5 things that break while rapidly scaling tech-organizations (And how to fix them)

29 March, 2021

Learnings on how to grow your team, processes, organization, and more from Dave Burgess (Head of Data Engineering at Pinterest) & Derek Knudsen (CTO at Alteryx)

When you start scaling teams, you will certainly face many challenges along the way. These can be:

  • Hiring team members
  • Building product alongside
  • Understanding your product-market fit
  • Understanding customer needs

At one point, your focus on hiring might overcome these other essential aspects for growth.

These learnings will help you prioritize your scaling strategies:

If you don’t interact with your customer to know what they want, it won’t matter if you build a top-notch team or if you have a highly reliable production system.

Learning: What customer wants is the number 1 priority, so don’t try to scale your use of base on your team before you get the product-market fit.

If you don’t ensure that your organization is structured for growth, you will end up with a team that doesn’t fit together - You will suffer the “Conway’s Law.”

Learning: Embrace the team topology mentality and create an architectural structure from an organization’s perspective.

What breaks when increasing your customer base?

When you have a fixed team size, and you are trying to scale the number of your customers, many things can break here like:

  • Production system reliability
  • Quality of your product
  • Support processes
  • Iteration velocity

And so on. This can impact your customer satisfaction and your teams’ happiness. So, if you have a fixed team size, you need to be precise and surgical while building your product. Try to embrace the lean software development processes, especially around the product dimension.

If you build a wrong product with a fixed team, you won’t have the ability to change it promptly. Lean into the product side as you owe it to your customers, stakeholders, and shareholders (if you are public)

How to support your people and culture while scaling?

Scaling culture can be a significant challenge, especially when you are growing at a rapid pace. When you start adding processes as you scale, this can create cultural friction within the organization. You also need to be wary of adding individuals that may erode the organizational culture.

These are some real-life tested tips that will help you maintain and scale the culture while scaling processes

Develop trust: As long as your people trust that you will:

  1. Have their best interest in mind
  2. Bring them along with you in this journey of change
  3. Give them things that motivate them, like - Giving them autonomy to do their job
  4. Paint a clear picture in terms of the new vision and mission
  5. Provide them skills to develop their mastery

They will show patience as you take them along this change.

Support individuals that amplify company culture: Every company has an individual culture and its carriers. These individuals exemplify the team and the company culture by promoting and internalizing it.

This 5 step process will help maintain and amplify your company culture:

  1. Document what is important as your company culture
  2. Identify your culture carriers
  3. Support these people by giving them due recognition
  4. Take feedback from your teams
  5. Make continuous improvements on your company culture based on the feedback

Consider this as a journey!

How to manage tech-debt when you scale?

If you are a small organization, you will certainly accumulate tech-debt as you find your product-market fit. When you become a mature organization, the expectation of innovation gets higher. Tech-debt can be a massive limiter to innovation.

The faster you scale, the more debt you gain, and your pace of innovation gets slower.

When your product gets mature, you should spend about 20-30% of your engineering bandwidth towards maintaining, adding, fixing, updating, and correcting your technical debt. Failing to do so might render parts of your system obsolete, leading you to do a complete rewrite.

If you are a start-up, you may need to do this faster as you are still trying to find that product-market fit. Hence, stay on top of your tech-debt and have your engineering managers deal with it over time.

Who takes the lead on scaling? Engineering Leaders vs. CTOs

Even though most Engineering Leaders and CTOs can have different responsibilities in different organizations, A good rule of thumb is:

Engineering Leaders mostly focus on the “engine of engineering,” ensuring that it is working smoothly. This means scaling:

  • Execution of the engineering function
  • Tooling that supports engineering principles like - lean software principles
  • All processes towards enablement of engineers

CTOs can focus their time on providing the necessary fuel needed by their teams to build high quality product and software outcomes. So if you are a CTO, managing the people side of work, along with the technical, you are a great fit for scaling:

  • Organizational constructs
  • Technical strategy
  • Hiring

Working with external scaling partners -Yay or Nay?

If there is a need to scale rapidly, sometimes you do need to seek professional service vendors. These key steps will ensure that you have a flawless match with your external vendor:

  1. Select your partner carefully. Think of it as a marriage; you will be in this relationship for a long time, so go through that engagement period.
  2. Test their service for a couple of projects before committing fully.
  3. Make your employees feel safe. Ensure that having a workforce from your vendors doesn’t become a threat to your employees.
  4. Look for cultural sensitivity. Ensure there is a seamless cultural fit into the organization

Scaling teams is something Engineering leaders need to do at various stages of their careers. Being cognizant, adaptive, and resilient are some crucial behaviors while scaling your organization.

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