Voting: it’s something we’ve heard a lot about recently. The most recent presidential election has been fueled by both presidential candidates’ comments as well as voters’ on a multitude of social media outlets, and Brigade is taking a note of that. As the world’s first voter network, Brigade’s primary focus is convincing the oversharing generation that sharing their political views might actually have an impact on those around them and could bring them together to enact change. It’s the strongest case for democracy an app has made in recent years.
The founders of Brigade have found a way to track your political preferences, and their main attempt is to engage you in conversation with others about them. For millennials who are constantly attached to their phone, it doesn’t sound like a challenge – although getting them to share their political views publicly is.
For those already verbal about their stances, Twitter or Facebook is where they typically go, and where the audience is not just vast, but sometimes disinterested and hostile. On Brigade, the agenda is to share and debate rather than rant and attack. Once on the app, you can take a stance on anything from guns to food and agriculture by agreeing or disagreeing with statements made in each category. The more you answer, the more engaged you become and it becomes easier to identify with other users, who are not separated with the typical labels of Republican, Democrat or Independent.
By engaging with one another, users are actively creating groups, which CEO Matt Mahan hopes will bring people to “voice their opinions and take action with others” which, in turn, will connect them with “officials who can do something about it.” I’d say that’s democracy to a tee.
We got an inside look at what it’s like to be behind the scenes at Brigade. Here is the day of one of their engineering leads, Emily:
Walk me through your day-to-day.
My days are very full once I get to the office, so when I wake up I like to read a little bit rather than focusing on a to-do list. Right now I’m reading “River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay and “The Coaching Habit” by Michael Bungay Stanier. Then I feed my cat, shower and head to Muni for a 35 minute commute from Duboce Triangle to our HQ in the SOMA neighborhood near downtown San Francisco. I always mean to make time to eat breakfast at home, but I usually end up packing some yogurt or mini-quiche in my bag to eat on the train.
Once I get to work, I start to wade into email, Slack messages and check JIRA, our project management tool. Each morning our “feature teams” kick off the day with standups and since I’m part of our “reserve” (engineers who aren’t assigned to a feature team), I keep myself in the loop by rotating which standup I attend each morning. One morning a week, the API team meets, as does the engineering leadership team.
After a busy start to the day, the entire company eats lunch together at long communal tables. On Thursdays, a member of our team gives a lunchtime tech talk. These range broadly in content from our data team explaining the inner workings of our analytics pipeline to our CEO’s “U.S. Politics 101: 7th Grade Civics in 30 Minutes”. Friday is a find-your-own lunch day so we head to a neighborhood cafe or get takeout from one of SOMA’s food trucks.
The rest of my workdays consist of one-on-one meetings with members of my team (my favorite activity of the week), picking up technical tasks, and generally keeping my eyes and ears open for ways I can help solve problems. Our engineering lead syncs and end-of-day leadership team “decisions” meetings are great mechanisms for communicating, unblocking and holding everyone accountable (more on those later).
I usually head home around 6:30 to eat dinner with my boyfriend (I’ve learned that ending my day promptly makes me *more* productive during the rest of it), or to a singing rehearsal, women in tech meetup, or volunteer event. But there’s a solid contingent of Brigade staffers who stay for dinner at the office, talk about their day and get in a game of ping-pong.
Explain the culture at Brigade a little bit.
A core value at Brigade is ownership. The term can mean a lot of things, but to me it means two in particular. The first is a culture where we each feel authority and autonomy over the areas of work we own. We trust each other to be competent and capable. We set goals then let the teams figure out how they want to achieve them. We follow through on the commitments we make to each other. The second meaning is taking ownership over ways you think the product or company could improve. Don’t sit back and wish something would be different – speak up, do something about it, ask questions, make decisions, make it happen. This is some of what the Brigade product enables our users to do this in their communities and around the country!
One feature of Brigade’s culture I really like is our daily “Decisions” meeting. At the end of every day leadership from across departments gather to do three things: share important updates, surface anywhere we’re blocked, and ratify company-level decisions. Capping off each day with this is great—updates are shared through the company in a timely way, and we never wait more than 24 hours to discuss important topics. There are two rules that make this meeting particularly effective. The first is the action items are always assigned to someone in the room at that moment (no assigning to someone who’s usually there but isn’t today), given a due date, and written down. The second is that we make it clear when we’ve officially made a decision (the whole room “claps” on it), and we also document it. Decisions can’t be changed without specifically reopening them.
On the lighter side of our company culture, we love civically-related trivia and naming schemes. For example, our cross-functional feature teams are referred to as “States.” This leads to some great jokes about states rights vs federal initiatives (company-level goals), but that’s actually a pretty good analogy for the autonomy-with-accountability culture we strive for. Our teams have named themselves after current and recent electoral swing states: Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia. Our HQ conference rooms are named after iconic Secret Service code names: Lancer (JFL), Renegade (Barack Obama), Rawhide (Ronald Reagan), Sunnyside (Bess Truman), Eagle (Bill Clinton), Tempo (Laura Bush), and Pathfinder (Spiro Agnew). Additionally, when new employees are welcomed to the company at our weekly all-hands meeting, they tell us what Secret Service codename they would choose.
What are some of the challenges of working for a start-up?
