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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Pato Jutard of Mural on Maintaining a Collaborative Culture through Exponential Growth

Pato Jutard of Mural on Maintaining a Collaborative Culture through Exponential Growth

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In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Pato Jutard, CTO of Mural, about the challenges of maintaining a collaborative culture as they have grown from under 100 people to over 450 through the pandemic. 

Key Takeaways

  • Collaborative, creative work is hard, and doing so over distance makes it harder 
  • Participants in in-person workshops often suffer from “workshop amnesia” when they no longer have access to the physical artifacts from the session
  • Making culture explicit is an important aspect of creating common understanding in times of rapid growth, then making those values part of the day to day conversation in the organisation
  • Effective remote work is different from in-person and includes different approaches such as documenting everything, written over verbal communication, asynchronous versus synchronous communication, making sure you spend enough time searching for the information before you ask someone about that information
  • Anyone who needs to lead a team, should be a good facilitator so you can have better meetings, more productive meetings, more engaging meetings, more fun meetings

Transcript

Introduction [00:05]

Shane Hastie: Good day, folks, this is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down across the miles with Pato Jutard. Pato is the CTO of MURAL, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, so for a change, I'm talking to somebody who's at least in the same hemisphere as me, if not closer in time zones. Pato, welcome, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Pato Jutard: Thank you, Shane. It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me and great to talk to a Kiwi. I love rugby, do you?

Shane Hastie: I do, yes, but we better not spend too much time on that, because I think our audience might not understand it all. Pato, tell me a little bit about yourself. What brought you to where you are today as the CTO of MURAL.

Pato Jutard: So yeah, I'm a software developer in essence, but I've been an entrepreneur for the last, probably 15 years. MURAL is the second company I founded, the first one being Three Melons, which was a video game studio. We used to create and publish video games at the beginning for the advertising industry in the format of adver-games, web-based adver-games. And later on social games that were published through social networks, such as Facebook.

Pato Jutard: And the story is that we ended up selling that company to Disney, first to Playdom, that ended up being Disney, so we ended up being the social gaming studio for Disney, from Argentina. And that's how we saw the problem of having to collaborate at a distance to create things that involves creativity, such as video games. And that's because, when we were a small company in Buenos Aires doing games, we used to work all together, physically in the same office, in the same space, using whiteboards and walls for hanging concept art and such. But later on, when we got acquired and we were part of the biggest entertainment company in the world, people were all over the world and we had to collaborate with people that were remotely in the creative process of coming up with a new game idea.

The Challenges of Collaborating over Distance [02:17]

Pato Jutard: And the truth is that, of course, there were video conferences and IP phones and such, and of course, emails, but the process was painful and slow. It's not impossible, we published a few games, but the truth is that the process was super slow. A lot of emails with PowerPoint attachments with versioning, version one, version two, version final, final, final, final. It was more on the video conferencing side, it was more presentations from one person to the rest of the group, rather than co-creation, as it's supposed to be on a creative workshop, right? So that's how we said, "Okay, there's a problem here that we need to solve," And we decided to start MURAL. And basically, that's what we are trying to do today, solving for remote creative teams to be more productive and have fun, while building their next, whatever, product, service website, business, you name it.

Shane Hastie: And MURAL has been around about 10 years?

Pato Jutard: Yeah, we started in 2012.

Shane Hastie: And I would go so far as to say, up until about a year ago, it was a fairly niche market and suddenly things exploded. What's happened to MURAL over this massive disruption to the whole world, as everyone's become remote through COVID?

IDEO Start-up in Residence Program [03:47]

Pato Jutard: As I mentioned, we started trying to solve a problem for ourselves and we ended up figuring out that there were a lot of professional teams and companies that were trying to do creative workshops, innovation type of activities, methods, design thinking sort of activities. And they usually spend a lot of money in flying people around, putting them all together in a hotel, spending in catering and accommodation and such. And they were there for two to three days, and later on, the workshop was gone, a lot of papers and post-its, colored post-its, work hanging around the walls, and usually people forget about that. We call it the workshop amnesia, right? So what we understood, mostly by working and collaborating with IDEO, which is a very important innovation agency. So what we did was, program by IDEO called Start-up in Residence, and we learned a lot from them on how they work with other companies in the innovation and design thinking process.

