An Interview with the VP of Engineering at PicPay

An Interview with the VP of Engineering at PicPay image

Martin Spier is the VP of Engineering at PicPay, a Brazilian fintech company that is reinventing the way people shop, communicate, and manage their finances. Previously, Martin worked at Netflix, where he was hired as the first Performance Engineer in 2009.

We couldn't have had a better guest to kick-start our new show, Soft Skills Hard Code, where we interview tech leaders and renowned programmers. During this interview with Martin, we talk about the lesson he learned while at Netflix, how he hires exceptional engineers, and why he believes performance reviews for engineers don't work.

Martin's Early Career

Martin's background is pure tech. He studied Computer Science in Brazil and early in his career became part of a team to investigate performance issues with one of the main applications of a big multinational. That's how he got into performance engineering.

Martin loves performance engineering because it requires so many different skills. You need to understand algorithm design, CPUs, caching, computer architecture, networking, and more.

He was in the US working for Expedia when he received a cold email from Netflix. It was the late 2000s, and he only knew them as a DVD rental company. But they explained their ambitions to go full cloud, which attracted Martin.

After a rigorous hiring process, he became their first Performance Engineer in 2009 and ultimately spent ten years with them. During those years, he roamed around different areas of the company: architecture, tooling, data, recommendations, and client performance.

Lessons Learned While at Netflix

Netflix is a well-oiled machine, and it has to be. When a company is small, it's doable to read some log lines. But when you're a huge company like Netflix, you can't do that anymore. You need new tools, new processes.

Netflix was at the forefront of what was technologically possible at the time. Martin was continuously exposed to new ways of solving problems that had no easy answer on Stack Overflow. Having a strong computer theory foundation helped Martin understand and solve those hard problems.

He also learned much from Netflix's culture. Freedom and trust were two essential ingredients. And that makes sense, too. When you spend so much time hiring exceptional talent, shouldn't you then give those people the freedom to do their best work? Netflix believed so, Martin does too, and it's a principle we believe at X-Team as well.

Martin's Move to PicPay

Throughout his career, Martin has advised for plenty of startups. That's how he got in touch with the Founder of PicPay. During the pandemic, the company was growing so fast that they needed someone for their engineering.

This turned into an opportunity for Martin to do work with much more responsibility. It wouldn't just be about engineering and resilience, but also about infrastructure, developer experience, architecture, mobile, data, et cetera. He decided to take the leap and became PicPay's VP of Engineering.

How to Build a Strong Engineering Culture

Martin believes that culture doesn't begin with a document. It's what happens during the day-to-day. How everyone acts when they're at work. The trick is to capture their daily behaviors and put that in a document. Not the other way around, where you start with a document and then expect people to act that way.

Martin also believes in leading by example. He acts how he wants others to act. He provides constant and immediate feedback and ensures that everyone is always clear on what they're meant to do.

Additionally, he believes that it's important for engineering teams to feel safe and comfortable. During post-mortems, Martin likes to focus on what failed in the process and the tools. Someone may have clicked the wrong button. Okay. How can the tool's UX be improved so that doesn't happen again?

Of course, you need to keep an eye out for cultural failures. One such example is when someone decides to use a particular technology not because it's the best solution for the company, but because they want it on their resume. A good leader needs to be able to distinguish between honest mistakes and cultural failures.

Performance Reviews Don't Work

Performance reviews work fine when it's for a job that's easily measurable, like sales. But software engineering is a creative profession. It's really hard to measure how much value one engineer adds to a company.

For example, you may have a productive engineer who's good at creating new product features. You may have another engineer who doesn't write much code, but who's constantly unblocking other engineers. Which engineer adds more value to the company? It's impossible to measure.

Additionally, performance reviews are often seen as feedback on someone's work, but it's feedback that comes much too late. Good feedback is given immediately, with the right context, so the engineer understands how they can change and aren't defensive about it.

The scoring in performance reviews is also often arbitrary. Even worse, it can sometimes be gamed. And if something can be gamed, engineers will game it. Instead of performance reviews, Martin prefers a strong culture with immediate feedback and clear ideas of who needs to do what at all times.

How to Hire Great Engineers

Most companies hire passively. They create an open position, post it on the respective job boards, collect applicants, and then hire the least worse person. It's not a good process to find great, senior engineers.

Martin prefers hiring actively. Because good people are hard to find and almost certainly work for someone else, he has a pipeline of good engineers that he'd like to hire, who he stays in touch with over time. If at any point in their career they're looking for a change, Martin stands ready for them.

How to Improve Developer Experience

Martin wants his engineers to be in a flow state for as long as possible. That's why he likes to focus on tooling. Because most productivity issues happen when you have to wait on someone else to do something. It creates productivity blocks that can often be automated away.

Another great way to improve a developer's experience is simply to listen. It helps that developers are often quite vocal. It's always a good idea to listen to their concerns and try your best to figure out how you can help them.

One Piece of Advice

Martin encourages engineers to go back to the basics of computer science. Programming has become very high-level with compilers, low-code tools, and abstract languages. Very few developers nowadays fully understand the deeper and more complex parts of computing.

If you want stand out from the pack, specialize in those lower-level areas. Become someone who's deeply familiar with the inner workings of Kubernetes or who can work on the OS level. You'll have very little competition if that becomes your area of expertise.

X-Team specializes in finding exceptional senior engineers who can hit the ground running from day one. If those are the kinds of engineers you're looking for, send us a message today.


Thomas De Moor / code