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The Garage Team: 3 Engineers who can GTD and GTM
Three types of engineer who can help startups speed run any new project - if supported correctly
The first six to twelve months and the first five to ten people will make or break your new project. With so little time and so few people, every one of them counts.
Let's meet your garage team—the three engineering types that hold the potential to create something extraordinary.
NOTE: this post is directed at early stage projects and founders. If you are an engineer, however, you might find interesting learning about these types of successful startup engineers and whether you fit (or could fit) into any one of them. Read on!
The garage - a symbol of Silicon Valley and the birthplace of groundbreaking companies like Apple.
Startups can sprout from garages, cramped apartments, small offices above Chinese restaurants, or any other unlikely space. These places may not be glamorous, but they offer affordability and a sense of resourcefulness that defines the startup spirit.
When you consider the limited resources, lack of established company reputation, and constrained physical space, it becomes clear that your team for these new projects won't necessarily consist of your typical FAANG employee.
But fear not! By doing it right, you can assemble an extraordinary garage band of misfits, rebels, and troublemakers—people who perceive the world through a different lens.
🤖 The Coding Machine
Every garage team needs at least one coding machine. These are early to mid career, no-nonsense engineers who get things done - fast. These green-loving heroes rejoice seeing green tests passing, green code reviews, and green deployments.
They're happiest when they're knee-deep in their code editors, ready to rock and roll. They don’t like endless theoretical discussions, careful planning, or anything keeping them from getting things done. PMs love them.
However, their always-be-shipping attitude can sometimes lead to an escalating technical debt, an unstable user experience, and a codebase that's hard to build upon.
Supporting them: keep the momentum rolling
Create an environment that lets them shine. Ditch those never-ending "synch" meetings, marathon standups, and red tape. Make sure they always have a good product backlog to pull from or at least a clear sense of direction.
Pro tip: Pair them up with a seasoned colleague. Without effective leadership, they may prioritize immediate tasks over critical, long term problem-solving. That's when you end up with tech debt that could kill your team’s momentum.
It's important to acknowledge that these individuals are often the unsung heroes within companies. While they may not seek the spotlight like their flashier and more ambitious counterparts, they are the reliable workhorses who consistently deliver results.
Make no mistake though - having a solid core of these individuals will ensure that you always have plenty of oomph available on tap, should you know how to use it. So find them, support them, and give them the credit they’re due. They won’t always ask for it.
❤️🔥 The High Potential
These are your limit breakers. They defy expectations. These individuals are bright, hardworking, and endlessly curious. They possess an incredible ability to learn and excel in almost anything they set their minds to.
Mostly younger, high potentials pack a punch beyond their years. They often outperform others in remarkable ways, fueled by their sheer effort and brilliance.
They are incredibly flexible. They will learn how to build platforms, design high throughput APIs, basic data engineering, handle payments, and so on. The team needs it, they got it covered.
High potentials love to learn. They are at their happiest when they are getting things done and learning. Too much red tape or repetitive tasks and you risk disengaging them.
Their lack of experience can lead to an escalating tech debt, even worse than coding machines. Don’t be surprised if high potentials randomly come up with a solution to a major, possibly unknown, problem that they developed over the weekend, with no input or prompting from anyone. While these solutions often work, their technical quality can be hit-or-miss.
PMs love them too.
Supporting them: push and pull
Supporting high potentials is a constant game of push and pull.
Push them hard with big challenges where they can learn new things and grow. Given them context and make sure that they know what the next big challenge is. Give them the tools they need, remove blockers, and they will impress you.
Pull them back when they are over-doing it (ex: too many all nighters). High potentials need a limiter. Otherwise, they will burn bright and fast. Next thing you know, they resigned and went on an Appalachian trail hike to “find themselves”, “connect with nature”, and “recharge”. It’s that sudden.
Create a lean environment that they can thrive in and pair them with a seasoned colleague who they can learn from.
Unlike coding machines, who find joy in shipping multiple REST APIs and gradually improving, high potentials can easily grow bored and disengage.
Supporting high potentials can be demanding as they constantly push boundaries and expect a lot from their leaders. Stay one step ahead and be ready to meet their demands. If you can manage that, their accomplishments will leave you truly impressed.
😎 The Tech Lead
Imagine this scene: your team is gathered around a whiteboard, grappling with a challenging problem for hours. They're stumped. Your high potentials have scoured Stack Overflow and devised an, um, interesting solution. Your coding machines have mostly stopped listening, fired up their laptops, and are ready to commit some half-baked code.
And then, in walks the Tech Lead. They take a glance at the whiteboard and exclaim, "Oh, that's a cool problem, I’ve seen it before!”, and proceed to thoroughly solve it while getting the buy-in of most folks in the room. In 20 minutes.
The Tech Lead has a unique combination of experience, soft and hard skills, coaching ability, and unwavering resilience under pressure.
They are seasoned engineers who have tackled a wide array of problems—queues, CDNs, stream processing, platforms, you name it.
The key term is “real world experience”, not theoretical knowledge. There’s a big difference.
These "been there, done that" individuals can save teams weeks, if not months, of costly trial and error and technical debt by swiftly proposing well-designed, functional solutions.
A good Tech Lead knows how to navigate the strengths of both coding machines and high potentials. They strike a balance, guiding their growth while leveraging their expertise.
Now, a word of caution: don't assume that any successful senior engineer from a renowned company automatically fits the Tech Lead description. These exceptional individuals possess a unique blend of technical skills, soft skills, ability to thrive under pressure and ambiguity, and a healthy dose of pragmatism. The link below explains the type well.
Supporting them: create a partnership
Alignment on the macro and accountability on the micro—these are the foundations of supporting a Tech Lead.
Create a "highly aligned, loosely coupled" environment. Tech Leads thrive when they have sufficient context and guidance to understand what success looks like, coupled with the freedom to execute.
So partner with them: establish responsibility and accountability, and let them solve the toughest problems for you.
They should be able to lead small groups of engineers, including coding machines and high potentials, to conquer challenging projects while fostering growth.
Tech Leads excel at crafting solutions that work well and take near future into consideration. However, be sure to challenge them if you spot signs of over-engineering. Their wealth of knowledge can sometimes blind them to simple, effective solutions that are good enough in the right context.
Whether you find yourself in a humble garage or an unconventional workspace, remember that greatness can arise from the most unexpected places.
The coding machines, with their unwavering focus and rapid delivery, lay the foundation for productivity.
The high potentials, with their boundless curiosity and ability to learn anything, push boundaries and drive innovation.
The Tech Lead, with their wealth of real-world experience, problem-solving prowess, and effective soft skills, guides the team to well-crafted, efficient solutions, and happy users.
Supporting these extraordinary individuals requires work. Create an environment that allows the coding machines to shine, free from unnecessary bureaucracy and with clear direction. Nurture the high potentials, providing them with challenging opportunities to grow. Forge a partnership with the Tech Lead, aligning on the big picture while entrusting them with solving the toughest problems.
Finding such great people can be a challenge. I wrote about tech hiring in the past, so that should help you get started.
Now go out there and build something great!
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