Background—

X  is an integrated services provider for an elite university in the  United States. Formed originally as a conglomerate of various  individuals working on independent projects to enhance the lives of  university students, the group began to formally affiliate itself with  the school name in 2010.

For  much of its founding years, X sustained 10 or so employees. Directors  were sourced externally to not interfere with the technical work. At the  time, the developers themselves were more interested in creating new  projects in an effort to jump start a new organization off its feet as  opposed to considering the various management details of sustaining an  established one.

Near collapse —

A  year ago, a sudden drop in participation shoved X to the brink of  survival, and the task fell on the shoulders of the remaining members to  keep the organization running.

Faced  with the prospects of having to completely disband, they broke down the  most prominent concerns that had beleaguered their beloved group.

The  biggest problems that had arisen was a disconnect between products and  their purposes. Since X was founded by students joining together to work  on their common, university-related side projects, the organization had  been a place for developers to spend their free time experimenting.  However, as the key members left, the flow of new project ideas slowed  and along with it, focus and motivation.

Finally,  there was one more major problem: employee pay. Paying developers had  created a budget limit to bring in talent. Furthermore, their work had  resulted in a culture of working-for-pay, which at times clashed with  working for the benefit of students.

Growth —

Since  the organization needed people — and a lot more of them — two members  decided to channel their revival efforts at first through recruitment.  They knew that more labor didn’t always lead to better results so they  were meticulous in the people they brought on board the following  semester.

Members  were chosen by specific skill sets and passion for improving the Penn  community. Employee pay was abolished. Once hired, new members were  placed onto the product teams where those exact skill sets were most  needed. Each team would have its own set of back-end, front-end  developers and designers. The back-end worked on the API and functions  of the product while front-end and designers worked closely together to  bring about an engaging user experience. The two co-directors each led  their own product teams as well as played the director role of making  sure each project progressed steadily.

Looking beyond —

With  several well-established products on their way and respective teams  established, co-directors A and B once again looked to enhance the labor  force of the group. Traditionally, members had always been technical in  nature and purely focused on product creation. Thus, one of the  problems that the organization has faced from its outset was a lack of  marketing and commercialization. Products were often inconspicuously  released without any promotion or advertising and the organization was  dormant on social media. Many students remained unaware that X is  responsible for the applications and services they used daily.

Realizing  they had access to an abundance of consumer-minded talent for  operational decision making and marketing, the co-directors decided  boldly to recruit the organization’s inaugural Business Development (BD)  team.

Fall of BD —

However, as they soon found out, merely having a Business Development team is not enough. Throughout the semester,  they watched as the BD team struggled time after time to integrate with  the other product teams and find purpose. The isolated nature of the  product teams along with fuzzy launch deadlines created an awkward,  out-of-place and out-of-work situation for the BD group even though  there was actually so much for them to do. Marketing endeavors that BD  tried to take on turned out uncoordinated and sloppy. In fact, members  within the organization itself were even unclear of the BD role.  Something needed to change …


So, this “X” — a Crunchbase startup looking to scale? Not quite (yet). PennLabs? Yes.


Perhaps  a little ashamed of the fact, but I think it would be fair to say that I  have always been easily annoyed with “management-like” readings (which  is quite frequent given I attend a business school). I had my two  reasons: 1) It seemed as if in an odd way, everything I read I already knew and  2) I didn’t think management could be “learned” — it comes with  experience, and innate intuition. Those that are more perceptive might  find it comes naturally, and well those that are less so might have to  stumble over a few extra hurdles. But, two incidents this winter break  changed my view of the “fluffy” stuff, as it is so often called,  beginning with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

Though  incredibly fond of Sheryl Sandberg, I was skeptical of her book at  first. The turning point for me in the book came when she describes the  differences between how men and women take praise. I know that if I am  to congratulate one of my girl friends on their accomplishments, 9 out  of 10 times I can be sure of them to rebut and instead attribute their  success to some external factor like “luck” or “a generous curve.” The  other 1 out of 10 times is a short “thanks” followed by reciprocal  praise of one of my own accomplishments. But, compliment a guy friend  similarly, and I generally expect a confident response along the lines  of “I better do well. I worked so dang hard on that.”

