How to Handle the Great Problem of Growth

Guest: Darin Swanson, VP of Engineering and Platform at New Relic

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What’s the best problem to have, hands down?

Most people would say growth.

And I’d agree 100%.

But it’s not as rosy as you’d imagine. Whether you’ve gone from a five-person garage startup to a 15-, 50-, or 500-person team, there will be some challenges.

And at each stage, tackling those challenges can leave us feeling like growth is more of a burden than a boon.

We have to learn to balance the pressure to satisfy customer demands while managing and nurturing a team.

This requires hiring new people who fit into the culture, altering our development process to include them, and learning to delegate tasks that have become too much for one person to handle.

Easier said than done.

But don’t worry because, in today’s episode of FemgineerTV, you’re going to learn how to handle the great problem of growth from our special guest Darin Swanson, the VP of Engineering and Platform at New Relic.

Darin is going to share some valuable lessons from his experience growing the New Relic team over the past four plus years.

As you watch this episode, you’ll learn:

  • What it was like to transition from being a software engineer to a manager and then a VP of Engineering;
  • Darin’s test for deciding whether or not you should go down the management track;
  • The worst advice Darin ever received regarding scaling teams; and
  • How Darin and the New Relic team screen their engineering candidates for culture fit.

This episode is full of nuggets of wisdom from Darin, and I highly recommend watching it whether you’re experiencing a growth curve in your company or are thinking about joining a company that is growing.

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

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How to Handle the Great Problem of Growth: Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thanks for joining us today, Darren.

Darin Swanson: It’s been fun, yes. So yeah, I was just looking back her. Love this orchid back here. Great colors, and great addition to the set.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, isn’t it a great analogy for startups?

Darin Swanson: Really, like what do you mean?

Poornima Vijayashanker: I mean, you know, bloom fast, die young!

Welcome to the 19th episode of Femgineer TV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker, founder of Femgineer. In this show, I host innovators in tech, and together we debunk myths and misconceptions related to building products and companies.

For all of you out there, you’re probably excited about growing your company, but at some point in time, growth becomes more of a burden than a boon, and you’re probably wondering how to grow your organization, while still serving those customer requests.

Well, in today’s episode, I’ve invited Darin Swanson, who is the VP of Engineering at New Relic, and Darin has been there for the last five years, and helped New Relic grow tremendously.

Thanks for joining us today, Darin.

Darin Swanson: Oh, it’s great to be here. Thanks for inviting me, and yeah, look forward to sharing what we’ve learned and what we’re continuing to learn!

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah! So I remember back in my Mint days, I had to write a lot of the performance monitoring tools myself, and I’m really glad that you guys came around because it took a lot of burden off of engineers, like myself. But before we dive into what New Relic is and does, let’s talk about you and your background. What got you interested in tech, and how did you get lured into startup land?

Darin Swanson: Sure. So for me, it really comes back to that visceral reaction you get, to creating something. So you look at it, whether it’s on the screen, whether it’s a piece of music and like, “I built that. I created it.” And you know, I really found that with—in the current time, software development is that media, and it sucked me in and I love it, and yeah, I’ve been doing it now for a long time, and looking forward to much more!

Poornima Vijayashanker: Now, a lot of viewers out there may be technical folks who are thinking about transitioning into a management role, and you began as a software engineer and eventually transitioned into a management role. Tell us why you decided to do that transition and what it was like for you. Darin Swanson: So the main reason I made the transition was I wanted to try something new, while at the same time continuing to do that thrill of creation. Building an organization was that next challenge that I wanted to take on, and it was intriguing, and it really was something, too, to move from being an expert to being a novice again, and that was exciting and scary at the same time, and the opportunity presented itself, and away we went!

Poornima Vijayashanker: And so, what were some of those early lessons that you had to learn when you did the transition?

Darin Swanson: So, I think a lot of managers, when you first make that transition, when you used to be an individual contributor, is you get lured back. When things get stressful or, you know, timelines, deadlines get tight, “Oh, I’ll just jump back in and help,” and I think that’s a very common mistake, and my very wise boss at the time actually…my experience was in Java, and he basically said, “Don’t install any JVMs on your laptop.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Darin Swanson: He said, “Stay away from that,” and it made me stay focused on what was most important, was fostering my teams, fostering the other managers, mentoring, and then also helping the individual contributors learn how to take the responsibility and the autonomy.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And how do you do that without coming off as a micromanager?

