“Wartime” vs “Peacetime” at Tech Companies
The difference between the two operating modes at tech companies, and how to thrive in each of these environments.
I asked several startup founders about trends they’re observing in their businesses, and at other new companies. Several mentioned there’s an accelerating shift to a “wartime” mindset. This phrase is becoming more common at larger companies, as well.
So what is “wartime?” How does it compare and contrast to those periods we can call “peacetime?” How do these different states affect employees, and how can you thrive in them? In today’s article, we aim to help answer this question, covering:
From wartime to peacetime at Uber. My observations from the shift.
Wartime vs peacetime in tech. What is “wartime” and “peacetime,” and more generally, what is it with using military phrases in a tech context?
Differences between wartime and peacetime. The contrasts.
Where does crunchtime fit in? And why is it more likely to indicate crunchtime?
Transitioning between wartime and peacetime. And signs that make it clear when such a transition happens.
Thriving in wartime vs thriving in peacetime. Approaches that work better in the different stages.
Tech debt during wartime and peacetime. Why do companies in lengthy wartime phases not suffer badly with “tech debt?” A few interesting explanations.
In this article I use the term “wartime” strictly in the business sense. Hard times at a company are in no way comparable to real warfare and the suffering it causes to innocent victims and affected communities. At present, the largest war in Europe since World War 2 is ongoing; the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I reflect on this tragedy in an article published shortly after it started.
1. From wartime to peacetime at Uber
When I joined Uber in 2016 the company was doing well – at least that’s how it seemed from the outside – after raising $5.6B at a $66B valuation a few months before. Once inside, I found things were fast-paced and hectic; it felt like many projects were “life or death” matters.
My first project was like this: the rewrite of Uber’s mobile app. Most engineering teams began on it in June 2016, with a deadline of 16 September 2016 to complete a full rewrite for the app and all existing functionality, to a new codebase. On Android, we kept using Java, but moved over to a new architecture called RIBs. On iOS, it involved switching languages from Objective C to Swift, as well as using the new RIBs architecture.
Looking back, this project was the single craziest march I’ve been part of. I share my experience in a separate article. I traveled to San Francisco and was able to work crazy hours, without family commitments. It was crunchtime at its best – or worst! – with 80+ hour weeks, 7 days a week, often working past midnight.
Around the same time, Ariana Huffington joined Uber’s board, after her book on the importance of sleep came out. That message was visibly at odds with the reality of working at HQ past midnight and missing out on sleep.
At first I thought Uber’s Rider app rewrite was a one-off crunchtime event. However, it wasn’t: other projects felt equally high pressure and we operated on the understanding that we needed to move fast, or else… Or else, what? Looking back, most deadlines were artificial; set by the CEO without any external reason to hit it. Still, we never questioned them and all marched to the leadership's tune.
Large parts of Uber operated like it was wartime for lengthy periods. This wasn’t a vague feeling, we had terms for it: teams often called for a “War room” to get important projects done, or declared a “code red” or “code yellow” for critical initiatives. Conflicts between teams were not uncommon, as all were focused on moving fast and launching their features.
At the San Francisco HQ, one large meeting room was even named the “War Room.” Unsurprisingly, this was where key people gathered to solve pressing problems.
Uber’s transition to peacetime was very visible. In late 2017, Dara Khosrowshahi became CEO and the frantic pace rapidly cooled. As first steps, he announced company-wide priorities at the start of 2018 and we ran a more detailed planning cycle. There was a new sense of stability in the air which I’d not experienced before there.
Over the following year, Uber transitioned into peacetime. Much of this was surely deliberate by Dara, who arrived with the mandate to take Uber public. In 2017, Uber’s reputation was turning negative and a priority was to stabilize the company and reassure current and future investors, in order to float successfully. For this, the business needed to calm down and operate more “maturely.”
Engineering leadership made changes like adding “citizenship” as a sixth competency to the engineering career ladder, to recognize and encourage people going above and beyond to improve Uber as a workplace. The company invested significantly in diversity and inclusion; training, HR support for managers, hiring its first chief and diversity officer, and more. In a highly symbolic move, Dara renamed the “War Room” as the “Peace Room”, signaling times had changed.
And this was very clear. Behaviors which were rewarded at “wartime Uber” were not necessarily helpful for advancing one’s career at “peacetime Uber”. For example, the values of “principled confrontation” and “meritocracy and toe-stepping” encouraged conflict if and when they helped choose the best approaches. However, when performance calibrations and promotions came around at the end of 2018, I noticed people who engaged in these behaviors got negative feedback for the first time.
2. Wartime and peacetime in tech
So what is “wartime” and “peacetime,” and more generally, what is it with using military phrases in a tech context?