The following article was originally published in BetaKit, and can be found here
Igloo Software's Julie Forsythe Has a Preference for Process
As part of a regular series powered by Microsoft, BetaKit interviews prominent Canadian CTOs speaking earnestly on the biggest challenges they face in their role, as well as future technology predictions in their space.
If there’s one thing that Julie Forsythe emphasizes for her team at Kitchener-based Igloo Software, it’s creating predictability through process. This focus has helped Igloo’s vice president of engineering double the size of her team, increase the velocity of the product they deliver, and set up technology foundations for the future. It’s fitting, given that the company provides software solutions to solve business challenges around collaboration, engagement and employee knowledge.
“I have a very strong comfort with predictability,” Forsythe said. “Where it’s appropriate, I strive to implement that to ensure clarity for the team.”
Maturity as a prerequisite
Priorities for a startup are different from those of growth companies in many ways—one being the ability to implement processes to streamline a scaling organization.
“You can’t put [frameworks] in place at the very beginning,” Forsythe said. “But as we get better at delivering and as we find ourselves in a repeatable cadence some of the processes that are put in place—from a non-technical perspective—are key in how we deliver.”
“We really are in that growth stage,” Forsythe continued. “As we add more developers… [we can] dramatically increase how much product we’re able to push out because our internal processes enable a lot of efficiencies.”
Setting up for success
Forsythe joined Igloo nearly two years ago, and quickly realized that organizational changes would be needed in order to scale the team—and the product it delivers—to where it needed to be. “It was clear that having 26 employees reporting to the engineering leader was not going to go well,” Forsythe said.
To tackle this problem, she hired experienced leaders who could coach others in order to set the team up for success as it scaled. Igloo now has 50 engineers and this focus on people is no less important. “If we take care of our people then they’ll take great care of our product,” Forsythe said.
A people focus also helps Igloo move faster. “Our previous focus was on delivering a lot of value with less frequency,” she said of the company’s release schedule, which used to happen quarterly. The organization now works in two-week sprints and releases every 28 days—a transformation that Forsythe is proud of. “[It] involves the right tech, the right people and the increase of automation,” she said.
“It’s not possible to build products at warp speed and on budget without some debt.”
One way Igloo has been able to do this is by leveraging feature flags in its deployment process—a technique that involves deploying code to production in a fashion that makes it easy to turn on or off without additional code changes. This allows Forsythe’s team to deploy code for a feature that may not be ready for customer consumption and build on it over a number of releases.
“And then when [the feature is] ready, turn it on,” she said. “We found this reduces the amount of risk that we create when changing our products.”
In discussing what she believes all technical leaders should be thinking about, Forsythe described one of the costs of building technology quickly. “It’s not possible to build products at warp speed and on budget without some… debt,” she said. “We know that we’re going to have it but it’s critical to think how it’ll be managed.”
Forsythe manages Igloo’s technical debt by tackling parts of it in every sprint. “We make a real effort to make sure we’re getting progress on those items in every release,” she said.
Technology as a lifestyle
Being a technical leader in an organization of Igloo’s size can be an always-on lifestyle. “This is tech, right?” Forsythe said. “It’s the nature of tech, especially for any of our front-line roles in engineering, IT and even customer support.”
But Forsythe is emphatic about doing her best to avoid 4 a.m. PagerDuty calls. “One of the ways that we’ve created balance for our employees is to implement some really sound processes and structure to reduce firefighting and limit the need for after-hours work,” Forsythe said. “If we’re getting after-hours calls, we know it’s something critical.”
While a preference for avoiding production issues certainly isn’t unique to Forsythe or Igloo, she emphasized that the processes are also there to help make her team as happy as possible. “It really does pay off to be proactive with those processes rather than reactive,” she said. “It really reduces the amount of burnout that your people experience.”
In terms of her personal life, Forsythe noted that her husband also works in tech and that they have two young children at home. They leverage home services such as cleaners and meal services to get time back in their day.
“It’s really important to us that we get maximum time with our children,” she said. “If I could choose between mopping my floor and spending time creating beautiful art projects with my children, I’m going to pick art projects with my children every single time.”
This emphasis on balance is important to Forsythe. “I think it’s completely possible to balance a senior leadership position and personal commitments in a way that can work.”
For more on Igloo Software, read Microsoft Canada’s interview with the Igloo Software team.