People growth – Old blood vs New blood
I wrote my first post here on Jan 23 2011 and that post was titled “Startups – importance of your team“; Its been a little over 2 years since I wrote that post.
Most of us work 5 days a week, putting in about 8 or so hours a day (we will stick to the average/norm here). We come back home in the evening to spend anywhere from 1 to 4 hours with our family/friends.
When friends and/or acquaintances form a startup, the long hours and the close working relationship build on existing relationships and everyone at the startup works as a “family”; but what happens when there are no existing relationships? or what happens when you already have a family and someone new tries to come in? Wouldn’t it be awkward if you were out with your family/friends and a stranger joined your group and just hung out? would you be your self? most wouldn’t.
So how do you take an existing family (a started up culture) and add newer members to it? How do you mix the two so that you do not end up with friend circles?
I have 4 simple attitudes/behaviors that I build my base on:
“We are not that different”.
The new member see’s a whole new planet, different people, cultures, processes, jargon, etc. The first step should be to look for similarities between what they know and what they should know. For my teams I use a buddy system and its usually the previous newest member who buddies up with the new member. They go over materials, documenting anything new that might come up, go for lunch, talk about process, go through the who’s-who, engage the new person in conversations with the other team(s); they try to get to know this person as if they were dating each other.
“We got this, lets work on it together”.
How do you start work? where do you start? who do you ask? Scary questions for someone looking under the hood of something they do not understand. Here is where the buddy comes in again; during stand ups and sprint planning the buddy might offer “we can work on this together”, or someone else on the team might say “hey this is a good problem for me to show you how xyz works, and we can solve it”… they get the knowledge, they figure out how to start, they experience the process and they know how to close it. Build trust and accountability.
“Your team mentioned that you are catching on so quick, what can we improve?”
Over communicate reinforcement of team acceptance, ask for ideas on what can be improved, engage the new member; engaged employees have ideas and feedback that they want to share, things they have questions about.
“You are doing great, let me share my vision on how you play an important role to the team”
Setup a growth plan that’s challenging and communicate that it may be challenging and track to it. I like to plan for the 1, 3, 9, 12 and beyond and use data obtained directly or through peer feedback to gauge fit; if there is going to be tissue rejection, you need to act fast and figure out what you need to do to make it work successfully.
These 4 steps get you on track but you will still need to build additional on-boarding processes (around material and core knowledge ) that will grow the employees product knowledge. Its also important to keep your existing members in mind when you optimize culture as you want to grow the existing employees as well and not just the new ones.
At the end of the day it helps if we recognize that the teams we work with are more than just “Random people”; they are people we spend several hours with, they are friends, people we trust, can openly collaborate with and people we want to continue to work with.
When one finds a team they can work with for the rest of their life and can call family, its no longer “work”…it’s just a large friends & family gathering where they just happen to be working on something together and having fun.
We should all build and be part of such teams.
The takeaway from the previous post on KPI and metrics was that we should proactively monitor process and optimize as needed; just because it worked when you were a startup does not mean it will work when you are “startedup”, you will need it to scale and by capturing metrics and KPI’s you will be able to perform analysis when/if things go wrong. This however does not mean that you need process for the sake of having process or that you should focus on process over people; agility is important and being lean goes a long way.
The chicken and egg problem: What came first, the chicken, or the egg?
You have great team(s) and you have great product(s). Your team(s) is/are at capacity enhancing and maintaining the current product(s), but you need to create more product(s). In order to grow product(s) you need to add more people but these people need to be grown as well. Hiring people and not growing them will make product growth challenging as there will be a longer ramp up time or will disengage and leave (or you end up with an us vs them culture); and redirecting your current team to grow people rather than the current products will grow the new hires at a rapid pace but your current products will stop growing, what do you do? going back to the chicken and egg problem, I think in the long scheme of things it is irrelevant what came first; what is more important is the realization and existence of the chicken and egg, or the “idea” of a chicken and/or an egg, and that you need to ensure that the cycle continues, chickens give eggs and eggs (eventually) give chickens.
Single points of failure (Single Threads)
As engineers and architects we focus on identifying single points of failure within architecture; as managers we need to identify single points of failure within team members, processes and tools. Ask yourself, if I was to randomly start pulling people out (pto, resignations, etc) what would be the impact? Would we still meet delivery? Do we lose key subject matter experts? Most of the time people end up becoming single threads because there are many hats to wear and things need to get done; documentation and knowledge transfer becomes a “will get to it” task that many never get to.
