How to Build a High-Performing Product Team: Insights From an Experienced LatAm CTO

Maria Saldarriaga and Pedro MejiaFeatures

Illustration of South America's data globalization. Image Credit: Inna Bigun, Shutterstock.

Data is the new oil. This statement, popularly credited to Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng, has become even more relevant since the onset of COVID-19, where companies, no matter the size or the industry, have seen (and crave) data analytics as a way to better understand and react to the continuously changing global business landscape.

The amount of data created worldwide over the next three years will be greater than the data created over the past 30 years, and the world will create more than three times the data over the next five years than it did in the previous five. But it is not just quantity of data that matters, as the quality of data (accuracy, completeness, consistency and reliability) and the capacity to transform it into a strategic business asset allows teams and companies to find valuable insights, improve decision making, and find new opportunities to thrive in their markets.

In 2020, LatAm companies invested over $13.8 Billion (+128% vs 2019) on big data and analytics to enhance their digital and omnichannel experiences.

NewCo, a Colombian-based data company that is sponsored by dozens of key industry players across LatAm, is revolutionizing the way businesses understand information and how they work with it. The company is set to become the first data marketplace in the region.

Enter José Licero, an experienced consultant and technology manager who was hired as NewCo’s CTO last September to imagine, design, and execute the vision of becoming LatAm’s most important source of business data.

José’s career started in 2004 as a software engineer doing what he describes as low-level technical developments and infrastructure management. From there, he worked as a tech consultant for Advantis, where he led and was involved in more than 20 IT consulting and digital transformation projects and helped execute over a quarter billion dollars for companies in the region. In 2018, he took off the tie and became the CTO of Leal, the biggest loyalty program startup in Colombia and Central America, where he earned entrepreneurial experience that made him the perfect match to become the product mind behind the ambitious NewCo project.

His new goal is to hire 40 employees in Q1 of 2021 to fuel the development of Bogotá-based NewCo’s technology, data, and product teams. He is confident the effort will lead to a high-performing and motivated company with teams that share the same business vision and ability to deliver products that truly meet NewCo’s customer’s needs.

“NewCo’s challenges are no different from any technology-based startup,” José said in an interview with The Org. He states that there are five principles that he, and every other hiring manager in LatAm, will need to follow in order to secure a great tech (or product) team.

NewCo CTO José Licero

NewCo CTO José Licero. Courtesy of José Licero.

1. Stop thinking of the technology team as a software factory

One of the most common errors that organizations make is thinking their tech team is an independent silo fully responsible for the development and sustainment of digital products and services.

“Bringing successful products to life is not about having a large technology team,” José said. “It’s about building multidisciplinary work teams, where people with the right knowledge of the different business areas, genuinely integrate with technology and produce synergies that translate into solutions, products and services that customers love.”

According to José, the best way to achieve multidisciplinary teams is to have non-tech roles, such as marketing or sales, working hand in hand with the technical team in order to share the same objectives and have full accountability for the company’s overall success.

This work scheme generates better results by bringing a 360° perspective into the development and deployment of the product. Furthermore, each discipline becomes more engaged with the others, ultimately upskilling the capabilities of the entire team.

2. Hire seriously passionate and motivated people

According to Jose, “Passion is something people either have or don’t, and it can’t be measured by a test; it is something you only grasp from a sincere conversation or demonstration, hopefully in the candidate selection stage.”

In order to hire people who love what they do, and bring their best version into work, every leader needs to ensure people have passion and motivation, resulting in a team of missionaries and not mercenaries.

José considers the following question to be one of the most important in the recruitment process: “What makes you get up every morning and want to change the world?”

Although there is no right or wrong answer, the recruitment team is looking for responses that provide a glimpse into the candidate’s thought process and what inspires them. The clearer and more grounded responses tend to be a good indicator of passion.

Motivation, on the other hand, can be created. It is the organization’s responsibility to build it through leadership, empowerment and accountability. As José concluded, “Motivation is essential, and it comes from exemplary leadership and the team falling in love with the product.”

Bogota Colombia

Downtown Bogotá, Colombia, where NewCo is headquartered. Editorial Credit: Random Institute, Unsplash.

3. Set clear metrics and objectives aligned with the business’s needs

“Success should be measured through metrics, not guts and feelings,” José remarked several times during his conversation with The Org. Each and every employee, including software engineers and data scientists, should be responsible and accountable for the organization’s metrics and goals as well as understanding the impact resulting from their work.

When structuring teams, leaders need to emphasize the importance of sharing common goals while establishing a clear commitment and how these will be met on both individual and team levels. This is crucial for creating a harmonious working group as employees will always act with the organization’s best interest in mind and will collectively exert efforts towards reaching metrics.

“Teams that have clear KPIs should have the liberty to set their roadmap, decide how they are organized, and deploy the necessary resources to execute their plan,” Jose said.

4. Model good leadership

Hiring managers and other team leaders should spend most of their time recognizing and enhancing their teams without envy or fear of lack of recognition, all while giving value and visibility to everyone's work and becoming the bridge that facilitates communication and cohesion until it begins to occur naturally.

“A good leader prevents the group from deviating from the path, and if they do deviate, they identify why and lead them back on track,” said José, who deeply believes that a leader is only as good as their team. “Exemplary leadership recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Enforcing one’s ideas will never be as fruitful as bringing the whole team, from software developers to sales and marketing, together to collaborate.”

5. Earn trust from management

Management must trust and respect the autonomy of its product teams; they must be enablers and not detractors of their work, said José. Trust is conveyed when the team is given a vision and are permitted to create their own path to tangibilize it.

Trust from the managerial team is a crucial factor for team performance. Without it, team members and leaders are not willing to voice their opinions, questions, or improvement ideas in order to co-create.

“Trust building can be easily created when accountability is in place, and it can be boosted with open interaction and good communication between product leaders and the executives,” said José.

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