Three months ago we sat down with leaders of some of the most prominent tech companies to discuss the biggest challenges facing our sector today.
What’s it like to readjust an entire multinational organization during a pandemic?
How can a growing company keep innovating, and avoid collapsing under the weight of its own success?
How much freedom should managers give their developers to ensure maximum productivity and creativity? And many more.
We had the pleasure of hosting Yuval Kesten, Director of Engineering Facebook, Karin Moscovici, VP R&D Riskified, Ohad Jassin, GM Azure Media AI Microsoft, Gai Berkovich, COO Waze, and Sivan Brezniak, Viewer Company Manager Wix.
The unique discussion we had became the foundation for a special podcast episode, summarizing all of the great insights from the talk. Listen now:
Hi everyone, I’m Ran Levi, welcome back to the Wix Engineering podcast. To begin today’s podcast, allow me to ask:
How have you been enjoying working remotely? Has it been boring, and hard to focus?
Some of you may be glad to have a little privacy. Maybe it’s a relief not to have to listen to your boss ramble on every day about this and that.
Well, in today’s episode, we’re going to substitute a little of that for you. We’ve gathered some of the leading executives in the technology sector in Israel for a panel discussion on all things related to software, business and COVID-19. With me are: Yuval Kesten, Director of Engineering at Facebook, Karin Moscovici, VP R&D at Riskified Technology, Ohad Jassin, General Manager of Azure AI at Microsoft, Gai Berkovich, Chief Operation Officer at Waze, and Sivan Brezniak, Viewer Company Manager at Wix.
Together, our conversation will focus on three main topics. First: the effects of working from home on the company and its engineering activities. Second: freedom vs. standardization - how to allow developers the freedom to choose any technology they want, while sticking to the company’s standards. And, lastly: maintaining dev velocity and the quality of products in a growing company.
One last thing: As this was an online panel - there are times in which the sound quality of the recordings was less than stellar due to the usual network lags and other annoyances I’m sure you’re all familiar with by now. Hopefully they should not interfere with your listening experience.
So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Section 1 - Intro
Have you ever wanted to live inside a movie? Like, when you were a kid, maybe you imagined yourself on a journey with Robin Hood, or fighting against the dark side in Star Wars.
Well, congratulations: we’re all living in a movie right now.
2020 started off pretty normal. We were all going to work every day, hanging out with our friends and basically living our ordinary lives. Nothing to see here.
But, as it is with any good movie, something was bubbling under the surface. A novel virus had begun to spread in China.
Audio snippets from various newsreels play one after another:
… Beijing has confirmed the number of people who have died from a new type of respiratory virus in China has now passed 40…
… and now to the latest on the Coronavirus outbreak - the number of cases continues to grow…
... Beijing’s authority have cancelled NewYear’s celebrations this weekend as a precaution as fears about the spread of a deadly new virus grow…
… please follow instructions during this time, your cooperation is integral to protecting the health of...
[newsreel audio fading]
While we all went about our daily lives, a pandemic began to form: first one person, then two, then twelve, then twelve hundred, then twelve million.
We, as the protagonists in this story, have been faced with a major adversity. Our lives have been upended. So, in order to overcome this adversity, we must grow and change. Otherwise the movie will be flat.
The first thing we all did was move online. Work, school, socializing - everything we once did outside now had to be replicated on screens. Software companies were relatively lucky in this regard - as the companies which design these solutions, we were already using online communications, workspaces, video chat and other neat features that turned into absolute staples of the pandemic.
But as our guests are quick to say: the pandemic isn’t easy for anyone. Even the highest-tech, most forward-thinking companies are still struggling, and having to make constant adjustments in order to stay afloat.
Sivan from Wix, your experience during the early stages of the pandemic, I think it was a bit different, right? And by the way, the other panelists, feel free to raise your hand if you have anything to add in that regard. Sivan, go ahead.
Sivan Brezniak: Just before we were instructed to go work from home, we actually started execution of a really, really big project that's cross-company, and everybody was working together and we were doing onboarding sessions and we were working on dividing the project into different tracks and tasks. And there was actually a very limited amount of people, about six people, that initiated everything and that POCd this and that. And then we needed to onboard 100 people onto this project - and all of this happened at the same time that the COVID pandemic broke out.