Single points of failure and knowledge silos end up becoming a real impact to growth when you bring on new hires who need to be brought up to speed and grown because the same resources that need to help grow others are already busy with their existing work. Not only does it impact growth, it also negatively impacts collaboration and team culture, when people do not grow they disengage and this causes further issues. As you grow from a startup company with a smaller team to a “startedup” company with a larger and growing team, your single points of failure can grow and teams/members can get frustrated as they get pulled from different directions.
A few simple approaches to reducing and/or eliminating single points of failure are:
- Focus on collaboration and knowledge sharing among teams (culture), the more people share what they learn the more people know.
- Work-load for single threads can be split between product development and people development.
- On-boarding programs and training documentation can be built as part of a product backlog.
- New hires can be paired with senior resources to create mentor-ship and knowledge transfer programs.
Each organization is different and each has its unique attributes that require a solution or several approaches that solve the problem for that specific organization; a silver bullet approach doesn’t really work.
- To grow new product(s) outside your current capacity you need to grow team(s).
- To grow new team(s) who will grow new (products) your current team(s) can be impacted.
- Your current team(s) can end up becoming single threads and/or single points of failure.
- Recognize that this can become a problem.
- Focus on culture, collaboration, knowledge transfer, documentation, etc. so that the impact to the current team(s) and product(s) will be minimal and your new team(s) will rapidly grow and be engaged.
Several years ago I had a Volvo (88 760 GLE) and one day I noticed little streams of smoke from under the hood every time I would get back home; I had little experience with cars back then so I took it to a friend’s dads shop. I should have probably left when I got there because there was a customer yelling at him for messing up his beetle and charging him extra to fix it; apparently he put some hoses on wrong and then had to redo the work, I wasn’t there for the whole story, just the last 20 minutes of it and then the customer drove off.
My friend’s dad asked me to start my car and pull up next to him and leave the car running. He popped the hood and started to look around, he checked the hoses, looked at the pump, lines, drove it around, several hours passed by… he went from suggesting that there was coolant leak, to transmission leak to radiator oil leak… several more hours passed by as he came up with theories and looking at things… after being there for about 6 hours I decided to stick my head in and look at the engine block near the side where I told him to look and thought the smoke was coming from. Sure enough, just as I looked, I saw bubbles near the engine block’s cover, pointed it out to him and he said “ah, it’s loose! oil is getting out”; brought over his tools, tightened it and the problem solved.
I had been there for 7 hours, he wasn’t the type of guy who would say “this is my son’s friend, I am going to help him out”; he was a business man and to him I was a customer. I was upset with him for wasting 7 hours of my time; but what was really on my mind at that time was “how much will these 7 hours cost me?”, especially since he had a sign posted that had “Service hour rate: $45/hr” in big letters…. I will get back to this later in the post.
KPI and metrics
Man hours, hours, T-shirt size, story points, etc are measurements. I will try my best to not go down a rabbit hole with scrum, story point’s vs hour estimates… I will not! and hopefully I won’t lose my original messaging in all of this. Let’s start with this; at some point or the other, the focus and bottom line for a company will be “shipping product” against a “delivery schedule”. People, process, culture, story points, hour estimates, etc. will eventually stop existing if the “startedup” company cannot ship product and closes down (the focus here is shipping product according to other peoples expectations, i.e investors, C-suite, etc). With this at the back of our minds let’s continue on.
Story points are a measure of risk and/or effort and/or complexity (the and/or is there for the ones who disagree that story points do not measure complexity and/or risk).
Work/Task estimates are hours (usually) it takes to complete a task (with risk, complexity and effort already factored in).
Some argue that story points are just a block of time that provide the developers with padding; some argue that story points and hour estimates are not the same; some argue that time estimates need to be detailed and you should only use blocks of time (i.e. story points). I am not here to argue about any of these.
If you look at what part story points and sprints play: Story points (representing stories) go into sprints and sprints are boxed in time; at the end of the day, we are basically fighting for time. Others (Non-developers) usually want to know “how long will it take”, “when will it be done” because they need to set schedules, communicate to others, but (most) developers just want to work 🙂
How can I tell you how long it will take to fix when I have not even looked at the code; code that someone else wrote years ago!
When you have your team of 10 who have been working on a project (or two); the story points, velocity charts and estimations work out great. The team of 10 will negotiate points and the best suited person will do the work; everyone starts getting a good idea of what others and they themselves can do with improved accuracy (and velocity).
What risk can come up when you throw in 65 new hires and 2 new projects?
One thing that can happen is that the wrong person can get the wrong story; it is also possible that the new team may incorrectly estimate story points.