Darin Swanson: Yes, how do you not micromanage? Again, that’s a very natural tendency. When things are going not as well as you had hoped, you dive in and take over because, “Hey, I’ve been here, I can do that!” But then you’re always going to have to do it, and also your team is not going to learn what they need to learn. You need to give them the room to fail. So how do you not micromanage? It’s scary, it takes a lot of trust, but it also is around how did you build your teams? You are responsible for building an organization that can handle it, handle the responsibility, and so you pick the right people, you give them the right mentoring, and let them go!

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, and you mentioned giving them some room to fail, but then you’re probably being scrutinized as well. How do you create that sandbox where people can fail, and maybe you either absorb the failure or you talk about it?

Darin Swanson: So, failure is never easy. We’re all engineers. We like to be perfect, and basically what you gotta do is…we haven’t written this saying, but failing once, it’s OK. Learn from it. Failing twice, now we need to talk. And I think that’s the fundamental thing, and I think everybody can understand that because most people that you work with and have been successful…you know, there’s a quote: “Anybody who has failed, when they become successful, it’s an experience.” And so, you’re hopefully working with people who are successful, that’s why they’ve moved up, and I think if you can show that there’s a progression towards more success, more reliability, more predictability, that’s the trust you build. Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Do you have an example or an experience that you can share with us, from your early days as a manager?

Darin Swanson: Yeah, so we were having some issues, and I was being held accountable directly, and my mistake was I basically called a war room meeting and took over, and calling the war room meeting wasn’t the mistake. But I took over and became very directive. I said, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that,” and there was no, sort of…there was time pressure, and we didn’t need to take a lot of time, but what I should’ve done is enabled the team to come up with proposals first, and then we could’ve worked through them, and then measured in my experience. If, again, back to micromanaging, and if you always move in and take over, you’ll only ever be as good as you are, and you’re not leveraging your team, so why would they rise up? Why would they become better? And I think you’re really limiting your potential.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, and that rising up, though. Some people might be reluctant to because they fear that if they do make a mistake, you’re going to crack down. So I know a lot of times, while people might be excited and say, “Yes, I want to participate,” they might also be like, “I don’t know if this is my place to say—

Darin Swanson: Yeah, “Do I want to raise my hand?”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, exactly! So, how do you kind of nurture, or maybe give people a gentle nudge?

Darin Swanson: The power I’ve seen there, is telling stories. Showing where…being vulnerable, showing that you are willing to share where you have not been successful and how that has led to where you failed and that has led to success. People, “Oh, it’s OK to talk about it. Oh, it’s OK to make a mistake.” As long as you learn from it. Well, and even if you don’t, as long as you don’t do it again. That’s what we’ve seen. That vulnerability leads, you sharing your stories leads to trust, leads to people wanting to be transparent. Raising their hand when a problem starts, as opposed to when it’s in a catastrophic failure.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Let’s switch gears now and talk about New Relic. Tell us, what is New Relic, first?

Darin Swanson: So, New Relic is a software analytics company along many dimensions. Collecting information about how you’re interacting with your customers, how your performance monitoring is going, and basically, as you alluded to, we want to allow you to focus on your domain, and we’ll take care of the monitoring and the analytics, so that you can continue to build your business and provide a better experience for your customers.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And now, when you joined five years ago, where was New Relic?

Darin Swanson: Where was New Relic? We were…actually, I look back and I was like, “Where was it?” Because I don’t think I really knew. I talked with my wife and was like, “Wow, that was a bold move!”

We were a small company in a relatively small domain, but we were helping to define it, and basically, we were a company selling to small and medium business, startups, very similar to ourselves, and we’ve come a long ways from there, and now we’re helping to define the domain of software analytics and performance monitoring.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And you had started there as a manager, but originally, what got you interested in New Relic as a startup, or even, what got you interested in startup land?

Darin Swanson: Yeah, basically it goes back to having that opportunity to create something from the beginning. Everybody wants that, “OK, let’s start from nothing,” and I got lured over because I had lots of experience in engineering orgs, a couple places, U.S., other parts of the world. Lessons learned, what could I bring here and build an engineering org, be part of building an org that I would’ve wanted to been part of as an individual contributor.