And then, we needed to start working from home. And all of these people are, some of them are in Israel and Tel Aviv, some of them aren't in Tel Aviv or at different Wix offices, and some of them are abroad, like in Kyiv and Nepal Paphos... And we needed to onboard all of these people while everybody was working from home. And this is a new technology, a new architecture for the system and we need to teach everybody what to do. And we don't even have all of the answers about how to do everything ourselves.
And working from home is something that even though we do enable people to work from home, we still expect people to come to the office at least three times as week, as working together, talking, brainstorming - teamwork is part of our core of the company and the core of my group. And it was something that was just taken away from us. And we really didn't know how to deal with it at that point.
So we really had to recap very quickly and decide how we're going to do this while we're still onboarding people and we were very limited on time and we need to start executing this entire project. And everything that we know how to do, like working together and talking and brainstorming and helping people and we actually sit very, very closely, everyone together and walking between people and just asking questions out loud in the room.
And then, we have teams and team leaders and all that, that we need to teach them how to work in this new technology and under this new architecture. And everything, while we just started to work from home, which was something that we really did not know how to do very well.
Ran Levi: So Gai from Waze, let me turn to you, because speaking earlier to you, you mentioned that your opinion of the feasibility of working remotely in a company for the long term kind of changed because of your experience during the pandemic, right?
Gai Berkovich: Yeah. No one is going to convince me that this pandemic is so great and now we can all work from home. No, as I told you, I feel sometimes that it's not working from home - it's living at work. And we need to remember that each and every person that we manage and each and every person from our organization, experience it differently. So we need to have a lot of patience.
As I see it in the future, we are going to have a mix of working from home and working from the office. But as we go along, different teams will have some kind of a routine, or a process. Let's all have one day working from home, or two days working from home, or things like that, because then, the team can actually work together and we’re going to leave specific tasks to that day. If we are going to do it in the right mixture, this is going to be very good.
And the second thing is about meetups. If I'm looking at the meetups that we are doing in Waze - every month we have a different community meetup somewhere in the world. And since COVID started, we are doing it virtually. And we are learning a lot, because suddenly, we can touch many, many more people. If in a real event we are inviting only between, I don't know, 70 to 100 people from the community, suddenly, we have hundreds of people coming to the virtual communities. But they are still waiting for this meetup, the physical meetup.
So I just spoke the other day with our community manager. We are going to have a mix next year, or once the COVID is off. And we're going to have both virtual and non-virtual.
Just to share one thing. I look at the survey that we did in Google, and different countries have different perspective of working from home. So Israel, for example, more than 60%, It's actually higher than that, wants to work only from the office. And if I'm comparing it to Europe, suddenly this drops to about 50% that wants to work only from the office. But if I look at the survey and most of the people, more than 75%, want some kind of a mixture. I didn't see high percentage that wants to work only from home.
Ran Levi: That's also my experience. So Karin, I'll pass the question to you. I have a question for you about the cultural aspect of this epidemic. But first, what is your opinion of the feasibility of working from home in the long run after the COVID pandemic is over?
Karin Moscovici: So I think I kind of agree with my colleagues here, because like everyone, we didn't know if this so-called experiment would be as smooth as it actually was in terms of ability to perform everyday tasks and ability to be as productive as before. And it turns out it's definitely possible and our team is still able to produce excellent results while maintaining high quality and stability of our product.
So we can say it's feasible, but really, when considering other aspects, I definitely think that for some companies, for the long term, working completely remote five days a week is not necessarily the best thing to do, and especially in R&D work, which is very collaborative and where the team is the most important working on it.
And the big part of our culture at Riskified is simply working together and being together, having fun together. It's a big part of what makes work enjoyable…
Ran Levi: You're actually touching upon my followup question, which is the relationship between the cultures of the organization. We all know that different organizations have different cultures, and how an organization can adapt to work from home. You think that different cultures are not equal in that sense?
Karin Moscovici: I do, because when I look at Riskified, then I can definitely see some factors in our culture that really helped us adapt quickly to the situation. And I think that if you don't have this factor in your organization, then you will probably have much more difficulties. And the first factor, I think, is collaboration.
And even more important factor I think in our culture is empowerment and autonomy, because as a rule, we trust our employees to do excellent work without management having to constantly supervise. So when management isn't physically present in their immediate surroundings, we know we can still trust our employees to do excellent work remotely. Our team leaders are accountable for their teams anyway.