This happens or can happen because it takes experience and familiarity to get both (story point estimates and story assignment) of these right. Let’s say everyone is working on their tasks for a sprint, there is 1 story (something to do with SSL) remaining and it MUST make the sprint (which closes sooner than the story can be worked); the one developer available knows NOTHING about SSL, and a simple change measured as 2 story point remains, there is a developer on the team who knows about SSL but she is already working on a different feature that requires her knowledge on encryption.
Why did this get set as 2 story point when it was obvious to the team that there was risk? Rather than negotiate for 5 points the team settled for 2 because they expected the more senior programmer to have a better idea of how many story points it would take; the senior programmer saw no problem with 2, because in the past, her team was comfortable with it being 2. Repeat this several times, and you have a pattern; how do you break this pattern? or how would you even recognize this pattern? How would someone have suggested 5? How do you further refine estimating story points so that its not just based on gut, experience or familiarity? You start building and tracking additional KPI’s/metrics. Velocity and Burn Up/Down charts are common KPI’s that most use, you need more to help fish out patterns and gaps.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that in a true scrum setup (a perfect world, which is possible) these things may not happen (or happen rarely); if something doesn’t make a sprint, it moves to the next, but in most (all) of the places I have worked at, true scrums do not exist, shit happens and you cannot NOT make the dates; unless the team pulls together, works OT and possibly burns out (if it keeps happening).
As many others do, I like to base my estimation on experience and collectively agree with a team; but wouldn’t it be easier if there was another set of metrics that provided extra assurance or a reality check? i.e. historical data. Either metrics against tasks or metrics against similar stories. i.e. a story around “user login” averages to be a 4 point story based on previous similar stories; a task to “check credentials against db” takes 2 hours? The metrics can be captured after sprints/projects are done in adhoc meetings or release review meetings the data would be used for new hires, for times when things are under/over estimated. New hires and others could use this data to help estimate and understand gaps between what it takes on average and how the teams perform; the KPI’s would further detail teams health…
Going back to the Vovlo; I was waiting at his desk while he put his tools away, then he walked back to his desk, opened up a book, flipped pages to a section that read “Diagnostics”, found a line item for “Oil Leak” and sub-item “Gasket”, and said “2 hours, so you owe me $90 for fixing the problem”. Even though he spent 7 hours on it, he charged me for 2 because that’s what the book that had metrics for that type of service said it should take.
The Volvo example is important to me because it identifies performance issues; i.e. he should have done it in less than 2 hours if he was a good mechanic because that’s how long it takes on average; he should be asking himself “why did it take me more than 3 times as long and how can I do this better” because that’s what we would use similar development metrics for. “I seem to always under estimate UX changes, I need to pay better attention”.
The example I used has so far revolved around a startup company of 10 growing to a startedup company of 65; let me use a different example: A software development boutique is agile and they have client projects captured in back to back sprints. There are account executives that double as product owners who talk to the customers and based on experience and some dialogue with a few dev leads, they estimate effort and agree to a schedule and budget. Once they are ready to start the sprint (for a new project) the dev leads will update the team and as soon as sprint planning (stories placed) is done they start rolling.
A few issues:
- The dev lead and account executive time-boxed the maximum amount of time it can take based on their meetings with the customer; there was no team review
- Account executives double as product owners; their stories aren’t reviewed by developers until the work actually starts since developers are already busy on other projects
- There is no room for scope creep; things cannot get thrown out since this is a client project, and it must meet a date
- When there is scope creep and because its boxed; resources will work over time and burn out since the cycle just repeats it self – regardless of what your story points are, they have to fit in the sprints.
You could point out that the issue here is that there isn’t team involvement with the original estimation (for the time box) but this is because of how the company chooses to operate, so you cannot change this. You could state that the issue here is that there will always be some sort of scope creep so you cannot expect a hard stop but this is also because of how the company caters to customers expectations and needs to operate.
I would argue that the issue here is that the account executives do not have a “rate book” or “performance history” for similar tasks/stories that can help them come up with better estimates and factor in complexity when needed. In addition to that, since this company is in a pattern of running over (and solving by having people work over time, every time) there should be some sort of analysis done after each project to come up with “mistakes made” or “lessons learnt” so that people can learn from the patterns and put out better estimates; there will be times where you cannot change the entire companies culture, so instead you need to look for what can be improved.
With focus on additional KPI and metrics; one can identify issues with process or gaps before they become a bigger problem; Don’t just stick with how things worked when you were a startup and expect things to continue to always be perfect once you start growing, when you are “startedup” you need to start looking at adding new KPI’s and measurements that will help the bigger team work better and scale.
