Blockchain is a fairly new business.
If you want to build a successful product within the blockchain community, you’ll need to plan carefully. Hiring and keeping the right people, building team autonomy and alignment at the same time, and getting a head start in an unpredictable market are just a few of the challenges along the way.
What are the secrets of successful blockchain startups?
Lloyd Moore, VP of Engineering at Blockdaemon, talks about building and keeping well-aligned teams, planning for success, and reacting to the quick changes of the blockchain field.
This blog post was written based on episode 5 of the Level-up Engineering Stories podcast hosted by Karolina Toth.
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Blockdaemon is the leading independent blockchain infrastructure to stake, scale, and deploy nodes.
Ordinarily, people would use software to run a Bitcoin or Ethereum node. However, that software is designed to deploy 1-2 nodes per person. With Blockdaemon, you can deploy thousands of nodes. We also provide 24/7 monitoring, so people don’t need to worry about safety.
I joined the company as Chief Architect. I had previous experience in bringing different projects back into life, so my task was to identify any weak spots and pain points.
After a few months, the company asked me to lead the initiative to grow and expand the team. We went through hypergrowth. From a team of 10, we’ve gone to almost 200 people within engineering.
Now that we’ve got more engineers and automation, the product is different. When I joined, there were 4-5 protocols running at a time, and a lot of processes were manual. This approach is manageable when you work with 10-30 nodes, not thousands.
Culture is one of the most important aspects of scaling. Without culture locked in from the beginning, it doesn’t matter what processes you have, you won’t have the right people. And the right people are essential for any team to win.
Building successful teams is based on good hiring. Our hiring philosophy is based on three pillars:
The main focus is to hire for cultural fit. Technical proficiency is important, but we put more emphasis on finding culturally aligned candidates. It’s a large part of our success, and it has allowed us to scale to where we are today.
Regardless of how good your processes are, if the people you hired can’t work together, you won’t succeed. Don’t rely on good luck; make a conscious effort to build the right culture, where everyone is a great fit and teams are aligned.
You must ask yourself whether your people actually want to be at your company. They might be a great cultural fit, but ideally, they’re also interested in your business—in this case, the blockchain space—and identify with your goals.
In the blockchain business, there are a lot of brilliant people, even as young as 15. However, brilliance on its own fades in importance if they don’t have the other 2 pillars or if they can’t work as part of a team.
To get the most out of people’s talent, you need to get to know them on a personal level. The same approach won’t work with different people. Some of them want to be left alone to do their best, and some prefer to be micromanaged.
Identify what works for your employees, and use that as part of your leadership initiatives. It becomes easier to create well-functioning teams when you have this information.
In the initial stage of growing your team, you should hire people who resonate with your employees to build team cohesion. This means asking for employee referrals and hiring people you’ve already worked with so you can build trust easily.
As the team grows, it becomes difficult to rely on references. At some point, you’ll run out of your local network, and you’ll need to consult in-house or third-party recruiters.
You’ll need unique methods to find the right people within the blockchain and DeFi space.
The people you want to hire don’t use LinkedIn. You need recruiters to go on Twitter and Discord servers.
We’ve been a distributed team since the beginning. We have teams across the UK, Europe, US, India, Germany, and the APAC region. We need to make sure that the right amount of alignment and autonomy is established.
We make sure that teams can work independently but remain in alignment with the rest of the engineering organization through consensus. That allows us to keep our pace regardless of scale.
With the hierarchy we established, we can make sure that our teams around the world are in alignment with the rest of the organization. We’re experimenting with using a team API, where there’s a well-documented way of interacting with different teams.
With that, we can make sure people know who to reach out to and what their preferred method of communication is. We’re continuously learning and improving, but the fundamental elements remain the same: there are autonomous teams in alignment with the rest of the organization through consensus.
It’s important that we have limits and guidelines. For example, if one team decides to use a different programming language than what the rest of the organization uses, it’ll be difficult to run cross-functional programs. Using two different programming languages will hinder cross-functional collaboration.
