how do engineering leaders develop individuals? And just as an addition to that you had mentioned, you know, the career ladders, with the IC ladder, the management ladder. But, you know, going further than those ladders, how do you ensure that your team is developing in a way that they feel that intrinsically?
Daniel: This also turns a lot into management, right? So the purpose of the manager, I mean, one of his responsibilities is to develop. I mean, it’s not optional. He has to develop his team. It’s mandatory for each manager to do this and to develop his entire team. And from another point, and that is the one on ones, he has to find out what everybody’s interested in, right? He is kind of a middleman. He has to understand the opportunities of the company, and the business side, and what folks are wanting to do, right? And do a match, a win win situation. Like, for example, somebody wants to learn a new programming language. And then, you know, the company wants to do a PoC and doesn’t find the engineers to jump on that PoC, a new language, to see its validity. You have to do the matching. I mean, oh, okay, go to the executive say, I have the person individual. Go to the individual, say, I found you this opportunity that I know you want. So I actually think that this is an ongoing process. It’s not necessarily about junior candidates. Junior candidates, you know, come to a company and say, I want to develop, I want to learn good things. What they should also do, in my opinion, is advertise what they’re bringing to the table. Because everybody now is coming and saying ‘I want to learn’. Ok, but what are you bringing? For a senior candidate, if he only comes and says, ‘I want to learn’. That’s okay, but what are you bringing to the table? We’re gonna give you a learning path, and so forth. But you have to also bring something to the table. And it’s also around the processes. For example here, at Fitbit, every manager has to have a written plan. Why he has to have a written plan? To make sure both parties are thinking about it. Not necessarily on the value of the document. I wouldn’t care less about the value of the document. But it’s important to write things down, right? For both parties. Because when you’re writing things down, you’re giving it mental headspace, about thinking of this. The individual is thinking about his career, and putting things in order. The manager is also thinking about how to help that person evolve in his career. So that’s, even if sounds very process oriented and heavy, that’s helpful. And I’m not talking about a 100 page document or so.. But having a common ground of where to lay that plan. It’s like a project plan. Usually, you’re going to hit a specific software project because you have a plan. And you’re going to hit those dates. And why not also have it for careers, because those are very important for us. Having that kind of a project plan, where you lay out the things that you want to learn and develop, and then the manager will be there to support you individually.
David: I like that a lot. When you talk about the senior people, and I hope they’re not saying too much ‘What am I going to learn?’ – at this at the same time, do you believe that senior people, leaders in the company, should receive some kind of, you know, very focused development opportunities? Whether that be coaching, or a particular type of training to address something that might, you know, help them get better? Because sometimes I feel like, you know, it’s all geared towards the more junior employees and, you know, how do we get these people trained up, and things like that. And we forget that senior people can also, you know, be really helped and improved through different kinds of development. What do you what do you think about that?
Daniel: I think that’s a great opportunity for those 10xs, right? Because you’re gonna find that in the senior people with small investments, right? Just give them some ideas or things to work on, and you can unleash that 10x potential. What I said right now, I mean, that’s, let’s say, it’s the responsibility of managers to grow people. That doesn’t stop once you’re a Director or a VP. You’re still a manager, and you’re still responsible to make sure that each one from your team has a growth plan that they want, and they like, and they vetted. I mean, it’s not necessarily enough for you to have a growth plan in your head. You have to communicate it, and align on it, and see that the other person shares it. Because it’s his plan, at the end of the day. It’s not your plan. So I think that’s an important item. I think there’s a lot of potential in organisations of continuing to mentor those people, and get them to new heights, where you can unleash that 10x. And also it depends on the person. I mean, it’s pretty dependent on the person per se. And why I’m saying this? Because I also believe in strengths based management, right? Somebody has some strengths. He’s not I mean, he’s not gonna be, you know, stellar on some of his weaknesses. But if you invest more on his strengths, you can get a 10x or 20x from those strengths more. And you may invest in his, let’s say, lower points until you get them to a average point. But you also have to align on that person’s goal. He may not want that average point to go to excellent, he may not be that kind of person. So you better invest more in his strengths, already, right? Somebody that’s pretty business focused, you give him even more visibility on the business side. You can give him even more good ideas on that part. For somebody that’s technical, you try to put them in more technical places where he can influence the organisation, and he can build on that part. Also covering the, you know, other parts that can help me to have a strong base, but not necessarily excel in those.
