Building a Management Training Curriculum at Avvo

[This is a repost of http://engineering.avvo.com/articles/building-a-management-training-curriculum-at-avvo.html]

This week, we kicked off manager training for Avvo technology managers. Before we could build a curriculum, we needed to decide what was important to learn and where we as a group needed the most development.

If I had done this with my organization at Adobe, years ago, I might have made a list of capabilities or requirements for our roles and then assessed each person against those requirements. I’ve since learned that the top-down approach tends to isolate and alienate people. It is something done TO them. They don’t feel investment or ownership of the process. If they disagree with the list or my assessment of them, it is hard to challenge due to the nature of the process.

When I was at Spotify, I worked with Paolo Brolin Echeverria and Mats Oldin to build manager training for my Tribe. They developed an excellent kick-off exercise that I repurposed for my team at Avvo.

The process is straightforward.

We began by individually thinking about the qualities of a good leader in our organization. We each wrote every important quality we could think of onto individual post-its. This effort took about 20 minutes. Then, one by one, we put each of our post-its onto a large board. As we placed each quality, we explained why we believed it was important for a leader at Avvo.

Kyle getting us started
Kyle getting us started

When we finished putting all of our post-its on the board, we affinity-grouped them. Affinity-grouping resulted in 30 groups of similar qualities as well as a few individual post-its that did not fit into any group. The grouping process required a lot more discussion so that we could all agree on the final groupings.

Nic, Ian and Jordan working on cleaning up the affinity groups
Nic, Ian and Jordan working on cleaning up the affinity groups

At this point, we had collectively described 30 essential qualities of a leader at Avvo, which is far too many to effectively focus on. To narrow things down, we each received six votes to put towards any group of qualities that we felt were the most critical. Then, we tallied the votes and took the top eight as our core qualities of a manager at Avvo.

The voting process also led to a lot of valuable discussions as we saw where we had voted as a group. Were these right eight? Were they the most important eight? The eight qualities that we picked were: empathy, develops autonomy, builds good teams, is real and trustworthy, is a big picture thinker, supports mastery, gives feedback, and has a bias for action.

Dot voting in progress
Dot voting in progress

Individually, we then assessed ourselves against the eight core qualities on a three-point scale: “I need training on this,” “need training, but it can wait,” and “I can train others on this.” One by one, we went up to a board that had the eight qualities mapped on a spider graph. We put dots on a line for each quality where we rated ourselves. We explained why we chose that assessment. This led to further good discussion about how to assess ourselves against these qualities.

Our collective spider graph
Our collective spider graph

The group as a whole found this exercise to be very valuable. We had excellent discussions on what it means to be a good leader at our company, including the values we agree on, and the ones that we don’t. We were also able to prioritize those collectively in a way that everyone feels ownership and allegiance to them.

And we came to an understanding of where we need to develop the most as a group. This mutual understanding will inform the curriculum for our management training – my original goal.

A diversity challenge: tech start-ups have a great opportunity

For decades we’ve been complaining about the lack of diversity in the technology industry. We’ve worked on the pipeline problem. We’ve worked on reducing bias. We’ve worked on the sourcing problem. We’ve worked on the retention problem. The net result thus far is that we’ve barely moved the needle.

Most of the companies that are investing in diversity programs are the larger companies. For them, their continuing lack of diversity is a public embarrassment.

At scale though, it is a far greater challenge for a company like Google, Microsoft, or Facebook to get to any percentage of tech workforce that mirrors their customer base. The numbers are too large to move the needle. It’s far easier for startups.

A critical part of building an inclusive culture that supports diversity is reducing the “otherness.” Inclusiveness is also much harder to do in a large company. If Google hired 1000 developers of color across all their offices, those individuals might never encounter another person like themselves on a daily or weekly basis. They may still be the only person of color that their peers see at work. They will be spread too thinly across the population.

Large technology companies should still work consistently to improve their diversity, but startups are much better suited to solve the diversity problem for the industry as a whole.

A startup with a development team of ten, four of them being women, has a ratio of 40% female developers. Any woman who interviews with the company will see that they are welcome. Any man that interviews will understand that they would be joining a company that takes diversity seriously and will be expected to conduct themselves appropriately. This would be the same for any other underrepresented group. If the company is serious about building a diverse workforce, they will find it easier to continue to be diverse as they grow.

