Interview with David Subar, CTO of Break Media

One of the most important components in developing great technology products is building a strong team. Finding, keeping and empowering great talent can be one of the most difficult challenges a tech leader confronts. We asked David Subar, CTO of Break Media, to provide his thoughts on team building. He is a seasoned and experienced technology executive who has built teams in a broad swath of environments throughout his career.

Fun Fact: The Center for Creative Leadership in San Diego found that companies who are highly rated in employee motivation, development and communication have an average of 20% higher profits than those who are rated poorly.

How do you define a cohesive and high performing team?

A high performing team is, by definition, one that is cohesive. A team can’t be high performing if it is not cohesive.  Cohesion, though, is a necessary but not sufficient condition – you need more. First, you need a well-defined and understood goal. We focus on shipping product that meets Break’s business mission: to give the most entertaining content for our demographic (males, 18 to 34). Everything we do and every decision we make is focused on giving our demographic great entertainment. Other teams’ goals do not need to be the same as ours – they shouldn’t be – but they must be clear and well known. In addition to a clearly defined goal and cohesion, the people in the organization need to be “best of class”.  We endeavor to have the best product managers, the best developers, the best QA, the best tech ops, the best of everything. Still, that too, is not enough. It is not enough to have people that are great in their craft, but they must also be engaged in the product they are developing. We want our developers to critique the product they are working on. Is it cool or not? Can we make it better? The product managers must care about technology in the same way.

What are the key components you look for when hiring individuals?

There are three dimensions I look for: 1) Does the person I am interviewing have the innate skills I need? 2) How passionate is s/he about the role I have? 3) How much experience do they have?  For the first two questions, I look for A players – I would rather not hire than get someone who doesn’t have the skillset or passion for the work. In regards to experience, there are some tasks that require a senior person and others that a junior person would love. For both senior and junior people – and everyone in between – I want to make sure that all are challenged. Technologists seem to do their best work when they are stretched. Getting people with different experience levels is better for the organization and better for the development of the team.

How do you keep the team interested in the work and objectives?

It’s all about passion. You need to have a vision. The vision needs to be clear, communicated and easily understood. If you can’t say it in two or three sentences, you probably don’t have it. Ours is easy. We want to deliver the best content for our demographic. We have a lot of traffic; we have a lot of data. We should be able to use that data to deliver the right content to each person on the platform they want to be on.

How do you manage weak links within the team?

Sometimes the people are weak because they don’t have the requisite skills and talent. Other times there are things to be learned. Perhaps the weak link knows something others don’t. Communication needs to be open and frequent. When the person is really a weak link the issue needs to be communicated to them and they need time to improve. If they cannot, then a harder conversation needs to happen – but in any case, I always try to give individuals a chance to improve. It sends a message to the entire team.

What is the best way to keep multiple personalities functioning well together?

Focus on the problem at hand. Keep everyone working towards the same things. Always be ready to react, in the case that a business or technology need changes – the goals must change with it.

Can you recommend any events or activities for building team camaraderie?

I try to listen closely to what people ask for. We have monthly social gatherings where we bring in a speaker and beer – which are a great opportunity for our team to be social. We are celebrating big project wins with mementos and outings. Recently, for the launch of the new Break redesign we took the afternoon off and took the entire team out for bowling. We also have the team take new employees out to lunch. There are a hundred small things that you can do and the best ideas come from the employees themselves.

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