TL;DR: After five amazing years working at bol.com, it is now time to start a new adventure. I am becoming an independent consultant, on the topics related to the sustainable evolution of sociotechnical systems, organizational design, and enabling technical leadership & (software) architecture. This encompasses many different aspects and perspectives, but the main goal is to help organizations on achieving a more sustainable evolution of their teams and (software) technical systems - driven by customer and business goals.
The 5-year cycle…
As I finally managed to seat down to write this post, I noticed something: I have been having a sort of professional career shift every five years or so. First, my academic years (a little more than five years); then my startup years; and my last “cycle” working on fast pace scale-up orgs. Not sure if there is something on this, let’s see what happens ~2027.
Before I get into what I am going to be doing next, I want to look back at the last five years and my amazing time working at bol.com (the biggest online retailer - platform - in The Netherlands and Belgium). This was such a great adventure, where I had the opportunity to work on many different interesting challenges.
I started working as a software engineer on one of bol.com’s product teams (at that time there were about ~70-80 teams… now there are about 160 teams, which is a reflection of the hyper-growth I was privileged to experience). This first experience allowed me to see firsthand what happens when teams are empowered to own their systems, and products and evolve them continuously (with a clear understanding of their impact on the “bigger system”). I also experienced what true “Continuous Delivery” is, deploying my first change to production in the first days I was in. Changes would go from our machines to production in a matter of minutes (without any “controlling parties” blocking our flow). All of this is possible because of the attention the company paid to develop a great engineering culture, but also a trusting and safe environment where people can take ownership of the things they work on (as bol.com says: “You Build It; You Run It; You Love It” - yes, also “loving” things, not just building and running things).
I then moved into being Tech Lead for data science. There I started working with a driven group of people with the mission of shaping the next model of data science in the organization. Goal: define a scalable model for data science. My initial focus was mostly on helping consolidate the foundational technical platform to do data science, and coach data scientists and engineers on working more effectively with each other. That was very interesting. However, I quickly noticed that the biggest challenge to scaling data science wasn’t those aspects. The biggest challenge was the way we organize the people doing data science. In particular: we should stop the idea of having a “central data science department” (who would “lend” people on projects around the different products of the organization). Instead, we needed to move into a model that treats data science as “yet another discipline” that can be embedded in the teams and products that need it, so data science people become part of the team and product, instead of operating in a “project-based” way. That project-based model was not compatible with the product thinking mindset in the organization (where products and their teams are empowered with strong ownership of the systems they own and should be continuously evolving). Pivoting wasn’t trivial, but with a committed community, a lot of work, and supporting leadership, we managed to make things happen and establish data science as a strong “discipline” in the organization. (I will write more about this adventure in the future - as it is a rather interesting journey).
After that, I moved into a new challenge. At that time the organization was shifting from “fast-moving empowered teams” doing the best they could on their scope, into becoming more product-oriented. The goal, define a clear taxonomy of products that define the key value streams in the organization and have more clarity and alignment across multiple teams owning the different elements of each product. This transition meant having clearer product management (and product managers) across the teams in the product. However, at the same time - and given that all bol.com products are tech-enabled, we also needed to have a strong technical vision for the product. This is why “product tech leads” were introduced. I was one of the “founders” of this group and led this group for the last two years. We called it the “Tech Leads Network”. The word “network” was selected on purpose, as although each Tech Lead works on a single product with the different teams on that scope, we knew we wanted to leverage cross-product knowledge, learnings, and platforms. And my assumptions were fortunately validated: it was amazing seeing people helping each other with different challenges (of starting in this function or sharing knowledge on how to approach different challenges - especially “shared challenges”). This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. It was extra special as we managed to successfully do it during a rather complex moment of the last few years: in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a great journey for me, and one where I validated my long-term assumption that people doing “tech” and “product” should never work in isolation: they must work together to build great tech-enabled products. These experiences influenced a lot of my learnings and explorations around the topic of “sociotechnical systems evolution” over the last few years, which triggered also my new adventure as an independent consultant.
I have truly enjoyed every adventure and challenge I had at bol.com and learned a lot with so many brilliant and friendly people. Apart from all the things I shared, what I take away with me from bol.com is the fact that having a great culture. They focus on putting people first and giving them conditions to flourish (safety, trust, “go for it” attitude, etc.). This is one of the most important thing organizations can develop to succeed. All the rest is going to be built on top of that. Many companies still neglect this and fail to create such conditions, instead of focusing on “micromanaging” and “politics”, which means people end up not feeling supported and feeling unhappy… ending up “waiting for what the boss wants them to do next”.
All of the experiences and challenges over the last five years led me to explore new areas and ideas, such as systems thinking, sociotechnical systems, team topologies, enabling leadership models, organization design and Evolution, Domain-Driven Design, etc. That also allowed me to meet many great people doing amazing work in these areas, which are not always easy to grasp and often confused or (not yet) understood. I also started realizing that although I love “technical challenges” (been focusing on that for 20+ years), I get even more energy from exploring and facilitating change in broader framing, the sociotechnical systems framing. Namely, thinking about how to co-evolve teams and technical systems, to enable them to understand and respond more effectively to their customer and environment. I realized that having such a holistic understanding and approach to the design of tech-enabled organizations is key to unlocking sustainable evolution. Why? Well, because if we try to simply change the technical system without acknowledging (and involving!) the people/teams that are building and evolving it, and also considering the actual environment where it will exist, things will fail sooner or later. This is why I like using the following mental model, as it allows for conversations that consider all these systems and dimensions - which are highly dependent and influence each other. As such, it is important to consider them all whenever we want to design and evolve things (which in fact should be a continuous thing, given that these are rather dynamic systems, always changing).
So, what next? Well, following the realization I just shared, I will be focusing on helping companies on achieving more sustainable evolution of their tech-enabled organizations’ teams and technical systems based on their customers/environment and business goals. This encompasses many different aspects, like Team Topologies & org evolution (especially, how to enable organizational structures and dynamics for “fast flow” - i.e.: quickly respond to customer needs or environment changes); but also how to find suitable sociotechnical boundaries (using different techniques, such as Domain-Driven Design and other natural fracture planes), develop technical leadership that can enable the organization to evolve and have a clear technical vision, and strategies; and other elements that allow organizations to develop and engrain these thinking models and elements into their operating models.
You can find more details on what services and offerings I am developing here: esilva.net/consuting In a nutshell, I will be offering different training, coaching, advising, and consulting services, including workshops on key topics needed to support a more sustainable evolution of tech-enabled organizations (their products, teams/organization, tech). Furthermore, I will also be offering coaching and mentoring for technical and product leaders, to help them and their organizations to skill up on these topics.
I want to highlight some important collaborations already happening, namely: I will be closely collaborating with Team Topologies authors, as one of their Team Topologies Valued Practitioners (TTVP). I will focus on help scaling the adoption and knowledge of Team Topologies and related topics (via workshops and coaching), but also consult with companies on related topics. Furthermore, I will also be closely collaborating with Mathias Verraes and the amazing people from Aardling. Aardling is a company that specializes in helping companies navigating complex transformations and finding strategies for improving their technical and sociotechnical systems (using Domain-Driven Design, but many other elements, such as tech strategy and org design).
I am excited about this new adventure. Stay tuned, I plan to write more on the ideas and things I am developing and experimenting with. If you are interested in the topics I will be working on and think we should collaborate, or think I can be of help, don’t hesitate on contacting me.