Alberto is the author of “Building and Managing High-Performance Distributed Teams” and has led multiple product engineering teams.
We talk about Alberto’s lessons and experience working in those teams and shares tips and ideas on how to build, manage, and improve teams.
- Sailing is analogous to running teams. Everyone works towards the collective goal or the North Star.
- Metrics help you determine if everyone is moving towards the same direction. But don’t rely on any single metric and don’t collect metrics for the sake of collecting them. Use a combination of metrics and they should lead to an outcome.
- Empower everyone to write good documentation.
- Time management is crucial to facilitating collaboration, communication, and catch-up time.
- Meetings should be engaging. If they’re costly, cut them. People need focus time.
- The rule of three makes it easier to learn.
- “One Team, One Heart” is about creating alignment, engagement, and purpose when building a team.
- Create a safe environment where it’s okay for people to take risks and make mistakes. Learning is key to success and opportunities.
- Create mechanisms that encourage continuous improvement. Allow people to suggest and implement ideas.
- Hiring is integral to high-performance teams. Ensure your hiring strategy aligns with your culture.
- The pandemic has changed working from in-office (traditional) to remote (distributed/hybrid).
- The future of work will continue to be distributed with an emphasis on human connection.
MARK: Welcome to another remarkable podcast. I’m your host Mark and today we’re joined by Alberto Silveira. Welcome to the show and thank you for joining me.
ALBERTO: Thank you Mark and it’s a pleasure for me to be here with you today.
MARK: So for the listeners out there, can you tell us a bit about your background?
ALBERTO: Absolutely. Where do I start? Let me start by sharing that I’m originally from Brazil—it’s better that I say that upfront as you’ll realize from my accent. I graduated in computer science about twenty years ago and I’ve been in New York for the past fifteen years or so. I’ve been working for many different companies, industries, [and] took my MBA in 2013. But reality is that I ended up getting tired of the winter in New York and shoveling snow so I recently moved to Austin, Texas and so far it has been great. I’m also a boater, sailor, father, and recently I also became a writer. And I love the art of gathering people so that’s a little bit about my background, Mark.
MARK: So on that note about you being a writer, how did that journey lead to you writing your book?
ALBERTO: Oh, very good question, Mark. It was quite a challenging journey, to be honest. Coming all the way from south of Brazil where I grew up to the Big Apple wasn’t a short or easy journey. There are the technical aspects of it—having a background in computer science that actually helped me cross the equator. But the cultural differences and all the challenges that come from moving from south to the north, it’s been quite challenging. But all that inspired me—[from the past to the current]—to write this book. If I had to summarize to you, taking risks and having some failures and learning and doing that again is what inspired me. From my early days to my professional life, that’s been with me for quite some time I guess. And then most recently when the pandemic hit in my previous company, we had the pandemic just when we got acquired by the largest education company in the world. We had it all at the same time. What I realized, Mark, was this: practice and things that we’ve been doing for many years—I realized the rest of the world was not prepared. And then I remembered in the same week, I got two people—one being my former boss at the time—[asking,] “Why don’t you write a book, Alberto, about building high-performance teams? You’re so passionate about that and you seem to have the process and the world needs to know that.” I said, “Really? Hm.” In the same week, I got another person who I respect a lot who is a professor of NYU asking me, “How do you actually keep your team operating in high-performance in the middle of the pandemic when the rest of the world is trying to figure out what to do?” So that might be a sign. The next week at five in the morning, I woke up and opened a blank page and that’s when I started writing the book. I never stopped since then and six months later I had a book on the shelf. That was a pretty quick and enthusiastic journey I guess.
MARK: Wow, that’s really impressive to hear and I didn’t know that a professor from NYU actually reached out to you as well to write the book.
ALBERTO: Yep, it was a sign, Mark, it was a sign. I wasn’t expecting that as well but it was really a big shock for me because I never thought I would ever be able or even capable of writing a book. But I guess when you’re really passionate about a topic, everything’s possible.
MARK: Yeah and here we are today, right?
ALBERTO: Oh yes!
MARK: You have the book and it’s sold many copies, so that’s amazing. And so in the book, one thing I really liked was your analogy [between] running teams and sailing. Can you go deeper in that?