Pato Jutard: by working with IDEO, we realized that the problem was not just for video game creators, everyone trying to innovate have the same problem. When you want to innovate, if you picture in your head the creative workshop, you'll see people walking around a room, hanging post-its, writing out ideas, discussing, brainstorming, et cetera. But when the team is not able to meet physically, then they had a problem, right? We were there to help solve for that problem, with this MURAL idea, which is basically whiteboard on steroids with a lot of methodologies and little features that help you out to build a better workshop experience online.

Every organization that is trying to innovate has the same challenges around collaboration over distance [05:38]

Pato Jutard: We understood the problem was huge, that the audience was very broad. It was not just video games, it was not just software, but any industry, any type of business investing in innovation, like the banking industry, that right now is investing a lot in innovation with the FinTech revolution and such. Of course, software, we had IBM as one of our first, biggest customers, Accenture as well, SAP, but then other industries or smaller businesses and we understood, again, this was super broad. Even education, some universities such as Stanford were using MURAL for their remote courses. So, little by little, we started to grow, but it was not an exponential growth, like what happened last year during the pandemic.

Pato Jutard: Last year changed everything. In a way it's like we grew five years in one or more. From one day to another, we started having 17 times the amount of new users created. And it makes sense, right? People that we are not able to meet personally, needed a tool for having better meetings online. As you know, on every meeting room on an office, you get a whiteboard, right? But when you are on a digital meeting, virtual meeting on a video conference, you don't get a whiteboard where everyone can jump and collaborate and use visual practices for co-creating, for brainstorming, for communicating. So, we started being that whiteboard on the virtual video conference and the adoption exploded. So, just to mention one metric, we, as a company, had to grow from 100 people, 100 employees, team members, to 450 in less than a year, so.

Shane Hastie: And that was done while everyone was remote?

Pato Jutard: Of course, everyone was remote. I would think here that we were prepared, we were already working as a remote company, although we had offices, both in Buenos Aires and in San Francisco, we mostly use those offices for social gatherings, barbecues and meetings. But the truth is that the work, the actual work, happened remotely, and we use a lot of remote first type of methods and practices that helped out during this exponential growth.

Shane Hastie: So, let's explore that exponential growth and the culture impacts. If we think about it, at 100 people, you're inside Dunbar's number, you know each other, you know everyone. And even if you're remote, you're probably able to have a one-on-one conversation with pretty much everyone. At 450 and growing, you can't do that. How do you maintain the good things and avoid the bad when you're doing that?

Making culture explicit and part of the everyday conversation among team members [08:39]

Pato Jutard: The first thing I want to say is that it's not easy and we are still learning. There's a lot of little things that makes things easier, mostly for the new employee coming into the company, right? Because there are so many new people and you need to onboard them and help them understand how the company works, how things are done here, even the technical aspect of understanding the code base, understanding the documentation, where the resources are located. All that, it's a huge problem, so something that I believe we did right, is investing early on in people ops. We build very good people ops team working on processes for hiring, onboarding and culture aspects. Cultural aspects, I mean, things like we have virtual social gatherings. We have people getting drinks to their homes and we do virtual toasts and we discuss non work topics from time to time, games, it's not just about how to better run work meetings, but how to bond and create a culture as a team.

Pato Jutard: And the best way to have this culture, not to be, let's say, diluted, or for this culture to stick, is from person to person interactions. The example is what sets the culture and something we did, that I believe it's a good idea, is to put the culture in words, in order to hire the best cultural fit type of individual, we run it through the system of values that we have. So, we have small phrases that define how we operate in a way, so making us successful is one of the main values, adapt to thrive, this type of adaptability and iteration as you might know, we had to adapt MURAL several times through these 10 years until we nail it, so adapt is something super important for us.

