Team – Great team depends on this factor

Geetha Vallabhaneni & Andy Belk – Team – What makes a good team depends on this factor.

Andy Belk: Well, we could start with: so, at Azul, I was employee 50 which, for a startup, is actually a very large startup. I think the thing that was unusual about Azul, was that we were a company that was trying to do a multitude so, very unusually, we were designing our own chip; designing our own hardware to go around the chip; designing some control systems and management systems to run these machines; and we actually built the operating system and ported the Java VM to that chip. So, 50 sounds like a lot, but when you divide it, essentially by 4, because we were sort of ‘4 startups in 1’ then, you know, it’s actually not that huge. And that was the way that the company was organized. So we had a little bit of management overhead – the entire company was run by 1 person – and we had 1 admin, for the whole company, and that was it. And then we had the founders, who were also the engineering VPs, and then a bunch of engineers. And that was pretty much it right at the beginning. And I think… so, essentially, the engineering teams were about 8 people, depending on what you were working on, the chip or the hardware but, you know, it was around about 8, 9 people.

That was a pretty good size team for the kind of project that we were doing, in that, it was a small enough team that you weren’t overcome by communication overhead – we didn’t need to have meetings all the time – but it was big enough so everybody had a big enough role to play and we could actually get concrete things done in a reasonable amount of time. So, I mean, a lot of the question about what makes a good team is about what sort of problem you’re trying to accomplish, what sort of timeline you’re trying to accomplish and the dynamics of who your team already is because, I always say that, it seems like it would be great if you – and this is a common parlance in Silicon Valley – if you would have a team of 8 players but that really depends on what your definition of 8 players is, because if you go out and you hire 8 people, all of whom know exactly what they want to do, it will be a disaster because they’ll all know exactly what they want to do and it will all be different.

So, building a perfect team is not just a matter of hiring really great technical people, it’s a matter of also getting people who fit, where there’s enough social lubricant and understanding and willingness to compromise, so that you actually have something that will work. It’s like putting gears together; you can put together a set of gears, to get it so that this wheel is turning this wheel at the right level, but if you don’t put the oil in right, and you don’t put the gears in the right order, either the speed’s wrong or else the gears get ground up.

Is that a reasonably good analogy? I don’t know. I just made it up on the spur of the moment. I’ll have to use that one again! [Laughs]

Geetha Vallabhaneni: So, I think, teams – going back to Andy’s point of view – is, you have to have that dynamic. And what makes a good team dynamic? To me – it’s my personal experience – is, one thing that I truly believe works everywhere is, as a team, you have to actually understand a general direction that you want to go towards, right? And then… and you all bring different perspectives and you debate what’s the best way to go forward. But, for me,

the healthiest team environment actually debates ideas and not people

so they’re all kind of, like… I don’t want to call them enlightened, but they are in a way because they come to the table with an understanding that, at the end of the day, ‘we have to do x and that’s good for the company’ and ‘I have my personal opinion and here’s why I think it’s the best way to do it’. But, at the same time, they have enough sense to sit down and listen to other people, and it doesn’t mean that they’re actually passive – they’re actually arguing and they’re trying to make their argument the best way to do it – but, the whole point being is, you debate ideas and not people. And you have respect for the person who’s sitting across from you because you know they’re smart; you know they bring a different perspective. So, that’s the best team dynamic.

And the other thing – what does a startup need in a team? – is really trying to understand the motivation of the person, right? and especially if you’re a team leader or if you’re a person that’s actually trying to make things work. All of us tick and you have to understand what makes that person tick, right? And understand, if they’re arguing about something, you want to go back to ‘what, why’… not just the peripheral thing about words, right? Try and pull back their decision a little bit and understand: “Okay, here’s why and here’s what they’re saying – they’re two different things by the way – and if you address that why, everyone feels like they’ve been heard, and their concern has been heard. That’s how you bring people together. For me, there’s a great TED Talk from, I think, Simon Sinek. He talks about ‘the circle’… in the center is the why and then how and then what. Be it ideas, be it products, be it marketing campaigns… a lot of the times we get stuck in ‘Here’s what I can do’… all of that… but talk about why you’re doing something… and that really is effective communication and I think that works really well.

Andy: Yes, you have to manage everybody differently, and you have to lead people differently, too. Some people confuse leadership and management, and they’re definitely two different things, although they can be combined in a single individual. Leadership is setting direction for people; and showing them the way; and suggesting how it might be done; and setting examples… Management is listening to people; and accommodating their differences; and putting together teams who fit together. And great leadership can make management less critical and great management can make leadership less critical, but they’re two different facets.

