X is an integrated services provider for an elite university in the United States. Formed originally as a conglomerate of various individuals working on independent projects to enhance the lives of university students, the group began to formally affiliate itself with the school name in 2010.
For much of its founding years, X sustained 10 or so employees. Directors were sourced externally to not interfere with the technical work. At the time, the developers themselves were more interested in creating new projects in an effort to jump start a new organization off its feet as opposed to considering the various management details of sustaining an established one.
Near collapse —
A year ago, a sudden drop in participation shoved X to the brink of survival, and the task fell on the shoulders of the remaining members to keep the organization running.
Faced with the prospects of having to completely disband, they broke down the most prominent concerns that had beleaguered their beloved group.
The biggest problems that had arisen was a disconnect between products and their purposes. Since X was founded by students joining together to work on their common, university-related side projects, the organization had been a place for developers to spend their free time experimenting. However, as the key members left, the flow of new project ideas slowed and along with it, focus and motivation.
Finally, there was one more major problem: employee pay. Paying developers had created a budget limit to bring in talent. Furthermore, their work had resulted in a culture of working-for-pay, which at times clashed with working for the benefit of students.
Since the organization needed people — and a lot more of them — two members decided to channel their revival efforts at first through recruitment. They knew that more labor didn’t always lead to better results so they were meticulous in the people they brought on board the following semester.
Members were chosen by specific skill sets and passion for improving the Penn community. Employee pay was abolished. Once hired, new members were placed onto the product teams where those exact skill sets were most needed. Each team would have its own set of back-end, front-end developers and designers. The back-end worked on the API and functions of the product while front-end and designers worked closely together to bring about an engaging user experience. The two co-directors each led their own product teams as well as played the director role of making sure each project progressed steadily.
Looking beyond —
With several well-established products on their way and respective teams established, co-directors A and B once again looked to enhance the labor force of the group. Traditionally, members had always been technical in nature and purely focused on product creation. Thus, one of the problems that the organization has faced from its outset was a lack of marketing and commercialization. Products were often inconspicuously released without any promotion or advertising and the organization was dormant on social media. Many students remained unaware that X is responsible for the applications and services they used daily.
Realizing they had access to an abundance of consumer-minded talent for operational decision making and marketing, the co-directors decided boldly to recruit the organization’s inaugural Business Development (BD) team.
Fall of BD —
However, as they soon found out, merely having a Business Development team is not enough. Throughout the semester, they watched as the BD team struggled time after time to integrate with the other product teams and find purpose. The isolated nature of the product teams along with fuzzy launch deadlines created an awkward, out-of-place and out-of-work situation for the BD group even though there was actually so much for them to do. Marketing endeavors that BD tried to take on turned out uncoordinated and sloppy. In fact, members within the organization itself were even unclear of the BD role. Something needed to change …
So, this “X” — a Crunchbase startup looking to scale? Not quite (yet). PennLabs? Yes.
Perhaps a little ashamed of the fact, but I think it would be fair to say that I have always been easily annoyed with “management-like” readings (which is quite frequent given I attend a business school). I had my two reasons: 1) It seemed as if in an odd way, everything I read I already knew and 2) I didn’t think management could be “learned” — it comes with experience, and innate intuition. Those that are more perceptive might find it comes naturally, and well those that are less so might have to stumble over a few extra hurdles. But, two incidents this winter break changed my view of the “fluffy” stuff, as it is so often called, beginning with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.
Though incredibly fond of Sheryl Sandberg, I was skeptical of her book at first. The turning point for me in the book came when she describes the differences between how men and women take praise. I know that if I am to congratulate one of my girl friends on their accomplishments, 9 out of 10 times I can be sure of them to rebut and instead attribute their success to some external factor like “luck” or “a generous curve.” The other 1 out of 10 times is a short “thanks” followed by reciprocal praise of one of my own accomplishments. But, compliment a guy friend similarly, and I generally expect a confident response along the lines of “I better do well. I worked so dang hard on that.”
