#82 - Engineering Leadership Lessons From Scaling Up Bukalapak - Mohammed Alabsi

 

 

“There’s a substantial difference between building software and then building software for production and then building software for scale."

Mohammed Alabsi is a seasoned technology leader, an angel investor, and a venture fellow at Insignia Ventures. Mohammed worked at Amazon for 10 years, before moving to Southeast Asia and helped scale up Bukalapak towards its IPO. In this episode, Mohammed started by sharing his lessons learned from his time at Amazon, working on EC2, advertising business, and B2B e-commerce. Mohammed then shared his journey at Bukalapak and described the challenges that he had to tackle during the scale-up stage, such as setting up engineering processes and governance, growing high-performing engineering teams rapidly, and building alignment across those multiple teams. He also gave great tips for leaders on the importance of managing up and keeping the leadership and stakeholders in the loop. Towards the end, Mohammed shared about his current role as a tech investor and advisor and gave some great advice on common mistakes startup should avoid, as well as advice for tech leaders in the early stage startups.  

Listen out for:

  • Career Journey - [00:05:31]
  • Lessons from Amazon and AWS - [00:08:42]
  • Common Scale-up Challenges - [00:11:12]
  • Growing the Team Fast - [00:14:58]
  • Process and Governance - [00:18:37]
  • Teams and Alignment - [00:23:26]
  • Managing Up - [00:25:46]
  • Tech Investing and Advisory - [00:28:41]
  • Startup Mistakes to Avoid - [00:30:03]
  • Advice for Leaders - [00:33:01]
  • 3 Tech Lead Wisdom - [00:33:59]

_____

Mohammed Alabsi’s Bio
Mohammed Alabsi is a seasoned technology leader with experience in the US, Asia and the Middle East. Mohammed’s career began with Maktoob.com where he helped build two businesses that were acquired by Yahoo! and Amazon. During his 10 years tenure at Amazon, Mohammed built AWS services powering the infrastructure of millions of tech companies worldwide. He was also a founding member of two of Amazon’s major businesses, in Advertising and Amazon B2B e-commerce. Inspired by Southeast Asia’s pace of technology innovation, he joined Bukalapak as an SVP of engineering. At Bukalapak he led a team of 800 technical staff, launched numerous products, and helped gear the business towards IPO. Mohammed is active in the startup scene, advising and investing in startups across ASEAN and the US. He is also a venture fellow at Insignia Ventures.

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Quotes

Lessons from Amazon and AWS

  • It taught me that there’s a substantial difference between building software and then building software for production and then building software for scale.

  • In this day and age, technology changes very quickly. As a technology leader or as an early seasoned technical person, you’re kind of expected in a way to have T-shaped competencies where you have a depth and you have an expertise in one particular area but you have sufficient breadth of knowledge across that you can kind of add value at a high level. And to be able to pick up on that and just stay up is a pretty critical skill set of itself. To be able to hone that skill and to be able to use it consistently is pretty important.

  • Have the talent to communicate your ideas and messages and be able to actually sell them. And to drive that influence across the people that you work with, to be able to drive consensus towards a common goal, (it) can add value to the customers and add value to the business.

Common Scale-up Challenges

  • When I joined Bukalapak, the business was fairly sizable, but at the same time, it continued to grow fairly quickly. In e-commerce business, predominantly in Southeast Asia, there are a lot of promotions, a lot of events. During those events, the traffic can spike very quickly.

  • And you can kind of think of the magnitude of load that by itself would actually create. You see like a massive spike in our graphs that show traffic. That was one of the early things that I had to work with the team on. It’s to make sure that we have a platform and we have infrastructure in place that can scale.

  • When you’re doing it at such a large scale, you have to bring in a lot of people together.

    • You have to bring in the marketing folks, so you really understand what the campaigns are going to look like, how the promotions are going to drive customer behavior and drive the nature of the traffic.

    • The product engineering teams have to kind of work on improving or potentially make some changes in terms of either code optimizations or some architectural changes to make sure that the product continues to scale. And then at the infrastructure level, there’s also a lot of readiness that kind of has to take place.

    • And then establishing that as a process, bringing everybody together, make sure that people understand and they’re kind of bought into that, and then drive a lot of the technical changes or the technical improvements that were required.

  • To grow a team from, I think at the time we were about a team of 300 on the tech side and we grew the team to about 750 within about a year to year and a half. So, scaling the team in that magnitude and continue to be able to recruit people at a high caliber level is a challenge, and keeping in mind how competitive the talent market is at the moment.

  • And I would say finally, there are a lot of challenges that come with a team that’s growing very quickly. You want to find a balance between having small teams or providing small teams with a healthy degree of autonomy, but also at the same time, you don’t want to have teams that would operate in silos.

  • Trying to find that balance and find ways to make sure that is not going to happen, is key; to make sure that while we focus on growing the business, on scaling up the team, on maturing as an organization that that’s not going to distract us from focusing on the individual and continuing to invest in people to make sure that our staff are engaged, excited, motivated and continue to grow.

  • When you’re managing a smaller team, you have a bit more leeway and time to kind of dive into the weeds and maybe provide hands-on or direct technical contributions. But then as your team kind of grows substantially more than that, and you have a team of hundreds, there’s going to be a lot more focus on establishing culture, processes, product strategy, technology strategy that will provide some sort of guidance and a focus for the wider team.

