📊 Squads, pods, and the Spotify model 🗣
Sunday, April 26, 2020 :: Tagged under: blurb culture engineering pablolife. ⏰ 6 minutes.
Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
🎵 The song for this post is Horse Race, by Yang Ying. Also, does anyone click these? lol 🎵
Some ex-Spotify people have written about "the Spotify model" and how it failed at the place that named it. A lot of Engineering Manager Twitter jumped on it with ideas and conclusions (Camille, Marco, Kellan). While the scrolljacking is hellish, it's otherwise a great little read and I recommend it.
We had "squads" at ClassPass, with slight differences to the model described above: Engineering Managers were (usually) placed on the squads themselves; the ex-Spotifier mentions not doing this as a weakness (where engineers have managers outside the team, based on their engineering domain, like "client," "backend," "data science," etc.).
This, as always, led to a different set of tradeoffs. While it avoided some of the Spotify failure modes ("[...] Managers in this model had little responsibility beyond the career development [...]") it introduced a few new weaknesses:
Engineering Managers often could better support and evaluate the work of those in their "domain" on their team: e.g. if you were an EM who was a backend IC, you had reports who did client work, and you tended to have better luck supporting other backend engineers and judging their work, because you knew their domain and probably how it was practiced at your org.
Those "eng disciplines" had more trouble communicating and agreeing on "commons" work, since there wasn't a formal heirarchy for it. We had opt-in "guilds" with a weekly meeting and "guild lead" who ran it, but your first team was always your Squad, and it required an inordinate amount of effort to get things adopted across them.
A motivating example of this was "value objects" in Java. Java, by default,
does reference equality, so if two objects represent the same value (e.g. a
Coordinate(x,y) type, and you had two instances with the same x and y
coordinates) you'd have to overwrite the
equals() method to compare them. This
is super cumbersome (you're normally calling
equals() on all its members) and
if you add or remove members to the class without also changing
equals(), you break comparison. So a lot of tools will autogenerate it.
We had… idk, a dozen Java services when I was there? We were just moving to microservices, and it was the main motivator behind this post (Reonomy and Lyft experience contributed a bit as well). I started a conversation (but never finished!) getting some consensus on how we do value objects in Java: I supported Immutables, another engineer used AutoValue, and a third used Project Lombok.
Since we were all on separate squads with different managers who looked after their Squad OKRs, we always had another primary duty than moving forward on technical questions like this. We talked about it once in a meeting, but whatever action items involved in actually reaching a decision or implementing it was at the expense of all our other work, which made it hard to even know what buy-in looked like.
The other tradeoffs in the ex-Spotifiers article were definitely there though:
"It fixated on team autonomy"
Allowing every team to have a unique way of working meant each team needed a unique way of engagement when collaborating.
This was a bit true. Maybe to avoid this very fate: ClassPass didn't really allow each team to have "a unique way of working:" all databases had to be append-only, all services had to be written in Java or Python, all teams had to have standups and two-week sprints, and the Product Process required we needed 4 meetings before starting substantive work (a Goal Gate, a Product Gate, an API Review, and Design Gate). Each of these required some Senior Stakeholder to approve it, which was a bit driver for these posts (1, 2, and as before, Reonomy and Lyft colored these ideas too).
We did have some ability to make independent choices on minor technical things (e.g. the Value Objects issue above, or one team who was into BDD and wrote Cucumber specs, or some initial differences across teams in whether to use response envelopes or not). Holistically, the teams were only a little autonomous due to the top-down Product process. Said another way: the Spotify post talked about how challenging it was to have Engineering heirarchy exist outside of the squad model; that was somewhat mitigated at CP by having line managers on the team. But the PM's had a lot of the issues in the original post with having their bosses and professional development commanded from the somewhere else, while they were lone islands in charge of executing it. They weren't "mini-CEOs," they were given strict rules about how to execute on a team, whoever was on it, or whatever its directive or greater goals were.
If you looked at retention during my year there: I never saw a line PM last more than a year and a half. Most burned out and went on to have a better job elsewhere (one went to FB, two to Squarespace). The Design org had similar issues as well.
To be clear: this is not to shit on ClassPass at all. I had a great time there, met many amazing people I'm still friends with, love the product, and most of 👆 was a result of smart and well-intentioned people trying to work under the constraints of VC-backed hypergrowth. A fun thing about the Spotify post is to remember even after the issues described, they're still Spotify, and until COVID, ClassPass was poised to become a worldwide mainstay. They might still do it! Also, I left in 2017, and I wasn't the only one who noticed these things: I hear they work pretty differently now.
But! We should talk about our experiences. It shouldn't be shameful to say "we were human; also, here are things I learned." So! These are things I learned about the "squad model."
"Collaboration was an assumed competency"
This is a brilliant phrase, and is true of virtually every organization I've ever worked in, squad model or not. The best company I've worked at, re: collaboration? lol Adobe. Turns out if your company doesn't have an employee base that suggests a ton of ageism, and retains employees for any amount of time, your employee base might cultivate collective wisdom, form relationships with themselves, and subsequently work together effectively. Weird.
This isn't so focused on my time at ClassPass, but literally everywhere I've worked since Adobe1. At most places, an employee with a tenure of 2 years or more is "a long time," and startups like to hire younger for a variety of reasons (cheaper, more available as more people learn to code, tech's bias for youth). The natural consequence of this is an entire company of people figuring shit out for the first time.
And collaboration? Man, they do not teach you this shit anywhere else but doing it.
Also, this line made me laugh:
I was excited to see the Spotify model in action when I interviewed for a product management role at its Stockholm headquarters in 2017. However, the recruiter surprised me before the first interview. She cautioned me to not expect Spotify to be an Agile utopia.
I had the same experience when I joined Google in 2012 and seemed excited about 20% time 😛
"Startup within a large company"
I meant to write about this, but just gonna publish as-is lol. Discuss in the comments! How do you react when you hear that phrase? Have you been a part of an initiative like this?
Alright, enough of all that other nonsense. HERE'S THE CONTENT I KNOW YOU CRAVE:
1. ^ A bit less so for Google, which does retain people better than your typical VC-backed startup, and, while still trending younger than Adobe, is steadily seeing their median age of employee rise. As with any Google comparison though, one must remember they print money and have for decades. Like trying to mimic any of their tech, they can learn any lesson as expensively as they like; most of us can't afford to do that.
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