This spring, as part of their coursework, four Stanford University students found themselves in Coronado, California, doing pushups on the beach and charging into a 61-degree surf while overseen by Navy SEAL trainers. They performed this extraordinary homework to better understand the process of inculcating recruits into the elite corps of military frogmen and women. The end result of their (literal) immersion was a solution to an inefficiency in evaluating prospective SEALS: the time-consuming process of analyzing the mountains of comments made about each candidate. Tackling the problem like the internet entrepreneurs they hoped to become, the students created a mobile app to streamline the process. Their reward was thanks from a grateful military establishment—and college credit.
Dan Raile is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.
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But in a larger sense, the students were part of their instructor’s master plan to reintroduce the concept of public service to higher education’s best and brightest. And to make colleges once again an important cog in the military’s machine.
The students were drawn to the course last year, when Stanford’s halls suddenly sprouted dozens of posters bearing a familiar image of Uncle Sam, finger outstretched, with the text: “I Want You/Hacking for Defense.” The decoration was an advertisement for a seminar that began quietly training a small, carefully selected group of Stanford students in the spring of 2016—and now, it’s rolling out across the nation. It has a provocative, maybe even subversive course title: Hacking for Defense (H4D). It’s based on the promising but potentially incendiary idea that the thing that the military needs most—the thing standing between a savvy, 21st-century national defense and its asymmetrically empowered foes—is an infusion of ideas from the outside. And that those ideas should come from places that specialize in bringing fresh ideas to the world: universities.
It’s now been just over 18 months since what H4D’s founders call an “insurgency” was first conceived—a span of time in which most startups are commonly expected to either sink or swim. On those terms, the project seems to be cutting through the water like a nuclear submarine. Hacking for Defense has vaulted beyond Stanford into the course catalogues of schools from the Ivy League to state systems, land grant colleges, and liberal arts institutions. Currently, 23 schools have either begun teaching the course or have it under development. H4D first secured Pentagon funding through MD5, a brand new office described as “a national security technology accelerator.” And the Defense Appropriation Bill that passed the House this month includes up to $15 million earmarked for developing the course— “budget dust” for DoD, but real money for academia. The CIA, NSA, NGA, Army Cyber Command, SOCOM, Navy Seals, and others have also come on board to sponsor the problems that the students, broken into small teams, attempt to solve during the term.
The problems the students tackle can be devilishly complex—everything from detecting bombs with drones to robotic telesurgery during “mass casualty situations”—but the approach is straightforward. Those government agencies and military commands offer up their problems and pledge their time and cooperation to student teams, which study the issues and then come up with startup-style schemes for solving them. The students get a taste of working on something bigger than themselves, and a glimpse at the reality of what it takes to keep them safe in their beds. The government gets fresh eyes, sharp minds, and free labor applied to its problems. The program can be intrusive for agencies unaccustomed to daylight — the students conduct dozens of interviews with agency personnel — but costs are low, and so are the risks.
The aspirations of this effort go far beyond a Stanford seminar. Hacking for Defense is a trademarked military-entrepreneurship methodology, a nonprofit organization created to facilitate the course’s rollout, and the working title of a book due out in the fall, written by Steve Blank, Pete Newell, and Joe Felter, the masterminds behind the initiative.
There is a long tradition of the military taking innovative approaches to problem-solving, including DARPA’s weird experiments (everything from ESP to, well, the internet) and collaborations with screenwriters. And the intelligence community has unabashedly dipped into the Silicon Valley ecosystem with experiments like backing the venture capital firm In-Q-Tel (among its successes: Keyhole, the company that morphed into Google Earth). And of course academic institutions have long benefited from government contracts, many of them defense-oriented (though after Vietnam, many of those were curtailed after student and faculty objections). But Hacking for Defense takes things a step further, actually integrating coursework with projects that directly tackle the problems of the armed services and intelligence agencies. It’s like a real-life version of Ender’s Game, where school is actually a form of real-life warfare.
Naturally, this raises some issues reminiscent of the sixties-era campus protests against ROTC. Are universities an appropriate place for students to be involved, even peripherally, in the mechanics of the battlefield? So far Hacking for Defense hasn’t seemed to trip the radar of activists. But as the classes proliferate, that may well change. Should it? I dove into the Hacking for Defense industrial complex to find out.
The project started with Joe Felter. An expert in counterinsurgency, he was representing the Army Special Forces on a team advising David Petraeus in Afghanistan when he first thought of a Silicon Valley-inspired solution to the problems that were dogging the troops he encountered. Insurgents are able to adapt much more rapidly than the US military is able to develop new technology, and this time-lag undermines America’s significant technological advantage in the field. Perhaps, Felter thought, the problems of American soldiers could best be solved by enlisting the skills of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest, rather than pursuing fixes through the baroque machinery of the Pentagon. With this in mind, he left the Army and decamped to the brainy groves of Palo Alto, joining Stanford’s Hoover Institution and its Center for International Security and Cooperation as a research fellow and senior research scholar.
At the same time, he founded BMNT, a consultancy meant to serve as a go-between for his growing circles of acquaintances in the Valley and in government. (The name stands for Begin Morning Nautical Twilight, “the preferred time of attack since at least the French and Indian War.”) In 2013, Felter handed the reins over to Pete Newell, a decorated former colonel in Iraq and, since 2010, the director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, a unit that deployed shipping containers stocked with CNC mills and 3D printers to prototype tech solutions in the field. The REF boomed under Newell.
At the suggestion of former Secretary of Defense and Hoover institute doyen William Perry, the duo connected with Steve Blank. Since 2011, Blank had been teaching Lean Launchpad at Stanford, a course that inculcates its students in the distinct challenges of building successful startups based on the Sorkin-esque mantra, “there are no facts in your building.” Blank firmly believes that traditional business schools fail to address the realities of starting new businesses—so he developed a course of his own, and started teaching it within Stanford’s engineering school. Since its introduction, the course has been syndicated to over 50 other universities. It’s also been adopted by the likes of the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency for their internal efforts to commercialize technical research. Blank has written a popular guide, The Startup Owner’s Manual, and has become widely associated with the ubiquitous concept of “lean” startups.
So it made sense that in June 2015, the two recently-retired Army colonels and a Silicon Valley thought leader met between the whiteboard-clad walls of an office space on California Avenue in Palo Alto to merge their visions: a think tank for national defense merged with a college course. It wouldn’t be easy. They’d have to cultivate relationships within the command structures of each branch of the armed forces, along with the NSA, the CIA, the Department of Energy, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and, for good measure, the State Department. Simultaneously, they’d have to win over the administrators of the nation’s engineering colleges — to convince them of the benefits to their students, their institutions, and their country that would flow from joining the Hacking for Defense experiment.
They were able to overcome these hurdles with the help of the secret power source that drives success in Silicon Valley: elite networking. Blank is a long-running Silicon Valley guru type who multiplied the prodigious connectivity of his defense-establishment partners. Newell carried a lot of weight in military circles due to his high-profile success with the REF. And in his time jumping back and forth between Special Forces and Stanford, Felter had attached himself to what he calls a “tight circle” that included former Secretaries of Defense Perry and Ash Carter, as well as the current Defense Secretary, James Mattis, who was then teaching at the Hoover Institute. Oh, and just last week, Felter was tapped by the Trump administration to serve as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia.
The stakes, the three believed, were astronomical. Success would restore enthusiasm for the military to a younger generation and equip the Pentagon with the tools needed to defeat its adversaries. Ultimately, it would save soldiers’ lives and enrich those of the graduate students domiciled just across the road from the staunchly conservative Hoover think tank.
That’s the benefit for national defense—but there’s something in this for Silicon Valley, too. When Blank, then in his early twenties, first brushed shoulders with the highly classified centers of US electronic intelligence, the folks in Washington, D.C. needed young technicians and PhD graduates to build their systems and service their secret installations across the globe. The technicians, in turn, needed the Pentagon’s money and wanted a chance to tinker with the things only it could buy. But in this century, the situation has shifted. Newell tells a story about his first tour through Silicon Valley in 2012. A senior Google executive told him: “I don’t want your money. I want your problems.” Newell considered this an epiphany. Silicon Valley was full of brilliant engineers whose talents were being wasted on building food delivery systems. Though startup agility had allowed Silicon Valley to wean itself off the government money funnel, the military still had something irresistible to offer: an ample supply of the interesting questions and problems that tech tycoons lacked. Newell and his colleagues concluded that these nerds would jump at the chance to use their brains and technology to solve knotty technical problems that actually made a difference. Just for the thrill, if nothing else. And they were right.
The first H4D class began in the Spring 2016 semester, with the three founders presiding at weekly sessions before a cohort of 32 hand-selected students. (Tom Byers, faculty director at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, who worked on the course last year, said in a statement that standard criteria were used by the University’s Department of Management Science & Engineering in approving the course. “As educators, our job is to teach students a way of thinking,” he said.) Hacking for Defense is run much in the style of Blank’s startup seminars, but he has adapted the Lean Launchpad strategies to the needs of national security. Success isn’t profit—it is mission achievement. Customers aren’t the people paying for products and services—they are the soldiers who use them. Still, it’s the same basic model. The class projects even take pivots, as startups do in the entrepreneurial realms: In this year’s class, Blank recently summarized, “seven out of the eight teams realized that the problem as given by the sponsor really wasn’t the problem. Their sponsors agreed.” All of this came after extensive data gathering, as each team routinely interviewed over 100 sources. Blank calls it “the scientific method for innovation.”
