Managing an Engineering Team at a Startup

Scheduled for: December 12th, 2018, 3:00 pm PT / Category: Interviews

Lessons from the last 3 years of creating and nurturing a team of contract software engineers.

KP Naidu is the SVP of Engineering and CTO at Amava. KP is an accomplished Technology Leader, highly recognized for his technology vision, engineering and execution and has over 30 years of experience in technology.

KP, is an Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics expert from The University of Edinburgh, UK and rose early in his career to very high ranks at Sun Microsystems, where he was a VP responsible for their global Data Center Practice.

Later in his career, he has taken on roles of COO, Head of Operations for Pressmart, VP Digital & Mobile Strategy for Whiz Technologies, Executive Director of Operations & IT at Telenav, Director of IT Operations for the County of Santa Clara and is currently CTO for Amava in San Francisco Bay Area. He is also on the Board of Directors for Aurum Biosciences and and a member of Palo Alto University Rotary.



Mariel: Hi guys welcome to another session for DojoLive, today we have KP Naidu, he’s the CTO for Amava we0re talking to you about managing and engineering team at a startup thank you for joining us.

Tullio: That should be a interesting conversation.

Carlos: [INAUDIBLE] And you forgot to mention that we also have Tullio Siragusa in LA thank you Tullio as ever, and again.

Tullio: Hey guys.

Carlos: And then of course Mariel, now you’re, I know you go to nervous Mariel because this is the first time ever in here.

Mariel: My first time.

Carlos: [INAUDIBLE] Alright guys so, as Mariel.

Tullio: Mariel you are in Chihuahua right.

Mariel: Yes.

Tullio: You’re in Chihuahua, ok, cool

Carlos: It’s Mariel [INAUDIBLE] we’re gonna be speaking with KP Naidu the CTO of Amava, and let this get us started with the you KP and welcome to the show KP, we appreciate your to be.

KP: Thank you for having me.

Carlos: Ok, absolutely it’s our pleasure, so KP tell us something we like to start off by two things, start with you and Amava, so let’s talk about that and then move on to your chosen topic of the day which.

KP: Sure absolutely, so a little bit about me, I’ve been around in technology for about thirty years I worked in academia the Masters of Artificial Intelligence from the University of Edinburgh and I’ve worked in technology for a very long time, I used to be vice president of some Microsystems running their global data center infrastructure and then running their data center practice and then I worked at a bunch of startups, worked in local government and in fact I visited you know, Mexico a number of times to work with some of the local governments in Mexico as well, so that’s a little bit about me and you know right now I’m CTO of our company Amaa, and what we do is we’re helping people who are post career find their next gig if you like to what they want to do next, so around trying to help people figure out what activities they want to do if they want to go volunteer, they want to do something fun so that’s what we try and help people to do, so discover what they want to do next so predominantly people who arte you know, somewhere in the 45 plus age range to all the way to 70 and 75 and that’s what we’re focused on at the moment at Amava.

Carlos: Thank you so much KP, appreciate it, so 45 plus so probably Tullio and myself we’ll be there soon right.

Tullio: I mean we are, it’s the application for once you’re broken free of the overlords.

KP: Sort of, but you know, get away, but it’s also for people who are trying to find a little bit of balance in their life, they want to do something a little bit different, add and element of saay giving back or do some, do a fun project for a while so that they’re you know, not just focus 60-70 hours at work right, so they want to do something different, so we do get people who are either about to retire or retired but we also get people who are at work and we’re looking for something new to do.

Carlos: Excellent.

Tullio: So that’s, I’m personally interested in learning more about that because it’s always like I’m on a group I want to do more giving back and it’s like China Balancing at all right, needs to be possible so how is that, so first of all let me, let me just , before I ask how does, how does it work, how does install that, I’m curious first of all, what gave birth to this idea, how did this come about like, [INAUDIBLE] how’d it happen right.

KP: So it, yeah so we’ve been working at this for about three years we launched in a sense at the beginning of October at the end of September this year, but before that we’ve been working for two and a half years to three years before that, and doing a research, and as it turns out there’s a you know, just in the US alone close to actually over 14,000 people enter the Social Security Rolls every day and there’s about a hundred million people who where above the age of 55, there’s a billion people worldwide, and these are you know , nobody really cares for this population I mean, you know, we’re a very youth center culture so everybody is interested in the 18 to 24 year olds, I mean nobodys is interested in the 50 plus year old person, but the reality is 50 percent fifty cents of every dollar which is spend discretionary spend worldwide is done by people who are over the age of 50, so you know, this is and extremely wealthy group of people and you know, they really want to do something meaningful and worthwhile so this is, you know, the tail end of it, the baby boomers if you like so that’s that is the genesis of this and you know, it is also for myself and for my CEO who’s a you know, my co-founder that was our pushes if you like, so.

