You have the idea, the drive, and now, the capital to create the company you’ve always envisioned. Now comes the most important part, assembling a team of high performers. To build a sustainable business, you need engineers who can execute on common goals. Who do you hire and how do you hire the people you need? What qualities are you looking for, how will you motivate these engineers and inspire their best work? In Raising Engineers, David Dettmer helps you create a culture that reflects your business, establish a working process to cultivate a strong team, and hire the right people to build impactful products.
As the leader of product and engineering of many successful startups, David has developed a methodology that can help any startup build a high-performing engineering team. Now, he’s helping others discover the cycle for developing teams that will take their business to the next level. Here’s my conversation with David.
This is The Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Benji Block and today, I am thrilled to be joined by David Dettmer. He’s just authored a new book, the title of the book is Raising Engineers: A Founder’s Guide to Building a High-Performing Engineering Team. David, welcome to Author Hour.
David Dettmer: Thank you, thank you for having me.
Benji Block: Absolutely, it’s an honor to get to chat with you. Let’s start here, for those that may be unfamiliar with you and some of your work, would you tell us a bit of your background and what you’re up to these days?
David Dettmer: Absolutely. I graduated from college 20 plus years ago and one of the first jobs I had was actually down in Austin, Texas where I live today. I’ve been here for quite a bit of time and it was with a startup called Trilogy and since then, I got the startup bug that way. I have been doing nothing but working with teams that have been extremely small and growing them and then doing that over and over again. I’ve been really super focused on building engineering teams and working with engineers who want to join a small team and have a lot of impact and grow it.
My titles over the last 15 plus years have been Head of Engineering, VP of Product and Engineering, VP of Engineering; been really focused on just the build organization when it comes to any new startup.
Benji Block: It sounds like you’ve been a busy guy. Why write a book? What was the transition to go, “Okay, I’ve worked, I’ve seen the ins and outs of engineering, now I should put down pen to paper”?
David Dettmer: Yeah, what happens when you’ve been doing my job for so long is you meet a lot of people, right? I’ve worked with a lot of venture capitalists, I’ve worked with a lot of CEOs and founders and I was talking to a close friend of mine who had written a few books and he said, “If you’re giving the same advice over and over again, you should probably write a book.”
Benji Block: That’s good advice, I like that.
David Dettmer: There are times where two or three times a week, I’m being introduced to someone who just raised some money and they have one or two engineers, they’ve been working on a prototype and now they have the cash to go and hire 10 or 15 engineers and they’re like, “I have no idea what to do.”
I’ll grab coffee with him and walk him through a playbook and then meet with him every so often. It was just kind of more of a passion for me if that makes sense, and I started taking some notes of things that I was saying over and over again and I realized, I really need to turn this into a book.
Mastery, Purpose, and Autonomy
Benji Block: I love that. When you think of — I think you did a great job right there of potentially outlining it but that would basically be your ideal reader then? It’s a founder looking to build an engineering team, maybe they have a couple already but they’re looking for more… Explain that kind of ideal reader?
David Dettmer: We live in a world where there’s a lot of people out there that want to start up a company. They have an idea, they know an industry and they’ve played a lot of different roles and I think this book is primarily for the founder that has never been an engineer. There are a lot of founders out there that have been engineers.
For those people, this book does help them but I’m really focused on someone who’s maybe ran a sales organization or runs a marketing organization or just graduated, got their MBA and when they were getting their MBA, they came up with this idea for a startup.
These people are really great at coming up with that first idea. Maybe they have a friend who is a software engineer and so they work together in building a prototype to get a few customers on board, then they go pitch it to a handful of VCs and they’re like, “This looks like a good market. Here’s two or three or five or $10 million dollars. Go show me that you can build this into a real company.”
Then, it’s the “Oh no” factor [that] hits them and says, “I don’t know how to hire engineers, I don’t know how to structure an engineering team, I don’t know how to build a product at scale, I don’t know how to motivate engineers.” And the reality is, in today’s market, hiring engineers is extremely difficult. Hiring good engineers is very, very hard and hiring great engineers is nearly impossible.
There’s a secret sauce to that and then once you hire them, there’s also another secret sauce that keeps them motivated and helps them want to help you succeed.
Benji Block: Okay, let me go down a little bit of a rabbit hole right there because I think that’s interesting. Tell me why it’s so difficult? Because, as someone from the outside looking in, it’s not something I would immediately assume that it’s so hard to hire someone that’s great in the space. What’s making it so difficult and what would maybe be some of that secret sauce that you’re talking about there?