It  dawned on me that up until the moment Sheryl Sandberg literally put  this problem in front of my face in black and white (size 10, Garamond  font I think?), I may have subconsciously knew this was happening, but had never truly recognized it.  In fact, as Sandberg points out in the book, I had actually  internalized these actions as a societal norm and became a perpetrator  myself! If I complimented a girl on a good grade and she replied along  the lines of “Thanks, I feel like my work paid off ” I probably would  have even thought “wow, how cocky.” While literature on organizational  behavior may at times appear to be “common sense”, we need an extra push  from others to externalize the common sense — hence, we borrow upon others’ incredible insights and experience through reading to reveal to us something once hidden.

The  second incident occurred on my way back to Penn. I happened to be on  the same flight as Josh Doman, one of the co-directors previously  described. We are in the same management class together this semester,  and neither of us had done the assigned readings yet. We both planned to  do it on the plane.

I fell asleep.

Josh didn’t.

Immediately  coming off the plane, he launched into a passionate rant on how the  readings had inspired him to entirely question the sustainability of  PennLabs: What were our core competencies? How are we sourcing new  ideas? How do we go from innovation to commercialization? What kind of  culture are we perpetrating?

Standing  there half-awake watching the baggage claim conveyor belt go  round-and-round with Josh buzzing beside me, I realized that there was  no way I could deny the teachability of management. Just four hours  previously, those readings had only been downloaded pdfs, homework to be  done. Four hours later, they came to life and became Josh’s source of  attack to question the entire structure of an organization that he had  worked endlessly to bring back to life.

As students of management, our job is to find the application.  The value of the readings isn’t in the text itself, but how they can be  drawn away from the pages to provide a framework for making decisions  in the real-world — it’s this exact intangibility that causes us to term  management as “fluffy.” Akin to studying history or understanding chess  combinations, I can see studying management as a form of what I  consider situational training.

By  studying others’ experiences and becoming cognizant of certain response  patterns, you can create a competitive advantage for yourself from the  crowd when similar problems arise.

So yes, the fluffy stuff is important to learn.


Moving forward —

Since  that plane ride, Josh has completely rethought the organization of  Labs. He and Tiffany Chang (the other co-director!) together have began  implementing significant structural changes to Labs.

Starting  this semester, Labs will consist of a Board of Directors with 6 seats,  made up of two co-directors and directors of internal, external,  finance, and marketing. Though initially the four director positions  will be filled by the to-be dissolved BD team, in the future, those  positions will go to internal technical designers or product developers.  Such a vertical and promotional structure is to encourage developers to  take on more leadership and responsibility in hopes of laying the  foundation for a sustainable management culture where decision-making  didn’t fall entirely on the co-directors.

Teams  themselves will no longer be strictly organized around products, but  rather functionally, with a back-end API team and a team of designers.  This structure allows for two meaningful improvements: 1) In flexibility  — members will be able to work on a diverse array of projects and  interact with different people, increasing club cohesiveness and culture  2) In efficiency —many projects use similar API’s and design logos so a  centralized system of API development and design works to eliminate  repetitive work.

In  2014, Facebook changed its motto from “Move Fast and Break Things” to  “Move Fast with Stable Infra(structure)” (A quick Google search will  reveal why ‘structure’ is in parenthesis). One could say we are  undergoing a similar change. Though Zuckerberg used infrastructure to  describe the stability and “bug-free-ness” of code, in the context of  Labs, I like to think of infrastructure as organizational infrastructure. We are rebuilding — to prevent against another sudden collapse and so that we are officially ready to take on more quantity and complexity, in terms of both projects and people.

We  joke around nostalgically that we’ve gone “corporate” but the truth is  no organization wanting to grow stays a small, flat structure of people  forever. The idealistic notion of tech groups as being made up of a few  geeky, chill friends coding for fun must give way to some notion of a  corporation structure at some point.

Though  it will most likely be messy this next year since we are clearly no  experts in growing an organization, or even running one for that matter,  I am excited for the changes to come. And so should the Penn community.  A more efficient Labs only means better and more services for students.


On another note …

This. Scene. Was. ICONIC.

Look at that fluffy unicorn. (Multiple puns intended?)

Disclaimer:  this post is merely a reflection of thoughts from my 19-year old self. I  have no intention nor the expertise to impose my perspectives on  anyone.

*photo credits: http://www.managers.org.uk/insights/news/2017/june/a-management-manifesto-for-the-uk-fixing-the-84bn-productivity-gap