Larry Lumsden 09/26/2019

How Shopify Scales Up Its Development Teams

Have you clicked on this article because you’re interested in how Shopify scales its development teams and the lessons we’re learning along the way? Well, cool, you’ve come to the right place. But first, a question.

Are you sure you need to scale your team?

Really, really sure?

Are You Ready to Scale Your Team?

Hiring people is relatively straightforward, but growing effective teams is difficult. And no matter how well you do it, there will be a short-term price to pay in terms of a dip in productivity before, hopefully, you realize a gain in output. So before embarking on this journey you need to make sure your current team is operating well. Would you say that your team:

  1. Ruthlessly prioritizes its work in line with a product vision so it concentrates on the most impactful features?
  2. Maximizes the time it spends developing product, and so minimizes the time it spends on supporting activities like documentation and debates?
  3. Has the tools and methods to ship code within minutes and uncover bugs quickly?

If you can’t answer these questions positively then you can get a lot more from your current team. Maybe you don’t need to add new folks after all.

But let’s assume you’re in a good place with all of these. As we consider how to scale up a development organization, it’s fundamentally important to remember that hiring new people, no matter how brilliant they are, is a means to an end. We are striving to have more teams, each working effectively towards clear goals. So scaling up is partly about hiring great people, but mostly about building effective teams.

Hiring Great People

At Shopify we build a product that is both broad and deep to meet the needs of entrepreneurs who run many different types of business. We’ve deconstructed this domain into problem spaces and mapped them to product areas. Then we’ve broken these down into product development teams of five to nine folks, each team equipped with the skills it needs to achieve its product goals. This means a team generally consists of a product manager, back-end developers, web developers, data specialists and UX designers.

Tech Meeting with five happy adults

Develop Close Relationships with Your Talent Acquisition Team

Software development at scale is a social activity. That’s a fact that’s often underappreciated by inexperienced developers and leaders. When hiring, evaluating the technical abilities of candidates is a given, but evaluating their fit with your culture and their ability to work harmoniously with their teammates is as important. At Shopify we have a well-defined multi-step hiring process that we continually review based on its results. Technical abilities are evaluated by having the candidate participate in problem-solving and pair-programming exercises with experienced developers, and cultural fit is assessed by having them meet with their prospective teammates and leaders. These steps are time consuming, so we need to filter the candidates to ensure that only the most likely hires reach this stage. To do that, we have built close working relationships between our developers and our Talent Acquisition (TA) specialists.

I can’t overemphasize how important it is to have TA specialists who understand the company culture and the needs of each team. They make sure we meet the best candidates, making effective use of the time our leads and developers. So when scaling up, the first folks to recruit are the recruiters themselves, specialists who know your market. You must spend enough time with them so that they deeply understand what it takes to be a successful developer in your teams. They will be the face of your company to candidates. Even candidates whom you do not ultimately hire (in fact, especially those ones) should feel positive about the hiring experience. If they don’t you may find the word gets around in your market and your talent pipeline dries up.

Aim for Diversity of Experience on Teams

We aim to have teams that are diverse in many dimensions, including experience. We’ve learned that on average it takes about a year at Shopify before folks have fully on-boarded and have the business context, product knowledge and development knowhow to make great decisions quickly. So, our rule-of-thumb is that in any team the number of on-boarded folks should be greater than or equal to the number of those still onboarding. We know that the old software development model where a single subject matter expert communicates product requirements to developers leads to poor designs. Instead, we seek to have every team member empathize with entrepreneurs and for the team to have a deep understanding of the business problem they are solving. Scaling up is about creating more of these balanced and effective teams, each with ownership of a well-defined product area or business problem.

Building Effective Teams

Let’s move on from hiring and consider some other aspects of building effective teams. When talking about software development effectiveness, it’s hard to avoid talking about process. So, process! Right, with that out of the way, let’s talk about setting high standards for the craft of coding, and the tools of the craft.

Start With a Baseline

For teams to be effective quickly, they need to have a solid starting point for how they will work, how they will plan their work and track their progress, and for the tools and technologies they will use. We have established many of these starting points based on our experience so having every new team start again from first principles would be a tremendous waste of time. That doesn’t prevent folks from innovating in these areas, but the starting baseline is clear.

Be Open About Technical Design and Code Changes

I mentioned previously about having the right mix of onboarded vs. still onboarding folks and that’s partly about ensuring that in every team there is a deep empathy for our merchants and for what it means to ship code at Shopify scale. But more, we seek to share that context across teams by being extremely open about technical designs and code changes. Our norm is that teams are completely transparent about what they are doing and what they are intending to do, and they can expect to receive feedback from almost anyone in the company who has context in their area. With this approach, there’s a risk that we have longer debates and yeah, that has been known to happen here, but we also have a shared set of values that help to prevent this. Specifically we encourage behaviors that support “making good decisions quickly” and “building for the long term.” In this way, our standards are set by what we do and not by following a process.

Use Tooling to Codify Best Practices

Tooling is another effective way to codify best practices for teams, so we have folks who are dedicated to building a development pipeline for everyone with dashboards, so we can see how every team is doing. This infrastructure work is of great importance when scaling. Standards for code quality and testing are embedded in the toolset, so teams don’t waste time relearning the lessons of others—rather they can concentrate on the job of building great products. Once you start to scale up beyond a single team, you’ll need to dedicate some folks to build and maintain this infrastructure. (I use the plural deliberately because you’ll never have just one developer assigned to anything critical, right?)

You can read more about our tooling here on this blog. The Merge Queue and our Deprecation Toolkit are great examples of codified best practices, and you can read about how we combine these in to a development pipeline in Shopify’s Tech Stack.

As the new team begins its work, we must have feedback loops to re-enforce the behaviors that produce the best outcomes. From a software perspective, this is why the tooling is so important so that a team can ship quickly and respond to the feedback of stakeholders and users.

 Two people pair programming

Use Pairing to Share Experiences

Which brings me to pairing. The absolute best way for onboarded developers to share their experience with new folks is by coding together. Pairing is optional but actively encouraged in Shopify. We have pairing rooms in all our offices, and we hold retrospectives on the results to ensure it adds value. There’s an excellent article on our blog by Mihai Popescu that describes our approach: Pair Programming Explained.

Conduct Frequent Retrospectives

From a team effectiveness perspective, frequent retrospectives allow us to step back from the ongoing tasks to get a wider perspective on how well the team is doing. At Shopify, we encourage teams to have their retrospectives facilitated by someone outside the team to bring fresh eyes and ideas. In this way, a team is driven to continually improve its effectiveness.

At Shopify we understand that hiring is only a small step towards the goal of scaling up. Ultimately, we’re trying to create more teams and have them work more effectively. We’ve found that to scale development teams you need to have a baseline to build from, an openness around technical design, effective tooling, pair programming and frequent retrospectives.


We’re always looking for awesome people of all backgrounds and experiences to join our team. Visit our Engineering career page to find out what we’re working on.