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Scaling Tech to Keep Building the Right Product During Hyper-Growth

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When your organization is growing fast and steadily, change has to be part of your culture. People are recruited, people leave, and people change teams; you have to learn to adapt fast and keep tech and business synchronized. At FlowCon France 2019 Nicholas Suter and Nicolas Nallet spoke about scaling tech at Younited.

To understand and reach business objectives, Younited moved the tech teams to the business teams. Nowadays, the product owner is part of the team and the stakeholders are never far. He/she is there for all daily meetings, planifications and retrospectives. This helps having an endless conversation between Tech and Business, as Nallet explained:

The developers and quality assurance engineers have direct access to the information they need to build the right software, and the product owners and stakeholders have early access to what’s being built.

Tech and business share common objectives. Some of the objectives are naturally business-focused, but they also have tech-driven objectives, to ensure that what they build works in the long run.

Team members can change teams at any time to reinforce another team. Suter mentioned that they split teams that become too big or create a new team when required. During a major reorganization, they refocus the teams to sync them with the latest business organization. Each team manages a set of microservices, so it’s relatively easy to shuffle things around. Although, as always, the devil is in the details, Suter said.

Recruiting is more like a date than a selection process, said Suter. Recruiters are looking for the right people to hire as much as the candidates are looking for the right employer. "We want to make sure we all take the right decision," Nallet said, "making Younited a good place to work, and not oversell ourselves to try and make sure we don’t disappoint."

At Younited they learned that there is no finished state in hyper-growth:

Keep in mind that you’re running a (very long) marathon. Don’t sprint, you’ll tire yourself out. Change happens, so learn to adapt fast.

InfoQ interviewed Nicholas Suter, chief architect, about the growing pains that they experienced, implementing change in organizations, powers that impact the company’s strategy, recruiting people, and establishing communities of practice.

InfoQ: How has Younited grown since it started, and what were the growing pains that you experienced?

Nicholas Suter: Younited has grown exponentially : +80% on average for the last 10 years. The growing pains are the consequence of one problem we have to solve: how do we build the right software we need right now, and how do we make sure we will still be able to do that in a highly uncertain future? The company’s founders are extremely ambitious, and it’s quite a challenge to keep up. We need to build high quality software. We need to adapt quickly to new opportunities. We need to hire excellent team members.

It’s kind of being in the body of an adolescent: you grow by several centimeters per year while learning new skills, with new constraints. And you’re not quite sure yet what your future is made of.

InfoQ: How do you implement changes in the organization?

Suter: We like baby steps. So basically, our organization changes all the time. We are growing fast and steadily, so we have a major reorganization every 12 months approximately, and adjust the rest of the year. Change is clearly part of our culture.

We try and anticipate the major changes and plan ahead, and at the same time, we have had to learn how to embrace change. We are a team of seven who are responsible for the Tech’s organization. And one of our main jobs is to ensure that we’re well organized.

InfoQ: You spoke about the powers, both positive and negative, that are impacting the company strategy. Can you elaborate on what these powers are and how you deal with them?

Suter: What we mean by this is that you never have full control of your environment. A team member can break a leg. A new competitor can enter the market. You can sign a great new partnership that ruins your roadmap. Things happen. All the time. What you can do, on the other hand, is to learn to adapt and deal gracefully with uncertainty. We have come to peace that there is no finished state to an organization. Or in any case, we’re light-years away from such a thing.

So we’ve really thought about our organization like a ship on a long journey. Sometimes you can leave the autopilot on. Sometimes, the road gets bumpy. Or gets covered in ice. I believe we’ve got pretty good at driving on ice. The key points for us are doing the complicated stuff over and over again until they get easy and getting the right people onboard.

InfoQ: What challenges did you face in recruiting people?

Suter: Plenty. We started from scratch, so nobody knew us. So you hire your first guys on a promise that you’ll build something great together. Then we learned that it’s not necessarily the same people who are best at starting from a clean sheet and scaling things up. Some are good at both, and that’s fine. But some are good at one but not the other. And that’s fine too.

Add the fact that we’re recruiting software and quality assurance engineers, product owners, data engineers, data scientists, etc. in a market where the employer is not in a position of strength.

We look for people who share a set or core values with us and have the right mindset to get the job done. Get the right people in the room, give them a purpose and problems to solve, and pay them properly. That’s turned out to work pretty well for us up to now.

InfoQ: What made you decide to establish communities of practice and what has been the result so far?

Suter: I like this question. You need a bit of context. We’ve sliced up Younited into business-focused domains. Think of them like domains in DDD. Each domain is the most independent as possible from the others. And each area has one or more tech teams that are free to choose how they work (with a few constraints, of course). That means they organize how to get the job done: Scrum, Kanban, XP, Lean, whatever, as long as they’re compliant with the constraints. They also are free to choose how they build the software, again as long as it complies with our constraints. These constraints are as light as they can be. We don’t want ivory towers deciding for others.

All that being said, we like consistency. And the best tool we’ve found are these communities of practice. As of today, we have six:

  • Product owners
  • QA engineers
  • Lead developers
  • Security
  • Architects
  • DevOps

Each domain needs to be represented in each community. The representatives have 10% of their time for community projects. The goal of the communities is to solve shared problems and propagate information: what works, what doesn’t.

InfoQ: What have you learned on your scaling tech journey?

Suter: So much. Delegate decisions to where they’re applied. Give people problems to solve and constraints. They’ll figure out the best solution. Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you. Manage your dependencies, be they technical or organizational. Pay people properly. But don’t make money the only reason they stay. You want team members, not mercenaries.

A decision can be the right decision at the time it’s taken, and invalidated later. And that’s fine! If you want to innovate, accept that mistakes will be made. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t dwell on the past.

And most of all, get the right people onboard. Beware of the solitary genius if you’re playing a team game. And be very careful to not recruit a toxic team member. They can ruin a team in no time. Find people who share your core values and are compliant with the team’s mindset. They’ll take you anywhere. Even to places you hadn’t even dreamt of.

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