David: So, talking about the leaders and the development, how do you then as a leader, identify potential leadership within the organisation? So how do you see when someone has this potential? And then what do you do with that?
Daniel: So this is a good question. And I think it ties into how I went on this path. I started doing things outside my scope. For, I would say, a good reason. For helping the team overall be successful. So I kind of identify my success with the success of the team. And I didn’t, you know, care if it was pizzas or bringing water or, you know, getting office supplies or anything, because I cared more about the success of the team. I think is the same trait – people that are going outside of the normal scope, people that are trying to do more and wanting to do more than the, let’s say, the job description is. Those are good places for, you know, folks that will go into leadership. There is also another discussion, you know, you have one on ones with people, and they would say they would like to see how that opportunity is and then you explain it to them. You kind of get that mental map, right? I mean, okay, this is what is expected of you, if you want to go to the next level. To be a lead engineer, or to be a manager, or a senior manager or director. You kind of present them the outline, in case they don’t have that outline. So they have a starting entry point of how to see if they like it or not; it could work out, it could not work out. And once you identify them, and most likely, all the time, it has to be something they want to try out. In my opinion, if they don’t want to try it out, it will not work. And if they also want to try out, you have to find the opportunities for them to try that out, in a safe environment. This is how usually also the transitioning from let’s say, an IC role goes into management. You kind of gradually give them more and more responsibility around the team, without necessarily pointing him as the manager from day one. He sees it, the team kind of also senses a bit. You also have to do a bit stakeholder management, getting inputs, bounce ideas. Be very careful, maybe somebody else wanted to be a manager from that team. Know the environment where you’re setting that person, so you don’t set them up for failure, you have to set them up for success. And you kind of put in, let’s say in six months, you’re going to reassess it. You’re gonna see how the team perceived that person, how he’s handling things. And if he wants to pursue further and go to management. He may not. It may be the case that he will like to go back into an IC role. And I had that case, which is fine. Very good for folks to understand what they want to do and what brings them joy.
David: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Okay, so, let’s switch it up a little bit and talk about culture. Okay. More and more, and I think it’s kind of boomed over the last year, and has something to do with the pandemic. You know, everybody’s talking about culture. Is so important. Meanwhile, I think that it’s been important for a long, long, long time. But it’s great that people are thinking about it more now. So, what is the role of leadership in particular technology leadership, in driving culture? And is there a separate culture within engineering? So, you know, within the organisations that you’ve worked with, would you say the company has a culture and then we have our own engineering culture. Think I’ve just asked you about five different questions in one, but..
Daniel: I mean, you know, if I’m not answering one maybe please bring me back on track. In a startup, I mean, you cannot have separate cultures, because you’re a handful of folks that are building a project. I mean, you’re gonna fail miserably if you don’t kind of share the same values. I mean, it’s kind of for a given in a startup, I would say, that’s the, you know, everybody shares the common culture. Which, in most cases, for startup, folks cannot even articulate it. They have to think about it. But if you speak with them individually, you will get the same principles from everybody. Because that’s why they’re there. Right, they’re there for the product. They’re there for the, let’s say, late nights that you’re spending at the office, and working, and socialising. At Vector, I think the most important thing, material important thing, that was in the culture side, was the ping pong table. But that was a place where you would play ping pong, get to know each other, eat pizza on the ping pong table, because it was a small place. I mean, we were doing a lot of things on that ping pong table. We still got that ping pong table when we moved to Fitbit. So we still have the ping pong table. In bigger companies, I think culture is also very important, but it can get out of control. You have to be very careful when you’re growing, right? We had a thing that we wanted to keep under control, when we grew from, let’s a 20 – 30 organisation to 300, here in the Fitbit office. We had to make sure that we’re kind of keeping the culture that we had, right? I mean, we have to make sure that we’re bringing in diverse people, but they share our fundamental values. Like trust, like openness, like transparency, and so forth. So we kind of also fit that into the interview process, you know? Something like no jokes allowed. I mean, everybody has to be nice and to collaborate. That can be in an interview process. So you can get folks that are coming in. Transparency, right? Maybe you don’t know from where people are coming in, right? From what organisations and how the culture was there. But if you have a critical mass, like we had, we were talking freely. I mean, everybody was challenging everybody. And people that are joining see that and automatically kind of pick up and do the same. Even if you, let’s say, at your previous company, it was not okay for you to contradict your boss in any way, anytime, not necessary in public, but also in private. And you see that, that those things are happening, and people are challenging, and bouncing questions openly and freely, you also think about ‘Okay, so this is different. I can do those things right?’