David Dettmer: There’s a couple of reasons. One, it’s just a blind man problem, right? The demand is higher than the supply. Amazon published that they’re going to hire 20,000 engineers in 2022 and that is just one company, right?
Benji Block: Wow, yup.
David Dettmer: There’s a lot of schools out there that are pushing engineers out into the world. The good news is, more colleges are creating standard curriculums for software engineering and you can get great engineers from a lot of different colleges, right?
Or, great engineers that graduated from a lot of different colleges, two, three, five, 10 years ago. 10 years ago, you had to go to MIT and Stanford, Harvard and University of Texas and Berkley. There were just a handful of schools out there where you could really trust that somebody got a really good education and then you had to look at what did they do afterward.
Even though people were getting degrees, finding really great engineers, compared to the demand was difficult but the demand has grown faster than the supply has grown.
Benji Block: Do founders come to you just like unaware of this issue? Are they coming or are they scratching their head going, “I don’t even — I cannot find a quality engineer.”
David Dettmer: Yeah, it’s a little bit of both. I get founders who — it’s funny, the intro to the book talks about how I’m actually at my current job now is because I had a founder who came to me and said, “Look, we just raised $8 million dollars and got like five engineers here and I can’t hire another one.” It’s been so difficult, right? That’s usually what happens. The first thing a founder does is they have a friend who is working on a project with them, they’ll be like, “Okay, do you have any more friends?” That friend network.
Benji Block: Don’t we all?
David Dettmer: It shrinks pretty quickly, right? You’re like, “Yeah, I can get two or three people” but you have to realize, when you’re trying to get somebody to come on board, first you’re asking somebody to quit their job to take a risk. There’s no engineers, no great engineers out there, right, that are just sitting around waiting for a phone call and don’t have a job.
All your great engineers have a job today. What you really have to do is you have to convince somebody to leave what they’re currently doing and come work for you. Most founders are using that first engineer to get their buddies to come onboard but then after that, they’re like, [let’s] try a bunch of different things, [and] they’re usually not the right things.
Benji Block: Let’s talk a little bit about recruiting then because you talk about great recruiting begins with three things. You got another mission to your company, creating a pitch, this will be the second one, creating a pitch about what engineers care about. I wonder, let’s pause on that second one for a second and tell me a little bit of what do engineers typically care about?
David Dettmer: I’m going to pitch another book and it’s not my book.
Benji Block: Okay, let’s hear it.
David Dettmer: There’s a great book out there called Drive — and I talk a lot about it in this book — and there are three pillars to what engineers really care about: mastery, purpose, and autonomy. In the book Drive, he talks a lot about how those three pillars are things that any creative person really cares about and so, I’ll dive into those very quickly.
Mastery is basically giving the person the opportunity to master their craft, right? When you ask an engineer, what do you want to be five years from now, nine times out of ten, they’re thinking, “I just really want to be a better engineer. I just want to be able to solve harder problems.” Very much like a doctor, if that makes sense. Very few doctors are thinking, “I want to run a big hospital”, right?
The next is purpose. Every individual has a different purpose in life. They care about different things, whether it be animals or homeless or water or financials, whatever it is, everybody has their own thing that they care about. If your purpose of your organization aligns with their purpose, that will actually create drive also.
Then, there’s this idea of autonomy. If you create a culture — and I really call it earned-autonomy at the end of the day because you don’t just hire somebody and say, “Okay, here are the keys to the castle, I’ll see you later.” It takes time for that trust to be created but at the end of the day, no engineer wants to be told exactly what to build. There’s another great book and I do a lot of this in my book where I talk a lot about other books.
Benji Block: That’s good.
David Dettmer: A great book called Ask Your Developer. It’s a Toolio story. Their whole business is based on developers using their product and the idea is that, there are a lot of different ways to build a product but a really terrible way is where you just hand over exactly what you want to build, whether it be drawings and specs and you hand it over to an engineer, you say, “Okay, I’ll see you in 30 days, tell me when this is done,” right?
Versus, coming to an engineer and saying, “This is the problem we have.” What we’re trying to solve in Rev’s case is like, I’m trying to help the people who work from home make more money. How can we do that? Let’s tackle this problem together. That’s a sense of autonomy, part of the problem from the beginning, as they’re solving that problem, they have a lot of say-so in how that problem is solved.
That master, purpose, and autonomy; those are those three basic things that you need in your organization for engineers to be excited to come and work there and then, continue to work there long-term.