Tullio: Very cool, I think it’s very timely and very much needed, so is this your first startup, or no you say you’re had a few different.

KP: No, we’ve, I had a few startups before but you know, so this I’ve been doing this for literally I mean, I think this month it’ll be three years.

Tullio: Ok, fantastic, so another there’s a topic you chose for today which is very appropriate when you’re building a product like this right, who was the topic Mariel?

Mariel: The topic is managing an engineering team at startup.

Tullio: Ok, that’s a big a big whoa, why did you choose this as a topic of conversation I mean, I’m sure they’ve gone to the few times please tell us what that’s what.

KP: Yeah, so a couple of thing was you know, as a building teams you know, built a lot of things but you know, at larger organizations you usually come in with and organization which is already formed you know, you come in and therese a team which is already available and then you’re trying ro kind of manage through that and manage that team or take that team in new direction and in startup basically you’re creating from scratch I mean, how does the first engineer the only engineer on the team, and then you’re starting to build a team and I realized that the way you go about building a team at a startup is completely different from the way you go about building a team in a larger organization, and the challenges are quite different you have no processes, you have, you know, the technology is all up in the air, you’re trying to literally create things as you go along and so it’s very very important to make sure that the team when you start building them that you start building them in the right way from the ground up because that is going to actually help you to be you know, successful at your startup or it can lead to al to of conflict which is very difficult to manage in a small organization.

Tullio: So if you had to break down the key things then you kind of figured out work really well, what are they?

KP: So in my mind you know, some of the key thing where as I was thinking about this right, so it’s very easy in fact it’s very, how should I put it, it’s very attractive that we focus purely on the technology that we focus on you know here’s the code we want to write this is the features we want to do, but what I realized that is that the technology is there, absolutely it’s important but there is if, there isn’t the focus on how the team gets built from the beginning then very often, yeah, you can focus on the technology but as and engineering leader then I have to spend a lot of time actually managing a lot of the interfaces between people you know, people kind of working at cross-purposes with each other and that is something but you don’t have the luxury in a small startup where you expect everybody to be going you now, at 100 miles an hour, and so yes we were focused on the technology but I did spend a lot of time I would say almost 50 percent of my time in the beginning actually, building the team culture and building the team you know, focusing on the team formation.

Tullio: Yeah, that’s interesting I mean, look I’ve come from big companies myself right so those teams are and you’re usually not building something from scratch, you’re doing a lot of iteration or changes I call it turning the knobs right, in a startup you have to build and knobs from the scratch and a lot of organization end up hiring yus who where like in IT services which are not prepared with that, we’ve discovered as Nearsoft that technology companies want guys who can translate ideas and build something from scratch and we’re adults who can be self motivated, so how do we’ve done it by adopting a democratic approach to it you know, with a freedom based organization, how are you getting that done today that’s working , what are some of the best practice in getting people to be motivated on their own.

KP: Yeah, so you know, a couple of things which I focused on right at the beginning was you know, talking about the team culture to start with and then we’ll talk about the team formation so the team culture you know, right from the beginning we said, everybody has got skill which are, which are important, so you know, it’s my idea or my skill it is not more important than another person’s idea or skill, what is important is what we want to achieve from a business perspective, what is the feature or what is a function or what’s the business objective which we want to meet and then that the technology in a sense is a tool to get us to that, to that point, so that is the kind of the focus which you went to right, so that then I spent a lot of time explaining to the team what we were trying to do as a business, and why we were trying to do that, why a particular feature or why a particular function was important, and you know, how we were kind of thinking about it and the reason for doing that is then first of all it acknowledges that the engineers whom we’re hiring they have expertise and then we say, ok you know, I make them part of the process to actually go and say: Yeah you are have this expertise, I want your idea as to how we can achieve this objective.

Tullio: Great, so I’m curious to hear from our own engineer we have and engineer who’s with us , Mariel, she’s you know, Carlos and I are not engineers although we do take credit for our little chat bot that we create we’ll introduce them in just a minute but I’d love to hear from Mariel, because she’s on the ground working with building a product everyday, and she’s mostly in the QA testing side, do you have any questions for KP as it relates to culture and building the team, what that you can shine some light on.

Mariel: Actually I have two questions regarding culture, you first said that used and almost like 50% of your time like looking at that working on that, I know culture is a very important part of building a team, do you have any guidelines or any role models that you’re following whenever you’re like trying to set up and engineering team like what are you looking for culturally speaking.