It dawned on me that up until the moment Sheryl Sandberg literally put this problem in front of my face in black and white (size 10, Garamond font I think?), I may have subconsciously knew this was happening, but had never truly recognized it. In fact, as Sandberg points out in the book, I had actually internalized these actions as a societal norm and became a perpetrator myself! If I complimented a girl on a good grade and she replied along the lines of “Thanks, I feel like my work paid off ” I probably would have even thought “wow, how cocky.” While literature on organizational behavior may at times appear to be “common sense”, we need an extra push from others to externalize the common sense — hence, we borrow upon others’ incredible insights and experience through reading to reveal to us something once hidden.
The second incident occurred on my way back to Penn. I happened to be on the same flight as Josh Doman, one of the co-directors previously described. We are in the same management class together this semester, and neither of us had done the assigned readings yet. We both planned to do it on the plane.
I fell asleep.
Immediately coming off the plane, he launched into a passionate rant on how the readings had inspired him to entirely question the sustainability of PennLabs: What were our core competencies? How are we sourcing new ideas? How do we go from innovation to commercialization? What kind of culture are we perpetrating?
Standing there half-awake watching the baggage claim conveyor belt go round-and-round with Josh buzzing beside me, I realized that there was no way I could deny the teachability of management. Just four hours previously, those readings had only been downloaded pdfs, homework to be done. Four hours later, they came to life and became Josh’s source of attack to question the entire structure of an organization that he had worked endlessly to bring back to life.
As students of management, our job is to find the application. The value of the readings isn’t in the text itself, but how they can be drawn away from the pages to provide a framework for making decisions in the real-world — it’s this exact intangibility that causes us to term management as “fluffy.” Akin to studying history or understanding chess combinations, I can see studying management as a form of what I consider situational training.
By studying others’ experiences and becoming cognizant of certain response patterns, you can create a competitive advantage for yourself from the crowd when similar problems arise.
So yes, the fluffy stuff is important to learn.
Moving forward —
Since that plane ride, Josh has completely rethought the organization of Labs. He and Tiffany Chang (the other co-director!) together have began implementing significant structural changes to Labs.
Starting this semester, Labs will consist of a Board of Directors with 6 seats, made up of two co-directors and directors of internal, external, finance, and marketing. Though initially the four director positions will be filled by the to-be dissolved BD team, in the future, those positions will go to internal technical designers or product developers. Such a vertical and promotional structure is to encourage developers to take on more leadership and responsibility in hopes of laying the foundation for a sustainable management culture where decision-making didn’t fall entirely on the co-directors.
Teams themselves will no longer be strictly organized around products, but rather functionally, with a back-end API team and a team of designers. This structure allows for two meaningful improvements: 1) In flexibility — members will be able to work on a diverse array of projects and interact with different people, increasing club cohesiveness and culture 2) In efficiency —many projects use similar API’s and design logos so a centralized system of API development and design works to eliminate repetitive work.
In 2014, Facebook changed its motto from “Move Fast and Break Things” to “Move Fast with Stable Infra(structure)” (A quick Google search will reveal why ‘structure’ is in parenthesis). One could say we are undergoing a similar change. Though Zuckerberg used infrastructure to describe the stability and “bug-free-ness” of code, in the context of Labs, I like to think of infrastructure as organizational infrastructure. We are rebuilding — to prevent against another sudden collapse and so that we are officially ready to take on more quantity and complexity, in terms of both projects and people.
We joke around nostalgically that we’ve gone “corporate” but the truth is no organization wanting to grow stays a small, flat structure of people forever. The idealistic notion of tech groups as being made up of a few geeky, chill friends coding for fun must give way to some notion of a corporation structure at some point.
Though it will most likely be messy this next year since we are clearly no experts in growing an organization, or even running one for that matter, I am excited for the changes to come. And so should the Penn community. A more efficient Labs only means better and more services for students.
On another note …
This. Scene. Was. ICONIC.
Look at that fluffy unicorn. (Multiple puns intended?)
Disclaimer: this post is merely a reflection of thoughts from my 19-year old self. I have no intention nor the expertise to impose my perspectives on anyone.