As the old maxim goes, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Startups come and go, ad nauseam, and any successful online business knows that it’s only as good as its team’s commitment. It was only fitting that The People Side hosted BirchBox CTO Dr. Liz Crawford in the offices of startup stalwart AppNexus Monday evening for a seminar on how to secure a capable, unified tech team.
Centering her talk on the “people side” of the business, Crawford classified engineers as just that: human beings with their own distinct interests, passions, and goals. Starting her own career at Birchbox as a consultant, Crawford found herself in a familiar position of juggling team coding duties with her own startup ideas, which her co-workers at Birchbox encouraged. She described her growth in the company and their positive reception of her ideas and talents as the basis of a “natural” bond through which she grew closer with her co-workers.
Crawford’s history and current team-building approach mirrors how she tackled her transition from consultant to chief technical officer for the company, marrying good business sense with back-end talent. While she claims there’s no proper way to swap company roles or coach her co-workers to do the same, she finds it crucial in her current position to reach out and foster an inclusive network of workers who can support each other to allow for sweeping management changes to occur as smoothly as possible. A team who knows and encourages each other in their respective jobs creates a sense of purposed team identity, strengthening the corporate infrastructure.
While Crawford specified challenges in perfecting the customizable user experience for Birchbox’s products, she only listed it as one of the goal that may drive the company’s engineers. One coder’s zest for problem-solving could be another’s bane; others might be more interested in maximizing value for customers or simply mastering a new set of skills in the workplace for themselves. “Engineering is a job like any other,” said Crawford. “It really depends on the person.”
As CTO, Crawford continued to emphasize the importance of managing personable and clear communication with potential recruits and existing teammates, always knowing the unique perspective that they’re working from and allowing them the space to integrate that into their working lives.
Experimenting with one-on-one sessions with her colleagues at varying lengths and intervals, Crawford finds that it’s important to keep flexible in a startup environment to remain as open and adaptable as possible, which Birchbox strives to be. When prompted about her standard approach to providing team synergy, Crawford responded “we’re not religious in anything we do,” then elaborated on the company’s development sprints, which tend to be flexible. Encouragement remains pivotal to the process: when sprint deadlines are missed, it’s seen as a learning opportunity about time management, clearing the way for work on the next sprint to begin. When team metrics on performance were referenced in an audience member’s question, Crawford said that she didn’t believe in measuring people by their motivation or performance, and was more concerned with creating an environment where workers will naturally find their fit and function with each other, fostering an efficient, customized team identity where high performance is a given. It isn’t a perfect science as much as a dynamic balancing act between immediate objectives and the concrete, long-term goals of preserving a sense of team infrastructure.
As tolerant as Birchbox is of the diversity in its employees’ needs and drives, Crawford stressed that a “joint understanding” is necessary across all her company’s teams. Finding the best fit for her tech teams has her screening applicants who possess something beyond a general interest in the company’s product: self-motivation and an openness to teamwork is critical. Crawford says that it’s easy enough to screen for these qualities in the interview process and workplace. Boasting a “no asshole policy,” she was adamant about only hiring engineers who are not only skilled, but also willing to help foster the ideal office environment “When you ask people to solve problems, you can generally tell [their personality],” said Crawford, noting that engineering in the startup space isn’t strictly about “how productive you are, but how productive the team [is].”
Ultimately, Crawford sees tech team chemistry as something that can’t be conjured strictly through team-building exercises or seminars, but through basic communication as well. “It’s got a lot to do with having people build strong individual relationships,” she said, noting that setting the space for teamwork and personal expression in the office can naturally bring groups together.
Birchbox’s methods reflect a fundamental aspect of tech development: like the people behind it, engineering hardly unfolds in a tidy, straight line.