Pato Jutard: Show up with a smile, right? We are here, we are here to help, we show up, and we try to generate wows, create something delightful, something great, something people want to talk about. We also try to think global and that is both for hiring, for how we operate, how we speak. We try to speak in English and write in English, because that's the language mostly used around the world. We try to have presence on every market. We have people in support and customer success all around the world. And something very nice that we have is a play to win and have fun, right? We try to have fun, but at the same time trying to win. We always say, we are not a family, we are a team that tries to win and we don't like losing. When we go to the play field, we want to win.

Pato Jutard: So, doing this exercise of putting together the values in a written way and talking about them and providing examples and making that part of the day to day conversations, I believe is something that paid off, that's helping maintain this culture. Let me give you just one other example. We have a Kudos channel, a more internal chat system, we have channels, and there's a Kudos channel where anyone can congratulate any other member of the team. And each time they do a kudos, they also include the value that is associated with this kudos. So, that's another way of talking about the culture and making it something that's present.

Pato Jutard: What else can I tell you about the growth? Of course, it's not easy in terms, of each new individual brings a lot of experience from their past experiences, right? From other companies as well. We hired a very good layer of managers and directors and VPs, that come from companies with a strong culture, such as Microsoft, Google, Envision and other, so they bring a lot of their past into our culture. And sometimes it's good to embrace those ideas, those combination of different ways of approaching things, but still trying to maintain the DNA of MURAL, right? MURAL has its own culture, its own DNA. And I believe, again, example is what makes it stick.

Shane Hastie: So, how do you, looking at that, making it stick, bringing on 300 people in such a short time, or 300 plus people, all remotely, how do you move this? And you mentioned things like the kudos channels, so that's one example, but how do you really make these values become part of the way people think and work as opposed to a veneer and lip service? Because all too often, we see that lip service rather than real culture.

Making values real rather than lip-service [13:50]

Pato Jutard: The answer to that question is two main things. One is by the example. We see an example of this value, we try to make it visible to the rest of the organization. And when one of the values is not present on an attitude, we also try to make it visible. And the second thing is making sure we talk about this often enough, so something we do is a weekly all hands meeting, where of course all the company connects to videoconference. And one of the things we usually talk about is the values, right? The vision, the mission and the values of the company are present, are always there. We try to make them part of every all hands in some way or another.

Shane Hastie: What have been some of the big challenges as you’ve grown?

Pato Jutard: Definitely trying to have a working and productive remote first culture is not easy. Some people come from different backgrounds and they are not used to the remote culture. So, things like documenting everything, written over verbal communication, asynchronous versus synchronous communication, making sure you spend enough time searching for the information before you ask someone about that information. Those little things make a huge difference in the remote culture.

Pato Jutard: And again, not everyone is used to that, so we are constantly pushing to embrace those steps. So, if someone comes and asks me for whatever, a specific information about the company, it might be, what are the values or what about the source code for a specific product? Okay, I won't to answer directly, I would say, "Go and search here." Things like that, constantly training, constantly making the point that we need to work better, otherwise we are losing a lot of time, we are interrupting people, we are working as if we were on an old days' office altogether, instead of taking the advantages of remote collaboration.

Pato Jutard: So, the culture of remote, of course, hiring and onboarding, it's a huge challenge, to make 300 people, to be onboarded and productive and ready as soon as possible, you need to have a lot of content, materials, trainings that need to be built. So we spend, as I told you, in people ops, a lot of resources into this topic of onboarding people.

Shane Hastie: Let's explore that hiring and onboarding a little bit more. How do you ensure that that works and works for the organization, works for the new hire?

Hiring and onboarding for remote teams [16:31]

Pato Jutard: First of all, we have a high bar in terms of the recruiting exercises that we do, the interviews, there's several people involved in the interviews. If the position is a technical position, there's a very challenging exercise that they need to meet, so selection is crucial. Then when we decide to extend an offer, we try to move fast and bring that person in as soon as possible. And we have a path of onboarding, with several steps involving different types of training. For instance, I do an onboarding session every two weeks for all the new engineers. And that's just me talking about how we work, the culture, how the teams are structured and making myself available for everyone as well, and letting them know about the communication channels, how they can reach out to me and things like that.

