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Scaling Engineering Organizations: Insights from Marqeta, Stitch Fix, Catalyst Software and Superhuman

April 9, 2021

Recently, Lohika sponsored a webinar with our friends from LeadDev. The webinar was titled “Scaling sustainably from seed to IPO.” It featured a panel of engineering leaders who scaled their companies from seed to Series A, up to IPO and beyond.

The panel:

  • Christian McCarrick, Engineering Leader, Facebook (moderator)
  • Pooja Brown, VP Engineering, Stitch Fix
  • Sha Ma, VP Engineering, Catalyst Software
  • Emuye Reynolds, Head of Engineering, Superhuman
  • Brad Taylor, Senior Director of Engineering, Marqeta

In this post, I’ll summarize some of the insights shared by the panelists.

Engineering leadership at an early stage company

Christian asked the panelists to weigh in on the nature of engineering leadership at different phases of a company’s evolution. Emuye described what engineering leadership is like at early stage start-ups (i.e., companies with Series A or Series B funding). In this stage, engineering leaders wear many hats and their roles change frequently.

For Emuye, it’s important to define engineering philosophies early on. Before moving from one phase to the next, there needs to be a backbone and framework in place. In the early stages, Emuye says that engineering leaders need to find the right balance between helping the team move quickly and introducing new processes.

Engineering leadership at a pre-IPO or post-IPO company

Pooja commented on later stage companies: those approaching an IPO or those operating after an IPO. Drawing on Emuye’s comment about balancing growth and process, Pooja says that this balance is 10x more complex in this stage. Pooja says this later stage is the right time to take full stack engineers and segment them horizontally into centers of excellence. You’d now have teams dedicated to things like API solutions, persistent storage, front-end (UI) and middleware. 

In addition, engineering leaders in this stage need to start thinking about SOX compliance. The Sarbanes-Oxley (“SOX”) Act, passed in 2002, is a federal law that established auditing and financial regulations for public companies. Pooja says that SOX compliance is a good thing. It’s an elegant way to create transparency in the team’s processes. The team can continue to innovate while relying on technology to create audit trails and quality checks.

Evolving team structure as the company grows

Marqeta’s Brad Taylor (a Lohika client) discussed how engineering teams evolve as companies grow. Brad likes the idea of embedding engineers alongside customers — or better yet, have the engineers be the customers. Brad once worked at a company that made GPS pet trackers and the engineers used the products on their pets.

As the company grows, leaders may need to shift engineering from being generalized to specialized. At a small company, the generalist approach is fine. During periods of high growth, the generalists have to deal with context switching, shifting their focus across 3-4+ projects at once. 

To address this, Brad recommends specializing the teams, giving each team a key area to focus on. This may require a re-org, which is always a tricky thing to do. During re-orgs, Brad says that effective communication is critical. Walk everyone through the decision-making process and share the success metrics that leadership defined for the re-org.

Leveraging engineering services partners

Sha is going through a process right now where the company is front-loading the development of features (i.e., in the calendar year) so that sales teams can go after revenue targets. Since hiring takes time and can shift the focus away from development, Sha is working with her engineering managers to identify gaps. Collectively, they’ll determine how to intentionally fill those gaps. That may involve hiring a few consultants or bringing on an engineering services partner.

Finding the right fit for team members

Christian presented a question to the panel about cases of “wrong fit.” As a company grows, there may be scenarios in which an engineer isn’t the right fit for the needs or culture of a company. Sha recommends finding the right fit using a Venn diagram. The diagram has three elements:

  1. What are people good at (i.e., talent)
  2. What are people passionate about 
  3. What opportunities are available in the organization

If an engineering leader can find the right intersection of these three circles, they can put team members in situations that are likely to be successful.

Scaling culture

For some engineering leaders, scaling teams is straightforward. But what about scaling culture? That seems more abstract and perhaps more challenging. Pooja says it’s important to recognize whether you’re a “culture fit” or “culture add” company. 

Culture fit means that you hire new team members who are similar to the existing team. Culture add means that you’re open for other views or values to have a seat at the table. Pooja says that one example of culture add is a company who adds diversity to their Board. It’s quite common for early stage companies to take a culture fit approach. As companies grow, however, they may need to shift to a culture add approach in order to properly scale the organization and culture.

Watch the recording

We invite you to watch the full recording of the webinar. Thanks to LeadDev for organizing the webinar and to the panelists for sharing their insights.