  • Try to figure out and constantly gauge what the team needs from you the most such that the team can be the most successful and kind of adapt to that is something that’s quite important.

Growing the Team Fast

  • When it comes to attracting talent, you kind of have to give people a reason in terms of why they choose to work for you and to work for your organization, especially if you’re going after talent that’s pretty strong and is in high demand.

  • I think that’s where things like employer branding are pretty important because you’ll get to communicate that to the wider audiences. They should have that impression ahead of time ideally, and then that way, when that contact happens, there’s already a favorable opinion of you.

  • The best way to have that favorable opinion is to build a collaborative organization, highly efficient organization, but also a healthy and a positive culture. Your staff are going to be the best ambassadors and your best advocates. If you have that kind of team in place, chances are that increases your chances of building that impression, and it strengthens your brand that will help you go after that talent.

  • Acquiring talent is kind of like acquiring customers in a way. You’ll look at a number of channels. You’ll have some sort of acquisition strategy. Always take a look at your funnel. They kind of monitor where a lot of your potential employees or candidates drop because that will give you a pretty good signal in terms of what are some things that you can improve on in your recruiting processes.

  • Keep in mind that as a team grows fairly quickly, there’s going to be some processes in place that you probably didn’t really need. As the team grows, you kind of have to establish these processes even more in a formal way. Sometimes you have to introduce new ones.

  • As the team grows, you don’t want to be disconnected from the wider team. You want to stay engaged and by doing so you’ll continue to be in touch with the team and understand their challenges and needs, but also at the same time, give them an opportunity and a door for them to speak up and share their thoughts. Feedback keeps the team engaged, but also at the same time, it gives you the best opportunity to be as supportive to the team as possible.

  • The process [at Bukalapak] was we defined very clear competencies for each role, for every candidate that we interview. Especially when they at least passed the screening stage, we ideally go after and divide the competencies of that particular role across the people who are interviewing the candidate. That way, we make sure we have a pretty good comprehensive view of what that candidate has in terms of skill set, maybe what are some of the gaps.

Process and Governance

  • The operational readiness when there are either product launches or promotional events that will drive a lot of traffic.

  • Other processes that come to mind the first is a post-mortem or a root cause analysis. Using that to not only improve the quality of our software, make sure that the number of incidents and the potential impact on the customers drops substantially, but also kind of use it as a feedback loop to improve just in general, our practice and how we designed, built and tested software.

  • One more practice that I really liked was we had a weekly session. There was about couple hours every Monday when the team is working on building a new service or building a new product, they will come and present an engineering document that talks about the problem, talks about how they’re going to solve it, go through the architecture, and then there are testing plan as well as their release plan.

  • The first is that it gave us an opportunity to share knowledge across teams. We kind of try to break that silo. The second, it kind of allowed us to identify opportunities where our teams that are solving the same problem in different parts of the organization, and then find ways to collaborate across, and potentially, find ways where we can solve the same problem once.

  • It’s not just early stage startups but just engineering organizations in general. If you have opportunities to improve your operational efficiency where you don’t have to do a lot of things manually, where you don’t have to do things repeatedly, where if there is any kind of deficiency or bugs, then you can identify that quickly and potentially resolve it quickly. That will allow you to go through those learning iterations, but also execution iterations a lot faster.

  • Having a proper CI/CD setup that allows you to test your code quickly, deploy your code quickly. To do that while ensuring high-quality software goes towards being potentially, or ideally bug free, but also ensuring a certain security standards as well, as critical as automated testing. Especially when we have aggressive deadlines.

  • I think as time goes by, to go and retest the code base, which continues to grow and to do that manually becomes extremely taxing. Automated testing, I would say, is pretty critical.

  • Metrics and monitoring are quite crucial as well. You want to keep track of how your customers are interacting with your software, how your software is performing, and then ideally - this is something that I keep telling my team - you want to identify the incident as it is happening before your customers report it to your customer support team. Your customer support team is not monitoring team. They’re just kind of to try to help your customers use your software.

  • If you do it well, is that in a lot of cases, it gives you some sort of leading indicator that can show you trends of potential problems that will happen in the future, if that trend continues to grow.

Teams and Alignment

  • There are obviously goals and objectives at the company level. And some of these objectives will then require some input from a technology standpoint. So, taking those high-level OKRs and then I use them to derive some objectives and OKRs that the technology team level was certainly one of those inputs for us.

  • The way that I’ve kind of done that in my team is to provide the team with high-level objectives. And then that way, we give each of the individual teams a clear focus on what’s the priority, what’s the goal. But also at the same time, because they’re somewhat at a high level, it gives them the freedom to figure out what’s the best way for them to progress towards that goal.

  • The second thing that I’ve done is that, as much as we could at the time, to make sure that the technology level OKRs don’t necessarily take the entire capacity of the individual teams. Because there are possibly opportunities that would present a great return on investment at the small team level, at the squad level that probably middle managers and senior engineers in those teams understood quite well, and they were quite keen on going after.

  • That kind of balanced between top to bottom, bottom up was super, super to have at first.

Managing Up

  • Always keep an open channel of communication with your stakeholders. Some of the mistakes early managers do is that they will only communicate if the stakeholder comes to them with either an ask or a question or to report a problem.

  • The reality is there are a lot of things that you know about the function that your leadership team, or potentially your stakeholders, don’t know as well as you do, and they could probably be quite useful as an input.

