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Spotlight on Engineering Team Building: Lessons learned from Algolia

First published May 2, 2019  

Team building is top of mind for any start-up founder or exec. Recruiting and retaining top talent is even more challenging for software engineers.

To get an insight into how successful start-ups approach team building, we spoke to Sylvain Utard, employee number 1 and VP of Engineering at Algolia, an Accel portfolio company. Algolia is transforming the search and discovery experience that businesses can offer their users online, managing over 50+ billion search queries a month for enterprise customers including WeWork, Zendesk, Twitch, and Stripe. Algolia has been doubling YoY since we invested in 2015 and has now more than 300 people, including 90 engineers.

We asked Sylvain to share his secret tips with us.

How do you attract talent as an enterprise start-up?

Sylvain: Because we don’t have the visibility of a consumer brand or a well-established enterprise company, we focus on what differentiates us. The first is culture. From the very beginning, our founders Nicolas and Julien talked about building a culture-first company, and for us, it provides a way to both attract and assess candidates. 

The second is to demonstrate the reach of the product. Almost all of the tools, especially technical ones, that engineers use are customers of Algolia. That is a very powerful statement.

How do we get these messages across? We make sure the hiring managers are involved in the entire recruitment process, from sourcing candidates and selling the company. Not only does it ensure that we get across what the company is about in an authentic way, it also gives our teams visibility and input into the process.

In parallel, it is essential to tap into the widest possible talent pool. Many prevalent recruitment tools, including LinkedIn, tend to produce a pipeline of mostly male candidates - our experience is that the response rate is 40-60% among men, compared to 10% with women. We work to broaden our reach, through initiatives including meetups for female developers at our offices and pro-active reach-out to women. We also over-hauled the language used in job specs and other communication to remove typical male tech stereotype words such as free beer and a desire to hire “ninja’s”.

What are your top tips for assessing technical competence?

Sylvain: For entry-level engineers, this is quite straightforward and includes both technical interviews and home assignments. We’ll also want to look at someone’s previous work, and what they’ve been posting on GitHub (or Dribble for designers).

With manager level candidates, it’s important to recognise that they may have become one step removed from development work. To compensate, we ask them to conduct a mock interview, as if they are themselves interviewing a prospective new member of the team. This gives us a good impression of both their own technical knowledge, and how they would assess and coach that of others.

Retention is a big challenge for every growth company. What’s your approach to extending the life-cycle of your engineering team?

Sylvain: Onboarding is a crucial part of turning a good hire into a great team member. At Algolia, it includes sales call shadowing (because engineers need to understand how to sell the product, as well as build it) and a specific project that will be completed in the first 2-3 weeks, giving new hires an early opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

You also need to show people how they can grow their career at your company. This is best achieved by pushing decision-making power down the hierarchy, to keep your rising stars challenged and motivated.

Today’s talent expect flexibility and, as a company, you need to be responsive. In developing our remote working policy, we have spent a lot of time thinking about everything from the communications tools we use (no more whiteboards!) to the question of how client data will be accessed. Because our product is reasonably complex and requiring a good level of support, we find it beneficial to have people working closely together at least some of the time.

There has to be acceptance that retention is never total, however; People will eventually leave, and that doesn’t necessarily mean your system is at fault.

Finally, what’s your approach to team structure and management?  

Sylvain: Your teams need to change as your company does. We now operate a squad model, where our engineers are grouped into smaller teams dedicated to one specific task. There are currently over 20 squads, across products and focus areas from APIs to analytics. This model gives you focus, but you also need to work on connectivity between squads, for times when you want to make horizontal improvements across the entire product range.

Over time we’ve also come to recognise the importance of having enough management layers in place. At one point, I was line-managing 25 engineers and it became clear we needed an engineering manager to help the teams prioritise tasks and maximise productivity. At this stage, your role as the manager’s manager becomes important, offering a sounding board and helping them to learn and evolve in their role.

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Thank you, Sylvain, for sharing your wisdom. Building a great team is something that requires care and precision at every stage, but it is worth every minute invested. It is one of the most important success factors for a start-up.