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How to Spark Innovation in Your Team

Collaboration
Motivation

17 July, 2020

Shyam Prabhakar
Shyam Prabhakar

Director of Engineering at Reality AI

Shyam Prabhakar, Engineering Manager at Stitch Fix, recalls how only one experience sharing a session with peers from another company profoundly transformed his team and led them to the path of innovation.

Problem

I inherited a team of two members and two part-time architects in a domain I was not particularly familiar with. Engineers on the team were in a repetitive mode; for many years -- day in, day out -- they did the same thing. It was a platform team specifically working on software release engineering. They were using the framework and tools that someone many years ago set up and it was rather slow, and in business terms, a costly process. I wanted to shake up things and had us all re-think and re-evaluate how we were doing things.

Actions taken

First I tried to organize a summit and brainstorm together some ideas, but it didn’t yield the results I was looking for. On a positive side, it did initiate some thinking around how we do things and helped me personally become more familiar with what we were doing. But it wasn’t successful in terms of encouraging the engineers to start thinking outside the box and introspect into work that they were doing.

Then, someone I knew helped me set up a meeting with a person who ran a release engineering company at the leading company in SaaS. I asked them if they would be willing to host a session for us and show us how they did things. I flew to San Francisco, set everything up, flew the team out there, and together with my team members participated in a two and a half hours-long session facilitated by our inspiring peers from the other company. I was absolutely amazed at how people by their inherent good nature were willing to share their knowledge and help others -- which is something that originally drew me to Plato.

During that session, our hosts shared how they were doing things but also discussed some other interesting ideas. I still remember walking back to our HQ and contemplating how those couple of hours profoundly transformed the whole team. We went back to our office and started working hard and drawing all the plans. We adjusted ideas that inspired us to our own problems and setting that eventually gave rise to a zero-downtime deployment.

The team itself underwent a huge transformation -- from a team that was 100 percent in the operational mode, it evolved into a team that was 50 percent in the operational and 50 percent in the R&D mode. The team later automated many operations we were executing plus giving back the business all the optimizations and efficiencies that resulted in shorter lead time in feature development.

Now in the hindsight, maybe exposing the team more to the business side and scale would achieve a similar goal. Ideally, the combination of both peer exchange and mutual motivation on one hand and the exposure to business impact and scale on the other should lead to the best outcome.

Lessons learned

  • Never shy away from reaching beyond your sphere of influence and look for inspiration far beyond what's at hand. You could be surprised by what you might get. Only today I cold emailed several people I never met who are using the library we have built and who might come across some bugs and issues.
  • I am a huge proponent of leveraging a network to exchange ideas, information, and inspiration. More heads always think better than one.

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