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Operationalizing a Global Engineering Culture: Insights from Richard Delisser at World Fuel Services

July 29, 2021

Recently, CTO Connection hosted an exclusive gathering of engineering leaders. The online event featured a 30-minute fireside chat, followed by 30 minutes of freeform discussion in breakout rooms. The fireside chat was moderated by Peter Bell, Founder and CTO at CTO Connection.

The featured guest was our friend and client Richard Delisser, SVP Technology at World Fuel Services. The fireside chat focused on how to operationalize a global engineering culture. In this post, I’ll summarize key points from the chat.

Richard’s role at World Fuel Services

World Fuel Services “delivers trusted energy solutions. Every day, we provide a powerful integrated platform to optimize energy, logistics, and related services for Aviation, Marine, Commercial, Industrial, and Land Transportation customers around the world.”

Richard leads an engineering organization of 370 people. The charter of the organization is digital transformation, shifting from a traditional energy company to a digital marketplace for energy. The company plans to capture, store and process all data digitally, eliminating paper-based forms and processes.

The role of engineering is to build great digital experiences for customers using reusable building blocks. For example, a payment service or an API should be built once, then reused many times. In addition to going digital, the company is exiting the business of running its own data centers. Richard’s team has already shut down 20 of its 22 data centers, as the organization moves to the public cloud.

How teams are organized

World Fuel Services operates a distributed global team. During the pandemic, the teams went 100% remote and to date, there’s been no mandate to return to the office. The teams are evenly distributed between The Americas and Europe. 

The three main business segments of World Fuel Services are Aviation, Land and Marine. Shared platform teams provide services for all segments, such as centralized API engineering and database/ERP. The rest of engineering is organized by product.

For example, “sustainability” is a product that cuts horizontally across the organization. It makes sense to organize teams around products rather than disciplines. Richard notes that customers don’t care about a company’s internal functions; instead, customers care about the products and services they use.

Richard believes in the importance of strong product management and a well-maintained backlog. According to Richard, “Every squad needs to know what they’re working on, with strong separation and boundaries in that work. Each squad should be independent.”

Watch a segment of Richard’s talk:

Assembling teams: bottom-up vs. top-down

In some organizations, teams are built top-down. The executive-level roles are filled first (i.e., the top), then the middle and lower levels of the team are chosen. Richard prefers the opposite approach of building teams bottom-up. First, he looks at the scope of work, then forms squads that are organized around it. Within squads he forms tribes and within tribes he forms domains of work.

The result? A leaner and more efficient organization. Recently, the engineering organization went from 55 executives down to 26. The 8 layers of the organization were reduced to 4. This shift enabled the organization to re-invest in talent density.

“Be brilliant at the basics” of agile

“There’s a rush to move beyond the fundamentals and into more advanced frameworks,” says Richard. “Keep it simple. Double down at fundamental practices of agile,” he continues. In other words, Richard urges engineering teams to be “brilliant at the basics” of agile. Richard’s team gets all the basics correct, never skipping these fundamentals components:

  • Standups
  • Retrospectives
  • Iteration planning
  • Showcases

At World Fuel Services, some projects have 20 squads on them. While those squads should have some freedom to define their practices, Richard says that you need to make sure the work comes together at a top level, especially for deeply integrated products.

Using external engineering partners

Richard works with external engineering partners like Lohika. For Richard, there are three key benefits of using an engineering partner:

  1. The ability to scale: getting engineering capacity on-demand
  2. Cultural alignment: finding partners who can help you get better
  3. Capabilities: helping fill coverage gaps in the skills you need

When Richard sought an engineering partner, he consulted with peers at leading SaaS companies: AWS, Box, Zoom, Slack and PagerDuty. According to Richard, all these companies use a common set of products and technologies and rely on a small set of partners. An SVP Engineering from one of these companies recommended Lohika.

According to Richard, “We want to make sure we can learn something from the companies we partner with. We also want to find companies we can aspire to be like. What came through with Lohika is, they already work with great companies. The recommendations I got about them were very strong. We scale up and scale down as we need. Lohika gives us that flexibility.”

Key performance indicators (KPI) for engineering leaders

Engineering leaders at World Fuel Services are measured in two ways. First, they are evaluated on an internal Net Promoter Score (NPS). The NPS measurement answers these questions:

  • How likely are you to recommend your leader to a peer or colleague
  • How likely are you to recommend your team as a place to work

The NPS surveys provide useful feedback to leaders and help them identify any hot points or key issues. Next, all leaders are evaluated on the following six attributes:

  1. Attract new talent
  2. Distributing work
  3. Ability to form teams
  4. Impact and influence
  5. Listen, learn and leverage
  6. Measure what matters

Just like the rest of the managers on his team, Richard is also measured using these six attributes, as well as the two internal NPS scores.

Watch the recording

Want to hear all of Richard’s insights? Watch the 30-minute recording (free registration required).