Presentation: Scaling Self Directed Development



5:25pm - 6:15pm

Day of week:



Key Takeaways

  • Hear how a company can focus on the results and not the schedule.
  • Understand how building many resilient things is better than one perfect thing.
  • Learn how to create a culture where everyone can be hands-on contributors.


Small teams turning into large teams often do more than change size, they change structure. Growing teams often add rules, managers, meetings, processes, and policies aimed at preventing mistakes rather than capturing the best outcomes.

Join me for a discussion on a set of constraints that differs from everything you have been told, focusing on freedom, responsibility, and what it really takes to get talent.


Can you tell me please about your company, about what you are doing?
We are about executive learning but in a different fashion. It is not going to class. It is like Uber for running your business better. So, you subscribe to our service and work with us, and we will match you up with business leaders, scientists, lawyers, engineers, executives, and consultants around the world to whom you can ask the hard questions about how to run your business better. In terms of delivery, it is in the format of phone calls and in-person meetings. It is on demand. It is sourced by the community. We have what we call council members. We have a network of three quarters of a million folks worldwide who provide answers and tens of thousands of subscribers who call those folks and talk to them.
So, we are in the learning and knowledge business. We just do it in a different format from I would say, a traditional learning platform, such as CourseWare or Udacity. We do everything about matchmaking. Our business is about one on one conversations like this, where you talk about business or about the technical problem you are trying to solve, and that’s what we do for people worldwide.
What are the software problems that you are dealing with at Gerson Lehrman Group?
Our major goal with the software is about scaling this business. We solve problems around scheduling: when is the meeting, when is the phone call going to be, making sure everybody can be there. We solve problems around search and matchmaking. We have a big database of folks around the world who know different topic areas and search in that database for a match.
We have compliance. We have a large number of financial services customers. We have the best compliance framework in the industry, checking everything from who is at public companies, who has competitive conflicts, running that through our compliance organization to make sure that we don’t make off limit matches. It’s workflow and optimization of our research staff. When people subscribe to GLG, they get a research manager. That’s the person who will recruit for them, will make the matches for them, will get the right person on the phone for them to talk to.
Then there is a lot of teleconferencing. We use Twilio pretty heavily. Our fundamental product is that phone call, programming the conference bridge, doing recording and transcription, making the data available for them and searchable. Then on the back end, there’s contract management and payment management. If you are a GLG subscriber, you will talk to 12 or 20 different folks in a year, and it is no fun doing 12 or 20 purchase orders. We take care of all those upstream contracts, making it a lot easier for you to consume. You call us and we can get the right person on the phone with you, and you don’t have to do the initial paperwork. You are good to go.
What is the genesis of the talk and what is your talk about?
My strategy has been to bring what I did at small start-ups and software companies into a large operating company, and then scaling horizontally. I manage by metrics, data driven, scientific, lean start-up approach and by self direction. I hire only the best folks and letting them do their thing. When talking about the constraints that keep great teams down, I believe in approaching a great organization like it is debugging a software problem. You are debugging in scale in the organization.
I found that people sometimes disbelieve me when I talk about the fact that I don’t run a schedule and maybe I even disregard any discussion of a schedule. In my business experience, I have not once had a successful business outcome that was a direct consequence of hitting or meeting a schedule. And I have never heard of anybody that has one. My opinion is that a lot of people spend an awful lot of time worrying about the schedule and how long it is going to take and how much it is going to cost.
Because our fundamental ability in software is to build great large things to scale, it is the wrong conversation to worry about the cost. Is it one engineer or two or four? Is it one month or two or four? We should be trying to solve problems that have massive scale, that influence hundreds of thousands or millions of customers over multiple year time frames. In this case it’s a bad trick to get trapped into worrying about the schedule and the micro-cost of it. It’s a dishonest conversation. Be brave and say the truth. I think the truth on scheduling is one or two things. I either have no idea how long it is going to take or “Oh, yeah, I finished it yesterday. Sorry. I forgot to tell you.” There are no other honest answers. They are just made up. So, I try to avoid the whole conversation.
This is tricky because any time I get a new executive in the company, they immediately want to talk about project management and Gantt charts and whatever, and I and our CEO just chuckle, thinking about him “You are going to enjoy this.” People like to have predictability and it means something to them, but I believe in being honest and being focused on the actual outcome business spectre is more important.
What are you going to tell people that they can take back and chew on?
Many constraints that people accept when building a software organization are simply the wrong ones. When talking about building scalable software, we talk about horizontal scale, scaling out and creating a large number of self replicating units where you can tolerate failure but still have an overall success. That’s opposed to the industrial age vertical integration where you are trying to achieve greatness by having perfection.
I believe that you should try to have greatness by scaling out and having a lot of parallelism and, in some measure, redundancy, creating a large number of resilient things rather than trying to create the perfect thing. That is a more honest strategy. It admits that we are going to fail a lot. It admits we have to try a lot of things. It admits an awful lot of things we don’t know. It admits a lot of the constraints that we put on ourselves are our preferences rather than what really matters.
One of the issues I will talk about is recruiting. I have two fundamentally different approaches to recruiting than most people do. One of them is I don’t mandate technology whatsoever. I let the engineers pick. The other one is I don’t mandate geography. I reject the premise that all the smart engineers live in one city or that I could trick them all into moving to one city. By removing those two constraints, I can go from saying “Oh, I can only hire .NET guys in New York” to “I can hire any engineer anywhere as long as my tax guys are setup to do the payroll.” That one trick completely changes your ability to hire the very best people for culture matches as opposed to worrying about geography and technology matches. Geography match is not the key to building a great sustainable organization.
That’s better understood in an open source community than it is in a corporate community. That is one of the things that I am bringing from open source to corporate. We are a global company. I have 22 offices. I have engineers in 7 offices today. The idea that everyone is in one location in a large company is not true anyway. Some say, “If we could all just be together it would be so much better.” If you are all together, it just generates a lot of empty soda cans all over the place. It is not really that great.
What’s the persona you are talking to?
The perfect audience member is the engineering leader of the large organization who is coming in from a small organization, or wants to adopt small organization tactics. It’s the mid-career executive technologist who wants to design a world where they can be an executive but still do hands-on technology work. How can you create a culture where everybody can do hands-on contribution including the head of the shop. That is part of what has driven me to design this. It is so that I don’t have to be strictly a bureaucrat. I can have an allocated amount of time for bureaucracy and a larger allocated amount of time for technology.
I think this is good for folks who are trying to figure out how to scale and grow the staff of their organization, hearing about what I think it takes to grow.
Everybody wants to hire great people, but when you say that, you need to change who and what your company is to get them to be there. It is a two-way transaction and there is more to it than just sprinkling cash on it.

Speaker: Will Ballard

CTO @GersonLehrman

Will Ballard serves as Chief Technology Officer at GLG and is responsible for the Engineering and IT organizations. Prior to joining GLG, Will was the Executive Vice President of Technology and Engineering at Demand Media. Before that, he was Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Pluck, through its acquisition by Demand Media. At both organizations Will managed large teams of engineers responsible for software architecture, design, development and quality assurance. He was also responsible for the design and operation of large data centers that helped run site services for customers including Gannett, Hearst Magazines,, NPR, The Washington Post and Whole Foods. Will has also held leadership roles in software development at NetSolve (now Cisco), NetSpend and (now Bank of America). Will graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BS in Mathematics from Claremont McKenna College.

Find Will Ballard at

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