Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots

393: Reaffirming Values and Taking thoughtbot Remote

May 20th, 2021

Chad and Lindsey take listeners behind the scenes and go deep into the nitty-gritty of recent thoughtbot company changes driven by the pandemic and the organization's need (and desire!) to go fully remote – all while reaffirming and revisiting the organization's values, mission, and purpose as part of the process.

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CHAD PYTEL: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel.

LINDSEY CHRISTENSEN: And I'm your other host, Lindsey Christensen. And we're back. Thanks for tuning in.

CHAD: We've missed you.

LINDSEY: Yes. We’ve been kind of busy.

CHAD: We've been busy, and we knew we were going to take a break after the last season. We didn't necessarily know for quite how long, and then a whole bunch of stuff happened, which we're going to tell you about today. From the last episode, you heard about the change to the thoughtbot CEO, and we alluded to some changes that we've made to the company. And we're going to talk about those today.

LINDSEY: Yeah. And in true thoughtbot Giant Robots fashion, we’ll go behind the scenes and give you the nitty-gritty of why things happened and how it's going because it's all really interesting.

CHAD: Yeah. I think on the surface, it's really easy to think about how maybe these changes have been entirely driven by the need to go remote or the desire to go remote. And the reality was that's an important part of it, but it really was so much more than that. Some of these changes that we've made are ones we've been talking about for a long time. And it wasn't until almost a year of operating in a different way that we said, “We need to make some of these changes in order to accommodate remote and working from anywhere.” And we fell back on a lot of other problems we needed to solve along the way.

LINDSEY: So we actually decided to break out remote work into its own episode, which will be the next episode. And I'm sure it's going to come up today, but it's a whole other area of changes and focus, whereas some of the reorg changes that we just underwent solved a lot or are trying to solve a number of challenges that we've been working on over the years. So I guess to start off, before we reorganized, how did we function? And that was largely geographically based.

CHAD: Yeah. And the geographic basis means that we had a studio in a city, and in that studio, we offered the complete thoughtbot services. And that was driven by this idea back in 2012 when we started to expand. Prior to that, we really held the company to less than 30 people. And we were primarily a group of people all in one location working together, and we were all of what thoughtbot was. And we really liked that. We liked the structure. But people wanted to move and live somewhere else. And our purpose is that we believe that there's a better way to work. And we want to share it with as many people as possible, although we've revised that purpose now as part of this process. And so I really remember the day we were having a company meeting, and someone stood up and said, “If we really believe we have a better way to work, why are we not trying to bring it to more people? Why are we losing these great team members only because they want to live somewhere else?” But we also really liked the small, close-knit team of people who worked closely together on client work. We had done some client projects that were split across teams and across time zones and that kind of stuff. And it just didn't feel as good as we wanted it to feel, especially because it was hybrid.

And so we said, “We know exactly what a great thoughtbot looks like. Instead of trying to expand what that great thoughtbot looks like, let's try to replicate it instead.” And so when someone wanted to move to a new city, we said, “That’s great.” We looked at the market in the city that they were moving to and said, “Let's grow another thoughtbot around them and use that as the starting point for a new thoughtbot studio that would be a full design and development team that offers and works with all the different kinds of clients that we work with.” And that was the model which brought us to being in six cities in the UK and in the U.S. and about 100 people working with a whole bunch of clients every year across those. But for the individual person working at thoughtbot, individual designer or developer, it felt very much like thoughtbot had always felt, which was you were working with a team of three or four other people directly on that client. Oftentimes, the client would be in the same city as you. And when we could meet face-to-face with people, they'd be working in our office, and we'd be working really closely with them.

LINDSEY: Another interesting element of that structure was the marketing, and community was also very locally based, so engaging in and hosting local meetups. Actually, all of our offices -- We had offices, first of all, in amazing locations in all of these tech hub cities, and all the offices additionally had space for specifically events and community type of activities. And we thought a lot about nurturing local community, creating local partnerships. Obviously, we're thinking a lot about the hiring pool, and nurturing potential future hires in those cities as well.

