Management Everyone wants to grow


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:

  1. 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…
  2. 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…
  3. 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.

  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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21 Responses

  1. i’m massively in favour of flat teams – the fewer “leads”, supervisors, middle managers etc a workplace has, the happier everyone is and the better the quality of the work produced (IMHO). but isn’t this DNA thing a bit….macho? all this talk of mental shit-kickings and suchlike sounds like a recipe for the loudest swinging dicks in a given team to coagulate together into a clique and then leverage their collective power to override, disenfranchise or even bully their colleagues. the results are potentially horrific, no?

  2. I like the structure of this, and I have two questions.

    (1) What do you do, if anything, about non-DNA members second guessing decisions made in the DNA meeting with a sort of “I can poke holes in your holy decision making, therefore your power isn’t real” attitude?

    (2) Do you attach any sort of increased compensation with the DNA distinction? Engineers want to grow, but presuming they grow to the level of DNA, what’s next? Is it the highest honor and the highest compensation bracket?

  3. David 13 years ago

    I second JonR’s concern. This seems like a great idea that’s heavily dependent on having a healthy company culture, and that’s a major, major dependency.

    I think you could solve a lot of the growth problem in companies by simply adjusting the compensation structure for technical staff. Salary caps are a major problem; a great engineer will just get more valuable over time, and it’s ridiculous to put him in a position where the only way to earn more money is to move into a completely different role.

  4. How do you feel about tenure being a factor about who makes it onto the team? I always hated tenure as a consideration for anything. I believe it isn’t a good indicator of knowledge or experience. A newer person might have a different point of view as a result of not spending a whole lot of time with your team. That new way of thinking might be just what your team needs.

  5. Brent MacGuffin 13 years ago

    OK, I’ll be the idiot – what is a DNA meeting? What does it stand for?

  6. @Brent. I was thinking the same thing as I read the article. 🙂

  7. I don’t get the acronym. Why DNA?

  8. DNA = Design ‘n Architecture. It is the technical conscience of the group.

  9. Mayson Lancaster 13 years ago

    DNA: desoxyribonucleic acid: aka the stuff chromosomes and genes are made of, the stuff of heredity that determines your physical makeup. Metaphorically, the core heritage or founding structure of a company, product, or team. For example, “Good design is in Apple’s DNA what “Crush the enemy” is in Microsofts”.

  10. In agile terminology DNA sounds very similar to a developer huddle or its also know as dev huddle. Whenever an engineer hits a road block he can call for a dev huddle in which all the other talented members of the team could provide him suggestions. This meeting does not include non engineers. Here the only rule thats followed is openness of ideas, like @matt said even a junior member can provide a suggestion which not even members have thought of.

  11. Pointy 13 years ago

    “The Curse” is that managers set compensation. Ambitious engineers move to management for compensation growth, while it sounds like “DNA meetings” mostly provide ego growth.

    Making the transition into management is scary, and a common excuse for not doing it is that one’s engineering skills are too much in need. If you as an existing manager encourage this thinking, don’t fool yourself: you are stifling your employees, not growing them.

  12. This sounds like a field station or NASA-style science backroom team. And it sounds great in principle, and I have absolutely no doubt that with the right mix of people it will work well. I’ve seen that and it’s beautiful.

    I’ve also seen that apparent success devolve into backstabbing and eventually cultural warfare – and finally mission failure – due to the requirement to “contribute” in each meeting. Eventually, with enough experience and growing philosophical difference, it turns into a pissing match. “Ah, yes, but my comment is still more insightful, cuts to the quick.”

    Flat is no panacea. I’d propose a sort of mutation-inducing element: rotate juniors and focus-outsiders through those meetings. Spread that culture of constructive critique, and – admitting you’re thinking as a manager – get feedback on whether it’s really working or not sooner. More important: spread the bleeding edge of foresight. Forget the elite-as-solution and *really* work the DNA. Evolve.

