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May 17, 2019 · 10 min read

We’ve been acquired; we’re laying off your entire team with Philipp Svehla of Workday

You’ll hear a lot of stories on The Frontier about starting, growing, and enhancing engineering teams. In this episode, Philipp Svehla, helps us explore the other side of the coin: bringing a team to a close.

At the time of recording, his company had been acquired by a larger firm that decided to wind down the engineering office he oversaw while consolidating overseas. Philipp had to shepherd the difficult work of rallying a product team to deliver their final project before being let go. It’s a story heavy in human empathy, honest change management, and encouragement during times of adversity.

Philipp is now an engineering manager at Workday and recently reported to Ledge that most of his previous team has successfully landed in new and exciting roles.

Philipp Svehla

Manager, Software Development Engineering at Workday

Having worked in the software industry for over 20 years in a variety of roles and environments, Philipp has had the privilege of participating in many of the major shifts of designing, developing, and deploying software. As the complexity of software has grown, he’s witnessed the increased demand for high-functioning teams, and has taken a special interest in understanding how to build and sustain thriving teams, both at the team and individual levels. Philipp lives in Victoria, Canada, with his wife and 4 children.

Read transcript

Ledge: Hey, Phil, thanks for joining us. Why don’t you tell us your quick story and introduce yourself to the audience.

Philipp: Hi, Ledge, thanks for having me on the podcast. It’s good to be here. I’ve been in the software industry for nearly twenty years now. I can’t believe how fast it’s gone. I’ve worked in small startups companies and seen them grow to a hundred plus people. I’ve worked in the government. I’ve worked for larger organizations within a number of different capacities.

I started out as a software developer. I moved into team leading, into program management. Currently, I’m a director of Software Development.

So I’ve been part of the software scene for a number of years and I’ve been able to see a number of perspectives. So that’s where I am today.

Ledge: Fantastic! I love that history. You and I got to chat before thinking about this episode just about the experience that you had in the recent past where a company, I believe, that you were involved with got acquired and it actually involved the winding down of a team that you were close to and you had a good relationship with over the course of the years and where you had developed and maintained a product that is now transferring to another team; and there’s actually this adjourning process of winding down and dissolving that unit.

I wonder if you had told that story because I think we’re often so interested in and obsessed with the idea of growth and mergers and acquisitions and things but miss maybe some of that story that happens with a specifically technical team that gets absorbed and later dissolved.

What was that like? Walk through that sort story arc.

Philipp: As you’ve said, it’s something that we wish we didn’t have to go through. I was working for one of my organizations and the company had been acquired a couple of years prior by a larger company.

We had been a startup. We were in the process of getting into the fold of things and the parent company decided to just relook at how it’s doing business and refocus on with this strategy.

And when they did that, they looked at the different units that we were and decided that they wanted to place that elsewhere. And so, they decided to close down our office and, essentially, let go of the majority of people who had been part of the original company and just to move the the product to an on-market support and, as a result, to move the operations of the software development onto another country.

And so, that was something that was a surprise to all of us and it was something that we had to really work through. The immediate thing was that half of our team was being let go immediately and then half of us were being asked to stay on for a period of time to help transition the software, the knowledge that we’ve built up over the years to the remote team, to the new team.

Ledge: And you told an interesting story to me off-mike to get on the record of sort of meeting somewhere along the lines or long meeting, I guess, sort of week long sessions where the remaining team members got together and sort of action planned and sat in the conference room for a week to plan this orderly transition. And everybody knew that they were going to be out of the mix then.

What was it like in that room? As a leader, how did you keep a positive vibe where everybody was saying, “Okay, let’s all get together and take apart our jobs and our thing so that we can hand it to somebody else and go away?”

What was that like? How did you handle that in a positive fashion?

Philipp: Just to rewind a little bit, when we heard the news, it was really numbing for myself and for all of us just because it was something that we hadn’t seen coming.

So those of us who with asked to stay on as part of this transition team, we wanted to kind of understand, what does mean to stay on? What does that mean to transition? What can we accomplish in a month’s time?

We initially had been given a timeframe and we wanted to be able to convince ourselves, what can we do in that time frame? because the team had done an excellent job of software quality and had really been passionate about what they do and done it well.

We really wanted to be able to end on this note as well and do something that they believe they can do.