CHAD: Yeah, and that's what we had done in Boston where we got started, and it's very fulfilling to be part of your local community. And we wanted to embrace that as we grew. And for a good while, it worked pretty well. We were certainly able to grow quickly once we decided to do it. A lot of people who listened to the podcast a long time will recognize that we actually at one point had ten cities, some of which were pretty established and other ones which we were expanding into. And we learned a lot along the way about how much harder it is to build a local business than we originally were anticipating it would be. One of the things that we learned, and I've talked about this on the podcast in the past, is that with our reputation in the design and development community, we could often go into a major city and have a great first year because there was a lot of pent up demand for people who wanted to work with us, work at the company and as our clients. And that really led us astray in the beginning because we would go into -- We were expanding in three or four cities in the same year, and they were all super successful. So we were hiring teams to do all the work that we had. What we weren't doing was all the legwork we needed to do to build a sustainable local business. And so after the first batch of clients or the first batch and a half of clients we were done working with, we didn't have a sustainable pipeline of new local clients coming in. And so we learned a lot about how much we actually need to do when going into a new city to not only have that great first year but to have a great fifth year. And so we had a few failures where we had to close some studios just because we couldn't afford to operate them profitably, and that was pretty painful. I forget the episode numbers where we talked about it in the past, but we have. You can go back and listen to it. We can link them in the show notes.

LINDSEY: In addition to having the designers and the developers in the local studios, at least in recent years, we also had the structure that each city studio had a managing director. And a lot of those managing directors actually came from design and development themselves, but they were in charge of everything local including, and especially the sale, so finding new clients, onboarding them, the actual profitability of their studio, hiring. And again, as you mentioned, that was across all kinds of clients, all kinds of projects, but primarily locally based.

CHAD: And once we realized what it was going to take to build local businesses and make them successful, we refined that managing director position a lot. It wasn't one that we necessarily had in every studio, and so adding it or, in some cases, making the difficult decision to swap out the person in that with someone. Now that we understood what was necessary, making sure that someone in that position actually wanted that job and could do it. And that has been the journey we've been on; I would say for the past three or four years of making those changes, figuring it out so that when it was working well, each of the studios could work really well. And we've made a lot of progress with that.

But one of the problems we had, so we have all the individual studios, and then we have the corporate-level people which are myself and you, marketing people, operations supporting all of the studios. And one of the things that we've struggled with over the years is being consistently profitable as we've grown or primarily operating break-even, which historically we were very comfortable doing because the whole leadership and shareholder of thoughtbot and ownership all worked here. We care a lot about paying people as much as we can possibly do and having the greatest benefits we possibly can while staying sustainable. And so it wasn't an issue. We're not running the company to generate lots of profits that then go to some investors or shareholders. So operating breakeven wasn't historically a problem, where it started to become a problem is as we grew and grew, the numbers became large enough that when things didn't go like we were expecting and we were managing to break even, then we would be very unprofitable very quickly if something didn't go the way that we were expecting, and it started to put the company at risk. So we started to focus more on profitability. And one of the things that was hurting profitability is that we were maintaining these small teams with offices, and just the overhead of a small team across many different geographies added overhead, which made it harder to be profitable because we needed to do everything in each individual location.

LINDSEY: Right. So now, really getting into those big challenges that were pressuring us to rethink how we operate, profitability and margin was a big one, which once you look at the breakdown in the numbers, the overhead of having the different studios was one. I think that also bleeds into the MDs have really challenging positions. They're responsible for a lot: they're responsible for the happiness and fulfillment of their teams; they're doing business development; they're doing client management; they're in charge of their entire revenue sheet. So that was another area that I think over time, we were consistently looking at; how do we improve this role? How do we make it so that folks can be successful here?

CHAD: Well, you can imagine, too, that designers and developers at thoughtbot we were seeing a similar thing, which is in a lot of ways, thoughtbot is modeled around me and other early developers. And I would often tell people I really like a lot of variety. I like to be working on one client and have huge scaling problems and challenges that we’re working at and growing their business to a whole nother level. And I like rotating off of that. And I then like working with a startup where we’re building the first version of the product. And for some people, no doubt that is exciting and challenging but worth it. And same thing on the sales side for managing directors, like being able to know how to effectively communicate and sell to the needs of each of those different kinds of projects. It's totally doable, but it adds to a lot of effort and angst being spent on just always trying to do everything, both on the development side and the managing director side, and it's hard. And that was one of the challenges that we were hearing either explicitly, or in a lot of cases, I don't think people realized it was happening. Everyone at thoughtbot is amazing and is great and very high execution level and all that stuff. And when you start getting challenges or feedback about poor performance from a great performer, you start to question why is that? What's going on? And it's an unrealistic expectation to have someone work in as part of a large enterprise for six months and then next week have them working on a brand new startup MVP that's got to go to production in six weeks and necessarily expect them to on a dime be able to change their approach to managing that product and making sure that it's successful.