ALBERTO: Oh Mark, I realized that those two things have more in common than people can actually realize. I see [that] business is much like a regatta, and then people say, “What do you mean and how come?” It’s pretty simple basically—every role, when you are in a regatta or you are sailing, it’s important. [Similar to] when you are in a team. Every single person may have different responsibilities, but the role that they play to achieve a collective goal is very similar. So when you are on a sailing boat, the only source of power is wind. So it becomes more sensitive in all the movements and how mistakes actually surface on the end result. In a team, it’s the same thing like every person has [their] own responsibility. People need to have autonomy. People need to be empowered to make the decisions at the time knowing the North Star. So I think sailing—and I carry this with my teams—is so comparative. And if you see the front cover of my book and I carry the theme throughout the whole book, I have the sailing boats forming a fleet trying to represent many teams in an organization navigating towards the same collective goal. So it’s pretty interesting and it’s very much connected. And I believe that when people can actually bring things from the day-to-day to pleasant things in life—things that they love and are passionate [about]—they tend to actually learn and make it easier to learn. That’s why I actually [use] that metaphor of boating and business [being] much like a regatta whenever I have an opportunity to.
MARK: Got it. You also mention in your book a lot about metrics. Why are metrics so important?
ALBERTO: Another good question, Mark, you’re like on fire today! I would say this, “How do we know that we’re moving the one-to-many boats that you have in your organization towards the right direction? And that we’re not just spinning around?” So it’s super important to measure the milestones and to make sure that everyone—individually and collectively—is moving towards the same direction. I’ve worked in organizations, Mark, and teams [where] people get so obsessed with metrics and they ask me questions like, “What is the metric that you look for?” My first response is, “There’s no single magic metric that can actually measure the performance of high-performance teams. It’s a combination of metrics.” So I like for instance from the time we worked together, the metrics of mood. Like how people are feeling? How are people in their environment? How are process changes and [things] that happen in the organization impacting people’s mood? So many people may tend to go to activity metrics, which is related to coding like code commits [and] PR throughput, which are great, but it only tells part of the story. So if you want to actually have metrics that tell you the whole story, you have to be looking from different perspectives. But one thing that I would say, Mark, and that is actually what I love to say whenever I have the opportunity to—to leaders or anyone in the boat—metric must lead to improvements. If you’re collecting metrics for the sake of collecting metrics, that will potentially even demoralize the human beings in that group. So in order to build high-performance teams, I always like to say that we have methods, measurement, and people. And this is an important triangular structure for building high-performance teams and these three elements must be leading to continuous improvement [in] some action. So think about this, what metrics do you currently have in your team and what outcomes do you expect from them? If you cannot answer that, then revisit what you’re measuring. That’s why I love metrics so much!
MARK: I agree with you [regarding] metrics being the quantitative thing that you’re looking for. But then don’t forget about the qualitative thing or maybe your end goal or your vision or your North Star, right?
ALBERTO: Yes, and people, right? People are super key to all these metric conversations. So that’s what I would say, Mark.
MARK: Just to go on from that, you also talk about communication and collaboration. I think that also is a tricky thing. How do you know when you’re doing it right?
ALBERTO: Yeah, communication and collaboration is… If we think about what is the foundation for it, it’s a group of people having an alignment and making sure that they’re actually interacting with each other. Every time that we have humans in the equation, that becomes a little more complicated. But there are some practices and techniques that can help you validate [whether] you’re doing it right. But I think it goes back a little bit to the question, “How do we know that we’re moving towards the North Star?” And it even correlates with the previous question about metrics. But in summary, you can definitely get collaboration metrics when you’re working in a distributed team by checking the interactions among people. If you use Slack or Microsoft Teams, you can check the metrics [like] are people talking more in direct messages or in group channels? And see how they’re collaborating. You can get metrics from the calendars. Do you have too many meetings? How many hours [do] individual contributors have for them to be focusing? So you can absolutely get metrics that can help you to identify communication and collaboration. What I like to do, Mark, on top of that [since] those are good things and please do not forget the well-being of the team, is to [be] defined in three main pillars. Like a high-performance team does have good documentation. They don’t have technical writers dedicated to do that, but they have everyone empowered to make documentation [and] to write documentation. I like to say this, Mark, and you probably remember from our time together, “If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist.” So if you have an idea [and] if you have a suggestion on how to do things better, write that down. What problem are you trying to solve? What’s our goal? How do we measure success? Why are we doing this now? So writing those documentations is super key. We also have to structure our communication. How much time do you have in a day to be actually focusing on what you really need to do? How much time do you have to collaborate and what times are you collaborating? You know in a diverse team and a distributed team, you have people working from many different locations so it’s important that there’s an agreement on what is the collaboration time. And the last pillar of communication is catch-up. I like to call that catch-up time and this I actually have in the book, Mark, but I first read it in a book called Remote—I’m not sure if you read that one. [It] talks about catch-up, collaboration, and focus time. And these three slices in the day will help you communicate. And last but not least, who likes meetings?
