You could say Chris Fry has a pretty big job.
As Twitter’s senior vice president of engineering, he’s the guy who makes sure the trains — or rather, tweets — run on time. He’s responsible for managing the roughly 1000-plus engineers who make up half the company working on Twitter’s site reliability, new products and many other projects.
Now, as Twitter enters a new era of fewer fail whales and more time spent under Wall Street’s watchful eye, Fry has an even bigger responsibility: Attracting new engineers, holding on to the old ones, and keeping an ever-growing house in order. And as anyone who has worked in a rapidly scaling company will tell you, that’s no easy feat.
We chatted with Fry about Twitter’s engineering and what’s ahead for the org come 2014 (hint: It involves more product innovation). Read the lightly edited excerpts from our discussion below.
Re/code: So what has changed in Twitter’s engineering organization since you’ve been there?
Chris Fry: The interesting thing about Twitter is that it was set up originally around these allotted, independent teams working in isolation. And there’s always a tension between distribution and centralization.
What we had at Salesforce (Fry’s home for seven years before he joined Twitter two years ago) was probably a little too centralized, while what we had at Twitter was a little too distributed.
So the goal was to maintain a lot of the autonomy of the individual teams, but to put a structure in place that allowed everyone to work together seamlessly.
From an organizational standpoint, I think about it like you’re building a school. Because half the people that are coming in don’t know anything about what has to happen, so you’re trying to get them up to speed as fast as possible. I always bring this learning aspect to orgs, not only in their day-to-day jobs, but in getting people up to speed.
How typical is that compared to other tech companies?
The thing that made Twitter unique was the history of the company and the rapid scale. Very few companies experience what Twitter did. Just keeping the site up was the full-time job of most people in the organization. And when I came in, there was still a lot of work to do.
But from my experience, there’s a lot of similarity in terms of the way software organizations work these days. Everyone [in Silicon Valley] uses a sort of lightweight, agile framework for teams where they’re fairly autonomous.
There was a lot of time in the early 2000s where people were shifting from what would be called a classic waterfall model – design, build, test — to a more lightweight model. And I think most Valley companies take that lean model and apply it.
The trick is figuring out as you scale from one team to 100, how do you make it so that the teams can still have a little bit of structure so that they know what they need to work on, but are still able to rapidly experiment and iterate? That’s a lot of what I work on — to keep giving teams autonomy.
So does that mean bringing in more managers?
Focusing on leaders and managers is key. Some organizations think that you can do away with managers entirely. But I think it’s better to focus on how to make managers super effective. And for new organizations, you often have a lot of people who are promoted out of technical positions into leadership positions — so focusing on that transition, and how you lead sets of teams.
One of the things that definitely attracted me to Twitter was Dick Costolo’s “Leading at Twitter” class. He still teaches a class for every manager entering the organization on his personal philosophy on leadership.
So talk to me about mobility inside of Twitter. If I’m a person working on Web products, can I switch over to Android at some point? I imagine I might get bored doing the same thing at Twitter after awhile.
One of the things I always think about is how to deliver three things to everyone that works for me. One is autonomy, one is mastery and one is purpose.
So at Twitter, the purpose is that you’re building this communication framework that allows anyone in the world to communicate with everyone in the world. Twitter University (launched in 2013) [addresses] the mastery piece: Getting better as a craftsman in the work.
Autonomy is interesting. You want it at the team and individual levels. On the individual level, every quarter, employees can basically go out and, if they find a role inside engineering where the team would like them to join, we’ll let them make that move.
I think of it as creating a free market for talent inside the company. Because if you think of the sort of free-market environment for talent in the Valley that we’re in right now, everybody is recruiting engineers [constantly]. They’ll probably get five emails from other companies every day. So you want to give people inside the company the same advantage by reaching out to people and giving them new opportunities.
Okay, so you’ve ballooned in size over the past two years. Now how do you keep them around for the long haul?
First, it’s about the work. There’s only so much you can do at a company if the work isn’t great. So make sure everyone is working on something that’s important and that they feel passionate about.
The beauty of Twitter is that you really are working on something that fills a unique need in society — this service that connects people.
But what about something like upward mobility? That’s pretty important, too.
You know, I think one of the more interesting things we do is our promotions. It’s similar to what we did at Salesforce and I think Google does it too.
We do a lot based on peer feedback, and then promotions are evaluated by a team of engineers. So it isn’t like managers pick people and say “these people are promoted.” It’s really a peer-based nomination system rather than management-controlled, and that, I think, has the ability to drive a fair, more transparent system.
And that’s different from, say, what Yahoo or Microsoft were doing with Stack Ranking?
Yes, it’s very different [from] that.
Fair enough. So what’s next for Twitter in 2014?
If you look at the history of Twitter, the first thing to get under control was reliability. Then we needed to make it efficient. That foundation basically sets us up for a period of product innovation.
So if you think of what’s coming next for Twitter, it’s going to be a whole bunch of innovation in how people experience the information that sits at the heart of Twitter.
Look at two projects that came out recently. @EventParrot takes the whole signal of Twitter, figures out what you might need to know about what’s happening in the world and tells you about it, independent of who you’re following. Then there’s @MagicRecs, which offers a very tailored experience of recommendations [like accounts to follow and tweets to pay attention to] based on what’s happening in your network.
This whole setup has made it so that we can really start innovating around both what we show you and when we show it to you, and then making sure that you have a great day-to-day Twitter experience.
Interesting. So those two accounts, and a lot of other things y’all have done lately, have been positioned as “experiments.” Tell me why.
I think if you want to build a learning culture, you have to experiment. We always want teams trying out new ideas, so we really build a lot of infrastructure to allow people to test new ideas. And that’s a huge part of the way Twitter builds new product.
Is that a new approach?
It’s not entirely new, but we have been really focusing on making sure our experimentation is solid, and that we use it to inform everything we’re doing in the product.