Awesome People - Ep 48

Engineering, team leadership, operational excellence

Hi founders and fellow VC Friends!

Each week we deliver one awesome person to your inbox. These are the people you need to know—the marketers, sales gurus, engineers, ops wizzes— who give your startup superpowers 🚀. The best part is, everyone is hireable on a part-time basis.

Please meet Saminda, your Engineering Advisor 🖥

Saminda comes highly referred by Tracy, one of our Talent Accelerator alumni. They worked together at Box and she raves about him. When I met Saminda, I was immediately impressed by his thoughtful and compassionate approach to leadership. He recently left Box after 7 years of scaling engineering and running their Apps Engineering org. His teams at Box owned the entire user experience for 50M+ users spanning 100K enterprises. 

Before Box, he was at Pixar and Amazon. Fun fact, he developed the software pipelines used to make Academy Award-winning feature films like Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. How cool is that?! 

He’s loved by his teams and organizations. Today he pays it forward by advising technical leaders at high-growth companies. His sweet spot is companies with 20+ engineers. 

You can hire him to coach engineering leaders on people management, operational excellence, hiring and performance, strategic planning, and scaling teams. 

Want to level up your engineering org? Respond to this email and I’ll connect you with Saminda!

Saminda shared 3 tips to build awesome engineering teams ✨

Notably, these apply to all teams, so keep reading even if you’re non-technical like me 😊 

Organizational intelligence is a leader’s secret weapon

EQ refers to Emotional Intelligence. The importance of EQ in leadership can't be overstated. The Carnegie Institute of Technology showed that 85% of financial success is due to personality and skills like communication, negotiation, and leadership. Only 15% is due to technical ability. In other words, skills related to emotional intelligence are crucial.

Those same emotional intelligence skills extended into what I call organizational intelligence, or OQ. An organization behaves like a person —it has a history, biases, often contradictions, fears, and aspirations. 

OQ is self-awareness at an organizational level. You need to scale your EQ across your organization. How? Cultivate trusted nodes up, down, and across your organization. Trusted individuals provide honest insights into how your group is feeling and behaving. They provide a real-time pulse on your organization.

Meet with individuals regularly and encourage candid conversations. Your openness and humility as a leader will encourage your team’s vulnerability.

Hire for character, not just competency

The best teams are filled with highly competent individuals who have strong character. How’s character different from competency? 

Competency is the level of skill or experience someone possesses in a respective domain, for example, product, engineering, marketing, or sales.

Character is the possession of the most valuable personality traits — integrity, tenacity, honesty, fairness, humility, and empathy — to name a few.

A team with strong character pulls together during adversity. There’s team trust, resiliency, and enduring identity.

Google has studied top talent and concluded that personality traits separate the best from the rest. Not IQ, schooling, or technical expertise. Both Amazon and Google favor behavioral interviews over traditional interviews.

How do you interview for character? Start with a question that describes a challenging situation to see how they handled it. True character reveals itself during adversity. 

For example, if I were interviewing an Engineering Manager, I may ask, "Tell me about a time where you had unclear product requirements and you had to translate them into a technical execution plan.” Then I’d ask questions to understand their behavior. The traits exposed during challenging situations, like grit, ultimately comprise an individual's character.

Maintain speed at scale by minimizing abstraction and latency

As you scale, it’s harder to execute fast. It’s often unclear who makes decisions and there’s a desire for consensus. 

There are two less obvious reasons why execution slows:

  1. Abstraction

  2. Latency

In organizations, abstraction refers to how far you are from the issue. If there are many levels between you and the issue, you're abstracted vertically.

If you're separated by different business units, you're abstracted horizontally.

Abstraction kills execution because you don’t have a true picture of what's happening. You rely on information filtered through multiple levels and it’s harder to reach the right conclusions. 

Use your network of trusted nodes to help peel back the layers of abstraction. 

Latency is the other silent killer of execution. Latency happens because communication channels scale non-linearly = n(n-1)/2.  In a team of 5 engineers (n=5) you have 10 communication channels. Double the number of engineers (n=10), and now you have 45 communication channels!

In scrum, you solve for latency with a daily standup. Everyone attends at the same time and shares their state. The engineering leadership team at Box synced daily. We moved much faster as a result. At Pixar, we used the same tactic. To course correct a feature film, we added a daily sync between the technical and film production leads.

The next time something goes wrong, I encourage you to ask yourself: do you and your team have the same current state? Is anyone lagging that's causing churn and delays? 

Want an intro to Saminda? Respond to this email and I’ll connect you!

As always, let me know if you have any questions and if you want an intro to any of the folks in this email (including the PS section 🎉).

Stay awesome,

Julia Lipton

Founder of Awesome People and Awesome People Ventures

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Welcome to the PS Section 🔥

Saminda had so many goodies that I couldn’t fit them all. Here’s his last pro-tip on operational excellence 🚀

Startups often think operational excellence is reserved for large companies. This is a mistake. When you ask engineering leaders if they care about constantly improving, the answer is always yes. That’s what operational excellence is really about -- building lasting habits and a solid foundation to power greatness.

Start with a simple habit like post mortems. After any incident that negatively impacts the customer experience:

  • Define the negative customer impact

  • Build a clear timeline of events

  • Conduct an objective analysis pointing to the root cause

  • Generate a set of remediations to prevent reincidence

While scaling a startup involves an inevitable amount of fire fighting, intelligent scaling involves fireproofing. 

Most Recent Awesome People 🙏

Kenni - Diversity coach and people ops leader. You can hire her to build and implement DEI recruiting and culture strategies. You can also hire to work with your people leaders to improve their leadership and communication skills.

Elizabeth - Executive performance coach. She comes highly recommended by Atlas, one of the top founder coaching companies that I trust. Elizabeth works with founders to lead less stressed, more sustainable lifestyles, and widen their definitions of success.

Jason - Fundraising coach. He's a trusted advisor in the LA startup community and Silicon Valley Bank’s go-to-partner for fundraising coaching.

Want intros to anyone here? Lmk and I’ll connect you!

❤️ ❤️ ❤️