Building Things We Love at Venmo
When going to work feels like hanging out with your friends and building a delightfully social payment platform, you probably work at Venmo. Founded in 2009 as a service that "makes it easy, safe, and fun to pay your friends," Venmo gained ground as a player in the mobile payment space with the popularity of their Android and iPhone apps. In 2012, Venmo was acquired by Braintree, and later joined the Paypal family, in an effort to further revolutionize online mobile commerce.
Recently, a large emphasis of Venmo's focus has been on their mobile apps, since the apps are the mechanism that allows users to pay their friends. However, the Venmo website hasn't changed significantly since the product has grown, giving the website a huge opportunity to re-invent itself. The team responsible for shaping Venmo's website into something that elegantly fits their suite of products includes Julian Connor, Kevin Scott, and Liam Griffiths. Every day around 11am, they begin with a quick scrum covering the projects they will be working on.
The team calls themselves "Team Shabu," a collective decision when they visited San Francisco together. After eating at a shabu shabu hot pot style restaurant, the team decided it was a good fit, and the name stuck.
Team Shabu has been together for about 6 months and is lead by Julian Connor, a Venmo veteran. Connor has been at Venmo for 3 years and continues to shape the website while helping his team grow. "It’s a hard balance between making sure people are happy with their jobs and are going places with their careers - all while working together," says Connor. Connor's introduction to technology began with video games when his group of friends decided to rent a private Counter-Strike server, opening their eyes to all the possibilities of open-source software. In college, Connor got involved with more creative programming which included building music synthesizers with hardware that interacts with its environment using sensors and actuators (also known as Arduinos). "I really liked having more of a tangible product - being able to see it, or hold it, or hear it rather than just see it on a screen," claims Connor.
After graduating from RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), Connor took a couple of months off to pursue his musical passions and better understand what he wanted to do after college. Connor joined the first batch of Hacker School students and began combining his musical and engineering talents for different projects. The Hacker School is a free, immersive school in New York that is described as a "writer's retreat for programmers." "I met a lot of really cool people [at the Hacker School] and really enjoyed working with the other students," recounts Connor. Upon finishing the 3-month batch, Connor found Venmo and joined the small team in 2011, taking sole responsibility for Venmo's website.
One discipline Connor encourages his team to practice is pair-programming - something Venmo learned from their parent company, Braintree. Pair-programming is a software development technique where two programmers work together on writing code at one workstation. "[Braintree] is very dogmatic about pair-coding and this is something I make sure we're doing for all our projects," claims Connor. Connor has seen huge benefits personally from pair-programming, and hopes to spread those to his team. "There are a lot of added benefits and it’s also really nice to work with someone all the time, because you feed off of them. I’ve learned so many things about the development process, and so many awesome shortcuts from other developers," recalls Connor. Connor says that pair-programming also helps spread knowledge of their software throughout Venmo, avoiding the situation where just one person is an expert on a piece of code.
Pair-programming ended up being a huge help for newer team members like Liam Griffiths. Griffiths joined Team Shabu at the beginning of this year, learning a lot from the team's development techniques. Griffiths' introduction into programming also happened at 16, when he started learning QuickBasic - a programming language developed by Microsoft. "[Development] was something that kept coming back to me - and I realized it was something that I really liked," recounts Griffiths. In October 2013, Griffiths moved from Michigan to NYC and joined the fall Hacker School group to work intensively over the next three months. After finishing the 3 month batch, Griffiths was introduced to Venmo and Team Shabu. "Everyone is really good at what they do on our team - and we have a constant flow of good feedback," says Griffiths.
Unlike Connor and Griffiths, Kevin Scott, the team's project manager and developer, became involved with software development slightly later in his career. After graduating from Brown with a degree in music, Scott worked for a video startup, since he had experience with video outside of playing the piano and guitar. That was when Scott became drawn to programming. "Seeing the power that developers and engineers have [in creating products] had a big effect on me I wanted to have that same kind of effect," recalls Scott. "It's one thing to have an idea and pitch it, but it’s another to implement it yourself." Scott began teaching himself web development in his spare time, and decided to work as a remote consultant while he traveled around the world from 2009-2012.
