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This is How We Roll

Matthew Polega, Co-Founder & Head of External Affairs  | 13 February 2017  |  4 minute read


In the last year, Mark43 reached the very interesting point where systems we initially implemented for 25 people didn’t work as well for 90. Sure, some business processes were light enough to still get the job done: monthly all-company meetings, nascent expense reporting, and new hire onboarding. But even those were beginning to fray.

This wasn’t a surprise, however. What was originally a small team solely focused on launching a marquee client in 2015 quickly became a complex organization driving towards bigger goals in disperse locations in 2016.

Time for a Roll Call

As a GovTech startup, we often find that there aren’t a lot of resources about the unique challenges in our market. To make things extra complicated, and in the words of our Vice President of Engineering Steve Okano: “There’s a lot of literature out there for what to do until you hit 20 people, and then there’s plenty of literature for what to do after 500 people. But not much for this time in between.” And that’s exactly where we’re at — trying to implement processes that will suit a team of 90 people, but will also get us to that 500 employee step.

Fortunately, we took some tips from our clients (police departments). At the beginning of every patrol shift, police departments hold brief sessions called “Roll Call.” Units take attendance, discuss any new alerts for the coming shift, review progress on current initiatives, and cover anything else the officers need to know prior to entering the field.

Following suit, we decided that something similar would help us shape goals across teams and gear up for 2017. With lots to accomplish, Mark43’s Roll Call was spread across four days in mid December. Given the possibility of having the entire team in our NYC headquarters, what could we get done?

Monday: Manager Training

We place a lot of responsibility on our managers. To that end, we hire people we trust to make great decisions on behalf of the organization, communicate goals from the executive level, and alert us (the execs) of any issues from the broader teams of which we may not be aware. Also, it would simply be unsustainable for every decision to bubble up to the executive level. We push as much agency downwards as is possible while still responsible.

While we have great managers, there’s always room to grow. All managers spent a large portion of Monday in trainings covering efficiency, time prioritization, and enabling reports. The executives also also spent time in similar productivity and prioritization trainings. The overall response was extremely positive. Our managers were excited to develop new skills and we hope these trainings pay dividends as the company continues to grow.

Tuesday: Release Planning

On Tuesday, we spent the entire day doing our first full team product release planning exercise. For background, let me explain a key difference in the way Mark43 must operate versus a purely agile company. Our clients are large, enterprise-esque public safety organizations. They have sworn and civilian members they need to train, other initiatives impacted by changes in software, and third party systems ingesting data from our platform. Surprising them by saying “[X] module is live” or “check out this new feature” often creates more problems than it solves, at no fault of the agency. And by extension, we need adequate preparation time for sales, too. When a police chief asks “When will the automobile impound report be ready?” we can’t shrug and say, “When it moves up high enough in our sprint queue.”

So in an effort to blend waterfall predictability and the benefits of agile development, our product managers prepared descriptions of all possible things we could build in the next year with rough estimates of effort. Then, representatives from different Mark43 teams voted for the features they felt were important, based on the feature’s level of effort and potential impact to the market. In the afternoon, product and engineering leads brought the top items back to their task forces for resource planning, and in the evening, the leads presented dates for feature completion. With confidence, we can now promise these dates to chiefs, alert clients to prepare for additional user training, and most importantly, pitch a full platform vision.

Wednesday: Demo Day

As we’ve grown, we’ve also looked for ways to better support inter-team communications. How can we better broadcast the development status of an upcoming product to the company? How can we share recruiting statistics and new initiatives based on that data? How can we educate the engineering team about the intricacies of the sales and implementation processes? The answer was in a full team demo day. While we can’t necessarily do one of these every month, or even every quarter, once a year seems like a good potential cadence.

From critical updates on company finance to high energy demos of new products, the entire day accomplished a few things. First, it was an opportunity to celebrate everybody else’s work. Every team puts in a lot of effort and it was exciting to see the accumulation of what it takes to build and launch a product. Second, it continued to fight the specter of bureaucratic creep and organizational sprawl. We were able to refresh each team member about other teams’ responsibilities and promote a culture of transparency and openness.

Thursday: Wrapping Up

On the final day, it was back to work. At the beginning of the week, we had made sure every remote employee had a dedicated desk, computer monitor, and some new Mark43 swag that they might have missed at our satellite offices. We took the day to make the first step towards accomplishing the goals we had outlined over the course of the week. Finally, we closed up with our annual holiday party, a team dinner, and gift exchange.

What We Learned

Because we love measuring ourselves and using data to help us improve, we surveyed the team to gauge their reception of Roll Call. Satisfaction for the week scored 8.51 out of 10. We’re happy but still have room to improve! We’re considering splitting Demo Day into multiple days, planning more after-hours activities, and doing more prep work for release planning.

This year’s Roll Call already put us on the path to a busy, prosperous 2017. The team is aligned, excited, and ready to conquer the year ahead.

Mark43 Co-Founder and Vice President of Operations Matt Polega is also on Medium. You can follow him for more updates on startup growth and GovTech here.

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