Of course, Hacking for Defense sometimes has to tread a bit lightly. Its students, after all, are civilians. In 1969, after the massive anti-Vietnam war protests, Stanford enacted a campus-wide ban on classified research. (Asked to comment on the course, the University gave the following statement: "Stanford has very few DoD contracts and does not do classified research. Faculty members apply for grants that are compatible with their research interests and grants are vetted on a case-by-case basis.") To comply with this in H4D courses, the government “scrubs” all problems of sensitive information. Another prohibition, this one on military recruitment on campus grounds, was rolled back in 2011 by faculty vote. That is probably fortunate for H4D, which pitches itself to the military as an investment of time and money into a “human capital imperative.” And there’s those Uncle Sam posters….
Blank says that the first batch of students emerged from the course with a new appreciation for the kind of work that occupies America’s agents of national security. “We did a survey of the students before and after the class,” he says. “When they came in, they said they were primarily there for the interesting problems. When they left, after all this interaction with the members of our armed forces, they answered that their prime motivation was to help our national defense.” Helping things along was the fact that the course isn’t a dry dive into data and tech implementation, but rather firsthand exposure to how the military operates—kind of like experiencing the coolest video game ever, in real life. In the first seminar, for instance, one team simulated an app-based bomb disposal wearing mockups of the suits provided to the Afghan military for that purpose. As as one student later explained, “It was an easy sell for me, the national service draw. There is something badass about working on Department of Defense and intelligence community problems.”
This talk is ambrosia to the course creators. It’s why scaling the class beyond Stanford is so important to them: Hundreds of H4D classes will not only solve more problems, but also create a sub rosa national defense corps made up of elite students who would never think of enlisting for the actual military or even the intel agencies. This effectively addresses a gap that opened with the abolishment of the draft.
“When we ended the draft, we ran a giant science experiment and I think the evidence is in,” says Blank. “It has given free range to the executive and legislative branches to run our foreign engagements without involving the body politic—we are now in perpetual wars.” Blank bemoans the fact that the issue of a draft is “still a third rail,” but sees Hacking for Defense as a way of revitalizing the lost tradition of national public service for a detached generation. (Not that getting Stanford students into a seminar is in any way similar to exposing the whole socioeconomic spectrum to conscription.)
As Newell told a Stanford conference room stocked with military and intelligence personnel last September, during a three-day H4D training session for educators interested in bringing the course to their departments, “We are creating a future workforce. Young people are going to infect your organizations with a new perspective. They’re networked, have talked to over 100 stakeholders. Wouldn’t you want to hire these people?”
More to the point, once students get the bug for national service, they want to keep at it. The course encourages them to develop “dual use” technologies—those that have both military and consumer applications—for their government sponsors. The idea is that by the end of the course, if all goes well, they can go out in search of venture capital for a quick cash infusion while they wait for the gears of military bureaucracy to process a possible contract, though such a formal coupling may not be necessary or desirable.
Many of the students from H4D’s first run at Stanford came away with funding, and this year Blank reports that over half the students in the seminar say they are going to continue to pursue projects involving national defense. In the 2017-2018 school year, the program expands to eight universities, including Georgetown, Columbia, USC, Boise State, Pitt, UC San Diego, and the University of Southern Mississippi. Students at those schools will take a stab at the kinds of problems sponsors have been asking for so far, like developing encrypted bluetooth networks for the Special Operations Command; smart PTSD home solutions for the VA; augmented reality platforms for explosives detection, along with a handful of other cybersecurity, machine learning, and data analysis needs; algorithmic data analysis of satellite imagery for the Navy; and building drones for the Special Operations Command, with computer vision that can identify combatants (the team on this last project dubbed itself “Skynet”).
In other words, exactly the type of research that Stanford’s students and faculty banished from campus in the early 1970s after years of demonstrations and high-profile clashes. Exactly the types of projects and career trajectories that an earlier generation of brilliant engineers was running away from when it founded scruffy startups in Silicon Valley. In the 21st century, for a cohort of students raised on 9/11 replays and ISIS beheading videos, the prospect of working to enhance America’s war machine doesn’t carry the stigma it once did. This, at least, is Blank’s hypothesis. Blank says today’s students are more mature and patriotic than his peers were during their college years. At the very least, they seem much less conflicted about their nation’s foreign policy. In the 20th century, America’s universities were first the site of massive investments in military research, and then the crucibles of anti-war unrest. Fifty years later, perhaps that pendulum is swinging quietly back. One year in, reality seems to be bearing this out: There has been no campus backlash. Just a little hand-wringing.