Bringing in a diverse workforce at the early stages of a company will also mean leadership opportunities for those employees as the company grows. It will help address the lack of diversity in industry leadership, which further helps build minority representation. It will also eventually mean more startups started by underrepresented industry groups, which will continue to fuel diversity in the industry. Some of these startups may be acquired, putting their leadership into the leadership of other companies and increasing diversity in those companies as well.

According to most surveys, startup founders’ biggest challenge is hiring development talent. Meanwhile, there are ever-larger numbers of coding schools and boot camps graduating eager junior developers, willing to work hard, and coming from largely underrepresented populations in the industry. There are also many experienced minority developers at the larger companies who would be interested in being in an environment that lets them feel free to be themselves.

Unfortunately, most startups neglect the critical cultural aspects of building their company as they chase product/market fit, funding or customers. What many of them haven’t considered is that building a diverse company will help them find the right product for mainstream audiences, that sources of capital are increasingly valuing diversity in their funding decisions, and that diverse teams build better products that attract more customers.

So, I call on my fellow startup CTOs and CEOs to take on this challenge. If we succeed, we will not only build a better industry; we will also create better companies for our shareholders, our employees, and ourselves.

Talks: 1st half 2017

I’ve been remiss in posting since I’ve been back in Seattle. Readjusting to life in the states, and adjusting to the new role has kept me busy. I hope to rectify that in the future. I have been lucky enough to be invited to speak several times this winter and spring in the US and Europe. If you’ll be there or live nearby and want to meet up, drop me a line on twitter and let me know!

Articles I’ve liked recently (stuff I’ve been reading lately #3)

Why Apple Music Is So Bad When the iPhone Is So Good
On April 28, 2003, Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, saving the music industry from the scourge of piracy while creating a large and steady source of…
http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-apple-music-is-so-bad-when-the-iphone-is-so-good

Scaling Lean — Lean Startup Co. Blog — Medium
Scaling Lean Written by Jennifer Maerz of Lean Startup Co. How can you really measure the effectiveness of your company’s business model? The process goes much…
https://medium.com/lean-startup-co/scaling-lean-d46a52a06fb2#.32bm465po

Silicon Valley’s Scapegoat Complex — Thinkpiece Dot Club
Tech’s Scapegoat Complex T he recent revelation that tech investor Peter Thiel provided the funding for a series of lawsuits against Gawker Media is one of…
https://medium.com/thinkpiece-dot-club/techs-scapegoat-complex-38a4bfb37f22#.b1ckt8ub7

Keep an eye on Norway: Its startup scene is about to go huge
I spent a lot of my formative years in Norway, and have been periodically checking in on the Norwegian startup scene. The first time I went and had a look…
https://techcrunch.com/2016/06/20/norwegian-startup-scene/

‘The Life of Pablo’ and the Death of the Traditional Album
As a genuine certified old person, one who generally doesn’t stream music, who remembers having racks and racks of CDs, and who keeps much of his vinyl sorted…
http://www.complex.com/music/2016/06/kanye-west-life-of-pablo-death-of-traditional-album

If Your CFO Hasn’t Already Told You to Control AWS Costs, He’s About To
You made the obvious move and migrated to Amazon Web Services (AWS). Months later, the attractive glow of the move from CapEx to OpEx spend has been dimmed by…
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-cfo-hasnt-already-told-you-control-aws-costs-hes-jay-chapel

Can Netflix Survive in the New World It Created? – NYTimes.com
One night in early January, a little after 9 o’clock, a dozen Netflix employees gathered in the cavernous Palazzo ballroom of the Venetian in Las Vegas. They…
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/magazine/can-netflix-survive-in-the-new-world-it-created.html?nytmobile=0&_r=0

How Spotify Builds Products – my slides from May 2016 talks

These are my slides from the talks I gave at infoShare in GDansk and to ao.com and Think Money in Manchester. The talk in Poland was a shortened version of this content. This is a sort of mega-mix of many of my previous talks. This talk ends up presenting a bit more of a coherent picture on how Spotify’s culture and organization go hand-in-hand with it’s data-driven product development.

As with most of my talks, the majority of the content was in the spoken parts instead of the slides. I will hopefully have a video to share soon from one of these talks…

Leaving Spotify

MP hoodie

Today is my third anniversary at Spotify. It has been an amazing adventure and a time that I will treasure, but it is time for me to move on.

