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How to Transition From a Large Company to a Startup With Ease

Himanshu Gahlot

Director of Engineering at Lambda School

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Problem

When I left Amazon for Lambda School, many people warned me how difficult it would be for me to adapt to a startup’s working environment and culture. I left a large corporation to pursue my career in a company of 150 employees, out of which there were only about 20 on the engineering team. To better illustrate the situation, I should mention that just my team at Amazon was larger in numbers than the whole engineering team at Lambda School.

I soon realized that I would be able to adapt just fine. Being able to navigate complex processes and set-up in a large corporation provided me with the breadth of knowledge that I could easily apply, adjusting it to the needs of a smaller company.

Actions taken

Tools

Most tools and processes that I wanted to apply at my new company were directly applicable, including conducting project management, doing bug tracking, running the team health check, hiring, running retros or post-mortems, etc. I found that 70 to 80 percent of the processes I cared to apply were transferable.

I also easily found alternatives to internal tools only used at my previous company. For example, we had an internal tool for project management that I easily replaced with Jira. I heard many polarized opinions on Jira, but I managed to apply it with great success and found it to be particularly useful for smaller teams that have to be more agile and not overburdened with a lot of processes.

At my previous company, I was using Excel and Quip for weekly stakeholder updates, resource management planning, roadmap planning, etc. These processes and tools were easily transferable since we use GSuite at Lambda School.

Processes

I had to introduce any new process with great caution. Instead of just replicating the whole process set-up from my previous company, I would gradually introduce one process, implement it, iterate on it, and see if it is working or not. Then I would move to the other. I would always start with the most lightweight version -- and knowing from experience that these processes could scale -- would iterate them being aware of the direction I should take as we grow.

As soon as I joined my current company, I was able to help with improving onboarding. I started by writing launch plans for new hires replicating the process I did at Amazon. Similarly, I improved the hiring process -- I introduced standardized hiring loops, created templates on how to write fact-based feedback, developed a process that helped interviewers focused on the right competencies, etc.

I also transferred a project management process that I used previously and adjusted it to smaller teams and made it more lightweight. I was a huge advocate of introducing our distinct approach to using OKRs and how we would work on our annual and quarterly goals. As part of that effort, I set up the process for tracking our roadmap, projects, and resources which gave me accurate insight into what was happening on the team. I would update my templates on a weekly basis which allowed me to keep stakeholders updated on what was happening at any given moment.

In addition, I started conducting anonymous team surveys. At Amazon, we used an automated tool, but I found a convenient alternative called Officevibe. The team would rate how they were feeling, what they thought of a project or a manager, etc. In addition, I included sprint retrospectives in my sprint planning meetings. I used a tool called retrospect.team to efficiently run my retrospectives and iterate processes based on the feedback I was getting from the team.

Lessons learned

  • There are always alternatives. Saying that all the tools you once had at your disposal are not available to you anymore is a poor excuse. You will always be able to find alternative tools -- perhaps not the most comprehensive -- but that could help you run the processes lightweight.
  • It will take you some time to understand the new ways but you will be able to apply most of your knowledge accumulated in the past. Moreover, if you are joining a startup you will have an opportunity to start some processes for the first time and embed your knowledge in the very foundations of your company. I transferred many great processes that I acquired in highly-organized and productive teams of large companies and was able to lead others by applying that knowledge.
  • You can only go upward. When you join a small startup many things simply won’t work or won’t be in place. Whatever you set up will be better from a dysfunctional or non-existent tool or process.
  • Iterate on your processes and conduct retrospectives to retire those that don't work. Don’t be attached, start lightweight and adjust whatever needs to be adjusted.

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Himanshu Gahlot

Director of Engineering at Lambda School


Leadership & StrategyEngineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementTeam & Project Management

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