Product Development Tips from the CTO of Atlassian

Emilie Johnston

It’s not everyday you get to pull up a chair and talk shop with the CTO of a powerhouse like Atlassian, but last month CloudApp’s VP of Sales, Scott Smith, got to do just that. Sri Viswanath shared details about the much talked about Trello acquisition, how Atlassian doesn’t have a traditional sales model, and why their core values are honest, effective and sure to make your mother blush.

Sri from Atlassian and Scott from CloudApp

Q - What's brought you to Atlassian from Groupon?

Sri - Atlassian is a unique company. Very unique in terms of the business model, how the company is set up, the people, the values, and the growth that we are having. Our founders started the company in Sydney; they wrote the first version of Jira and have grown the company for the last 15 years. People love working at Atlassian--we can hire the best of the best people across the company.

We are focused on our customers and building the best product that sells itself; our growth is all through word of mouth. We don't have a sales organization like a traditional company. Every day, I come in to build awesome products. As an engineer, as a product leader, to make sure that we build awesome products--that's like a dream job.

Lastly, we are growing at a pretty steep rate. We went public a few years ago, but if you look at our growth we are a double digit growth company. If you're in a growth company, the challenges are multifold. Every day the job gets bigger. I don’t only think about building features for today, but also think about making sure we consider the next five years of growth. Considering all this, it was a slam dunk, coming here. It's been awesome.

Q - You're responsible for a lot of products and you joined the company probably to make a big impact. Is that a daunting task at a big company where there's a lot already established?

Sri - No. We don't act like a big company. We lean heavily on innovation, and we act like a small company in terms of nimbleness and how we operate. We have gone through a number of transitions. For example, we have been investing significantly in the cloud. In the last year in fact, we moved our cloud platform from our own data centers to AWS, which is a massive change for the company. I'm energized by all the challenges that we have. The best part is we have amazing people. My leadership team worries about these challenges and makes sure that we can grow, and I can sleep better.

Q - You have people in San Francisco, New York and Australia. What's been your approach to manage a distributed team in the company?

Sri - The company started in Sydney, Australia. We have teams in two offices within the Bay area, San Francisco and Mountain View. We also have a team in Austin. We are pretty distributed. Our mission is to unleash the potential of teams. We use every single product that you can imagine: Bitbucket, Jira, Confluence, Jira Service Desk, StatusPage--pick your product, we use it all end to end. That helps a lot, because we are trying to solve the collaboration problem. We use HipChat to collaborate in real-time and we have virtual boards that can help us plan. It's actually helpful in multiple ways. It helps us work better and it also makes our products better as we learn how to do this development. It's not an easy problem, but we are here to solve it.

Q - How do you choose which area to focus on when dealing with a lot of different products?

Sri -  We have a lot going on. We have a number of products and we invest in all of them. We also think about how to make sure we get leverage as we scale, meaning investing in the platform that helps every single product. We’ve made significant investments in making sure the common elements we use across different products work exactly the same. If you mention someone’s name, that functionality works exactly the same across different products. When we invest in the products we think about how we improve the existing product, and also how we set it up so that we can build new products and new innovation on top. We take risks which may fail, but also may give us huge returns.

Q - How do you build a strong engineering culture?

Sri - There are a number of factors in building an engineering culture. Number one is people. We want to make sure that we have the best of the best people, and we have a pretty high bar across the board. That is number one, people are everything. Once you get the right people on board, then we need to set up the culture. As a company we have an amazing culture. Open company, no bullshit, play as a team, don't fuck the customer. It builds trust across the whole company because we talk a lot to our employees. We want them to be part of the journey, not just the decision, but also how we made the decision. Our products also reflect that. We have Confluence, which is open by default. If you create a page on Confluence, it's available to the whole company, which is how we want it to be. The products reflect that transparency.  

It's important for people to feel like they're being productive and they're not blocked. Engineers hate being blocked. My goal is to make sure that when they pick up something, they can go all the way in deploying products as fast as possible. We deploy many times a day. But I want to make sure that we not only deploy as fast as possible, but also keep customers’ product view intact. There is a gate check to make sure we roll out updates at the right pace to our customers. We have all the tests and checks in place, and the continuous integration works well in terms of the testing piece. My job is to make sure we build the executional and operational excellence into the culture, which is extremely important as we scale and grow.

Q - What's Atlassian's approach to integrating a company?

Sri - Atlassian has made 18 acquisitions including Trello, which was the largest acquisition we have done so far. The thing that we did really well was to say to Trello: "Look, you guys have done amazing." They’ve grown really fast, and they are super popular with more than 22 million users. We told them, “We also want to learn from you. We are a bigger company, but when we integrate, we want to exchange our knowledge - not just impose things on you, but also learn." One simple thing that we did was we took some of Trello's terminology and rolled it across the company. Things like that have really helped.

Because we’re a public company, there are few things we have to integrate very precisely, but everything else has been a two-way street, which is very different from what other companies do. The other thing that we did was intentionally try to not slow anybody down, to watch and learn about Atlassian and Trello. We kept this wall between the companies, but very thoughtfully had this integration team that would go back and forth. There was a stream in which you could integrate, but it wasn’t everybody talking to everybody else all at once.

For more tips from Sri on Product Development, watch the Panel Discussion around Product Innovation in fast-growing companies.


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