And like you said, we want to put people in a position where they can be as successful as possible in everything that they do and having good people spin their wheels even if it's not a performance problem -- if there's a level of interest or excitement for one kind of client over another, we have a system of collecting feedback about what you want to work on and rating the incoming projects. But the primary determinator for what project you work on was which one was starting at the time your other project was ending; that was the primary determiner. So people effectively had no choice about the kind of project that they would work on. And that was a common complaint that we heard from people is that lack of control.

LINDSEY: And even though it wasn't supposed to happen, I think people did have reputations for a specialty, and the managing directors or whoever was staffing a project would seek out certain folks for certain projects. So even though we'd like to think of everyone as being able to handle any kind of project, and at a basic level, they could for sure, people with specialties were sought out for things. So that was already happening organically.

CHAD: And related but even going deeper on it, when we're maintaining small groups of people that are a complete replica of everything that is thoughtbot, and it's a group of 9 to 25 people, that ability to specialize or to have a career path that extends -- The company you're a part of feels like a 20-person company, and in a 20-person company, there's naturally not going to be tons of room for a big career ladder and lots of advancement or specialization. You will trend towards having a team of people that are more generalized and less hierarchical.

LINDSEY: Were there any other big challenges that come to mind for you when we were going into, like, let's revisit how we're structured?

CHAD: Well, there was one that touched on all of what we just talked about, and that was design and thoughtbot. And this is one thing that's super interesting. And I think I've talked about it on the show before. But we started from day one as a design and development company. We've always done design, and we've always had people on staff that did it. And one of the things that happened, though, is being the first consulting company in the world to switch to Ruby on Rails and being a big contributor to that community, and building a reputation through our open-source and through our blog and everything on the development side, that part of the business has grown. The development team is much larger than the design team. And a lot of people in the world view thoughtbot as oh, they're a Rails development company and really it wasn’t -- What we've always talked about is Rails is in service of the products that we want to design and build and creating great products. And so design has consistently been a challenge over the years as the reputation there isn't as big as on the development side.

And so what we saw in the individual studios were each individual studio needed to have a certain number of designers in order to feel like it had a design team and to be able to service the work that it did have locally and a management structure within that team that made sense. It had all those problems that we've just talked about. It was difficult to be profitable. It was difficult to have enough locals work for the two or three designers that were in a studio. And that specialization for what they would do and the kinds of projects that they would work on didn't always match the actual work that we had in a particular city at a time. And so because we were organizing the work that we did geographically, it wasn't uncommon for a designer to not have client work to do and that hurt the design team because we were attracting these great designers. And people are at thoughtbot because they want to build great products; they want to do great work, and then they join the team, and they're not doing it. And so design turnover has been much higher than other parts of the company for that and other related reasons.

LINDSEY: Okay. So I have a question for you because you and Diana started on this process before I was involved. So for you, when did reorganization first start?

CHAD: Well, as I alluded to at the top of the show, we had been talking about these kinds of things for a while. And I think you were part of most of those discussions as part of the management team where it'd be like, oh, should we break out design? And there wasn't really this clear -- Our strategy for the last many years has been strong local studios bound together by a common purpose and values. And we were feeling pretty good about that strategy. So these problems would crop up, and we would evaluate them in the context of that strategy and say, “No, we're reaffirming our strategy.” So it wasn't until having gone through 2020 and looking towards what 2021 was going to be like and saying, “We've got all these things that could be better. But one thing we know that needs to change is we can't go through another year of everyone planning for all of this to be temporary and to be back to the way that we were before.” We had already been breaking down the geographic barriers of studios because many projects were being staffed across offices at a much higher level than ever was before. And we had given everybody the thumbs up to move wherever they wanted, and we were going to support it. And we had about 20 people move from places where we had a studio to places where we didn't. And so it was really that that crystallized the need to -- I didn't know exactly what we were going to do going into it, but this feeling we need to do something because we can't stay in this limbo state for another year, which is what we were predicting in terms of how long we were going to be in the current operating mode. And even when it does come back, we now have 20+ people who don't live where we have offices anymore. So we can't go through this next period of time expecting things to just go back to the way that they were. So that was when we knew that we were going to do it. So I guess that was at the end of November or the beginning of December of 2020.

LINDSEY: It was exciting to have this push to do it. As you mentioned, we talked about different options before. Like Joe had come up with, I remember, a really clever squad-based team proposal. We’d thrown around, “Should we do an industry-based team structure?” But I think what was really missing was a push, a driver, you know, you have to. Because it was “Everything else is kind of working okay the way it is. What if this is a big mistake?” And so we wouldn't move forward. So we had these major drivers to decide on something and then went into what I think is a really successful and fascinating series of brainstorming and iteration sessions pretty quickly as a leadership team to hone in on what we've ended up rolling out.