  • If you know that there’s an area in your team where things are not going as well as you like, or your team is struggling in a particular initiative, don’t wait for your stakeholders to notice and then come to you and complain about it. Be proactive, reach out.

  • It builds that trust that you’re on top of things. Not only you’re reporting the challenge, but you also reporting what you’re trying to do about it. That way your stakeholders will have updated information as well, that they can also use when it comes to making decisions at their level.

  • There were certain situations and I think this kind of exists in every organization where there’s no perfect decision to make. There’s going to be tradeoffs, regardless of what option you want to proceed with. And I think, our job when it comes to managing upwards, is that when we either receive a direction or we receive a question is that we kind of show all the available options or potential alternatives, and highlight the costs and benefits of each, and provide a recommendation according to that.

  • By doing so, you empower your leadership as well as your stakeholders to make as best of an informed choice as possible. But also, you do yourself and do your team a favor by making you and your team part of that conversation, making that decision. As opposed to just depending on your leaders to tell you exactly what to do. And I think it also serves the greater good, because it gives the company and the business the best chance possible to make the most optimal choice and decision.

Tech Investing and Advisory

  • You can support early stage startups either by providing expertise, by acquiring capital, by providing network, by doing a combination of those three.

Startup Mistakes to Avoid

  • Number one. You might have a great idea and you might have a good understanding of the customer pain point, but the reality is you might not be a good representation of the customer base that you’re trying to go after. So make sure that you always validate that, to make sure that the customer base that you’re going after does indeed support your hypothesis that what you’re trying to build is going to provide value and potentially tackle the pain point that they’re facing.

  • Number two, don’t spend a lot of time validating your idea. You don’t need a highly scalable, fully flushed out product just to validate if your idea is going to gain traction or not. If you can find ways to do that as quickly and cheaply as possible, it can get you to the point of vindication a lot sooner, and then a lot cheaper. If your assumptions are correct, that’s great. You can go and double down on it and you have a lot more confidence in doing so. And if your assumptions are not, you’ll be able to make those tweaks and changes a lot sooner without having to utilize or to spend a lot of your resources.

  • The third is to be pragmatic in what you need to build internally and what you can utilize externally. If there is a piece of software that’s very critical to the core of your business that maybe there’s no solution out there that is “can I do it as well as you do”, and this is the value proposition that you’re bringing to your customers, then yes, go and build that, and potentially spend a good deal of your resources on that. But all the other things are either commodities or problems that have been solved already that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

  • Finally, don’t recruit a lot of people because you’re desperate. I’ll caveat this by saying recruiting is always a challenge, especially for early stage startups. But find that balance between being pragmatic in terms of who you can attract and what you can bring to the team, and keeping a reasonable quality threshold that you can recruit as well as evaluate candidates against.

Advice for Leaders

  • Taking a startup from zero to one is a different beast than taking it from 1 to 10. Sometimes the kind of skill set that you need to do the former might be different than doing the latter. So, keeping an eye on that, make sure that you grow in terms of your knowledge and your expertise. And surround yourself with folks that either compliment your skill set or provide your team with expertise that is needed.

  • Always listen to the customers. I think customers provide us with a lot of free feedback that can be quite helpful and useful. It’s up to us to tap into that and to be able to identify the insights and potentially use those to either define or drive part of your strategy, or to drive some of the improvements in the product portfolio that you have.

3 Tech Lead Wisdom

  1. We sometimes tend to focus only on the success cases when we’re trying to build software, and we kind of don’t really pay a lot of attention to failures. And if we fail, how do we identify that? And how do we try to fail quickly? That’s something that we sometimes fail to identify. And if we do so, I think we’ll have a better chance to react to things.

  2. You’re building products for a reason, and that reason is to provide solutions that your customers are going to find valuable. Keeping that sense of awareness towards your customers, and also listening to their feedback, is something that is extremely important.

  3. Have that sense of awareness in terms of what your team and what your organization needs from you as a leader depending on the stage of your organization, depending on the state of your team. That could change from time to time, and that will require from you to kind of adapt.

Transcript

[00:01:13] Episode Introduction

Henry Suryawirawan: Hello again, my friends and my listeners out there. It’s always great to be back here again with another new episode of the Tech Lead Journal podcast. I’m your host Henry Suryawirawan. Thank you for tuning in today listening to this episode. If this is your first time listening to Tech Lead Journal, subscribe and follow the show on your favorite podcast app and social media on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. If you are a regular listener and enjoy listening to the episodes, will you subscribe as a patron at techleadjournal.dev/patron, and support my journey to continue producing great Tech Lead Journal episodes every week.

My guest for today’s episode is Mohammed Alabsi. Mohammed is a seasoned technology leader, an angel investor, and a venture fellow at Insignia Ventures. He worked at Amazon for 10 years before moving to Southeast Asia and helped scale up Bukalapak towards its successful IPO. In this episode, Mohammed started by sharing his lessons learned from his time at Amazon, working on EC2, advertising business and B2B e-commerce. Mohammed then shared his journey at Bukalapak, and described the challenges he had to tackle during the scale-up stage, such as setting up engineering processes and governance, growing high-performing engineering teams rapidly, and building alignment across those multiple teams. He also gave great tips for leaders on the importance of managing up and keeping the leadership and stakeholders in the loop. Towards the end, Mohammed shared about his current role as a tech investor and advisor, and gave some great advice on common mistakes startups should avoid, as well as advice for tech leaders in the early stage startups.