The Startup and the 3 P’s: Product, Process and People
I will not pretend to know everything about startups and startup culture, but I will list the reasons why startup culture is exciting, at least for me:
You meet great people, people who have ideas and want to try things, people who have passion and want to make an impact, people who will challenge you to do better. There is passion for working together as a team, passion for building trust within the team and passion for collectively making an impact in other people’s lives; or sometimes, passion for just making something happen – to create. There is passion for possibly creating something that could go big – disrupt everything, all built from the ground up with the teams sweat, blood and tears where everyone is high on adrenaline. Suits? Offices? As long as you are connected with your team and are working well together, those things don’t matter. There is no red-tape, or big top-down structures, everyone and anyone has access to all. Anyone can start working on anything, there are many hats to choose from; wear all. You don’t get bored as things are evolving and stay fresh, there are new ideas, old ideas, odd ideas; anything can change anytime.
At the end of the day, a startup is defined by its growth; when a startup doesn’t grow, it dies; it stops.
There can be several growth stages for a startup, and startups evolve; once they start growing they are now “startedup” and will hopefully grow exponentially. In a perfect world, the cultural values that made the startup fun would remain and in some cases they do (depending on where the growth has lead the startup) but there are times where the culture itself that helped the startup grow and evolve starts conflicting with what is needed to grow to the next level.
Let’s say you follow agile and you end up with iterations, planned work, release schedules and a clear pipeline of what needs to be built. This all worked great when you had 2 products and a team of 10; since you have grown, the expectations of what you can or will deliver have also grown. Some brilliant folks in your team have discovered 2 more products that should be added to your portfolio; how do you grow your current 2 products (since they have a feature and defect backlog) and also work on these 2 new products without increasing your team size, changing delivery for current products or burning out resources? Before you grew, you may have had your own expectations of when and how you would bring on these two new products; now that you’ve grown, others may have different expectations from you and your team(s). Maybe you say “we need more people”, which brings me to the next point
With the growth of the startup, either through sales, funding or more investment and the need to create more product it is decided that you bring on more people, and you do. You end up facing the same issue, how do you grow people with the same 10 resources you had who are busy working the two existing products; some of the people you bring on may be self-starters and will figure everything out by themselves but what about the ones who don’t? So now you say “we need some process and automation to free up some of the manual work so that we can do more with the same resources”, which brings us to…
How do you focus on process and automation to free up time when the people you have are busy with supporting the existing two products, or are supporting the existing two products and are also trying to bring the new hires on-board?
A part of me says that the above three growth challenges are not really challenges and that they are part of what it means to be a startup culture and are expected. However; there are a few by-products that the 3 P’s create that can become toxic, stop growth and hurt the culture if they are not accounted for when trying to grow.
The Frat party & the first team
The first team consists of the people that built the startup; it was their teamwork and effort that made the startup grow; anyone who comes later is an outsider and “we need to be careful about who we let into our frat party” (once upon a time I lived on frat row). This one is not intentional, but when you work closely in teams and blur the line between friendship and co-workers, you end up creating an inner circle and make it challenging for an outsider to easily integrate and feel welcomed. This by-product is a blocker for People growth.
The golden simple process
At some point there was predictability and little chaos in what all needed to be done (smaller team, less products) so everyone starts expecting things to always be perfect. Even though you have grown, you have kept your process simple and did not optimize for KPI’s and other metrics that can help with predictability, complexity, risk and estimation. There will be times where things change, dates get reset and/or product scope creeps. If you had built a roadmap of what releases when, had committed the teams to that and put all these releases with their iterations back-to-back (because of all the product that had to get pushed out to show growth and maturity) and dates or requirements change on you (usually not for the better) the team and its happy culture will get disrupted as it will take effort to get things back on track; when/if this happens all the time, it gets hard to get away from the domino effect and people burn out, get disengaged and/or leave. This by-product is a blocker for Process growth.
When you were small, everyone knew what everyone else was doing, everyone shared and individuals had their skillsets. Now you have grown, 2 months ago you were 10 people, today you are 75, the 65 newer ones don’t understand the code base or the original design, there is some good documentation but they need more information and there are 3 key people who know different things about the original products; original products that you want the new 65 people to work on so that the first team can work on the two new ones; how do you distribute the knowledge known by the 3 key people, make them available to the 65 and allow the 3 key people to focus on their new projects? If they are constantly being pinged by others and cannot get their work done; their sense of accomplishment doesn’t scale much; especially if you did not plan for them to set time aside and help others. This by-product is a blocker for Product growth.
Each blocker is situation (just like leadership) and can be solved; we will examine and solve for each, before we move onto other “StartedUp” culture challenges. The next post goes into process KPI’s and metrics – addressing the golden simple process blocker.