That's not changing when we work from afar. And we also trust them to make all the required adjustments since they had autonomy to make adjustments in order to improve their team's work before when we were in the office. So they still have this power right now.
Ran Levi: Yuval, over to you, Yuval from Facebook. Part of management and the skill of management is rallying a team around some sort of a common vision or a common goal. When everybody is not in the office, how do you as a manager, manage to create such comradery, people working together towards something common?
Yuval Kesten: I think I'm still learning and adapting. And also, the situation changes every month, because we hire new people. You know, the kids are at school, the kids are at home... So it's really changing.
The mitigation that we are trying to have is a lot of communication, but also precise communication. So you don't want to waste people's time, because there is a sense where you need to be more respectful of people's time and don't just do redundant meetings just to convey something that you would have said to people in the kitchen or in the corridor if you were at the office.
But sometimes, you lose a lot of your abilities as a manager, especially the interpersonal abilities. So anyway, it's a combination of writing more than you usually do and investing more in what you write, so it will be more precise. And people are understanding. It's about doing some random one-on-ones across your team.
So for example, you don't just with your direct reports, but also, maybe with your skip levels and just like a bunch of people - new people, tenured people, senior people, junior people from across the team - to find ways, to get some of them to be champions of the message that you want to convey to the team. Say there’s this big new priority, or even the work-life balance message like “Don't burn yourself, we're here for the long run”.
If I’ll be just the one sharing it again and again, people will get the banner blindness and they will stop listening to me. But if I will find champions of this message from across the team, I think that will be very... At least I found it to be very effective. So my calendar is full of meetings that might look arbitrary or even random to someone from the outside, but it's part of my mitigation.
Ran Levi: So if I understand correctly, the one-on-one aspect of communication you think has a deep impact on tying people to a common goal, right?
Yuval Kesten: Yes. And I think to be more precise, just the tactic of you saying the same thing again and again is not effective enough. It's important, but it's not effective enough. You also need to find champions. And my own way to find these champions that will help you convey this message from across the team, bottom up, not just me saying to my team, it's through one-on-ones with individual contributors across my teams, like interfaces, so across those teams...
And then, I find the one, two, three, five people that are very passionate about this message that I'm trying to convey and I'm asking them to help me in delivering this message to the rest of the team. And they find their own ways in team meetings and their one-on-ones, et cetera.
Ran Levi: Okay. So my final question for the topic... Yes, Guy, you raised your hand. You have something to say.
Gai Berkovich: I personally learned during this working from home, one thing we did for example, in Waze as I can say now it was completely planned, we moved to work with squads. And this is a small group that have developers all over the teams that are working towards a common goal and according to specific OKRs as we call it in Google, or KPIs as we call it in the rest of the world.
And this is really scaling out the organization to continue what Yuval just said, because now you can actually have few teams and few leaders from different teams that are leading the organization in parallel. Of course, you need to have some architecture that's supportive. But over-communicating is great.
And second thing I wanted to add is I started my own feedback box even before the COVID, which anyone in the organization can actually write to me, even anonymously. And since the COVID started, I am getting a lot of letters in my anonymous feedback box. And I actually recommend everyone to do that.
Ran Levi: What kind of messages did you get in your inbox?
Gai Berkovich: People who are finding it very difficult to work. And I didn't know that we had issues in this team or that team.
And second, there were lots of people asking for specific new processes to be built, whether it's different code reviews that should be done, or different risks that we can take with the production. In Waze, during this COVID, we have much less traffic for a few months. So we could actually take bigger risks and put into production what in the past took a year to put into production, suddenly we could take high risk.
And these all ideas came from developers inside the organization. I don't know why, but most of them chose to do it anonymously, which means that they will not speak up during a meeting or a forum, or things like that.
Ran Levi: Actually, it raises a question. I mean, for all of our panelists, feel free to raise your hand and answer it. What did your organization do that really, you think, helped in terms of giving tools to the employees or providing them, as Guy said, with special means of communications? Anything that you think that really made an impact in terms of helping employees work remotely more efficiently?
Ohad Jassin: I think one of the things that we started doing a lot more over the last six months is recording meetings. One of the things that is problematic when the team is dispersed and working across the globe, each of the persons is on a different personal timeline due to their own work-life balance situation and the choices that they make.
How they spend and share their time. It's basically a challenge to make sure that everyone... to find a time which is suitable for all. And when you record a meeting, you basically allow people to offline-attend that meeting.