And so, that was the opportunity I had because at the time, we were probably 15 people in engineering?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, wow!

Darin Swanson: It was small, and you know, how are we going to do management? How are we going to enable autonomy and delegation, and ownership, and responsibility? And really thinking through a lot of that stuff right from the beginning.

My boss, at the time, Bjorn Freeman-Benson, he loves process, and we started early on that, and it’s really served us well as we’ve grown.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, and you also transitioned from being a manager into a VP of Engineering.

Darin Swanson: Eventually, yes.

Poornima Vijayashanker: For our viewers out there who might be aspiring VPs of engineering, or VP in general, walk us through what that transition was like for you.

Darin Swanson: Yeah, continued growth and learning from failure. Basically, it’s scaling yourself, learning how to delegate, and then bringing in really good people that you mentor up, that you trust, and then they take over your old job.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And what was the difference between manager and VP?

Darin Swanson: Well, VP you have no excuses. The buck stops there, and that’s both scary and also, I love it. And then also, it’s just another level of indirection. You know, very rarely am I directly connected to producing the results. I help set the stage, we work together to make the dynamic, make the processes that make success most likely.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And who’s we? Is it you and your team, or you and other departments?

Darin Swanson: Yeah, that’s the other cool part, is team depends on the context. So I have my management team, my directors that I work with. There’s my team of individual contributors that we work with, to produce the results. There’s my team with product and design, and then marketing and sales. That’s also what intrigued me about startup land, and also moving towards being a VP, is you keep learning and working with more and more parts of the business, to enable the whole company to be successful.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right, and were there any challenges that you experienced in your first year as a VP?

Darin Swanson: Yes. I wasn’t scaling fast enough. I wasn’t keeping—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Meaning you weren’t recruiting, or you weren’t scaling the product?

Darin Swanson: Actually, neither of those. It was me personally, learning to not…so again, a classic phrase, “What got you here is not going to get you there.” I wasn’t learning new skills. I wasn’t learning how to delegate more effectively. I wasn’t spending enough time mentoring my directors and such, and so I had to change gears, and it’s like, OK, yeah, director manager, that was that skill set. This is the skill set I need to learn, and I’ve had lots of help and great mentors, who’ve helped me along the way.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And what caused you to realize that? Did somebody call a war room and say, Darin—

Darin Swanson: Radical candor!

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, good! Yeah, you watched the episode! Awesome! Yeah!

Darin Swanson: You know, it’s never easy, but if you are really wanting to move forward in your career, you should embrace feedback. We just had a talk from Kay Lou. She’s one of our individual contributors on our Ruby agent team, around how do you ask for feedback, and how do you take in feedback towards making yourself better? It’s not easy, but you know, my boss cared enough about it. He said, you know what, you need to step up your game, and that was not a fun day.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Darin Swanson: But we went forward from there, and I really appreciate him doing that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And when he was giving you this feedback, obviously it’s going to sting. Did he also give you some concrete examples?

Darin Swanson: Oh, yes. Exactly. The war room example.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Darin Swanson: That was…that happened again. Not exactly the same situation, where I basically stole the autonomy from my directors. He was like, “You’re not going to scale doing that,” and I was like, “Oh, I thought that was a good result.” Right, but he, very timely, again making the feedback very close to the event was very important. Didn’t wait six months for my review or anything formal. It was like, “We need to talk,” and I encourage everybody to do that. You are not helping somebody by not giving them feedback. Lots of negatives in that, but give people feedback!

Poornima Vijayashanker: And, in that particular instance, what was the relationship like with your boss? Was it…how long had you been working together? Had he been encouraging prior to that?

Darin Swanson: Very much so, but I think the two key things is you need to trust that they are in it to help you and your career, and also that they’re in it to make the company better. It’s the intersection of those two things, and that’s what also what I try to do, is make sure the people I’m talking with because I care about you, but I also care about how the company’s doing. So we have to make those two things overlap.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So, what’s one thing you wish someone had told you before you decided to become a VP?

