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Culture of Change at a High-Growth Company

At a recent employee-recognition dinner, people started comparing notes about the number of different managers they’d had and jobs they’d done since they’d been at Dyn.

One person had had four managers… Yeah. “But,” someone else from this semi-competitive bunch interrupted, “you’ve been here for three whole years!” That person had had three managers in two years. Point, match.

Each move means a different group of co-workers and cube mates and different quirks and stressors to consider as we co-exist and collaborate.

As we thought about this around the dinner table, we came up with an equation (hey, we’re engineers, ok?) to express the level of change in a workplace. We called it the Change Index.

Here it is:

Number of desk moves + Number of manager changes
————————————————————————-
Years of service

So, say you move three times and have three managers and are with the company two years. Your Change Index is three.

We went around the table. The high was seven (!); three was the low. All of these people had been successful in different settings and shown amazing versatility in the application of their talents.

Change is part of the culture in a business like ours and in a company that has grown as fast as Dyn has. Every company starts with a single person. We were only 100 employees a few years ago and now we’re over 400. It’s normal, around here, to occasionally feel a bit dizzied by change. Meanwhile, our customer base has growth and our mission expanded. The stakes are higher. Many of us at Dyn have had multiple jobs as we transition from generalists to specialists.

What does it mean to live in this change? Is it good or bad? High-growth companies go through lots of change and flexibility allows them to be successful at all levels. Luck favors the prepared and flexibility is key. Knowing that you’re in an environment that’s truly dynamic is important because it doesn’t appeal to everyone. It does mean being able to make an oversized impact on the world, in our case, making the Internet better for our customers.

Change affects people in different ways and there are a few stories that might help others manage and live in a similar environment.

To someone who was hired and initially supervised by a company co-founder, it can be challenging to suddenly interact less with that person — and get less feedback from them — as responsibilities grow and oversight shifts. This kind of change can certainly make review time more complicated and, if we’re not careful, less effective.

The nature of our business is such that new adaptations are often required in the space of a few hours (The joke is “But I was just told that we’re not doing that feature.” “Yeah, well that was before lunch…”). That requires tremendous energy and forwardness in thinking. It can also make it hard to slow down. What we try to do is be more deliberate about the future and more aspirational and get there in more manageable chunks. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s getting better.

But if, as an employee of a high growth company, you are experiencing the kind of change that makes your Change Index larger, this also means that you are probably someone who has a lot to offer, who is valued for being able to adapt skills across disciplines and help the people around you do better. In that way, we could also call it the Value Index.

Our physical workspace has also changed radically. (Seriously, our first real office in New Hampshire was so drafty that we wore gloves in the winter inside. All eight of us.)

Like all high-growth enterprises, we’ve experienced a few growing pains.

Bottlenecks can be created in reporting structures when you go from one employee to 400. And we have to be much more deliberate about sharing “tribal knowledge” as the tribe gets bigger.

One time, we ran out of space and I had an “executive office” but it was valuable space. So it became a workspace that I was joined by six people around a desk. We’ve gone through space constraints at our Manchester office, temporarily alleviated by numerous expansions and liberal use of Ikea desks. Our EMEA office is going through a similar crunch. My most recent visit meant a “desk” in the kitchen. Even today, I am seated in modular furniture, aka a cube. That does not prevent me from sitting in the cafe, by sales engineering, or otherwise around the office.

Maintaining openness, autonomy, and respect is key, and those are things that we’re not changing. As one co-worker wrote recently, “If a process isn’t working, we’re not afraid to call it out for what it is…As long as the boat is being rocked for a good reason and with appropriate aplomb, we speak our minds to make our lives and our customers’ lives better.”

It’s really important to us — and productive for the company — to make sure that our employees feel as engaged and involved as they did when there were just the eight of us in the drafty old space, or at least as close as possible. That kind of openness and respect for people’s opinions has always been central to our philosophy.

We look for both internal and external yardsticks to see how things trend and calibrate how we practice our values and culture. For example, Dyn has been named one of the country’s “Most Democratic Workplaces” for three years running by World Blu. These kinds of competitions/rankings might seem like great honors, but they alone are no substitute for constant and real feedback. And the feedback is only so good as the company is willing and able to change.

Dyn Lunch

A glimpse of what lunch at Dyn used to look like when we could all fit around one table.

We have also hung on to an evolving lunch tradition. Early on, we had catered lunch three days a week. When we moved offices, we instituted “socialist sandwich Tuesdays.” Because the office space was more expensive, we asked people to bring in lunch meats and bread for lunch (hence the socialist sandwiches). As we got bigger, that was harder to coordinate, so we started buying lunch. In our Brighton, UK office, they do Chinese food.

We also developed Geek Week where we encourage Dyners to celebrate their inner geeks. Everyone is passionate about something, and it’s wonderful to see “lunch ‘n’ learns” where people talk about scuba diving, their online gaming clan, or coffee roasting.

And — this may seem like a small thing — we try to make sure that all the office furniture is the same, so that when people move, they don’t have to adjust to a whole new setup.

There are some things I wish we didn’t have to change. We used to have this ritual where we would inform people about raises via yellow sticky notes. We’d write their new salary on a yellow sticky and hand it to them. The yellow sticky was like a little brass band — a symbol of positive reinforcement … and more cash. What’s not to love? When the yellow stickies stopped showing up, people freaked out a little. Weren’t they doing well? Of course they were, we just had to be more formal about the process. We should have told everyone we were changing that ritual. And I wish we had replaced it with something equally fun but appropriately professional (which I am pretty sure is possible).

So, in addition to the big stuff — like maintaining customer focus, openness and autonomy and consistent benefits — we try to recognize the yellow stickies, those small rituals that bring consistency amid a culture of change.

My own Change Index, BTW?

I moved twice in each of our first three offices and four times in our current headquarters, plus I have had one supervisor change when we created a board in 2012. So ten moves plus one supervisor change divided by 12 years — so it’s 0.8. And, even at that very low number, it’s been quite the amazing ride.

We have deliberately kept some other things consistent. We remain relentlessly focused on results, and on our customers. We have maintained consistent benefits and flexible hours and telecommuting options while modifying other practices to fit a different scale. It requires constant work, but Dyn — like any company — is a people business.


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Whois: Jeremy Hitchcock

Jeremy Hitchcock is Founder of Dyn, a cloud-based Internet Performance company that helps companies monitor, control, and optimize online infrastructure for an exceptional end-user experience. Follow him on Twitter: @jhitchco and @Dyn.