Rapid maturity

Steven Greenberg, director of program management, Socrata Inc., Seattle, Washington, USA

VOICES | Inside Track



After spending 13 years as a program manager at Microsoft, in 2013 Steven Greenberg headed to Socrata, where he oversees the organization’s growing portfolio of software engineering projects. Socrata works with city and state governments in the United States to create data portals that share a vast array of public data—anything from the location of a crime to the status of a restaurant inspection.

As Socrata expands into U.S. federal agencies and other countries, Mr. Greenberg ensures the portfolio’s strategic alignment while helping practitioners implement agile approaches.

In the past year, the company’s workforce has tripled from 50 to 150. How has that rapid growth impacted you?

It’s honestly the most exciting time to come in and do project management. The rapid-growth stage in a technology company is a time when program and project managers get to define processes and build a great culture and a company that can innovate rapidly while also having predictable results for customers.

What kinds of processes have you put in place?

Some of it is basic stuff that any mature company would have to have—for instance, having one place that lists all the work the engineering team is doing and its backlog. Other parts are more subtle. The biggest challenge is: In an organization in which the opportunities greatly outstrip the available resources, how do you have a fair and transparent system for evaluating what work to do? I spent a lot of my first year here focusing on building a sustainable system for making decisions about prioritizing and assigning projects.

How does that system work?

I use a portfolio approach: assigning different percentages of the organization to tackle different types of requests. Right now we devote approximately 70 percent of the organization to working on the next generation of software, 20 percent to handling customer requests on the existing system and 10 percent on improving the team so that it is more efficient. The business agrees to the portfolio allocations, and it’s my team’s job to fill up the buckets with work.

“The biggest challenge is: In an organization in which the opportunities greatly outstrip the available resources, how do you have a fair and transparent system for evaluating what work to do?”

So you’re ensuring that the engineering team’s projects are strategically aligned?

That’s the job in a nutshell—ensuring that Socrata’s technical resources are deployed in the best interest of the business strategically.

What does project management at the organization look like?

The fundamental thing about project management at Socrata is that we’re always simultaneously building new functionality and maintaining our existing service. At Microsoft, I worked on Excel and Access. The company traditionally ships a new version of that software once every couple of years, which lends itself very well to waterfall methods of project management. We’re in a very different model; we constantly have requests from customers about functionality that they want. But we also look out a number of years and recognize that we need more generational shifts.

Can you describe that project management in action?

Once a quarter, we take a week or two off from execution mode, step back and make sure we’re comfortable with the direction we’re heading in. We put together an execution plan, and then we run on two-week iterations. Every two weeks, we commit to a set of work, and then we deliver on it.

Can you discuss the agility that two-week iterations allow?

We adjust the quarterly plan every two weeks based on feedback from customers or from engineers. For example, one thing that we thought would be easy to do might turn out to be complex, and maybe the cost-benefit analysis looks different than it did two weeks ago. That’s one of the biggest benefits of agile: You can constantly course-correct.

What’s a recent project you’ve been focused on?

We’ve been working on an improved open-data user experience. The existing user experience works great for data sets of a thousand rows, even 10,000 rows, but our customers are asking for hundreds of millions of rows—even billions of rows. For that size of data, you need a different experience, a dashboard experience that analyzes each facet of the data.

As you’ve implemented processes, has it been challenging to shift the organizational culture?

Any time you come into a startup as a program manager looking to add process, there’s always skepticism you have to overcome. But after a few months, once engineers saw the benefits of being organized, the skepticism died down. You don’t spend a lot of time talking about the change you’re taking; you do it, and then everybody sees the benefits. PM


Small Talk

What skills does every project manager need?

In a growth-stage technology startup, you need communication skills, organizational skills and a technical fluency to have credibility with engineers.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

The best way to achieve results in business is to inspire and empower people around you.

Favorite low-tech activity?

It’s not really low-tech anymore, but I really love bicycling. I’m a big fan of combining my commute with exercise.

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