Darin Swanson: So, one of the mistakes I made is that you accept the responsibility. Excuses, you know, they don’t matter. You need to be looking on ahead. You need to be being strategic, and figuring out how I’m going to handle this? How are we going to do this because if things go back, which you hope they don’t, you need to be ready and willing to take the responsibility.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And it can be a challenge as an engineer individual contributor who’s so used to seeing the fruits of your labor at the end of the day, right? It’s like, “Oh, I wrote some code, checked it in, commit, out to production. People are using it now.” It’s a great source of satisfaction. But, when you’re in a management role, and certainly as a VP, where other people are involved and they’re responsible for the results, you all of a sudden lose that sense of satisfaction.

Darin Swanson: You do. Don’t go into management track if you cannot get that buzz from seeing other people be successful. You need to know how to do that. And so one of my favorite things now is in a meeting or an offsite, or a meetup, just stepping back and watching your work. If you can’t do that and feel a real sense of accomplishment, don’t go management.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, no that’s good. I think our viewers will appreciate that.

Growth is a great problem to have. I know it’s a problem I will never complain about. But it’s still a problem, right?

Darin Swanson: It is a challenge, yes.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And, let’s talk about how, first, New Relic’s growth increased in terms of customer requests, and then talk about how you’ve learned to manage it.

Darin Swanson: Yeah, there’s two parts there. It’s the growth of requests, and then also as you grow, you get a diversity of customers. I think a lot of startups, we are our customer, and then that can drift, and that’s not a bad thing, it’s an opportunity, and that’s definitely part of what has made us better and more focused at New Relic is, OK start at SMB, now Enterprise, but keeping both. Very important, and it’s been a fun challenge.

It also goes towards growing your team. You know, you might and will likely need different skill sets as you grow and your customer base gets bigger. And then also, customers have a right to ask for things, and expect things in a timely manner. So again, building teams that are predictable, reliable. Really, security and quality are two things that are not negotiable. So how do you work around that with your scope and with the size of your teams, and all that kind of stuff, so you can satisfy the customers.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, and so were there…some of the requests that were coming in earlier that they wanted your product to be more secure and more reliable as you attracted more Enterprise customers?

Darin Swanson: That’s one Vector. That’s actually something that, I think, going back, we started very early. I’m biased, but I think we have an amazing security team. They really work with us as a partnership, and so that’s been baked in from the beginning, and also, from day one at New Relic, pretty close to day one, you get sort of immersed in how we think about it, and how that’s baked into what you do, what you’re actually coding. So it’s not bolted on after the fact.

So that wasn’t so much of a transition. It was more really, most recently, embracing that the customer might not be you.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Darin Swanson: They might have different expectations, different persona, and it’s a cool challenge. The team is looking forward to it. Our design team, again, at our recent offsite, Meghan gave an amazing talk on how do you think when you don’t necessarily exactly know who your customer is. So, it’s exciting stuff.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And that was probably also a challenge for the team, right? To start thinking less in terms of their own head and their own problems, but in—

Darin Swanson: “I know what you want!”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, exactly. “Yes, let me go off and build it. Oh wait, that’s not what you wanted. Ugh, OK.”

Darin Swanson: But if you’re data driven, too, like again, that goes back to the failure. As long as you’re driven by data towards validating, because you might not actually get to talk to that specific customer. But you introduce a new feature and then track the usage of it, and then see, did the adoption move in the way that you expected, and if it doesn’t, we’ll figure it out, iterate and do it again.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And how much anecdotal evidence do you then take in, of having conversations with customers?

Darin Swanson: It’s very important. We have our design and our UX experience people go out, PMs as well. They do interviews with customers, they go around and just watch them use the product. It’s become a critical part of how we develop. They bring it back, we feed it in, and we iterate from there.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So like you said, as your customers grow, your team’s also going to need to grow, to manage all of that. How have you gone about recruiting your team?

Darin Swanson: Yeah, so we are very much along the lines of the team is a unit. The team is what we need to look at. What is it that we currently have in skill set, experience, background? Having a diverse set of opinions and values on the team is what we really see to be valuable. So then, it’s less about what is the exact individual or experience that we want, more what does the team need, and then you start going out, crafting the job description, and then looking for the people that will then match for completing the team, and completing the team is never done, right?

There’s always either a new team spinning up, or the team has changed, and so that’s what’s really kept it fresh. And so, moving away from just, “Oh, we need another lead engineer,” which really doesn’t define what you want. Really what defines what you want is what is it that the team needs to be better, and that’s been really healthy in terms of making sure diverse skill set, diverse background. We’ve also found it very powerful to have people who haven’t always been an engineer.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, OK.

