Scaling up a hypergrowth company

💡JC's Newsletter #86

Dear friends, 

In JC’s Newsletter, I share the articles, documentaries and books that I enjoyed the most in the last week, with some comments on how we relate to them at Alan. I do not endorse all the articles I share, they are up for debate. 

I’m doing it because a) I love reading, it is the way that I get most of my ideas, b) I’m already sharing those ideas with my team, and c) I would love to get your perspective on those. 

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💡Must-read

👉Rituals for hypergrowth: An inside look at how YouTube scaled (Coda.io)

The YouTube cadence gradually settled into this pattern:

  • Setting and achieving meaningful goals with strategic planning every 6 months (26 weeks) and sprint planning every 6 weeks.

  • We planned on a 6 month / 6 week schedule, focusing the former on aspirations and the latter on commitments.

    • 1/ Strategic planning occurred every 6 months (26 weeks) and was called H1 and H2 planning. There were two key outputs: (a) a list of Big Rocks and (b) project / resource allocations. It took awhile (generally 2-3 very focused weeks) and was very comprehensive (every team in the company was involved).

    • 2/ Sprint planning occurred much more frequently at a ~6 week cycle with a lightweight tracker. This was a set of true commitments that every team was making on what they would get done in the next 6 weeks and reflected dependencies between teams. It was meant to be a very short planning process (a couple of days), but I’d say we were still working on actually getting it to be that lightweight.

Strategic planning:

  • 1. Big Rocks: A list of the O(6) Big Rocks. These were meant to be the key focus points for the next 6 months — the goals was to prioritize ahead of others. These were prioritized (with this template), described in Two-pagers, and then each Big Rock team would put together a “pitch presentation” that they would present in the kick-off all-hands, along with a summary “poster” outlining their aspirations for that rock.

  • 2. Project allocations: A big spreadsheet with a row for each team, a link to their “two-pager,” and an allocation of headcount for the next 6 months. For reference, at YouTube, we had ~1,000 engineers divided into ~70 teams (grouped into 12 “Investment Areas” which were then grouped into 4 “Focus Areas”). The Matrix planning and allocation output was critical to ensuring we actually had alignment, as it showed headcount allocated to teams and Big Rocks and the matrix of how resources were mapped between. It was open to the whole company and people regularly referred to it.

I loved that notion of big rocks (that I did not know) and the sand in-between. You should check-it out. 

Bottom-up process: Two-pager reviews

  • Each team wrote Two-pagers, covering what they accomplished in the last six months, and what they would like to focus on in the next six months.

  1. 3 things you want to be sure Shishir knows.

  2. 3 things that would make you move faster

  3. The [graph, chart, picture, etc.] that you are obsessed with.

The three items are a good idea, especially the one about the graph. 

Sprint planning every 6 weeks → Commitments and dependencies

  • Team-level sprint planning: Each team would do their own planning exercise and prioritize their list of goals for the 6 weeks. At minimum, each team needed to publish their list of goals (usually 4-5)

  • Dependency coordination: Then the teams would get together and discuss dependencies on each other. We used a (fairly complex) spreadsheet for this.

We also do sprint that are around 6 weeks (more 8 weeks, with the cool-down weeks). 

What constituted an investment area and how often did they change? Also, how often did you think about reshuffling resources and who made that decision?

  • As a reminder, I organized YouTube to have two primary levels of hierarchy

    • 4 Focus Areas structured around our 4 audiences: Viewer, Creator, Advertiser, Infrastructure

    • ~12 Investment Areas which laddered into those focus areas. For example: The Viewer Focus Area divided into 4 Investment Areas - Clients (building all the frontends), Search & Discovery, Growth (handling onboarding, notifications, accounts, etc), and Knowledge (forming a foundational layer of knowledge about videos, channels, and users).

  • Investment areas were very stable - almost never changed. Maybe one change to an investment area every year.

We have a similar structure with units, areas and crews. Units and areas being stable. 

YT stats: This was my hands-down favorite meeting at YT.

  • It was run by our Data Science team for 90 minutes every Friday, and they simply presented a short section of in depth staples, and then a long concatenation of presentations of interesting data findings.

  • We would regularly get through 100+ slides in 90 minutes (with 4+ graphs per slide), mainly because the data was very well put together and the stories made a lot of sense.

  • It started as a small group meeting, but gradually more and more people wanted to attend and we eventually started video-conferencing in many rooms around the world to be able to attend. There could often be 100 attendees to the meeting.

