5 Tips for Scaling Tech Teams from an Instagram Vet

“SF has all the great engineering talent.” It’s a decades-old myth that’s permeated NYC Tech, and one that people can’t seem to easily shake. We field questions all the time from concerned founders about how to find great engineers, where they’re hiding in NYC, and their particular areas of expertise. Our answer to them? Our city is rife with world-class talent, and it continues to attract high-caliber engineers from across the country. To help founders find those top-flight technicians - and to help those engineers get to know each other - we built the Primary100, a curated community of the city’s leading principal and senior engineers.

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NYC’s buzzing engineering community was evident last week when we convened the Primary100 to hear fellow engineer and SF transplant Greg Hochmuth share war stories from his time at Instagram. As Employee No. 7, he had a front-row seat to the dramatic ups and downs of a scrappy little team building product to its acquisition by Facebook in 2012. Greg reflected fondly on those never-dull early days, when they were just four engineers writing apps to serve millions of active users. At the time, they had very little data at their fingertips and just a baseline understanding of their user base. But they were a team of passionate generalists who were able to learn new things quickly and comprehensively, and they were laying the foundation for one of the most valuable social media platforms in the world.

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It wasn’t until after the Facebook acquisition that the team started to scale. They’d never prioritized hiring, and the team was in the dark when it came to sourcing talent, testing candidates, and evaluating their overall fit for the company. Fortunately, they had access to Facebook’s massive pool of resources for guidance and recruiting help, and in just a couple years had scaled their team to over 150 people. It was a steep learning curve, to be sure, and Greg shared with the group some of his most helpful tips for how to scale an engineering team.

  • Start hiring now. “It was a mistake not to prioritize hiring early in the game,” Greg said. Even if hiring might delay a new feature you’re thinking about, your team is the lifeblood of your company, and it’s important to get it right from the outset.
  • Hiring is a team sport. Recruiting responsibility does not lie with one individual. We’ve written about this before, following another Primary100 event featuring HubSpot CPO Jim O’Neill. Especially in the earliest days, it’s important sync with your team and agree on roles you’re trying to fill and who would be the ideal candidates. Develop a set of standardized hiring practices and criteria that will help you identify and evaluate the best candidates, and maintain consistency across your team.
  • Know who you need. “When we started to grow our team, we were deliberately cautious and slow, and we paid a lot of attention to positioning and team structure,” Greg explained. He started first by building out the iOS team, which they largely filled with Facebook engineers, but it was much harder on the product side. They were looking for people who were both solid product engineers but also had exposure to data analysis, marketing and partnerships. Before going out and seeking candidates who look great on paper and fit a broad profile, be strategic about the particulars of the role and get as targeted as possible in your talent search.
  • Seek out passionate individuals. The original Instagram team was no stranger to the inevitable technological hiccups and fire drills of early startup days. Greg says that having a group of highly passionate and invested team members made all of these hurdles easy to overcome. That sense of passion and dedication to a common cause is something that Greg now looks for in all of his candidates.
  • Tear down the walls. Transparency and open communication are mission-critical, especially for small teams. Giving your colleagues a clear window into what’s going on, things you’re worried about, and product issues can help resolve issues before they escalate, improve productivity, and boost employee morale.

By the time Greg left Instagram in 2014, he could have flashed his resume and had any number of high-profile Bay Area companies on his back. Instead, he came East, knowing that he’d be able to find a community of like-minded, high-caliber tech folks with whom he could collaborate and build innovative and complex products. Once here, he synced up with friend and fellow Google alum, Tom Bender, and jumped into his next adventure. (Spoiler alert: It’s called Dreams, and it’s changing the way people watch TV on the go. We can’t wait to see the finished product!)

Greg represents the type of experienced entrepreneur who has learned the lessons of scaling a team - at one of the world’s most dynamic companies, no less - and is eager to apply those lessons to his next endeavor. These are the people who will build the next wave of big tech companies in NYC, and who will raise the profile of the rich tech talent pool right here in our own backyard.

Thank you, Greg, for sharing your story with our community, and for giving us a glimpse into what the future holds.


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