Graceful Shutdown of Responsibilities in a Growing Organization

February 13, 2022

I usually write about deep technical topics, frequently going into extreme detail about how systems work. I love a good technical challenge, but recently the most challenging thing I have been working on at my day job has not been technical.

Achieving Outsized Impact

I joined Upbound essentially straight out of college after working on the open source Crossplane project on nights and weekends. The team was quite small and quite senior at that point, making me a bit of an anomaly in the organization. I had worked a number of full-time engineering jobs while earning my undergraduate degree, but was mostly “new” to the industry. Despite my relative inexperience compared to other folks in the company, I was immediately given the opportunity to take ownership of fairly significant initiatives, and as I demonstrated my dedication to delivering quality outcomes, I increasingly found myself with a “seat at the table” in a variety of decision making realms.

While I do think the voice that I was given and the trust that was placed in me early on is something that is culturally unique to Upbound, I don’t think that I personally am overly exceptional at the many different roles I have played. While I do hope to be considered a talented engineer, a primary reason for me gaining influence in areas such as sales and marketing was simply that there was a need and I worked hard. I believe this is actually a fairly common position that folks earlier in their careers find themselves in at high growth startups. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be writing this post because it wouldn’t be applicable for others.

For more than two years, my influence and ownership in our Series A company continued to grow and I was formally promoted a few times, eventually landing at a staff engineer role. Additionally, because of my penchant for sharing things publicly, the external perception of my impact at Upbound also continued to grow.

Success Leads to Growth

A few months ago, we raised a large (in my limited experience) Series B round of funding. This is one area of the company I have had zero influence in. While I love literally everything about computers and I am fiercely competitive when it comes to building a well functioning organization, I am not a person that is ever going to prioritize capitalistic endeavors.

Maybe this post should be called “How to Ruin Your Chances of Ever Founding a Venture-Backed Startup”.

This is fine. It is not my job to raise money for our company, and we have folks that are very good at that. The point is, we were gaining traction as a business, we had a compelling vision, and we had demonstrated the ability to deliver as a team. The natural next step was growth.

This is an exciting step for an organization, and I was pleased with the external validation from folks who believed we had an opportunity to be very successful. I was also nervous. As much as I would like to not admit it, I have grown accustomed to having at least some influence in most things that happen at the company. Leading up to and following raising funding, we started to bring in more folks in leadership positions, such as our incredible new VP of Engineering. These hires have inherently inserted more layers between myself and the “room where it happens”. Furthermore, we also hired more folks in individual contributor roles, which doesn’t necessarily insert additional layers, but does add more voices to all conversations.

We have continued to add more and more folks to the team, drastically increasing our potential output as an organization. My broad ownership in various aspects of the company continues to decline as I am included in less conversations and work is more equitably distributed to the growing number of contributors. While I am most familiar with my own experience, I know the same is true for other folks who have been at the company for any significant period of time.

It Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Despite growing very quickly, this reduction of ownership and involvement doesn’t happen overnight. It typically looks like being removed from an invite here and there, seeing the result of things happening without being involved in their planning, and having a number of conversations about organizational structure, roles, and responsibilities.

When you list it out, it can paint a grim picture. However, while I won’t lie and tell you it is always comfortable and easy, there are ways to find joy in this process, particularly if you care deeply about the folks that work alongside you. One of the things I have been thinking about a lot during this time is how to transition out of responsibilities well. Being an engineer, I like to call it graceful shutdown.

A Philosophy for Graceful Shutdown

As I navigate this constantly evolving environment, and serve as tech lead of a team of engineers that are doing the same, I have started to gravitate towards a two-pronged approach for shifting responsibilities from one individual or group to another:

  1. Empower the next owner.
  2. Celebrate the former owner.

Both sides of the exchange, as well as the greater organization, play integral roles in this process. As the existing, and soon to be former, owner you can empower the next owner through documentation, synchronous communication, and ongoing support for a time-boxed period. In many ways, this handoff can be a powerful reflective time for the former owner as there is time set aside to evaluate the positive and negative aspects of the process or project, and let them impact future work that you do. It is also a valuable opportunity to improve overall quality for future handoffs.

As the next owner, you can invest the time to learn about the history of the project, understanding how it came to its current form, asking insightful questions, and listening to the former owner’s thoughts about what parts function well and what parts need improvement. In doing so, you demonstrate respect for the time and effort they have put into the project, without ignoring the shortcomings that inevitably exist in anything built in an early stage company. In an environment of psychological safety, room for improvement should be able to be discussed freely and without blame.

As a member of the organization, whether you are directly involved in the handoff or not, you have an opportunity to play a role in celebrating the former owner. This is typically led by the new owner or a manager of the former owner, as they have context around the work that was put into the project, as well as the work that the former owner will be doing now that they no longer hold responsibility of the transitioned project. An important aspect of doing this well is understanding how the former owner feels most appreciated. Celebration in its simplest form can look like public recognition, but can also manifest in countless other ways, such as giving the former owner opportunities to work on new things they find interesting, or even an informal event where a team that built something has lunch and reminisces on some of the milestones and efforts that went into the project. The point is that people feel celebrated in different ways, and it is your responsibility as a teammate to learn about how your colleagues want to be affirmed.

Less Ownership Doesn’t Have to Mean Less Influence

When you are giving up ownership of tasks and initiatives, it can feel like you are losing influence that you once had. While this may be true in a given area, it typically means that your influence can grow in others. In theory, your net impact can become greater as you move to playing a more focused critical role in a larger organization. For example, while all areas of company building are interesting to someone who loves optimizing systems, I care much more about quality engineering and solving hard technical problems than I do about crafting the perfect marketing message. When I cede control of responsibilities that are less interesting to me to folks who care deeply about them and are more gifted in those areas, I have the opportunity to dedicate more time and energy to engineering, and the organization has better marketing.

Another key point to recognize is that someone else owning an area does not invalidate the work you have done in that area in the past. About six months ago, I moved from working almost exclusively on Crossplane to working on Upbound’s products and services. As I have had less and less time to dedicate to the Crossplane community and feature work on the project, other folks have picked up the areas that I was primarily responsible for and are working on continuing to grow them. While I certainly would not take responsibility for the efforts they are pushing today, I do feel pride and joy in the work that I have done to make some of those efforts possible. In the same way, I know folks who came before me in working on Crossplane feel that way about the work that I did.

Closing Thoughts

As you can tell from this post, these are somewhat uncharted waters for me, but I do have the privilege of getting to participate in handoffs where I am playing each of the roles described above, and experiencing each has taught me more about how to do the others well. As with any situation involving humans, there is always nuance, which I hope is reflected in the simplicity of the philosophy. The odds are that you and the organization you are part of will do this imperfectly, but in every transition you have an opportunity to communicate well and show respect for all individuals involved. In other words, use SIGTERM not SIGKILL.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to send me a message @hasheddan on Twitter!