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

Team Processes
Changing Company

27 September, 2020

Himanshu Gahlot

Himanshu Gahlot

Director of Engineering at Lambda School

Himanshu Gahlot, Director of Engineering at Lambda School, recalls his own journey transitioning from a large corporate to a small startup and how he managed to adjust with ease most of the tools and processes to the needs of his smaller and more agile company.

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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