“It seems like a step backward for the University,” said Brian Baum, president of Stanford's Students for Alternatives to Militarism (SAM). “I’m concerned about the idea of combining hacking culture with that of the military industrial complex. If you mix in the reckless disregard for norms and the breakneck speed of Silicon Valley, you are opening up all kinds of new problems.” Still, Baum and SAM haven’t organized any opposition to the program, focusing instead on protesting campus speakers and pushing the school to divest from companies that “profit from the military occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
Veterans of Stanford’s anti-war heyday aren’t raising their hackles, either. “The military made Silicon Valley the tech center it was, but by the 1970s they lost control,” says Lenny Siegel, a leader of the April Third Movement at Stanford in the early 1970s. “People were able to get out of military work because there were better jobs. That’s why we have smartphones today, because there were alternatives to the military...I think Steve Blank has an uphill fight moving that needle back.”
Blank and his co-insurgents believe that they will take that hill. “The relationship [between Silicon Valley and the military and intelligence community] is still strong, but people don’t realize it. There are not many positive stories about Silicon Valley helping the country, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist—just that they don’t talk to the press,” Blank says. “And while I can’t set national policy, I can hack it.”
This is how hard building healthy internal communications is at a growing startup: SoundCloud moved its VP of Community — the man who built its 20+ team of community managers and support specialists for over 175 million unique listeners — to work on the problem full time. His name is David Noël, and he's the kind of guy who runs toward big challenges. In this case, making sure the company's 300+ employees are able to collaborate seamlessly across four global offices (Berlin, London, New York, and San Francisco) in four different time zones. This is no easy feat, and the result has been some groundbreaking thinking around culture and communication.
There hasn't been a lot written on this type of role or emphasis, making this exclusive interview with Noël a foundational document for all startups on how to build a world-class internal comms program. Here, he shares the five initiatives that have worked best for him and been vital to SoundCloud's success.
Making All Hands the Ultimate Can't-Miss Meeting
Most companies hold periodic All Hands meetings: company-wide gatherings designed to keep everyone on the team connected and moving forward toward shared goals. These meetings are relatively easy to get right while a company is small, which can be deceptive.
“I remember when I joined six years ago, we would hold All Hands every other Friday in our rickety conference room,” Noël says. “It was the All Hands meeting in its purest form.” Anyone could bring in a topic they wanted to discuss, and everyone would debate and ask questions.
This worked well for a while. But soon, “Growth caught up with us,” Noël recalls. The spontaneous pick-a-topic-any-topic approach didn’t work so well with a larger team. “I remember one really bad All Hands towards the end of 2013. There was just no consistency — one presentation was really tactical; another was strategic. The narrative wasn’t cohesive.” Team members didn’t know what to expect, they weren’t always sure how the meeting topics fit together or why they were relevant to their work, so they tuned out.
Most distressing to Noël was realizing that the meeting had become largely a one-way dialogue.
We would have an All Hands where we opened the floor for questions, and no one would ask anything. I thought, 'Whoa, this is brutal.'
“One of our values is to be open — this was the opposite. And I wanted to take responsibility for that. I thought, how do I make this a forum where we can really live that value of openness, where asking challenging questions is encouraged?”
Noël made it his mission to create a meeting that everyone felt a strong need to attend. Accordingly, most of his action plan can be summed up in one word: Preparation. With everything rotating around that axis, here are some of the concrete steps he and his team took to breathe life back into All Hands meetings:
Find the right cadence. For smaller companies, holding an All Hands once a week or every two weeks works awesomely well, and is easy to execute. But as SoundCloud grew, it made sense to have fewer, more comprehensive meetings. “Before the beginning of each quarter, we know exactly how many All Hands we’ll have — these days, at over 300 employees, it’s usually about 6 to 8 times a quarter,” Noël says. You want to share those dates as soon as possible so people can block off the time and make the meetings a priority.
Take a strongly thematic approach. For every All Hands, Noël’s team picks a concrete theme that aligns with that quarter’s core priorities (as staked out by the leadership during pre-quarter roadmapping). Moving from the “agenda and topic-based approach,” where anybody could raise an issue over email, to a thematic approach helped ensure that the meetings were interesting, coherent, and relevant to all employees. Developing themes essentially enforced the internal comms team to be thoughtful about what would engage people and be most important for everyone to know. It raised the bar for the content that would be shared.
Assign owners, and get serious about accountability. At SoundCloud, there are two key owners for every All Hands meeting: the curator and the host. The curator is the owner of that meeting’s theme, and is responsible for making the agenda and selecting speakers who will strike the right tone and topics. The host (usually Noël or one of his team members) figures out the logistics and makes sure all the speakers are thoroughly prepared for their moment on stage. They also serve as MC during the event, opening and closing the proceedings and introducing new employees. This distributes the labor nicely and helps get more people involved and invested as rotating hosts.
