How Havenly’s CTO Has Built a High-Performing Engineering Culture
A self-described “life-long nerd,” Havenly’s CTO Gabe Hesse loves making things. He’s a tinkerer who’s attracted to high-growth companies in industries ripe for technology disruption. Gabe’s career has spanned from transactional processing to healthcare to, most recently, a marketplace for interior designers. He calls Havenly (an innovative online interior design studio that makes beautiful décor convenient and accessible for clients) “the coolest place he’s ever worked.”
Despite not knowing much about interior design, Gabe was attracted to the role at Denver-based Havenly after being pitched by CEO and Founder Lee Mayer. Gabe and Lee met when they both worked at Bankrate (which had recently acquired NetQuote), and he’d always held her in high regard – he speaks passionately about his admiration of her vision, intelligence and gumption. In 2015, after coming out of a high-growth healthcare company, Welltok, which he’d seen from 6 to 400 employees over 3.5 years, he’d been searching for an opportunity to serve as CTO. Lee framed her pitch perfectly, breaking down the industry, which was a “complete blind spot” for Gabe, as one ripe for disruption, with a fragmented supply chain and attractive economics at scale. Gabe was sold: “I’ve been around enough rocketships that I can smell the fuel” he says.
In the past 18 months, Gabe’s built the Havenly technology team to include six engineers, and he’s passionate and deliberate about assembling the right people. Though Havenly is still young, he pulls from his experience in previous roles at high-growth companies to make sure everyone on his team is a perfect fit, not just technically but culturally – a bit of a departure from how many think about hiring tech roles.
We talked to Gabe about his tips for building a high-performing engineering team, which isn’t just about checking the boxes on technical capabilities. At Havenly, he says, “The people we’ve assembled are so talent dense. The bar here is so much higher, I can’t find a B player.”
Find the Team Players
“Professional product building is a team sport” Gabe says. While he acknowledges that engineers as a group tend to have introverted qualities, throughout his career he’s aimed to seek out individuals who are team players. He looks for engineers whose personality won’t get in the way, are open and curious, and who work well with others. “They have to be able to jam with folks and get creative,” he says. Patience is key: it’s well-worth waiting for the person who is going to bring more to the table than just the specific hard skills the company needs.
Verbalize Your Core Values
Lee codified Havenly’s culture early on, and not by splashing up values on a poster, but working to instill them in each and every team member. She hired Sarah Miller, Senior Director of People and Culture (who’s “obsessed with this stuff in the best possible way” Gabe says), and throws out pop quizzes on their cultural guidelines during weekly standups. “This was something I was craving” Gabe says. His authenticity is contagious, and he’s a stickler for trust and relationship building. He’d sought out an environment where culture was set and adhered to across all aspects of the business.
These guidelines flowed into his tech team recruiting, which, at past roles, had been more focused on specific hard skills. This culture fit focus can be disarming for technologists who are used to being in high demand, Gabe says, “but I need to know why they’re here – what else they can do besides hack on a computer.” A miss for many companies is a cultural mismatch between the engineering teams (who often develop their own siloed culture) and everyone else. Under Gabe’s leadership it’s different at Havenly – and while the high bar makes finding the perfect employees difficult in the short term, the ability to collaborate as a whole, cohesive Havenly team has paid off.
Mirror Your Product
Who are your customers? How many products to you have? While it may look different from the outside, Gabe thinks of Havenly as three different products: client-facing (demand side), designer-facing (supply side), and an ecommerce and data side. He’s built his team with capabilities to understand and serve each of the products. “Early on, you’re looking for phenomenal generalists – people who are really good at taking new information and executing on it. As you reach an inflection point and start to scale, you have to start specializing and make sure you have people on all sides of your product,” he says.
Free the Engineers
“One of the biggest crimes that many product development groups make is giving their engineers task lists rather than goals,” Gabe says. “Those goals should come with a mandate to collaborate to come up with the best ways to hit them.” Technology managers should find the right distance between themselves and the team by understanding when it’s appropriate to give space to execute, and when it’s time to dive in. That’s a challenge, Gabe says, and something he’s refined over the years. “The more freedom that you give engineers among product and stakeholders, the more you get out of it.”
Over the years, Gabe has seen this freedom lead to more cohesive teams and better products. Though he hasn’t always gotten it right – “Havenly is benefitting from some early mistakes I made with bad hires and processes, I’ve learned from them and don’t make those mistakes again.” As a tinkerer, maker and technologist himself, he emphasizes with the itch to build and extends that freedom to him team.
Gabe’s team recently launched their iOS app, which was listed as the #1 “New Apps We Love” in the App Store and featured on Product Hunt. And if you’re a good match for a role at Havenly, introduce yourself at havenly.com/careers.