Etsy Tech Lead Ken Little On Growing The Team From 15 to 80: “Just Ship”

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When Ken Little left The New York Times to work for fast growing New York startup Etsy, the company had an engineering team of around 15 people. Over the last year and a half Mr. Little has helped to recruit and manage an engineering team that now numbers over 80. A big part of that has been re-imagining the developer culture and workflow for a site that now does over $300 million in gross annual sales on more than a billion page views.

“I joined when the company was at the tail end of using you typical development workflow, some derivative of waterfall that just wasn’t working,” said Mr. Little to an audience of young developers at the Times Open Series last week. “We needed to create an environment that encouraged experimentation and speed without sacrificing quality.”

These days the team at Etsy is deploying their code base as often as thirty times per day with small iterative changes. “Our maxim is, if you’re not coding, be a catalyst,” said Mr. Little, who admitted he sometimes felt a little useless moving from the hands on work of writing code all day to managing a team of engineers. “We want to a situation where there is no barrier to entry for people from design, product or front end who can contribute to the code base.”

The way companies think about coding has to be radically different than it was a decade earlier, says Mr. Little. “The web is not installed software. We want people to commit daily to the trunk, to ship that daily, and to have as few branches as possible.” Etsy graphs everything to measure what works, from bugs to downtime to pots of coffee consumed.

They use a whitelist system to push half-baked code out to small teams without scaring the crap out of the entire staff. And they set a pretty low bar for pushing code live. “If you’ve got a feature or change you want to test, we can impliment on 1% of our user base. If it moves the metric it was supposed to, then we know its worth trying at scale.”

Mr. Little’s full presentation is embedded below.


Etsy Tech Lead Ken Little On Growing The Team From 15 to 80: “Just Ship”