Nail down a regular production cycle. Noël and his team start planning each and every meeting about three weeks in advance of the date. Two days before, they convene the speakers for a test run to make sure they've done their homework and that their content will be valuable. “It’s an opportunity to make sure we have a cohesive narrative, and also give feedback on the content, style, format and overall delivery.” Little things get tweaked because every detail matters to the credibility, caliber and polish of the event. Maybe one person is running over time on his part of the presentation, while another presenter could use design help on a few slides. All of these changes are important because they add up to every employee feeling great about working at SoundCloud and doing their best work.
Prioritize the inclusion of remote employees. Noël makes sure to include the IT team in every All Hands test run. SoundCloud has three offices in addition to their Berlin headquarters, where the live All Hands is typically held. “Given the number of offices, IT is basically producing a full, hour-long TV show. We want to make it feel just like everyone is in the same room.” Every presentation should be just as engaging for an employee in San Francisco as it is for someone in Berlin. No nit-pick is too small. For example, Noël cautions speakers against using too many bullet points in their slides, since they might be hard for people watching on the Livestream to read. One camera angle from the back of the room simply won't cut it. Low production value breeds disengagement, and a disengaged employee is more likely to do low quality of work or leave the company.
Let attendees ask questions through the channel they're most comfortable with. Every meeting includes a Q&A session. “We try to include both senior and junior people working on the meeting’s theme to provide a full stack of visibility,” Noël says. Attendees can ask questions in person, but there are also moderators who surface questions that come in via the company’s intranet or chat or Slack. This allows people in other offices to participate in a seamless way, and caters to people with differing communication styles. Some might be shyer than others or prefer to express themselves differently. You don't want to exclude anyone unintentionally.
Past themes and topics have included actions and reflections coming out of leadership offsites, future product launches, company strategy, quarterly objectives, and much more. There's a special sensitivity for areas that might be controversial or confusing or tense. Instead of skimming the surface of these issues, or talking around them, SoundCloud makes them central to the discussion during All Hands gatherings.
For example, the company recently held an All Hands with the company's board of directors, who for one hour presented their perspective on the business and possibilities for the future, and then fielded questions during an open Q&A.
Following every meeting, Noël and his team send out a simple survey to all employees to get their thoughts on the material and format. The survey asks just three questions to keep it low-lift:
Was the recent All Hands valuable? (Multiple choice Yes or No)
What did you like best during the event?
What can we improve about the meeting?
They then use the results to continue to refine the All Hands to meet the company’s constantly evolving needs. To keep tabs on their success, they aim for a consistent satisfaction rating of 80 to 90%. “That number really shows we picked topics that are top of mind for people and delivered the information they wanted,” he says.
Qualitative feedback is just as telling. Sometimes, the meeting will be outside normal work hours for employees in other time zones. People have started proactively organizing breakfast meetings to watch the Livestream instead of watching the footage after the fact.
That’s a real testament to the value of the content — when people show up at 8 a.m. to watch the All Hands together because it's that compelling and important.
On a smaller scale, teams within the company host “Town Halls,” where the entire team gets together to hear about KPIs, celebrate successful projects, kick off new ones, or learn about performance goals. As teams get to be larger and larger, having a way to bring everyone together to get on the same page is increasingly important. To loop in the rest of the company, team leaders circulate a summary of their plans to everyone every two weeks.
Dedicating Time for Informal Discussion with Open Houses
All Hands meetings are vital for bringing transparency to big company-wide initiatives and goals. But there are plenty of other niche or smaller topics that deserve attention but don’t require an all-team meeting. Sometimes a question from an All Hands will prompt an entirely different line of conversation. Noël observed how a few employees would get to talking over lunch about an issue that’s only relevant to a certain subset of employees. He saw how much organic interest there was in teams working on an exciting new projects that weren't quite ready for prime time.
Enter Open Houses: smaller, informal meetings that anyone can announce and set up via the company’s intranet. “There’s so much going on at SoundCloud. Email and documentation aren’t always the best ways to engage around a topic that is dynamic and exciting,” Noël says. When a company is small, it’s easy to get information informally, over a meal or during a hallway chat. But as a team grows, these lines of communication can break down. “Open Houses provide a way for people to stay informed about all of the things they choose to care about.”
Here's the important thing: The Open House format is flexible. Some people do a straight Q&A session, while others use slides to provide context for the discussion. A few examples of the types of material that work well in an Open House include:
The insights and data teams presenting findings about an intriguing user segment.
Early prototypes or wireframes the design team is enthusiastic about.
Recent user research that is telling or surprising collected by the data team.
Progress toward a big launch as told in narrative form by the product team.
Open Houses are also used to reinforce the most important themes coming out of All Hands meetings. For example, the first All Hands of every quarter is dedicated to high-level goals, plans and objectives for the next 3 months. This is often followed by an Open House for anyone who wants to dig deeper into these topics.
