How to Break Down Silos While Encouraging Ownership

Sha Ma
VP and Head of Engineering

Interview Highlights:

  • Use OKRs to clarify areas of ownership
  • Engineering, Product and Design (EPD) goals should align with company goals
  • Perform frequent cross-team check-ins to stay in sync
  • Every member of the EPD team should understand that their work touches things outside their direct area of responsibility

Can you please tell us a little about yourself?

I’m Sha Ma, VP and Head of Engineering at Catalyst - building the best Customer Success Platform in the industry. Prior to Catalyst, I held VP of Engineering positions at GitHub and SendGrid, and was part of the team that took SendGrid public in 2017. I love traveling and the outdoors, and live in beautiful Boulder, CO with my husband and two kids. I have a Master’s degree in Engineering from MIT.

Can you share with us a bit about what makes Catalyst’s Engineering, Product and Design (EPD) team so different?

Customer Success is a core part of Catalyst’s mission. This means everyone at the company should be focused on making the lives of our customers better, and creating a product that makes the job of Customer Success more delightful and easier to manage.  

This involves unifying Engineering, Product and Design under shared objectives that align closely to the company goals - defining what “Bringing CS to the Center” means to us, and creating an organizational structure that encourages taking ownership and building deep expertise in each stage of the customer lifecycle. 

Structuring an entire EPD organization this way is unique in the industry, and we wanted our customers to know that we take solving their problems very seriously!

So what exactly does it mean for EPD to bring customer success to the center?

To start, it means building a close and collaborative relationship with our internal CS department.  They are not only our early adopters and first users when we ship new features, they also represent the voice of our customers - giving us direct feedback when a feature is well received, on areas of improvements in our overall product, and on what customers would like to see in our future roadmap.  For example, I have a TON of conversations with our CEO, Edward Chiu, who used to lead the CS department at Digital Ocean, and Catalyst’s Head of CS, Sydney Strader to understand what’s most critical from their perspectives, and how they think about the customer journey.  

There are three critical stages during a customer’s lifecycle: 

  • Onboarding 
  • Productivity 
  • Renewal/Expansion

We have structured our EPD organization to align to these stages, because we believe that each stage has its unique set of challenges and outcomes that a CS team would want to drive for their customers.

A customer’s first impression is extremely important. Therefore, during the Onboarding phase, the focus for a CS team should be how they can ramp up customers in such a way that their customers realize value in the product right away.  A good onboarding experience can make or break the customer’s engagement. So if a customer has a really positive and seamless onboarding experience, they can be a happy customer for life!

Second is the Productivity phase. Customers are using the product day in and day out, so it’s important to understand why they are using the product, and how it’s making their lives better. For example, at Catalyst, we offer CSMs all the tools they need to successfully engage with their customers and colleagues, from taking notes to assigning tasks, from workflow automation, to triggered email sends.  We care deeply about the usage of these features, and about how our customers use Catalyst to improve their workflow and productivity.

Last but certainly not least, CS leaders leverage insights and intelligence heavily during the Renewal/Expansion phase of a customer’s lifecycle, so that they can identify expansion opportunities or at risk accounts, and have a holistic view into their entire portfolio of customers. Our EPD team for this area focuses on tackling large amounts of datasets, and solving hard analytical problems, so that our customers can benefit from the clear and actionable insights about their customers through features like trend reporting and health scores. This is one of the best ways our customers find value in Catalyst.

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How can you clarify areas of ownership?

We use Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) as the guiding framework to provide clarity and empowerment to each of our EPD teams.  Take the Onboarding team as an example. Their primary goal is to reduce Time To Value (TTV) to get customers on board as quickly as possible. They can be very laser-focused on a task that has a tangible, measurable goal that they can achieve. 

Then they think about all the systems they own: from data ingestion to data warehouse integrations and mappings to authentication and authorization and user permissions. All of that is driven by that primary goal of “how do we make this experience as seamless and as frictionless as possible for onboarding customers?” 

