November 21, 2021

The Product & Engineering Role in Leading Organizational Change

Shelly Shmurack
Senior Product Manager

What is our role in the growth from a small startup to an organization? How can we help reduce pain and achieve greatness?

From startup to org

In late 2019, I joined Aspectiva, an AI solution for informed shopping decisions using machine learning technology and natural language processing capabilities.

At that point, Aspectiva was recently acquired by Walmart, the world’s largest retailer. It has recently started presenting to Walmart’s users’ insights from Aspectiva’s data and was in the first steps of integrating into Walmart’s infrastructure.

My past few roles have also been post-acquisition startups, but never at this early stage. When Joining the team- I remember after lunchtime, sitting to meet the VP of business, and him asking me, “so who did you meet already?” — I mentioned a handful of names, and he replied, “oh, so you know everyone!”

The entire company was ~Seven people when they got acquired. ~Nine, in the day I arrived.
For me, this was not easy to grasp. This is a particular time in the product cycle. I joined the company with them finding their actual product-marker-fit. But, the small team takes getting used to when one is used to working in companies with at least10x in their number of employees.

So, what’s the difference?

When your entire company is less than 10 people, Passing the pizza test for the product & R&D just goes without saying.

Some organizational and product management challenges are just more minor parts of the small team’s equation.

But, as you succeed, you grow. Adding to the company new talent, which leads to bringing new team leaders, and suddenly, you are an organization.

Working with a PM

Not all startups work with a PM. Sometimes the CEO leads products as well. Sometimes it’s a group effort- and different team members collaborate on a PM role in a different situation. Thus, joining the company at this point also means educating about the PM role.

  1. Roadmap planning- From a very lean, specific path to PMF. You suddenly have more products, more teams, and more goals, serving different visions.
  2. Goals & objectives- When you have limited resources, the focus is everything. The CEO will probably be the one to set goals and objectives in a small startup. It’s a personal process—no need for meetings, syncs, methodology.
  3. Communication and alignment with different stakeholders- It’s easy to sit in a room together and align with everyone from your company. Even if the CEO needs to sync in some investors and other stakeholders, they know that unless they do it, no one will.
  4. Prioritization- In startup mode, the focus is everything. You work towards one thing at a time, and prioritization is usually a pivoting task when a pivot is required, not an ongoing changing challenge.

These are all parts that change and adapt when a PM is joining the team.
And the team needs to get familiar with a new role, one that is in charge of identifying opportunities through customer needs and larger business objectives. And is ongoingly collaborating with engineering in planning execution, understanding tradeoffs, and prioritization.

Cultural growth pains

The original startup folks spent years working together. They know each other well. They know perfectly where their expertise and responsibility lie.
New teammates are selected to join, considering the emerging workplace needs and the original ones. They are somewhat of a different species sometimes. But everyone should still be great at working together.

The process of being such a team and rapidly changing into an organization could be a painful one.

Becoming teams

When I joined Aspectiva, they were in their 2nd ever sprint. The entire company, including the CEO, VP of Business were in the sprint planning!
A couple of months later, we started to have Slack daily updates (what did I do yesterday, What will I do today, any blockers, etc.) what transformed to Zoom dailies with the change to WFH during covid.

A short time after that, with the growth of engineering talent, we hired two new team leads, joined the company, and made teams out of the group of individuals.
This was so exciting for everyone! But, the change has added all of a sudden many organizational changes:

  1. Hierarchy- Suddenly, engineers that were mainly managing themselves had a manager. This is exciting! Someone that thinks on their behalf and aims to develop them, but also confusing. Especially if you are not used to reporting to anyone in an orderly fashion.
  2. Time management- team leads led to the first-ever team meetings, weekly personal meetings, and more.
    Adding to the already existing company meetings, product kick-offs, etc.

So many meetings! When should we work?

So many meetings And all suddenly became zoom meetings from home during COVID!
Why are we doing all this? the team felt like it was a waste of their engineering time. All this time without writing code. Isn’t it just money down the drain?

Painless growth

At the heart of this change. We had to listen to our teams and grow them with as little pain as possible.

Join Forces

This is the time for Product & Engineering leadership to work together.
Once Vicky (my R&D team lead counterpart) joined the company, we agreed to work together. To make this transition as easy and as straightforward as possible for the team.
We virtually shook on it and became an unstoppable couple.


This is a time for extreme communication. Now, more than ever- the changes and unknowns are great.
To reduce unknowns and keep everyone aligned, we constantly communicated our roles in the process as product and team lead- which is the responsibility of each partner. We expressed the goals of each ceremony and aimed to achieve and shared the time-saving value of some new processes by preventing delays further down the line.

Have empathy and listen

Even though the change was inevitable, we needed to be attentive. We listened to the team’s pains and heard their concerns. And we adapted accordingly.
Many times, breaking cannon for agile methodologies and building the process that works well for us for that time frame.
While trying to adapt to changes gradually and not lading them all simultaneously, allowing the team time to adjust.

Have a Lighthouse

To move forward, we need to know where we are trying to making sure to constantly re-iterate and share the company and team vision, breaking it down into short-term and long-term goals.
As long as we stir together, we are on the right path.

Then again, and again, and again

This process isn’t easy. And since our growth is far from ending, we are sure to meet these and other challenges along the way more often than not.
But as we know now, PM and R&D lead working together, transparently and communicatively, while listening to our teams and guiding them to a joined goal.
We will continue to move together, achieve great things, and do it with a smile on our faces.

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” — Henry Ford

Link for the post on Medium