This $60M Startup Shares How They Built One of the Top Engineering Teams in SF (Hint: It's Not Just About Technical Talent)

Published Sep 11, 2017Last updated Sep 12, 2017
This $60M Startup Shares How They Built One of the Top Engineering Teams in SF (Hint: It's Not Just About Technical Talent)

Amplitude co-founders Spenser Skates and Curtis Liu are firm believers in the existence of 10x developers: engineers that are not just incrementally more productive, but are 10x or more productive than average.

After all, they’ve claimed to have built their $60 million analytics startup with a team full of these mythical developers.

But Skates and Liu believe that what sets their engineers apart isn’t just their technical skills, it’s how they embody the company’s three core cultural values:

Humility, ownership, and growth mindset.

In fact, working with developers that practice these values is part of why Liu believes their team employs among the top 5% of startup talent – and why Amplitude has become the default analytics platform for companies like Hubspot, Instacart, and Adidas.

We spoke at length with Skates, Amplitude’s CEO, and Liu, the company’s CTO, about about why these values are so important and how they make a developer rise above the norm.

Let’s start with humility.

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10x Developers are Humble

"We don’t want to work with jerks or a**holes," Liu explained.

“It’s very easy to have a 10x developer where the ego is present ... and that’s not an environment or group that we want to work with. So, that’s why humility becomes important. You can have amazing developers, but if they’re not humble, then they are not necessarily inspiring to the rest of the team, they don’t necessarily up-level the rest of the team. Having a really strong developer that is also humble is super inspiring and people love working with them.”

Humility is best demonstrated in situations like system outages.

To be able to admit that you f*cked up and to be able to then take that and focus all your time and energy on resolving the situation, that takes a lot of humility. Not just that, but also being able to say that in front of all your peers, in front of the company.

Liu added that this is really a mix of ownership and humility: "when something doesn’t go as expected, being able to admit that."

Liu believes one of their team members that focuses on software development kits (SDKs) also wonderfully exemplifies humility. He handles the majority of customers' SDK requests, questions, and bug fixes.

"He will take his time away from what he is focused on to really fix the pain-points that our customers have in regards to SDKs. In a sense, it does prevent him from working on the more sexy things in our stack, and at the same time, he’s starting to think about, "how do I solve this on a more systematic level?"

Liu is pleased how this act of humility — taking the time to be customer focused — has led this developer to thinking on a broader scale which cultivates ownership and growth mindset as well.

10x Developers Have a Sense of Ownership for the Company

By the nature of their jobs, engineers focus on coding, but they need to be able to see how what they’re building impacts the business as a whole.

Skates explained that their developers "are not engineers necessarily first — like for sure they’re great engineers and they’re very capable and they’re smart folks — but they’re more like owners of the business and the business problem." He believes that everyone should be able to ask themselves what they would do if they were CEO.

For Amplitude, this is ownership: caring about the well-being of the company and assuming full responsibility for your part in it.

Skates explained that it’s especially important for engineers to understand this at the beginning of a startup. "From a culture and team perspective, we felt that a lot of folks didn’t have the right mindset for a super early-stage startup. What I mean by that is, do you understand how the problems we’re working on relate to the business outcomes that you’re solving? Whenever you write a piece of code for the business, the piece of code does not exist in a vacuum, it exists in the broader context of what the business is trying to achieve."

"There are developers out there who are happy to take and do instructions really quickly, but that’s really not what will get them to the next level," said Liu.

You need to be thinking about, not just doing what’s instructed of you, but look at the bigger picture and critically think, ‘Is this the right way I should be spending my time? Is there a more effective way I can accomplish what I’ve been trying to accomplish?'

For Amplitude, the best engineers maintain a customer focus. Developers frequently sit in on sales calls and ask for customer feedback on prototypes. "That means they’re not just building in a silo, they’re trying to take into context the company as a whole."

Jeffrey Wang, Amplitude’s Chief Architect, has a sense of ownership of the company that is "just at a level I haven’t seen out of any other engineer ever. He really cares about the trajectory of this company and is willing to do whatever it takes to win. He really is in some ways like a third co-founder of Amplitude," said Skates.

Wang is the lead engineer behind Thor and Nova — two databases that Amplitude built in-house that have been crucial to making the product what it is.

"He has time and time again brought up how he thinks about the culture of the company as it grows; he constantly questions our status quo and says, ‘how we can be better?’" Liu added. “The fact that he’s thinking about that and not just the technical problems just shows tremendous, tremendous ownership in the company.”

10x Developers Maintain a Growth Mindset

"You don’t know what you don’t know, but if you have the ability to figure it out, that’s leverage for the future," Liu said.

"It expands your horizons, the way you look at the world and how you break down your mental models and recombine them to effectively solve problems. So that’s really important in building yourself up as a 10x developer."

Growth mindset is the desire and drive to learn new skills, face new challenges, and continue evolving as a developer.

Skates and Liu see an important mix of ownership and growth mindset in Greg Jones and Ryan Ashcraft, the company’s first front-end engineers. Jones, now head of Applications Engineering, set up a system to scrape Github for emails which broadened Amplitude’s reach to new engineers. Ashcraft stays connected to the greater engineering community by attending React meetups. He also took the initiative to open-source an internally-used project to support his fellow engineers.

"There’s some people that are content just solving engineering problems, and taking a problem that they know about and just figuring out the solution to it, and that’s the end of their day. But it takes this spirit, intensity, and desire to be better, to impact more people, and then have the intrinsic drive to actually act on that desire," said Liu.

Skates and Liu are proud of the team they’ve built

Liu explained that he would take an average coder with these values over a savant coder any day.

Of course, "there’s some technical bar that we would look for — the fundamentals have to be there. But somebody can code all day and be super prolific, but if they’re working on the wrong problems and they’re not thinking about it from the perspective of the customer or the company, all of that work could just lead to something that people don’t want."

They use their company values to hire the right people and to keep their company growing together. "That’s what we hire and fire people on, that’s what we celebrate internally and what we promote," said Skates.

"I feel very fortunate to have found really great individuals to have started the company," Liu said. “That’s created the core of our culture that we ended up codifying in this way, and I’m super proud that that happened so that we can have these kinds of conversations.”

Building that team and getting the team to be so excited about Amplitude and what we’re working on — I’m more proud of that than whatever revenue targets that we’ve hit.

The company currently employs around 100 people with 18 engineers. Using their newly raised capital, they plan on doubling their team over the next twelve months. As they grow, maintaining a tight knit company bolstered by these values will continue to be important to Skates and Liu.

Note: Looking to hire your own 10X developers? Check out our platform, CodementorX. We’ll match you with top freelance developers from around the world that will help you get your project done. Click here to learn more and chat with us to find a good fit for your project and budget.

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