Spotlight On: How to Deliver When the Stakes are High and the Pace is Fast
Welcome to the second installment in our three-part interview series with Amol Kulkarni, Chief Product Officer for CrowdStrike.
In our first conversation, Amol discussed why he decided to join CrowdStrike after a long and successful career at Microsoft, and what were some of the factors that led him to pivot his career into a new industry—cybersecurity.
In this installment, we discuss the importance of the people at CrowdStrike and how building a world-class team enables them to build a best-in-class product. Here we explore what it is about CrowdStrike’s structure, culture, mission and vision that enables the company to flourish even when the stakes are high and the pace is fast.
Peter: The work you described in our last interview sounds very challenging. Practically speaking, how do you structure your teams so that they can deliver in challenging situations and under intense pressure?
Amol: When you have a large, aggressive roadmap to tackle, you have to have a well-defined plan for how you are going to get from point A to point B. So for me, that’s two things: One, we have what I think is a very unique software development life cycle which enables this rapid iteration mentality—shipping minimum viable features while decoupling the release train from what we consider a major initiative. This enables our people to go “heads down” and focus on one area, building out the next feature in a consistent way. Afterwards, they can hop on the next release train whether that happens tomorrow or next week or in two weeks.
In this way, we strike a balance between quality and iteration. It's crucial for us to be able to maintain that balance because we run on the endpoint. Any major bug can cause a “blue screen” or “kernel panic.” So having a healthy give and take between quality, long-term architecture and new product features is important.
The second part is—and this is what amazes me every single day—the team just wants to do more. We have been able to create a culture where the “can do” attitude is infectious for anyone who comes in. We've had people join us from very hierarchical, conservative organizations and because of the team culture, they feel empowered and are able to ramp quickly and begin contributing right away.
Peter: When you’re building the team, how do you differentiate between the long-term strategic platform building and the realities of needing to move quickly with an aggressive product roadmap?
Amol: It’s actually a very organic push and pull between the two. Making sure that the architecture is being built in a forward-looking way—rather than only focusing on the immediate needs—has enabled us to continue building the platform while also rapidly shipping products. The architects and the senior engineers are really looking out long-term, while product managers want things to be bite-sized and to do quick iterations. We want to make sure that the balance exists between both of those asks and needs. It's a critical, but a hard thing to do.
For example, right now we are going through a journey as the platform expands to more than ten products, each of which have individual product teams. Those teams are meant to focus and iterate rapidly. But one of the key things we did as part of that process is to create an overlay across all the product teams to ensure the right architecture and functionality is built in. That helps ensure our competitive focus.
Peter: What do you look for in a new hire and how do you get them up to speed?
Amol: As I am growing my engineering organization, I primarily prioritize core capabilities or competencies. If the person has those, if he or she has a strong base, then I believe the rest can be learned. The ability to build from the base is crucial whether you are a cloud engineer, a UI engineer, UX designer or a kernel engineer.
I also think that a person must have a passion for technology and an interest in the mission that we have. We are totally and singularly focused on one thing in everything we do – protecting our customers. That's really fulfilling, to be able to say, “together we stopped the bad guys.” That to me is a very unique proposition. And then, again, it comes down to the core competencies. For technical roles, you need to have a strong foundation. You hire the best and the brightest and then set them loose.
In terms of onboarding, we take a conservative approach. I know that a lot of tech companies have an infrastructure that has harnesses and validation built in so that a newcomer can come in and make a mistake and it will get caught during design reviews or code reviews or testing. We don't have as deep of a test infrastructure. So we rely on making sure that that ramp-up is gradual and people take on progressively complex tasks.
We do this for two reasons. One, it helps reduce any intimidation someone might be feeling due to the scale of our architecture. People don’t have to be concerned by the potential impact their work can have on the system overall as they are learning. And two, they can see the team in action. They can learn by example.
Peter: How do you think about culture in a state of rapid growth?
Amol: You're right, we’re still in a rapid growth stage right now, which is great. But when a company is growing this fast, there has to be flexibility and above all else, trust in the team you have built around you. Culture is probably the biggest thing—the culture within the team. Maintaining that and ensuring that we keep our bottom-up innovation in and the politics and hierarchy out. That's crucial for me. So finding people who are able to evolve, who can run fast and want to make an impact without worrying about positioning themselves or posturing—is crucial. In terms of organizational change, we’re in the process of dividing one holistic product group into six different product areas. What that means for me is that I can no longer be directly involved in the decision-making process for every area all the time. People within each product group need to feel empowered to make those decisions. That’s a change for everyone but I’m really pleasantly surprised at what I'm seeing so far. It takes a lot of time and the pace is hectic, but I’m happy with what we have been able to accomplish so far.
In our final installment in this three-part series, we’ll be talking tech industry challenges, including: workload, scale, and diversity.