Benji Block: I find it fascinating because I really resonate with what you were saying there about mastery, purpose, and autonomy from a creative standpoint where when I think of an engineer, clearly there is a lot of creativity and artistry to the work that you’re doing — it clicked for me as you’re saying that because there is this level of if you bring someone in early when the problem is yet to be solved instead of telling them what they have to create because they have already solved the problem, right? It’s a totally different way of engaging someone, saying, “Here’s a problem we need your help to solve.”
David Dettmer: Absolutely.
Benji Block: I love that. Okay, well, let’s talk about some things for you personally. I know working at Trilogy was really formative to your experience, right? What did you learn during that time? What do you most remember from your time at Trilogy?
David Dettmer: Yeah, I mean it was a while ago, so I have to really dig down in that memory bank. Look, first of all, it’s the late 90s and we were still in a world where if you worked at a big company, you came in at nine, you left at five. You had your desk, you were in a cubicle and you were kind of like given these facts. You’d write some software and you hand it back to them and go to QA and then who knows if it went to production or not — All that kind of great stuff.
Trilogy, they were young founders who started that company. They really invested in this culture of finding people coming out of college, extremely smart people coming right out of college and they really invested in the autonomy part. They were like, “Go solve the ordering PCs online problem, run with that.” Have fun while you’re doing it. It was a completely different world. I remember like we had a big push for release one week and I brought my sleeping bag in and just worked all night and slept underneath my desk.
Nobody asked me to do that and I felt great about it too. I mean, when we were done, we celebrated and I just felt like I was a part of something. I felt like I had impact, I felt like I was contributing and there was just so much more into it than clocking in and clocking out. That[’s] when I kind of got that bug and I was like, “Man, I want to create environments to the day I die where other engineers can feel this way” and I’ve evolved that.
That was the late 90s and there were other things going on and everything and the world has changed. I’ve constantly had to work on like what do engineers care about, how can I make sure that their goals are aligned with my goals, how can I make sure that I can help them achieve the thing that they want and at the end of the day, you do all of that stuff and it bears such great fruit. I compare it a lot to — and in the book, I talk a little bit about this. I compare it a lot to a mechanic.
If you’re going to get your car fixed, you take it to a mechanic, right? Most people don’t know anything that’s happening underneath that hood.
Benji Block: Yeah, I’d be one of them.
David Dettmer: They can almost tell you anything and you’re going to give them some money and they’ll fix it and then you’ll drive away and you’ll feel like, “Okay, the car is working now. It feels really good” but they could have done anything back there, right?
Benji Block: True, right.
David Dettmer: Engineering is a lot like that. If you have engineers that don’t care, they could make things seem like they take longer than they should, which costs you more. They could actually build it in a way that isn’t maintainable or it may work for the first five or six users but won’t work for a hundred and you don’t know that until you kind of drive that car off the lot. So you put in a lot of trust in engineers when you’re asking them to build something for your company that you’re trying to build to last.
If they are not motivated and care about your product the way you do, you could really paint yourself into a corner, if that makes sense.
Setting The Tone and Company Culture That Cultivates High Performers
Benji Block: It does. I think it leads me to kind of my next question, which is one more along the lines of like a healthy culture and building one where there’s honest and respectful feedback because it’s super needed but sometimes you’re just bringing up. It’s hard to know everything that an engineer is working on because it is not always in our purview. Talk to me about how you would maybe go about implementing that sort of culture successfully where there is honest and respectful feedback.
David Dettmer: The good news is the world has evolved quite a bit when it comes to software development. More modern practices have engineers spending more time together, reviewing each other’s code, being extremely honest on what needs to be fixed, reviewing each other, giving each other feedback. So the good news is that if you’ve hired people that are used to that type of culture, you kind of start with a great foundation, right?
Because today, a good culture has engineers writing code and then having other people review it, making sure that they didn’t architect it incorrectly or use incorrect conventions or not set something up for scale or didn’t think about security. We’re in this great cycle now where engineers actually want that feedback because we go back to mastering their craft. You know, it’s hard to master your craft unless you’re getting really strong feedback around that.
There are still lots of companies out there though that believe that doing that part of the work can take too much time and so they are looking for shortcuts and when you take those shortcuts, you end up with a team of people there just kind of — they’re pushing code and they’re not reviewing each other but they are also creating the cycle of not being really great at giving each other feedback, right?