MARK: No one. [Laughs]
ALBERTO: [Laughs] Well there are good ones! But I think it’s engagement, right? So if you have engagement, agenda, and cost, measure the cost of those meetings. If you realize that it becomes too expensive, just don’t do it. Going back to your original question, Mark, [about] communication and collaboration. Think about this. It’s humans that need to have the time to focus. [You] don’t actually [want to] have like eight hours of meetings in people’s calendars because as a result, how many times do you actually hear like, “Oh I started working once the day is done [and] I’m done with the meetings and then now I can actually do real work.” If your organization has that kind of [culture], then you have to step back and revisit. But write things down, make sure that people have time for collaboration but also time to focus on doing actual non-collaboration work, and [lock down on] meetings—you have to revisit those. When you have those three things working with high synergy, that’s when you know that your communication and collaboration are doing well.
MARK: I see, I see. Wow. Something that I’ve noticed also throughout your book that previously you mentioned—the three main pillars that helped improve communication and collaboration—[is] that there is also this concept of three’s. Why is that number so magical?
ALBERTO: I like things to be as digestible as possible and I think the number three brings the right balance. And as anything else in life, balance is super hard to achieve. So I think it’s not too much or too little. I try to bring the rule of three—that’s how I call it in the book—just as a way, practice, or methodology for making it easier for people to learn. That’s how I do it and it works pretty well for me. What are the top three things you can take from this conversation? What are the three things that make us move forward? It’s the same as the three-legged stool, [which] I was inspired by and is incredible in how it works. A four might be two much and a two wouldn’t ever bring the balance. Three works out, Mark. It works.
MARK: Yeah and I guess chemists would also agree with you, right? Three being the triangle is the most structurally sound shape.
ALBERTO: Absolutely and we can talk about that later in another time, Mark, but there’s the concept that you probably remember—the “Iron Triangle.” When you’re building digital products, product management, product design, and engineering. If you have that foundation, you’re going to be building more inclusive, diverse, and better products because you have three different angles building digital products. So the three is a magical number and I think it’s all about the balance. The right balance.
MARK: In terms of the obstacles, what kind of obstacles did you face when building an engineering team?
ALBERTO: That’s a hard one to come up with one or maybe a few to share because there are so many obstacles. But I would say this. Every team that I worked on in my career… Every team is a different story. It’s the same as like [if] you’re in a regatta, every race is a different one. The wind conditions, the weather, the current—everything changes. But the principles remain the same. So building teams in different organizations and different industries is like again going back to the regatta example. It’s like going [to] a different race. But the principles on how you connect and how you engage people [are the same]. I think that’s probably if I had to pick one challenge like how do you put people together. It’s going to be different industries, it’s going to be different things, Mark, but putting people together [and] getting them excited—I think that’s the hardest thing. We can never underestimate what a team with a purpose can achieve, right? So how can you actually share that purpose and make people feel it? I think that is the biggest challenge. I think you can leverage processes, I think you can leverage metrics, I think you can put people together and [so on and so forth], but that the engagement I like to say—and I’m sure you probably remember the “One Team, One Heart”—is something if I had to define is the synergy that comes from people feeling good about their place in the team. Because if you have one person or one team who is not aligned with that, Mark, [then] it takes very little to kind of get your boat spinning. I would say, defining your purpose, defining the destination, and having everyone feel that so they can give the best version of themselves is probably the hardest thing when building a team.
MARK: I agree with you 100%. I think that is literally defining the heart and the soul of the team and that is not just a quantitative thing, that’s a cultural [thing and] a very deeply ingrained thing. That’s like trust. Believing one another.
ALBERTO: Absolutely, and think about this, Mark. When we’re building teams, especially product engineering teams, we’re living in a world [where] the supply and demand of this industry [has] been crazy. So I think life is too short for people to wake up in the morning and not do something that they love and believe. So I think there’s been like this transformation that we’re living in and it’s definitely very different when I started my career compared to today. But I think more and more people are seeking jobs or seeking to spend their time with things that they really love. So to answer like what obstacles, I think it’s constantly changing. But finding the purpose and trying to get people aligned is absolutely the number one.
MARK: You know looking back on your obstacles, what would you have done differently?
