A Digital Ecommerce Transformation – Building Teams in a Hostile Environment – Part XIV

Part XIV of a multipart story, to start at the beginning goto Part 1.

Let’s get back to the main story. It was now December of 2011, we had $13M to start rebuilding TWLER.com. Once you get a pile of money at TWLER, the large IT Integrators come out of the woodwork, aided and abetted by the TWLER IT leadership who had generally recently transferred from a large IT Integrator who’s name begins with A. But we weren’t playing complete favorites, we also had our choice of IT Integrators that started with I, or had initials like C.G. We also had our two favorite India based consultancies T.T and W.P.

The point was, that once someone had a pile of capital to spend, they had to spend it on one, or better two of the IT Integrators. Why? This was explained to me many times:

  1. We have enterprise contracts with the integrators
  2. These contracts guaranteed a certain amount of spend with the integrators
  3. I had money to spend, thus it needed to go to an Integrator so we had enough dollars spread around to meet those guarantees
  4. By having multiple choices for integrators, we could get “the best value” for TWLER
  5. The Integrators were under contract to produce a team of up to 100 developers within a week
  6. If they didn’t do that, we could fine them for not meeting the contract
  7. We didn’t care if we got shitty engineers

Well, I made up number 7, but it was the unspoken truth.

If the first six reasons didn’t boil your blood, number 7 was more than I could take. I pushed back, said I wasn’t interested to the Senior Director and VPs in IT, and proceeded to start building my own teams. I thought that was that, but it turns out the effort to force bad engineering was stronger than I realized.

We put together an engineer interview for ourselves that covered ability to code, Agile mindset, open source knowledge, and web architecture (which at the time was still generally RDBMS driven with Java EE Servlets on Tomcat). The interview had many open ended questions, forced people to think, forced them to code, and let us know whether they understood Agile software practices. We also ruthlessly let go of engineers that slipped through the interview but proved they couldn’t code in the first few weeks on the job. We were tough interviewers and might accept one out of eight interviewees. I’ll never forget how Michael N. described an interview he sat in with me during the previous year: “It felt like you were conducting a cross examination of an unfriendly witness.” I will admit, my interview style at the time lacked charm, but it did find engineering depth.

The interviewing process takes time and tons of energy. In mid-December of 2011, I personally interviewed 40 people in one week. That sounds crazy but we were trying to ramp up from a team of around 20, to a team of 100 in the next six months. I also knew I had to establish my teams, get them working, and start to show progress to fend off the IT vultures.

Back to those vultures, they did not go quietly. At least 2-3 times a week, I ended up in a meeting with Senior Directors or VPs of IT, asking me why I hadn’t picked a vendor yet, and what was my project doing? At the time I was a Senior Manger, 2-3 levels down the hierarchy. Luckily for me, hierarchies have never meant much to me, competency was all that drove me. Having spent years as a consultant, I was used to pushing back on upper management, eventually getting my way, and making everyone happy by delivering systems. I figured this would be no different. But the TWLER IT team was tenacious as well, I don’t think anyone had ever defied them so openly, and as they liked to remind me every day, I had the largest capital project running in the company! They couldn’t possibly be left out of that one!

The team was shielded from these intimidation tactics being used by IT, and they went on their merry way hiring as many great engineers as we could find. I pulled from my personal network, and once we had good people in, we leveraged theirs as well. By the end of January 2012, we had a team of 40 going. Not like getting a 100 people in one week, but adding 20 in a month and change (doubling the size of the team) was putting strain on our ability to operate.

I needed to start up 10 teams to get all the pieces in place for rebuilding the Home Page, PDP Page, and getting the base platform components and infrastructure in place. TWLER already had a UI team that was still separate from us at this point, and still working on ATG based JSPs. We had two in place from the previous year, and each of the five remaining architects would take on one or two teams.

It was going into February 2012, and we were still only at half our desired staffing levels. The IT teams had not stopped pressuring me to bring on an integrator, and even my VP of Operations was losing patience with continually having to placate the VPs of IT.

Goto Part XV