[Podcast] Scale lessons from Flipkart's engineering and strategy heads

In the new podcast miniseries, Jeyandran Venugopal, Chief Product and Technology Officer at Flipkart; and Naren Ravula, Vice President and Head of Strategy at Flipkart, speak about building a strong engineering team, and strategy and also about Flipkart’s Leap Accelerator programme.

[Podcast] Scale lessons from Flipkart's engineering and strategy heads

Sunday September 27, 2020,

12 min Read

Most of our podcasts are targeted towards early-stage founders looking to build and scale their companies. But now, we are also launching a new podcast mini series keeping in mind the founders of fast-growth companies.

The Scale Playbook, as the name suggests, will help unravel the playbook of large startups for founders to understand how to solve scale challenges across different business functions like engineering, product, sales and strategy through candid conversations with specialists from some of the most successful startups in the ecosystem. For our first episode, we have two industry stalwarts from Flipkart— one of India’s largest ecommerce platforms.

Jeyandran Venugopal is the Chief Product and Technology Officer at Flipkart. He has previously led several engineering and product teams at Myntra, Yahoo, and Amazon. Naren Ravula is the Vice President and Head of Strategy at Flipkart. He was leading product strategy and operations at Salesforce and NetApp previously.

Today’s episode is focussed on building a strong engineering team and strategy. We will also touch upon Flipkart’s Leap Accelerator programme, which is targeted towards early-stage founders.

Tune in to hear more interesting insights from Jeyandran Venugopal and Naren Ravula:

CTO versus Head of Engineering

The roles of a CTO and an engineering head may be merged at an early-stage startup, but as the company grows, the two roles branch out and a clear distinction is created, says Jey, who started out as an engineer and after growing through the ranks, currently has an executive role at Flipkart.

“My role today isn’t managing the day-to-day execution. It’s focussed on setting the vision and strategy, allocating resources, working with the rest of the functions, driving innovation...,” he explains.

So, the CTO at a large company is someone who would have a seat at the table along with the rest of the business leaders to be able to represent engineering in a meaningful way so that an engineering lens is applied when the company’s strategy is being worked on.

On the other hand, the engineering leader’s role is typically more inward-focussed. They would play the role of an operator with the focus being on maintaining technology hygiene of the product being developed, working with the teams closely for architectural decisions, design elements of the product being built. 

The role of an engineering head at an early-stage startup

Usually, with an early-stage company, with an established product-market fit, an engineering head is expected to be hands-on and deeply connected with the work the teams are doing. An ideal engineering head would not only focus on architectural validation, but will actively think of evolving the architecture to suit the company’s needs over the next two to three years. 

Here are some ways to check if the engineering leader is scaling with the company or not:

  1. Attrition rate: Engineers get frustrated when there isn't a clear direction. So if there is a high level of churn in the engineering team, it’s a sign that the interfacing role that the engineer has to play is effectively creating a clear roadmap for the short to medium term is not happening. That’s one metric Jey encourages founders and the board to look at.
  2. Reliability and Resilience: The other aspect would be in terms of reliability and resilience metrics of the products by the company. If the founder notices increasing angst in customers, that’s a sign. For a B2C company, one could watch out for metrics such as crashes per every 10,000 sessions on the Play Store and the App Store, and reviews and ratings by customers. 
  3. Architectural Flexibility: The third metric is somewhat difficult to measure but easy to figure out in practice. If the codebases are evolving in unsustainable ways, the founder would notice that incrementally it becomes more and more difficult to add new features and evolve the product. That’s a clear sign that the product is being built through a whole lot of patches, thereby slowing down the velocity of new feature development for the teams. 

How to hire an ideal engineering leader?

Jey says that for an ideal engineering leader to be working with a small team, one would want someone who is willing to go into details and get their hands dirty. This behaviour also commands a lot of respect from the engineers, which provides a smooth workflow. 

‍So what would a typical process look like?

  • Experience is important: For second-level management, you would have had some reasonable level of ability to hire and retain people, manage organisations, and be able to inspire people. While hiring, one should look for past experience that demonstrates the candidate is aligned with these traits. Figure out if they have been part of companies where they have managed teams at that scale. Understand if the candidate has worked on products that are at a scale that the founder envisions their products to be in the next two to three years.
“Don’t look for people who have worked with very small scale or very large scale because both extremes are not a good idea. Find a sweet spot and look for people who would take the company forward in the next two years of scaling,” says Jey. 
  • Candidate Sourcing: Founders should rely on references for potential candidates rather than cold sourcing especially because this would be a senior leadership role. “If the founders are fortunate enough to be funded by Accel or the Seed to Scale program, they can also rely on the network on people supporting them from the community for referencing,” adds Jey.  
  • Spend enough time: The founders should spend enough time with the candidate in both a formal and informal setting to build that rapport and comfort. Even other key stakeholders of the company should ideally spend some time with the candidate and feel like they can relate to this person. That’s because one of the key aspects for an engineering head is to abstract the technical complexities and be able to convey it to the business side so that decisions can be made keeping the engineering aspects in mind. 
  • A 360-degree panel: At Flipkart, we usually have a 360-degree panel for the interviewing process with each person on the panel looking for the same competencies so there is a comparison across candidates. For instance, if I am interviewing for an HR role, I see if the person is data-oriented, have they thought about technology as a level to transform functions, if they have the ability to manage and champion change, are they risk-taking, etc. An ideal candidate should be OK even if a junior employee interviews them. 
  • Reference checks: These are extremely important. Apart from the references provided by the candidate, Jey recommends blind reference checks, too. This would include someone who has managed the candidate, someone who has been managed by the candidate, and someone who has been a peer to them. “Can't stress on the importance of blind reference checks,” says Jey. 