KP: Sure, absolutely, I think the one if I where to take one thing which we you know, focused on right in the beginning is very often you know, in a team and particularly when you have engineers, engineers are you know, they look at somebody who’s senior and they say that this person probably know everything and I’m not going to argue with that person that is a very dangerous in my view very dangerous kind of approach or view for and engineer to have, because what that does is they become conditioned right from the beginning to not question anything which I tell them right, so I, first of all you know, a lot of engineers and particularly when they see somebody you know in my case for example they see somebody who’s like thirty years with experience you know they start off saying sir and you know there this deference thing.

Mariel: The formal way.

KP: Yes and also there’s a huge difference that you know, whatever you say it’s a if you know, the your words are you know written in gold and the first I said was, I’m not sir please do not call me that right because those words are very important it’s like you know, take that out it is important when we are discussing something around engineering we’re all equal and so we said that and we all have ideas, I’m gonna express my ideas, I’m gonna tell you why I’m thinking about a particular idea in this way but I expect them to you know come back with their you know criticisms everything else and I encourage that and we’d actually go work that, so that is that is one of the key things I mean, today my engineers will challenge me everyday and I love it because that is what helps to make sure that we don’t have bad product.

Mariel: Yeah, completely again you know that’s speaking from my for my side, for ym project that’s something that my team really looks for you know, challenging everything you know, like because you never know, you might, you might give and idea to someone else and my next question is regarding that you know, the quality that you can bring to the team to the project , I work as QA [INAUDIBLE] teams in your experience or the way that you build up the teams which role is the QA part of the team playing, like do you guys specifically look for QAs to be part of a team or you see like a separate team for doing the quality.

KP: Yeah, very good question very good question , this is so important, so we always include QA in our team meetings, our QA engineer is part of the team, he you know, he is not separate, he sits in on all the meetings in fact the way I kind of organized it is, we tell, I tell my QA this is what is expected of the product, and you have to work with the developers to make sure that whatever you know, they’re doing meets this requirements so QA is in a sense front and center in terms of how we’re delivering stuff, it’s that is you know, Qa to my mind it’s very important and it’s we, I never like to separate them out and say, ok, you know we’ll talk to QA later on, no QA is part of the discussion right from the beginning, because they have to understand what we’re trying to achieve so that they can actually when they’re going a and looking at the quality of the product which is delivered, they can say: Are you meeting that or not.

Mariel: Yep, definitely agree, you cannot break you cannot break something if you don’t know how it works.

KP: Right, exactly, exactly, and so, yeah so that is very very important, so QA is always in our meetings and when we’re discussing even we’re discussing ideas then we have QA because kheer will always come back and say, well yeah but you know have you thought about this piece of the functionality that may have and impact over there so it’s really important for them to be included in this discussion.

Tullio: I have a question, but before we do that is it Carlos [INAUDIBLE]

Carlos: No no either the chat box right now is on holiday away in vacation, [INAUDIBLE] for next year now that put is at ease however, and this is because we have time constraints, I like to ask a question if I may KP, well as Tullio mentioned I’m not and engineer so my question is more in the in towards the business side of the equation of Amava, so what I like to know is what kind of kind of partnerships to speak what you considered strategic to your growth, to Amava’s growth and why.

KP: Yeah, so I mean huge numbers of partnerships right, so there’s tons of different partnerships so just from a purely engineering perspective right so I mean, on the business side there’s you know, there’s partnerships which you can think of in health care you can think of in you know, in elder care you can think of partnerships and insurance there’s immediate as there’s so many differents kinds of partnerships which you know, which we have in mind right, from and engineering perspective you know, and this is you know coming back to what we’re doing, people find this very surprising and the reason why Carlos for example I agreed to talk to you is because I’ve been doing you know, in informal people have been coming and asking you know, what have you been able to achieve and you know, how do you set up your team and what have you right, our key partner is that is the company which actually supplies is with our engineer so I have no full time engineers they’re all contract engineers, people are surprised that we are able to go deliver the results we have with our contract engineers, ok, in three years we have not missed a single product deadline, we have had zero unplanned outages we had one last week but that was because the hosting company misconfigured our servers but nothing from a coding perspective, zero unplanned outages we’ve had zero percent voluntary staff retention, you know, attrition, nobody has left the team, you know.

Tullio: So what’s the secret sauce?