What data are you tracking as a company?

Do you run Coda in the same way?

  • Because of the pace at which we move, we don’t do 6 week / 6 month planning. We adopted a “Quarter+1” model — every quarter we plan for the upcoming quarter, and give some insights for the quarter afterwards.

Since we’re much smaller, there’s less need for resource allocation and we don’t do anything like Matrix planning and allocation yet.


🏯 Building a company

👉Brain Food: Ability to think (Farnam Street)

  • The best way to improve your ability to think is to spend time thinking. Most of us are too busy to think. We have too many meetings. Too many calls. Too many priorities. Too many demands on our time. 

  • With no time to think and make good decisions we rush and make bad ones. And because we made bad decisions, our precious time is further strained as we correct our previous decisions.

👉How to Build a Culture of Ownership, and Other Engineering Leadership Tips from Plaid & Dropbox (Review First Round)

  • And in that world, great engineering is about solving business problems faster and better than your competitors can — and that just boils down to pragmatism.”

  • The best leaders act like no problem is outside of their purview. It doesn’t matter if it’s a business problem, a design problem, an engineering problem, or a legal problem.

I definitely agree with that. We should avoid the “it is not my scope” syndrome when we are confronted with a problem. 

  • I write multiple emails a day that basically say, "Thanks for telling me, I appreciate this as an FYI, but I don’t understand why you and this other person can’t solve this on your own.

  • The diagnosis may surprise you. “The interesting root cause behind that actually comes from a lot of trust and respect for other functions. You kind of assume that the other side is doing the right thing and you trust them. But that means you haven’t built a muscle for arguing with them,”

  • But that also means no one’s used to asking legal if there’s a different way to approach and solve a problem

On the importance of going deep and challenging other Alaners, especially the experts. 

  • Most places I’ve worked, I have preferred not having titles

  • The point of a title structure is that people will use the titles internally. They’ll say, ‘Oh, so-and-so is a staff engineer, I think you need to get a principal engineer to review that.’ Or ‘Seems like you need a senior architect for a project of this size.’ Those are the behaviors that I want to stop

I don’t think we have that, we will keep an eye on it. 

👉Spotify: How do you charge for nothing? (Podcast a Product Story)

  • User research is great for understanding what people think they will do, not what they’ll actually do. Remember that when you ask users what they think they will do, what you get is exactly that.

  • Whether you realise it or not, you're always optimising for something

  • Really great product development almost always combines technological innovation with business model innovation


🗞In the news

📱Technology

👉Shop Pay on Google and Facebook, Shopify's Evolution, The E-Commerce Shift (Stratechery)

  • While Shopify started as an e-commerce platform company with a payments business tacked on, its financial results increasingly are that of a payments business with an e-commerce platform that functions first-and-foremost as a funnel to said payments business, even as it still pays its own way.

👉Why AR clothing try-on is nearly here (Vogue Business)

  • With a spate of recent pilots and investments, experts say that realistic AR clothing is getting closer to reality, and the pace of acceleration is increasing.

  • Snap recently improved try-on capabilities with updates including 3D body mesh, which defines 3D shapes, and advanced cloth simulation, which mimics the way physical cloth behaves.

🏥 Healthcare

👉K Health expands its mental health offering with Trusst acquisition (MobiHealth)

  • Virtual primary care provider K Health is looking to the mental health space with the acquisition of Trusst, a behavioral health app that connects users to on-demand, text-based therapy.

  • The app works on a subscription model. Users are charged $55 a week or $199 a month to use the service. Subscribers are able to message a clinician Monday through Friday and get a response within 24 hours.

  • Currently K Health offers anxiety and depression treatment plans for $12 a month.

  • K Health announced the launch of K for Parents, a pediatric care offering.

👉The Health IT Edition (Healthcare Insights)

Mental health chatbots. Mental health software startup Limbic launched three new products — Limbic Self-Care, Limbic Care, and Limbic Prevent. The products use conversational AI to provide on-demand mental health support, such as digital cognitive behavioral therapy. Med-Tech Innovation News

💚 Alan

👉Are companies responsible of taking care of their employees’ mental health?
We believe they are. Want to understand why and make your company stand out?

Register here to our Alan Check-Up ’21 event (held in French)

  • We will provide an update on mental health, discuss corporate awareness, and outline our vision of talent well-being

  • We will share some super, super exciting news about what we are building for our members in that space

👉How our engineering teams run without managers?


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