  13. Chris 13 years ago

    The other side of the “I can’t yell at you because you sign the checks” coin is “I can yell at you because you don’t sign the checks,” which is a kind of harassment (yes, bullying and harassment can exist outside high schools that have sports teams: ).

    Would a DNA and/or flat organization have better odds of a company culture with “I can’t yell at you because you’re human too” instead of a company culture with harassment? I’d hope so!

    “The engineers who not only know what they’re talking about, but have the ability to explain this thinking.”

    …and once these engineers get the credit they deserve for that skill, maybe more college kids majoring in engineering will take their schools’ writing/communication requirements seriously! 😀

  14. Hmm, it sounds like a ‘supreme court’ of engineers.

    I have a couple of concerns. Not limited to those already raised.

    Apart from the recognition attached, which healthy engineers probably don’t rate very high up their list of needs, I don’t see much advantage to being on the DNA team/board. Good engineers want to create, not clean up after others. The engineers on a good DNA team need to be motivated as a manager is, by wanting to contribute not to the product portfolio, but to the team portfolio. That switch in motivation is going to be rare in itself.

    I worry that the vast majority of people striving to achieve DNA status would be doing so from motives other than is healthy for the team or the organisation as a whole.

  15. You’ve confused leadership with management. They’re different.

  16. A few thoughts:

    – DNA = Design’n’Architecture.

    – I over-emphasized the “kicking the shit” out of the team aspect of DNA. It’s not that the DNA panel has a responsibility to do so, it’s that they know it’s their job to promote technical excellence and that’s what their going to do.

    – Anyone can poke holes in a DNA”decision”– that’s what engineers do well, have logical and measured arguments about the code. DNA decisions aren’t mandates, but they are made by folks who are very qualified to make good decisions and recommendations.

    – Compensation is not tied to DNA, but, in general, DNA team members do get paid more, but that’s because they tend to be engineers with more experience.

    – I don’t consider tenure to be essential part of membership. I do think extensive experience with the product/technology is essential to have a well-formed opinion as well as respect of that opinion by the team.

    – After reading all the comments, I really like the idea of rotating all sorts of levels of folks through the meeting to get a cross-pollinated opinion. Also remember, you build a DNA that suits your culture.

    – Lastly, DNA exists best in a culture where the team wants to the technology to be world class and they want to learn how to do it. You eager come to the meeting because you want to learn, not because you have to.

  17. Please check the article. It starts with “ineers” and later, there is “organizationaFlat”.

  18. This DNA thing sounds a lot like a peer review. We do this all the time on varying scales. Sometimes it is as simple as asking the engineer next to you for a second pair of eyes on your work. Other times it is organized and involves many folks and much effort to analyze what is under review.

    The key to it all is that in not be a shit kicking but a open and serious analysis of the work presented. Any kicking will likely be done by the receiving team to themselves over any major holes in the work.

    Instigating a peer review team solely as a development path for engineers may or may not make sense as other disciplines participation is often needed in the review process.

  19. I loved the idea of a flat organization back when I worked in a hierarchical one. But these days I’m working in one with what I call: loosely coupled competing agendas (LCCA), and it’s very frustrating.

    With no structure, if someone is blocking your effort there is essentially no one to appeal to, thus work can often just fall into limbo. It doesn’t get done because for any idea there is always at least one person that is not on board (and often for personality reasons), and it doesn’t get canceled because there are people who like it and think it should get done.

    Thus a lot of balls go up in the air, but few make it to completion and fewer still disappear. If what you are doing only depends on yourself it is fine, but if it’s a large group effort …


  20. Eric Platon 13 years ago

    A comment related to @Aaron’s: It seems you refer more to the coaching side of managers, and not much to decision making. A business ultimately requires someone to set the vision and the goal, and make a team-wide, even company-wide, decisions.

    Of course DNAs outputs should be great inputs to decision makers! Thank you for your article.

  21. Janie Hodnicki 12 years ago

    Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he just bought me lunch as I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!