“We make very clear what each Open House is about when we send out the invite,” says Noël. “Is this more directed at engineers or marketers? What are the objectives? We want to make it easy for everyone to make a quick decision about whether to attend.” He points to two specific ways Open Houses have already helped increase engagement for the SoundCloud team:
1. Building connections across multiple offices. “Open Houses are an easy way for people to learn about something from a team that they never normally see. When I’m in the San Francisco office, I always host an Open House there about what I'm up to. The questions are always different from the ones I get in Berlin. It’s a good way for me to help connect the dots and tap into topics that are top of mind in that office. It often brings up ideas and questions I haven't considered but that I should.”
In general, SoundCloud employees (especially senior managers) are highly encouraged to travel to the other offices to promote face-to-face communication, context-setting and to help more people connect the dots across the company. In fact, the company offers a Global Exchange Program where employees can apply to work in another office for a quarter if it will add value to their development or output. It's turned into an incredibly popular program that employees cite as a key perk.
2. Giving more people a seat at the table. For example, SoundCloud recently developed its internal action plan around diversity and inclusion. “On the road to defining that plan, we had at least one Open House in each office for people to provide input on what we should be focusing on as a company,” Noël says. The people hosting the Open House are often the resident experts on that topic or area, but they're encouraged to draw in anyone who simply wants to learn more who may then be tapped to present or ask specific questions so that everyone can benefit from the information shared.
Open House meetings have quickly grown in popularity at SoundCloud, proving their value for keeping knowledge flowing, current and nimble. “The sheer number of Open Houses being organized in every office in an indication of how useful people find them. Last year we had about three to five a quarter. Now, it’s more like 15+ a quarter. If we see a topic bubble up that seems to justify an Open House, more often than not there will be a packed room.” And if multiple Open Houses get organized around a particular subject, Noël's team perks up and considers adding it to the next All Hands docket. They're not only good for sharing information — they help the company keep its finger on the pulse of what inspires people, what they care about.
Building an Intranet That's a Destination, Not a Repository
During Noël’s first few years at SoundCloud, the company used a basic wiki to host company-wide information. “It didn’t look pretty, but it served its purpose pretty well,” Noël says. “It was fine.” At that point, the team was still so scrappy and tight-knit they didn’t have a huge need for central or formal documentation.
“As we grew, hosting and sharing information between teams became a big problem,” Noël says. At the end of last year, his team decided it was time to develop a more robust intranet to solve this issue. “We created a cross-functional team from IT, trust and safety, internal communications, and legal to evaluate different vendors, and eventually, we landed on Confluence.”
“The beauty of it was starting with a blank slate,” Noël says. “You can set a new standard. For us, it wasn’t even a discussion.”
When you start from scratch, you can optimize for how things will work in the future rather than focusing on fixing the past.
The first step was to christen the new system with a SoundCloud-worthy moniker. “We didn’t want to call it ‘Project Intranet,’” Noël says. “First we called it “Epic’ and then we had one person suggest ‘Opus.’ It sounded awesome and it was witty because it’s also a word used to describe an epic audio experience, as well as an audio coding format — we were able to connect it with our mission to deliver sound in incredible ways.” All of this helped the name stick like glue — and capture people's attention.
Noël and team were careful to build and introduce Opus in a way that ensured long-term success. Here are the tactics they proved out:
Give everyone enough time to adjust. Noël’s team sunsetted the old wiki, providing employees ample opportunity to copy over any data they wanted to the new site (they also exported everything just in case). “We were lucky in that we were completely switching infrastructures,” Noël says. “The rollout would be more difficult for people using the same environment. If we had to do it that way, I’d do a feature freeze on the old environment to try to start from scratch as much as possible.” It was also important to not expect or demand a fast transition. A lot of companies make the mistake of hustling employees to a new platform and then abandoning the solution when it appears to lack traction. These things take time and new behaviors don't come easy.
Use a phased approach. Noël’s team assigned a full-time intern role to help manage the process of introducing Opus to the company day in and day out. All told, they spent six weeks rolling out Opus bit by bit to individual teams at first. This provided the dual benefits of giving each team a personalized onboarding experience, while allowing Noël’s team to work out any kinks ahead of time that would impact each particular team. On the old wiki, there was “so much legacy content that it had become like the Wild West, with a mix of new and super out-of-date information.” By interfacing with each team separately, Noël’s team could weed out unnecessary information and ensure everything on Opus was up to date one contained segment at a time. This helped each team embrace the new system, and helped the internal comms squad perfect their work along the way.
