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How to build a tech team? A conversation with Leo Benkel, Founder of PURE LAMBDA (Part I)

Leo Benkel is an advisor, technologist, and investor. He is also the founder of PURE LAMBDA, a consulting company that provides mentoring and advisory services to help startups, scaleups, and funds solve their challenges pragmatically and innovatively.

Leo discovered his passion for science and technology during his childhood in France and began writing code early. This led him to a career in Silicon Valley, the heart of worldwide technological innovation, where he gained cutting-edge knowledge and skills for building technologies and teams. 

After ten years spent in Silicon Valley, Leo Benkel decided to move back to Europe, in Luxembourg, as it proved itself as a forward-looking and innovative country and founded PURE LAMBDA. 

Driven by engineering excellence and sustainable growth, we sat down with Leo and discussed a very hot topic: “ How to build a tech team?” 

We talked about skills, putting your customer first, attracting talent and what is inside the head of an engineer… scary ;-)


What does “Tech team” mean? What are the different tech profiles of a startup?

What is interesting for me is that people often assume that the Tech Team is just "engineers". It might have been true 15 years ago, but that's not true anymore. Based on the stage of the company, you might have a lot more than just engineering. So to answer the question, the Tech Team will have engineers, of course, but also much more than that. We can talk later on about the balance between how many seniors, for how many juniors and the size of the team. But for now, let's talk about the skills included within a Tech Team. 


  • The skills inside a Tech Team 


First, you will have what we call Q&A (quality and assurance), meaning that you have some people that do manual testing and make sure that the product that is being delivered is working. Sometimes, the skill of Q&A is inside the same person as an engineer. As an engineer myself, I worked for companies in the past where they assumed that you should own your code and you should Q&A your code by yourself. But I also worked for other companies with a Q&A dedicated person who tested every feature before it went out the door. Nowadays, you have more and more advanced Q&A people, meaning that they have developed more skills and would write automated testing. 

So Q&A is a more and more exciting role nowadays. It can also be a stepping ground to become a software engineer. 

Secondly, especially for B2C companies, each team might be focused on one feature. So, the team will include a designer. You would also have a product designer which is not looking at how it should look but what it should be doing for the user. 

Thirdly, you also have the tech managers. Sometimes you have a dedicated manager, and maybe this person is involved in multiple teams. So you will be the manager of a team A, B and C, or you can assign the role of "being the manager" to one of the team members to empower them (the owner of the role can change periodically, every month or every week), making the team members accountable. Nowadays, you also have this type of keyword such as "scrum-master", if you are using agile methodology, etc... But all of that is, at the end, "Management". 

Fourthly, you would also have UX people interacting with the customers.

Based on the company, sometimes you have feature-based teams, and they are almost like a small startup within the company. In theory, for each senior engineer, you would have between four to five juniors no more because you want to have time for mentoring and transfer of knowledge from the senior to the juniors. 

Finally, it is also interesting to point out that you might need very different expertise based on the type of product you designed. If you are very heavy on machine learning, you will need data scientists. If you have a very complex data-based structure, you will need a database expert. If you are a blockchain company, you will need a blockchain expert…When the company is big enough, you will structure it with a team per feature. And sometimes, for those very specialised skillsets, like data scientists, you have a couple of data scientists that act like mercenaries for the other team; based on the needs of each team, they're going to provide the expertise when it is needed.


  • Starting your company: What Tech Team? 


Let's stay, you just started your company. Then you would have a person that we call a "founding engineer". It is an important keyword that not many people know. Sometimes they're looking for a back-end, front-end, or senior engineer. But when you are a pre-seed company, and you don't have a team at the moment, what you want is a founding engineer. A founding engineer is a job title that tells you that you're going to be the “first engineer”, and you're going to do pretty much everything. As a founder, in your recruitment process, it's like a filter. Only the people that know what it means will be interested, so you target the right talents. If one of the founders is technical, he can also assume the role of the founding engineer. But if you're not technical and need engineers, you will hire a founding engineer. And, you can have more than one founding engineer. For instance, the companies I invested in started with three people, all three engineers, they are all founding engineers. There are the ones that built the first MVP, the prototype. They are doing a bit of everything: front-end, back-end, database, everything. 


  • Let's imagine this scenario.


You have your own company, you're the founder, and you're not very technical, but you understand a little bit of code. You have a founding engineer who is your main point of contact to translate your ideas into code. You also work maybe with a freelancer like a designer, who has designed the whole wireframe of what the platform should look like. Then you have a front-end person, maybe in India, and a back-end person, maybe in Poland, who is doing the API for the front-end to be rendered. As you grow, you're going to want to internalise the expertise. So maybe you'll offer a job to the contractors you are already working with, so they would like to join your company. Or perhaps you are going to hire more people that replace this expertise. It is essential to internalise the competencies because you want to control the value you provide to the world. If I am taking an analogy, it is like saying, "Nike is not designing their clothes or shoes, then what do they do? They are just like a management company." You want to build your product because this is what you sell. So potentially, you might offshore the prototype because the prototype is made to learn how the product should be, then certainly pivot and then build the team internally. You will also develop and expand your team when you are raising funds. 


  • The secret of team success: accountability means empowerment


When you build your team: empower them and create accountability. As a CEO or founder, you want to be transparent about your goals. Let's say you want next quarter to increase conversion by 15%. Instead of telling your team what they are going to build, ask them what they think will have the most significant impact on conversion. Don't micro-manage; empower people by saying: "here's the company's goal, help me make it happen so that we can succeed together".