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InfoQ Homepage News QConSF: Keynote - The Second Act

QConSF: Keynote - The Second Act

Michael Lopp, VP of Engineering at Slack, gave the second keynote at QCon San Francisco. Titled "The Second Act" he explored what cultural changes are necessary when growing an organisation from building one product to building a business that builds products.

He started by stating that the soft skills are by far the hardest aspects of software engineering - it's about getting people to collaborate effectively together to achieve great things.  

He described how organisation culture grows in tiny steps as the business changes.  When the business is a single person then there is no visible decision making protocol and "how things get done" is totally invisible.  As soon as there is even one more person involved then decision making becomes a matter of communication and this creates the very first piece of culture "the way we do things here" - if the decision was made using consensus then that will become the norm going forward, if there is a power-play then that will become the norm in the future as more people are added.

He described how Slack has a simple communications protocol which was put in place very early - they use a Raccoon icon to indicate that a conversation is going off topic and a thread needs to be taken to another channel.  "No-one can get mad at a cute raccoon" 

The Slack Raccoon

He described how organisations grow, from two people to 30 to 300 and at each step in the growth the culture is steadily being built, and you get to a point where there are two groups, the Old Guard and the New Guard.  These groups will have different perspectives on how the place should run.  The Old Guard has come up with little structure, informal communications and little documentation.  The New Guard is trying to bring in more structure to cope with the growth because the informal channels may no longer be the right ones for the environment.  There is more communication friction, a more structured org-chart and learning can no longer happen through osmosis. 

The Old Guard embodies the culture that the organisation was founded on, and often feels that "something isn't quite right" - this is frequently a symptom of these values being challenged.  At this stage of growth politics is inevitable and the organisation structure will change to support more specialised areas, with gaps between them.  These gaps get filled with the most pesimistic assumptions. 

As the company grows the definition of winning needs to change - initially it is about building a product that is successful in the marketplace.  This needs to change to becoming an organisation that builds successful products.  This is a different mindset and needs new ways of thinking.

He said that culture must evolve:

  • The lessons that got you there might not be the ones that take you further
  • Process is documented culture, but it must be able to defend itself
  • Encourage diversity of thought

He went on to describe how some organisations embody these ideas.  He gave a specific example of how Apple had two different teams working on the operating system for the iPad from two completely different perspectives, knowing that one of the products would be discarded and one retained.  The knowledge acquired wasn't wasted but the product was deliberately discarded.

He ended by challenging the audience to identify the one aspect of their culture that must change. It may be something that you love, or hate, but it needs to change.




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