For this latest installment of our Scale Up fireside chat series, we welcomed author, investor, and business advisor Jean-Michel Lemieux. Formerly the Chief Technical Officer at Shopify, Jean-Michel has achieved many great successes during his 26-plus-year career in software engineering. These days, he’s self-employed, helping founders and entrepreneurs build and scale companies and products.
With experience in both building software and building companies, Jean-Michel has a unique perspective on how to thrive in the tech startup world. Here are the five takeaways that I found most intriguing:
When navigating change, focus on what’s constant
When scaling a company, most people are focused on what’s changing. One of the ways Jean-Michel recommends approaching scaling is to look at what won’t be changing as you grow instead. Ask yourself: Who are the customers? What’s the product? How does the business model work?
“[You] have to live and breathe the product, the business, and the culture,” he told us. “That’s always your number priority regardless of your size.”
Once you determine those constants, a lot of scaling is ensuring you don’t lose sight of them. As your team’s size increases, more and more considerations and concerns will be brought up, but don’t let yourself get too distracted. Whether you’re a company with 20 employees or 10,000, you have customers you need to keep delighting to succeed; it’s one thing that will never change.
Try to give your boss a break
Change at a company is often difficult. Jean-Michel encouraged leaders to rely a bit more on their teams and asked team members to try to have more empathy when these situations arise.
“I think you have to give your boss and your colleagues a bit of a break here,” he noted pragmatically. “Things happen. People change; trends change.”
He explained how he revised his leadership tactics a few years ago. When someone left his team and he didn’t have a replacement lined up, rather than just telling everyone to stay tuned while he dealt with it, he started coming to the team for assistance.
“I’d say ‘actually, I don’t have a replacement right now,’” Jean-Michel explained. “‘I need your help. Obviously, I’m going to help find someone, but we need to keep things running in the meantime. How can we do this together?’”
He finds that, when leaders are open about the challenges they face, team members will generally empathize with the difficult nature of their role and come together to find solutions.
Work can be divided into three buckets: strategy, processes, and building
When scaling up, one of the big questions is: what do you actually spend your days doing?
According to Jean-Michel, you can separate work into three distinct buckets. First, there’s strategic work, which covers direction: where are you going? How will you get there? Why does it matter? Next are the core processes, which keep the company running: developing processes, completing reports and reviews, and many meetings. Finally, there’s the actual building: the development of your software, hardware, or whatever you’re building for your customers.
He recommends focusing the majority of your energy on “the top and the bottom” (strategic work and actual work) and finding ways to limit and automate the “middle” (core planning).
He described how, when he was at Shopify, they created an internal software tool to automate project management. This tool allowed them to increase their speed by reducing the number and frequency of core planning meetings while still ensuring everyone had visibility into what was going on in the company.
Alignment should be a precursor to autonomy
Autonomy has become quite the buzzword in today’s business world; everyone craves autonomy. Jean-Michel, however, believes that there is such a thing as too much autonomy.
“I feel like every mistake I’ve ever made in my career was a result of being too autonomous,” he shared.
Western society teaches people to be autonomous from an early age. In school, everyone has their own work and their own exams; it’s not very community-oriented. Sure, there might be the occasional group project or study session, but even then, it’s really the individual’s success being evaluated.
“I think the tech industry is even worse,” Jean-Michel noted. “Autonomy is seen almost as a religion.”
He advised us to see alignment as a precursor to autonomy. And alignment is hard, because great alignment requires digging into the details and that often feels like “getting into the weeds” when in fact it’s required for deep alignment. Then, over time, workflows can become progressively more autonomous as people gain a better understanding of how others work and think.
Stewardship increases quality; speed roadmaps increase velocity
As a software engineer with a wealth of experience, Jean-Michel is a big proponent of assigning people as stewards to oversee specific areas of software systems.
“Stewardship of areas has been researched for several years and has been proven to increase the quality of software systems,” he explained. “Though velocity can decrease over time if you’re too stringent. While it’s important to maintain quality over time, a lot of new work won’t fit nicely into areas of stewardship and instead requires work across many areas at the same time. Make sure you have some stewardship but maintain flexibility for when you need to solve larger issues or develop more complex features.”
He also recommends building “speed roadmaps” to keep track of ongoing projects and dig into what impacted the speed of delivery such as leadership direction, staff, and difficulty level. The speed roadmaps are important as they help you recognize areas that you can fix immediately to get faster, and those that will require long-term investments. As you scale you will maintain your velocity with initiatives that make you go fast fast and fast slowly.
These are two insightful and logical concepts that companies can apply to other areas of their business as well.
BenchSci is scaling quickly. Our big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG) is to bring novel medicine to patients 50% faster by 2025. To do so, we're hiring over 200 new team members by the end of 2022. This kind of change can be difficult to manage, especially while maintaining our culture. That’s why I appreciate hearing from champions like Jean-Michel. I’m grateful he made time to share his thoughts and answer questions from the whole team.