CHAD: And I think one of the things that I appreciated, and it was Diana who did this, was saying, “Let's make sure we reaffirm or revisit our values and purpose as part of this process.” And when you have a company that is driven by values and purpose, it's important when you're making big decisions to revisit them so that they're helping guide what you actually do so that you don't get off track. And we anticipated that the change was going to be big enough that maybe even the value -- We need to be open to the possibility that the value or the purpose would change or should change in the process or had already changed and we hadn't reflected them. And so that was a part of it, like expecting to go into it doing that. And then we can't have a...or maybe we could, but we decided it wasn't realistic to have a 100-person meeting. So again, for a lot of the things we do at thoughtbot, we treat thoughtbot like a product in and of itself. And we use the tools and techniques as designers and developers on that product itself. And so we did survey the team to get their thoughts around purpose and values and around what it had been like to work remotely and just a few questions in general about how they felt about projects and work and that kind of thing. And then, we took that information that we had gathered from the team into the design thinking and brainstorming sessions with the leadership team, which was the managing directors across all the studios and the design and development directors, and then the corporate leadership.

LINDSEY: And I'd say at the forefront of these exercises and decisions was how do we ensure thoughtboters are fulfilled? And also, how do we provide the most value to clients, and where those things intersect, how could we potentially reorganize ourselves? And these sessions are some of my favorite things to do, even though they can be maybe stressful times that are driving these exercises. But doing these kinds of really open brainstorming and design thinking exercises, problem-solving with our team, which is full of the smartest, most thoughtful, kindest people, I find incredibly fulfilling and really drive amazing outcomes. And I’m kind of sappy, I guess here. But I start to feel like, oh my gosh, I know why our clients love working with these folks. It's a really powerful exercise, and you come up with really amazing ideas and outcomes.

CHAD: Yeah. I had a thought as you were saying that, though, that I agree, but I think you could do exactly the same thing but not be committed to actually making a change. If you were just doing it, it would drive me crazy. [chuckles] And I think that that's an important component is that we went into it saying something is going to change; we don't know what it is. We define problems, and then we come up with solutions to those problems, and we are going to make a change. And that was the difference between the previous we're all sort of venting or trying to do it in a leadership meeting. And I think off-sites and brainstorming sessions and that kind of thing get a bad rap, but when they're actually necessary and when they're done well, and when you have a group of people that are committed to improvement and actually making a change, they can be really great.

LINDSEY: Yeah. And I think you all had set out a goal. You and Diana had set a goal schedule of how this would work, which is coming up with ideas as an extended leadership team which is maybe like 18 people. And doing that, we booked a half-day, maybe a bit more; obviously, this is all virtual. And we'd have different sessions where we were breaking out into smaller groups of maybe five people randomized each time and working through a specific challenge or coming up with a specific proposal, then reconvening as the extended leadership team and running through those proposals. So that would be the first individual day. And then you and Diana went off with those proposals and ideas to make some executive decisions around what you thought made sense and then re-proposed to the extended leadership team for feedback and iteration with the goal that every week we're getting closer to the final, final thing that we're going to roll out to the team. And also, by the way, how do we roll that out?

CHAD: I'm curious from your perspective how that worked because we didn't go into the process expecting it to work that way. Well, I guess we did. When Diana and I were planning it, though, we initially started from a different place, and then we realized this is going to be too difficult for a group to converge on, and it probably does need us to go and force a convergence basically and then go back and make a proposal. But I'm curious what you think about that.

LINDSEY: Oh, I think you absolutely have to do that.

CHAD: [chuckles] Okay.

LINDSEY: And that's the way I operate, too, even from a marketing perspective, is to take input and ideas and see what folks think. But at the end of the day, you can't make a group decision; someone has to make an executive decision based on what they've heard. So I thought that worked well. Plus, I was in the group that came up with the idea for the reorg we chose. I don't want to brag about it, but it was a great decision.

CHAD: [laughs]

LINDSEY: So yeah, I guess getting into what that actually was, what we ended up deciding and have moved forward with was breaking out the teams, so keeping a team-based structure but no longer geographically-based but actually each team based on the types of clients and client projects that they're providing services for. And obviously, those services are tailored to the type of client projects.

CHAD: Shall we go through them? [chuckles]

LINDSEY: Yeah, we should go through them.

CHAD: [chuckles] Okay.