KP: The secret sauce in my view is fundamental you know, going back to what we were talking about before right, our secret sauce is I trust my engineers and they repay me with their trust, ok, I when I hired them for a particular skill or whatever I said look I trust you, if have you, will if you make a mistake come and tell me, it’s fine, it’s ok to make a mistake, it’s not ok to make the same mistake two or three times, that’s not ok, that means you’re not paying attention but it’s okay to make a mistake, and so then they take it on themselves, they’re harder on themselves on them, I am ever going to be on them and so that you know, even the organization to which they belong, they’re employees of a different company but they feel so loyal to Amava and our mission and what we’re doing and even when they go on vacation they take their laptops with them because they say if you need me call me, because I want to make sure that nothing actually goes wrong with what we’ve done, and you know, that for me is gold, I you know, I and that just comes from the fact that I trust them and yes you know, do i if they make a mistake or whatever I’m hard on them I hold them accountable but I never you know make it so that they feel well you know, I don’t want to work at this organization or I don’t want to work for this person anymore.

Tullio: Great, so trust and supporting and believing in the team, those things never go out style, we’re coming up on time soon it’s amazing at times fly, I had one question about higher structured, are you and agile shop or Kanban is any methodology you’re adopted that works better for you or not just curious what.

KP: It’s a very good question because you know, people get us you know,what are the tools you use right, so I’ll tell you what the tools I started with the tools I started with were a Google Spreadsheet, that’s it, the idea was I wanted to keep the process as simple as possible, because engineer should be writing code, I didn’t want them spending a lot of their time doing other stuff on tools and admin work, so just focused on what is the minimum process which I can impose on top of you know, whatever they’re doing so that it becomes very very lightweight, the result is I have to do more work, but that’s ok because you know, my code is what I’m doing from a coding perspective is less important than what they’re doing, so I want to maximize their time in doing what they’re supposed to do, so are we kept our tools very simple, yes for agile we haven’t you know, call everyday,[INAUDIBLE] there’s our base in India one of them is based in Singapore and I have a call with them everyday right, so I talked to them so and each day we’re kind of looking it , what we’re gonna do today, but I also take the time it least once if not twice a week to tell them what is, what we’re thinking of in terms of the longer term always reconnecting them to what’s the mission of what we’re trying to do, an I find that is really really important an to keep them engaged to keep them in the framework of what we’re, you know, what the organization is about.

Tullio: That’s great, we encouraged the concept of what we call no code monkeys right, we just want people to think an act an work independently an contributing understand the business impact they’re having right sound like you’re just figured out so congratulations on that.

KP: Thank you, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t really I don’t think I figured it out I think I just blundered into.

Tullio: It’s work, it’s working so kudos to you is so I have one question an I pass it back to my co-host, any words of wisdom in your journey as an intrapreneur and as a startup executive, any words of wisdom you’d like to share with other folks who might be on the fence about trying to be an entrepreneur, starting a new company or product, love to get your perspective an what the journey’s been like for you and things you’ve learned that you want to share with the audience.

KP: Yeah, so a couple of you know, I think two things which I have learned you know in the school of hard knocks of being and entrepreneur right the first is that if you have and idea you have to believe in yourself in that idea, there’s a thousand reasons why something will not work, ok, and people will you, will tell you find people enough people who will come and tell you here are the thousands things, thousand ways in which your idea is not gonna work, but you have to believe that in your idea, if you have that idea but along with that there’s another thing which I have learned, is it’s no enough just to be deeply involved, you have to be obsessive about what you’re doing, morning evening and night I dream of nothing else, this is this the only thing I’ve wake when I wake up in the morning this is what I’m thinking about, when I go to bed this is what I’m thinking about, you have to obsess, because that’s the only way you focus all energy and you channel all of your you know, your capability into what you’re doing, because then you start thinking of all the little things which are really important to make your business a success, so these you know, those are the two things which I would think are really important if you want to be an entrepreneur you know, the rest is all just fluff, and these two things are within your control, you have to believe in yourself, an you have to obsess about what you’re doing.

Tullio: Thank you KP it’s been a pleasure talking with you, wish we had more time, I’m gonna pass it back to Mariel, it’s gonna Mariel wrap it up or Carlos.

Carlos: Well Mariel is gonna wrap it up but I have an announcement to make.

Tullio: Ok, great.

Carlos: This is about next week folks, next week we are going to be having a conversation on DojoLive, with Ben Block, the CEO of a company called DH travel services, which essentially it’s about travel technologist travel software, so you might want to keep and eye on that, and the topic is going to be, reimagining the travel agent tour operator digital relationship, so that should interesting as well if you’re into the travel tech, an again it’s gonna be on Monday 1pm Pacific, see here on DojoLive, see you here next time, Mariel back to you for wrapping up, thank you.

Mariel: Well thank you KP for being with us.

KP: Thank you for having me.

Mariel: Just a comment on the last of the last part, living in yourself and getting obsessed I think that’s a really great lesson, not just vety business but for life itself, thank you very much an well this was just another session for DojoLive, join us next week.

Carlos: Next week, bye folks.