August 11, 2022

Reflections on 3 years of (Transfer) Wise | Part III: All about People


(^ TransferWise Summer Days 2019 ^)

I care deeply about people, equally so when I was at Wise, surrounded by a group of kind and motivated human beings.

Culture shapes people who in turn make culture

I spend Part I and II covering many cultural aspects at Wise. I was curious about the early culture and its evolvement because I was not there in the beginning. The common response, when I asked this question to various people across functional areas, was that it did not change much. I could not believe it because surely culture shapes from an organisation of two founders (in Wise’s case) to one thousand people across the globe. I was proven wrong as I could safely say that the culture indeed stayed intact during my three years at Wise, which saw the organisation going from one thousand to two thousand.

An autonomous, bottom-up culture certainly helped. As described in Part II, scaling at Wise meant simply replicating from one team to two, three and so on, while keeping how they operate largely the same. Leadership safeguarded the culture. And new people hired into the organisation recognised the culture, followed and defended it too, which leads nicely to the next topic: hiring.

Hiring feeds into growth

Wise always had the concept of newbie onboarding week which meant that for one week in a new joiner’s first few weeks, they would travel to one office location for the onboarding, among others based in different locations. The group usually was 15-20 people and ran once-per-two-week, hiring volume dependent. Mine was travelling to Tallinn to join a group consisting mostly of customer services and operations colleagues in Tallinn, plus a few engineers from London and Budapest. With this random group of people, we went through a pre-defined multi-day onboarding programme to understand the mission, the values, and other practical knowledge such as how the product works. Considering that was the true first impression from close contact with a group of newbies, I noticed a few points:

I later reflected on the onboarding week experience and told colleagues from the recruitment team: You must have done something right to attract these people to work here. And I think this was happening in every onboarding group, not just mine.

With the quality of new joiners, they form the basis of rapid growth. Let me use an old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” How to fish here is about taking the mission and the values, and working out how you could maximise your impact by helping your team achieve their goals. It was a challenge for sure, as even for smart people, it generally took them a while to navigate the organisation, and another while to feel comfortable in it. Mallory wrote about this in a blog post after talking to many of us (Spoiler warning: it featured me) and Ross wrote more about the steps taken.

As I always say: growing an organisation is about getting the right people through the door, and keeping them happy and productive while here. Wise did well for the first part and its unique culture helped with the second. But what about those who might not settle well, or found it difficult to align themselves with the organisation?

Retention could be better

Wise did not appear to make an extra effort in retaining people, especially new hires. My observation was that the sink-or-swim approach that my onboarding largely followed, was common at the time. I guess one benefit was that this could be part of the “Teach a man to fish” exercise as mentioned earlier.

It is by no means a criticism. If you hire a large number of independent-thinking people, it is bound to have some who realise that they do not want to subscribe to the mission, the values or the culture. There is nothing wrong with that and as self-selection goes, letting it be could be desirable.

What I thought could be done better was around retaining people who had an impact with a significant tenure behind them at Wise. Just before I decided to leave Wise, there had been a wave of departure in engineering which saw Wise losing a stream of experienced, senior engineers whose arrival would instantly benefit any other engineering organisation. Sometimes it can be hard to persuade somebody who has made up their mind about departure; other times the extra effort could pay off. I did not accept that an employee would likely leave after taking the sabbatical (after 4-year working at Wise, a benefit among others) because they had had enough time here. I chose to believe that the organisation should listen and adapt to make it attractive to those people, again. If taking a longer break is needed, let them take it; If they are interested in another area of the organisation, let them move to it; And if they want career progression, guide them through it. Within the growing organisation, I felt Wise could do more in accommodating those needs to retain the impactful people.

Remote versus in-person, and then Covid

It is unavoidable to cover the debate between remote and in-person when talking about people. Wise had always been remote-friendly before Covid, as Anhar wrote. All my interviews in 2018 were on Zoom, and I got the offer without setting foot in the TEA Building (I did visit the office in person before accepting just to make sure, in the name of chatting to Tony). With rapid growth, the whole organisation started searching for more and more scalable ways to communicate. When Covid hit, there was a sense of business-as-usual because logistically, Wise knew how to operate.

Not being able to travel between offices was still significant. It was the oil on the remote-friendly machine that was Wise pre-Covid. For existing people with existing relationships in the company, it didn’t feel like a big loss in the beginning. Over time, cracks did reveal themselves. Remote tooling could help ease the situation but in my view, a mix of both was desirable. As for new joiners during Covid, it was a different story. Navigating the autonomous maze was challenging enough; not being able to build connections with people effectively made the journey even tougher.

In a nutshell: diverse, tolerant but still maturing

Given Wise’s global presence, it was not surprising to see such a diverse group of people at the company, and the positive impact it had (BTW Hopin is another example, according to Masha who went on to work there after Wise). For this group of people to work effectively, a high degree of understanding the tolerance was needed. There would be friction points for sure but they were mostly resolved once people spent enough time together, for which the company actively pushed by encouraging travel between offices and establishing state-of-art telecommunication facilities at all offices (credit to people like Joao).

Another feature of the people at Wise at the time was how young they were. I sometimes joked about Wise being the worst first job, for it gave a false impression of every job in the world that would be as mission-driven, as challenging and as fun as this one. In reality, the fearless nature, the growth mindset and the motivation to be impactful that came with youthfulness were the force to be reckoned with.

The rapid growth, coupled with autonomy, demanded people, especially young adults to mature quickly. It was a fast-track opportunity to leap in their career. But insecurity was the usual by-product with the growth, both personally and organisationally. Every one of us suffers insecurity at some stage of our lives; How to minimise the negative impact on you and the people around you is the key.

If there was one lesson learnt from people around me at Wise, it was that the impact from hungry young people (lack of experience + motivation to learn + space to grow) is far greater than experienced senior hires, given the right organisational structure.

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