LINDSEY: So the naming came after the fact, but we also had a lot of fun with branding and naming these teams and went all-in on the rocket theme, as you'll hear. So we've got four main service teams. The first one deals with the earliest stage products kind of pre-product so validating ideas, and that is thoughtbot Ignite. The next team deals with more MVP, V1 but not really a quick project, like longer MVP types of projects, and that is thoughtbot Lift Off. The third team deals with more established companies and teams who are elevating their product and teams to the next level that's thoughtbot Boost. And then finally, we've introduced more DevOps and maintenance services under thoughtbot Mission Control, and they also manage our PR reviews as a service, reviews by thoughtbot. So that's the quick overview of the four teams you've got Ignite, Lift Off, Boost, and Mission Control.

CHAD: And the interesting thing about the team structure and what each team was going to focus on is that once we made the decision that this was -- there wasn't really a lot of question around what those teams would be. We knew these different project types existed. It was something that we have documented, and it's in our marketing. We have positioning statements already. A lot of these client types were already created. We have an internal consulting class that people take, about 20 people a quarter take it. And it goes over the different kinds of clients that we work with and the different needs that they have and how to work with them. And it was split along these lines. Now there were some small details on the edges to be worked out, but what was difficult was making the decision to do this. Once we made the decision to do it, what those teams would be was pretty clear.

LINDSEY: Obviously, I love it. From a marketing perspective, breaking out these different types of clients makes so much sense. You're talking to them about different sets of needs, goals, pain points, so there's great focus and clarity there. And then that trickles to everyone's job. The managing directors now are responsible for one of these service-based teams. The designers and developers themselves are specializing and really enjoy that type of work. And in the breakout group during these brainstorming sessions that I was in, I remember when we were starting from this place of anything goes, I was asking the directors in my group, “What do you think makes our team fulfilled? Are they more interested in a specific industry? Are they more interested in a specific technology? Are they more interested in a type of client?” And the directors in my group all said, “I really think it is the type of project that provides fulfillment in different ways for different folks.” So we took that as a starting point, and then it was, “Okay, well, what are those different types of clients if we could put them into four or five buckets?”

CHAD: And Ignite and Lift Off are really interesting to me because it's a good example of where the lines can be effectively drawn. So you alluded to it already, Ignite is for the earliest of products and teams where the idea hasn't even been validated yet, and they need our help determining whether it even makes sense to proceed at all. And then when we do validate it, the size of what we're building and the speed at which we're going to be able to get to market falls under 12 weeks. It will typically fall in the 8 to 10-week range where we've gone from that concept that we validated to a launch product in the hands of users. And they’re ruthlessly prioritized. They're usually pretty straightforward, both on the tech side but also in what we need to build. And I think one mistake we've made in the past is taking large finance and healthcare companies and these large companies that we also work with and trying to do the same thing that we do for those Ignite clients for them and ending up in a place where maybe we haven't done as good a job, or the project doesn't go as well because we're trying to squeeze it into a place where it doesn't fit. And that's what Lift Off is; it’s creating a space where it fits, realizing that a client who comes to us with this massive need it's not massive because they're doing too much. It's massive because they have a big problem that they want to solve, usually for a business that already exists, and it's a new product within that business. Maybe they've even already validated it. And the integrations that it's going to have, the systems it needs to talk to, the level of scale that it's going to have is different than is going to be possible in 8 to 12 weeks. And when we try to squeeze it in there, it's not going to be successful. So Lift-Off is giving a space for those projects to thrive in a way.

And I also think it's one of those things where it's going to have an impact on our sales too because what would happen previously is that one of those clients might come to us and we're furiously trying to squeeze it down. And how a client perceives that is potentially like, “Oh, they don't know how to do what we need them to do, or they don't want to do it. Or they think our idea is bad because they're saying we need to validate it, and we've already validated it. We have an existing business that we're building this off of,” or something like that. And it causes us to lose that work, which we would otherwise love to have. And now a client like that comes and is talking to a managing director who gets the needs of that kind of project and a team of people that are going to work on it that understand that there's a process to run through and it's going to take six months or a year. We're going to launch along the way, and then we're going to continue to grow the product from there. It's just a different feeling all around, which I think is going to have a positive impact on our ability to actually grow those parts of the business.

LINDSEY: And Lift Off by nature of working on those health, tech, and financial products is also dealing with highly regulated spaces, which is another reason why those projects are necessarily longer and more complex and lend themselves well to someone who's dealt with it before.