. On the upper side, I mean, if you have a bad culture, and you’re bringing good people, and that’s the critical mass, most likely those people are also starting to take on those bad habits. So the nucleus is very important to be right. Then if you figure that out, then you have to be careful when you’re scaling. So don’t lose those values. And you should be okay. I believe it’s best to have a company culture. A company culture it’s like, you know.. I’ll get into another topic. A lot of folks have different opinions on this, you know, corporate values and KPIs. And most in the industry think about them as a joke, or they don’t see their places there. Right? I see that that’s false. Because the corporate goals and the corporate values are things that, at the core, are the things from the culture. Paying attention to customer feedback, right? Challenging together, embracing challenges.. Those are, I just enumerated some of our corporate values, but those are the things that bring people together. Common values bring people together. And for you to be a team you kind of have to share those common values. Because those common values will be common ground. You can be in discussion, you know, a VP from Engineering can be in a discussion with VP from Product. One side will be interested on the technical capabilities and, let’s say, the stability of the systems; the other would be interested in growth, let’s say, OKRs. But they both can find that common ground if an OKR or a value would be ‘take care of the customer’, right? Then both can have that common ground and discussion, and say ‘Okay, then I’m going to compromise on my part. We’ll do the best for the customer’. The other party would say the same ‘Okay, then I’m going to compromise on my part. We’ll do the best for the customer’. So I think it’s very important to kind of have the same culture. You know – big principle items, I mean, not not the small things. Maybe we in Engineering like ping pong, and the folks at marketing like play basketball. Whatever. I mean, that’s okay. We encourage, you know, also the diversity and the diverse methods. But on the bigger things, we have to have alignment. From transparency, from feedback, the ability to give, you know, constructive feedback, that’s more individual, to praise publicly, and so forth. I mean, those are kind of things that make a company great, in my opinion.
David: And so, you know, you talked about Fitbit having something like 300 engineers..
Daniel: Fitbit Bucharest. I mean Fitbit as a whole has a lot more.
David: Okay. So in your, in your domain, talking about 300 engineers, that means there’s several layers of management – directors, managers, I guess. So how are those directors and managers held accountable for making that culture, you know, breathe, or, you know, making it a part of it every day?
Daniel: There’s multiple ways of scaling. I mean, this is mostly scaling it with management, right? And it’s a stepping stone, taking it from 15 engineers. There’s a different stepping stone for 15 engineers. You can have one manager, you can be the manager, and you can have a licence. It’s hard, because you have to do one on ones, you have to make sure everybody has a plan. I mean, mostly there, you’re not doing any more technical developments, you’re just doing management and some of the vision. And you leave the technical side for the engineer, which is great. A manager should give the technical side up, if he’s a new manager to his engineers, and help them. Then, there’s the next layer. I mean, okay, how are you gonna scale to more managers, you have two grow managers from within the team, in case there’s folks or persons that showed that interest, that they want to go into management, and then you do that mentoring and coaching. Or you have to hire outside managers, which, that’s also challenging. I mean, you have to make sure you’re getting a good fit. Because if you’re bringing a bad manager, then most likely the team is not going to be fine. People are going to be leaving. You know, the same – people are leaving managers, and not companies. So you have to be careful there. And let’s say you’re going to the place where you have around 80 people. That’s my case. You then have to have multiple layers of management. I mean, you have to have multiple managers. It’s still workable to have only one there. Then you’re going to the level of my boss that has an organisation of around two 200 – 300, with multiple directors that have multiple managers, senior managers, that them also have managers. And that’s where the challenge is, right? The question is how do you make sure all of your managers are doing the right things. And there are multiple tricks into this. One is on the processes side, right? If you kind of ask for that documentation of the plan for development.. You have to look at the things that really count, right? You have to say, I want everybody in my engineering to know that they have a plan here, a development plan. What’s in it for them, if they’re staying, how they will grow. And you can ask for that document, you know? The document just shows you that thought has been put and the discussions have happened. And that’s how you make sure that that discussion happened there. Then you also have to be very open and transparent. You have to take the polls, right? You have to have some skip levels, from time to time. You have to have roundtables with the engineers. I mean with the folks that are actually doing the work because when you’re going up and up in management, you’re more closer to the business than actually to the technical side. And you