5 min read

The Great Machine

The Great Machine
I've spent way too much time playing this game. All credit to Bungie

Until I started working at Atlassian, the biggest company I'd ever worked for was about 150 people strong.

At the time, I thought that was a big number, because my closest reference point was a company with 10 people. But even at 150 I could wrap my head around it; we all fit on a single floor of an office building, and I pretty much knew everyone, at least in passing.

Atlassian is rapidly approaching 10,000 employees and that number boggles my mind. So much so, that I'm going to write about it.

You know, in an attempt to de-boggle.

What We Have Built Is Only The Beginning

One really good thing about working in a big company is that there are an assortment of systems, processes and practices that are already setup for you to leverage.

For example, at my last workplace, I tried to implement something approaching transparent and equitable salary reviews, but in order to do that I had to also implement some form of consistent performance reviews as a feed-in to the process.

Coming to Atlassian, all of that sort of stuff already existed, I just had to learn how it worked. Even better, it had already been through a few iterations, so was significantly more mature than anything I would have managed to scrape together.

That's just one example, but there are hundreds more, from well-established HR processes, to mature development and deployment environments. These are the sorts of things that you long for when working at a small company.

But it's in the massive assortment of existing systems and processes where the cracks start to show.

Big companies accumulate process like exposed metal accumulates rust, and eventually it starts getting in the way, making things harder instead of easier.

The number of times that I've had to learn and adhere to a process that provides no immediate benefit to me, my team, or the work that we are doing, is higher than I would like.

It's not the end of the world, but it can still be irritating and really emphasise the feeling of being a small cog in a large, unknowable machine.

A Symbol Of What We Can Achieve

The machine isn't all unknowable though.

At Atlassian, the founders (aka Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar) are very open and honest about the things that are on their mind. They frequently write up their thoughts and post videos internally, sharing what sort of things are important to them and why.

With that sort of communication, it's pretty easy to understand the high-level vision and get a general sense of the direction that your team should be headed in in order to help the company.

But there are a lot of levels between the founders and most teams in Atlassian and it sometimes feels like a big old game of Chinese whispers. The message that you actually get from the leadership that is close to you is distorted in comparison to the high-level one.

It's not that it's wildly discordant, it's just more nuanced and focused on local concerns, which makes everything just that little bit more complicated. You have to deal with the local problems and trust that your leadership knows what they are doing, but you can see ways to help with the overarching stuff that you just can't execute on.

I can imagine how frustrating it must be for the leaders at the top of the hierarchy as well. Watching a clear vision or direction turn into a fragmented series of partially misaligned actions must be painful.

I suspect I have it pretty good at Atlassian in terms of how little difference there is between the high-level vision and direction and the message that I get from local leaders.

I don't have many other points of comparison, but I can certainly confirm that Atlassian is much better at this stuff than my last company was.

Keep Looking, Keep Fighting

Any big machine has a lot of moving parts, and this is where I find the most challenge in working at Atlassian.

While we might be pretty good at setting a high-level vision and the resulting direction, as it gets translated through the various layers and levels and people and so on, it quickly spiders out into what feels like a billion different things.

It's made even more complicated by the fact that for some of the things, drawing a line back to the high-level vision is easy. For others, the line is faint and difficult to discern. For a few, the line literally doesn't exist.

The amount of information rushing around is overwhelming and any normal person is quickly forced to narrow their scope and focus only on a fragment of the total pool. To establish a much smaller sphere of understanding that they can operate it.

Having to focus on the bits that you can comprehend is not a bad thing per se, but it does make it feel like you're a cog in a giant and uncaring machine, doing your best to spin and impart motion on the cogs around you while staying at least partially ignorant of what the machine actually does.

The flow of information is more manageable for teams that find themselves at the leaf nodes. They only have to deal with a few lines leading away from the things that they are focusing on.

For the unlucky teams that find themselves at the centre of a vast spiderweb of dependencies though, their cognitive load is ridiculously high, even when they do try to narrow their focus to just the things they can understand.

Unfortunately, that's where my team lives. In the centre of a web.

I know that we're not quite so badly affected as other teams are, but it still makes our day to day more difficult to handle and it all directly points right back to the number of things that the organisation is trying to do at the same time.

Which in turn directly correlates with its overally size.

The Light Always Finds A Way

I don't actually know how I feel about working at a big company.

When working at a smaller company, it was nice to feel more critical to things and to have a smaller distance between doing a thing and making a measurable difference.

But working at a smaller company limits the scope of the things that you can achieve, which feels limited, and you're constantly having to invent things in order to solve problems, which gets tiring.

In comparison, working at a big company I definitely feel less critical to the overarching picture. It's hard to draw lines between my work and the victories of the organisation. Not impossible, just hard, because there are so many factors and contributions at play.

But I still find victories all the same.

Anyway, working for different size companies has given me different perspectives and I think that makes me a more well-rounded person in the long run.

Not quite as well rounded as The Traveller though, that thing is a perfect sphere.