I enjoyed my conversation with Mohammed, learning from his vast experience working at Bukalapak and Amazon. If you also enjoy and find this episode useful, help me share it to your friends or colleagues who would also benefit from listening to this episode. Also leave a rating and review on your podcast app, or share about this episode on your social media. It is my ultimate mission to make this podcast and the knowledge available to more people, and you can play a part towards fulfilling my mission. Before we continue to the episode, let’s hear some words from our sponsor.

[00:04:44] Introduction

Henry Suryawirawan: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another new episode of the Tech Lead Journal podcast. Today, I have with me a seasoned technology leader. He has a lot of years working in Amazon AWS helping to build EC2, advertising business, B2B e-commerce. And then, moving on from there, he joined a unicorn startup based in Indonesia called Bukalapak, which is an e-commerce. He joined there, helped them to scale until they reached a point of IPO. And then lately this person actually becomes more active in investing and also technical advisory. So his name is Mohammed Alabsi. Today I’m really pleased to actually meet you and have a chance to talk to you and learn from your experience. So Mohammed, thank you so much for your time. Looking forward for this conversation.

Mohammed Alabsi: Thank you, Henry. Thank you so much for having me on.

[00:05:31] Career Journey

Henry Suryawirawan: So Mohammed, I like to always start with my guests to ask them to share their journey, their career experience, maybe any highlights or turning points.

Mohammed Alabsi: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s see, my first job out of college was working at a startup that was working on a couple of products. One was called Maktoob that got acquired by Yahoo, and the other called Souq, that got acquired by Amazon. And then after grad school, I got the chance to join a pretty small team at the time. I was building this niche business called the Cloud part of Amazon Web Services. Got the chance to work on pretty cool technical problems at the time. Working on some of the key services, like simple workflow, which I think now is called as the Step Function as well as Mechanical Turk. And then beyond AWS, I ended up moving on to starting two of Amazon’s largest businesses at the moment, which are the advertising business and the B2B commerce business.

After 10 years at Amazon, I wanted to do something different. So, I moved to Indonesia. I took a Senior VP of Engineering role at Bukalapak. Stayed there for three years, had an amazing time in scaling, growing the team, but also building pretty exciting as well as useful products from a customer standpoint and putting the team in a really good place towards an IPO. Since then I’ve been a full-time advisor as well as an angel investor, advising startups as well as VCs, and then investing in startups in Southeast Asia predominantly, but in the US as well.

Henry Suryawirawan: So what actually brought you to Southeast Asia if I may ask, right? Because you have a good well career in US, but what brought you here in Southeast Asia?

Mohammed Alabsi: Yeah, so I mean, growing up, my family moved around quite a bit. I lived in six countries before moving to Indonesia. And I always had that inclination of wanting to explore more and to experience different cultures and hopefully be able to learn a new foreign language. So when I realized that it’s time for me to try something new, I took a sabbatical and I did a little bit of traveling. So I spent some time in Europe, spent some time in the Middle East. And I think at the time there was an earthquake that hit the island of Lombok in Indonesia. So I came to Indonesia to try to help out a little bit, but also at the same time, to kind of see what it’s like to be in Southeast Asia, and I was quite impressed while I’m there.

The pace of the technology innovation and how quickly the startup scene has grown. The first time I was in Indonesia, at 2013 for a vacation, there was no Tokopedia, no Bukalapak, no Traveloka or Gojek. And then in 2018, not only like a lot of these apps were there, but I was able to see firsthand the substantial impact that they have on improving people’s lives, providing tremendous amount of job opportunities. Not only that, they were doing them at a pretty large scale. I believe all of them were unicorns at that point.

From a personal standpoint, I really enjoyed my time in Southeast Asia. I thought it was very good place for me to be. I was kind of tired of the cold at that point. So the weather in Southeast Asia, it was a pretty good fit. So I thought this might be my next home. At that point, somebody introduced me to the folks at Bukalapak. I thought it was a big fit and went back to the US packing my stuff. And then I think within a couple of weeks or so, I was in Jakarta and started my journey there.

[00:08:42] Lessons from Amazon and AWS

Henry Suryawirawan: Nevertheless, you spent about 10 years in Amazon and AWS, which is kind of like a long time, and also you work on some of the cool and one of the biggest businesses in Amazon now. So maybe, can you share some of your journey there? What key lessons you learned that may also be relevant for all of us here to learn about? Especially working in cool products, innovative products that in the end become successful products.

Mohammed Alabsi: Yeah, absolutely. My time in Amazon really, especially early on, it taught me that there’s a substantial difference between building software and then building software for production and then building software for scale. You know, I think that’s one of the key learning experiences that I got there. I mean, I remember I was working on building an ad exchange for the Amazon advertising business. Within a couple of months, we were basically serving over a hundred thousand transactions a second, which for the time, you know, me being a three years out of college or three years out of grad school was a great growth experience, and it’s challenging, yet it was also a lot of fun. There are a lot of technical learnings, but I think, I’ll touch base a little bit more on some of the soft skills which are the talent to be able to learn quickly and kind of find ways or hacks in terms of how to be able to do so.

