HubSpot’s Barbara McCarthy on engineering a customer revolution

22 Mar 2019

Barbara McCarthy. Image: HubSpot

An authority on scaling up engineering teams, HubSpot’s Barbara McCarthy tells John Kennedy that the customer comes first and explains that culture is to recruitment as product is to marketing.

When I first met upcoming Inspirefest speaker Barbara McCarthy during an Inspirefest event at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition 2019 in January, it turned out that we knew many of the same people. We just didn’t know each other. Many of those people were key figures in the tech industry of the 1990s and early 2000s who laid the groundwork for Ireland’s burgeoning digital industry today.

McCarthy is director of engineering at HubSpot EMEA where she has built up a pure-play engineering team in Dublin, which has been home to HubSpot’s European headquarters since 2013.

‘People talk a lot about millennials but half of them are now pushing 35 or heading to 40. My advice? Get ready for Generation Z’

Three years ago, HubSpot announced plans to create 320 new jobs at its European headquarters at One Dockland Central, in a bid to bring total employment at the company in Dublin to about 500 people. In September 2018, reported that the company had surpassed the crucial 100-engineer milestone in Dublin. HubSpot EMEA managing director Christian Kinnear revealed that Service Hub, one of the three core pillars of HubSpot’s new Enterprise Growth Suite, was built entirely from the ground up in Dublin, which is also home to many of the company’s mobile product development activities.

In recent months it emerged that HubSpot is continuing its growth in Dublin and has agreed to lease all of the office accommodation at 1 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay on Dublin’s South Docks for €6.8m a year from Hibernia REIT.

HubSpot is a global inbound marketing and sales platform that is used by more than 48,000 businesses in more than 100 countries. HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan and CTO Dharmesh Shah founded HubSpot 13 years ago when they were both studying for MBAs at MIT.

Taking the road less travelled

McCarthy is more than just the director of engineering at HubSpot Dublin. She is also a champion for increased diversity in engineering and technology, an advocate for women and underrepresented groups to become programmers, and a prominent thought leader who was named by as one of Ireland’s most phenomenal women in engineering.

Her career in tech began in the early 1990s when she was a young graduate working at PC manufacturer Gateway in Dublin, at the time one of Ireland’s biggest tech employers. “I was working in tech project management and one day someone came in to pitch a new system that would take us away from green-on-black-screen AS/400 systems to a GUI [graphical user interface] system and he started talking about newer technologies and asked if we’d heard of the internet. That was Robert Booth, founder of Trinity Technology, which became Ebeon. He offered me a job and it was a chance for me to join this internet wave and learn something completely new.”

Joining Ebeon brought McCarthy into contact with entrepreneur Norman Crowley.

After the compulsory year in Australia that was a rite of passage for most young Irish people around the turn of the century, and a stint with consulting firm Capgemini, McCarthy re-entered the start-up world with Crowley’s newest venture, Inspired Broadcast Networks, which he founded out of the embers of the dot-com crash and which centred on a then emerging wireless technology called Wi-Fi.

While Ireland sleepwalked its way into a devastating property crash, Crowley and a young team of Irish tech entrepreneurs, including McCarthy, went over to England and built Inspired Broadcast Networks into a pan-UK Wi-Fi and gaming giant, leading it to a successful IPO in London in 2007. During that time McCarthy developed a prowess for building engineering teams – from zero to 120 in the case of Inspired.

“Norman was incredible to work with but very challenging in that he’d tell you how he’d done a deal with Betfair or William Hill and that he’d need the product built in three weeks. He would push you very hard and there was no such thing as ‘no’, just ‘figure it out’. That pushed me hugely in terms of my own ability and sense of confidence, and still serves me well today when you think of what we call in HubSpot ‘GSD’: get stuff done. Norman is a phenomenal salesman but he is also an incredible creative thinker and some of the things we worked on were ahead of their time.”

