June 27th, 2013 Tech in Motion NYC: Tech Panel
On Thursday, June 27, 2013, OLC attended Tech In Motion’s event NYC Tech Panel featuring seven accomplished executives: Kellan Elliott-McCren, CTO of Etsy; Hrishi Dixit, CTO of LearnVest; Micharl Bryzek, CTO of Gilt Groupe; David Liu, COO of Knewton; Brian Honohan, Tech Director at Charity Water; Nick Ganju, founder of ZocDocs; and moderator Alex Cavoulacos, COO of The Muse.
Alex Cavoulacos: Can you introduce yourselves to the audience?
Brian Honohan: I’m a Tech Director at Charity Water. I joined in 2009—the organization is six-years-old. We’ve given clean water to a lot of people. Water changes a lot of things in people’s lives.
Michael Bryzek: I’m the CTO at Gilt Groupe. We’re an online ecommerce website. We grew from zero employees to over 1,000. It’s been fun to go from idea to scaling.
David Liu: I’m a COO at Knewton. We’re a tech company platform made in New York. Our goal is personalization of education. We want to maximize learning no matter who it is.
Kellan Eliott-McCren: I’m the CTO at Etsy. We provide an online marketplace for creatives. We’re reimagining the marketplace. I’ve been at Etsy for four years.
Hrishi Dixit: We’re in the financial planning space. Think of it as a Weight Watchers for money. I’m a CTO at LearnVest. I joined about three years ago—I was employee No. 7. I was the only technical employee at first. Now there’s over 20.
Nick Ganju: I started ZocDocs in 2007. We started with friends and now we have over 70 employees. I’m the founder of ZocDocs.
AC: Can you tell us about New York hiring?
KEM: It wasn’t a choice of starting somewhere else. It was New York. It was Brooklyn.
MB: Although it seems that New York doesn’t have a lot of technology, it’s not true. There’s technology startups everywhere. Tech and fashion go hand-in-hand. It’s a great place to find talent.
DL: I think it’s timing-related. New York is in its second phase of finding amazing talent here. I rarely have conversations about people talking about having trouble finding talent here. I think the misnomer of the difficulty of New York is just not true.
AC: What about remote job locations?
MB: We’re an ecommerce company, so we’re influenced by nexus tax laws. I think prior to Gilt, DoubleClick did a very good job at developing the technology community here in New York. It set a good starting point for everyone and Gilt.
NG: I think at scale, it’s important to have teams in different locations. When it comes to startups, it’s important to have people in the same location.
AC: What about at LearnVest?
HD: We had nine people that lived in Argentina, but it did not work. The choice of New York was the most logical choice. We’re in the finance business. It’s not just technical, but domain talent. When starting out, outsourcing sounds like a good idea, but it absolutely does not work. Technical debt is really hard to whittle down. With an onsite team, you can definitely work faster and smoother than offshore teams.
KEM: We’ve been experimenting with remote distributing teams. It’s been working with us.
AC: On scaling, how do you use as little structural process as possible?
KEM: You move quickly and iterate rapidly. It’s core at Etsy. For us, it’s about reevaluating constantly and building tools that care about.
DL: One thing that’s been helpful for us is that we believe in small teams that really care about customers. We believe that five to seven people can change the world. We think that scales quite well.
MB: At Gilt, we call this the social experiment. We want to keep Gilt as a place where we want to work. It comes down to the ability to change and modify the business. Teams are accountable for KPIs, but not how they get there. Today, it’s been nice getting to see open-source project. Tooling is becoming very available. Having great tooling minimizes fail. When you go to Gilt, everything is broken, but it’s fixed so quickly, no one notices.
AC: One of the things important to scaling is communication. How did you face this at Charity Water?
BH: At scale, it doesn’t ramp up too much, but talking to people always works.
NG: When we were 10 people, we had a giant whiteboard and we just wrote what we were working on. Just sit in the same room and ask people.
HD: So far, scaling issues have been—stop writing code and look at people more. In my experience, there’s no silver bullet to managing people. It’s also identifying the team’s individual roles to make it far smoother and better.
AC: How important is technology early on?
KEM: One of the things is ignoring local optimization in favor for global optimization. It’s not important regarding what technology you’re using, but what your goal is. Technology should be the last of your concerns, but the vision and the mission.
NG: There’s a productivity curve. Dynamically typed language is faster. When you get to 20 to 30 engineers, the loosey-goosey type of these languages will get you into trouble. Companies start to migrate to static languages.
MB: When you are hiring engineers, what you need to think about early on, is pitching the right story. You want to attract a different type of engineer.
AC: So what you hear is how difficult it is to hire in New York—
BH: For us, it’s communicating what our vision is and referrals worked out a lot. Another way is understanding the way that people want to help us change the world.
DL: We’re all working on different technology—we’re trying to solve global education. What we do is make sure that the vision of the company is very clear. This weeds out 90 percent of applicants. It’s a lot of self-selection.
AC: What about your recruiting projects?
NG: One of the pleasures of my job is watching the college graduates grow up. We have a super active group college graduate program.
KEM: It’s making sure you are telling a story and making sure the world knows you are doing something in the story. It’s about having people find your voice and at scale.
HD: There’s strategic and tactical hiring. At that point, there’s a few options open to us. On the technical side, we’ve had a very successful internship side. We get really interesting people that want to get involved with New York startup world. We’ve been going to local universities as well.
AC: What about when it doesn’t work out?
DL: If there’s any advice I can give you, hire as fast as you can, but fire faster. Most people do just okay, but that’s not good enough. Hire the person like they were your last hire.
MB: Ethics and values are very important. Being 100 percent ethical is very critical. There are people that join at the wrong time and leave, but when the come back, they’re incredibly successful.
KEM: If you want to know if people are good or not, you can determine that by good data. We actually deploy you on the site the very first day. At six weeks, we’ve rotated you through the entire company. We’ve worked with them a lot and get a lot of data.
AC: What about retention?
MB: People need to make the exclusive decision to stay. We spent a lot of time on that.
BH: I think it’s listening to your employees and team members and tackling that as soon as possible.
HD: I actually as the opposite: What do you not like about being here? It’s not just when you work with, but the experience that you get. We’re trying to know exactly what the exact aspirations with the people are.
NG: I think it’s just believing in the passion and making the culture itself awesome.
AC: How different is the New York tech scene from when you started?
KEM: For us, being in New York is our competitive advantage, but hiring more technology infrastructure would be great. The work being done right now, though, is great.
NG: Make something new, something that people want. Think about a solution for other demographics.
DL: Build something that solves global problems. Not just something with a feature.