What these African CTOs learnt from building engineering teams

In this article, Deji Lana, CTO at SeamlessHR and Olorunfemi Jegede, COO at Credpal shared the lessons they both learned while building engineering teams at various African startups.

What these African CTOs learnt from building engineering teams

In this article, Deji Lana, CTO at SeamlessHR and Olorunfemi Jegede, COO at Credpal shared the lessons they both learned while building engineering teams at various African startups.

Earlier this year, I had a conversation with Abdoul Kadry Diallo, co-founder & CMO at ANKA on how the decision to hire a chief technology officer (CTO) enabled the growth of the e-commerce startup.

Since there is no such thing as a team of one, I figured out it will be interesting to learn from CTOs how they are able to build teams that will enable their companies to scale.

This led me to talk with Deji and Olorunfemi about the lessons they have learnt while building engineering teams at their companies.

“Not all engineers are managers” — Deji Lana, CTO at SeamlessHR

Prior to starting co-founding SeamlessHR, Deji worked as the CTO at Insidify, Waressence Nigeria Limited and Bus.com.ng. He built the entire backend of the First Bank official website, as well as its integration to all external platform and infrastructure.

What do you consider before hiring an engineer on your team?
At different stages of the company’s growth, there are different things to look out for. Generally, I look out for skill, dedication, attention to detail and passion for the work. At this stage the engineer should be willing to pick up any framework, language or architecture to make the product work optimally. These are very important at the early stage of the organisation.

As the team grows, the need for specialization and in depth technical skill takes the front burner -  so you are looking at people who are skilled in specific areas, say frontend, backend, mobile developers etc.

Then as you scale and stabilize especially across the continent and various markets, you need experiences ‘done-in-befores’ in some areas. It helps you move fast and reduces times of failures.

What challenges have you faced while building your teams as a CTO?
The various phases of building the startup. For instance, in the early days of the startup, one of the challenges is getting someone who believes in the system that you are trying to build.

When you have moved past that phase, you encounter another challenge, which is trying to ensure that the team members are able to stick to the company’s technical architecture and framework especially when you are running the enterprise SAAS model while being innovative and maintaining agility.

Also, as engineers grow and stay in the company longer, some of them want to be managers — however, not all engineers should be managers. Some should just be senior senior engineers - mentoring younger developers in technical skills and architecture. Trying to communicate this to some of them who think a managerial position is better for their linkedin profile can be difficult sometimes.

What are some of the lessons you have learnt from building an engineering team at Insidify and SeamlessHR?
First thing, do not copy and paste, what works for another startup or team might not work for you even if it looks very similar to what you are building. Experiment, review your process and always pay attention to your metrics. Even if you fail, you have learnt from the process.

Building engineering teams can be a lonely experience at times, you need mentors and/or more experienced colleagues whom you can discuss some of the ideas and structures with. In all of these, find what works for you, compound and expand on it. Another thing is, when you hire new people, do not be too fast to assign them ROIs, amidst the pressure from other people within the management team, ensure that they are well onboarded in technical product knowledge and architectures - else you stand the risk of them breaking things.

Finally, as a CTO, it's also important to listen to your team members and customers, this will help in your decision-making process.

Is getting the right tech talents for engineering teams in Africa a challenge?
It’s good that African startups are raising funds, after raising funds, the emphasis is on hiring competent talents that will contribute to the scaling of the products you are building. Most of the time, you are competing with bigger companies like Facebook and Microsoft which are offering these good developers remote compensation that is higher than what you could offer, especially in the African economy.

However, startups can compete in this space by building a good working culture and also creating an opportunity for junior developers to grow and thrive.

What’s the relevance of junior developers to the team and how can their growth be enabled?
Most junior developers are Gen Z, they are very smart and outspoken. However, while they may lack experience, they are willing to experiment and prove themselves. At SeamlessHR, when we bring a junior developer on board, we attach them to product teams — this is to get them actively involved in the programming framework and architecture so that they can learn.

Aside from this, they carry out a “pair programming” and “joint code review”, where they share their codes with senior developers. This creates room for constructive criticism and is also an opportunity for the junior developers to ask questions in areas that they need clarity.

Another thing we do is internal hackathons and “blameless post-mortem”, where people are allowed to learn from their mistakes. We have found out that within three to six months, their competencies greatly improve both in skills and technical product knowledge.

“Every engineering team needs a senior engineer with vast experience” — Olorunfemi Jegede, COO & Co-founder, Credpal

Previously, Jegede worked as the pioneer Chief Technology Officer and Chief Product Manager of Credpal.

From your experience, what’s the best model for building an engineering team?
There are two things we consider when hiring talents for the engineering team, there is technical capacity and the individual’s soft skills — teamwork, and intuition. Typically, when recruiting engineers at Credpal we start with a shortlisting process by assessing the individuals’ professional experience and projects they have worked on in the past.

After this, we give the engineer a problem to solve, this helps us to assess the candidate's competence. Thereafter, we test their soft skills to look out for important values like collaboration, and communication. When we are done assessing the candidates, we try to talk to their previous employers to learn more about the candidate.

Another important thing to note when hiring is defining the need of the company, this determines the level you intend to hire and the specific qualities the individual should have.

What are the challenges you face implementing this model?
One of the biggest challenges for me is the availability of competent talents. 60% - 80% of the CV we get sometimes are not really relevant for the role. Good engineers are taken and many people are not learning the skills compared to the need. That’s why the role of companies like Andela, Decagon, AltSchool Africa is relevant.

Related Article: 10 places you can learn how to code in Nigeria

At Credpal, we have an entry-level academy to serve as a grooming ground for young engineers, it provides them with an opportunity to have hands-on professional experience. As of today, two to three of our senior engineers benefitted from this programme. More companies need this approach to make up for the lack of talent in the ecosystem.

Funding teams is also a challenge, engineering talent is expensive even though we have had a number of startups raise funds, they’re still other ones that do not have sufficient funds to access competent talents.

What have you learnt from building engineering teams?
You always need a senior engineer on your team that understands the product and has vast experience. Not having that level of talent at the early stage of Credpal affected us, most of our engineers were learning on the job, even though they were able to build, the infrastructure was not to its best, and we had to rebuild it much later.

Beyond having a competent team, problem clarity and problem definition are very important to ensure that the engineers build a quality product. Every CTO and their team should spend a lot of time thinking the product through.