VP of Engineering Shares Decision-Making Framework that Turns Tech Tryhards into Industry Giants

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09 May 2019

VP of Engineering Shares Decision-Making Framework that Turns Tech Tryhards into Industry Giants

The fifth in our series on scale, this article discusses the decision-making frameworks that enable small and medium-sized tech businesses to grow.

David Burke, Director

Ronan O’Dulaing is Vice President of Engineering at Workhuman, the world’s fastest-growing integrated Social Recognition® and continuous performance management platform.

Their human applications are shaping the future of work by helping organisations connect culture to shared purpose. Workhuman (formerly known as Globoforce) was founded in 1999 and is co-headquartered in Framingham, Mass., and Dublin, Ireland.

With over 25 years leading product, engineering and customer support teams in the US, UK and Ireland, Ronan is now responsible for product development at Workhuman.

Here he explains how the challenges of scaling differ depending on size, and the importance of an inclusive decision making framework to maximise product delivery.


Where you come from changes your approach to scale

Stalled and slow product delivery is a challenge often associated with scale. And it’s often triggered by ineffective decision making in relation to roadmap priorities.

“Smaller organisations can be held back by remaining too focused on the needs of individual customers. Large organisations may struggle as their product portfolio grows.

The net effect results in wasted engineering productivity, incomplete features and increase in technical debt.”

What unlocks success, is a decision-making framework founded on agreement and collaboration.

“The small- to medium-sized company that has proven customers and some credibility in the market, has earned those customers by listening to them and building products that meet their needs,” explains Ronan.

“But to scale and grow, the business can no longer be influenced by those individual customers. They need to focus more broadly on the needs of the market to reach that next level.”

Wrestling direction back from loyal customers and using broader market trends instead, changes an organisation’s practices. Scale influences product strategy.

“All stakeholders need to be educated about why it's in their best interest to change. A shift in culture is also often required within the organisation - with commercial leaders becoming more involved in product prioritisation, and increased trust being placed in the technology team” says Ronan.

Tough trade-offs are hard to manage

“Sales teams, who have helped build success because the business was able to react quickly to the needs of individual customers, have to adapt customer conversations with a broader perspective in mind.

“You are no longer just listening to customer requirements,” he continues. “You’re listening and then qualifying those requirements against the opportunity cost, trading one choice off against others, determining which features will deliver the most value for the market.

Ultimate responsibility for this lies in the product management function, which can live in marketing, engineering, or report directly to the CEO.

But everyone is affected and the ‘how’ of managing this lies in establishing a decision-making framework that’s right for the size of the business.


Use a decision-making framework for scale

In a previous role, Ronan worked with a company struggling to scale with a roadmap that no one believed in and an engineering team firefighting changing priorities. It culminated in a culture of mistrust and erosion in product quality which led to customer dissatisfaction. Three key stakeholders were involved: engineering, sales and marketing.

It has to come from the top

“There is no other way,” says Ronan. “The CEO must support the initiative. The message needs to be: “These are the advancements we’re going to make as a product company. This is going to be done collectively.”

This precedent passes naturally, directly to senior stakeholders across the business, ensuring their buy-in to the decision-making process and the journey to scale.

It must be inclusive

Not only does this mean inviting people from across the business, it also means everyone has a voice and everyone has a responsibility for the decisions, the change, the successes and failures.

“Chaired by the product manager and it should take in demands from across the business - new, existing, customer support and so on,” explains Ronan.

This collective consensus helps eradicate blame and nurture support and understanding.

Use data

“Lean on the data to inform decisions”. This helps remove emotional, historic and biased points of view and empowers conversations with reason and truth.

Consider the culture

Radical change, significant growth and decisions that mean trade-offs have to be made results in an environment not made for everyone.

Mistrust, lack of belief in personal, team and business ability, blame, customer frustration and lack of productivity are symptoms that may fester for those not onboard with the big idea.

"We laid out a clear vision for where we wanted to get to, which enabled us to shape the product strategy, including areas we intended to target and avoid. To help the cultural transformation, we used the analogy of an adventurous boat journey across open seas, one that all employees could understand.

“We started in port, with a boat that was in need of repair. We explained we were going to do that while on dry land.

“And then we spoke about going out on the seas. And yeah, it’s going to be rough out there. At times it’s going to be choppy and we’re going to have to ask people to grab a paddle and row furiously. It’s not always going to be comfortable out there but we will succeed by pulling together.

“Everybody had a choice. They could choose to sign up and join the adventure. They could choose to say no, that doesn’t sound like the right adventure for me right now and disembark, if they like. We wished anyone who made this call well on their new adventure. Everyone who remained on board was ready and committed. And if they weren't, they ran the risk of their colleagues throwing them overboard while out on the high seas.”

"We often referred to this analogy, particularly in times of challenge, and it ultimately served our purpose well, laid the foundation for a very healthy culture, and enabled the business to reach record growth levels."


And the benefits of such a framework?

A scaling business will:

  • Develop trust and understanding across the board

  • Facilitate better conversations between sales, customer support and engineering

  • Enable stakeholders to understand the difficult position they might be putting another group in

  • Serve customers as a business solving market (not individual) problems