ALBERTO: There’s always things that will go wrong. It doesn’t matter. You may have the best team. You may have the best instruments and equipment. And you know, things will go wrong. Guaranteed. What I would say is if I could do things differently, my rule of thumb is don’t make the same mistake twice. We’re human and we will make mistakes—everyone in the team—so create an environment where people will not be blamed, where they can actually take the chance [and] take the risk. I think that’s what I could have learned differently in life. [It] took me a little while. I would take mistakes too hard on myself or sometimes even on team members. Of course, time and experience make you learn. I like to say this, Mark, “There are two ways you can learn from mistakes: the easy way or the hard way.” Earlier in my career, I took a little bit on the harder way. Today, I accept and I embrace mistakes as part of my day-to-day. And I actually have fun with it. I make fun whenever I make mistakes. But I think that everyone that can actually create—every leader or everyone in the boat that can create an environment that makes mistakes—is okay [to fail]. We can all walk until we fall a few times. This is human nature. So creating that kind of environment [is important]. If I could, I [would] have done that a little early in life [as] that would be great but it’s better late than never. And I think this is what will make better teams [and] better societies. It’s actually to embrace mistakes as not as something bad. It’s just something that is part of human nature, I guess.
MARK: Yeah, I agree with you 100%. And that’s a really great philosophy and outlook towards making mistakes [and] towards life as well. To succeed, you need to take risks. But to take risks, means [the possibility of] failure. So I agree with you 100% on embracing and learning from mistakes.
ALBERTO: Absolutely. I like to say this, Mark, “Mistakes lead to opportunities.” Think about how many times you wouldn’t actually achieve a better result if you haven’t had that mistake. How many times has that happened to you and people around you? It’s a lot, right?
MARK: Yeah. So then, if there’s an existing team, what are some things to be aware of when you want to improve an existing team?
ALBERTO: There’s a lot that could be answered on that question. I like to say this, “First, you have to be listening to the signals.” You know, listen to people, and then make the decisions accordingly, but allow people to give their ideas and to implement their ideas. I think the opposite of that is literally a top-down culture. So you cannot improve a team if you don’t allow every single person to give their ideas and to share their ideas and to improve themselves. Whenever I’m creating teams, I like to create mechanisms. Again going back to very practical [matters], if you have a Slack channel where you can create a place where people [are empowered]. If they see something, they can share what they’re thinking and they can actually propose an improvement. That’s the way that I like to answer your question, Mark. It’s creating an environment where everyone can actually contribute to navigate the boat faster and more efficiently towards the North Star. Because if we go back to a more traditional environment, what’s the opposite? It’s just the captain saying where and how we should be doing things. And guess what? It’s a human being behind the scene, it’s going to make mistakes. So in an existing team or even like a new team, I think it’s like creating that environment where people have their voice heard.
MARK: Right on that. I guess on the concept of new teams then. If someone is interested in building a new team, what is a piece of advice you would give him or her?
ALBERTO: Hiring? Have you realized how hard it is to bring people onboard? It’s been harder, and harder, and harder. I don’t see that actually getting any better. I remember like twenty years ago when I first interviewed, I interviewed for so many companies when I started in engineering. It’s changed drastically. Back in the 2000s when Google came up with some hiring practices—not sure if you remember that, you were probably too young, Mark. I’ve been through those interview processes and you had to kind of memorize algorithms and crazy stuff that [you would] probably never ever learn and that you never would actually apply in a day-to-day job but you had to know all those things. So I think the piece of advice that I would say is, “Revisit your hiring strategy. See if that aligns with your company [and] with your mission. And don’t try to mimic others’ processes. Find a process—an interviewing process—that actually aligns with your culture and what kind of people that you’re trying to bring onboard.” Think about this. I would like to just summarize. Hiring is like any other relationship. Make that transparent from day one. Don’t surprise candidates. I don’t think that is a good strategy to make a longer relationship healthy if you’re trying to hide things upfront or try to surprise [them]. So, just rethink about your hiring strategy [and] be as transparent as possible. [Doing] that will attract and help you retain people throughout your journey. So I think that is what I would leave there for people.
MARK: That’s great advice. And you know just like how you mentioned hiring has changed from the past to the future, how has building teams changed from the past?
