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Reorganizing the Geographically Split Teams

Remote

17 July, 2020

Shyam Prabhakar, Engineering Manager at Stitch Fix, shares how he reorganized the team distributed across multiple geographies and why self-sufficiency is the key principle to follow.

Problem

I became a manager of managers four years ago and I inherited a new team that would scale massively in a short period of time. We were building a utility website for a very important client when we realized that our organizational structure was hindering us from achieving the best results.
 

The problem was that the team was structured to be nimble and fast, but was split between the teams in Ukraine and the US. The team in Ukraine was building the back-end, and the teams in the US were building the front-end for a particular feature. That was hugely inefficient due to a number of interdependencies across multiple timezones. On top of that, the lack of trust started to negatively impact our work.
 

Actions taken

One of the first things I did was to reorganize the teams and make them more self-sufficient. Before that, teams were entangled in dependencies that would ramify and consequently, slow down or even block any progress. By following self-sufficiency as the guiding principle, I enabled the teams to autonomously build one section of the website. For example, the Ukraine team was building the account management section of the website, the San Francisco team was working on the billing section and the Virginia team was dealing with the energy usage.
 

By doing so, the teams became self-reliable, able to plan many quarters in advance, and blend back- and front-engineering together. Even from the engineers’ perspective, they were able to scale vertically and avoid being confined in one particular area of expertise. Sometimes it required extra effort from my side but the sense of ownership was far more important than a few more extra hours I had to put in.
 

One component of the restructuring included a cultural intervention. The lack of trust was pervasive and I knew had to restore it. Different geographies perhaps contributed to the ‘us versus them’ mindset that was eroding trust. When I visited the team in Ukraine, I had an engineer from India to introduce his team in Russian while the Ukrainian team member introduced his team in Telugu, as an icebreaker. Just a small symbolic gesture had such a powerful impact on building team cohesion.
 

Lessons learned

  • Giving team autonomy where they’re able to independently plan ahead is important. Not just from a planning perspective but also from a sense of ownership of the work they’re doing. It also gets us, directors out of their way and fully enables them.
  • Product managers should be included in any potential restructuring and having a strong PM-EM duo from the beginning should ensure alignment. If a product and an engineering person at the Director, VP level are in sync, the collaboration at the team level becomes much smoother.

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