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Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement: How LawnStarter Empowers Developers with Data

Lindsey Adler

By: Lindsey Adler
February 16, 2022

Team members collaborating in a circle

On the quest to delight customers and deliver business value, LawnStarter is building a software engineering culture of continuous improvement. 

The LawnStarter platform helps homeowners schedule outdoor services, from basic lawn care to landscaping, tree care, pest control, and more via their nationwide network of vetted professionals. The platform serves 120 markets in the United States. Having notched $27M in funding to date, the Austin-based startup, which recently acquired Lawn Love, is on a path of supercharged growth. Naturally, with growth comes challenges. 

We sat down with LawnStarter’s VP of Engineering, Alberto Silveira, to chat about how they’re using Velocity to address some of the top challenges their engineering organization faces. 

Building Both the Team and Culture of Continuous Improvement

In today’s race for tech talent, LawnStarter isn’t only concerned with hiring engineers as quickly as possible. They’re looking to do so while also improving code quality and team performance. With the engineering team set to grow by 50%-60% annually, Silveira needs deep visibility into engineering activities to help him identify opportunities to level up, which he’ll use to drive the culture toward continuous improvement.

Silveira is no stranger to the practices related to building high-performance teams. In fact, he’s written a book about it. In Building and Managing High Performance Distributed Teams, Silveira details a concept he calls “One Team, One Heart,” which he defines as “the synergy that comes from people feeling good about their place in a highly productive team.”

As he describes in the book: “We are one team, regardless how geographically far apart we are, no matter the person’s religion, skin color, nationality, gender orientation, or physical ability. If a person is a good fit, then the moment we connect as simply humans becomes the foundation of a high-performance team. This ability to connect as humans, to socially and emotionally fuel people’s individual desires to excel in their efforts – this is what I consider to be the true North Star of any business.”

With his compass set on that North Star, Silviera set out to identify measurement tools and metrics to start identifying tangible goals and measuring progress. His navigation led him to Velocity for Engineering Intelligence. 

With full transparency into each team and individual’s work, Silveira can present detailed reports to executive stakeholders to demonstrate how building a culture of continuous improvement directly impacts business objectives and key results. 

Helping Developers Improve with Data

With team success at the core of the business strategy, Silveira tapped Velocity to create a scorecard of engineering metrics that developers use to advance in their careers. Every engineer has full access to Velocity’s reports, dashboards, and modules to proactively monitor their progress within their teams and as individuals. Goals and engineering metrics correlating to the business “rocks” (OKRs) are proactively shared with LawnStarter’s executive leadership. 

While the idea of a scorecard may ruffle some feathers among developers, here again, transparency is key – in both process and communications. Silveira stresses the importance of communicating the value and purpose of engineering metrics. As with any powerful tool, there’s a responsibility to ensure that it’s being used as intended. “If you don’t adopt the tool with the right mindset, people may not be seen through the correct lenses,” Silveira said. 

The scorecard helps set clear expectations up front about how the team and individuals are improving. “By explaining each individual metric ahead of time, and how those metrics contribute to achieving major goals, people understand their roles more clearly and how they can improve by taking actions that will make all of us better at the end of the day – and it works.”

Key Metrics Help Focus Efforts

While the scorecard is updated as goals evolve, the most recent version tracks PR Throughput, Review Speed, Commit Volume, Weekly Coding Days, Time to Merge, and Unreviewed PRs. Cycle Time is also reported quarterly for the team. Silveira finds Velocity’s Compare module particularly useful to view all of these metrics in the same report by individual and team. That provides him visibility into what teams are working on and a means of visualizing patterns that indicate progress or potential areas for improvement. 

LawnStarter chooses to focus on a few key metrics at one time, recognizing that it can be overwhelming to track too many metrics. Silveira adopted Velocity by first performing an analysis to determine the metrics most meaningful for LawnStarter to improve. He then presented these metrics to each team and individual, explaining how they can monitor their progress to hit milestones. 

Data-Driven Insights Fuel the Culture of Continuous Improvement

One of the first goals established with Velocity was for each engineer to have at least 4 days a week writing code. Monitoring Velocity’s Weekly Coding Days metric helps the engineering leadership understand if engineers have the time necessary to focus on writing high quality code. As a result, leadership realized that engineers were spending too much time in meetings. By sharing these goals and observations, the teams were able to reorganize calendars, and eventually increase average Weekly Coding Days from 2 to a little over 4. 

The insights from Weekly Coding Days also helped LawnStarter identify positions to fill and organizational improvements that allowed engineers to spend more time working in the code – aka, their happy place. 

By analyzing PR Throughput, Silviera was able to identify imbalances on the team. For example, certain developers were frequently working outside of the main branch, tickets weren’t sliced evenly (pointing to a workload distribution issue), and there were domain knowledge gaps. 

“Velocity helps me visualize engineering productivity data that leads me to identify opportunities to improve my teams and processes,” Silviera said. “It allows me to make data-driven decisions that give me the confidence I need to achieve business objectives more quickly and effectively.”

Another insight LawnStarter made with Velocity was that Commit Volume was low, with an average of 5 commits per week. Digging into the data more, they observed that Review Speed could be 30 hours at times, a result of large PRs. By sharing and setting goals around this data, they were able to increase Commit Volume and decrease Review Speed. This also proved to impact Defect Rate, demonstrating that the overall quality of the code was improved as a result. 

With these insights and others from Velocity, LawnStarter was able to improve both Cycle Time and PR Throughput 38%, along with a 57% improvement in Time to First Review with nearly 100% of PRs being reviewed.

Silveira thinks about reviewing engineering metrics as similar to perusing the stock market: “You may not want to look at it every day. Instead, use the data to help you identify patterns that lead to improvements in your teams.” 

Engaging Business Stakeholders

As an engineering leader, Silveira knows that when engineering work is sliced into small pieces, which he describes as “delightful pieces of carpaccio,” that work translates into delightful feature releases that customers love. When new features are released efficiently, the business as a whole benefits directly. 

As the VP of Engineering, Silveira believes that an important part of his role is sharing Engineering Intelligence data and explaining why it’s important to both the executive team and the Board of Directors. A typical question that he fields from the board inquires about the percentage of investment that goes toward building new features, versus maintaining existing features through code maintenance. That data has a direct impact on financial planning, for example, with revenue recognition. Silveira uses this opportunity to explain how the business benefits when more time is invested in building the product (and building it well) – time spent on innovation – opposed to time spent on maintenance. 

While he’s found that non-technical business stakeholders are interested in understanding engineering data, Silveira ensures that he’s always positioning them in relation to the company’s overarching objectives. With Engineering Intelligence data from Velocity, LawnStarter paints a picture of business success that stems from the hard work engineering teams perform every day when building a culture of continuous improvement.

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