One of our largest departments within Ocado Technology recently undertook a revolutionary self-selecting restructuring exercise, changing the entire structure of the department whilst allowing all team members to choose which team they would like to work in going forward. The need came about because multiple teams were stretched, working across two major business propositions and context switching between them. The goal was that following the restructure there would be a clear split between teams working on two different business propositions, such that each of those teams could really focus on that product.
The overall aim of this restructure was to achieve greater alignment, autonomy and purpose.
Following the principle that a collaborative and distributed approach is often the best way to solve a complex optimisation problem, we decided to take a full day as a whole department to stop work and have a facilitated event to negotiate the moves amongst the five new teams. We did a lot of thinking and preparation prior to this day and the teams used a set of constraints around team size and experience levels to guide their decisions.
The plan going into the event was shared well ahead of time to allow people to get their questions in (and added to a shared FAQ forum) and to be sure the concepts were clear going into the day. Alongside this, we ran multiple “townhall” sessions where people could air their concerns and ask their questions openly. We hoped that at the end of the process we would have well-rounded, committed teams ready to face the new challenge.
There was a certain amount of ad-libbing and practical adjustments on the day, but on the whole it unfolded according to the plan:
– First, a pitch for each team by the Product Owner, covering the vision/roadmap and why the team is super cool and awesome. There was also a set of target criteria for each team as a guide for what we were looking to achieve in each area.
– Next, multiple iterations where we:
1. Assigned or moved ourselves/each other between teams until we’ve addressed any identified issues in the previous iteration.
2. See if we had met the pre-defined criteria for each team.
3. Repeat until we run out of time or we meet all of the requirements and everybody is happy and committed to the team that they are in.
Fuelled by 18 pizzas, we completed three exhausting rounds of moves and peer voting. At the end of each round, we (everyone, including Product Owners and Team Leads) voted on the viability of each team. From this we measured two scores: an intra-team score (the people in that team scoring the viability of the team), and an inter-team score (the rest of the people scoring the viability of that team). This lead to a few interesting dynamics, for example one of the teams gave themselves a high intra-team score, but scored low on the inter-team vote. They then gave a pitch justifying their viability as a team, and were able to dramatically increase their inter-team score in the next round.
The first round was deliberately obviously suboptimal, so that everyone was motivated to suggest changes and improvements and become comfortable with doing so in a very “safe” way. Naturally, this configuration had dramatically lower scores! This encouraged a large amount of movement in the following rounds, as we had hoped.
Essential to finding a viable solution was an appreciation from all of the ‘greater good’ of Ocado Technology. On the day, some people chose to make some really big compromises in order to serve the greater good and allow us to form balanced teams that are all capable of smashing out quality software.
After the final round of voting we then took a quick anonymous happiness reading by each dropping a green, yellow or red lego piece into a box. Although they were not perfect, we were extremely pleased the results, considering that our original goals was “at least 50% happy”.
The very next morning we did a big-bang desk move:
We’ve since kept a close eye on the impact of the shuffle-up by measuring the things that matter most to us: throughput and team happiness. There was an expected initial dip in throughput as many people got up to speed on new products they had not worked on before and as new teams gelled and got to know each other. But the throughput three months on has risen higher than before the change and still rising. Improvements in team happiness (measured before and after by Spotify’s “health-checks”) were noteworthy from straight after the restructure.
In terms of the solution itself: we are delighted. Every team has a reasonable level of experience whilst a healthy number of people have chosen to change domain. It is a vastly better result than we could have hoped for had we chosen a top-down approach and the sense of autonomy it has created is invaluable. It seems that teams and individuals have a stronger sense of ownership than ever before and that they are taking quality more seriously than ever before. This did have an up-front cost in terms of short term throughput, but the long term benefits certainly justify it.
James Lohr, Ocado Tech Department Head
You could drive yourself steadily insane compiling a list of all the trends that were supposed to fundamentally reshape business. Once upon a time we were all “flexi” workers, then “mobile learners”. Both terms seem antiquated now, the corporate equivalent of a Segway – perfectly sensible in principle but somehow faintly ridiculous in reality.
