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Challenges of Growth in Engineering Organizations

Paulo Monçôres
Paulo Monçôres May 12, 2021
Challenges of Growth in Engineering Organizations

In the last few decades, Tech Companies have experienced exponential growth never seen in other industries. The globalization of technology powered by constant innovation and agile processes have led them to face unprecedented challenges: If you follow the news, you will read about the lack of engineers and qualified professionals to address the growing challenges of this market. Companies are desperately fighting for talents to join their organization to help their growth.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a Big Tech Company or a small tech startup. Tech companies are facing the complex challenges of rapid growth.

At VTEX, these challenges are not far from our routines. We are always looking for more opportunities to increase our impact around the e-commerce community. New product areas, acquisitions, expanding staff, dealing with technical debt, starting operations in new countries, and new headquarters worldwide.

Being a SaaS Company, some of our biggest challenges are related to attracting and developing our engineering talent density. We realize engineering organizations don’t move naturally towards growth, but instead, they move towards complexity.

If we are not intentional about the growth of our engineering organizations, we are unintentionally accepting fall.

“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” — John Maxwell

In this article, we would like to share some of the growth challenges we face at VTEX and how we are dealing with them.

Growth Challenges

Extra Complexity

If you are an Engineer, maybe you had the privilege of working in a small organization with a small group of engineers. VTEX was one of these organizations in our early days. Being a group of 4 or 5 engineers, in the beginning, made it much easier to get things done: We had amazing energy, the communication inside the team was excellent, the engagement of the group outstanding, if we had a conflict, it’s straightforward to get solved, everybody in the organization worked in the same room.

After some years, we are now a team of more than 250+ Engineers, and we are aiming to be more than 400+ by the end of 2021. Through the years, the main question in our heads was: How do we grow without losing this agility and the spirit of a small engineering organization?

The first thing we did notice was that as we grew, we created new processes, procedures to manage, rules, and policies. What was easy to do before, now wasn’t anymore. We did introduce extra complexity to our organization. The first lesson we learned in this process was that if we are not intentional about our growth, our organization will suffer.

It is not that we don’t like processes in our organization. We rely a lot on them. But we must be intentional in the processes we create to eliminate organization slack. If you don’t know where the slack of your organization lives, the best advice we can give you is: Ask your team. They know where the delays or the extra steps are.

Communication chain: Make sure your communication process is flat as possible. Put the decision-maker in front of the people with the technical expertise. Avoid extra layers of communication. Put the right people in the room. Skip the levels inside of your organization. Here, at VTEX, it is normal for our engineers to be in front of our executives, customers, or partners. We want to make sure the right people are in the room to make the best decisions.
Emancipation of line managers: We prefer to use the word emancipation instead of empowerment. Empowerment comes from a mindset of leader-follower and at VTEX we believe in the leader-leader approach. Everybody here is a leader in the work they are doing. For our engineering leaders, we want to emancipate them by delegating authority and not tasks.
Process efficiency: We remove anything that we see that slows the progress of our group.

We encourage you to do the exercise of removing a meeting, killing a rule, or a policy. Repeat this process several times, and you will see the extra complexity in your company will be gone.

Leadership

As we grew, the need for leadership inside of the engineering department also grew. At VTEX, we take leadership as a craft. We have two tracks for leadership; technical and people leadership. Both of them we don’t see only as a promotion, we also see these tracks as a career change for our folks.

For us, It’s important to ask ourselves if we are giving our engineering leadership the proper feedback. And most importantly, are we giving them the security to fail? Growth comes with a huge risk of failure. We want to fail fast because we can learn faster and increase our impact in our community.

As a fast-growing commerce platform, we experience system incidents from time to time, missing deadlines for some projects, over engineering projects and underestimating complexity. At VTEX we see this as part of our journey to become better. Leadership needs to step in to continually foster blameless culture and share learning across the organization. Put energy into creating amazing leaders because they will make your organization amazing.

Don’t forget, underdeveloped leaders will hold your team from growth. Growing your leadership team is a way of developing everyone in the organization.