One example of Crowley’s unorthodox approach was during the foot-and-mouth scare, which ground the betting industry to a halt because of travel restrictions on animals. “There was nothing to bet on and the betting industry was going south, and Norman came up with a concept for virtual horse and dog racing. He researched this company called Red Vision from Manchester that won awards for their CGI work on a film called Into the Void and their incredible animations, and we bought the company just to create virtual horse and dog racing and it worked. That inspired us to recruit PhD candidates from Cambridge to develop algorithms for virtual roulette wheels and more.”

Building DubSpot

Blonde-haired woman with blue eyes and wearing a blue blouse against an orange background.

Barbara McCarthy. Image: HubSpot

After Inspired’s IPO, McCarthy returned to Ireland and joined educational publishing giant HMH, which merged with Riverdeep. She was tasked with growing the EMEA R&D team, which she did successfully. After several years with HMH, an opportunity to join HubSpot came up.

“I remember reading our CTO Dharmesh Shah’s Culture Code and that just blew me away. The values resonated so much and, for me, the Culture Code was the thing that clinched the deal as well as the opportunity of growth.”

Once again, McCarthy was tasked with growing the engineering team, leading to it surpass the 100-engineer mark last September.

“We are continuing to scale at a very fast pace. The opportunity at HubSpot felt different to other tech companies in that it was about core engineering and core product development. Everything from machine learning and native mobile development to our new Service Hub product are all driven from Dublin, and that to me is very exciting and it is a different proposition from other big American companies that come to Dublin.”

I ask McCarthy about her approach to building and scaling an engineering team and she said it is all about culture and people who want to work with other amazing people.

“From an engineering perspective, if you are looking for a new opportunity you want to make sure that you’ve got an interesting challenge to work on. The problems that you are trying to solve within the company have to be interesting from an engineering perspective, the technology has to be really modern-stack and you want to know that the company you are going into definitely has best practices in terms of engineering. You also want to make sure that it is an amazing place to learn.

“The best places to learn are where you find yourself working with the most amazingly talented people, and I think that’s definitely a draw from an engineering perspective. I think that also the culture in which you work as an engineer is vitally, vitally important. And Dharmesh did an amazing thing when he said: ‘Culture is to recruitment as product is to marketing.’ So if you have an amazingly positive culture within an engineering culture, it attracts amazing individuals. We live by that.”

In the talent wars that are raging in Dublin, McCarthy said that HubSpot doesn’t obsess about what other companies are doing. “We obsess about how we can create the best culture and amazing opportunities for talented individuals. Yes, the salary and benefits and things like that are important from a personal perspective, but the other opportunities are important too.”

At Inbound 2018 in Boston in September, Shah revealed his new Customer Code, centred on how organisations build product around customers. I ask McCarthy about how this feeds into the scaling journey. “It’s so important. Our customers are everything to us. Everybody in the organisation puts the customer first, so, even when we think about prioritisation or decision-making, the customer is the first point of reference. The customer, the company, the team and me – and that’s the order in which we do everything.

“The main ethos of HubSpot is to ‘grow better’ and that’s to essentially help our customers to grow better. Engineers sit in on research sessions, they do empathy walk-throughs, so we are very customer-focused from an engineering perspective.”

Looking ahead to her appearance at Inspirefest in May, I ask McCarthy what themes she intends to explore. “I’m thinking a lot about Generation Z, that new cohort coming over the horizon. We need to be ready for Generation Z.

“They are going to be a bigger tribe than millennials and baby boomers. They are entering the workforce right now and they are different. Their value system is different; what they are aspiring to and looking for and what they are worried about is different.

“What I hope to explore is, how do you create an incredibly productive culture in order to support Generation Z? People talk a lot about millennials but half of them are now 35 or heading to 40. My advice? Get ready for Generation Z.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Updated, 10.14am, 22 March 2019: This article was updated to clarify that HubSpot announced 320 new jobs for Dublin in 2016, not 2017, and that the company was founded in 2006, not 2007.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years