How we work: A practical guide

Engineering

At TransferWise, we work differently. And we’re proud of it.

We don’t have a traditional hierarchical structure and work in independent, autonomous teams  – it’s not the norm and it takes a special sort of person to thrive within it. But what does it actually mean in practice?

We’ve pulled together a handy guide to help break it down.

This practical guide will cover:

  • What is an autonomous team
  • Why do we work in this way?
  • Our structure
  • Do all teams at TransferWise work in this way?
  • I’ve heard about Guilds, what are they?
  • What’s the role of the leadership team (VPs) in a mostly flat structure?
  • How our structure has evolved and scaled
  • Our tools and processes
  • How we prioritise
  • How we share
  • Pros and cons of working this way
  • Why TransferWise?
  • Some further reading

What is an autonomous team?

Autonomous teams are central to the way we work. Our teams are closest to our customers, so they’re empowered to decide what to prioritise and deliver, without being told what to do by leadership. This means they can move fast and run multiple projects at the same time. 

So how does this work?

Well, each team works together to prioritise what areas they want to focus on and which problems they need to solve. This could be adding a new currency route, implementing a price drop or even figuring out what skills we need to grow our business. Whatever the problem, our teams talk to our customers, study data, get creative and decide themselves how to work together to make it happen.

Teams always seek feedback and anyone can challenge a team on what they’re doing. So they must be able to explain how their focus benefits our customers.

Each team has all the skills and resources they need to move their KPIs independently. For example, a single autonomous team might have a mix of design, engineering and product people. But it might also have a lawyer, an analyst and maybe a banker too. The makeup varies based on the problem the team is solving for, but the crucial thing is that no team’s goals should ever be dependent on or blocked by another team.

An autonomous team

Why do we work in this way?

TransferWise is moving fast, and change is constant. We’ve found the only way to plan for the future is to be agile enough to adapt to what tomorrow brings.

So, autonomous teams enable us to move with agility and speed – we can scale our team and company, shift focus and tackle new challenges, quickly. 

There are challenges to working this way (more info coming up), but ultimately by stopping a bottleneck at the top of our company from those who are removed from the customer, we can get things done in super quick time, which means getting closer to achieving our mission. 

Our structure.

We operate a mostly flat structure but implement a little hierarchy to keep things ticking along with a three-pronged approach:

  1. Autonomous teams know their domain best and solve problems within that space
  2. Autonomous teams sit within a tribe. These are organisations uniting different teams covering similar domains with a common goal – think of them as an alliance of teams 
  3. Each tribe has leadership baked in and above the tribes are our leadership team (VPs)

Do all teams at TransferWise work in this way?

Not all teams work in this way. We also have a number of teams and tribes that power TransferWise and our growth, for example, Customer Support, Marketing, PR and People to name a few.

I’ve heard about Guilds, what are they?

A Guild is an alliance of people with the same skillset that are embedded in different autonomous teams but come together regularly to align on what they’re working on, plan and share knowledge. Examples include the Analytics, iOS and Android Guilds.

What’s the role of the leadership team (VPs) in a mostly flat structure?

Day-to-day our leadership team are embedded in their teams, coaching and guiding them to realise their plans. They don’t spend days sitting in meeting rooms making decisions from the top down. Their role is to help our teams make the biggest impact they can towards our mission.

So, they provide direction but they don’t tell people what to do. It’s up to our teams to set their own strategy and figure out how they will work together to achieve it. They also often get hands-on helping out on projects.

How we’ve evolved and scaled.

There’s an old adage that as an organisation gets bigger it gets slower and less productive – we don’t believe that’s true. Because we’re always thinking about speed and agility we’re able to function like a startup as we grow. 

We currently have around 60 autonomous teams and we’re constantly evolving. By the end of 2020, it might be 70, by the end of 2021 it could be 100. The evolution will depend on what new problems our people want to focus on for our customers. 

Autonomous team growth

In 2019, we streamlined our processes to ensure we’re sharing information and planning as efficiently as we can:

  • We replaced team level monthly planning with tribe level quarterly planning
  • Teams work within their tribe to implement a quarterly planning session that anyone at TransferWise can attend, give feedback and ask questions
  • As we’ve developed we’ve moved toward an OKR (objectives and key results) approach within teams

Our tools and processes.

Autonomy extends to the tools our teams use too – they can pick what fits their workflow best. But some of the ones we use company-wide are:  

  • Confluence: Helps our teams collaborate and share knowledge efficiently 
  • Jira: Tracks projects and issues for better management 
  • Slack: Internal and external live communication 

Our processes are all about non-stop experimentation depending on the project and the need. Scrum, Kanban and free structure all have a place at TransferWise. We want our teams to optimise their processes and customise to what suits them best. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Often, teams revisit their approach after each quarterly sprint to optimise their processes. One quarter they might experiment with only written standups, another they might meet every day. Our approach tasks teams with finding a solution to a problem but gives them freedom as to how it’s achieved.

How we prioritise. 

Our mission of money without borders is big and there’s a lot we need to do to get there. Prioritisation starts with our customers. 

Teams pay close attention to what projects will have the most impact. They observe how customers interact with our product and get smart about what customers need and what we build. 

For example, our Customer Support agents categorise and label each customer contact we receive, whether that’s by email, phone or social media. Teams use this data to see what’s causing our customers the biggest pain points. They can then plan projects and set their quarterly metrics to shift the dial and have a positive impact on our customers. 

We believe in rigorous user testing to ensure we know we’re on the right track with our priorities and change the approach if it’s not having the effect we want.

How we share. 

  • TEX sessions: Every Friday, we hold TEX session for sharing innovations, knowledge and culture so you can stop and listen to what’s happening around the company. They cover topics like new frameworks, tooling, implementations and general knowledge sharing. The sessions help us share information more easily and regularly as well as learn from each other
  • Quarterly Tech Days: Every quarter we host ‘Tech Days’ where teams present breakthrough solutions and project updates giving people a platform to speak in more detail. We like to think of it as our ‘festival of ideas’ where everyone in tech stops to reflect and learn

Pros and cons of working this way.

Pros:

  • Speed – we move fast 
  • Stops bottlenecks at the top from those not involved with the customer on a day-to-day basis
  • Teams can manage their own time keeping without management 
  • Trust is ingrained
  • Helps us to scale at speed

Cons:

  • Information sharing is more challenging
  • Ensuring horizontal teams scale at the same pace autonomous ones do e.g. teams offering a service to the whole business like Platform is a challenge
  • Work duplication
  • Onboarding is more challenging (watch for more info)

Why TransferWise?

All this freedom and autonomy might sound scary, but it’s not. Everyone has a lead who supports them, and teams collaborate, so there’s always someone to talk things through with and tackle challenges.

TransferWise is for you if…

  • You’re independent with a desire to get stuff done
  • You want to take ownership of projects and builds
  • You can deliver, defend and explain your approach 
  • You like a challenge
  • You like radical freedom and the chance to shape your own role
  • You think big

We  might not be for you if…

  • You like strict structure
  • You like detailed how-to guides 
  • You don’t like working end-to-end from identification to solution
  • You aren’t comfortable working autonomously 

Don’t just take our word for it… 

“I’ve been coding for many, many years. But this is the first time I’m not expected to be a code monkey. I can actually influence the product and see the direct results of my decisions on our customers. It’s absolutely incredible.” TransferWise Engineer in Singapore. 

Further reading.

Want more? Read these: