Driving your team to a higher shipping velocity

Company Culture
Team processes
Productivity
Deadlines
Managing Expectations

29 March, 2020

Anantha Kancherla

Anantha Kancherla

VP of Engineering at Lyft

Anantha discusses how he encouraged his teams to focus more on shipping.

Problem

When I first started at working at Dropbox, their culture and values were getting in the way of rapidly updating and modernizing the products they were offering. During that time the company was going through a change of mission, and therefore it was not very clear. In the absence of a clear and strong mission, the employees were using compliance with values as a way to reason about shipping and updating products. For example, one of our values was "sweat the details". People were using this to avoid shipping, by saying that not all the details had been ironed out. Another value was "we not I", which people used as a reason to avoid shipping as they believed everyone had to agree or we couldn't ship. This basically meant that nothing every shipped or if it shipped, it took an awful amount of time further burning out the engineers.

Actions taken

I was responsible for incubating new products. With the style of operations existing then, it would have been a great challenge to incubate new products because there is always an inherent risk in new ideas. I realized that if I was to do this job, it was really important for me to encourage the team to free their minds and just ship. They should be free to make mistakes, learn and get better and react quickly and update over and over again. However, changing the company's culture takes time, so I had to work out how to do this while staying within the existing value system.

I realized that the best way to do this was to talk about impact. Impact on our customers. One can have an impact on them only when we get our code into their hands. Therefore ship...and learn over and over again. Within the team, I started talking constantly about shipping. I would ask who shipped what all the time. I would encourage them to talk with data derived from users actually using the products. I would urge them to do whatever it took to ship and that I valued all kinds of work, however "grungy", that resulted in shipping. Therefore the three main points of conversations and questions became: 1. Shipping. I highlighted how much I valued shipping and underlined the fact that I didn't mind if the shipped product had mistakes, as long as the products were being shipped. 2. Learning our customers and their needs. If a team doesn't know who their customer is and what their motivations are, then they'll never be able to ship correctly. 3. Being willing to do whatever it takes to get shipping done. Fixing bugs, fixing builds, etc. were held on the same plane as feature implementation.

Next, I started some new processes. Every Friday, I would hold a staff meeting. When there were 15 minutes left, I would ask my team who had shipped something, and would then ask them to talk about what they had shipped. I made this more fun by showering candy on the people who had shipped something. My design counterpart was very quiet and didn't talk much. I encouraged him to acquire a trumpet, and every time somebody shipped, he'd play the trumpet. This added to the fun, made it a big celebratory meeting, and made people more aware of the importance of shipping. It became bigger overtime, and sometimes people would come and watch as though it was a show. Quarterly, I would tally up each teams' work and publicly in an all hands meeting recognize teams that:

  • Shipped the most -- they would receive a toy rocket ship :-)
  • Learnt their customers the most -- they would receive a learning toy.
  • Did the most herculean grunge work -- they would receive a grunge album. This team team shipped and incubated a number of cool ideas. Dropbox Paper among them.

Lessons learned

I've learnt three things through this process:

  1. There may be a lot of other things you have to do, but you need to teach your team to focus on impact, and you should reward them when they make an impact. Once you have focussed your team on impact you need to translate that into meaningful actions that your team can take.
  2. Culture is stronger than process. If a culture gets into people's heads and it can attack both emotional and logical parts of their brains. By changing a culture, you can help your team to embrace the work you want to work on.
  3. Creating a fun and happy team also creates a more productive team. When team members are happy they're likely to want to do more quality work.

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