Darin Swanson: That’s been really cool, to provide a completely different perspective.

Poornima Vijayashanker: How so?

Darin Swanson: Just maybe haven’t always lived immersed in the tech world. We have a lot of graduates from Hackbright as an example, and it’s a really nice, refreshing experience for people who did biology or physics, or math, or maybe run education. It’s great.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And I assume in the beginning, when you’re a 15-person team, culture fit might be a little bit easier to gauge, but as you start to scale your team, the culture evolves, the way people gauge this fit might also evolve. How have you managed to build that criteria into your recruiting?

Darin Swanson: Basically, we haven’t worried about it because we go back to what does the team need? And that can be…I didn’t talk about it earlier, but what it really also can be is personality. Darin’s a little bit conservative, Poornima, wow, she pushes to deliver! Let’s make sure we have that dynamic in the team.

And then culture evolves. You stick to your principles. You stick to your fundamental values, and you do evaluate along those. Is this person authentic? Are they bold? Are they passionate? Those are some of our values. Those are very broad scopes, and then that will build your culture and you can curate it, but I think it’s more of an emergent behavior than saying, “This is our culture, you fit.” I think it’s been much more making sure that we…and inclusive for everybody by how do you fit in and how do you complete the team?

Poornima Vijayashanker: So let’s talk about some bad hires?

Darin Swanson: Woo! No, that never happens.

Poornima Vijayashanker: No, yeah, never happens! You’ve got it nailed down! That’s why you’re here, teaching us, right?

Well first, how do you gauge if…because in the beginning, let’s say the first three to six months, you’re really not sure. Someone might just be coming up to speed, learning a new technology stack, learning the process of a company, so they make some mistakes and fumble along the way. But then, how do you go from that to, “Oh, this person really is just not a good fit?”

Darin Swanson: Yeah, it’s never easy because you’re dealing with people. We care about people and you want to make everyone successful. That’s not always what can happen, and I think it goes back to some of the lessons I learned. Having somebody who cares enough to tell you that you’re not doing well, that’s very important. You don’t want somebody to be there six months and then have a surprise, “What do you mean it’s not working out?”

Start early. I really like 90-day plans. You know, your first 90 days. That book, right? 30, 60, 90 goals. A lot of peer mentoring, working with your cohort. We have had the nice problem of growing a lot, so at any given week or month, there is people that have been hired the same time as you. So hang out with them, learn that it’s OK to ask questions. That’s very important. And then really quickly build a relationship with your manager. Of course, the individual has responsibility for both their career and their success, but the manager plays a huge role in that as well.

And then, when it’s not worked out, quickly figure out how to separate ways. It doesn’t help anybody if things are not going to work out, to prolong it.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And are there also times, I know some folks talk about these skip level meetings because a lot of times, like you said, since the manager controls a lot of the employee success, might actually be more of a manager issue than an employee issue. So how do you deal with that?

Darin Swanson: That one has…That has definitely been something I’m still learning. You go out and you read a lot of things. Some people are like, “Do skip levels,” some people are like, “Never do skip levels.” I like doing a mix. What I do is I make it very clear to everybody why I’m doing it. So if you’re my boss and you come in…or my boss’s boss, and you come and talk to me, I would encourage you to make sure that you tell why you’re doing it. “Hey, I just want to see how’s it going with your manager, and I want to make it clear that this is confidential unless,” that kind of stuff.

At group meetings, also sometimes enable, but that can also be a problem because you can only sometimes hear a couple of voices. “Ask me anything” sessions, where you’ve got to again, share stories that you are willing to be asked anything. I always put “ask me almost anything.” I was like, “I reserve the right to not answer the question.” That’s an answer, but—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Don’t ask me what I did in Vegas.

Darin Swanson: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, so skip levels are tricky because a key thing that I have learned, and this would be a piece of advice I would give, don’t underestimate the power of your words when you’re more senior.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Darin Swanson: It really can have impact on people beyond. So that’s why stating your goal, and then making sure that they understand so that there’s not some, “Oh, something was whispered,” like, “Poornima had Thai for lunch. Oh, we must be moving into Thailand as the next market!” There’s all these implications that can happen, and with great power, comes great responsibility.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, so yeah, being cognizant, or having that self-awareness that what you say is going to impact people.

