We probably did one thing right: building a team

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One of the first few team sharing sessions

Kent Nguyen
about a year ago I had a vision…

… for a cool place that geeks like myself could hang out
… for a desirable company that young talents seek to get in
… for an office that people actually enjoy doing work that matters
… for a tech playground where status quo is being challenged
… for a hub that connects people
and simply a place that deserves that hard-to-get-right ‘wow’ experience.

Some how, one way or another, most of it came true. — with Bui Hai An and James Chan.

At first, it seems like all we needed to do was setting up a cool-looking place where people could visit and enjoy themselves. In reality, it wasn’t so much about the cool toys and nice decor. Those wouldn’t matter much if the people we picked didn’t share similar chemistry. So how exactly did we create such special bond that everyone shares: we didn’t, or at least we didn’t start out thinking about it that way. But here’s the story.

Attracting talents

It began with the urge to defy what’s being told as status quo and the need to challenge common wisdom of “pay good money equals good result”. Starting from the hiring process, instead of thinking that we needed to go out there and look, we thought why not bring the candidates to us, find a way to attract them and exploit the natural curiosity of many developers. That’s why our little challenge came about and until today it still proves to be an excellent platform. We could and probably have reached far deeper than any head hunter could into the available pool of raw talents.

Setting the right environment

Having the right tool to attract prospects is only a catalyst to the process. We realised that we need to define the right benefits and perks to be appealing to the like-minded people. While allowing flexibility, it was also necessary to enforce certain policies to ensure a sustainable growth.

Starting with free lunch ‘investment’, we believe that doing so will not only take the stress out of mundane lunch-hunting task but it will allow the team as a whole have more contact time with one another and/or more time to rest during lunch time. Finding cheap and healthy food caterer was essential to our well-being and keeping it a minimal expenditure. Of course, drinks and snacks is absolutely essential for us, another stress-reliever especially for programmers.

We also made conscious choice of enforcing Mac-only policy for the developers. Despite the never-ending Mac vs Win war, we didn’t think there would be any platform that is more developer-friendly than Mac. It would have taken us countless number of hours trying to install the right packages, and tweak the configuration for simple tasks if it were to be done on Windows. Moreover, it’s simply ‘cool’ to have an entire team of Macbooks. Certainly we did make a few people envious.

We built the team to reflect our working style. The management team are all night owls and it wouldn’t make sense at all to follow a boring fixed working hours. On the other hand, not stating the working hours would definitely be subjected to ambiguity in responsibility. So what we did was allowing each team to mutually agree on how they should work, with a rough guide of 9-to-6 made known to everyone.

Maintaining the balance

By painting a rosy picture with lots of out-of-the-norm practices, we were pretty appealing to developers and we had no trouble filling up and expanding the team as and when we need. At certain point, we worried that having too many fresh faces might even disrupt the culture before we could even build one. Because everyone is different, each one is a misfit by himself or herself. Fortunately for us, the world didn’t crash and perhaps we did it right, the team was able to bond in no time and we worked well together.

Having said that, it does not mean we didn’t face issues with the process. We did at some point had to play hard tone and make sure certain expectations could be met. It’s part of growing pains and looking back we think that’s it’s all worth the drama, knowing that once we dealt with certain issues, things could only get better.

Growth and challenges

The team is still growing, we did not stop looking out for more talented developers to join us. It took a mere 6 months to go from a handful people to a headcount of near 30. In retrospect, at one point we were surprised ourselves to realise we have grown so much without messing up the team spirit.

We now have an extended space to house a lot more people. Although a few will leave, some will join, it will always be a constant struggle of balancing between being flexible yet rigid enough to get work done in the best possible way.

Nevertheless, we “got it” this time. And if there is a need to do it again elsewhere, we know exactly what is needed then. Maybe, just maybe, that chance is pretty soon!

SSS Full-stack Engineer

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on April 6, 2014

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