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Thriving In Flux: A VP Of R&D’s Guide To Startup Success

by Anat Rapoport, author of “Woman Up!: Your Guide to Success in Engineering and Tech

When you work for a large company, decisions and processes usually move at a slow, steady pace. Even if a major shift occurs, it can take years to implement.

Startups, on the other hand, move quickly. By definition, they start up and then grow and change, often rapidly and repeatedly.

Being VP of R&D in this fast-paced, ever-changing environment takes a unique set of skills. You need to be flexible, calm, and cool under pressure, capable of adjusting quickly no matter what change comes your way. You also need to be skilled at growing a team that can keep up with the changes and know how to implement new features and new technology in a way that doesn’t disrupt customer experience.

Let’s look at what it takes to be the VP of R&D in a startup environment, so you’ll be ready if an opportunity comes your way.

Handling Constant Change

What does constant change look like in a startup?

CEOs are always operating around the next round of funding, which means they think in terms of funding cycles and planning for the next stage. The company has to consider how to attain more customers, grow, and create more features and value—knowing that all of those plans might change based on how much funding does or doesn’t bring in.

It also means schedules are frequently derailed by a big deal or a new investor—or the loss of one. If funding dries up, the company might pivot to another product to use technology that had been developed but not used for its original purpose.

Within all of this uncertainty, as the VP of R&D, you still have to “guesstimate” how many people you will need, how much time a project will take, and so on. You might feel scared to share those estimates with the CEO, but she will appreciate the information, and recognizes that  things may change.

In a startup, you will never have enough people at the beginning, and your priorities will constantly shift. Nevertheless, your developers still need some level of certainty regarding the coming features and the areas of the product they will handle. It’s up to you to take into account what you know right now and give them your best guess.

Sometimes, despite your best planning, you’ll be asked to pivot a project while a developer is already working on it. The CEO may inform you that the feature is no longer relevant or that it’s no longer a priority. If the developer has nearly finished her work, consider letting her finish. You never know when the feature might become important again. It’s better to have the developer finish the work now when she has the time, because she might be working on something else when the feature becomes important again or she might have moved on to a different position. Picking the project back up, especially with a different developer, is much harder than completing it the first time around. In addition, it’s disappointing to stop a project after you’ve put in a lot of time, so it’s better to make sure it doesn’t happen over and over again, especially not to the same people.

Growing the Team

As the startup grows, your team will grow, as well. This is good news, but managing a large team comes with complications.

For example, if the startup suddenly gets more funding, you might have to quickly grow your team from seven developers to twenty, as happened to me. You’ll have to figure out who will mentor and teach the new people, communicate the culture of the organization and development, and ensure the newcomers follow the structure and processes of the company, such as doing code reviews for every commit to production.

Training a team of twenty developers who are up to speed and work well without needing extra hand-holding is challenging. From my experience, here’s the best advice I can offer in terms of quickly growing your team.

    • Identify the key people and bring them into the process. Explain to them the change that is coming, listen to their concerns, and address them, if possible. From the beginning, meet with these people one-on-one and as a group. Give them an opportunity to vent and take their venting seriously. Sometimes just listening is enough for them to feel better, and sometimes actions need to be taken.
    • Create team spirit. Keeping the lines of communication open with key people, individually and as a group, will give them a sense of team spirit and encourage them all to keep their eyes on the goal during this growing period. It will contribute to the overall work process and morale, as well as your visibility into what’s happening and how people are doing.
    • Watch for burnout. Know that key people will be overworked and might experience a lot of burnout. If that happens and no action is taken on your part, good people might leave the company. Minimize the burnout by giving them the right opportunities. This might mean having them teach new members as a group rather than individually. They can also record their lessons for newcomers to watch. Once in a while, take them off teaching duty and give them a project that really interests them.
    • Talk about success stories. In your one-on-ones and group meetings with key people, celebrate successes. Talk about happy customers and improved results, attribute these successes to specific people, and thank them for their work. This will also build team spirit, reduce burnout, and energize them to keep helping you achieve the overall goal. 

The Technological Aspects of Your Role

I once watched a VP change the whole product from one technology to another. He had good reasons to switch: the old technology was slow and clunky. The new technology performed well and worked well visually for customers. Additionally, it allowed the team to develop new features faster.

However, he started new features in the new technologies without paying attention to the old features. Our team got stuck because old features were missing. Instead of transferring the old features to the new technology first and then building toward our roadmap, he launched us straight into new features with new technology. We started significantly failing on timelines. We ended up being delayed by almost a year. Even though he was a great manager, he did not handle this technology shift wisely, and he ended up being moved out of his role.

If you have to make a switch like this, consider switching the old features over to the new technology first. That way, the customers have access to the old features, only better. After the old features are working successfully with the new tech, add the new features.

Another option is to find a way for the old and new technology to work side by side, rather than switching over to the new technology all at once. I’ve found this is the best option, if possible. You’ll never be able to replace everything 100 percent on a realistic timeline, so instead aim for a seamless experience for the customer. Remember, the customers don’t care if R&D switches technology; they just want to use your product for its intended purpose. Thus, if you switch technology, be sure to make the customer happy and deliver the features they need. Don’t interrupt the customer experience.

Are Startups Right for You?

I love working in startups. I love fixing big messes, building something from scratch, and solving problems quickly. Startups are less political and bureaucratic, and for me, far more exciting.

But working in a startup environment isn’t for everyone. This is a place where you have to know yourself and your skills. You might prefer being VP in a well-established company that has more stability and predictability. And that’s just fine.


Anat Rapoport

Anat Rapoport has worked her way through every rank in the engineering and technology industries. She has been VP of engineering at multiple companies and was GM and co-CEO in her last two roles. Rapoport is an experienced R&D manager with a master of science in computer science from Tel Aviv University. Her new book is “Woman Up!: Your Guide to Success in Engineering and Tech“.

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