There are several types of teams and tasks in our company. Platform engineering is most convenient to do in house. The enabling teams, such as site reliability engineering teams, work on particular projects. They might stay temporarily or permanently depending on the aims of the team.
We also work with teams who work on specialized, complicated tasks. For these, we’ve outsourced a few times, when we didn’t have the skillset at the time.
Choosing who to outsource to is similar to hiring—we’ll ask around within the organization to get recommendations. So far, we’ve been able to rely on this tactic.
Due to our expansion, we recently got a CTO. In some organizations, you have a CTO from the beginning, and it’s usually a co-founder. For us, it was a higher priority to build up and scale the team first. We made sure that the retention rate was high. In engineering, it’s 95% over more than 4 years.
Once we established stable teams and went through hypergrowth, we realized that it was time to bring in the CTO. We had been planning it for a long time; the whole process took a year.
Our CTO, Chris Sharp, is a great win for Blockdaemon, especially for engineering. He was the director of Apple Pay, and he’s extremely knowledgeable. The challenge is to make the most out of our partnership and his talents.
The other challenge is planning for growth in our market. Some people would argue that we’re already in a recession. We focus on seeing the opportunities, so we can get a head start once this period is over.
I think that it would be naive to not share an interest in who our competitors are, but it's certainly not their story that drives our story. We have a roadmap that’s crafted as the world stands today. As we predict that roadmap over the next few years, the only changes that will come will be based on market forces, rather than whatever our nearest competitor at the time is going to do.
Having a plan is better than no plan, even if there are some obstacles while executing it. Our plan was to be in a position where we could pivot depending on market needs.
We’ve always tried to make plans that enabled us to grow organically instead of creating a grand plan for the next few years. We’ve built some of our components knowing that we may or may not need them in the future, but they allowed us to react to market changes as they were happening.
We could react to changes in the NFT API space and solve issues regarding our institutional customers’ regional financial regulations. We also expanded our providers: we went from using one cloud provider to having 3, and we’ve also got bare metal systems globally.
Today, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of NFTs.
They’ve been on our radar, but for a long time, we didn’t find it urgent to bring them further forward on our roadmap. Suddenly, there was a massive explosion of interest within NFTs. We had requests from institutional customers coming in.
Thanks to our amazing engineering leadership team, our methods have already been well-organized, so we were able to pivot on top of the architecture that we'd already built. Instead of creating an NFT API product that would normally take about a year to finish, we were able to produce something within 2 months.
A lot of people suspected that Solana was going to be big, but not as big as it became. Our CEO and our protocol team are exceptional at knowing market trends and using data points. Thanks to them, we started planning early and got a head start to become the number one provider for Solana.
Solana has expensive attributes and special machines to run on, which are hard to get. We analyzed the global supply chain to determine possible drawbacks, such as Shanghai still being in COVID lockdown.
Thanks to our early planning, we’re secure for the next 3 years. We have the necessary machines on all continents, and we’re the number one provider for Solana.
We couldn’t have predicted the downturn in the crypto markets, but we anticipated that the good times had to stop at some point. Just by using the data points and having a great CEO, we’re now ahead of the game.
If you’ve thought about becoming a leader, don’t get discouraged. Give it a try, and see how it feels. The easiest way to try out leadership is to take the initiative on a small hobby project. Practice on something low risk.
Within an organization, I'd also encourage the use of DRIs, where somebody is appointed to head a small initiative. I would encourage leaders who are approached by people interested in their roles to give them a taste of leadership. It’s not for everybody, but you’d be surprised at how many people don't know that they are good leaders.
Lloyd was a Royal Marines Commando for 12 years. During that time, he played professional rugby and was a 100-meter sprinter.
He became a hardware engineer after that, and then, he was a software contractor for a decade. He started out as Chief Architect at Blockdaemon in 2019, and five months later, he was promoted to VP of Engineering, his current position.
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About the author:
Dorottya Csikai is a content marketer at Coding Sans. She has experience in journalism, interviews, management and content marketing. She researches, writes and edits posts for the Engineering Leader's blog.