I spoke to two VCs with a broad perspective on the tech industry and the future. Specifically, if we can solve engineering teams’ issues around productivity, measurement, and mental health, what would it mean for companies, the economy, and even the world?
Who we spoke with:
The Impact of Improved Engineering Efficiency
By now, one thing is crystal clear: COVID-19 has laid bare many of the technological shortcomings and inefficiencies across governments and industries. While governments were lacking a modern digital infrastructure and cohesive messaging across agencies, many businesses were not prepared for a fully remote workforce. The pandemic has also reinforced the vital role that engineering plays as enterprises of every size and industry recognize the need for continuous innovation. But to really focus on the future, we need to prioritize engineering teams and place them at the forefront of our organizations.
Ethan Batraski, an executive who ran the Ads product at Facebook and currently a partner at Venrock, and Jeff Richards, managing partner at GGV Capital have been investing in and advising startups for more than 20 years combined. They shared their insights that support and expand on what we have been hearing from business and tech leaders throughout this series.
Every Company Needs to Become Tech-First...
We’ve heard this mantra again and again: Companies that aren’t already thinking like tech companies—no matter what industry they are in—will inevitably get left behind. But that doesn’t mean every company needs to build all of their tools and tech from scratch.
Richards: “If you look at Goldman Sachs today, a quarter of their workforce are developers. So Goldman Sachs is essentially a tech company with a banking front end. If you look at Tesla, it’s a tech company that happens to make a product that rides on wheels. I think you’re seeing that in every industry. But it requires a hell of a lot of technology to create better environments for developers and to manage those resources more effectively.”
Batraski: “The best tools tend to be built at the top 1% of companies, where you have the talent and wherewithal and resources to build these tools. And the other 99% don’t have the talent and resources. So the top companies spin out these tools for external consumption for the 99% to buy. You see this happening with the majority of open source as an example.”
...and So Do Governments
In the early days of the pandemic, state governments struggled to process an unprecedented number of unemployment claims, and agency websites heaved under an influx of traffic as anxious citizens searched for guidance.
Batraski: “It’s crazy how much legacy is operating in our world, that if it were just brought up to modern standards, the quality of life for so many people would just be so much higher because we could be so much more responsive as a society. There are hundreds of thousands of critical infrastructure and societal problems that are bottlenecked by bad engineering that needs to get redone. Just look at the COVID response—there’s no interconnectedness among any of these agencies or states. The US operates as 15 different countries instead of a connected federal unit. That is largely a technology problem.”
Eliminating the “Time Suck” Leads to Happy, Productive Engineers
Because of COVID-19, our distributed workforce may be here to stay and with it, limited budgets and a smaller workforce. So, how do we encourage and ensure productivity in the face of limited resources and less face time?
Batraski: “Being efficient is top of mind. I would guesstimate that my team has spent 25-40 percent of their time not actually coding but reviewing a ticket, connecting to a ticket, updating a system, reading some specs. How do we get rid of all the things that are just overhead versus actual productive time? Now we’re starting to actually think about, ‘What’s the time suck?’ Both in how we build tools and how we operate. And then how do we start removing those from our day-to-day? When it’s working, you see huge benefits. You see productivity gains, you see happier engineers, you see better-structured information, you see better communication. I think we’re still in the early innings, but it’s starting to come together. Second, are we working on the right things? How do we avoid orphan projects that don’t naturally connect up to the higher-level goals or metrics that we need to be achieving?”
Engineering Teams Should Operate More Like Sales Teams
Engineering teams have traditionally been regarded as cost centers. But if every company is truly going to become a tech company, we need to start viewing these teams as revenue generators. And that means applying the same best practices that have been driving sales teams since the advent of CRM software.
Richards: How do we take the things that are working in our high performing teams and high performing individuals and look to replicate those across the organization? I think high performers want to be recognized and valued. They want the increased compensation, title, and responsibility that comes from being a high performing individual or team. We’re 20 years into the adoption of CRM. And so even 10 years from now it’ll be crazy to think that you would manage teams without having insight into which teams and individuals are your high performers like we do in sales. If you’re managing a 10-30 person organization, like a lot of companies that we’re investing in, you can manage it by feel. You can tell which teams are performing well which ones aren’t. But when you start to grow and get bigger, it makes it really hard.
Batraski: If there’s actually a way for engineering teams to operate as efficiently as high-performing sales teams—where all of the operations are programmatic and now the individuals can focus on what they are actually best at—that would be a huge boon at a macro level. The engineering teams are the heartbeat of every tech company, and so having them operate more productively is like having your sales team be that much more productive. It translates to meaningful bottom-line results.