Scaling the engineering organization: building success
As a founder of a fast-growing company like Swimm, I am often asked for my views on scaling an engineering organization. Like any manager, my knowledge on this topic is hard-earned – coming from both successful experiences and not-so-successful ones. Over time, I have consolidated these experiences into three major principles that I believe grow an engineering organization toward success:
- Build in squads
- Grow from within
- Maintain strong company culture
Let’s briefly consider each of these principles and take a look at how they contribute to the growth of a strong organization.
Build in squads
As an organization starts out, it might consist of a product manager, a development manager, UX designer, and some developers. It is a self-sufficient unit, and it works. There is no discussion of sharing resources (primarily because there is no one to share them with!)
Building in squads means that as we grow the organization, we duplicate this initial structure. At Swimm, we create another independent squad – each with its own product manager, development manager, UX designer, and developers.
Each squad has its own resources
One of the most important concepts when building this way is that each squad contains its own resources – eliminating the need to share them among squads. I’ve learned that while sharing resources within an organization may sound like an efficient solution, in practice, it turns into a political power play, with the costs outweighing the benefits.
Consider the example of a UX designer with shared responsibility among several teams, each competing for that designer’s time. At the end of the day, who will win the battle? The team or the person with the most political power in the organization? The result is an allocation of resources that’s often not in line with the company’s true priorities.
On the other hand, if each squad has its own UX designer, that designer’s time is squarely aligned with meeting the squad’s priorities.
Each squad has its own business KPIs
Speaking of priorities, how do we ensure that each squad’s priorities are in line with those of the overall organization? By clearly defining each squad’s KPIs (including a top-line KPI for measuring success, sometimes called North Star Metric).
This KPI is not a product KPI or a technical KPI. It is a clearly defined and easily measured business KPI, which gives each team accountability for moving the needle towards the company’s business goals.
While clearly aligning each team’s goals with the company’s, this type of accountability also connects each individual team member to the bigger picture. A new feature is no longer “just a feature.” Now, it has a business purpose. It is developed for real customers with real challenges that the feature is designed to solve. If it meets those customers’ needs, it will contribute to the squad achieving its KPIs and to the company’s success.
Managing from the bottom up
Assigning each squad accountability means that strategic planning and roadmap development happens from the bottom up. Each squad knows what is expected of it and manages itself with accountability towards achieving its KPIs. This type of delegation gives top company management peace of mind and the ability to focus on other business matters.
Of course, a squad-based structure has its challenges, especially in an organization’s early stages.
The first challenge is that recruiting and hiring need to keep pace with the structure. There is often lag time between deciding to create a new squad and finding the members to staff it. So, for example, until a product manager can be hired for a newly formed squad, they may temporarily end up working for two squads simultaneously. Clearly, this is contrary to the principle of not sharing resources among squads. But the goal is that this situation will be short-lived and eventually be corrected by hiring good candidates.
Another challenge for a squad-based structure is ensuring that knowledge doesn’t become too siloed within the squads. Of course, this challenge is near and dear to our hearts at Swimm since good developer documentation goes a long way towards overcoming it – and we are building our product to do just that.
Here at Swimm, we are using Swimm’s Continuous Documentation platform to grow our teams. Whenever we need to change the focus in our squads, we can move developers easier between squads in terms of onboarding and concentrating our efforts.
Grow from within
The second major principle contributing to building a successful engineering organization is growing from within. I say “growing” from within because I believe this principle encompasses more than just “promoting” from within. It expands on this idea by giving priority to those with company seniority (as opposed to years-of-experience seniority).
Those with longer company seniority have knowledge of history, balance, and code interactions. Promoting these company veterans enhances their managerial authority and gives them greater ability to solve problems and help others.
At the same time, we must keep in mind that company veterans may not have prior managerial experience, so putting this principle into practice means providing them with appropriate training and support. In my experience, this is a highly worthwhile investment that provides valuable and long-lasting benefits to the company over time.
Maintain strong company culture
A third principle that is extremely important for scaling the engineering organization is maintaining strong company culture. Culture gives us consistency. A team has more than just clearly defined KPIs; it also has an established way of dealing with them and approaching the challenges it faces.
So how can a value as abstract as “culture” be maintained while a company grows from 5 to 50 to 500 and beyond?
- First, promoting those with company seniority naturally leads to the building and maintenance of company culture. The culture that company veterans have internalized goes with them to the leadership of new teams.
- Second, it’s essential to start with a strong core. We’ve discussed the idea of managing and building from the bottom up. But when it comes to company culture, it starts at the top and trickles down.
- Finally, develop day-to-day internal practices with an eye to the culture they create.
While the goal of most companies is continued growth, supporting that growth by scaling the engineering organization is fraught with potential pitfalls. Adopting the principles of building in squads, growing from within, and maintaining strong culture can help to avoid those pitfalls and set your growing company on the path to success.
At Swimm, we help engineering organizations avoid pitfalls by ensuring their documentation is continuously maintained, always up to date, and accessed right when it’s needed most. Sign up for our beta and set your organization on the path to documentation success.