Org Chart Growth and Keeping Our "Flatness"

May 20, 2013 Will Read

We’re growing. You may have heard that we were acquired in 2012. You might also have heard that we’ve been spun out again as a core part of a new company that shares part of our name. From when I started at Pivotal Labs back in 2009, we’ve grown by a factor of six just within ‘Labs and we’re now part of an organization that’s twelve hundred strong. If you were watching our org chart during this time you might have wondered where we got the magic beans for that growing bean stalk.

When I started four years ago we all “reported” to one person, and we talked a lot about being a “flat” organization. Then we got multiple offices, and added a local director layer. Then office head count grew beyond one director having a close relationship with all of the pivots and keeping up with director duties, so we added managers. Then we got enough managers and head count still growing that we needed associate directors. At the same time we got two more levels added on top of the head of our company when we were spun out. Given all of this change, you can relate to my astonishment when just last week I heard a pivot say, “We’re a flat organization.” Double woah.

For a pivot, one who is eight degrees of separation away from the head of the company, to say “we’re flat” means he’s feeling something that isn’t reflected in an org chart. As he talked more about it, he clarified that in terms of day-to-day individual, pair, and team activities there is still the same huge amount of autonomy. There’s no boss or manager in the traditional sense telling you what to do. You get to decide as a team what the right priorities are. You and your pair get to decide if you should do this refactoring now, or raise it up to the rest of the team as part of a larger effort. In terms of how you work on your project, you have as much influence as anyone else. The flatness is still the same in many ways as it was four years and a thousand people ago.

Moving up, let’s say you want to affect some change at the office level. Your first option is to go one step up the on-paper org chart, but really it’s a lateral move: Talk to your manager. At Pivotal Labs, your manager is more of a buddy or coach. Your manager is not on your project, your manager does not assign you work. He’s there to help you process feedback, help you find new ways to use your skills that also help the company, and navigate the company infrastructure so that you don’t have to keep it all in your head. Your manager might give you some advice on things to try, people to talk to, or green light some pizza budget so you can host an event after hours. Otherwise he might encourage you to talk directly to the office director who always has a door open for pivots who want to make their workplace better – and note that you’re skipping right over the manager and associate director levels.

From there, if you’re looking to make some cross office improvements, you’re just one door away from the COO of Pivotal Labs. At this point you probably can’t just drop in and instead you’ll have to schedule something on his calendar, but he’s the kind of guy that’s easy to trust. What I always find fascinating is that I have yet to surprise him – like you might expect a COO to do, he’s always thinking about making the company better and he’s good at finding ways to put passionate pivots to use. Similarly, you can get lunch or coffee with our founder who is a great example of an active listener.

Moving up to the company level I haven’t had any direct experience with those folks, but I know they expect the Pivotal Labs Way to become the Pivotal Way the same that we’ve always expected the Pivotal Labs Way to become the way our clients do software development. The way we’ve accomplished that in the past is by pairing with them on their projects. It is for this reason that I’ve asked to do a rotation on CloudFoundry, one of our core projects from Pivotal. By sharing my practices, I hope they carry them forward as they engage with other parts of Pivotal and those teams with the teams they overlap with, and so on.

Yes, the org chart is a lot deeper now than it once was. It’s clear though that pivots still have a voice and they still have all the autonomy to manage their own day-to-day. What’s interesting is that now my lever arm is potentially even longer than it was before because I’m now at the center of an organization that is designed around the way I work and I have an opportunity to shape the way more people make software than ever before.

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