Invest in premium design. The old wiki was “very restricted in terms of functionality, and it didn’t look great.” Once the team had moved all the content onto Opus, they hired a designer to completely overhaul the look and feel. They didn’t want Opus to be just another boring internal hub — it needed to look and feel like a SoundCloud product. “We wanted it to make it a place people wanted to visit every day — The New York Times for SoundCloud,” Noël says. Within a few weeks, they had a design ready to roll out to the company. It wasn't elaborate or hard to code, it was simply polished, professional, worthy of the brand. AsNoël has seen, the credibility and use of the new platform hinged largely on people liking how it looked.
Prioritize community-building features. Opus has a dynamic front page where the internal communications team can regularly feature new content. This gives employees a reason to visit Opus continually and organically. Once they’re there, there’s plenty more new content to explore. The product team, senior management and others have committed to writing periodic blog posts, which employees can “like” and comment on. Noël's team also introduced Opus Questions, a “Reddit-like Q&A tool where questions can be voted up or down.” Opus Questions quickly gained popularity: An average of 2 to 3 questions are posted every day, 80% of which are answered by others. You want to populate your platform with as many ways for everyone to participate as you can. That's what will keep people coming back. And when they keep coming back, you have a greater opportunity to keep them informed.
Make it ubiquitous. Repetition is key. It's only when you hear a team member say,“I've heard about this thing 3 times!” that you know you're succeeding. Don't shy away from being a broken record. When it comes to behavior change or a major transition like moving to a new intranet, repetition is a vital tool. You need everyone in the company to feel like all of their colleagues are using it.
Right after Noël’s team launched Opus, SoundCloud’s co-founder and CTO Eric Wahlforss emailed the whole company. He’d been skeptical about whether this project was the right thing to invest in, he said, but now he said he was “totally blown away” by Opus’s functionality and design. Not only was leadership impressed, but the rest of the team also showed their support in the best way possible — by actually using the tool every day. Between Q1 and Q2 this year, the company saw over a 150% spike in unique page views on Opus.
“There are constantly new pages being created,” Noël says. Today, every single employee at SoundCloud is on Opus, and around two-thirds of the company is consistently contributing to the site in some way.
To make Opus a dynamic, living site, there's an imperative to post new information on a regular basis — especially for the executive team and other senior leaders. Additionally, every team within the company has its own page to maintain. Every quarter, they post their team priorities so that everyone knows what's urgent and important.
Fostering Real-Time Communication
After SoundCloud implemented Opus and saw how well it worked for hosting evergreen company information, Noël's team realized how crucial it was for employees to have a place for “ephemeral day-to-day discussions.”
“We kept getting the same question,” he says. “‘What is theone real-time communication tool we use at SoundCloud?’”
The answer was simple: There wasn’t one. “The tech team would use IRC and the non-tech team would use Skype and others would use Hangouts. This is very common for startups, but it caused a lot of friction and lost productivity.”
People simply didn’t know where they should go to connect with the right people. Suddenly it occurred to us how much we were probably missing out on because of this disconnect.
Like many tech companies, SoundCloud prizes autonomy; they’re not into top-down management. But in this case, they needed to make a unilateral decision, because everyone had a different opinion. The lack of clarity about what tool the company preferred was negatively affecting workflow and healthy circulation of data between teams.
Incidentally, some of the groups at SoundCloud were already using Slack, the messaging platform designed to facilitate collaboration. Everyone Noël spoke to seemed to have a great experience with it. So the internal communications team vetted the app with the necessary stakeholders — including finance, legal, security, infrastructure and operations — and, after considering a few other options, found it to be the best tool for most people's overlapping needs. “By the time we decided to implement it across the company, two-thirds of the team was already using it proactively,” Noël says. “This helped make the overall adoption super successful.”
The benefits were clear pretty much immediately:
Helps team members interact across offices. “The NYC and SF offices would stay connected on Skype throughout the day, but as someone in Berlin, I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t have an organic way to connect to see what was going on in San Francisco.” After transitioning to Slack, “All the channels are easily accessible, and I can participate in specific conversations in other offices. It's like a direct portal into the day-to-day elsewhere.”
Makes everyone more approachable. “I think people now are having conversations that they wouldn’t ever have had before. People end up talking to people they would never approach in real life — like many of the executives even,” Noël says. “The fact that we now have one system has improved team collaboration and happiness.” Teams who are heads down on a project can also form private groups to facilitate communication and boost productivity. Chat rooms on slack are regularly created and deleted, mimicking the ebb and flow of projects and discussions inside the company.
Moonlights as a central water-cooler for all four offices. Slack offers “channels” that anyone from the company can join. All sorts of fun discussion groups have cropped up. There are location-specific channels for different offices; a “PosiTweets” channel where people post nice things being said about SoundCloud on Twitter; and interest groups for things like board games, running, and, yes, even GIFs. Employee happiness is contingent on everyone feeling socially nourished,Noël recognizes. By bridging all of the offices and people at the company, Slack makes it easier for employees to find their tribe and their social anchor at the company.
