Beyond Engineering: the Silicon Valley "Ops Team"

Beyond Engineering: the Silicon Valley "Ops Team"

Contributed by Joe Lonsdale, Founder of Addepar and Palantir/ Partner, Formation 8

In Silicon Valley we build and invest in elite technology cultures to transform global industries.  Whether or not they define it explicitly, the great engineers here know what it means to be part of a great technology culture.  It's a meritocratic environment where the most talented people are working for low salaries and high upside, where the team is not just driven but obsessed, and where the best idea wins -- whether it comes from the Chairman, or from the new summer intern [I have been either on various occasions].  It's an environment where you iterate quickly, and use data to guide your decision-making.  It's a culture where the business side isn't ordering around the engineers -- in fact, most if not all of the founders of the company are probably technologists.  We live and breathe this type of culture in Silicon Valley, and as the rest of the world attempts to copy our success, they are only slowly catching onto it.

As a technology company gets into its early growth stage, there are other internal cultures that are critical to shaping a workplace beyond just the technology culture.  And inevitably, aspects of these cultures might clash with a great technology culture.  Getting them right and keeping them alive and functioning in tandem is critical.  A sales culture, key to the success of many technology companies, is one example of this that we'll visit another time.  My favorite example of a critical internal culture that is difficult for young companies to get right is the operations or "Ops" team.

What is an SV Ops Team?

A great Ops Team is the "special forces" team that works behind the scenes to support your people and your operations with anything that comes up that's relevant getting your job done and making the company successful.  This could include making sure a desk is ready for a new employee, preparing for events or conferences, renting space, setting up meals at the office, fixing the broken overhead lighting, and making sure there are toiletries in the shower in the back.  It even includes taking an engineer's car to the shop or handling a crisis at his house where a pipe just broke, so he can spend that time working.  This team handles everything they possibly can with a clear ‘commander’s intent’ to make the technology culture it serves more efficient. Ops is the hardcore, salt of the earth, backbone of the company – bright, hard-working non-technical men and women who are there to serve the technologists and the mission.

The culture of the ops team is very different than that of the engineers.  The ops team needs a solid, intellectual leader who is respected by the engineers and can communicate at their level.  But as it's built out into a larger team, it is generally staffed by a different sort of hard-working type such as intelligent ex-plumbers or handymen. The ops guys know that star engineers are the precious golden coins of SV and it knows how to value and support them as a company resource. This team's role is to look up to the engineers and do what it can to save them time and hassle, enabling them to focus on the mission of the company.  Sometimes, Ops will see itself as a more hardcore, military-like operation than the engineers, who are more often creative types.

The variety of tasks required to achieve their objective means that an Ops Team is engaged in various manual labor, but also in complex planning for key events.  The role involves waking up in the middle of the night to handle things if necessary, or traveling on the weekend ahead of a big conference to triple check everything and make sure the event goes off without a hitch.

I'm Not Sure that Would Fly with our Engineers

Engineers in Silicon Valley are not comfortable with elitist or aristocratic culture, and that's not necessarily what this is about.  And the aesthetic in SV, which many of us enjoy, is one where we take care of our own issues.  But ultra-talented people are doing more for the world and for their company if they allow us to create jobs for others who can support them and keep them focused.  Great engineers are building huge amounts of wealth for our society, and awesome creations for the world -- as they learn to respect themselves and their role, and take it seriously, they appreciate what an Ops Team does for them.  In fact, presented correctly to the technology culture, a serious Ops Team oftentimes helps the engineers realize their position and take their duties and leadership more seriously: "Wow, all these guys are taking my job so seriously and going to such huge lengths to save me time."  This is a good thing for the company.  And ultimately, given how amazing some of these top engineers are, it's a good thing for the world.  Would we rather Beethoven had taken care of other duties and setup the chairs and instruments around the Symphony Hall over the years, and cleaned up after himself at meals, but had time to compose one or two less symphonies?  

It's important to keep in mind the differences between your Ops Team and other internal groups.  A great engineering culture is fundamentally a creative culture, not a martial culture -- you can't bark orders at engineers, and you can't demand they stay late to get something done if they aren't feeling creative or motivated that evening.  This is different with an Ops Culture -- this is a group of men and women who know their vital role and when their team is managed properly, they are organized as a force of elite troops that will do whatever it takes to make a company win.  It's their job to measure themselves and perform, and unlike on the engineering side, various rewards and punishments perhaps more reminiscent of an army squadron are normal and healthy.

Oftentimes, engineers will initially push back hard on having people do things for them to save them time; establishing the Ops Team is against the instincts of many great leaders who have a background in engineering.  Of course, a company should never require that an engineer lets the Ops Team do personal tasks for them: some engineers will always be fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of somebody taking care of things for them, although most will get used to it over time.  And on the other side of the spectrum, the goal of the Ops Team is not to spoil the engineers -- it's critical that the engineers show respect and thanks to the Ops guys for what they're doing, and that engineering leaders publicly acknowledge and respect Ops personnel and encourage this attitude in their teams.  This is a balance that has to be carefully maintained.

Soul of the Company

Stephen's and my first hire at Palantir back in 2005 was Alex Moore, our Director of Ops, and he built an amazing team that played a huge role in making Palantir an awesome - and very mission-oriented - company.  Thanks to Ops, everything going on in the background just worked, and Palantir employees got so used to our events and activities being held perfectly that experiencing anything else when working with startups other than Palantir was a shock. Alex also had his team touch and feel every aspect of the company and report the mood and any noticeable issues from engineers at any given time, something founders aren’t always able to do, which allowed management much greater internal knowledge to keep things in the company functioning smoothly.  Alex went on to be a great investor and COO of Backplane.  Adam Lawrence joined very early to run Ops at Addepar, and is a key part of our senior team there, too.  Every company I've been a part of that had staying power needed a great Ops Team.  

Getting a smart, ambitious person to establish Ops is critical and the earlier you can get this team and culture established within your technology company, the better.  Working well between different types of cultures is a unique skill that not everybody has.  Technology founders have an important task in finding a smart, motivated person who can understand both how to operate within and respect an elite engineering culture and how to manage an Ops Culture and is willing to do whatever it takes -- especially all the manual labor and grunt work -- to set the right example as he or she builds a great Ops Team.  

Done right, the early Director of Ops will create a group that becomes the backbone of the company and influences its soul as well. Ops makes the engineers and company processes more efficient, and will orient the entire company in a more serious, mission-oriented direction.

Image by x_enology_311: http://media.photobucket.com/image/Canadian%20Special%20Forces/x_enology_311/12%20Infantry%20References/Modern/200608canadian-forces-SpecialOps-2.jpg

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