Building Engineering Teams is Product Management

Nick Caldwell, CPO of Looker and former VP of Engineering at Reddit, shares how he grows and manages engineering teams and what it takes to be successful as a Chief Product Officer.

Nick Caldwell spent 15 years at Microsoft, beginning as an intern and then moving up to General Manager for product called PowerBI, a highly successful internal start up. He decided that he wanted a proper start up experience, so Nick moved to the Bay Area and took on the role of VP of Engineering at Reddit. There, he helped grow the engineering team from about 35 to 170 people.

When Nick started at Reddit, many people called themselves tech leads, but few were actually engineering managers. As the company scaled, Nick realized that the engineering team needed people managers in addition to the architects of the software. With this in mind, Nick teased apart the tech lead role and the expectations that accompanied it into two distinct roles: Manager and Architect.

The two-track approach fits into Nick’s more general idea of how companies should approach scaling. He says that you need to keep every team aligned. Nick cites Conway’s Law, which states that the shape of an organization matches the shape of the software architecture. Embrace this fact, he says, and use it to help you build a strong foundation for the product. Once your foundation is set, you can start building actual product initiatives, such as Reddit’s teams for website redesign, social features, and search and ML features.

Nick cautions that you have to be careful when introducing new processes. He recommends doing so from the bottom up and making sure to have discussions with the people who will be effected by the new processes. Use the people within your organization to discover the correct application of process.

Processes should develop organically, and so should company goals and short-term “missions.” For Nick, a mission is not a high level or abstract vision statement. Missions are specific and short term and they include a clear set of achievable goals with an end date. It’s important for every team to have a mission when scaling, Nick says, because as companies grow, people increasingly lose sight of what everyone else is doing, which can lead to political battles and ambiguity.

Nick has taken these lessons with him to Looker where he once again is overseeing a rapidly scaling engineering team and creating a forward thinking product strategy, this time as the Chief Product Officer. At Looker, the product groups refine their mission statements every quarter so that everyone understands how every part of the company contributes to broader company objectives. This also gives people an opportunity to collaborate and coordinate with other teams.

When beginning an executive leadership role, Nick stresses the importance of learning to appreciate multiple disciplines and to think holistically across the entire company.

You’ll learn a lot from this episode about growing and managing engineering teams at scale and what it takes to be successful as a Chief Product Officer.

Here are the highlights:

Nick Caldwell

CPO of Looker and former VP of Engineering at Reddit


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