“When the leader gets better, everyone gets better.” – Craig Groeschel

Process

Remember the perks of working in a small engineering team that we previously mentioned? It is almost like heaven to an engineer: The need for process is minimal. You have informal conversations. The minimum of ceremonies is enough to achieve wonderful results. All of these were aspects that we always intended to keep.

As VTEX grew as an organization, we fought as much as possible to keep processes far far away from our organization. Here, we don’t fight against processes, we fight against bad processes. Without scalable processes, your engineering organization will decline. As your organization grows it’s important to make sure there are processes that we can rely on and can help your organization during storm phases. If during hard times you leave your processes out, it’s time to review them. When we talk about processes in engineering organizations is important to look at different dimensions and have some questions in mind:

Onboarding: Usually engineering organizations are hiring in an accelerated mode, but how easy is it to onboard new folks into my organization? Do I have enough people to train newcomers? How long is the onboarding gonna take? What Does the first day of a new employee look like? The second? The third month? Having a clear onboarding process is a key piece of sustainable growth.

Team Health: It’s not only about shipping. It’s about the path to ship. If your team is most of the time working in high pressure, the probability of burnout is high. You need to make sure the team’s health is being taken care of;

Team Productivity: When you are a team of few engineers, it’s easy to see the impact of your crew, but when you are 50, 100 or thousands it becomes complex to track. Helping each member of your team to get the best of their capabilities is a challenge and defining good practices around this topic can make the difference. We like to have some questions in mind such as: How do I know I am getting the best from my team? Are we setting them for success? How do I know the opportunities for growth for my team? Spending some time finding the answer to these questions can be decisive in defining the career of the members of your team.

Product Development: Our job does not finish after launching a product to the market. Building the first MVP is an easy step. The real question is: how do you keep evolving your products to meet the growing needs of your customers? How do we involve them in the development of our product? How do we know our product is connected with the company’s mission? How to make sure we are merchant-obsessed and are bringing impactful features to our community? Find the answers to these questions and you are set for successful product development.

There is no silver bullet here. There isn’t a perfect process. There isn’t a framework you can copy and paste. Processes are made by people. Engage your team to define how to get the best from different dimensions in your engineering organization. Keep in mind if you can’t define, you can’t accomplish. Here at VTEX, we like to declare how success looks like in our organization in these segments and plan backward.

“Begins with the end in mind.” – Stephen Covey

Mindset

Growth and comfort don’t walk together. When we are in the rapid growth mode we need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. What worked for years might stop working. What was defined last quarter might not be the right fit today. As Kim Scott wrote on Radical Candor we need to embrace discomfort. During the journey of changes and growth, we can tend to unhealthy mindsets. Unhealthy mindsets (pride, risk-aversion, misinformation and misjudging of reality, competition, stagnancy) do create unhealthy organizations.

Mindset defines direction. Your mind is where your strongest thoughts are. In the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck outlines two kinds of mindsets: a fixed mindset that is not capable of more or change and a growth mindset that is flexible and adaptable. Here at VTEX, we foster a growth mindset where: “I can get better” or “I am not good at this….yet”. We foster thriving on change.

A good example of this is the fact that we don’t require that new hires already have experience with any technology of our stack. Learning is part of the onboarding process. We believe that a software engineer with strong knowledge of design and coding principles will flourish with any tooling or programming language.

Conclusion

What we’ve learned with our new “status quo” is that organizations don’t move towards simplicity by default. Organizations move to become a more complex environment. We need to be intentional in our actions because growth creates complexity and complexity kills growth. As leaders we play a fundamental role here supporting our organizations thriving on change and removing unnecessary complexity.

There is no silver bullet here, our leadership team is working very hard to improve our process and remove the organization slack. If you want to know more about it, we will host an amazing Webinar with leaders from VTEX, Google, Netflix and Shopify, where we will talk about our mistakes and lessons learned from venturing into rapid growth environments.

“People may admire your strengths, but they connect with your weakness” – Craig Groeschel

References

Helping people change – Richard E. Boyatzis
Radical Candour – Kim Scott
Coaching Agile Teams – Lyssa Adrins
Winning the war in your mind – Craig groeschel
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – Carol Dweck

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