I came to the MIT Executive MBA program for a challenge. I wanted to build something, but I wasn’t ready to make the leap from my job at Apple to entrepreneurship. I hoped that MIT would open up opportunities and be a catalyst to change my career direction. Little did I know this would start happening in the first week of the program.
Right away, I became friends with a classmate named Isaac Saldana. We were both programmers, so we bonded over our similar interests. We also bonded over our shared belief in the key to successful teams: happy teams lead to better outcomes.
A year into the school year, Isaac was ready to start something new and asked if I would help with building the best software team in the world. I respected him as a friend and mentor, so I was happy to come on board.
That was the start of Joy Labs, a startup studio that creates companies. We invest in multiple ideas and give entrepreneurs the resources for success. The overall goal is to build software in new and better ways. To do this, we are applying six frameworks from MIT.
Every quarter, we set clear, direct, and ambitious goals for the entire team. This creates an incentive to narrowly focus on executing on only what matters. The pressure from having an ambitious goal that may not be possible forces innovation. Everyone is aware of the goal and helps execute strategy to attain that goal, despite its difficulty.
View teams as a complex system
Operations Management enabled us to view teams as a complex system whose output we could measure. Each engineer is a node in the system, and you need to understand the desired service level of that person. As a new product grows, that service level changes. We look at code reviews and quantify time to resolution and measure that level and set expectations. This gives us the freedom to go faster – and to require more quality. We can compare averages and avoid getting stuck at one standard level.
It’s similar to creating a supply chain that flows smoothly. Instead of a factory that produces a targeted service level, we look at how we can understand our people and how we expect them to perform. We change the level of quality of work depending on the scenario. For example, if you’re in prototype phase, you don’t want to spend too much time making the highest quality software. In a later stage, you may want the highest quality software. Instead of assigning employees to particular stages of software, we have a flex system to enable multiple people to work on different phases.
It’s important to understand the core of what you’re trying to build, get data, and move forward. It’s also critical to understand your customers so that you can create value for them.
You need a constant iteration of how the team works. Define the process clearly, then go see and assess how it is working. Make changes to try to solve problems and see how that works. Process optimization requires a series of commitments, sprints, retrospectives, and adjustments. Make sure to use data to analyze the strengths and goals of your process.
System dynamics and fire fighting
We have a motto that “Calm is Fast.” This comes from experience as well as MIT. It means that grinding your team results in poor output. Instead, we use things like changes in sprint, coding hours, and velocity to measure our progress. Understanding complex systems and how you affect each part of the system with small changes is important. This mitigates the risk of firefighting because you understand how to measure teams’ workloads and ensure that “calm is fast.”
Lenses and understanding where people are coming from
It’s helpful to know what drives your employees so that you can benefit from their talents. Does someone have a passion towards what they are building? If so, make sure they have an outlet for their input. Is the craft of software important? If so, those people should be involved in architecture and planning. Every member has opinions, input, and passions. Be ready to listen to those. By understanding people and their passions, you can give them what they need to succeed on your teams and be effective.
I apply these six frameworks on a daily basis to building Joy Labs. So far, we’ve launched two companies. We also have the best software team in the world because we are measuring what matters and using these principles. Our team can deliver value through software given the need of the moment and that is very unique.
David Taylor, EMBA '19, is Vice President of Engineering at Joy Labs in Irvine, CA.