Life without bosses: What it’s like to work on Smarkets’ bottom-up, no-hierarchy engineering team

by John Siegel
November 15, 2017

Imagine what life would be like if you didn’t have a boss. While the complete absence of a supervisor might seem like more of a hindrance than a value-add, one DTLA-based startup has found a way to make it work.

Smarkets, one of the world’s largest betting exchanges, has developed a particularly unique administrative culture for its engineering department. The company’s bottom-up, no-hierarchy structure hinges on constant communication and trust, but it creates an environment where everyone on the team knows exactly what is expected of them.

We spoke with three of Smarkets’ software engineers to get a better idea of what it’s like to not have a boss, what they gain from setting their own deadlines and just how important communication is within the organization.

 

Smarkets DTLA betting exchange startup

Were you at all worried about working on a team with no designated hierarchical structure? If so, how long did it take to get over it?

Kenny Ng, software engineer: I wasn't too worried because I like to think that I thrive in nontraditional environments. Also, as someone relatively early in their career, the lack of hierarchical structure has provided me with various beneficial and educational opportunities and responsibilities that I wouldn't have had at a more traditional company.

Lincoln Thurlow, software engineer: Not really. In small environments, I am not sure that a stated hierarchy is necessary. Everyone works off of everyone else, and we utilize the collaboration between each other to evaluate our designs and decisions.

Ricky Ghov, software engineer: I really wasn’t worried about the Smarkets’ structure when I joined the company. The company is filled with smart, motivated individuals who know what work is best for them and the company.

What are some of the benefits of structuring a team like this?

Ng: I believe such an organizational structure allows for better engagement. It also decreases employee apathy, which can be cancerous to a company as it grows. Also, since there are no direct managers dictating everything, the engineers enjoy a certain degree of freedom and sense of empowerment not found at other companies.

Thurlow: One thing that I have noticed is the agility in making engineering decisions and building products. The feedback loop is much shorter, and that allows us to iterate versions much quicker than if we had a more traditional manager who oversees development decisions.

Ghov: Freedom and a sense of ownership. If you have an opinion on how something should work, you are free to voice it and lead that change.

Smarkets DTLA betting exchange startup office

How important is communication at Smarkets?

Ng: Communication is of utmost importance. Aside from the fact that we often collaborate with our London office, effective communication enables the company to run smoothly. It ensures all uncertainties that arise are cleared up quickly before they bubble into bigger problems, and it also allows for each employee to provide their input — should they desire to — for consideration.

Thurlow: Communication is very likely the most important requirement at Smarkets. Given the unique structure, the communication of ideas and plans is instrumental. Communication between the engineers needs to be concise, clear and educated as the management layer is generally responsible for how ideas are shaped and given to engineers to implement.

Ghov: Very important! We are huge on Slack rooms and quick video chats to make sure people are getting the advice they need and are aligning themselves with the bigger company goals.

What's it like working with two-month milestones instead of strict deadlines?

Thurlow: We still have deadlines here at Smarkets, but if I might paraphrase from “Pirates of the Caribbean”: deadlines are more of what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. We always strive to hit the dates we say we are going to hit. Something that differentiates us and how we communicate is that the release date is specified by us and is a moving target, but we always push to get it done on time.

Ghov: It’s interesting. Burnout is real in the software industry and not having strict deadlines, but — rather — a long two-month milestone is a nice solution to the problem of stress.

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