How to Build a One-of-a-Kind Product Team in Boston: An Interview with Elias Torres

Elias Torres Driftt Founder and CTO
An interview with Elias Torres, founder and CTO at Driftt. This post originally appeared on the Rough publish Ventures blog. You can follow them on Twitter @RoughpublishVC. You can learn more about what we’re building at Driftt here.

Get to know Elias Torres, well known for his work recruiting and advising technical teams. Here he shares with us a few of the factors he’s found to be essential in creating a successful engineering team, as well as some of his thoughts on the Boston startup community.

1. Tell us what you’re currently up to.

“I recently left HubSpot after several very productive years as their VP of Engineering. Now I’m working on launching a new company called Driftt, currently in stealth mode. I’m delighted to serve Driftt as the CTO and co-founder, where my focus is primarily on product development and technology.

I joined HubSpot when it was at about 240 people, and I was a part of helping to grow the company to over 800 employees, seeing it right on through the recent IPO. I think what is most exciting to me now is that we get to start that exhilarating process all over again. We currently have a team of four people, and I’m looking forward to building something from nothing. I love that.

Not everyone would want to seek out that kind of risk, not after having achieved a fairly comfortable position many of us had at HubSpot. You’d kind of have to be crazy. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that to be an entrepreneur you do have to be crazy. The stress of a startup is off the charts, and most people don’t want any part of it. But I’m only really happy when I’m making something, building something, doing something — and when you’re a part of a large company, to a certain extent you’re less focused on building and more focused on enabling other people. Now I get to start fresh and get my hands dirty every day.”

2. Tell us about your work with teams. How do you build a great technical team?

“Everybody says they want to attract the best team they can, but the reality is that you have to achieve a very delicate balance of autonomy and ownership to build that team up once you’ve brought them together. You need to find that sweet spot where freedom, vision, and constraints combine to allow team members to do their best work. I try to create conditions under which people can have real ownership of what they create, but within real-world constraints so that they have to stop and ask questions and not feel overwhelmed.

Team members also need to be challenged technically. As a leader, you need to take time to understand each engineer and what motivates them, to figure out what parts of the development they care about the most. A lot of times, business-minded leaders just want the software to be built, and don’t take the time to understand that there’s a lot that goes into building software and systems.”

3. What are some mechanisms you use for team building?

“First, I like to create small teams of, say, three engineers who will entirely own the product or system they’re working on. This creates a natural group where members share responsibilities, development, the work, and the rewards. Larger teams can lead to unhealthy internal politics, where some members can do less work and get away with it. But three people can create a very powerful set of tools, and can build anything they really want.

At HubSpot, the model was three engineers, a product manager, and a user experience manager that was shared across teams. If it seems like you need more than that, you might want to ask yourself if the problem could be broken down into smaller services or products, so that you don’t waste time or energy.”

4. So what’s your special sauce for recruiting technical teams?

“I’m persistent and high-spirited. Our industry is just too competitive to sit still and expect great people to join you. My passion is to really understand what other people have accomplished and where they are trying to go. If I see a match in skills and ambition, I’ll be persistent. I don’t like to focus on titles and money because those just aren’t as important to the kinds of folks I’m interested in as learning and challenges help you grow. For example, at HubSpot, our goal was to build a world-class product company. That challenge, by it’s very nature, attracted the majority of that engineering organization. We all grew tremendously in terms of memories and experience. Recruiting is very personal to me. I take it very seriously when someone makes a life-changing decision to join my company and help us build something great. They could go anywhere, work with anyone, so I feel privileged when someone accepts our offer.”

5. Tell us your thoughts on the talent you see in Boston. Do you think its a good place to recruit a team?

“Boston is a fantastic place to build a technical team. Our universities attract the best talent in the world without us lifting a finger. People come here with great dreams of learning and doing something very meaningful in the world. It’s the beginning of their career and we have a great chance to attract them early. But it doesn’t come without a challenge: we have to work hard to prevent our top talent from going to the West Coast. More of us in Boston should focus on setting up the proper infrastructure for training young graduating engineers. How do we do that? It requires a mix of enough experienced individuals who have the ability to serve as role models for those with less experience. Our model — small teams of three people — allows for two more experienced people to take on a less experienced recent college graduate and train them, so that they’ll eventually grow into a prolific member and future leader of a team themselves.”

6. Having lived in the Boston startup/tech ecosystem for a while, what are some major trends you have noticed?

“We keep growing. There are more and more startups. I would like to see more investors and more investment, especially those willing to take more risks with younger teams. I would also like to see more consumer apps and tech infrastructure, more consumer-focused health and life sciences. Boston is very enterprise-oriented, which doesn’t really generate the outside excitement that Boston deserves, but I think that’s starting to turn around.”

7. If you could be a student again, what would you do differently or the same? What are 1–2 pieces of advice you have for students?

“Code more. I would tell students to build a strong foundation of understanding how both computers and browsers work. It is very easy now to learn how to code with all of these libraries and frameworks, but a lot of people just don’t understand the fundamentals.

I’d spend more time just creating. I think that it’s just the most fun thing to be doing, and it’s really exciting when you can find other people who are doing the same. It’s fantastic to experiment, to try to build companies out of their college dorms. You’ve got to dream big.

Be hungry and be humble. The older I get, the more I enjoy learning from those engineers, entrepreneurs and VCs that have more experience than I have. I like mentors with a Socratic style of teaching, where they’re always asking those deep questions that help you correct or improve your ways. I’m also learning that the best way to do something it’s not about the technical aspects of the solution, but those things that do a better job of balancing the delivery time, team involved, and most importantly, it gets the job done for the customer.”

8. What are some of your favorite books, blogs, media/news channels, for keeping up with the industry?

“I’m interested in finding a better balance for myself health-wise. Startups are a marathon and it’s not uncommon to find you’ve let your health become a lower priority. At Driftt, for instance, we all rock climb. We’re all out there building up calluses. So when I read books like “Let my people go surfing” by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, I get inspired. Here is somebody who really knows something about how to build a great company. He’s a pretty bad ass guy and — oh, by the way, he’s hugely important figure and innovator in the world of rock climbing. He built a company around his passion, and around a great mission to protect the nation and the environment. That’s something that people can really rally around.”

9. Any final thoughts or advice?

“I’m excited about the future of the Boston tech scene, largely because I’m looking forward what to see what the success of HubSpot can bring to Boston. I can’t wait to see how we can find ways to share a lot of our culture and engineering practices with other companies and future founders. The model here really is — and should be — entrepreneurs supporting other entrepreneurs.

I’d love to see ten or more great companies built around the future of marketing, consumer tech, or tech infrastructure that stay in Boston. They should look to HubSpot and know they have everything they need right here in Boston. We can attract top talent from our universities, we can receive financial backing from our VCs and angel community and honestly, we have enough supporters in the tech world to build any kind of company.

If someone is debating whether to join an early stage startup or a large company and would like to bend the ear of someone who has done both. Please give me a shout. And to any young founders out there, you should know that if you want to stay in Boston, you can definitely succeed here. Don’t say that there’s nobody here to help, because we’ve got a seriously deep bench here.”

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