Upon finishing his travels, Scott realized that some of his projects weren't as successful as he would have liked because they lacked an understanding of user needs. Seeing this as an opportunity, Scott went back to school to complete his masters in Human Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon. "I didn't go back to school with the goal to become a designer, but rather to add that skillset to my bag," claims Scott. Outside of Scott's engineering responsibilities, he conducts user research with the goal to integrate actionable data into the team's decisions.
Like some startups - one thing that Team Shabu doesn't have to worry about is a constant supply of food. A stocked kitchen and regularly catered lunches keep teams focused on development. After a busy morning of meetings and planning, lunchtime catering breaks up the day and the entire office floods into the cafeteria. Lunchtime is also an opportunity for different teams to present their projects and learning across the company. Subway-famous Venmo employee, Lucas, hosted the lunch-and-learn, while nearly every employee participated.
"Expanding knowledge throughout the company is something we're trying to build into our culture," says Scott. Knowledge sharing can be a tough pain-point for any rapidly growing company, yet Venmo has created programs that help disseminate processes and other information around the company. "Teams can get a little siloed with their work, so we've been doing a bi-weekly show and tell," says Scott. Another innovative program that helps accomplish the spread of knowledge is "Learning on the Loo." To participate, teams create a one-sheet about a process, service, or API they've built, which gets placed above urinals and on the backs of bathroom stall doors - all with the hope that they will be read by other teams while "on the loo." Due to Venmo's flat organizational structure, Scott, along with others, is able to advocate the spread of knowledge through these types of programs. "Flat-structured companies make you feel empowered because no one is telling you to do stuff," says Scott. Flat-structured companies have little to no levels of middle management between staff and executives. Aside from helping others learn, Scott has accepted the responsibility of communication for Team Shabu. "It's easy to take for granted someone's sole job to communicate, but it makes a huge difference," claims Scott.
Venmo's flat structure is key to keeping each team member invested in what they're building. "I get the freedom to pursue the projects that I want," says Connor. This is something that Team Shabu gets most excited about, not only because they have ownership of what they build, but they also have a lot of room to test new waters for Venmo. "We’re able to try a lot of new and interesting stuff," says Griffiths. Scott agrees that working on the Venmo website is indeed, an interesting design challenge. "The social part of our app is fairly unique - and some people get it, and love it, but others simply don’t. So how do we build something that people understand immediately, get excited about, and don’t find creepy? These are all really cool challenges to be faced with," claims Scott.
Along with the freedom to build something new and exciting, the team stays focused on the product and what really resonates with their users. "We really try not to overcomplicate [Venmo]. In fact, we think about what makes people use Venmo a lot - is it the social dynamic part, is it making it easier to use than other mobile payment options, or is it the community aspect? These are all things we're still thinking about," says Griffiths. Aside from being thoughtful about Venmo as a product, Griffiths advocates product quality in everything the team does. "We do code reviews regularly, and we make sure to spend time giving each other feedback," Griffiths claims, all while keeping it positive. "We're all trying to improve the product at the end of the day," says Griffiths.
Right around 4pm, Team Shabu steps out for a latte break at a local coffee shop. "I find it really important to do things other than code because it helps me reset my brain," says Connor. Going on short walks to get coffee is one way that Team Shabu likes to break up their day. Aside from latte breaks, team members occasionally join Andrew Kortina, co-founder of Venmo, to do a set of pushups together - another fun way to build camaraderie and reset the brain.
The cultural uniqueness that defines working at Venmo helps employees stay productive, however each Team member enjoys different aspects about their workspace and the office. For Griffiths, it's all about working close to the sunlight in Venmo's office. Venmo's policy on seating allows employees to sit (or stand) wherever they'd like. The Venmo blue is present in almost every room in the office - from pillows, to water bottles, to Venmo shirts that are given as gifts to visitors and employees.
While Venmo may have several design, engineering, and organizational challenges to face, Team Shabu is truly excited and ambitious about the path ahead of them. For Connor, coming to Venmo everyday feels like "going to a LAN party with all his friends" - a not-too-distant memory of the video games that got him excited about engineering in the first place.