still have to be in contact with the technical side. Even if you’re not very great technically, you have to have great engineers that you can talk with and understand the problems in the ground, as to say. So you can scale through processes, and make sure things are happening, right? You kind of take that DNA, ‘I want everybody you know, to have a growth plan’, and you think about how to make sure that it happens all in the organisation. One would be you know, making sure that that discussion happens, and making time for it. You want to make sure about that transparency. It starts with you. You have to have the roundtables, you have to have that those one on ones, you have to make yourself available for people to reach out to you, and talk with everybody. And, if you’re transparent, your managers will be transparent, people will be transparent. It’s kind of a cascading effect. If you’re not transparent, then it kind of, you know, stops with you.
David: Yeah, sure, sure. All right. So listen, we’re starting to watch the clock. Because I know you can’t talk to me all day, even though, you know, that would be fun. I want to talk about innovation, and specifically how leadership supports innovation, right? I mean, we could talk about startups, you can talk about big companies, everybody wants to be innovative, right? I mean, that’s the idea, right? But how do leaders in technology support innovation?
Daniel: I’m glad you brought this up, I think a startup has to be innovative by definition. Otherwise, they’re not doing something new. They’ll have a very hard time pushing their products to customers. Big companies want to stay and be more innovative, because otherwise they’ll be put out of business by the startups that are getting that innovation. And it’s kind of the Holy Grail, everybody wants it. I believe it has to do a lot with environment, from my experience. You have to make sure that people are talking. You’re not going to get innovation from processes. I’ve seen this pitfall in big companies. ‘Hey, we have this process, and we’re very innovative’. No. Innovation starts with people. The maximum you can do with processes is to capture that innovation and fit in a channel for the executives to know and to put on their roadmap. And I have some examples that could work for some companies. I’ll get into them. But first, I want to say the underlying, let’s say things, that I think are important. The first one would be the environment, it has to be an environment of trust. If I’m scared somebody is going to steal my idea, and I’m going to not get recognition for it, I’m not going to say it. So if everybody holds on to their idea, because somebody is going to steal it, you’re not going to have a lot of innovation. The second one would be collaboration. You have to, you know, talk with a lot of people that are not necessarily in your team; are in the outside teams, right? The, let’s say, the more innovative projects that I’ve been involved in, started as a water cooled conversation, or grabbing a beer at a Happy Friday event. Because I was getting the perspective from somebody that’s not necessarily in my team. Because in my team, I’m very up to date with what is happening there. But I was getting the perspective from somebody that’s in Business, and has a specific problem, or is in Marketing and has a specific problem. And we, as engineers, are in the job of solving problems and coming up with solutions. So it’s a very important funnel to be there. And I think, also, it’s a lot to do with proximity. And sadly, with, you know, the pandemic and everything that happened in the last year, this was kind of robbed from us – the ability to not be in person, doing brainstorms in a specific room. This is something that kind of impacted startups, because that was about the startup – everybody in a room, taking decisions at the moment, moving very fast. And I think that we’re a bit more less innovative due to this matter. It’s much harder to come up with good ideas and brainstorm over Zoom, or over Skype, or over whatever virtual environment. Is much more easy to do them in person. And that’s those big corporate budgets for flying, and getting everybody, from time to time, together – that’s what they’re for. For people to get to know each other better, to trust themselves, you know, build trust amongst them, to work better, and, who knows, come up with great ideas. And I was talking about the processes that we also have in place to capture that innovation, just to tell them for sure. We have, you know, time for everybody in the company to build their own ideas. We call them hack-bits. So they’re two days where diverse teams, you know, engineers, with product design, get together and build an idea. Those ideas don’t get left like that. I mean, then we have you know, the CEO, the VPs, the Execs look at those ideas and say ‘Hey, that’s a good idea. Let’s put it on the roadmap’. And that’s a funnel of capturing innovation from the employees and putting in on the business line. And mostly, you will get very good and bright ideas. You will not have thought of them as a Product or a VP, you may discard them as impossible, until you see the PoC, right? And then that’s happened. Another way to foster that information or that water cooler conversation is, you know, we had a Happy Friday event. I’m saying we had a physical event where we all got in the cafeteria, shared some snacks, a drink, and talk about whatever. And most likely, people will be talking about different issues, and good ideas can come from that. So I was actually talking with somebody that was a product manager in San Francisco. And he was telling me that ‘Daniel, that’s the most important period of my working part, because I’m speaking to a lot of people there, and I’m getting the best ideas from those two hours on Friday’. So he was saying that’s when I’m getting most of the work done.
