On September 19, Camille Fournier visited Yale SOM to talk about her recent book, The Manager’s Path. Camille is a Managing Director at Two Sigma, a quantitative hedge fund in New York City. Her book, released earlier this year, recounts her journey to become CTO at Rent the Runway, an online fashion startup.
The focus of her book—and of the talk—is on how good communications skills are a critical asset for managers who are leading technical organizations. In her book, Fournier quotes Conway’s law: “Organizations which design systems ... are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” In order to counter ill effects, cross-functional teams are vital to an organization, especially engineering-focused ones. If the product will solve a problem spanning several disciplines, so should the team.
Part of the challenge of being a technical manager, Fournier notes, is seeing the world from the non-technical point of view. Often times, engineers use jargon in an effort to showcase their product knowledge. However, this overcomplicates technology for the unfamiliar, everyday consumer and ultimately has the opposite effect—the technical person looks less intelligent.
Having worked closely with startups, Camille discussed the tradeoffs between structure and freedom. According to Fournier, a startup attracts a certain kind of person who is capable of dealing with huge amounts of uncertainty in exchange for a similar degree of freedom to operate. In the early stages of a venture, it is important to assemble a team that is adaptable and accustomed to working autonomously on many projects under great uncertainty. However, at scale this can cause problems. As the organization grows, it becomes more important to implement organizational structures and communications systems. These systems ultimately might limit the freedom and flexibility of individual engineers. It is a manager’s job to balance the needs of the individual with the overall goals of the engineering team and the corporation, and to make sure that the transition from a small, engineering-driven organization to a larger, innovative company occurs smoothly.
Throughout her book, Fournier is careful to note that startups don’t have a monopoly on innovation. She shared that in some areas of innovation, larger companies may have an advantage over smaller companies. For example, machine learning, the ability for a computer to learn without being explicitly programmed, is an area in which bigger companies have an advantage over smaller competitors. Large-scale companies have greater access to data needed to train algorithms, as well as large technical teams to build more complex software systems. The best data sets come at a cost that is too high for small companies. As a result, engineers looking to be part of cutting-edge developments in ML should cast a broad outlook towards both big and small companies.
This was Fournier’s second visit to Yale in as many years to lecture in Kyle Jensen’s Management of Software Development and Teams. You can find more information about leading technical teams in her new book, The Manager’s Path.