Darin Swanson: Correct, and actions. What you don’t say is also equally important.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right, and one thing I’ve learned is also, other people’s actions. So departures on the team, whether it’s somebody that just started as an engineer a year or two ago, or even someone who’s more senior. Any sort of departure is seen as, “Oh no, is my job on the line next?” Right? How do you deal with departures?

Darin Swanson: Being as transparent as you can. Obviously you want to respect the individual, if there is any sort of privacy thing. To the relatively bold, where we’ve started meetings, let’s say somebody had been let go. We call a meeting and we say, “Hey, we’re going to start this meeting letting everybody else in this room know, you’re going to have a job after this meeting.” Because it immediately removes their fear. It’s like, “Who’s next?”

And people, they want to trust, but also, humans are, I think, naturally suspicious. So, again, setting the stage. What’s the goal? Why are we here and what are we trying to get to next, and continually building that trust.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, I remember once, I had an intern I let go because this intern after a month, literally had done nothing, and my marketing director and I kind of agreed that yes, this person needed to go, but the rest of the team was like, “Oh my god, they let the intern go! Who’s next?” And I was like, “No, guys, it was an intern.” And we had to say, “Look, this person was here, they worked for a month, but they really didn’t do anything, and so that’s why we let them go. Realize your job is not impacted in any way.”

Darin Swanson: And I think, too, that goes back to if you have established regular cadence of feedback, people also, it’s like, “Oh yeah, I just had a one-on-one with my manager this week, and every week,” every week people, then you’re not as worried because, “OK, I would’ve been told if things were going poorly, and I would’ve seen my trend. Which way’s my slope? Up or down,” and I think that’s very important. People will make stories if you don’t give them information.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yes, as your team scales, I’m sure your development process has changed. How has it changed over time and what stayed the same?

Darin Swanson: So it goes back to trying to push down autonomy. If you’re responsible for it, can you make the decisions? Turn the Ship Around, it’s a book that a lot of us have read, I recommend it if you haven’t, and it’s around making sure people are enabled to make the decisions to get their responsibilities done. So, pretty early on we tried to put things in place that provide guide rails.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Darin Swanson: So it’s not a whole bunch of rules you have to follow, but within these guide rails, pretty much you’re guaranteed to be successful.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Give us an example. Relate it back to your specific product.

Darin Swanson: Yeah, so for us specifically, talked about security earlier. Very, very early on we added a security guide rail. So everybody has been given the training, they do security-based programming, making sure that things are good. But then there’s a checkpoint. Before it goes into production, you have a conversation with the security team, and they’re great, towards have you covered all your bases? So it’s not a sign of dependency or stealing of autonomy. It’s towards referencing the experts so that, “Oh yeah, did I check this, did I do that?”

Similarly around our licensing. Making sure when we’re using open-sourced software, have we given correct credit? Have we given the…have we looked at, does this license fit with our, what would licenses we want to work with.

Again, just reaching out to the experts and then wash, rinse, repeat. So those are two specific examples. Trying to make as little friction as possible, but not zero friction because it’s important. Our customers care, so we should care. So give it a little bit of thought and care around those specific things that can cause you great harm if you don’t do them well.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And what’s changed in your process?

Darin Swanson: I think what’s changed in our process is being more explicit around communication.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Darin Swanson: You know, when we started, we still mostly eat lunch together. We have a huge lunch room, and we gather, and that’s a great way for sharing information. But now that we’re more than 300 people, well if you try to talk to everybody, that takes a year, roughly. In the old days, we could all gather around one small table, and you had the water cooler effect of disseminating information. So it had to become much more explicit. How can we share information without introducing too much friction, so that immediate and more removed stakeholders can stay informed?

Again, that lets them get the understanding of what you’re doing and do they need to come in and help? Not take over, very importantly, not take over, but provide assistance. Maybe provide some guidance. “Have you thought about this?,” and I think that’s the key thing, finding the different mechanism. Are we perfect at it? No. It’s constantly learning, turning the dial because it’s very easy to make communication become status updates and just become onerous and not a lot of value.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, I want to dig a little bit deeper and debunk some myths. There’s a lot of advice out there on scaling teams.

Darin Swanson: Yes.

