3 Habits of a Highly Effective Growth Engineering Team
There are a lot of great articles about how to set up your Growth team for success  . At product driven companies like Airbnb, Pinterest, Uber, Facebook, etc., the Growth team is made up in a significant part by engineers. Building a great Growth Engineering team is a crucial part of building a great Growth team. I’ve been working on or managing Growth Engineering teams for over 5 years and have seen Growth teams as small as 2 people to Growth orgs larger than 50 people. In this post, I’ll cover three keys to success to set your Growth Engineering org up for maximum impact.
Full Stack Staffing
One of the critical traits of an effective Growth team is execution velocity. Execution velocity is important because Growth requires a lot of rapid iteration to learn and explore new ideas. In order to maximize the execution velocity, you need to staff the team with all the engineers you need to work on all areas of growth. This means backend engineers, iOS engineers, Android engineers, machine learning engineers, etc. Depending on another team that has different priorities can potentially kill the Growth team’s velocity. Depending on another team often means you need to constantly negotiate to get things on their roadmap, and once you learn from an experiment and come up with follow up iterations; you need to go through the whole negotiation process again. This process can cripple Growth’s ability to quickly iterate and learn.
From my own personal experiences, I’ve seen what a difference a full stack team can make. At Pinterest we rely heavily on recommendations in emails. These recommendations used to be powered by another team that (rightly so) could never prioritize significant investment in the email pipelines over their other priorities. The growth team decided to hire our own machine-learning engineers to start working on the email recommendations ourselves and within six months the team was able to launch several improvements to email recommendations that were the team’s biggest growth drivers of the year.
Once you’ve gotten headcount, you then need to hire the engineers. I’ve written before about hiring Growth engineers. Since Growth is still relatively new, there aren’t a lot of engineers who have worked specifically on Growth before, so I look for engineers who would be a good fit for Growth. Some engineers are motivated by working on hard technical problems, some by crafting the pixel perfect product experience, but the engineers that work best on the Growth team are engineers who are motivated by making a business impact. The engineers motivated by business impact tend to be the engineers that are most engaged with their projects and will be the ones coming up with ideas to even further increase their projects impact (it also helps if they have some product intuition as well). Which leads into my next tenant, building a culture of ownership.
Culture Of Ownership
Once you have the team staffed up, it is important to build the culture of the team. For Growth Engineering teams, building a strong culture of ownership around the projects that the engineers are working on leads to the best results in the long run. I’m a firm believer that an engineer who spends days or weeks working on a particular project is in a significantly better position to come up with ideas for how to further increase the impact of the project than the Product Manager or Engineering Manager who can only spend a fraction of their time thinking about the project.
On my team, I try to instill a sense of ownership where engineers act as a mini-PM for their projects. Engineers are responsible for their experiments beginning to end, starting from writing the doc about why we are running the experiment, implementing it, doing the final analysis and finally, making the recommendation to ship or not. They are also responsible for coming up with ideas to further increase the impact of their project beyond what was originally scoped. They are empowered to propose and run experiments on what they think will further increase its impact. I’ve seen time and again that setting the expectation that engineers are responsible for figuring out how to increase the impact of their projects and giving them the autonomy to try things out has increased the impact of the original project by 50-100% in some cases. Our team helps reinforce the culture of ownership and maximizing results by recognizing and celebrating wins. We make a point to call out when engineers went above and beyond on a project to make it successful.
Quality and Stability
Finally, there is a lot of pressure to move fast on the Growth team. However, when things break, that can be a problem if it hurts topline Growth or if it happens so often the Growth team is constantly in firefighting mode. The Growth team can be responsible for over a dozen major features including signups, logins, NUX (new user experiences), emails, push notifications, invites, app upsells and SEO. If you multiply these features by each platform, like mobile web, desktop web, iOS, and Android, the numbers of opportunities for something to break compounds, especially when you have hundreds of engineers committing new code every day. A minor outage on something like your signup flow can end up costing you hundreds of thousands of users when you’re growing at scale.
In addition to working on experiments to increase Growth, it is imperative that the Growth team works to build a culture around quality and stability. This means ensuring proper unit testing, alerting, and extensive monitoring are in place to protect existing growth. For instance, alerts should be set up to catch a sudden drop in signups, an on-call rotation should be then be able to quickly deal with it. The on-call person needs extensive stats and logs to be able to quickly pinpoint the issue and diagnose the fix. Finally, a post-mortem process should be in place to review how to prevent future outages.
Over the years, I’ve seen first-hand how each of these attributes have helped amplify the impact of the Growth Engineering team. Full stack staffing allows the Growth team to execute with a high velocity. At Pinterest the Growth team has taken on areas not normally associated with Growth, such as content recommendation pipelines, in order to move faster. Building a culture of ownership where engineers own and are empowered on the experiments they work on and are actively encouraged to come up with new ideas to improve the impact of their projects. Finally, a focus on quality and stability helps ensure Growth isn’t constantly fighting fires and existing growth is protected.