Insights on Engineering Leadership from Lawrence Bruhmuller, CTO at Optimizely

August 26, 2020

Recently, Plato hosted an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) webinar featuring Lawrence Bruhmuller, CTO at Optimizely. Plato hosts their webinars on Zoom, with David Murray, Cofounder at Confirm as the moderator. Users submit questions in the Zoom console, while other users signal their interest by upvoting it. In this post, I’ll highlight some of the questions addressed by Lawrence and David.

A management philosophy centered around self-organizing teams

Lawrence believes in the importance of a documented management philosophy and he uses Google Docs to capture it. According to Lawrence, “It’s in my personal Google Docs and it evolves over time. It’s a page and a half long. It’s kind of my personal reminder of what I stand for.”

Lawrence’s philosophy is centered around self-organizing teams. The teams are self-driven and self-managing. They can rally around a high-level goal and figure out how to achieve it. “Self-organizing teams figure out if they want to go fast or do something big or small, and they can do those things independently,” says Lawrence.

Lawrence has found a lot of success with self-organizing teams. On the contrary, teams structured as “command and control,” where the people at the bottom of the chain just execute, are fundamentally flawed and rarely work, says Lawrence. 

In the model of self-organizing teams, the role of the leader is to set the mission and establish a culture in which the teams can thrive. The leader structures the teams and provides them with the right management and support. The leader gets the structure in place before they set the teams off on their own.

How to manage outsourced engineering teams

An attendee asked Lawrence the following question:

“How do you think about your management philosophy on in-house teams vis-à-vis outsourced teams or teams supplemented by a vendor?”

Lawrence manages in-house and outsourced teams the same. He’s had success working with vendors in a “team augmentation” model, where the engineering partner is willing to learn his team’s processes and understand how his team communicates and coordinates. 

According to Lawrence, “They’ll ask if we’re using Scrum or Kanban and how we want to work with product managers and designers. They’ll understand it and make it work for you. So it’s more like a team extension. Those are the times that I found it work very well.”

When Lawrence led engineering teams at ClearSlide, he used Lohika as an engineering partner. He inherited an in-house team in San Francisco and augmented it with engineers provided by Lohika. “It wasn’t to save costs. It was a desire to grow the team in a more effective way, get it distributed and have an increased talent pipeline. We built it in the image of self-organizing teams and with the agile processes we already had in place,” says Lawrence. 

Lawrence notes that the right vendor will flex and learn with you. And once you find that match, the key is to treat the vendor no differently than you treat your own internal teams.

Related Post: Scaling a Team’s Impact with Gautam Prabhu, PagerDuty’s VP Engineering

The evolving interplay between CTO and VP Engineering

Years ago, Lawrence says the CTO was technically focused and often an individual contributor role, with the Head of Engineering or the VP of Engineering serving as the organizational leader. Lately, Lawrence has seen these morphing into a single role: one person who oversees everything and has a strong technical vision.

That’s the arrangement Lawrence has at Optimizely. According to Lawrence, “I’m responsible for the organization and how it’s going to evolve and thrive. I also have a very strong opinion about the technical strategy of the products and how we’re building things.” Lawrence is not out-coding the team or serving as the ultimate architect, but he does pressure-test things, especially as it relates to architecture. 

“I want to understand exactly why we’re doing things the way we are, ask tough questions and pressure-test things that will influence and change decisions,” says Lawrence. His goal is not necessarily to dictate decisions, but to make sure the team knows that he understands the challenges they face and demonstrate that he has a stake in the game.

Regarding a CTO/VP-Engineering combination, Lawrence says, “It’s a tough balance, but I actually feel that a combo role, if you want to call it that, is the right model for a lot of companies. And I’m personally having a great time with it.”

The new world of fully remote teams

Lawrence sees pluses and minuses in the remote work environment brought on by the coronavirus. In the past, Lawrence had a few members of his team in a remote location, while the rest of the team was co-located. According to Lawrence, “Those one or two people were in a world of hurt. They’re forgotten about and miss the hallway conversations. You try to overcome that by people flying around, but it’s never as good as it could be.”

Related Post: Managing and Growing Engineering Teams in the Age of Coronavirus (COVID-19)

These days, with everyone working remotely, the playing field is leveled. Everyone is the same-sized picture in the videoconference and they’re all using the same tools. “I think teams are really thriving. They’re taking advantage of the fact that they have more flexibility, don’t have commutes and can quickly snap between things,” says Lawrence.

On the flip side, it’s easy for the team to get burned out. There’s a lack of face-to-face interaction, something that “Zoom happy hours” will never be able to replace. Lawrence often wonders, “How do we make this work post-Covid, where we can still get the social glue that we’re missing right now?” While there’s a magic balance he’s looking to strike, Lawrence also knows that there are things about the work environment that we’re never going back to.

Learn about future webinars from Lohika

We have an exciting schedule of upcoming webinars planned, featuring engineering thought leaders like Lawrence. Visit our Events page to learn about upcoming and past events.