Poornima Vijayashanker: What is the worst advice that you have received and applied, and how did you bounce back?

Darin Swanson: Ah, yes. So I don’t know if I received this because maybe I didn’t. I’ll say I made it up-

Poornima Vijayashanker: You read it somewhere on the interwebs, yes.

Darin Swanson: Back in the day. Hire the most senior people you can afford.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Ah, yeah, that’s a common one.

Darin Swanson: And that was a mistake. It built a team where you had a lot of senior people, you didn’t have a good diversity of opinion, experience, and also, the reality is you don’t always have senior work. You want people to have learning opportunities, and so how did we fix it? Well, thankfully we had growth, so we would split the team out, and very nicely then, we would add people who were less experienced. Not necessarily in their whole career, but maybe particularly in that domain.

It’s not just tenure in the industry, you know, moving from maybe Python to Java. Encouraging internal moves. Keeping those low friction I think is very important for balancing that out, and then you give people opportunity to grow. That’s using gardening analogies, right? You need to make space so people can get sunlight, and it’s very important.

So we were able to correct pretty quickly because we were growing very fast, but yeah, that was the thing I did.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, and what happens when you have a team that’s all senior?

Darin Swanson: Well, you don’t provide them the opportunities they need to move forward in their career. You have, you really in most projects, our teams are usually 5–7 people, so you really only need one lead engineer on that team. So how do you move forward to senior, if that space is already filled?

Poornima Vijayashanker: You’re competing—

Darin Swanson: Right, right. And there’s some people who want not to be that lead engineer, and that’s perfectly fine, too. But there are a lot of ambitious people and so that was the kind of thing, and then back to that you’re not always doing work that requires a senior level of experience. So give other people that opportunity.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, otherwise they’re going to become demotivated.

Darin Swanson: Yeah, it’s like, “How many times have I done this?” And also, for someone who’s less experienced in that domain or in their career, it’s a huge opportunity that you’re stealing from them.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, so last question for you. For our viewers out there, what’s one piece of advice you want them to walk away with, as they’re thinking about scaling customers and their team?

Darin Swanson: I think the key thing is start early. There’s a story I’ve heard, again, sorry I can’t reference who it was, but it’s about having the correct line of vision, how far out are you looking, and the story in particular was around NASCAR driving. I don’t follow NASCAR driving, maybe this isn’t true, but they say when they’re training people, what they do is they tape over the bottom part of the windshield because if you’re looking in the bottom part of the windshield, you won’t have time to react. You’ll have hit something at 200 miles an hour.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Ah, OK.

Darin Swanson: So as you move to being more senior, as your organization grows, your line of sight needs to be further out because you need to be preparing for things. Initially, well you’re small, fast. So I think the key thing is start early. It’s always very, “Oh, we’ll worry about this process or that practice until later, when we’re bigger.” Practice it. Practice makes perfect. Start when you’re small, figure out what works, and then when you’re bigger, it’ll just be part of your natural way of doing things.

Scaling is hard, so if you can do it when you’re smaller, when you can figure things out, do that. It’s very tentative to put it off. It’s very, very attractive to put it off. Don’t do that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, and so what does that look like for you, in terms of making plans? Do you make plans monthly, quarterly, yearly?

Darin Swanson: Yeah, so one of my favorite quotes is, “Planning is indispensable, plans are useless.” So yeah, we do that, but also don’t get such a tight affinity to your plan you’re not willing to change up. So be strategic, but also be adaptive. So yeah, we do all of that, but it’s more around the conversations. What are we considering, what are we thinking about? That’s what’s really important. That’s the planning part. The artifact, yeah, it’s great, but the usually the instant it’s written, it’s out of date. So I like that a lot. I like the conversations, “What are you thinking, what are you factoring in to what you’re doing?,” as opposed to, “Oh, we have this plan.” I found that less valuable.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, thank you so much, Darin, for joining us today.

Darin Swanson: Thank you, it’s been great to be here.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, I think our viewers are going to really enjoy and walk away with a ton of nuggets from this episode.

Darin Swanson: From all my mistakes. Awesome.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And thanks to all you viewers for tuning in today, and special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for their help in producing of this episode of Femgineer TV. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your friends, your teammates, and your boss. Subscribe to Femgineer’s YouTube channel, to receive the next episode of Femgineer TV.

Ciao for now!


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