Scaling Your Startup: Lessons in Global Expansion from Atlassian’s CPO

Devon-McDonald by

As the former Chief People Officer of Atlassian, Jeff Diana saw the company grow from 275+ employees, primarily based in Australia, to more than 2,000 located in offices around the world.

“When I first joined” Diana says, “We were relatively unknown except to hardcore developers – JIRA users. But by the time I left, we’d hit a $600 million dollar run rate and had an IPO of over $6 billion dollars.”

While global expansion is a problem any startup founder would love to have, actually executing on that growth and doing so in a way that keeps culture intact can seem nearly impossible. For Diana, his experience at Atlassian taught him the importance of strong teams, cross-country (and cultural) alignment and how to stay focused in the midst of unparalleled global growth.

Location, location, location.

After joining Atlassian, one of Diana’s most pressing challenges was determining how to build a sophisticated location-based hiring strategy. “Originally, everything started in the Sydney market,” he says. “The Confluence and JIRA products were there, the underlying technology teams were based there, and – because Atlassian’s go-to-market model was atypical for enterprise – there wasn’t a traditional field sales team.”

But as the company expanded, they spun up offices in San Francisco (which handled mainly go-to-market, marketing, customer touch, and eventually much of the general administrative functions including HR, finance, and legal) and Amsterdam, which served as the company’s European headquarters.

So how did Jeff and team decide where to open which office next?

Centralizing certain functions at certain locations had a lot to do with ensuring team efficiency. “You want to think through what work needs to be co-located together,” Diana explains. “Typically, product teams will tell you that if they can have the designer, product manager, engineer, and marketer in one location, they’ll be more aligned and able to move faster.” While Diana believes this is true, he acknowledges that the challenge increases with scale. “When you have five hundred or a thousand people developing the product, it’s hard to build that out in any one market. Instead, you have to segment which pieces get done by which location.”

Matching people and functions to locations also had to do with who was readily available in a given market. “Sydney was great for young talent and early engineers out of university,” Diana says. “But, when we needed people that had seen scale or run large teams, we couldn’t find them locally because software-at-scale didn’t exist in that market. You need to play to the strengths and profiles of the people in each market.”

In addition to going where the talent was, Diana and his team were also thinking ahead to what was in store for the company. “Knowing that going public was on the horizon, it was important to have a footprint in the US,” Diana says. “We knew that was the market the founders wanted to go public in, so it just made sense to get that footprint on the board sooner rather than later.”

Forging Effective Remote Relationships

When you’re running a company with a dispersed footprint, team building becomes more complex. Even in single-location operations, managing culture and forging effective remote relationships can be challenging. Spread your functional leaders around the globe, and the challenge increases exponentially.

“One of the ways the dispersed leadership team stayed close was the practice of taking turns each month to visit either Sydney or San Francisco,” Diana says. “We came up with a rhythm for moving around the globe, even at the executive level. We would deliberately go offsite, rent a house for a few days, and essentially live together.”

In addition to regular, in-person working sessions for the executive team, Atlassian’s approach to team building also included quarterly meetings with a larger group. “We were intentional about traveling because it’s human nature to create connections physically, face to face,” Diana says. “You can grow relationships, once they’re established, using tools like email and so forth; but the really rich connections happens in person. You have be willing to put the dollars and time against the effort.”

Atlassian’s global presence and philosophy around travel also served as a recruiting tool. “We were small and not always able to offer the most varied career choices,” Diana explains. “But we could provide the opportunity for assignments in Amsterdam, Sydney, San Francisco, and later in places like Manila and Austin.”

Fostering a Diversity of Cultures

With the global team up and running, there was still a lot of ongoing work to do around managing culture. “One of the first steps is recognizing that cultures are different,” says Diana. “It’s not just about getting groups together. You have to adapt the way you communicate.” Atlassian invested in regular global events to bring people together from different geographies and encourage them to share the different vibes that made each of their distinct “neighborhoods” special.

It’s a common cultural mistake to fall into patterns of behavior and communication based on a shared location. “You have to watch out for the inherent bias of the people you know best, the people who are co-located with you,” Diana explains. “Sometimes when there’s a lack of familiarity with talent in different parts of the organization, we default to grabbing the person we know best because they sit next to us. We have to work really hard to avoid that.”

