Flat. It’s an organizational meme in rapidly growing teams in the Valley and it contains a couple of noble ideas. Simply put: a flat organization is one with as little hierarchy as possible to encourage the individual voice. What’s not to love?
The first challenge to the flat organizational mantra is the inevitable arrival of leads or managers tasked with organizing different aspects of the team. The flat religion’s answer to this development is rebranding of the role: the lead or the manager is no different than the individual. It’s not a promotion, there is no raise; it’s just a different gig. There is no difference between those responsible for building the product and those responsible for building the people.
I love this. I love this because it’s the beginning of solving a core career problem in teams of engineers: how do we grow? As I wrote about in Being Geek, the Curse of the Silicon Valley is that great engineers are often promoted to leadership for their hard work. While many succeed in this role, an equal part fails because the skills required to lead are vastly different than the ones required to be an engineer. The Curse is that we’re often placing our most valuable engineers in a role where they’re predisposed to fail.
Think of it like this: there’s a large population of immensely talented engineers that should not be leaders. There is no amount of training that would make up for the talent we’d extinguish by teaching them how to write annual reviews.
But everyone wants to grow.
Unfortunately, in many companies the only perceived growth path is via management. Yes, there are job grades and cleverly phrased job descriptions that confusingly define the various states of engineering experience and growth, but these are a joke. These are a distraction packaged as a solution to the fact that we don’t have a good idea how to systematically grow engineers outside traditional management hierarchy.
No Ticker Tape Parade
A solution begins with rebranding, by introducing the idea that managers and engineers are hierarchically no different. Keep the pay the same; don’t throw a ticker tape parade when a new leader is minted. They are peers. I support this religion because a flat organization is one where power, accountability, and responsibility are equally distributed. But I do not yet understand how this idea scales.
Even with leads and managers who have the best of intentions, the moment they become responsible for folks — the moment everyone realizes they sign the checks — the relationship changes. I can’t yell at you because you sign the checks. This core change of perception isn’t just based on compensation, it’s based on a change of ownership and responsibility and it’s the beginning of all sorts of potential cultural turmoil that’s worthy of an entire other article.
We need leads and managers as a means of scaling responsibility and communication, but we need dispel the idea that this is the only growth track for engineers.
I offer: the DNA meeting.
Five Kinds of Win
DNA stands for Design’n'Architecture. At its core, DNA is just a meeting. It’s a collection of bright engineers from across the team or the company sitting in a room tasked with a specific purpose. As the name suggests, they are responsible for deep analysis regarding decisions and directions core to the product. You probably already informally hold this type of meeting right now when faced with a big technical or design challenge. You gather together an informed set of eyeballs to vet the challenge. DNA makes the informal formal and it has five kinds of win:
- Shining a light brightly. While the more eyeballs you get on any decision the better, the DNA is scheduled when something technical is going down. Something big. Something of magnitude. It’s not a bet the company decision, but it might be a bet the group — or the division — decision. If we fail at this, the consequences are extreme. This is why when DNA is going down, you…
- Bring respectable firepower. We’ll talk more about the construction of the DNA team in a bit, but I want you to think of the three best engineers around you. I’m not talking just about ability, but also the folks who go out of their way to teach. The engineers who not only know what they’re talking about, but have the ability to explain this thinking. They shine a bright light on the idea by making the complex painfully obvious. The DNA team is the set of engineers who are not only the best candidates to vet the big idea, but they have ability to talk about how to make it better, can constructively criticize, and are distinctly drama and politics-free. See…
- Teeth. You can gather all the talented engineers you want, but what will make the meeting useful and memorable are two threats. First, the rule for all attendees in a DNA is: if you don’t contribute, you won’t be invited back. DNA is not a regular meeting; DNA is an active and healthy debate about a bet big enough that we’re gathering our bright minds to make sure we don’t fuck it up. If you’re in the room, it’s because we believe you have something to add and if you don’t, we’ll correct our misperception.
Second, it needs to be culturally understood that if you don’t bring your A game to DNA, the team is authorized to mentally kick the shit out of you. The end result of a healthy DNA will have members of the receiving team sitting with their heads squarely planted on their desks, whispering, “Oh shit, I can’t believe we didn’t think of that”.
DNA is not cruel. DNA is a living, breathing example of a team of engineers who put the value of design and technical excellence above all else. They don’t rule by mandate, they influence by being great at what they do. At the prior gig, the threat of DNA pushed us to prepare in extraordinary ways. Our goal was to predict every single question DNA might ask and have every answer in our back pocket. Winning in DNA was silence.
- DNA has absolutely nothing to do with management (and everything to do with leadership). Pure managers are not considered for the team because DNA is about cultivating technical leadership. A DNA meeting is a staff meeting of the influential engineers who don’t want direct reports, but they want to lead. If managers have anything to do with DNA, the meeting will become about the managers and not the technical leaders.
- DNA is achievable and aspirational. Inclusion on the DNA team is not a popularity contest. It is the end result of a well-defined journey that any engineer who is interested can embark upon. At the prior gig, it was a combination of tenure and experience, shipped products, and visible technical contributions to the team. Some measures will be subjective, but the end result is that when someone arrives on DNA, everyone would agree, “Yeah, they belong here…” It’s not a club; it’s an honor. DNA recognizes team members who we want as examples of folks who live and breath technical experience, who are selfless, and who contribute exceptional value to the company. DNA exists as an acknowledgement that a team is led not just by the folks who build the people, but also by people who build the product.
Flat is a State of Mind
I didn’t come up with the idea of DNA. It was a former boss at the mothership who suggested the idea long before I arrived on the team. Since then I’ve adapted the idea twice, and each adaption has yielded different results. In the current gig, we split DNA into different tracks: UX DNA and System DNA.
You build a DNA meeting to suit your culture. You build a DNA to remind the team that all forms of leadership matter.