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Wilco van Esch

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    Mistakes to avoid when scaling up an engineering discipline

    When you're a successful tech start-up experiencing rapid growth, it's tempting to think of scalability as hiring more people, renting more office space, and maturing your HR processes. Where scale-ups often go wrong, understandably, is to not make any changes to the things that made them successful as a start-up. That can cause some problems, sometimes fatal problems.

    Not changing leadership roles

    The CTO fails to switch from technical excellence to technical leadership and the CEO or COO fails to switch from being a product & sales lead to providing a strong and market-savvy direction and ensuring they take along the right people for that journey.

    What a company needs from its senior management changes dramatically as it scales up and so do the skills that match those new requirements.

    As a founder team, that either means learning skills you don't yet have or putting a new C-suite in place. Both very difficult things that make it tempting to double down on what worked in the startup phase and stumble along hoping your competitors don't do any better.

    Hiring too carelessly

    Hiring people primarily on technical skill is not much of an issue until you start working with cross-functional product teams. Then the way in which people communicate, the ways they do (or do not) collaborate, and the way they adjust their approach to the context of a fast-moving scaleup, all become crucial to whether the teams are able to swiftly deliver high value work.

    That means the hiring process will need to include people who are especially capable of asking and evaluating questions which will identify the right fit for a highly collaborative working environment. Asking "can you collaborate well?" won't do it.

    It also means not hiring too many permanent employees at once, even if you think you need a lot of capacity fast, as a large influx of new employees can have a disproportionately detrimental effect on productivity and the organisation's culture.

    Neglecting infrastructure & DevEx

    When you move fast and add more and more developers, small pains in the local development environment, CI/CD pipeline, and reliability are going to become huge headaches that also become increasingly more difficult to resolve.

    More employees come in, they all suffer the same problems, they all try to be helpful and create workarounds or suggest solutions, and both the problems and the discussions around solutions are unending and involve more and more people. Structural solutions barely have a chance to gain momentum as they have to compete with delivering value to the customer.

    You need technical & product leadership to agree and make a firm choice that internal quality also matters and guarantee a continuous margin to address it. Insufficient expertise should be hired for. Then, these small problems can be addressed before they turn into large ones.

    Blindly applying a scaled Agile framework

    Using the rulebook of a scaled Agile framework like SAFe can be disastrous in a dynamic, fast-changing environment, especially if the practitioners are convinced a priori that any possible friction or failures would come from not following the rules closely enough.

    Sure, if you have multiple cross-functional product teams, dependencies are going to need to be negotiated. Having everyone sit in a room for a two day planning meeting is one way to do that. It demonstrates how people can be made to do wicked, unnatural things if there's enough peer pressure. There are other ways, however. Reducing dependencies is one. A simple Scrum of Scrums is another.