CHAD: Right. Another thing, and we touched on this a little bit earlier with Boost, is a big part of our business historically is that those clients that have built-in Rails along the way, they've built a super successful business. They're scaling a lot. They're growing their team. They need technical leadership, experience mentorship, and those projects tend to be very development-heavy as well. Like, we have clients where we have four or five developers working with them and no designers, and it caused the design and the development team to be very lopsided. But we really liked that work, and it's very valuable to clients. And so same thing with Boost, Boost instead of that being something which is pushed off into the back where like, oh, well, it's not the project-based integrated team of designers and developers launching a new product, and so it's not our ideal work. It gives a space where that can be our ideal work, and the kinds of people who want to work on those kinds of projects with that level of experience and need feel like they are able to do that on a team that is focused on that. And that team doesn't necessarily need to have a design team that works or looks the same as every other place at thoughtbot. And it creates a place which can focus on what it needs to do in the best way possible that is the most fulfilling to the team and success for the customers. And it looks different than thoughtbot has historically looked, and that's okay. Because actually, when you pick it apart, it's not that different; it’s just taking the 20% of all of the thoughtbot studios where the 20% felt like something that wasn't quite right and putting it all together to make 100% of something that feels right.

LINDSEY: And from the design perspective, Boost design is a lot around optimizing what already is in place or helping take care of design debt that's been neglected, making sure design and development are talking to each other and thinking about those processes to make them talk to each other better. Whereas Lift Off and Ignite are more introducing design or design processes or design frameworks like putting your design system together or thinking about your accessibility processes, those kinds of activities. And then Mission Control is probably the newest to thoughtbot in terms of services that we're offering clients.

CHAD: And within Mission Control, there are two big areas that are different, so the first is maintenance. So we historically have been project-based at thoughtbot. And what that would mean is that well, it doesn't necessarily mean -- So historically, project-based plus everyone working on one project at a time, I think the combination of those two things meant that what we mostly did was we help people set up their own team of people who are going to take over from what we had done after we launched the first version of the product and level it up from there. And most of our clients got to the point where the goal was to become self-sufficient. And we also would meet people who had already built something and were just looking for our expertise to help take care of it but not necessarily have enough work for someone full-time. And for both of those clients, we didn't really have a solution for them. And so that's where the maintenance team in Mission Control comes into play because it's a team of people who have opted into splitting their time across multiple clients. The contracts are different where they're paying a monthly recurring maintenance fee for us to take care of certain things every month: security upgrades, patches, small bug fixes, and features. Maybe they even have a team on staff where they're doing the majority of the development work, but they just want our support in helping things go well.

And also, you mentioned the pull request review service that's within Mission Control as well where we have a separate service where you can sign up, and you just request a pull request review from thoughtbot, and then one of our team members goes on and gives you feedback on that pull request. So that's one part of what's happening in Mission Control is that maintenance work. And then the other is DevOps, and infrastructure is an area where the majority of projects that we worked on across all of thoughtbot were deployed to Heroku or the teams had their own DevOps and infrastructure people and creating a specialization of that for a handful of projects for an individual studio that has that need, over the course of a year, never made sense. But once we started to do it and we took a more global view to it and said, “Across all of our clients, what is the need either met or unmet and what might we be able to do? And where is the interest of our team?” It became clear we could offer -- like, our clients need us to do this sometimes. And for the clients who need us to do it, we want to be there for them. We want to do it. And creating a team of people that is global, that can do it across time zones 24/7 is also one of the needs of the clients, and having that team span those geographies is one way we've been able to do that when historically we would have shied away from that.

LINDSEY: And speaking of the team's interest in different areas, different services for the rollout of this new organization, we, by and large, had folks opt in to what they wanted to do even as far as the managing directors picking what team that they were going to head up.

CHAD: So we said, “These are what the teams are going to be,” and we did a company-wide presentation. And then, we asked people to submit their first and second choice. And then we made the decision around which of the managing directors were going to do what and then we announced that to everybody. Am I saying this the right way? Did we announce the managing directors before we asked everybody or just before the deadline was up?

LINDSEY: I think it was trickled in. At first, it was “What team do you want to be on?” But then, as that's going on behind the scenes, you and Diana are having discussions with the managing directors around where they want to be. And then, as that information became available, you shared that with the team also to help with decisions, same with the design and development directors. I think it was announced the design and development directors chose the teams they wanted to be on and lead. And then, once that was finalized, that was also shared with the team as they're voting on where they want to head.

