Surviving Rapid Scaling - Loïc Houssier, Dana Lawson, Luc Vincent, and Prashant Pandey at Elevate 2019

For our third talk of the day at Plato Elevate, our recurring event for engineering and product leaders, Loïc Houssier moderated a panel with Dana Lawson, Luc Vincent, and Prashant Pandey, on how to survive rapid scaling.

Scaling a company isn’t just about growing the team. As an engineering leader, when you bring on more engineers, you’ll be faced with a host of challenges - from aligning the team, maintaining the culture, increasing productivity, dealing with inter-personal issues, and more. 

Yet, the best companies tackled the challenge of scaling (almost) smoothly. How?

For our third talk of the day at Plato Elevate, our recurring event for engineering and product leaders, Loïc Houssier moderated a panel with Dana Lawson, Luc Vincent, and Prashant Pandey, on how to survive rapid scaling.

  • Loïc Houssier is the VP of Engineering at DocuSign and a mentor at Plato. Prior to that, he worked at Orange (French Telecom company), Thalès, and OpenTrust. He moderated the panel.
  • Dana Lawson is the VP of Engineering at GitHub and used to work at InVisionApp and New Relic.
  • Luc Vincent is the EVP of Product and Engineering at Lyft Level 5, their autonomous driving unit. He was at Google for 12 years before that, and one of his biggest achievements there is starting Google Street View from scratch and scaling it to the iconic product we know.
  • Prashant Pandey leads the engineering team at Asana. He previously worked at companies like Amazon or IBM.

While ‘scale’ may have different definitions, from scaling a product in terms of usage, userbase, or geographic coverage, we will focus on the issues arising from scaling a team. Be it from 0 to 10, 10 to 100, or doubling in size for bigger teams, how did Dana, Prashant, Luc, and Loïc scale?

Scaling is a goal

If you don’t recruit enough engineers, it impedes the company’s growth. In order to avoid this at GitHub, Dana Lawson reminded us that getting teams in place has to be a top objective.

It’s crucial to make recruitment a goal that is measurable and use different frameworks to ensure you find top-notch candidates, decrease failure rate in new hires, and streamline the recruiting process.

Dana stressed the fact the recruitment process is inefficient without the right culture, quoting a colleague of hers: “like likes like”. This is why you need to ensure recruitment is aligned with the mission statement of the company, and that the culture is strong enough to attract top-notch candidates. 

Dana added that besides culture, a leader ensures team members have interpersonal relationships instead of transactional exchanges to create intimacy and get everyone on the same page.

Onboarding is a tool

Prashant Pandey, VP of Engineering at Asana, believes the onboarding process is key to make scaling a success. The first question to ask yourself is: “Why are we growing fast?”

The answer is usually always the same: to ship faster and deliver a product, tackle a big roadmap, and meet the company’s goals. If the recruiting process is flawed, it will take too much time for managers to interview and onboard people. Thus, the company won’t progress on the global objective.

A good onboarding reduces the time to productivity. At Asana, Prashant set a goal of making any newcomer productive in about 2 to 3 weeks. The company has extensive documentation and an internal mentoring process to help people quickly catch-up. When he has lunch with new employees, they usually feel completely integrated within the company.

Luc Vincent and Dana Lawson agree with Prashant’s vision and believe onboarding is important too. In order to decrease the time-to-productivity of newcomers, here are some pieces of advice:

  • Remind Engineering managers or tech leads that their team successes are their own too, in order to motivate them to decrease the time between the employee arrival and her being efficient and actually shipping. Doing so will ensure the onboarding is smooth and quick. For instance, managers can make sure any newcomer has their laptop fully configured before they arrive, with email credentials, access to tools, etc.
  • Build tools and documentation that will help people integrate more quickly.
  • Write down your purpose, as well as the mission statement for individual teams and expectations for the newcomer’s contribution.

Surviving scaling in a remote world

In the last 10 years, the organization has changed a lot in startups, especially as distributed teams and remote work are considered as the future of work. People have ties to geographic areas, want a set up that maximizes their efficiency, or just can’t commute two hours every day to go to an office.

Dana believes scaling a distributed team takes a lot of effort in terms of work: values have to be shared between all employees, and a bond has to be created too. Getting people in the Headquarters for a week in order to give people a sense of community and create deep interactions is the way to go according to Dana. She believes niceties are why people wake up to go to work, and transactional relationships aren’t enough for people to give their best.

Scale and skills

Luc Vincent gave the audience a warning: as you grow as a company, every role changes. The CEO of a 5-person company has a completely different day-to-day job as the one who works with 50, 500 or 5000 employees. In the very beginning, you would focus on velocity and getting to the curriculum as quickly as possible, but as you grow, you will start hiring the top people for your company, and build an organization around them. It usually starts with people you trust and who you’ve worked with previously.

Prashant Pandey added that as the company grows, it changes a lot and managers may not feel in place anymore. In such cases, it’s important to ask yourself if you still enjoy the job and if you still have the skills to do it correctly. To him, the right mix in an organization that scales is to have a core set of employees that have already worked at companies in a similar stage of development or find external mentors and preserve context in some way with long-time employees. People who have been at the company for a while understand the decisions that have been taken in the past and will help shape the decisions that will be taken in the future.

Miscellaneous advice

Loïc Houssier, who moderated the talk, asked for general advice guests could give to the audience:

  • Dana’s piece of advice is to be yourself. While she acknowledged it may sound hogwash at first, this is the best advice she ever got. Especially as you continue your journey as a woman leader in a male-dominated industry, you feel like you have to meet a certain model. Truth is that you are here for a reason: you have the skills, and you know how to do the job. People want to see authenticity because this is the way trust will be built, and it also enables them to stay true to themselves too.
  • Prashant cited a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain: “We spend most of our lives worrying about things that never happened”. His interpretation in a modern world would be the following: as a leader, your job is to look out for problems before they happen, think about them, plan for them, and prevent them. Thinking about the downsides of your decisions is crucial to becoming a good manager, but it’s even more important not to let these take you down. Instead of worrying about problems, it’s better to plan for them and be fully prepared in case they happen.
  • Luc believes it’s essential to surround yourself with people you trust. As a leader, you cannot be everywhere at the same time, and in order to “sleep at night”, there’s nothing better than knowing that people who are in charge know what they are doing.
  • When Loïc started his career, he didn’t know who he really was and what he liked. The best advice he got was to be the “yes manearly in his career, accepting opportunities to multiply experiences and try anything he could to understand his true self better. Cumulating different experiences is also a way to understand how to work and evolve as a leader. When he was younger, Loïc worked for a company building submarines. He was a project manager and had to convince people to do things, talking to engineers specialized in nuclear energy, torpedos, etc. After a failure, he learned to put his ego aside and start listening instead of talking.

Thanks a bunch to Dana, Prashant, Luc and Loïc for their time and insights. If you want to read more stories from them, try Plato for free!