Build a Founding Engineering Team from Scratch

Building a founding engineering team from scratch

In Sep 2019, I joined Trace Data, a seed stage startup on API security based in the Bay area, to head the engineering org. Although I have built and grown teams before, building a founding engineering team from zero is quite different. In this article, I share some of my experiences and learnings. And hope it is helpful to other engineering leaders before you start your journey at an early stage startup.

The Initial Plan

We like to build a great engineering team, a propelling engine that is capable of pushing the company in its long journey to IPO. We like engineers to have strong ownership, high productivity, bias for actions, deep tech expertises, and work with great collaboration. The team should have good chemistry together and diversity.

In short, we wanted a long list of all the good things.

The challenges

In successful late stage startups, candidates are often high quality. Almost all come from strong backgrounds. For an unknown seed stage startup like Trace Data, this is quite different. I have met a few groups of candidates who showed interest in Trace Data.

  • Group 1: work in big but not tech-strong companies. May have hit some blockers to grow their career in their current job. Think a startup could be easier, and the experience may help reboot their career.
  • Group 2: worked in many unknown startups. Hard to gauge skill level. A small percentage of this group is actually very sharp. The Indicator is that this person worked in a startup which either had a great exit or did very well in fundraising in recent years.
  • Group 3: either new grad or 1 or 2 years in their career. The former have multiple offers. The latter work in great companies. Interested in a promising startup as a founding engineer for more impact and learnings. They often have goals to start their own companies in a few years.
  • Group 4: great experience in great companies. Engineering skill has fully matured. They often had a few good exits thus are not worried about short term cash flow. They look for a mission and change the world.

We urgently wanted to kick off product development in Q4 2019. That meant I had to make some progress on hiring, quickly.

Results

I hired 3 principal backend engineers from my network before the end of 2019, only 3.5 months after I joined Trace Data. I hired a nearshore team in Argentina. 2 senior frontend engineers started on 11/2019. Later in 2020, I hired one more principal backend engineer.

The results were better than expected because

  • The 4 principal engineers worked with me before. I know how strong they are. Each of them could be a CTO in another seed stage startup. But they chose to join me at Trace Data. I am very proud and honored. A bit lucky too as timing happened to be very good.
  • Hiring a nearshore team was new to me and came with risks. It worked out very well and smoothly.
  • In Q4 2019, just 3 months, our first scalable architecture formed 100% in GCP and GKE.
  • In all 4 quarters of 2020, the team have hit the delivery goals. Not a surprise to me at all.
  • The team has high cohesion, communicates openly and shows strong trust.
  • Everyone has strong autonomy and is self driven.
  • A vivid example of ownership and team spirit: on Christmas night in 2020, a DataDog alert triggered. Within 5 minutes, one of the principal engineers was already on it and made the fix shortly despite it was not his OnCall schedule.

Diversity: there is room to improve

I did okay but not great on this front. It is very hard to balance hiring speed, engineer quality and diversity all at the same time at an early stage company. If I could restart again, I would try even harder.

Looking back, a few thoughts

Besides the long list of criteria for a founding engineer, I would emphasize on resilience. In early stage startups, the journey is long and full of ups and downs. It is not for a faint heart.

We have added specific interview questions to gauge the resilience level of a candidate.

This is true everywhere but particularly true in a seed stage company. When the team is so small, every engineer is a big percentage of the whole company. Everything will amplify due to that: tech skill, soft skill, communication, relationship and more.

Once we hire the right people, great things will just happen.

Hiring speed matters. But since each engineer is so important, if we do not feel 100% certain, it is better to pass a candidate than hiring the wrong person.

Conclusion

I felt fortunate and proud that I built such a great engineering team at Trace Data, from scratch. Every leader’s journey is probably very different. Hope my one serves as a reference. Love to hear your experience and thoughts.

VP Engineering