Keeping in mind that in this day and age, technology changes very quickly. As a technology leader or as an early seasoned technical person, you’re kind of expected in a way to have a T-shaped competencies where you have a depth and you have an expertise in one particular area. But you have sufficient breadth of knowledge across that you can kind of add value at a high level, and to be able to pick up on that and just stay up is a pretty critical skill set of itself. To be able to hone that skill and to be able to use it consistently, I think, is pretty important.

The other lesson that, I think, especially for technical folks that we kind of don’t really think about so much, especially early on in our careers, is have the talent to kind of communicate your ideas and messages and be able to actually sell them. And to drive that influence across the people that you work with, to be able to drive consensus towards a common goal, as can add value to the customers and add value to the business. Yeah. So I’d say those are maybe the top learnings that come to mind.

Henry Suryawirawan: That’s really cool. So I think you mentioned something very interesting in my view. So you have to differentiate between just building software versus building software production purpose where people can actually use it and it’s usable. And the third one is building software for scale, which is like, when you pickup tractions and many people are using that is also a different kind of problems.

[00:11:12] Common Scale-up Challenges

Henry Suryawirawan: Which brings us to actually the next phase of your career at Bukalapak, right? You’re actually working in this intersection between prod and scale, where Bukalapak was growing really fast, and becomes one of the potential unicorn startup back then. People might call this a scale-up, as a category of startup. So maybe tell us more in the beginning when you joined Bukalapak, what are some of the challenges of typical scale-up that you actually have to overcome?

Mohammed Alabsi: Absolutely. When I joined Bukalapak, the business was fairly sizable, but at the same time, it continued to grow fairly quickly. As you probably know, Henry, is that in e-commerce business, predominantly in Southeast Asia, there’s a lot of promotions, a lot of events. During those events, the traffic can spike very quickly. I remember we had a feature where when people shake their phone, they’ll get some credits. We were showing a TV show that was viewed by massive amount of people. And then we would tell them, “Okay, go and shake your phone in five, four, three,” and then all of them will do it all at once. And you can kind of think of the magnitude of load that by itself would actually create. You see like a massive spike in our graphs that show traffic. That was one of the early things that I had to work with the team on. It’s to make sure that we have a platform and we have infrastructure in place that can scale.

When you’re doing it at such a large scale, you have to bring in a lot of people together. You have to bring in the marketing folks, so you really understand what the campaigns are going to look like. How the promotions are going to drive customer behavior and drive the nature of the traffic. The product engineering teams have to kind of work on improving or potentially make some changes in terms of either code optimizations or some architectural changes to make sure that the product continues to scale. And then at the infrastructure level, there’s also a lot of readiness that kind of has to take place. And then establishing that as a process, bringing everybody together, make sure that people understand and they’re kind of bought into that, and then drive a lot of the technical changes or the technical improvements that were required was something that’s quite key.

To grow a team from, I think, at the time we were about a team of 300 on the tech side and we grew the team to about 750 within about a year to year and a half. So, scaling the team in that magnitude and continue to be able to recruit people at a high caliber level is a challenge. So, and keeping in mind how competitive the talent market is at the moment. And I would say finally, there’s a lot of challenges that come with a team that’s growing very quickly. You want to find a balance between having small teams or providing small teams with a healthy degree of autonomy, but also at the same time, you don’t want to have teams that would operate in silos. So kind of trying to find that balance and find ways to make sure that is not going to happen, is key. To make sure that while we focus on growing the business, on scaling up the team, on maturing as an organization that that’s not going to distract us from focusing on the individual and continuing to invest in people to make sure that our staff are engaged, excited, motivated and continue to grow.

When you’re managing a smaller team, you have a bit more leeway and time to kind of dive into the weeds and maybe provide hands-on or direct technical contributions. But then as your team kind of grows substantially more than that, and you have a team of hundreds, there’s going to be a lot more focus on establishing culture, processes, product strategy, technology strategy that will provide some sort of a guidance and a focus for the wider team. As a leader, you should always have that sense of awareness, depending on the situation of the team that you’re currently managing. Try to figure out and constantly gauge what does the team need from you the most such that the team can be the most successful and kind of adapt to that is something that’s quite important.

[00:14:58] Growing the Team Fast

Henry Suryawirawan: So you touch on a lot of points here, right? So from technology, from people management, from hiring and also giving autonomy versus some kind of a flexibility, versus letting them being in complete silo from the others. I think one key aspect maybe if we can go deeper into each of these. So one key aspect, of course, when you say you helped grew Bukalapak from 300 to 700 people in engineering. That’s like double, almost triple the size of the team itself. So what would be your advice for people who are in this situation, working in a scale-up, then they have to grow the team really fast?

Mohammed Alabsi: Yeah, I would say, when it comes to attracting talent, you kind of have to give people a reason in terms of why they choose to work for you and to work for your organization as opposed to see the opportunities that are available out there. Especially if you’re going after talent that’s pretty strong and is in high demand. I think that’s where things like employer branding is pretty important because you’ll get to communicate that to the wider audiences such that if you reach out to a candidate, they don’t have to think about, ah, what is this company? And why should I think about joining them? They should have that impression ahead of time ideally, and then that way, when that contact happens, there’s already a favorable opinion of you.

Taking a step back from there. The best way to have that favorable opinion is to build a collaborative organization, highly efficient organization, but also a healthy and a positive culture. Your staff are going to be the best ambassadors and your best advocates. If you have that kind of team in place, chances are that kind of increases your chances of building that impression, and it strengthens your brand that will help you go after that talent.