CHAD: And the majority of people got their first choice and the majority of people the person who was their manager also chose a similar choice. And so there was a lot of change but not too much churn, I guess is the way I would put it. We were able to do it in a way which I think people felt like they had a choice. And I think going into it; people were afraid of that like okay, am I going to make a choice here and then end up on a team of people I've never worked with before? That was not the case. Now there's certainly a big blending of the teams, particularly Boston and New York were the biggest studios. And so they make up the majority of the people in each of the Boost and Lift Off. But people are working with people that they have worked with before.

LINDSEY: And it turns out the people they didn't work with before are also awesome, also, very cool.

CHAD: [chuckles] So much effort over the years spent -- that strategy of replicating what was great about thoughtbot into other geographies is true. And so the standards that we had for hiring, and the kinds of people we hire, and the screening for values fit, and all that stuff led us to a place where everyone at thoughtbot is great. And so I wasn't really concerned about that, but other people may have been because there's always a fear of the unknown.

LINDSEY: Yeah, definitely. I'm trying to think if there were other rollout things that might be interesting.

CHAD: Well, one of the interesting things it's a little in the details. On the surface, that is the team, and those are the services we offer. But we also needed to contend with the fact that we are in the U.S. and the UK, and we didn't really feel like it makes sense to have those teams span 10+ time zones, that that would be too far of a stretch. And it would affect people's fulfillment on the team as well as the services we are able to deliver. So these services that we offer are actually fulfilled by two…do we have a word for it? [chuckles]

LINDSEY: Geographies?

CHAD: Geographies, yeah, I guess.

LINDSEY: There are two geographies that we ended up naming Launchpad 1 and Launchpad 2, because rockets.

CHAD: So Launchpad 1 is all of the Americas, and Launchpad 2 is Europe, Middle East, and Africa. And so they provide all of those services in those places. But they have teams that are formed across the whole geographic region. And then eventually, if all goes well, we'll have Launchpad 3, and that'll be [chuckles] the other side of the world.

LINDSEY: I've got the icon ready and waiting. So I guess timing-wise, this all happened...rollout was by the beginning of the year, right? January?

CHAD: Yeah. One of the things is more people took more time off between the December Holidays and New Year's and everything than they have ever done before, and we needed it. Everyone needed it. So we weren't able to finalize what team everyone was on and have a conversation about that with everybody before they saw it in a message somewhere, which we really wanted to do. So we ended up not being able to finish all of that before the end of the year. And so it rolled into the first couple of weeks of January as people came back, and we were able to talk to them. And then I think we made the internally public announcements about all the teams that everyone was going to be on, and we did a formal kickoff. What was it? January 8th or something like that.

LINDSEY: Yeah. And I think that's actually a really good point to bring up is the communication to the individuals. It was important for them to hear it one-on-one from their manager before anything was announced more broadly and then to transition to their team if their manager was changing, which in a lot of cases, it didn't, but sometimes it did. Having one-on-one-on-one transition meetings to really ease that move was also important to not make this really abrupt and unnecessarily stressful in a time that is already very stressful for reasons we know.

CHAD: And even if someone's direct manager wasn't changing, it was very likely that their director would change. And so, in those cases, we still did a one-on-one-on-one, but it was with the new director sitting in as well as a skip-level one-on-one on-one. And we did it quickly, but it was important to make it happen quickly.

LINDSEY: And it was also important to not abruptly change on the clients because obviously, we weren't doing a full stop of client work just because we're doing some reshuffling internally. So that was phased, and we didn't even really make it a big deal to the clients because that probably would have just added confusion as we were making these changes.

CHAD: Yeah, definitely. And we made the decision that we weren't going to just arbitrarily say, “This person is now on this team; therefore, they have to leave this project,” so we made that decision. And we have as natural points in the project for a rotation to happen. People will move to a project; if there's a mismatch between the project that they're on and the team that they're on, they'll move at a natural point. But the reality was that a lot of people also chose -- It's not like we have 57 different project types; we have three. And so a lot of people were already working on the project type that they chose just because the odds were good that they were. There's been very little customer-facing impact to it. So it's early days. It's March now, so it's been a couple of months. But how do you think it's going, or where do you think the growing pains are?

LINDSEY: Good question. I think there's been more of a smooth transition than there have been growing pains, first of all, which has been nice. I think folks have been pleasantly surprised by really enjoying their new teams and new team members. I think growing pains-wise, on the operations side, obviously we've had to...I think we’re still in the process of figuring out how to best pipe certain kinds of inquiries into the right team and managing director. Sometimes it's a no-brainer. They're like, “I need to validate this idea.” It's like boom, “You're off to Dawn for Ignite, and you’re going to have a conversation there.” But if they come in and they say, “I'm working on an MVP, and we don't know if that MVP is one of the really fast ones or one of the more complex ones,” then it's like, okay, is this going to Dawn or Emily?