Writing the code and doing that correctly and learning and how to do that appropriately is one part of the feedback but if you can get that right and you can create that culture, then you can do all the other feedback. You can do the feedback of like being respectful to each other. You can get into heated battles when it comes over to making decisions around architecture and somebody is starting to be extremely negative.
It’s funny, almost every time I join a company, I have to start off with like, “We’re going to be a company of please and thank you’s” right? It sets that tone of like, “Okay, let’s respect each other but it doesn’t mean that we hold back.” I mean, you have an idea, let’s work it out. Let’s work through the idea at the end of the day but if you start with a foundation of like, “Okay, I am going to write some code. It’s my code, I don’t want anybody to look at it. I don’t want to get any feedback because I’m scared people are going to tear it apart,” then you are starting to lay the foundation that you can’t even do the other stuff — here you can’t help somebody be just a good employee.
Benji Block: So true. I had an old boss who as soon as anyone would get onboarded, one of the first things he would tell newcomers was like, “We disagree passionately behind closed doors and once we leave and we’ve agreed on a solution or a way forward, we agree passionately” and I always loved that because it set the tone from the beginning like you can disagree in these meetings.
We can let the best idea win but ultimately when we leave, we leave unified. I can see that culture getting set by creating that honest and respectful feedback both with engineers directly and then like you said, it flows out into the rest of the team and into the rest of the culture, so that’s really good. I can see that also being an issue where founders could get that wrong and they don’t set that space for honest and respectful feedback early on enough.
I wonder, are there other areas where you see maybe founders have potential blind spots or things that they might be — you see them doing wrong?
David Dettmer: It’s funny to see them doing it wrong, we could be here all day, right? One of the things I see a lot of founders having a hard time with is — and I talk a little bit about this in the book is that a lot of founders, you have to understand, this company is their baby, right? This is everything to them. They are eating and drinking and sleeping this thing all the time and no one is going to care about this company more than them, period and if somebody does —
Benji Block: Maybe they shouldn’t be the founder.
David Dettmer: There’s a lot of questions as a founder. He maybe shouldn’t be a founder, right, exactly. And one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen founders make is trying to force that amount of caring onto their employees. Other employees will show up to work, they will work hard but if you were on their backs and saying, “We’ve got to make this work. You know if we don’t, we’re going to die and I just had to pull another million dollars from our debt and so we got to work day and night in order to get some stuff done.”
There are times when you have to be transparent and real with your team and say like, “We have to pull this across the finish line” and there is a lot of realities around that but at the end of the day, what really works is motivating your team from behind, not like forcing them across the finish line, if that makes sense. I’ve seen a lot of founders actually start getting upset with themselves and getting upset with their teams when they are just not feeling like people are as bought into the company as they are. True leadership is finding ways to get people bought in without forcing the buy-in.
Benji Block: For sure. Well, this is a great conversation. David, I wonder as we start to wrap up here, when readers are done with this book, obviously there are some takeaways that they’re going to take with them but also like, I think there is overall probably a feeling — maybe it’s relief, maybe it’s just knowledge but what do you hope kind of that main takeaway or that main feeling is for them as they finish this book and apply it?
David Dettmer: What I’m hoping for is they get a really great feeling of I think relief is a good word, right? It’s like, “I can do this. I know I can do this.” It’s pretty straightforward but at the end of the day also, what I’m hoping is that they realize that doing this isn’t just purely mechanical, right? It is not this, “If I do A, B and C and D, then I’m going to build a great engineering team and we’ll be super successful.”
I am a big believer that you have to pour your heart into the people and into your company and when you do that, the dividends are paid back immensely. So, I’m hoping people walk away with this understanding that they have to invest in the people that they hire and they also understand the mechanics of how to build an engineering team and then last but not least, most successful companies get to the point where they need to hire an engineering leader.
When they go to do that, they’re going to get a better idea of knowing what to look for in an individual when they’re looking for a leader for their engineering team.
Benji Block: That’s great. Well, David, besides checking out the book, where can people find you? Where can they reach out and stay connected to the work that you’re doing?
David Dettmer: I mean, I’m on LinkedIn. Ping me there. You can find me there, that’s the easiest way to find me. Ping me, I try to respond to all my LinkedIn messages.
Benji Block: Good, that’s a good aim and goal. It’s been such an honor to discuss the book with you. Great work, a book is no small feat, so congratulations there. The book is titled, Raising Engineers: A Founder’s Guide to Building a High-Performing Engineering Team. It’s on Amazon, you can pick it up. It’s a great resource. David, thanks for joining us here on Author Hour.
David Dettmer: Thank you.