What makes the “gig economy” – the legion of individuals taking on piecemeal work, enabled by online talent platforms – feel different is that it’s being driven not by hip early adopters in co-working spaces (though there are plenty of them involved too) but by genuine need, both in the “real” economy and, crucially, in boardrooms.
If you were staffing a major new project from scratch today, it would seem an act of faint lunacy to bring in a raft of full-time employees with cumbersome overheads (and personal taxes) when you could go online and find experienced, verifiable individuals you could pay by the hour and dispose of when required. Similarly, if you were a coder, IT contractor or other technical specialist, why would you harness yourself to one organisation when you could enjoy both variety and a more lucrative income hopping from gig to gig (along with the attendant tax advantages of being self-employed)?
So many businesses are waking up to this recalibration that 450,000 people with full-time jobs now have second jobs, many of them via TaskRabbit, Elance or their multitude of competitors. PwC has tried to cut out the middleman by setting up its own talent “market” of registered suppliers its offices can bid on. There are individuals in greater London making a handsome living assembling flat pack furniture on a piecemeal basis for an hourly rate – an occupation that would have been almost logistically impossible just a couple of years ago.
You can understand the appeal of living by the gig, beyond the financial benefits. The conventional career has been an awkward fit for many people over the years, and few jobs are capable of maximising all our skills and intelligences. Besides, most work is boring, which is why those lucky enough ever to have had a job for life employed the conversational repertoire of the prison system (“putting in hard graft”, “serving your time”) to describe it.
Gigs, by contrast, are exciting and ever-changing, even though they ask some deep questions of the psychological contract (why would I exercise discretionary effort for a business that only employs me for a matter of days? Can I trust someone who could work for my biggest rival tomorrow?). But they aren’t an untrammelled good, either. For every actuarial scientist earning a small fortune for a short-term job, there’s a hotel chambermaid who is now being paid by the room rather than the day. The huge rise in self-employment in the UK has as much to do with businesses shifting such workers – we should include the small army of couriers and delivery drivers in this calculation – off their books as it does people discovering new freedoms. Palpably, none of them are enjoying the benefits of the gig economy, not least because they cannot practically control where and how they work. They are left, instead, to feed on scraps.
Uber, the erroneously attributed poster child of the gig economy, faces a legal challenge over whether its drivers are technically employees. It maintains they are self-employed. This is a vital point for the courts to consider – cycle couriers and plumbers are engaged in similar cases – but in Uber’s case we should also note that it controls the supply of drivers into the market, and their pricing. This is assuredly not the “freedom” gig economy enthusiasts speak of.
Governments will have to decide the legal and ethical boundaries of such behaviours, not least because if gigs take off, their tax revenues will rapidly vanish. Already, there is serious talk of the need for a third kind of classification, between “employee” and “self-employed” which recognises the shared responsibilities (both financial and relating to holidays, sick pay and other benefits) between giggers and those they work for.
Pioneers like Wingham Rowan, who runs the Beyond Jobs consultancy, are trying to imagine a market that will ensure the gig economy brings mutual benefits and conveniences without being open to abuse. Businesses who want to enjoy the flexibility such arrangements provide should not absent themselves from such discussions – but neither should they fear this will turn out to be just another fad.
By: Robert Jeffery, Editor of People Management magazine
It’s coming up on nine years since I first started slinging code in a professional setting. Professional here meaning with a salary, in an office, with other engineers, decent coffee and unreasonable deadlines.
Back then I was barely newly minted from school, and what I lacked in understanding I certainly carried in hubris. I remember being vaguely offended not to be on the list of Sweden’s top coders that year. No idea how they would’ve found me, but I still remember being annoyed by it.
What I’ve lost in hubris in the last nine years, I’ve gained in experience. I thought it’d be useful to punch down a few things that it would have been nice to know nine years ago — maybe it can help you, if you’re just about to take your first steps out of school.
In no particular order, here are nine things I wish I’d known when I started out:
- Experience counts for something. This is obvious, and maybe a bit condescending. But I remember the first time I saw a colleague in a live, heated situation pull up YourKit and hone in on the fact that we’d have two ServerInstanceFactories, not one, and that caused the entire app to go belly up. Or when I got literally smacked on the fingers for not using two-phased locking correctly. And a thousand other things. My first two years of working, what I mainly learned was that I basically didn’t know shit.
