Inspire’s CTO on His Quest to Build ‘The Next Generation of Leaders’

July 23, 2020
Inspire team chatting
inspire

The old adage, “Two heads are better than one,” carries weight at Inspire, a clean energy subscription and management company headquartered in LA.

Inspire’s mission, to make it easier for homeowners to use renewable energy via a subscription model similar to Netflix, is a complex one that CTO Mike Durst said requires cross-functional expertise from groups with diverse experiences and backgrounds.

To that end, Durst said each cross-functional team is focused on one customer-facing product, and typically includes product managers, data scientists, designers and engineers.

These cross-functional teams enable a diversity of thought that’s critical to driving change within the antiquated energy space, Durst said. Furthermore, having diverse teams encourages professionals to build richer skill sets, as well as empathy for their co-workers.

In fact, the only thing Durst wants all employees to share are their values.

“We believe in having shared values that — regardless of our unique differences and backgrounds — we can rally around to build successful customer solutions,” Durst said.

Durst shared how his belief in the power of diversity is helping him build the next generation of leaders, as well as other best management practices, below. 

 

What is your overall philosophy behind how you build your team?

Solutions that work best for customers should be approached by a diverse set of skills and life experiences. So my team is divided into groups with mixes of cross-functional expertise and diverse backgrounds, each focused on one of our customer-facing products. Each sub-team typically includes product managers, data scientists, designers and engineers. We try to have a blend of senior engineers and staff at the start of their career journey so there are always opportunities to learn and mentor.

The most important part of leading a diverse team is listening to and learning from employees.”

 

How have your experiences at other companies like GE and NRG helped you become the leader you are at Inspire?

I was part of GE’s medical systems business, where my work had to be of the highest quality. I was taught that building meaningful software means solving the right problem with quality. To solve challenges effectively a team has to be aligned, motivated and feature the right mix of skills.

NRG taught me that creating an impact as an engineer requires a deep understanding of how the business works. Understanding the energy industry wasn’t as straightforward as I thought. My ability to shape business decisions and strategy was limited without that industry knowledge. After committing to learning how the business and industry works, I was able to take on more leadership. I was influential in guiding business decisions, building teams and charting the product roadmap. This growth is why I encourage and facilitate everyone on my team to learn about our core business and the clean energy space. 

 

What is your approach to leading such a diverse team?

The most important part of leading a diverse team is listening to and learning from employees. I seek to understand their frustrations and motivations. I want to build empathy and learn how to be a better manager for them. I ask them what projects are interesting to them and how they can grow their existing skill set. My team should be an evolving group, so we are constantly adapting through regular feedback on what’s working well and areas for improvement. 

I empower my team to own projects from start to finish to cultivate an environment of trust, while also driving the team to move efficiently. Teams neither ask forgiveness nor ask permission; they just act with the confidence that I will be by their side the whole time. It’s also critical that I encourage my team to pursue learning and development across any field of interest, even if it isn’t tied to their role.

 

How would you describe your team culture?

We don’t view ourselves as having a culture. Having a uniform culture everyone must adhere to inhibits the ability to attract diverse candidates and embrace unique backgrounds within the team. Instead, we believe in having shared values that — regardless of our unique differences and backgrounds — we can rally around to build successful customer solutions. 

 

What’s the most interesting project your team is working on right now?

We have a critical project that the team is working on that will simplify the way our customers sign up for our core clean energy subscription product. It will help drive energy efficiency through connected devices and rewards. 

Our web signup and signed-in experiences are based on React. We’re supporting a smart thermostat that our customers engage with through a mobile app built in React Native. The underlying services are a mix of Ruby, Node.js and Python depending on the job. The data infrastructure and modeling environment is a mix of Snowflake, Airflow, Python and SQL.

 

How do manage a dispersed team in this era of increased remote work?

Our team was already working in two offices on each coast prior to COVID-19. We already had well-established technology and systems for remote collaboration. So thankfully, the transition to going remote was seamless for us. But building trust is crucial for us to be successful while remote. We have to trust another to deliver on our commitments. I implemented “Superflow Wednesdays” to enable deep work for my team. To eliminate potential distractions, there are no meetings for my team so staff can focus.

However, the company quickly learned the importance of being respectful of employees’ work-life balance. We implemented half-days on Fridays and company-wide meeting hours of 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to promote flexibility.

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