Growing the Team
Our first hire is Steve Suffian
When you first encounter a set of problems that you want to organize a company around, they seem fairly straightforward to solve (and you often wonder why someone hasn’t solved them already). Possibly you are the only person who perceives the problems as important enough to be solved. But most of the time it’s because the problems are a lot more complicated than you first imagined. A lot of companies struggle at this stage because they realize that the scope of their ambition will require more than what the founding team is capable of delivering.
The best advice is to focus on a minimum sellable product that’s maybe short on features but solves an important part of the overall problem matrix. We did this at WattCarbon with Aligned Climate Capital. While we didn’t have the resources early on to develop the type of fully-fledged solution that we had imagined, we figured out how to deliver what they needed. That it involved a combination of custom data scripts and Google Data Studio visualizations didn’t actually matter to our customers, despite what our insecurities might have told us.
Still, at some point, you realize that in order to build the thing you want to build, it’s going to take more than the ones who have signed up in the first place to build it. These early employees are the most important in a company’s history. They signal confidence that a company is going in the right direction. They bring particular working styles, backgrounds, interests, values, and skills that imprint on the character of the company more than any future employee.
These early hires tend to be drawn from within existing networks, which can also present challenges. Teams can tend to become monochromatic. At the very least, if you fill the team with like-minded individuals, you can lose the value of thought diversity. On the other hand, bringing in a wild card can disrupt the careful balance of the founding team and slow down progress. Needless to say, the first new hire is both important and a potential minefield.
I met Steve Suffian when I was at Recurve and he was wrapping up his Ph.D. at Villanova. He was studying how renewable energy impacted the reliability of electrical power grids in Nicaragua and how grid operators might dispatch DERs to alleviate peak demands. I got connected to Steve through his participation in the Data Science for Social Good Fellowship, where he had worked with Phil Ngo and Matt Gee. We had a hiring scale at the time that ranged from “I’ll quit if you hire this person” to “I’ll quit if you don’t hire this person.” I’m pretty sure Phil issued me a stern warning. So Steve was hired.
One of the first tough decisions I had to make with Steve was a request to work remotely for a week. This wasn’t too bad on the surface - after all, we were a remote company. The kicker was that he wanted to work from the US-Mexico border where he and his partner had signed up to volunteer. I’m sure he probably actually worked, but I didn’t really care. This was the type of person that I wanted in my life and I wanted to support however I could. Because of Steve, we ended up adopting a time-off policy at Recurve that provided paid leave for volunteering (with the proviso that you had to report back to the team on your experiences in an all-hands meeting).
Steve ended up as the translation layer between our data science and engineering teams at Recurve. He refactored the EEmeter for hourly methods and built a more scalable version of Hassan’s comparison group matching algorithm. On top of that, he led the first successful implementation of Con Edison’s Green Button Connect interface and did about a million other things that made the rest of us look good. Most importantly, he led our DEIB efforts and helped us chart a path forward to becoming a more inclusive organization.
So when Steve reached out to me to let me know he was potentially interested in joining WattCarbon I jumped at the opportunity to work with him again. His mix of engineering skills, familiarity with the way the grid works, experience in configuring data pipelines, and leadership in building an engineering team that prides itself on humility and empathy made it easy to see him as the perfect complement to Keith and Hassan. Even better, Steve and Keith live a few miles from each other in Philadelphia.
I’ve asked Steve to help us think about how to build a company suited for the next 100 years. We’re going to try to figure out how to implement a 4-day workweek. We want to make sure that we provide opportunities for WattCarbon employees to give back to their communities, support their families, and feel empowered by the responsibilities they assume in their work. We realize that our team does not reflect the diversity of our communities or our industry. And we still anchor too much on the norms that we inherited rather than the norms that we can pass along to the next generation. We have work to do.
But there is nobody else that Keith, Hassan, and I would rather tackle these challenges with than Steve. We are a better company with him working alongside us and we are better people from working alongside him. If the future of the company is reflected in the direction we are taking with our first hire, the future is bright indeed.