And as a manager, as a lead, you need to accommodate and understand this fact, that some things will progress slower perhaps than they could have been without it. But still, overall, the fact that we're able to do that on a consistent manner allows... And especially us as a global company, where at any point in time, any day of the week, there's someone working on something which is relevant for your line of business and for your product and for your, I don't know what, next big event or whatever.
It's actually a much better practice than what we had before, where if I missed that meetings then I lost my chance of making my voice heard and my opinion matter. And in that sense, I think it's nice for everyone to know that they can balance things out and still be able to contribute.
Ran Levi: Actually, recording meetings seems such a simple idea, I'm amazed that it never crossed my mind to do that in that sense. By the way, Guy, you mentioned in our conversation earlier that you have a concept in Waze called virtual flights. What's that?
Gai Berkovich: So Waze is a global company. And I guess, the other ones here also represent global teams. And our engineering group is located both in Tel Aviv and in New York. And sadly, when COVID started, all the visits, the face-to-face visits, were gone. And what I found out is that managers from the engineering groups from both sides of the ocean need to see each other.
Now, if your office hours are not the same as the time zone let's say, of New York, people don't feel comfortable to set something with you at 11:00 at night Israel time. So what we propose is virtual flight. I'm telling everybody at my home I'm flying next week to be with my team in New York.
And next week, I should work starting at noon time, but staying awake until 2:00 in the morning. And actually, I did it for a week, and it was very efficient. And then I started to work from 8:00 to 2:00. This is not so efficient. So what we need to make sure is that the virtual flights stay the same and it goes both ways. And I think it's a great idea.
Ran Levi: Interesting idea. And maybe less jet lag as well, I hope.
Gai Berkovich: Yeah, absolutely.
Section 2 - Intro
Do creativity, ingenuity and innovation require freedom? Does more freedom automatically translate to greater innovation?
For years--centuries even--philosophers, economists and politicians have debated the point. So maybe it’s useful to look to how major companies have handled the problem, and see how it’s worked out for them.
The most famous example of freedom in the tech industry is probably Google’s 20% Project. At Google, employees already have a ton of luxuries available to them including cafes, lounge areas, ping pong, plenty of free amenities and other ways to waste your time not coding. And yet, they’re still told to spend 20% of their on-the-clock, paid work hours on personal projects.
Theoretically, 20% fewer dedicated work hours should translate to a 20% drop in productivity. But if you qualify to work at Google, you’re probably already the kind of person who uses their free time wisely. So, instead of a drop in productivity, the company has instead seen an increase in innovation and creativity as a result of this program. As just a few examples: Google News, AdSense, and even Gmail all began as 20% projects.
In the following section of our panel discussion, I asked what other software business leaders think of freedoms like these.
Ran Levi: So our second topic of discussion today is the freedom for developers to choose the technology they wish to work with, versus sticking to the company's standards and techniques. And naturally, each choice has its own pros and cons. So Karin, I'll turn to you first with this question. From your experience, how does the amount of freedom that developers have affect the innovation in an organization? More freedom is, in essence, more innovation?
Karin Moscovici: Well, generally, yeah. I definitely believe so. I think that in some situations, more freedom is not only more innovation, but more of a mess and more of a bottleneck. So obviously, it needs to be balanced. But yeah, I can definitely say that our stack and architecture were mainly enriched in a bottom-up way.
Then when engineers or teams of engineers started to come up with new technologies that were the best fit for what they needed to develop. And this how we've added NodeJS to our stack and Spark and JRPC. And these are just a few examples.
And in Riskified, we're a growing organization. It's really important for me, while the organization grows, to be able to grow it also technologically. But I can't supervise 100 people one by one and neither can the team leaders. So I think it's really important when you need to grow to create a culture where engineers feel free to suggest solutions and you don't have to go through a lot of channels in order to get them approved.
Ran Levi: What is your criteria to rejecting such an offer or a request from an engineer? I mean, are there any red lines when you say, "No, we can't try this and this technology because... something"?
Karin Moscovici: Yeah. I would say that it needs to be a combination of - we need to get a really strong value from this new technology that is applicable to a wide number, a big number of teams. It should be a good enough of a reason in order for us to start supporting this infrastructure with our infrastructure team, because our infrastructure team provides tools and libraries for widely used technologies and languages.