Another element that helped the company keep everyone together was a strong set of values and a clear mission. “You maintain a consistent culture by making sure your values and mission are core and that they’re woven into the recruiting process, how you onboard people, and all of your people programs including how you reward folks, how you promote people, what you recognize, and what you communicate.” By consistently integrating values and mission into the fabric of company processes, Diana was able to deliver a clear and consistent message that helped unite everyone across all locations.

Relying on ‘Rituals’ to Maintain Alignment

From a day-to-day operational standpoint, the Atlassian team was supported with a well-structured meeting cadence, big picture rituals, and the right communication tools.

“Originally, we did our all-hands monthly,” Diana says. “We ran them locally using the same content, but as we grew, it became harder to maintain alignment. Because of the speed and pace and the growing number of people in the organization, we increased the frequency to weekly and ran them globally. This allowed for quicker meetings and ensured that everybody was hearing the same message at the same time.”

To supplement the all-hands meetings, Atlassian also implemented two “big picture” rituals: the ShipIt ritual and the “painted picture” ritual.

The ShipIt ritual, which happened each quarter, involved shutting down the entire company for 24 hours so each team could hack a new invention. “The engineers would be hacking code while those of us in other functions were hacking processes, documents, or experiences,” Diana recalls. Atlassian live streamed the shipping events at every location so the entire company could see all the in-process projects.

The “painted picture” ritual covered the company’s long-term mission or vision – ten or twenty years out. “We grind in operational goals each quarter,” Diana says. “But for this process everyone in the company dreamed three years out and ‘painted the picture’ of what would make them feel super proud and the company successful outside of the numbers – things we might be doing for our customers, employees, partners, or the community across a broad set of categories.”

Again, the company did this in a very visible way. “Everyone teed up the dream they would like to see,” Diana says. “And then the founders would combine all input and come back with a painted picture that we talked about every three months so we could assess how we were doing against the vision.”

Using Technology to Overcome Time Zones

While unifying rituals are critical to keeping a globally distributed team on the same page, it’s also important to master the tactical elements of communication. Take time differences, for instance. “When your team is globally distributed, you can’t walk down the hall and grab someone for a conversation,” Diana says. “You have to map your time overlap pretty effectively and be comfortable planning the time lags between conversations.”

Ensuring that communication is smooth also requires the implementation of effective tools. Atlassian used a couple of their own products to great effect. “We use HipChat, but whether you use that or Slack or something else, it’s just really important to facilitate real-time communication across geographic borders.”

Another tool the team used for collaboration was Atlassian’s content collaboration software, Confluence. “Having a knowledge-based, intranet-type of technology is also critical,” says Diana. “Confluence works really well for this, allowing people to share information, comment, and work collaboratively.”

Structuring Your Leadership Team

While Jeff Diana’s work with the Atlassian team is a great case study for how to successfully build and manage a global company, there’s no question that their story also represents a complex and highly coordinated effort. How do you structure the ownership of such a broad and deep strategy, and when is the right time to hire a Chief People Officer?

“The ultimate ownership sat at the executive team level, and then each member of the leadership team owned different pieces of it,” says Diana. “For instance, our head of go-to-market drove the communication rhythm of our all-hands, while I – as the Chief People Officer – was responsible for looking at the rituals as a whole, creating cohesion in the fabric of the company, and developing our footprint strategy.”

To help a company identify when they’re ready to bring on a Chief People Officer, Diana uses a three-year assessment exercise. “I ask the CEO to build out three years from today – what’s their footprint going to look like and their headcount? If they have a hundred people today, in three years will they have three hundred, five hundred? I ask them to tell me what their plan looks like if everything goes well, and we work backwards from that.”

“We determine how much of their headcount will be in each function (which will teach you something about where the company is placing its bets) as well as what work needs to sit together and whether they think they’ll be able to find all that talent in one location.”

“We look at what methods they have as a frame to think through their footprint and how quickly they’re going to need help around the complex space. Once you go through that exercise, you can kind of back into when’s the best time to bring someone on.”

The Future is Global

And as for the future, Diana sees more companies going global and following in the footsteps of the Atlassian team. “I think the days of a company at scale having a single location are mostly gone,” says Diana. “You have to be near the customer to best serve them and you have to have access to talent you simply can’t get in one location.”