David: Okay. So I wanted to ask you also, you know, you bring up this point about how all the, not all the innovation, but innovation happens with proximity. Okay. And over the past year, we’ve been a little bit stuck when it comes to getting together. So do you think that we have to wait for this all to be over, and everybody get back to the office, before we’re going to see the kind of innovation that you believe happens with proximity? Or do we need to make adjustments it? Where are we going with this right now? Because there’s so much talk about ‘Okay, well, remote is the new thing, it’s here to stay? You know, it’s great’. What do we do now?
Daniel: So this is a hard one. I’m not necessarily saying that, you know, no innovation can happen. Is just that innovation has been impacted. And this is my personal opinion. And I think, sadly, I think that if this is a mechanism that we’ve built throughout centuries – the fact that we have to be close to each other. Because, you know, video conferencing is, I don’t know, 40 something years, 30 something years.. I mean, mostly with the internet, it got mainstream, right? But till then we have to be in each other’s proximity. We have to be a tribe, we had to put our minds together in the same proximity. If this is hardwired in our human beings it’s not going to change that fast. Yeah. So that’s the only that’s the only issue I’m seeing. I mean, it’s an hypothesis. But if it does change is not going to change that fast. I also go a bit into philosophy. I mean, there was a philosopher, Michael Polanyi, that said ‘we know more than we can tell’. The fact that we’re in each other’s proximity, somehow, we cannot say why, but more ideas are coming. I sense that myself. I don’t know if you have sensed that. I cannot say why, I cannot articulate it. I don’t know what’s happening. But I got more ideas, just being in proximity, just being with a certain group.
David: All right. So, Daniel, I’ve got one more question for you. If you could look back in time, say, you know, 10 years ago, what’s something that you wish somebody would have told you that would have helped you in your role as a leader in engineering technology today?
Daniel: So at the beginning, I mean, I got this feedback. Not at the start, you know, I wanted, I was entertaining the idea of being, of going on this leadership path, of going into management. And I started reading a lot of management books, on the processes, on the one on ones, you have to do this, you have to do that.. And at a certain point, I mean this is why it’s good to have a mentor, I kind of read all the great books. Top 30 management books, essentials, you know, ‘The Hard Things About Hard Things’, ‘High Output Management’ – Andy Grove, the works, right? And I was looking for more, I mean, I was sensing that I’m missing something and I didn’t know what. And I asked him and said ‘Hey, recommend me a very good management book’, and he told me ‘Why?’. ‘Because I want to be good in management’. And then he told me ‘You have to understand people. I would more recommend you a philosophy book or a history book, than a management book, at this point.’ Not to say that those books are not important, but to you know, to complement those books and readings, you will also have to understand people. And to understand people – history, philosophy; there are some ancient themes there that they’re worth reading.
David: Absolutely. I find that fascinating, and I totally agree with you. You have to understand people and that’s what comes first. So I guess we’re out of time. So Daniel, I just want to thank you for for joining me today, and having this great discussion about leadership and technology. And also want to thank How to Web for hosting. And I hope we get to meet someday and talk more over beers, because I totally agree with you. Proximity makes things happen.
Daniel: Thank you. Thank you, David! It definitely does.10
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