Pato Jutard: And then, as I told you, a lot of documentation and pointing to the correct documentation, letting them know where and how to search for content, because there's a lot of content that we've built through these 10 years and the important thing is making sure it is accessible and searchable, that people can access that anytime they need it. So again, spending a lot of effort and resources in building onboarding material, I think, is crucial.

Shane Hastie: MURAL builds collaborative tools. I've used it. I use it quite extensively and I will say I've found it a pretty powerful and useful tool for remote collaboration. How do you use that internally? How do you drink your own champagne, so to speak?

Pato Jutard: I'm glad that you use it, Shane, and yeah, we do use MURAL every day for building MURAL in several different ways. First of all, what we try to do is always have a MURAL on every meeting. For us, and we always talk about this, facilitating a meeting, it's a competence of the future leader. Any leader, any person that needs to lead a team, should be a good facilitator, so you can have better meetings, more productive meetings, more engaging meetings, more fun meetings. And for that, MURAL, it's a great tool, because we provide for our product, a lot of methods that will be useful for different type of meetings. So, if you are running a brainstorming meeting, for instance, you will have a brainstorming template and you have voting feature for voting on ideas and such. And we have guided content inside the MURAL, inside the template, so you, as a leader, can facilitate this meeting in a better way.

Pato Jutard: So internally, in MURAL, we use these for different type of activities, such as product management and coming up with new ideas or features of understanding the customer journey, for instance, and mapping that visually, PI planning, agile methodologies, Kanban boards are built in MURAL, timelines are built in MURAL and discussed in MURAL, because the most interesting part about this is that it's a live document that everyone contributes and you're just having a visual conversation through post-it notes, comments and drawings, right? So again, depending on the team, you might be using MURAL for different things, but it's happening constantly, on every meeting, on every team, somehow in a way or another you're using MURAL. And we try to collaborate visually as much as possible and these guided methods drive the agenda on our meetings and those methods are there, are parked inside our product, ready to be used.

Shane Hastie: You made an important point there, that facilitation is a competency for future leaders. How do people learn to be good facilitators?

Pato Jutard: First of all, we have a book published around that topic that they can download from our website, but facilitating remote meetings, remote workshops, is not easy. There's a lot of little tips and tricks and the importance of preparing for the meeting and coming up with a structured method is super important. The fun aspect of the meeting should be covered as well. You need people to have fun on your meetings, otherwise it's not engaging, right?

Pato Jutard: So, we also provide in our product some little things to make sure you have fun. We, for instance, have a celebrate feature, so a facilitator, which by the way, is a type of user inside our system, can throw out confetti for all the audience in the middle of the session, if you have to celebrate something. We, of course, also have reactions, so people can thumbs up or put a clap icon in the middle of the session and things like that. So again, if someone wants to be a better facilitator, I recommend they download our ebook in our website.

Shane Hastie: We're getting ready to wrap up. Any piece of advice for the technical leader, a person moving into and dealing with, perhaps not the level of growth that you've achieved, but bringing on new people in this remote environment?

Pato Jutard: More than for bringing in new people, I would say, for approaching any type of problem as a team, which is basically what we try to improve as a company. So again, if a team needs to tackle a problem, I would suggest go explore design thinking as a concept and this idea of spending more time in analyzing the problem than coming up with a solution.

Pato Jutard: Something that good innovators do is really understanding the problem and empathizing with the person or the group of people that experience this problem before jumping to conclusions, before jumping to building a solution for the problem. Really understand the problem first. And there's a lot of visual methods for teams to think through problems, understand the people, like empathy maps. And the reality is that when I saw that in any type of team, any type of professional team, I constantly see the outcome is much, much better and the market will embrace the solution much better. That's what I think is real innovation, spending more time on the problem will cast better solutions.

Shane Hastie: Pato, thank you for that great advice. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Pato Jutard: They can find me at Twitter, @patojutard.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

Pato Jutard: Thank you, Shane.

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