Engineers @ PhonePe – designing solutions for a Billion Indians!

Rahul Chari, Co-founder & CTO at PhonePe shares how strong culture fuels PhonePe engineers’ aspirations of continuous learning, pursuing excellence, delivering great results, and creating a long-term positive societal impact.
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When you do a quick search on ‘How to build a successful career as a Software Engineer’ it throws up multiple search results with a lot of helpful tips and advice - from entering the right college, defining your goals, committing to continuous personal development, to joining a well-known large company which pays well, to name a few. While the list continues and every piece of advice is vital, the more important question to answer before figuring out the how, is "What does a successful career as a Software Engineer look like?" This question will compel one to look at important factors that contribute to a successful career such as - deepening functional skills, cross-functional learning, company culture, and consistent impact & value creation.

Today, when the technology industry is grappling with a massive talent crunch, engineers have a great opportunity to choose from the many options available to them. While an astounding offer is always attractive, it is crucial to assess your career stage (Exploration, Establishment, Mid-Career or Late-Career) and the value addition that the company you are considering can bring to your career before making a decision. Because while the offer may be tempting, other factors like mentored on-the-job learning, nurturing entrepreneurial spirit, long-term career progression and exposure to functions beyond technology are paramount in choosing the right job.

What I have seen is that finally companies with the highest retention rates offer a potent tether that trumps material perks – a strong CULTURE. 'Culture' often is a highly valued yet poorly articulated asset of a company. And most engineers, when asked what a great workplace culture looks like, are unable to describe it beyond the cliche.

I believe that good culture is one that pushes you to continuously learn, provides you with the freedom to speak up fearlessly, promotes innovation, and allows you to do your best work, every day! And great culture is when the company creates the structural scaffolding to enable each of these aspects, ensuring that they don't remain motherhood statements.

Today, PhonePe is India’s leading digital payment platform with the largest transacting user and merchant base in the country. The engineering function of the company is just 500 people strong and has been instrumental in PhonePe’s success as a leading digital payments player. The core idea at PhonePe is to enable everyone in the company to do meaningful work- work that creates impact, allows people to learn and grow and thus builds value for employees, the organization, our partners, and the economy. We foster a culture of high ownership and passion, ability to deal with ambiguity, growth through continuous learning, and leadership through positive influence.

But these cultural tenets are not just for our website or the office branding. Our engineers are living PhonePe culture through the various initiatives that we have brought into effect. Let me deep-dive into some of these:

1. Flat Org structure in Engineering:

We strongly believe that growth in any function should be a pursuit of excellence that is measured only through the lens of expanding responsibility and growing impact. The positive side effect of this in a healthy organization is continuous learning and increasing rewards. Labeling this growth with titles has the unwanted side effects of imposing hierarchy and making achieving the next title the focus of an individual. To retain the positives while doing away with the negatives, to remove boundaries of hierarchy that stifle innovation and drive a deeper culture of meritocracy we decided to transition the engineering function to a flat structure. And to augment the holistic development through learning and skill accumulation over time, while still focussing on the organisation’s goals and needs, we curated a growth framework for engineers and engineering managers -"The PhonePe Engineering Journey".

PhonePe’s engineering journey is defined as a framework that maps the growth of any individual in the engineering organization through their scope of ownership, influence & impact rather than tenure or hierarchy. It is designed to serve the following purpose:

1. Be a guide to individual contributors on traits and skills they need to develop to be more effective as their responsibilities broaden

2. Be a guide for managers to grow the responsibilities of individuals in their team as they show promise while ensuring that they are rewarded fairly and consistently for their valuable contributions

3. Keep the engineering organization committed to creating an environment that makes learning on the job and application of the same for impact the primary goal of every individual, with career growth being a natural outcome of this process.

2. PODs - Startups within a startup:

Engineers often get restricted within the functional aspects of their core competency with minimal exposure to business-oriented functions such as people management, product development & management, sales, marketing, finance, operations, amongst others. A lack of understanding and appreciation of these functions curtails growth in the long term.

At PhonePe, we provide opportunities to develop new skill sets in other functions and fuel their entrepreneurial spirit with a unique ‘POD’ structure. The Engineering team is structured to work in Pods, like a startup and each Pod works on a different charter. For example, if we have a charter/business idea that has the longevity of a year or beyond, we invest in building a Pod for that roadmap. For that, we identify all the individuals needed to make the ‘pod’ successful. So, if there is a ‘Mutual Funds’ pod, there are engineers, product managers, business and operations managers, etc. who become a startup within the company, wherein they are living and breathing the charter daily and building for the near term and the long term as a team. They are focused on defining the goals for their Pod, with freedom for end-to-end decision-making to make the charter sustainable and scalable.

Working in Pods helps engineers get an in-depth understanding of their product and a holistic understanding of the problem that they are solving besides developing new skill sets while honing the existing ones. It not only fuels their ownership levels but also nurtures their entrepreneurial spirit which is true growth. And the problem of context switching across problem statements as an engineer in a fast-growing organization without going deep into any one area is circumvented.

3. On the Job learning

When concepts are learned in a practical setting in the right context it has a long-lasting impact and helps in developing technical and non-technical skills. Experiencing the direct consequences of one’s actions also helps in developing engineering judgment. On-the-job learning is a crucial factor for career progression; however, engineers also need the environment and scale to learn and innovate. Let me put this into the context of PhonePe.