Managing large teams

Transparency is one of the major keys to keep a team happy. Jey suggests that founders don’t keep any critical information from their team by answering questions honestly. This makes them feel included. “Every startup goes through ups and downs, so let the teams know so that they can be part of the solution process,” says Jey. 

A Strategy Head is one person rolled into many functionalities - from driving the planning process and managing board interactions to building growth and profitability plans. They may also double up as the Chief of Staff to the CEO, which can be an important role in an early-stage startup.

“In an early-stage startup, the CEO is responsible for a lot of different things and there is no specific person who is in a position to help the CEO beyond the Chief of Staff function,” says Naren, adding “That person essentially becomes a confidante for the CEO, helps organise things at a company level so I think that becomes critically important. So, particularly in early-stage companies, I think the Chief of Staff function essentially becomes a larger part of the head of strategy responsibility as well.” 

How to hire the right Strategy Head?

Even though a strategy person comes from different types of backgrounds, the most standard route tends to be somebody who has come through 

  • consulting or management consulting
  • business or quantitative backgrounds
“In my own case, I've come more from a product and a product strategy background, which I think could be particularly helpful for technology-centric companies,” says Naren. 

The primary key, however, is the diversity of experience. “Particularly in a startup where you're minimising the number of hires that you are making, it is ideal to have somebody who can play multiple roles as the startup itself is going through several iterations.”

Strategic planning, budgeting, and OKRs

Strategic planning at large organisations is something that usually takes place in the second half of the year so that it can come together and be ready for execution at the beginning of the next fiscal or calendar year.

For instance, at Flipkart, the strategic planning begins right after their annual flagship sale event - Big Billion Days - which is held around September or October. They try to make the process as inclusive as possible with a broader set of leaders, the CEO and employees who are two to three levels down.

Naren succinctly breaks down the steps here:

  1. Our process includes a top down component where there are certain central sources of information around market growth, share, views on primary competition and so on - which can be synthesised centrally
  2. This can be augmented with BU specific bottom up views on where those respective functions are going from a from a three year process.
  3. Once these processes are completed, usually over one to two months, then a central team can then synthesize all of this into what we finally call the published company strategy.
  4. After this, we also share this with our board during the December meeting and validate it. 

Budgeting exercise becomes the guardrails to work with

The process of budgeting comes at the end of strategy planning.

“The budget is essentially a constraint which says that of all the things we plan to do, this is what we potentially can do,” explains Naren.

Budgets are factored in with respect to company’s goals for growth and profitability, which need to tie in with new investments for both innovation and new processes. After a bit of back and forth between the strategy and finance teams and coming to a conclusion, the next step forward is planning OKRs - Objectives and Key Results.

OKRs and Annual Operating Plans (AOPs)

Typically at a large organisation such as Flipkart, Naren says that what they aspire to do is a lot more than what they are actually able to formally execute in a particular execution cycle - leading to an overlap in the OKR process. Flipkart has been following a full-blown OKR process for the last two to three years. 

“We also take a sort of a more practical approach, because I think rolling out OKRs in any company is a multi-year journey,” says Naren. “I think we are like let's say two or three years into that sort of five six year type of a journey.” 

For an early-stage startup, Naren says:

  • Clarity on what the founder’s most important priorities are is super helpful. If the company is trying to deal with the complexity of running a full-blown OKR, I would definitely urge them to to scale it back and maybe do one where just the CEO’s priorities are focused on because in a small company it's possible that the CEO’s priorities are everybody's priorities as well.
  • And then as the company gets bigger and more complex, the additional layers can be built. Either way, having a central document or central vision statement, which is three years out, knowing that you know there will be aspects of it that will change, is a worthwhile exercise.

End goal: Eventually every company should ideally get to a place where every single person within the organisation is able to write their OKRs and link it all the way to the CEO’s OKR. 

Flipkart’s new avenues of perpetual innovation

As startups get bigger, they start looking at interesting ways to continuously foster innovation. Keeping this in mind, Flipkart recently launched two initiatives. The first one is called the One K program. Similar to Google’s 10% Program, this allows any Flipkart employee to come up with an idea which would then be enabled by the e-commerce firm.

The second initiative was recently launched with an aim to champion innovation across the startup ecosystem. Flipkart Leap is an accelerator program by the company for early-stage startups with the idea of mentoring startup entrepreneurs and helping them avoid any pitfalls by providing them access to experienced people not only within the organization but also others in their partnership ecosystem.

“We've been a poster child for entrepreneurship in this country for the last 10 plus years and Flipkart Leap is our way to pay that forward as well,” says Naren.  

Flipkart Leap will accept a select number of startups into a four month programme where they would get both business and technology mentorship. There is also a $25,000 equity-free grant for the companies. 

Anand Daniel is a seed/early-stage venture investor with Accel Partners.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

Edited by Megha Reddy