- People are messy. I’d love to know how many hours humanity as a total spends every day mediating between two or more angry 40-year old men. Most of the time, you’ll find reasonable people that don’t share your point of view on things, and you are not obviously right. There are tradeoffs. And sometimes people hold on to stupid ideas longer than they should, simply because they’re people. It’s a great irony that software development demands literal, logical, unambiguous reasoning while being complicated enough that you need to collaborate with ornate, arbitrary, ambiguous humans.
- You’re not logical, you’re biased. If there was one thing I was certain of was that I reasoned with logic and soundness and that I thought things because they were true. Things such as — we hire people only because of merit. Obviously. What I’ve learned is that any point can be argued from many angles, and who I am, where I was raised, what I studied and who my friends are all influence what I think is obviously true. I’ve also learned that I’ll likely never be Spock, and that the only reasonable defense is to invite different points of view, and accept that reasoning from different premises can lead to different conclusions, and still be logical and sound.
- You can use engineering for other stuff. As a flipside to above, I’ve also learned that the method of engineering that you learn in school and hone over the years is useful for a ton of other stuff than just programming. What engineering is to me is a way to define, decompose and reduce a problem space, and from that reason a solution under balanced constraints. Really, figuring out what you’re asking, and then answering that. And turns out that anything from sales, marketing, finance, design to analytics are super-susceptible to this. Don’t be afraid to dive in. It’s usually pretty simple to get stuck in.
- Users are not stupid. This one is a big one. When users complain about your product, it’s usually not because they’re stupid. Your dad, uncle or whatever that don’t really understand Facebook are not stupid. They just know other shit, and they haven’t learned this stuff yet. And that’s Facebook. They have literally hundreds of user researchers making Facebook simple. When your uncle doesn’t understand your app, it’s probably because it’s pretty unusable. Don’t blame users for that.
- Engineers have professional responsibilities. If you work with software in a company that makes money, chances are you have users. Even if you’re building Spotify, not a pacemaker, you still have a responsibility to your users. They’ve chosen your product, and if it sucks, they’re suffering and it’s your fault. This means that if you’re out chugging beer, the systems you maintain go down, and no one else can pick them up, you get a cab home and fix it. Obviously, don’t let a company take advantage of this responsibility. You should get reasonably compensated. But it’s still a responsibility. You can’t laugh off service disruption.
- Inverting a tree is useful, but not in the way you think it is. I’ve always been a strong believer in academic knowledge, and I loved taking the hardest courses. Particle filtering, non-linear signal processing, abstract algebra, advanced algorithms, etc. If it looked hard I wanted to know it. However, the point of Red-Black trees is not Red-Black trees. The point of graph traversal is not graph traversal. The point is, the tools you have shape how you solve problems. And the deeper the understanding of graphs you have, the easier it will be for you to see that a problem is a graph problem. Just like if you know enough economics, you can see business problems as market problems. And so on.
- Integrating early is always better. This is really mundane compared to all the other grand advice, but if you’re a bunch of people working on a piece of code, avoid branches and avoid submodules as much as possible. It’s really not better to work on your own branch until all is nice and then merge back. Merge early. Merge often. Otherwise you’ll spend a month merging. I promise. Like, I really, really promise … and actually, I guess there is grand life advice here as well. If you and someone you depend on disagree on something fundamental, don’t hold a grudge. Hash it out, as early as possible. Make sure you see eye to eye. The process and the product will be all the better for it.
- Simpler is literally always better. I saw someone write something like “Software engineers spend their first two years building complexity, and the rest of their careers managing it”. This is true. Really true. If you can avoid it, never write a dispatcher. Never write an orchestration framework. Don’t use Java if a bash script will do. Solve the problem you have now, not the problem you might have later. Nothing makes you feel as smart as a well architected, abstract framework for solving really complicated, general problems. Nothing makes you feel as stupid as not understanding how to debug it.
Anyway. This is my list. The nine things I wish I knew nine years ago. It strikes me now that current me would love to see the list Nine Things I Wish I’ll Remember In Nine Years. What stuff have I forgotten that would warp my perspective? I’d love to hear your take on either this, or what I missed on this list.
By: Marcus Frödin from Spotify