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A Company Merger: Two Locations and Multiple Challenges

Team reaction
Remote
Company Culture
Cultural differences
Team processes

26 November, 2020

Matt Pillar, VP of Engineering at OneSignal, recalls how he helped merge two engineering teams at two different locations and how legal and cultural context made all the difference.

Problem

I had been managing a startup team of about 30 people that was merged with another team of approximately the same size. We retained their brand because they had better brand recognition and our CEO and I, acting as a CTO, were put in charge of the combined organization. It was a true merger that took the best of both worlds.
 

Their engineering team was based in Barcelona, Spain while I continued to be in Palo Alto, California.
 

Actions taken

We flew over to Barcelona to meet the team and were met with overwhelmingly positive sentiments. We stressed out that we didn’t plan to lay off anyone and were excited to collaborate with all of them. However, that was not what the team was looking for. What we learned later was that most of them wanted to be laid off because the employment law in Catalonia is very favorable to employees who were with the same company for a long period of time. Being with the company for nearly ten years they were hoping for a month of severance for each year they were with the company. When we said that we were not laying anyone off, they were actually quite disappointed, but the root cause of their disappointment was not immediately obvious.
 

We decided to do the one-on-one circuit to figure out what was going on. This was when we learned that they were hoping for a different outcome. We ended up building transition plans for individuals who wanted something else and we found a happy middle ground -- they would help us for a little while and we would see them out in a favorable way for them. Some of them stayed and continued to work with the company on an ongoing basis.
 

As we entered a steady state, different time zones with a small overlap threatened to impede our collaboration. The West Coast team had to wake up early and the Barcelona team had to stay at work late in order to have any kind of favorable overlap. I was trying to bridge that gap the best I could. I would visit the Barcelona team every two months and I would also start my working day at seven in the morning. Previously, part of our culture in Palo Alto was to start work at 10:30 am and this was a huge cultural shift. I tried to lead by example and other people ended up creating the schedule that would work best for them (starting earlier every day, a couple of days per week, etc.)
 

Lessons learned

  • Good intent is not enough. We went to Barcelona with the best of intentions, but this was not what the team was looking for. Our good intent was not sufficient for building an understanding. We should have started by listening, understanding, and then acting instead of showing up with a preconceived notion and plan that was not taking into account the nuances of their situation.
  • Always be on the lookout for value. The merger was predominantly about technology and that was tremendously valuable but there was a lot of value in other areas of the business that we didn’t expect. For example, they had a distributed, worldwide support and customer success organization. These folks were very valuable assets for the company and delivered a lot of impact for the business in years to come.
  • Cultural sensitivity is enormously important and a skill always worth cultivating. The cultural differences were fairly acute -- in both interesting and intriguing ways -- but we were completely unprepared for the consequences of the employment law in Catalonia.

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