ALBERTO: I mean I think we were all people from the time where we would have to be at least eight hours a day, five days a week in an office and we would have to commute. So that is what I call, quote on quote, the traditional way. There’s like other concepts that I bring in the book as well: offshore, remote, what’s the difference between remote and distributed, etc. People now talk about the word, hybrid. What does that mean? It’s kind of like half from home or somewhere else, and half from the office. The bottom line is this. I think the pandemic actually didn’t change much. Things have been happening just at a slower pace. The pandemic just helped accelerate things. People were working remotely. Some companies wouldn’t allow working remotely. After the pandemic, now you allow remote. What people realized is that the flexibility, it’s actually good. The ability to actually spend more time with your family and get your children to the bus stop. People spend like generations without actually having that feeling, you know? The time that you leave home is too early. The time that you come back is probably too late and the kids are in bed already. So all in all, I think between the traditional and the way that teams were built in the past and how they are going to be built in the future, I think these two questions always come kind of like side-by-side. I think it’s going to be the balance again—the hardest thing. I think companies that have a more strict work culture will struggle a little bit more. I also think hybrid is not just about random decisions. [For example,] twice a week come to work. Why twice a week? Why Tuesday and Wednesday and not Monday and Friday? So regardless of the combinations, I think the world is changing, and it’s going to be changing from the past, which was 100% from the office. I don’t think it’s going to be 100% all distributed, but I think it will be a mix—quote on quote—hybrid with a purpose. So it’s a very complex answer to say. Well it’s a very complex question to start with, but I think it’s a mix of things. It’s going to vary [depending] on the industries. It’s going to vary [depending] on job types. I think it’s going to vary on so many variables. There’s no one size fits all. I can tell you from my point of view, Mark. I cannot see myself five days a week, forty hours a week trying to commute and go to work in the traditional way. Not sure about you if you could ever do that again, but I enjoy some of the flexibility.
MARK: Yeah, I agree with you. Given that the pandemic came and a lot of things changed like you said—the acceleration [and] the disruption. And people also [are] kind of resigning too. Like droves of people resigning and reflecting what they want and finding meaning in their work again. They realized, “Hey, there are things that I like [and] things I don’t like. I do want more flexibility and we’re seeing that this is playing a decision in hiring [and] in the economic market and everything.
ALBERTO: Imagine the impact that that’s actually having on society as a whole. Like I used to live—as I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation—for the past fifteen years in New York. So there’s people living in the Bay Area [where] the price of real estate [is high] and now when I look around, I’m in the middle of Texas and there’s like many people from California [and] from New York—[it’s] like a huge migration from those states [to] down here. Why is that happening? It’s like those people cannot see themselves actually going back to those big centers anymore. I think we’re just in the beginning of a huge transformation. As I mentioned in the book, I think it’s a new industry revolution. It’s much bigger than what we can see in this first [and] second year, and I think it’s going to continue changing. But it’s going to be really hard for organizations to enforce people to go back the way that it used to be. I think it’s going to be quite challenging and I’m actually excited to see what happens in the next three to six months to a year to two years. It’s going to be quite interesting to see what small companies and big companies actually [do and] what decisions they’ll be making.
MARK: Yeah, I think it’s very interesting and I’m excited to see what the changes will bring as well. What predictions do you have on how team building will change in the future?
ALBERTO: I think this aligns very much with the previous answers, but one thing I can tell you—and I’m 100% confident about this—[is] things will not go back [to] the way it was. It just can’t. We must have learned something from this pandemic. If we leave all this without learning that it cannot be the way it was, then we need to rethink as humans. But I think the future of work is the present for many organizations already. Collaboration and technology is there. The flexibility is there. I think the lessons from the pandemic are there. I think we have a lot that is currently happening already. What cannot happen is [for] us to step back. And I think we went from a more traditional world to the opposite of being completely isolated. I think working distributed is different from being isolated. I think it’s like having the combination of many good things. One thing that people get confused [about] sometimes, Mark, is that [they think] living in isolation is how we’re going to be working in the future. No, those are two separate things. Working in a distributed environment doesn’t mean that you should actually eliminate the human connection. In fact you need the human connection. Do you remember when we worked together in the previous company? We would have events like the beginning of the year kickoff or the middle of the year [get-together]. Those activities are super important when you’re building distributed teams. So I think the future for many companies is basically what we’ve done at our time in the previous company that we worked together, Mark.
MARK: Yeah that makes sense. As we become more remote [and] distributed, we need to encourage more connectedness. I think that is 100% spot on.
ALBERTO: Yeah human connections, which goes back to the purpose, right?
MARK: Yeah. Wow, so that’s really amazing and thanks so much for going through all of this and touching upon points in your book. I know we talked about your book a lot, but if people wanted to learn more about your book, where can they find that?
MARK: And if people wanted to learn more about what Alberto’s up to, how can they do that?
ALBERTO: I’m always open to new connections on LinkedIn. I also have my own website crossingtheequator.com. Just reach out and I’m more than happy to talk and learn from the community and share with the community so feel free to reach out to me.
MARK: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining this podcast.
ALBERTO: Mark, thank you very much, it’s a pleasure for me to be here and it was an honor and I really enjoyed our conversation today.
MARK: Great, I wish you luck and stay remarkable!
ALBERTO: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Cheers.
Check out the previous episode “How I Got into IT with Minh Nguyen”.