So for us to want them to make that effort, it needs to be something that adds additional value to what we already have and can be widely used by everyone.
Ran Levi: Ohad from Microsoft, you had an interesting experience in your organization the last few years when Satya Nadella took over the role of CEO in Microsoft. He made some serious changes in the company's approach towards different technologies, right?
Ohad Jassin: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it's definitely been a very different experience than what used to be the case on the first days when I joined, and then probably on the decade before that. Where Microsoft had a very own-stack oriented approach with regards to tooling, and how things are being built and designed from an architecture perspective, into something which is business, customer, user-oriented. Basically where the needs of the customers and users are taking precedence above anything else.
And so, if you look at Azure as the number one operating system, Azure is on Linux, we all use git as our repository. We operate in an environment where it's not who built or owns those tools. It's what defines the priority. And so, you'd see a lot of open source - if you count contributions to open source, Microsoft is now the biggest contributor of - whatever metric you want to carry. We host a lot of projects as open source from scratch. And we operate in a very, I think, open and transparent manner, maybe also a bit humble. It's definitely a company that has gone through several life cycles and events.
And so, when we approach things, we usually take into account that we probably don't know everything and that there's a great degree of us attempting - giving it our best but still failing, because competition is hard, and whoever is out there is just as intelligent and just as passionate. But actually, those cultural values is something that I personally relate a lot to. And it’s very reassuring for me as both an individual and as a leader to know that it's okay to try and fail and learn from those mistakes, it's okay to make decisions and reconsider them as things evolve, and that I work for a company that is accommodating of all of that.
Ran Levi: It's amazing to see, once again, the impact of a strong CEO on the company's culture. It's an amazing transformation for Microsoft. But I'll make life a bit harder for you, because it's tempting to see what Nadella's doing as great and we can all see the benefits from it. But there's also some benefit to eating your own dog food.
If a company believes in its product so much that it operates, it works only with its own tools, that says something of a company, right? I mean, now that you're working with Linux, do you feel that maybe lowers customers' confidence in the Windows platform for example?
Ohad Jassin: Oh, we're not working exclusively with Linux. We take a decision based on the needs, the architectural needs and the priorities. But there's a great common thing that says culture eats strategy for breakfast. And I think that's true. You can only target a team towards a strategic goal to a certain degree.
If your culture doesn't align perfectly with that and you don't invest heavily in ensuring that the culture you want to strive to is actually something that you work on on a daily basis and in an honest manner and provide your full attention - in order to make sure that the values that you put on a wall or in some PowerPoint deck or whatever is something that is really, we're living our lives by which. And in that sense, I think there's a lot of efforts that are being put into that.
Ran Levi: So, now over to Sivan from Wix again. Wix has a kind of very interesting and unique organizational structure. If I recall correctly, Wix is organized as mini companies inside the parent company. You're a manager of one of these companies, the viewer company if I recall correctly.
Now, each company can, I guess, use such-and-such technologies. But how do you keep the cohesion between the companies so that still, the company operates with one cohesive technology?
Sivan Brezniak: So as you said, Wix has a very special structure, we have the companies, as I'm managing one of them, and we have the guilds. Professional guilds - for instance, we have the front-end guild or the server guild or the system guild or the product guild or the UX guild and so on and so on.
We have infrastructure teams that are related to the guild that are in charge of the infrastructure for the specific stack, the developer stack, that are working in the companies. For front-end, we have the UI infra team. It's not even a team. It's a few teams that are working on all of the testing environments and different tooling for the different technologies that we are using.
And it is possible for companies to work in different technologies as we support different technologies at Wix. However, we do have the standard technologies that the company has decided to use across the entire company. Obviously, if it affects this specific company or this specific team, then it's an easier decision to make if you want to adopt a new technology or change the testing systems or the tooling and so on.
But if it's something that's going to affect the entire company, or even the entire Wix company, across companies, then it's a harder decision. And the management is involved in this as we need to change the infrastructure and how we provide tooling for these technologies and for the architectural change and so on.
Ran Levi: So what is the role? I'm trying to understand what is the role of the guild in that sense? I mean, a guild for some of the listeners who might not be familiar, it's a kind of across organization, mini organization which kind of brings all the developers from the same methodology or the same domain, like front-end, et cetera. So can innovation and usage of new technology emerge from a decision within a guild and not within a company for example?