The Collaborative Team That’s Building Software To Power Cross-Functional Work

dbt Labs builds software that enables analysts and engineers to work closely together — and the team behind the platform offers a similar model of effective collaboration.

Written by Brigid Hogan
Published on Aug. 18, 2023
The Collaborative Team That’s Building Software To Power Cross-Functional Work
dbt Labs
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dbt Labs knows collaboration. Used by 20,000 companies around the world, dbt allows data developers across all parts of the org and in a variety of roles to build data products collaboratively. The internal team at dbt Labs works together in a similarly streamlined and cross-functional way.

Of course, partnering across distributed teams in a remote-first environment isn’t without challenges — especially as dbt Labs grows.

“We’ve experimented with ways we can foster cross-functional collaboration as we grow, and some experiments have been more impactful than others,” Director of Engineering Leah Antkiewicz told Built In. “It’s been important to try new things but also drop old practices as we scale out of them. No single process or practice fits for everyone all the time.”

What worked for a team of 100 may not apply in the same way while managing projects for 400 employees, but Antkiewicz sees an opportunity to implement new solutions rather than a roadblock to progress.

The need to “simply get things done” continues to drive collaborative practices ahead for the dbt Labs team, said Senior People Business Partner Gabriel Bolatiwa. He noted that increased transparency and openness to working across teams, roles and seniority levels have granted opportunities for individual growth — while also offering paths for expanding the business. 

“Increased transparency and openness to cross-team, cross-seniority and cross-role workings is borne at dbt Labs out of the need for our organization to simply get things done,” Bolatiwa said. “We have back-office and client-facing functions working cross-collaboratively to reach our goals.”

One example he cites is the company’s customer support function, which not only responds to queries from customers but also works to identify commercial opportunities for the sales team and, in addition, works with engineering teams on the development of key product functions. 

“This blurring of boundaries between teams was definitely a positive learning experience in harnessing employee flexibility and motivation to meet business needs,” Bolatiwa explained. “However, it also has drawbacks in graying the lines between swim lanes. There is a need for balance between empowering employees to work flexibly across projects and teams whilst avoiding overwork and uncertainty.” 

Across dbt Labs, common goals, a transparent approach to sharing work and strong relationships help make cross-functional collaboration fruitful for all and powerful for building the best product possible.

 

‘A North Star for Success’

For Bolatiwa, defining companywide goals and ensuring values are understood is key as new hires with new interpretations join the team “Our approach to collaboration relies on our team members having a strong understanding of a common goal led by our company values, which gives us a north star for success,” he said.

As a people business partner, Bolatiwa is committed to ensuring that those teams are aware of how those values fit into their own goals, as well as the larger picture of work across dbt Labs. “When all departments know how they all fit together, employees find it easier to feel their work is valued and respect the work of others,” he said.

 

“When all departments know how they all fit together, employees find it easier to feel their work is valued and respect the work of others.”

 

Director of Training Kyle Coapman agrees. When Coapman and his team recently built a webinar alongside partners in marketing, he took time to define what each team wanted to achieve before designing the content they planned to include.

“This allowed us to identify that marketing wanted to generate pipeline while the training team wanted more people to seek our fundamentals badge from our academy,” he said. “This allowed us to align on a clear call to action at the end: ‘Continue learning by signing up for a trial and completing this course.’”

Organizationally, Antkiewicz finds that setting clear objectives and goals from the the top has a positive impact throughout the rest of the company. “Objective and key results ensure that departments are aligned on what is important to the company and how it is being measured,” she said. “This allows everyone to trace back their work up the chain and see how they are directly impacting the company.”

This clarity and transparency isn’t limited to goals and values at dbt Labs — it’s crucial to how the company gets work done.

 

 

‘Working in Public’

According to Coapman, two things have been essential for navigating collaboration and alignment at dbt Labs: “Working ‘in public’ and identifying what ‘done’ looks like.”

While working across the training and product marketing teams on a recent project, Coapman kept his work surfaced on digital tools to help keep everyone on the same page.

“We called the process an experiment and kept it lightweight in order to move quickly and asynchronously. We worked out in the open using tools like Slack, Notion and Google Slides,” he said.

But working “publicly” isn’t limited to working through specific projects. “Currently, individual leaders spend a lot of time watching and listening,” Coapman added.

By keeping Slack and Notion culture transparent and “public by default,” leaders have a clear view into work being done across the organization. “This allows people to listen to the channels relevant to them and point out ways that we can align and improve how we work,” he said.

“Recently, we built a certification exam for developers, and by working in public, different teams could keep an eye on the development of the exam and offer ways to improve its positioning in the marketplace,” Coapman said.

This close, transparent work feeds back into the cycle of setting clear goals and keeping teams working together closely and effectively, Coapman noted. “Had this all been done behind closed doors, we would not have had as much success or alignment at launch.”

 

‘It All Starts with Relationships’

Strong relationships underpin all of dbt Labs’ opportunities for cross-functional collaboration, Coapman explained.

“It all starts with relationships,” he said. “Getting to know people when they first join the team opens the lines of communication for collaboration in the future rather than wondering ‘Who is this person from this other department?’ when we work together later — even if it’s six months down the road.”

Here, too, listening to the needs and priorities of teammates is central to dbt Labs’ leadership culture, Antkiewicz said.

“By listening, not only are you able to download context but also create trusting relationships with others around the company,” she said. “This is a behavior that gains momentum — people can see how you use the information you give them to drive a unified vision and then will feel eager to collaborate with you more and more.”

With strong relationships, clear goals and the right transparent tools to support collaboration, dbt Labs’ team remains as nimble, flexible and effective as the software their work powers.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Image provided by dbt Labs.

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