Why does someone leave a job? When I talk about this with people I’m mentoring, we’ll talk about a bad manager, a lack of challenge or a lack of opportunity.  These are a failure of the manager and the company, a symptom of a larger issue to be addressed.

Sometimes though, it is just time for the person to move on to a new challenge or a new environment to continue their growth towards their own professional goals. Three years ago, I left Adobe for this reason. In a couple weeks, I will leave Spotify for this reason as well.

I was originally attracted to Spotify because of the product and the space, but I was far more excited about the culture and the way deep way Spotify approached building an engineering organization.

I came to learn more than to lead; and I’ve learned a tremendous amount in my time at Spotify. I’ve learned about being thoughtful around your company’s culture. I’ve learned about preserving and protecting that culture during rapid growth. I’ve learned about how to build a fail-safe organization. I’ve learned new ways creating a culture of autonomy and accountability.  I’ve learned how to lead in a multi-cultural organization when you are not part of the dominant culture. I’ve learned how true data-driven and lean product development can work. I’ve seen what a true continuous improvement culture is like. My time at Spotify has been like an MBA course in technical leadership, and for that I will always be grateful.

That isn’t to say Spotify is perfect in all these regards. It isn’t. Helping the company overcome its challenges and continue to improve in these and other areas has been also a valuable learning experience.

Spotify still has exciting challenges and interesting work, but I’ve realized that the lessons I would learn if I stayed aren’t the most valuable ones for me to learn for the next stage of my career.

I will be joining Avvo, as it’s new Chief Technical Officer, in June. It’s a very different business and product in some ways than Spotify, but what I really liked about the company is that many of the core values are similar. I’ve also been impressed by the leadership team, the opportunity, and by the developers I’ve met.

It will be hard to leave Spotify and Sweden. I have loved my time here. I do look forward now to my new role and new challenges. I will continue to write and talk about them as I can.

Oh, and by the way, if you want to join me on this new adventure, Avvo is hiring! If you are more interested in replacing me at Spotify, that job is posted here.

I’ve included my goodbye mail to Spotify below:

Three years ago, I joined Spotify. I didn’t join because I was excited about the product. I joined because I was excited about Spotify’s culture and the deliberate way that the company approached it. Don’t get me wrong, I am a massive music fan and have been all my life. Back then though streaming music as a subscription business was still relatively nascent, especially in the US; and Spotify was not yet a clear leader even amongst the streaming companies that existed.

 I came to Spotify because I was tired of trying to create environments that supported true agile development, team autonomy and lean practices where I worked. I wanted to just live in that world instead of being the agent of change. I thought I had found my paradise, and I had.

If you’ve ever heard me give a talk about Spotify, it may sound like I’m talking more about the ideal than the reality. This is true; Spotify doesn’t uniformly live up to its ideals of how it should work. What I love about Spotify though is that it never stops striving to become a better version of itself. That comes not just from Daniel, or Oskar, but also from everywhere in the organization. I’ve never seen an environment where people are so empowered to improve the way that they work.

While I have done my best to use my experience to support and to teach, I came just as much to learn; and you have all taught me a great deal. For that, I am incredibly appreciative to each and every one of you. Especially those that have challenged me, questioned me, or even just asked me to explain what the heck I meant when I said something.

For all this learning and improving, we have done some amazing things together in this time. Spotify is now the undisputed leader in streaming music. We have long passed the Deezers, the RDIOs (RIP), and the Pandoras. We are credible leaders and fending off three of the largest companies in the world. I have been so lucky to have been able to contribute, in any way, to Spotify’s success. For that I will always be proud and grateful.

Now it is time for me to move on to new challenges, to learn new lessons. I hope that I can take what I have learned and apply it in a new place. If I can create something half as special as Spotify, I will consider myself incredibly successful. 

For those of you I’ve been lucky enough to interact with, again, I thank you, and I will miss spending my days working with you. For those of you I haven’t had a chance to work with, it will always be my loss. For all of you, take advantage of the wonderful gift you have been given. Give as much as you can to each other, and learn as much from each other as you can. You will work other places someday, but you will always treasure this time, in this place. Above all, protect the culture and environment that you have created. Nurture it, adapt it, develop it, and keep it strong as the organization grows. 

My last day at Spotify will be June 3rd, after which I’ll be returning to Seattle to take on the CTO role at Avvo. If you visit Seattle, ping me. I’ll always be up for a Fika; and can show you what a real coffee-driven society is like 🙂