Scaling a remote team from 4 to 40
16 April, 2018
Several years ago, I joined an organization whose main engineering workforce was abroad. The team was used to a reactive approach, responding to fires and building rapidly using rough mock ups and product specs. As the company expanded, I needed to find a way to scale and grow this team while "keeping the ship afloat" and ensuring everyone remained happy and autonomous.
My main focus from the beginning was to listen and observe what was working and not working for the team, noting problem-by-problem what issues people had, including too much firefighting, feeling overwhelmed and demoralized, feeling the product constantly changing, and needing more thorough product specs. I had several "affinity diagram" brainstorm sessions to allow the team to express their concerns and frustrations anonymously as well as proposing solutions. My focus was not on judgment but on understanding, listening, and empathy. In addition, through observation and a deep-dive of the code, I identified issues the organization did not see, including a monolithic application structure that needed to be broken into microservices, adding support for modern scaling technologies (caching layers, Redis, ElasticSearch, etc.), and changing a significant number of "silent failures" in the codebase to "fail loudly" instead (which resulted in many email alerts that over the months declined as they got the attention they needed). To gain the trust of the group, I flew to visit them and spent time to get to know them outside of working, being vulnerable and sharing about my personal life in a way that caused them to open themselves and connect on a deeper level. By fostering this more personal connection and doing a lot of hard work myself diving into the codebase early on and helping where the team needed it, I proved that I'm both human like them and a hard worker like them. As a result, they began to reveal concerns about other team members that they used to hide, and over time as we got closer, the team grew happier and more comfortable. After identifying and empowering the most talented among the group, I focused on mentoring those interested in management to hire and grow their own groups, focusing on autonomy of their team members (as this is one of the key indicators of employee happiness). We do daily standups as a "leads & managers" team and we regularly post-mortem issues both small and large to ensure we learn from our mistakes in a non-judgmental way. Not only did I have to gain the trust of this group, but in observing their day-to-day, there was a great deal of structure that needed to be added to streamline and de-stress the organization.
Business is business, but it's between people, not robots. If you are unable to be physically located with a team that you're growing, you have to occasionally visit them and find ways to connect with them on a more personal level. In addition, by sharing vulnerably, as research shows, you generate oxytocin in the person you're communicating with and significant increase the likelihood that they will share and be vulnerable as well. This will enable you to gain trust and, hopefully, influence of the team. Also, you have to work as hard as they do, or they will never respect you.
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