As with any integration, there were a few sticking points. “The most challenging part of the rollout was convincing the tech organization to migrate to a new environment and away from IRC.” It took time for the infrastructure and operations teams to build new bots, alerts and services that would work on Slack. Noël and his team made sure to build in a generous transition period — much like they had done with Opus. “In the end, even the loudest critics in the company have been impressed by the lack of downtime.”
This isn't meant to be a single-minded promotion of Slack. Other platforms might work best for different companies. There's a lot to recommend HipChat and Yammer, for instance. The key is to choose a system that the majority of your company is already familiar with and likes the most. Again, behavior change is arduous and unpredictable. You want to bet on the best odds of everyone moving in a particular direction. You also want to make sure that whatever you end up with has the primary functions you need. You don't want to have to migrate again in the short-term. It just won't work.
Giving People a Window into Other Parts of the Company with Cameos
When SoundCloud was at a headcount of just a few dozen, “it was easy to stay informed and involved in most of the things going on,” Noël says. “As you grow though, you lose a little bit of connection to things that you’re not directly a part of. I think it’s a very common phase for startups.”
People start to feel this separation anxiety — the sense that if they’re not in a room, they’re not allowed or welcome there.
The idea for Cameos emerged as a way to counter this culture-damaging feeling. With Cameos, any SoundCloud employee can schedule time to sit in on another team’s meeting or offsite, the same way Alec Baldwin might pop into a Tom Cruise movie for a few minutes, Noël says. “The only rule is that you have to bring at least one interesting piece of information about your own team to the meeting, and then you have to bring something relevant back to share with your team from that meeting.”
For example, Noël once Cameo’d at an engineering management offsite. “In that case, they asked me to come in to discuss a recent happiness survey, and help them figure out ways they could use the results to improve.” In the end, both parties benefited. Noël brought new ideas to spark discussion around what really makes people happy in a workplace, and in return was able to share with his own team a better understanding of the engineers’ priorities and challenges in this area.
People don't have to be specifically invited to make a cameo, however. They can request to get some face-time with a team, which will keep them in mind for a meeting that lends itself to having a guest. Cameos may not be productive in the middle of a tough project or when a deadline is looming, but there's always time eventually, and the exchange has proven vital for the free flow of information and holistic understanding of the business.
Eventually, Noël had the idea to extend Cameos to senior management meetings, and it turned out to be game changing.
“I convinced our CEO to allow Cameos at their quarterly offsite — their flagship meeting every year,” he says. “This was really something, because leadership offsites always generate a certain amount of curiosity, anxiety, uncertainty with what's going to come out of it or what they are actually talking about.”
In this case, Noël asked senior managers to nominate people they thought would do a great job not only being observant, but also proactively participating. “This offsite is multiple days of intense discussion, and we wanted people who would really get involved.” From a pool of 30 nominees, they randomly selected three people to do a Cameo (each person attended a half-day of the 1.5-day offsite). Afterwards, these employees wrote a blog post on Opus about their experience. “Judging by the comments, people really appreciated the transparency,” Noël says. It is still one of the top 5 most-read blog post on the site with dozens of comments, people asking questions and getting answers.
The experience went a long way toward clarifying what management was talking about, plans for the future, and how it would impact everyone company-wide. The transparency spoke to SoundCloud's core value of openness, and the three employees selected to sit in felt special and rewarded. Noël is eager to continue this tradition in the future. In fact, the next leadership offsite happened last week and two people will cameo who were nominated by the entire company, not just managers, before being randomly selected.
Why Invest All This Time and Effort in Internal Communications?
Given all of this, it seems like SoundCloud is devoting a whole lot of energy and brainpower to internal communication and coordination. A lot of early stage startups might read this and think they don't have the resources or the manpower to spare, and how important could it actually be anyway? Not that many companies are placing this type of emphasis. It's easy to have this attitude until the rubber hits the road. SoundCloud has been there, done that, and has made it to the other side.
The upshot from Noël: More companies should be focused on creating internal comms that scale, and even earlier.
Employees’ priorities are clearly on the move. “We’re seeing a generation of people who are making decisions about where to work based on how their personal values map to company values,” Noël says. Today, “more than twice as many employees are motivated by work passion than career ambition.” These are people who look to a company’s mission and vision first, before considering its balance sheet or market share. They’re the type of workers any company would want to hire — dedicated, driven employees who are eager to take ownership and make an impact.
For these people, strong culture and an emphasis on employee engagement are non-negotiable. “People often ask us why we decided to invest so much in communications, especially as a growing company,” Noël says. “This is why. The people we hire invest so much time and energy into finding the best workplace fit. We want to give them an environment where they can succeed and grow. Good internal communications is the glue that holds this type of environment together.”
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