When I first joined Facebook there was an unhealthy tension between engineering and operations. Jeff Rothschild, our VP of engineering, explained to me one day that such tension was common in tech companies. The job of operations was to ensure stable systems while the job of engineering was to change things. The incentives of the two organizations were not aligned.
The problem seemed like a structural one. While this point of view made me more empathetic to our ops team I now worried the underlying conflict was inevitable.
A year or so later I had an idea for how to fight would-be spammers that struck me as pretty aggressive. I figured I had better loop in legal. Even with my brief work experience, I knew legal departments tended to have incentives more like those of ops than engineering. I prepared myself for conflict, expecting to have to battle through several rejections before I could proceed.
But when I finally told my idea to our General Counsel in the hallway, he didn’t say “no.” He just said “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” and then walked away.
I was floored. He had refused to engage in the antagonism I had prepared for and instead left me with all the responsibility for my actions.
I was also terrified. There was no way I wanted to proceed with my plan if I was going to be solely responsible for any legal risk it created. I suddenly felt immense personal ownership over the goals of the legal team. It was an incredible shift in perspective. And once I approached them with that mindset I found that they, in turn, took my goal on as their own. We worked together.
Lest people fear for our compliance: I can’t think of an example where we did something without legal. That is not in spite of their approach, it is because of it.
I call this concept the Service Oriented Organization. When someone approaches you with a problem, simply imagine you were the CEO of your own company and that person was a client. You can’t command them to do anything, and you can only help to the degree they want your help. If you give great advice, they will come to you more often.
As my example illustrates, this doesn’t just affect the organization providing service. It has a huge impact on those who wish to engage such services. Once I realize that I am entirely responsible for my own decisions, I start to feel a lot of pressure. Thankfully, the company has surrounded me with a team of professionals whose job is to help me be successful. How arrogant would I be to make a decision on legal matters without consulting our experts? Likewise for matters of design, engineering, marketing, or any other discipline you can imagine.
This service oriented approach has become the standard at Facebook over time, though it is not ubiquitous. It was the key to better aligning our engineering and operations teams and relieving the tension between them. Instead of each organization putting its own goals first, it subjugates them to the goals of the teams they work with. They define success by how much they helped other teams succeed.