Lydia Howland interviews our CTO, Christian Hølmer about his move back into startup from Facebook.
Last week, in between hosting user testing sessions, shipping prototypes of our first household spending report, and leading a workshop on our emerging customer personae, I also spent some time with Christian, our CTO, and some engineers interested in joining our growing engineering team. I thought some of the discussions were especially illuminating… blog worthy, even. So, putting Christian in the hot seat, I asked him a few questions over lunch.
Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about your career path in tech.
I founded my first real startup in 2007 – a SaaS product empowering private investors in Scandinavia with a stock-screening tool. After that, I joined a founder group that launched half a dozen start-ups in a few years (several of which are still doing great, including Billetto, the biggest Scandinavian ticketing platform, and Bloggers Delight the influencer network platform used by top brands like CocaCola, Lego & Zalando). I moved to London 10 years ago to open the Billetto UK office, because I wanted to be more involved in bigger projects that would scale, instead of just focusing on Scandinavia.
I spent a period consulting as interim CTO, first at Cake Technologies (bill splitting) and then Tails.com (subscription dog food) as they ramped up towards their successful exit to Nestle. Whilst working on ideas for another startup a friend in my CTO network (a senior engineering leader at Facebook) kind of teased me and said “Hey, you should come join us and try it out”.
So, why did you join Facebook?
Facebook is known for having a tough recruitment process and I was curious to see if I could meet the bar. So I went along and was blown away by the quality of the people. I’d never seen myself being employed and working at a big company (having never been an employee), but I was intrigued by Facebook. Having always been the most experienced tech person in any company I’d worked in, the idea of working alongside and learning from some of the best engineering leaders in the world was very appealing.
The other appeal was a chance to learn the “secret sauce” of Big Tech. As an entrepreneur at heart, the question in the back of my mind was always “what can I learn that I can apply at startups in the future?”. In particular, I wanted to learn not just how to scale tech systems, but how to keep the brightest people motivated and challenged.
And what did you learn at Facebook?
Facebook puts a lot of emphasis on growth and ensuring people are constantly getting feedback on how to improve. Coming from startups and scaleups I underestimated just how powerful it is to have a defined framework for maximising the personal growth of engineers. Generally engineers rate themselves solely on their technical skills but as you get more senior it’s more subtle than that. First of all it’s about the actual business impact you have and owning how to measure and communicate that impact. Secondly it’s about having impact through other people by setting the right direction on larger cross company projects as well as things like mentoring other engineers. The most senior engineers at Facebook are expected to not only have an impact across the whole company but also the outside world of tech in general.
I’m also a huge fan of the way Facebook separates out the manager and individual contributor (ICs) paths. It means ICs can keep progressing without feeling like they either have to switch to management or hit a ceiling in terms of compensation or responsibility. I think it's super important to have world-class senior IC’s in your team who have the capacity to lead cross-cutting initiatives and go more into depth than someone managing people has capacity for.
Why did you leave Facebook to build Nous?
For me it came down to being a little fish in a big pond and that I didn’t feel the ownership, influence and passion for the product that I have in startups. Someone once described Facebook to me as hundreds of startups operating under the same roof with teams quickly being spun up and down. While it is impressively dynamic given its size, it never felt quite the same as a true startup to me.
When I met the group which became the team behind Nous, I realised it was exactly what I was looking for. It’s a team of really, really, really smart and talented people that I can work closely with every day and help build up a company culture from scratch. I’ve rediscovered the magic that happens when a small cross-functional team works really closely together, with full autonomy to make decisions, learn and iterate fast.
Can you say more about the purpose you’ve found at Nous?
We’re solving a growing problem for people in the context of a cost-of-living squeeze – the complexity of managing household bills. We want to make the whole market more transparent, which means picking a fight with the big suppliers who are maybe not quite as honest as they should be, or the comparison sites that live quite well off the commissions they get by steering people in a certain direction. Whereas we will always be 100% on the side of households.
Household bills are not sexy but they are a part of life, whether we like it or not. To solve these day-to-day problems there are really interesting technical problems coming up in terms of how do we get as much information as possible to help automate things? How do we make it as smooth as possible for people, so they have to do as little as possible? How do we build decision engines that can deal with the complexity of modern households and can scale to running millions of them?
I saw all this in the vision for Nous, the team’s track-record and ambition, and the potential to make this a really successful mainstream product.
Why should any engineers reading this consider a role at Nous?
There are things you can't read in a book or learn on a course. Even accelerators can’t give you the same kind of exposure as working with people who've launched and scaled startups before. The best way of learning is hands-on.
Engineers who aspire to become engineering leaders themselves, to start their own business in the future, or see themselves as senior ICs focussed on the technology that will solve these complex problems will find that the experience they can get in this type of environment will maximise their trajectory.
We’re looking for between 4 and 6 more experienced engineers – ideally full stack, but it's okay if people are leaning more towards frontend or backend end as long as they are technically confident in a few stacks and able to adapt quickly and hit the ground running. It’s also important that they like working in a small, cross-functional team – working with product design and user research, knowing how to feed into discussions of possible solutions – embracing ambiguity and being pragmatic.
At this stage we're not yet looking for junior people – we're establishing an experienced team (which is less about years’ experience and more about the kind of exposure an individual has had in their career, the scale of the products they’ve worked on, the ownership they’ve had, or the exposure they’ve had in the teams they’ve been in).
So, if you’d be fulfilled by having influence and autonomy in an early stage business with the potential for mainstream success, get in touch – come and join us around the whiteboard.
No-one should be dealing with the cost-of-living crisis all alone. We’re building a new service to liberate households from drudgery and make people’s lives simpler and fairer.