The second thing that has worked quite well for me over the years is that acquiring talent is kind of like acquiring customers in a way. You’ll look at a number of channels. You’ll have some sort of an acquisition strategy. Always take a look at your funnel. They kind of monitor where a lot of your potential employees or candidates drop because that will give you a pretty good signal in terms of what are some of the things that you can improve on in your recruiting processes. That’s the second thing that comes to mind.

Finally, keep in mind that as a team grows fairly quickly, there’s going to be some processes in place that you probably didn’t really need. As the team grows, you kind of have to establish these processes even more like a formal way. Sometimes you have to introduce new ones. As the team grows, you don’t want to be disconnected from the wider team. You want to stay engaged and by doing so you’ll continue to be in touch with the team and understand their challenges and needs, but also at the same time, give them an opportunity and a door for them to speak up and share their thoughts. I think feedback keeps the team engaged, but also at the same time, it gives you the best opportunity to be as supportive to the team as possible.

Henry Suryawirawan: As the top leader back then, did you have to interview all of these new joiners? Or you actually have a process to rely on to get the best candidate for the company?

Mohammed Alabsi: I tried early on to do something of that sort, but I think that kind of broke down relatively quickly. So the process was we defined very clear competencies for each role, for every candidate that we interview. Especially when they at least passed the screening stage, we ideally go after and divide the competencies of that particular role across the people who are interviewing the candidate. That way, we make sure we have a pretty good comprehensive view of what that candidate has in terms of skill set, maybe what are some of the gaps. And then that gives us a pretty good opportunity to go ahead and analyze that. Depending on how senior the position is, I would be part of the interview loop.

[00:18:37] Process and Governance

Henry Suryawirawan: And then the other aspects of growing the engineering team is actually about processes, right? So it’s very typical from a startup going into a more mature stage, there are many things that probably not so ideal. Maybe in terms of process, governance and things like that. What do you remember some of the top processes that you actually should fix or emphasize in the beginning when you joined, in order to help the company grow from their early stage startup into a more mature startup?

Mohammed Alabsi: Yeah. So I’ve touched base earlier, which is more the operational readiness when there are either product launches or promotional events that will drive a lot of traffic. A couple of other processes that come to mind the first is a post-mortem or a root cause analysis. That’s something that we kind of did, but it wasn’t as comprehensive or as consistent from a practice standpoint. I think we’ve done a really good job in using that to not only improve the quality of our software, make sure that the number of incidents and the potential impact on the customers drops substantially, but also kind of use it as a feedback loop to improve just in general, our practice and how we designed, built and tested software.

One more practice that I really liked was we had a weekly session. There was about couple hours every Monday when the team is working on building a new service or building a new product, they will come and present an engineering document that talks about the problem, talks about how they’re going to solve it, go through the architecture, and then there are testing plan as well as their release plan. This was a great practice for us for a couple of reasons. The first is that it gave us an opportunity to share knowledge across teams. We kind of try to break that silo. The second, it kind of allowed us to identify opportunities where our teams that are solving the same problem in different parts of the organization, and then find ways to collaborate across, and potentially, find ways where we can solve the same problem once. Package it as a web service or an API, and kind of expose that to the number of businesses that Bukalapak has. And then, there’s a key difference between theoretically understanding how we build great software and then putting that in practice, and then giving engineers, particularly junior engineers, that opportunity to see what it’s like to go and build great software. That was quite helpful.

Henry Suryawirawan: So anything related to, I don’t know, like, observability, CI/CD, maybe technical practices that you also think could really help in terms of growing early stage start up?

Mohammed Alabsi: Yeah. I mean, it’s not just early stage startups but just engineering organizations in general. If you have opportunities to improve your operational efficiency where you don’t have to do a lot of things manually, where you don’t have to do things repeatedly, where if there is any kind of deficiency or bugs, then you can identify that quickly and potentially resolve it quickly. That will allow you to go through those learning iterations, but also execution iterations a lot faster.

And you’ve touched base on some of these things, for example, having a proper CI/CD setup that allows you to test your code quickly, deploy your code quickly. To do that while ensuring high-quality software goes towards being potentially, or ideally bug free, but also ensuring a certain security standards as well, as critical as automated testing. Especially when we have aggressive deadlines that will, you know, “Let’s go and test it manually. That should be okay.” That’s probably even faster than having to write the code where you can test it automatically. Initially, that could be the case and you can make the argument. But I think as time goes by, to go and retest the code base, which continues to grow and to do that manually becomes extremely taxing. Automated testing, I would say, is pretty critical.

And then metrics and monitoring is quite crucial as well. You want to keep track how your customers are interacting with your software. How your software is performing? And then ideally, this is something that I keep telling my team, is that you want to identify the incident ideally as it is happening before your customers report it to your customer support team. Your customer support team is not monitoring team. They’re just kind of to try to help your customers use your software. What’s really great about keeping track of this metrics, if you do it well, is that in a lot of cases, it gives you some sort of a leading indicator that can show you trends of potential problems that will happen in the future, if that trend continues to grow.

