Silicon Valley Management Secrets: Make Your Tech Team Faster and More Innovative

Photograph by Chris Strong

Silicon Valley IT executives face unique challenges, none more daunting than supporting some of the most innovative, fast-paced, tech-savvy companies anywhere. Many have found creative ways to make their organizations more flexible and motivate their staffs. Some even sound dangerous. But no chief information officer can afford to ignore how Silicon Valley companies manage their information-technology organizations. Here are three important management principles:

Treat IT decisions as urgent business decisions
In Silicon Valley, it’s virtually a sin to be slow. IT decisions have to support rapid product and innovation cycles and the viral-paced changes in mobility, cloud, and big-data technologies. Silicon Valley CIOs do not devote much time to steering committees and reviews; they make decisions rapidly in a manner that’s rarely found elsewhere. “We look at things critically when we start a project,’ says Plantronics CIO Tom Gill. “We make a decision and move.”

Decisions are rarely based on traditional investment returns. To stay ahead of competitors, Valley CIOs can’t afford the often slow-moving approval processes found in more conservative industries. Of course, a less-rigorous approval process carries risks of its own. So CIOs speed up management cycle times. If things go wrong, the damage is limited and quickly reversed. To stay nimble, companies such as NetApp plan capability roadmaps annually and manage their projects and budgets on a quarterly rather than an annual cycle.

Innovation speeds up when more people participate
Within eBay’s IT organization, no meetings are allowed one day a month. On that day, “all people are allowed to do is think,” says Scott Seese, eBay’s CIO. “I encourage them to try out our services, use our competitors’ services, and listen to calls side by side with our customer service agents.”

After the staff discusses pain points in a brainstorming session, developers hold 30-hour hackathons to create solutions. Results are reviewed through employee crowdsourcing. The top three or four choices are tested and implemented. This participatory approach is a product of Silicon Valley’s open culture, which boils down to this: Sharing information beats secrecy, pragmatic bottom-up experimentation trumps top-down planning, and failure is an option (as long as something is learned and recovery is fast).

The Valley’s extensive use of open-source technologies is part of the same ethos. Developers regard software built by a community rather than by a single company to be superior and faster to improve. Valley CIOs do understand that there is a limit to the amount of risk they should take. Google, Facebook, and other companies use powerful software testing tools and techniques to manage technology risks.

Help your people grow, even if it means they leave
Silicon Valley CIOs give a lot of thought to making their organizations an attractive place to work and a desirable place to stay. Yet they know they can’t stand in the way of an ambitious employee when a better opportunity comes along. Such attempts at control wouldn’t work anyway, given the number of opportunities in the Valley. Some CIOs have responded by relocating their internal IT organizations out of the region or moving development offshore.

Others have chosen to make the most of talent while they have it. These CIOs groom their best workers for leadership positions, fully aware that those employees might take what they learn and use it elsewhere. “We want you to grow and learn and have impact, so we delegate to you and try to empower you,” says David Henke, senior vice president of operations at LinkedIn. His company offers leadership and mentorship programs for its IT staff, some of whom are taught by Stanford University faculty.

Skipping ROI analyses, using crowdsourcing technology decisions, and helping employees get better jobs are unconventional practices. While they aren’t right for every company and situation, these practices suggest how an IT organization can be faster, more innovative, and improve talent management.

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