Today, PhonePe is India’s leading digital payment platform with total monthly transactions of 2.3+ billion, the largest transacting user base of 365+ million, and over 28 million merchants (offline, online & in-app) across the country. The engineering lens of scalability to take to this is that each PhonePe engineer is contributing to managing almost a million users and 5 million monthly transactions. And this is a metric that will only improve with time if the focus to continuously make systems more performant, scalable, and reliable is there, a true realization of economies of scale. At scale, improving a metric like the average success rate of a transaction by even a percentage point is a very challenging problem statement.

PhonePe also practices a very high level of data transparency in the organization with the singular intent of fueling data-driven decisions and innovation. While ensuring that we have the highest level of data governance when it comes to PII and SI of our users, anonymized data at an aggregate level across all categories and functions are available to every engineer. This gives an amazing ring-side view to each engineer about how technology is fueling businesses, driving efficiencies, and creating impact across various teams within the organization. Every engineer is encouraged to use data to better things irrespective of which team he or she belongs to. The team has taken this philosophy of data democracy to the next level by open-sourcing our data through the PhonePe Pulse project - both as a product and as open APIs on github.

Offering the best of both worlds, PhonePe provides engineers with a startup environment wherein they can build systems ground-up for greenfield opportunities including platforms that contribute to the future PaaS stack for PhonePe and the scale that big Tech companies offer in terms of users, usage, and transactions.

4. Structured Learning Program - PhonePe University

Learning and development at PhonePe is not only aimed to make people think deeply about problem statements but to also fuel their future and help them achieve their goals – professional and personal. With a vision to curate a structured learning program we launched the PhonePe University, an umbrella program that helps in upskilling and addressing the learning needs of PhonePe Tech by running different programs, with the intent of enhancing impact. The PhonePe University has been launched with three clear objectives:

1. Accelerated Learning - Our approach has been to distribute the abundant tribal knowledge that already exists within the organization, thereby driving holistic solutions with a deep understanding of core platforms, its components and infrastructure with the engineers. Such an experiential learning approach helps engineers to leapfrog the experience cycle and develop a much-needed understanding of the ecosystem.

2. Understanding a complex & distributed architecture - In PhonePe tech we drive complex systems with a highly distributed architecture. By being able to understand these systems we focus on enhancing the troubleshooting capabilities within our engineers.

3. Cater to Curiosity – Engineers @ PhonePe always remain curious to explore and act on new possibilities. They want to be able to learn rapidly to contribute effectively within/outside their pods. PhonePe University helps us cater to the promise of growth through learning and drive their mindset towards a stronger sense of ownership.

Under the aegis of PhonePe University, we run various specialised learning tracks with the intent of enhancing impact for the employee at every touchpoint of their learning journey so that they can broaden their horizon faster and add value to the organisation. Some of the learning tracks are:

  • The Project Model: This is a hands-on learning track wherein the focus is to grow people in specific areas by assessing their current capabilities, identifying a technically complex problem, defining necessary support path including mentoring with a senior member in the team, developing any particular skill to execute on the same and holistic feedback both on technical and behavioural aspects through the project journey with periodic checkpoints and reviews with the engineering leadership team.
  • The Workshop Model: is an expansion of the engineer’s theoretical knowledge but with a practical lens. Under this model, a larger group of participants undergo a specialized training/course session together as a working group to develop expertise on a technical topic. (e.g. understanding design patterns, data modelling concepts, debugging). These workshops are conducted over the weekends or after hours by mentors within the company.
  • The PhonePe Tech Scholar program: This is an online externship program with the intent to bring more women into high-tech development roles. Women developers who are in their final year of education can apply and selected women developers will go through a rigorous 4 to 5 months work-integrated learning program powered by Crio.Do. During this program, they will improve their foundational skills and work on real-world PhonePe specific problem statements.
  • The Engineering Bootcamp: We make sure that our tech-campus-hires undergo suitable training such as engineering, functional and ecosystem sessions along with leadership and tech talks that helps freshers to adapt to our platforms, projects, unique Engineering philosophy, and our Tech culture and approach. This six-week intensive induction program is built to accelerate learning on the technical aspects and sharpen communication and collaboration skills that help them to comfortably settle down in their respective pods.

We have successfully launched offerings on all the tracks, which have been very well received across the engineering organization. The interest levels in the offerings are a testament to the impact of the programs and we continue to improve and add more offerings.

5. Partners in long-term wealth creation:

PhonePe is a people-driven company where the primary driver of success is the contribution and commitment of its people. We can only continue to grow and prosper if our employees see themselves as owners. So, if we expect all our employees to act as owners, we felt it was only right that we make them owners. Thus, in January 2021, we rolled out the ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), giving every employee across levels the opportunity to own a part of the company. The PhonePe Stock Option Plan is a core component of our compensation philosophy crafted to encourage collaboration, long-term focus and organization-first thinking. As we unlock value and expand the market, we expand the opportunity for everyone, creating a positive flywheel of success.

In a recent conversation that I moderated we discussed that while nearly 200 million people have come on board the digital payment ecosystem, the next challenge is to get 700 million to adopt it. That is a phenomenal readymade scale! PhonePe being the market leader is at a sweet spot – a ready high potential scale that offers engineers with exposure, greenfield opportunities, and flexibility to innovate.

We offer people the chance to work closely with smart people who are passionate about their craft and can partner to solve some of the most complex problems of the day. The informal environment, transparency, and flat organization structure at PhonePe enables everyone to focus on learning, delivering great results, and creating a positive impact!

So, next time you think about which company to join, evaluate what it is that you want – a job or a commitment to creating societal value whilst ensuring long-lasting learning and long-term wealth creation for yourself. The choice is yours!


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