So, for example, sometimes the latency is creeping up, consistently over time. And that gives an indication that maybe due to the increase in traffic, either the load or due to the existing architecture, there might be some opportunities to optimize so you can scale your system. If you can detect the leading indicators, then you would have utilized your monitoring system, absolutely perfectly be able to predict potential performance issues and be able to solve them or be prepared for them before they even take place. So yeah, I mean, those are some examples.

[00:23:26] Teams Alignment

Henry Suryawirawan: Okay. So, another important aspect, actually, when you mentioned about all these scaling is that you have to grow the number of people, for sure. You have to grow the number of teams as well. I don’t know how many teams are there in the end when you were there. Is it also in hundreds? So definitely, alignment is something that is very challenging. You have maybe an organizational goal, engineering goal, product goal. How do you translate to all these existing teams? And also, what are the parts of the middle managers here? How do you actually try to convey your message and your vision into those middle managers as well, so that everyone is actually aligned?

Mohammed Alabsi: Yeah, absolutely. Great question. The way that we’ve done it, and I think where it has worked quite well for us, is that there are obviously goals and objectives at the company level. And some of these objectives will then require some input from a technology standpoint. So, taking those high-level OKRs and then I use them to derive some objectives and OKRs that the technology team level was certainly one of those inputs for us. The way that I’ve kind of done that in my team is to provide the team with high-level objectives. And then that way, we give each of the individual teams a clear focus on what’s the priority, what’s the goal. But also at the same time, because they’re somewhat at a high level, it gives them the freedom to figure out what’s the best way for them to progress towards that goal.

The second thing that I’ve done is that, as much as we could at the time, to make sure that the technology level OKRs don’t necessarily take the entire capacity of the individual teams. Because there are possibly opportunities that would present a great return on investment at the small team level, at the squad level that probably middle managers and senior engineers in those teams understood quite well, and they were quite keen on going after. So making sure that there is that for them to not only receive the recommendations and guidance bottom up in terms of what is either urgent or impactful that will have an impact on the business or the product domain that they were working on. And I think that kind of balanced between top to bottom, bottom up was super, super to have at first.

Henry Suryawirawan: So yeah, I can relate to that. The high level OKRs, I think, needs to be well-defined, and making sure that also tech OKRs do not take the whole capacity of the whole engineering team.

[00:25:46] Managing Up

Henry Suryawirawan: How about managing up? In this situation, sometimes when you scale up, people grow at the bottom, pressure also mounting from the top, right? So maybe it’s the CEO, and also the board of advisors and investors as well. So how do you balance this managing up, managing bottom? You know, sometimes it’s, I think, tricky and challenging as well. So maybe, can you share us some of the challenges and tips for managing up?

Mohammed Alabsi: Yeah. Great question. I would say, always keep an open channel communication with your stakeholders. I think, you know, some of the mistakes early managers do is that they will only communicate if the stakeholder comes to them with either an ask or a question or to report a problem. If you kind of set expectations that it’s a one-way communication, then it kind of changes the dynamics of that relationship. The reality is there are a lot of things that you know about the function that your leadership team, or potentially your stakeholders, don’t know as well as you do, and they could probably be quite useful as an input.

For example, if you know that there’s an area in your team where things are not going as well as you like, or your team is struggling in a particular initiative, don’t wait for your stakeholders to notice and then come to you and complain about it. Be proactive, reach out, just say, “Hey, here’s the progress. Here’s the situation. Here’s the challenge. We’re pretty much aware of it. And here’s what we’re currently trying to do to try to bring things back on track.” It builds that trust that you’re on top of things. Not only you’re reporting the challenge, but you also reporting what you’re trying to do about it. That way your stakeholders will have updated information as well, that they can also use when it comes to making decisions at their level.

The second thing is, there were certain situations and I think this kind of exists in every organization where there’s no perfect decision to make. There’s going to be tradeoffs, regardless of what option you want to proceed with. And I think, our job when it comes to managing upwards, is that when we either receive a direction or we receive a question is that we kind of show all of the available options or potential alternatives, and highlight the costs and benefits of each, and provide a recommendation according to that. By doing so, you empower your leadership as well as your stakeholders to make as best of an informed choice as possible. But also, you do yourself and do your team a favor by making you and your team part of that conversation, making that decision. As opposed to just depending on your leaders to tell you exactly what to do. And I think it also serves the greater good, because it gives the company and the business the best chance possible to make the most optimal choice and decision.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for the tips. So I think really, really important and crucial that you always keep the communication channel. And also, I think I learned also that you always have to showcase what are the options that you consider and what are the tradeoffs between them, and how do you make decision based on that? So there’s no perfect decision at the end of the day.

[00:28:41] Tech Investing and Advisory

Henry Suryawirawan: So Mohammed, now that you move out from working in a scale-up and more into investing and advisory, I think this is really probably interesting for some of those who also thinking about moving into more investing and advisory basis role. So tell us more, why did you take this new challenge or new role? And what are some of the exciting things that you have experienced so far?

Mohammed Alabsi: Yeah. I think my time at Bukalapak was a great opportunity for me to get exposure of how it’s like working in the startup space, and kind of got me excited to be more active and more involved in the startup scene, particularly at the early stage. So I’ve seen where I can provide the most value to senior leaders, as well as founders, when it comes to tapping into some of the experiences that I have to support them in building their ventures as well as in growing their ventures as well. You can support early stage startups either by providing expertise, by acquiring capital, by providing network, by doing a combination of those three.