CHAD: And we historically didn't need to have any handoffs because one person was able…one person and team; it was based on geography. So we knew exactly who was going to be having that conversation with them. So operationally, it's actually one thing we didn't touch. So no one was let go in this big reorg. There was a position for everyone, I guess, if they wanted it. But one area we haven't touched on is anyone who was local, who was in a support role moved up into the corporate level in a support or operations role. And there weren't that many of those people, but the office manager in Boston is now full-time in people operations. And the office manager in New York City is now the operations manager for the whole team, the whole company. Kelly, who was doing business development just in Boston, is now helping across all of thoughtbot, which is really good at using her skill set across the whole company. I think that that's good.

And now, like you said, figuring out how to support everyone across the teams is a little bit of whether it be the operations manager figuring out how to get people computers when we hire new people to like what you were saying around inquiries coming in and making sure that they're sent to the right person. The thing that has made it more challenging for me is that just a confluence of events at the time where we were making some of these changes. And now it has made my involvement different than I was originally expecting them to be. I expected to be a little bit more involved in certain things, but because I've been pulled into several important client projects and was working on client work at the time that then expanded very rapidly, it's been challenging for me to manage the workload. But in some ways, there's a bright side to it, which is it's giving other people the space to operate without me, which I think can be good because I'm very confident in what everyone's bringing to the table. And when you go through a big period of change like this, if everyone was deferring to what I thought as the founder or looking for me for answers or permission to do something, I think that we would suffer for it. And so being forced in a way to not be available for everything that's going on is a way for people to have more ownership over it and not be relying on me, and I know that they can do it.


CHAD: So we never said what the new purpose was. So maybe we'll just talk a little bit about that, and then we'll use that as a wrapping up point.

LINDSEY: Sounds good.

CHAD: So I mentioned earlier our purpose had been we believe that there's a better way to work. There's always a better way to work, and we want to find it and share it with as many people as possible. We had written down that purpose several years ago, like a decade ago, I think. And I believe a good purpose describes what is the underlying motivation for the company and the people at it. And when we did that survey of people, a few of the questions we asked touched on it. And it wasn't that surprising to me about -- one of the threads in that was this idea of positive contributions to the world, making sure that the things that we work on and do have positive contributions to the world and that being a motivating factor. Like, that's part of what makes the team tick and what they want to be doing and are fulfilled by and that kind of thing. And so we incorporated that into the purpose. And so we adjusted the wording a little bit to make that incorporation, but we ended up that we believe that it's always possible to continuously learn and improve the way people work while building higher quality products that make positive contributions to the world.

This resonated with me in a way that -- it's a little bit more wordy, and that's not why it resonates with me. [chuckles] Specifically, our previous purpose of we believe that there's always a better way to work and we want to find it and share it with as many people as possible lacked one thing that I think a good purpose can incorporate, which is what is a clear idea of what the alternative is like, what you're fighting against, or what you're trying to improve. It's there in the previous purpose. So, in theory, there maybe are people out there who believe that there's not always a better way to work that they've achieved it or something like that or that they have particular practices which aren't great. But it's not explicit or really even implicit in the purpose. And the new purpose we believe that it's possible to continuously learn and improve the way people work while building higher quality products and make positive contributions to the world. You can point to someone who might believe the opposite of that, that you can't build higher quality products that make positive contributions to the world while also continuously learning and improving the way that you work and everything, that to build higher quality products or make positive contributions to the world, you might need to compromise on the values of continuous improvement and learning. And our new purpose makes a statement that you don't need to compromise in order to achieve that result, and I like that about it.

LINDSEY: I really like the addition of talking about the kinds of positive products because I think once you know thoughtbot at all, you know that that's underlying the purpose but take out the guesswork, just tell the folks. All right. Well, I think that's a good place to stop. I'm glad we didn't even go into the remote because there's obviously a lot to talk about.

CHAD: Yeah. So we'll talk about that next time?

LINDSEY: Yeah. We're going to talk about what changes we've made in going completely remote and what that looks like, what we think it looks like for the future.

CHAD: Cool.

LINDSEY: So you can subscribe to the show and find notes for this episode at

CHAD: If you have questions or comments, and we'd love to hear them, email us at, or you can find me on Twitter @cpytel.

LINDSEY: And you can find me on Twitter @Lindsey3D. This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot.

CHAD: It's good to be back. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

LINDSEY: It's so good to be back. Stay tuned.

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