My entire career has been at startups, so I’m probably missing some perspective here that other readers may have. But I’m happy to talk about some of the challenges I’ve seen:
What should we build? Most early stage startups don’t have a solid, successful business yet, which means your main job is figuring out what your business should be. This is seriously hard work. Startups with a disciplined approach to trying out ideas and learning quickly whether or not they’re working are far more successful. That’s way easier said than done—it’s hard to find the balance between knowing that features usually don’t work right out of the gate and need a few rounds of iteration, and realizing that it’s time to let go of something you’ve put a lot of effort into but that just isn’t working.
Communicating within fast-growing teams. The communication patterns that work for a four-person team often don’t for a 15 person team, and those that work at 15 rarely scale well to a team of 50. Startups can evolve rapidly, which means rethinking how you communicate sometimes as often as a few times in one year.
How much money should we raise? Raise too little and you run out of cash just as you’re finally seeing a glimmer of what your users want and exactly what to build. Raise too much and the illusion of unlimited money can make you lazy about iterating as quickly and efficiently as possible. Another potential issue with raising too much is that you run out of money at an awkward time—say 18 months in, when you don’t quite have traction yet, but you’ve been around too long to be able to raise on excitement and blind faith alone.
Are we solving the problem we set out to solve? Brigade has one additional piece of complexity because we’re trying to solve a specific problem (helping representative democracy function at scale), not just iterate and pivot until we find a sustainable business. This is a clear advantage in terms of team motivation, a sense of meaningful work, and the greater creativity that can come with being faced with a very specific problem. But what we’re setting out to do is complex and transforming ideas into action is a big challenge.
Tell us what the API team works on at Brigade.
Brigade is a social platform, so we want users to post content and interact with what other users have posted. When you open your browser and create something, our Web client uses our API to send that post back to our servers to store in our database. When your friend opens her Brigade iOS app, the app asks our API what’s happened in her network recently and gets back a list of posts, including yours, to display on your friend’s home screen.
So, basically, we’re the team that allows our clients—Web, iOS app and Android apps—to get information from the server and write back information that’s stored in our databases.
Our primary work is in Rails, with occasional work in services in other languages (Scala and Python). We’ve built some useful tools for making our work faster and more robust which makes it easy to write tests that check how many database queries an API call is making and helps us avoid changes that make the app feel slow to users.
One of the challenges for our team is supporting both native clients that release every few weeks and install apps on a user’s phone, and the continuously-deployed Web client. Features launch at different times on each client, and some users run old versions of our iOS or Android apps. This means we have to develop new features without breaking older versions of those features from a few months ago.
Do you think this election season has helped Brigade in gaining people’s interest to vote or has it hindered it?
Helped. The election is one of the biggest components of the daily news cycle, and the contentious nature of the candidates means there’s a lot to talk about. We want to be a place for people to express their own opinions and discover fellow voters and politicians they align with at every level of government. I frequently find myself using Brigade’s debates to read multiple viewpoints on an issue. I also love being able to learn more about the people who wrote those comments, like how we align ideologically, since it puts the opinions in context.
What are the differences of working at Brigade as compared to your previous jobs?
I think most employees would say the scope and potential impact of Brigade’s vision—helping democracy scale—but I’ve been very fortunate to work in this space at my last two jobs as well.
A big difference between Brigade and one of my previous employers, RapLeaf, is who’s designing and driving our work. Brigade is a consumer product, and we’ve got great product managers and designers driving our work based on what our users need. RapLeaf was a backend team for a long time, and our roadmap was mostly driven by our talented engineering team’s understanding of the technical problems we faced in the data and personalization space. I’ve enjoyed both ways of working, and each was well-suited to the problems the company was trying to solve.
I’m also a lot more confident at Brigade than I was in some of my previous roles. Experience in a number of companies and cultures, a role I love, and a good manager make a sizable difference in decreasing my work-related stress. This is important to me because quick adaptation is a critical part of working at a startup, and the ability to sniff out something isn’t quite right and feel confident in bringing it up and fighting for my solutions makes me a much more effective teammate and leader.
As a director of engineering, what are some of the challenges of building at Brigade?
One of our challenges is also one of our big strengths: what we need in our process changes frequently in comparison to more established companies and products. This means we’re constantly encountering new situations that require flexibility and for us to come up with new ways of organizing our work. Frequently re-evaluating what we need and adapting to new challenges makes us a faster, stronger team. I find this part of my role very rewarding.
And how can we not mention the elephant (and donkey) in the room? It’s a presidential election year and there’s so much we want to get done before the November general election. There are tools we want to build, test and release while civic engagement is top of mind. We have to be very strategic about which features we pursue.
How do you utilize the platform to gain millennials’ interest?
Millennials are an attractive demographic for many consumer technology companies for good reason. They’ve grown up with the Internet, they’re comfortable leaving elements of their lives online and—very importantly—they now outnumber baby boomers as the largest living generation in the United States. For a company like Brigade, millennials are doubly important because they’re tasked with electing generations of new leaders who will shape how our country deals with its greatest challenges for years to come.
A lot of people like to talk about how apathetic millennials are about our system of government but at Brigade we argue that it’s not apathy, it’s cynicism. They care, but they’ve lost faith in the political system that’s supposed to be working for them. So while millennial frustration with government is real, there are indicators that the pendulum can swing back the other way.
According to recent research, a majority of millennials believe it’s important to be active citizens but only a fraction say they’re doing a good job themselves. Moreover, millennials’ trust in government is improving and they're making their voices heard across a range of issues from racial justice to climate change to LGBTQ equality. They value participating in their local communities, volunteering and doing things to help shape their own future. This is where Brigade comes in.