At some point, growing startups hit a sweet spot and move out of their awkward teenage years to become a big company. Somewhere along the way, these companies have to figure out how to balance the demands of scaling a team while maintaining core company values and culture.
The good news is that most successful employees love the reshaping and innovating that comes with scaling, but the bad news is that you can’t shut down a company for a year while you figure out the best process.
So, what’s the best way to take your organization from small startup to large company?
At Polyvore, our backbone has a hacky startup feel, but our growth is moving at a larger scale. Over the last few months, I’ve helped double the size of our engineering team, while still keeping the company’s culture intact. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
Oftentimes, a specific skill or knowledge set up front is less critical than you think. In general, focus on individuals who have demonstrated mastery over a relevant technology, as well as the ability to adapt on the fly. It takes tremendous capability, energy, and discipline to master something, and those are key qualities of great engineers.
Set a high bar for your engineering team and never lower it. One of the questions I ask everyone who applies for a manager role is, "What do you do about the ‘genius asshole?’" In my view, there’s no place for someone like that, because nothing is more demoralizing to these players than being surrounded by others who can’t keep up. Instead hire talented, confident people who have good energy and want to be a part of a great team.
Small teams of strong engineers can (and should!) move really fast; they know when to invest in robustness and when to cut corners, and often achieve almost a mind-meld state, where everyone just knows what everyone else is up to.
At this size, things like process are pure overhead and are generally best avoided. But when your team grows to 15 to 20 engineers, those things that worked great when you were small suddenly start breaking in insidious ways.
That’s the time to start investing in lightweight processes to help foster better communication and create stronger visibility across the growing organization. Implementing Agile methodologies like Scrum and Kanban can be really beneficial as they provide a lightweight framework for creating a regular cadence of development, prioritization, and product release.
As a small startup, sometimes important information is locked within a few engineers. When your company grows, this approach just doesn’t scale. Instead, work on making the engineering process itself fundamentally social: everything engineers do every day should have a component of knowledge sharing in it. Whether it’s regular code reviews, daily stand-ups, design reviews, pair programming, or whatever else you come up with, make sure knowledge sharing is baked into the core of your culture.
At the end of the day, nothing scales if it’s centralized through a person or small group of people. As such, it’s important to build this notion of decentralization or distribution into the team early. Work to create teams that have clear ownership and help them see how their work impacts the business. Understand what your team needs to run, eliminate their roadblocks, step back, and let them fly. That sense of ownership and autonomy is what drives the best engineers to perform at their highest.
If something is everyone’s responsibility, then it’s no one’s responsibility. Focus on defining clear ownership of all key areas and encourage leadership to quickly implement decisions; the worst decision you can make is no decision.
Your biggest source of strength is the people who make up your company’s culture. When scaling an engineering team, it's key to create an environment where people have a strong sense of pride in what they’re doing and how it connects to the overall success of the company.
Ultimately, growing and scaling your company is an incredible experience. Collaborating with really smart people makes you a better engineer, a better manager, and a better person. As your company scales, create an environment that is supportive and empowers people to focus on the shared outcome and business impact.
—Scott Bonneau is the VP of Engineering at Polyvore, where he oversees all product development and site operations. Before joining Polyvore, Scott served as the executive VP of engineering at Bazaarvoice, and served as its chief software architect. Prior to joining Bazaarvoice in early 2011, Scott spent nearly four years at Google in engineering leadership roles under the AdWords product umbrella.
[Image: Flickr user thefuturistics]