And, I think, the way I like to look at it is… you only ever manage the people below you, in essence. If you have a team of 3 people, you know, you can manage those 3 people. But if you’re the VP of a company, you’re not managing 55 people underneath you, you’re leading that engineering team, but you’re managing the people who immediately report to you… and that’s kind of the difference… because you can’t truly have a personal relationship, on a daily basis, with 55 people, all of whom are very busy, or should be. But you can lead them on a daily basis, right? And, again, set the examples; setting goals; setting expectations… that kind of thing. And management is about managing those expectations; and making sure that people meet them and, if they don’t, what’s the consequences; and how to get the best out of people.

Geetha: And there is actually a human element to all of this where managing, again, goes back to that. If an employee or team member doesn’t feel heard, doesn’t feel motivated, doesn’t feel rewarded, it’s just easy to lose them because, at the end of the day, if money is a great thing – and all of us actually want money; there’s no philanthropic startup – but at the same time, that feeling of: “I’m recognized; my ideas were recognized,” that’s just a really central part of management.

Andy: Absolutely. And I think the key thing of a successful startup is not giving everybody lots of stock – although they’ll want that – it’s absolutely making them understand that they have a pivotal role in the end product, and that’s what gets buy-in, and that’s what keeps people enthused… because you’re going to go through some really hard times, over and over again, and feeling that you’re making a difference is the… and, by the way, it’s not just true of startups, it’s true of any company.

Geetha: It’s true for anything, right? And especially startups… it’s easy. For example, one of their employees contributes an idea and a customer loves that feature… it’s critical to communicate that back. We lose sight of that all the time, by the way. It’s easy to say, “Wow, the customer’s happy,” but, if you have the sense to actually say, “Hey, person x, you suggested this idea and here’s the customer feedback that we got.” There’s no parallel to it in terms of money, in terms of other things. They just feel…

Marzena kmiecik: … Satisfaction from it.

Geetha: Right. Exactly.

Andy: And I suppose, actually, that’s interestingly one of the reasons why I ended up leaving Azul and going back to Apple, because one of the things that I enjoyed when I had been at Apple, was the visceral, the emotional response I got from our customers when I just, you know, met them… in random places, be it on the train, in Starbucks… and just hearing that people really liked our products or, alternatively, what they didn’t like. We did kind of lose that a little bit at Azul because we were building a product that was for big companies and so, that sort of customer feedback, and that pleasure with using the product – even though we got a lot of customers who really liked it – it isn’t the same as somebody coming up to you and saying, “I really love how this works. You did a great job,” kind of thing. It’s just different.

Geetha: And I think, you know, there’s some things – like how we talked about we were at Azul at different times – but that culture continued and I think they had a lot of elements that we talked about. You never felt like someone criticized your idea… people just actually listened to you. And then we had a culture of really getting to know people… like we would sit down at the lunch table and sort of have conversations that had nothing to do with work, right? We all had a variety of interests like, you know, I loved reading and I’d find people to discuss my books, and philosophy, and poetry, and it’s like, you find people like that at Azul, and it’s awesome… and you build those friendships… and, when you have that sort of relationship, you’ll go into a team meeting and you’ll talk… people actually, you know, are sitting down and listening… and you have the freedom to sort of, like, throw a suggestion that’s out of whack and people were happy to just entertain that idea. And, of course, people argued furiously, by the way. I even heard real interesting stories, too.

Andy: Oh yes.

Geetha: But, at the end of the day, nobody had bad blood because of the arguments. [Laughs]

Andy: Very rarely. I think one fundamental thing in business and especially in startups – that was hammered into us over time – was that, quite often, when you’re having discussions and arguments about something, it’s more important, most of the time, to make a decision, move on, execute on it… but monitor it… and if you realize you’ve made a mistake, fix it… rather than endlessly chewing on something. It’s much more… because you will, more often than not, be right, if you thought about it… or you’ll be mostly right, you’ll be right enough… and so you’re going to get most of the benefit out of that. And even if you’re somewhat wrong, you’ll have learned some things… but you could have just churned on and made the wrong judgement, anyway.

So, I mean, I think that’s one thing that just really sticks in my head, ever since I’ve arrived here… you really don’t spin on decisions, endlessly… you kind of, like, even in the absence of lots of data, you have to go with a decision, because you’re going to learn more… and you’re going to learn it fast.