Building Tech Orgs to Win

How did you do it? How did you grow your team 300%, increase delivery pace, as well as joy and engagement, all at the same time?

Originally published

August 24, 2020

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These are questions I have been getting a lot lately. That's because, in just eight months, the New Engen Tech team achieved exactly that – and are planning to repeat the feat.

The questions can also be generalized for wider applicability: How do you build a successful technology org?

Having grown teams in this fashion for several years, and having read many books, attended many trainings, and learned plenty of ‘do's and don'ts’ first-hand, I could answer this question with a dissertation on workforce management, various approaches to technology architecture, agile methodologies, management styles, culture development and a litany of other dimensions to consider. However, I believe a successful recipe that will serve you well is straight-forward.

Here are ways I’ve found success when building Tech organizations to win.

People Are Everything

The foundation of every successful organization is plain and simple: its people. You cannot place enough focus on them. When you bring in the right people and provide the right environment – you can achieve almost anything.

So, what is "right?" There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to this question as different organizations operate in different ways and with different goals – but here are some aspects I focus on that have served me well and that are present in many successful organizations.

Focus on Smart and Healthy

It is very easy to focus on "smart skills" like technology depth, coding experience and prior work products – to name a few. These are important, but there is a lot of evidence that hiring the "smartest" people does not achieve the best outcomes, and that is because it ignores the foundation of what makes a team thrive – the people and their interactions.

People do not just care about what the work is, they care about how work is done, how they are viewed and treated, and how they will experience being part of that organization. Healthy organizations consider the dimensions of how, they focus on it, and constantly emphasize and improve upon it. They attract people who behave in healthy ways and insist on that behavior. For example, we believe that we benefit from diversity of thought, open exploration of ideas, collaboration, and empathetic behaviors that foster inclusion and participation. Therefore, we interview seeking those skills and specifically screen out big egos, lone wolves, or excessively rigid views.

Seek the Self-Motivated

Growing and managing people, teams and organizations is a joy when filled with people who hold themselves to a high bar and press the envelope on how things can be done better – by them, by their team, and by the company as a whole. Bring in people who demonstrate that type of drive and you will develop an internal force for progress and, ultimately, success.

Lead with Leaders

If you are growing an organization, and you want to do it in a healthy way, get your healthy leaders in place first. This provides a foundation for your hiring, reinforcement of culture, and prepares you for scaling the organization. Ideally, you are able to identify and grow leaders from within your team, but do not place this ideal ahead of readiness. Leaders need to demonstrate that they will do what is right for the team as a whole and in the interests of the company's goals – promoting someone who is not ready undermines the integrity and trust you are trying to establish.

Organize for Scale

Great, you are now hiring smart and healthy people, under smart and healthy leaders, and that has laid the foundation upon which you can scale. Now, how do you organize this growing capacity? 'Divide-and-conquer' (though I prefer 'federation and autonomy') is a proven strategy for dealing with challenges at scale, and that encompasses how people are organized and where they focus, as well as the tools and platforms through which they achieve their goals (which might otherwise limit their impact).

Segmentation of Responsibility

Breakdown your functional areas and assign oversight to your leaders. Make the delineations of oversight clear and sensible. This is critical to scale but also motivating to the leaders – they now have the ability to 'make their mark' (and they have the self-motivation to pursue that goal). Where possible, try to align the segmentation with business functional areas. This has the benefit of orienting teams with what the business is trying to achieve as a whole and facilitates more effective engagement with the broader organization – e.g., Product, Support, Sales, and Marketing.

Aim Ahead of Your Target

As you are going about segmenting responsibilities and aligning your organizational structure, design for where it needs to be 1-2 quarters ahead – this will come up on you fast, so design for the future and you may just stay ahead of need.

Align Your Technology with the Segmentation

Federation and autonomy that stops with the people dimension can end up leaving them handcuffed by collision in the technology platform when the rubber meets the road. For example, if I assign oversight of ‘Feature A’ to Lynn and ‘Feature’ B to Shawn, but those features exist in a highly inter-twined software application, Lynn, Shawn, and their teams are going to get forced into increasing overheads as their teams try to rapidly move their features forward. Think about how to align technical oversight with functional oversight. There are many ways to do this, and things vary based on your technical circumstances.

We choose to align using the following model:

  • Where possible, we use business-domain-oriented micro-services such that a technology leader oversees one or more business capabilities and its technical realization and has a great deal of autonomy in their team's execution. The teams have all of the resources of whatever types they need – development, QA/SDETs, DBAs, DevOps – in order to achieve progress efficiently. The goal is to remove overheads and allow our people to control their destiny. This is extremely efficient and motivating.
  • We dedicate teams for horizontal/platform-wide tools and runtime services that are focused on enablement for the rest of Engineering. This creates many benefits including: solving many horizontal problems once, ensuring a constant investment in improving the tools and infrastructure upon which all of our people work, and making heroes of the platform team (so often it is the application developers that get the attention, but the application developers really appreciate the platform enablement team).
  • Specialized skills that do not make sense to federate are kept together to help develop their vertical aptitude. In our organization, this is how we currently structure our data science and associated engineering work, as this interacts with many parts of the application and yet is independent in its operations and execution.

Clarify and Align on What Success Means

You have great people and great leaders with clear and autonomous oversight of functional and technical areas – so you think, ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ Plenty.

When you bring together all that talent and provide all that autonomy – something is going to happen and energy is going to be applied – but to what end? You don't want that energy to be like a bulb weakly spreading light in all directions, you want it focused like a laser, with as much energy as possible coherently aligned and pointed toward a common goal. So how do you create that clarity?

Take it From the Top

Strategic direction for a company usually comes from senior leadership, and senior technology leaders need to be deeply engaged in shaping and clarifying business strategy and technology’s role in that strategy. Those senior leaders must then effectively bring that high-level direction into their organizations and translate it into clear guidance for the rest of the leadership and their teams. Whether you use MBOs, OKRs or other TLAs – you want to convey what success means and how it will be measured. You want every person in the organization to see how their work aligns with company goals. This is not a trivial effort, but well worth the investment as this clarity facilitates the independent and scalable execution that gets things done while ensuring the efforts are applied in the right direction.

Communicate Up, Down and Sideways

Though strategy comes from the top, execution and alignment requires coordination and expertise at every level, and that means a lot of communication. Leaders need to not only reinforce the strategic direction but also draw out the insights from every individual and demonstrate that these insights and feedback are valued and will shape decisions. Make sure that you have forums (checkpoint meetings, 1:1 syncs, post-mortems, ESATs) that slice vertically through hierarchy and horizontally through silos to ensure you capitalize on the insights of your people.

Curate Culture

As I stated in the beginning, people are everything. They care not only about what needs to be done but also how you go about doing it. In this case, I am not referring to processes so much as behaviors. The culture you cultivate has a tremendous impact on engagement, satisfaction, and productivity. It is important that you articulate your culture (core values, behavioral norms), constantly demonstrate it, and hold yourselves accountable to it. Culture should affect your hiring, pervade your practices, and be a source of safety and cohesion that enables everyone to flourish.

In conclusion, Building Tech Orgs to Win is ultimately about bringing quality people into your team, creating the environment that allows them to flourish, and aligning that talent and energy with company goals. It is energizing and rewarding being part of a healthy, thriving company, and all technology leaders should make it a point to create that for their people.

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