A Hiring Manager’s Guide to Building High-Performing Engineering Teams

Samridhi Singh · September 25, 2020
Satrughan “Sunny” Singh
Courtesy of Satrughan Singh

The Org interviewed Satrughan “Sunny” Singh, Director of Software Engineering at Singapore-based IoT startup SensorFlow, to explore hiring strategies that foster high-performing teams. Launched in 2016, SensorFlow caters to over 60 hotels across Southeast Asia. To date, they’ve raised $11M and boast a growing team of 49.

SensorFlow provides an IoT solution that monitors, analyzes, and automates hotel room environments. Its wireless smart automation solution minimises energy use from heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems through intelligent optimisation. The solution can be retrofitted onto new and existing HVAC systems in less than five minutes per room to minimise disruptions for both guests and hotel operations. SensorFlow’s clients report HVAC energy savings of up to 50%, as well as an overall 30% savings on their total energy bill and 40% in maintenance costs.

Singh joined SensorFlow in April 2020 as the Director of Software Engineering. Previously he was the Data Product Manager at Traveloka and VP of Engineering at Anywhr.

Why is a deliberate hiring strategy critical to growth and what are some mistakes technical hiring teams often make?

As managers, we technically manage a large part of our employees’ lives, so it is important that we are very deliberate about who we choose to hire and why we’ve hired them. The people we’ve hired are trusting us to provide them with an enriching & fulfilling career and I strongly believe that if I take care of my people then they will take care of the company.

A big mistake I see is that hiring teams often forget about what personalities are thriving in the current stage of their organisation’s growth. We are generally very specific about the technical skills we are looking for but get very generic about other traits, like communication skills or even lifestyle. Most companies will hire for a technical job that might not exist in 6 months rather than hire for the long term.

Another common mistake is that the hiring manager often does not assess the personality fit between direct management and the candidate. Different types of managers are better at handling different types of personalities. I’ve seen great engineers turn into mediocre engineers — even under good managers — because personality-wise they were just not compatible with one another.

How do you know when you want to hire for a role?

Only after we understand the organisation we are hiring for would we be ready to find people that fit in. I am consistently identifying patterns in the failures that are happening around my team or things that my team has been consistently struggling with. These are very clear indicators of a lacking capability in the team. I encourage my managers to keep a lookout for capabilities that the team is struggling with. We then assess those capabilities to decide if we will buy a solution to help us out, hire a consultant, or make a full-time hire.

Before we get to the actual hiring, there are things about the organization we need to be able to answer:

  • Where has this organization been? Where does it want to go?
  • Who is happy, content, or sad here?
  • What are characteristics we have an abundance of and what is missing?

It’s incredibly important to understand your company’s operating model and ensure it’s conveyed to the new hire. For instance, I once had an engineer who was upset that a lot of his work was being thrown away. If this one attribute of the organization had been explained to him, his morale and performance would have been different.

How do you balance culture/personality fit with the hard skills an engineer might need for the job?

This is a big part of my approach to hiring. I think about what capabilities I need in the team, not the deliverables I need this person to work on. When you invest time in understanding your team’s makeup, you will uncover capabilities that your team is lacking — stakeholder management, communication skills, etc. — and you should hire for these capabilities instead. Generally I believe the soft skills are harder to pick up and train as compared to hard skills so I prefer hiring engineers who are better with their soft skills. Moreover, diversity in voice, gender, emotional spectrum, and race are all equally considered to ensure we have a robust team.

Unlike many other tech hiring processes, we actually do the coding interview right at the end. We start with gauging fit, then system design, and then the technical interview. Once potential and performance is evaluated, we ask ourselves if we can accelerate the growth trajectory of the new engineer.

What are the interview questions you ALWAYS ask and why?

Describe to me how your ideal manager would help you grow? This is to understand if I fit the persona they have in mind and it also lets me get insight into what they find important.

What does a good day at work look like? What kind of environment makes you do your best work? This is to understand what kind of environment is conducive for this candidate and I use that to assess if our environment meets their needs.

What are the interview questions you NEVER ask and why?

I don’t do whiteboard interviews as I don’t believe they provide any sort of important information on the candidate’s ability to do the job I am hiring for. I generally only ask questions that help me understand these things about the candidate:

  1. How would I need to manage the candidate as an employee?
  2. How would the technical skills of the candidate help raise the bar for the team?
  3. Do I have the right kind of environment to let the candidate grow into the type of employee they want to be?
  4. Can I get them interested and passionate about the work we are doing?

After identifying and screening candidates, what are some things you do to ensure a seamless transition/onboarding?

I usually have another chat with them after we offer and before they join us for their first day. This conversation is usually to get them mentally prepared on what to expect in terms of culture, tasks they will be working on, and people they will be regularly interacting with.

I talk about some of the issues the team is struggling with so that they can offer to help in those areas. This hopefully leads to early wins that help build the trust of the team. I talk a little about the stack we are using as well, which allows them to start preparing early so that they can join us and start contributing to the team as soon as possible.

Any closing remarks?

A high performing team is not just built through proper day-to-day management practices, it also requires that we pay attention to who we are hiring and why we are hiring them.

We need to be deliberate and ensure we hire high potential candidates who can thrive in the organization for years. Doing so makes it easier to get our teams into high performing states where everyone is delivering value to the organisation whilst having an enriching career.

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