It kind of started as advising a couple of startups and then investing in a startup that an old colleague of mine and a friend of mine, Karthik, started in. That kind of snowballed, I guess, with time, and there are a lot of amazing founders working on solving very complex problems that have a positive contribution or positive impact on the society. It’s been a great working experience to go through that.

[00:30:03] Startup Mistakes to Avoid

Henry Suryawirawan: So I think there’s so many startups being created these days, due to because of ease of capital, maybe also startups have become a trend now that people want to join startup instead of last time. They always want to go to the banks, financial services. But there are also a lot of things that I see in my own view as well. There are so many mistakes and anti-patterns that all these startups seem to always repeat, either because they were not aware of it, or maybe because of the talents. So what are some of the common anti-patterns or maybe mistakes that if you wish you would have been able to tell all of the startups, “Don’t do this.”, so that they will not repeat this over and over again. What will be some of those?

Mohammed Alabsi: Yeah, absolutely. Some of the mistakes that I have either seen, or I advise founders to kind of avoid, include the following. Number one. You might have a great idea and you might have a good understanding of the customer pain point, but the reality is you might not be a good representation of the customer base that you’re trying to go after. So make sure that you always validate that, to make sure that the customer base that you’re going after does indeed support your hypothesis that what you’re trying to build is going to provide value and potentially tackle the pain point that they’re facing.

Number two, don’t spend a lot of time validating your idea. You don’t need a highly scalable, fully flushed out product just to validate if your idea is going to gain traction or not. If you can find ways to do that as quickly and cheaply as possible, it can get you to the point of vindication a lot sooner, and then a lot cheaper. If your assumptions are correct, that’s great. You can go and double down on it and you have a lot more confidence in doing so. And if your assumptions are not, you’ll be able to make those tweaks and changes a lot sooner without having to utilize or to spend a lot of your resources.

The third is to be pragmatic in what you need to build internally and what you can utilize externally. If there is a piece of software that’s very critical to the core of your business that maybe there’s no solution out there that is “can I do it as well as you do”, and this is the value proposition that you’re bringing to your customers, then yes, go and build that, and potentially spend a good deal of your resources on that. But all of the other things are either commodities or problems that have been solved already that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Going in and depending on third party solutions could be, particularly early on if we don’t have a really good option.

And I would say, finally, don’t recruit a lot of people because you’re desperate. I’ll caveat this by saying recruiting is always a challenge, especially for early stage startups. But find that balance between being pragmatic in terms of who you can attract and what you can bring to the team, and keeping a reasonable quality threshold that you can recruit as well as evaluate candidates against.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for those tips. If you are working in startups, please check out again what Mohammed advised just now, so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

[00:33:01] Advice for Leaders

Henry Suryawirawan: So what will be some of your advice for the leaders in those early stage startups?

Mohammed Alabsi: A lot of the stuff that we talked about so far kind of applies. Generally speaking, taking a startup from zero to one is a different beast than taking it from 1 to 10. Sometimes the kind of skill set that you need to do the former might be different than doing the latter. So, keeping an eye on that, make sure that you grow in terms of your knowledge and your expertise. And surround yourself with folks that either compliment your skill set or provide your team with expertise that is needed. Because of the stage that you’re at, I think it’s really important.

Always listen to the customers. I think customers provide us with a lot of free feedback that can be quite helpful and useful. It’s up to us to tap into that and to be able to identify the insights and potentially use those to either define or drive part of your strategy, or to drive some of the improvements on the product portfolio that you have.

[00:33:59] 3 Tech Lead Wisdom

Henry Suryawirawan: So Mohammed, we reached the end of our conversation. But before I let you go, I have one last question that I always ask for all my guests, which is to share about three technical leadership wisdom. Maybe from your experience, maybe from your past hard lessons that you learn. So could you share us your version of three technical leadership wisdom?

Mohammed Alabsi: We’ve touched base on some of these issues already. But I would say, number one, we sometimes tend to focus only on the success cases when we’re trying to build software, and we kind of don’t really pay a lot of attention to failures. And if we fail, how do we identify that? And how do we try to fail quickly? That’s something that we sometimes fail to identify. And if we do so, I think we’ll have a better chance to react to things.

The second thing is, like I mentioned earlier, you’re building products for a reason, and that reason is to provide solutions that your customers are going to find valuable. Keeping that sense of awareness towards your customers, and also listening to their feedback, is something that is extremely important.

You know, I would say the last thing is, like I mentioned earlier, have that sense of awareness in terms of what your team and what your organization needs from you as a leader depending on the stage of your organization, depending on the state of your team. That could change from time to time, and that will require from you to kind of adapt. And having that sense of awareness is a really good place to start.

Henry Suryawirawan: Great wisdom indeed. So Mohammed, if people want to connect with you or maybe continue this conversation online, is there a place where they can reach out to you?

Mohammed Alabsi: Oh, yes, please. They can reach out to me on LinkedIn. If you want to post that as part of the podcast, please feel free to do so. I’m happy to chat to people and to be as helpful as I can.

Henry Suryawirawan: So thanks Mohammed for your time. Really have a wonderful time today, speaking and learning from you, from your firsthand experience about all these scale-ups and also inside the Tech advisory and also investing journey that you are currently embarking. So good luck with your journey.

Mohammed Alabsi: Thanks Henry, and really enjoyed our conversation as well.

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