The same can be said for the Productivity team. They think a lot about engagement, stickiness, and retention.They ask questions like, “How many people are using a feature on a daily basis? Out of a CS team, how many are in our tool day in and day out? Are they creating notes and tasks? Are they automating playbooks and emails? Are they communicating and collaborating with one another using Catalyst?” 

And for Renewal/Expansion, the team’s primary goal is to provide the insight and intelligence necessary to help a CS leader understand renewal opportunities, account health, process roadblocks, and more. 

After using our platform, the CS leader would be able to tell their management team, “My team was directly responsible for saving X number of customers and renewing Y number of customers. And because of that, our NDR is this and our NPS is that.” This helps Customer Success leaders tell their story, and this is how Catalyst is helping them contribute to their business success. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge for organizations that want to bring CS to the Center?

Take the time to think through “What is core to your business?”  This will help you focus on what is most impactful to your customers, and will guide how you think about your organizational structure to do what’s most important for your business.  Focusing on the customers, and what is core to the business, will help you determine the key success metrics and drive clarity for your organization.  This is something the entire company can rally around, and is not specific to the Engineering, Product and Design organization.

Catalyst’s vision is to bring Customer Success to the center, and so it makes sense for us to align our product teams and engineering workflow towards what’s most important for CS organizations.  So think about what’s core to your business, and create an organizational structure that aligns closely to the key aspects of your business.  

Focusing on what’s important to the business will also lead to a longer, and most sustainable approach to organizational design, and prevent unnecessary re-orgs as roadmaps and product features change and evolve. Having shared goals will lead to better team alignment and a structure for scale that revolves around clarity and ownership.

How do you prevent silos in the organization?

Sometimes, creating full stack teams with full ownership can lead to artificial silos and local maximas - each team is so focused on their areas of responsibility, that they are not looking at what is the most important for the company.  So it’s also important to think about shared goals from a cross-team, cross platform perspective to mitigate silos.

At Catalyst, we’ve started shifting our Engineering, Product and Design organizations towards a “services” paradigm, where teams need to collaborate with other teams, in order to think through API designs and contracts.  For example, the Onboarding team is responsible for the Authentication and Authorization services, which means they will need to work with the Productivity and Renewal/Expansion product teams to build a system for Roles and Capability permissions that meet all of our customer needs.

Additionally, we have created two horizontal cross-platform teams: UI/UX and Infrastructure, that are focused on consistency and common modules and libraries that can be shared across all teams.  The UI/UX platform team focuses on Usability, Page Performance and shared user experience including Navigation, Styleguide, and Layout.  The Infrastructure team focuses on Reliability, and is responsible for our production systems and SLAs.

Taking this up a level, as the leader of our Engineering, Product and Design organization, I also constantly talk to my peers in the Customer Success and Sales organizations.  As a leadership team, we need to model the behavior of collaboration.  We all work towards a common goal, and can’t afford to think or operate in a vacuum.  We have to talk to other teams and understand dependencies and what’s the most important from different perspectives. We encourage cross-team collaboration and avoid isolation, because isolation will lead to a disjointed product experience for our customers. 

There's a couple of other points to make around this topic:

First point is that you have to do a lot of cross-team check-ins. For example, I would ask if an idea makes sense from a product perspective versus a sales perspective. I’d insist on peer-level reviews and work through the details of an idea first, then present it to get everyone’s buy-in. 

Second point is verifying whether or not you’re at a place where you can do what you’re planning. This is both from an architecture and a feature development perspective. There will be a time where your primary focus is getting features out. But you’ll eventually have to start thinking about what things you need to put in place in order to build a runway to make the larger goals happen.

About 
Catalyst

Catalyst is the world's most intuitive Customer Success Platform (CSP), built by an experienced group of industry leaders. Previously, our founder built an effective Customer Success organization for one of the fastest growing cloud companies in the world. Catalyst integrates with all the tools you’re already using to provide one centralized view of customer data. Customer Success Managers can proactively take the right actions to prevent churn, such as receiving automated alerts when a customer is not using certain features that are critical to their success.

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