So other than that kind of numbness, we took a few days just to let this whole thing sink in with the news. To spend some time with our team that’s leaving because half the team was going to be let go pretty well immediately.

And then, we regrouped the subsequent weeks. As you’ve said, it was about over five-ish days, part of the first and part of the second week where we had serious meetings almost everyday and we kind of hashed out this whole plan.

We started off basically with getting a sense of “What is the scope? What is a senior management looking at? What are the key things that we need to accomplish in this transition?

It’s not just the transition itself. We were midway through putting out a release, and it was important to be able to get that all the way through. And there was another smaller release to get through. So we needed to scope out, “Okay, if we do all of this existing work plus this transition work, what does that look like?”

And so, over a period of days, we met together regularly and formulated a plan.

Ledge: And what was the disposition like? It sounds like it was very positive. Maybe the team members took it on the mantle of “Hey, you know, we’re going to go out on top. We want to show that we were a great team and we did a great job.”

And maybe things are going a different direction but it sounds like it was sort of taken on as a positive challenge; and it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t some resentment or anger that had to be worked out.

Anything like that or was it really just all a positive experience?

Philipp: You’re absolutely right, Ledge. I think that numbness that we felt initially got replaced with some resentment there and lots of questions. And you’re right. It was something that we had to grapple with to get to a point where we felt comfortable enough with it to be able to move on.

But you’re right. It was a challenge. I think that one of the amazing things about the team was that they had put in so much effort into this product and really they were really passionate about this product. They wanted to see this product succeed moving into the future. So they wanted to give it the best chance for success.

And I think also just the strength of the people ─ the relationships of the team ─ really helped people to support each other. We got together over lunch the first week when we had heard the announcement just to kind of share where we were all at.

And this was something that we kept talking through the time period. And you’re right. It was something that was difficult to do.

But we had a limited amount of time to decide if we were going to sign this contract to do this transition. And so, we also got to the point where we said, “Okay, we need to have a plan that we ourselves were bought into.” And so it was really that necessity for making that decision as to whether we continue or not with the transition that led us to “Okay, what is it we have to do?”

As a result of all that, we set up these daily meetings. We met in a meeting room that became our own home base. We worked hard in spurts. We had intense morning sessions and intense afternoon sessions, and then went home, let things settle down, and think about things.

We’d come back the next day to continue on the next plan. That really helped. We would do team lunches together during that time. So we really tried to form this new team spending lots of time together and really looking to what everyone has to say.

There were a lot of different pieces there in terms of realizing that we have this deadline of “Okay, we make a decision.”

And we needed to demonstrate ─ you know, we didn’t think the initial timeline was possible. We scoped down all that we had to do. We sized it and we looked at everything that we were being asked and said, “It’s actually going to take more time.”

And their director presented that along with part of management to the senior management team. They looked at it and said, “Okay, we’ll ask you to do all these things.” And they agreed that we were going to need some more time, and they gave us that time.

Because we came up with the plan ourselves and we really believed in a plan, we were all willing to sign on. It was great news actually that the entire team decided to stay on for this transition that was an unknown with all those who have been asked to stay on. And I think that was because we were working so closely together coming up with something that we really believed in.

Ledge: That’s very cool. It’s a good human story. And I think we, sometimes, lose ─ particularly in the go-go technology environments ─ that “Hey, we’re still all people” and there’s a lot of human stuff that goes on. It’s nice to hear that even under adversity, the team can come together that way.

One more question.

Door are closed and locked and everybody is out and they’re looking for a new job. And they’re doing their interviews. What lessons learned are people taking forward maybe for yourself and others? What are those key things that people are bringing to the next stage of their career because of this experience?

Philipp: That’s a good question. Going back to that week when we formulated that plan, I think it was really about listening to the team and listening to what they were saying individually and collectively and kind of staying with them through that process, at their pace, making visible progress each day so that we’re not getting stuck as we’re coming up with this plan.

For me, it’s just to be thankful for what I have. You never know if there’s a change anytime, any day.

Ledge: Ain’t that the truth? Cool, Phil, thanks so much for spending the time and telling this story. I think it’s going to be valuable for the audience. We hope that your future projects be even more fruitful and you get to bring the lessons and build some great teams.

Philipp: Thanks a lot, Ledge. It’s been great to chat with you.