How to Scale IT Teams: What We Learned from Okta's Own Journey
Okta helps organizations around the world scale, modernize, and bolster their technology—but what do our own IT teams and processes look like? In honor of Okta’s 10-year anniversary, we took a peek under the hood and explored some of our biggest takeaways from the past decade.
We sat down with Chris Flynn, VP of employee enablement; Stephanie Dwight, senior manager of IT business systems; Prakash Raina, director of IT architecture and finance business systems; and Ming Wu, VP of data and analytics, to talk about their takeaways from Okta’s own IT journey.
Okta has grown quickly over the past 10 years. How have your IT teams scaled with this growth? Prakash: Before Okta started scaling, we had a lot of business systems that were decentralized and managed by different people. We didn’t have a CIO. As we began to scale, we realized that would not continue to work. We needed a central team that could manage all these systems, and that evolved into a bigger central team under the CIO.
Stephanie: I manage the hire-to-retire processes, including Workday and some of their applicant tracking systems. When I started, almost everything was manual. We brought more IT processes and systems into HR and consolidated several employee teams under a centralized business system with a single program manager who made sure our financial and technology processes were all running smoothly.
Chris: In a normal, healthy organization, you should have 100 employees to one Support Desk person. We were about 220 to one, which was hard! We knew we had to not only scale the teams but also automate wherever possible.
Ming: On the data analytics team, we also had a lot of restructuring and organizational changes. We went from doing whatever anyone asked to developing consistent standards, definitions, and processes for how we operationalize data.
Have Okta’s products or other technologies made restructuring any easier? Chris: Since I joined Okta we’ve almost doubled in size, and we’re continuing to grow. When you’re dealing with that kind of scale, the risk to the organization grows. We had to start integrating our own products more robustly, implementing more contextual multi-factor authentication, and defining friendly networks and different worker types. Automating our onboarding processes was another important change. which saves a lot of valuable people hours.
Stephanie: As we grow, it makes sense to leverage more of the functionalities of our current technology. In a few weeks, we’re launching a payroll benefits and time tracking project, which will eliminate our two other disparate systems and bring them into Workday. And we automated quite a few systems so we can focus on more priority work rather than shuffling emails around. Ultimately, it provides a better employee experience to have all the data in one place.
Ming: As we streamline, we are trying to zero in on best-in-class systems. This reduces overhead and the number of teams we are working with. For example, we migrated from Redshift to Snowflake for our data warehouse, which gives us tremendous flexibility and scale while also reducing a lot of the administrative overhead.
Chris: Some new technologies we’ve adopted include ServiceNow for automated tasking, and Barista, a machine learning and natural language processing engine that automates responses for service desk inquiries. Previously, we wanted any solution that could get the job done, but now we’re focused on increasing efficiency and minimizing people time.
Do you have any tips or best practices for other companies going through similar scaling challenges? Chris: The biggest lesson I learned was to create the case for finance to give you the resources you need to scale your team.
Prakash: Automate as much as you can—system-to-system communication, people-to-people communication, and obviously the business processes. It will help you a lot on your scaling journey.
Ming: I personally would look at two factors when determining how to scale. One: what are you being asked to do and how are you executing it? We’re at the point where it’s no longer feasible to listen to everyone; you need strategic direction. And two: where are you spending your time? Are you investing in priority areas for your customers which will give good return on investment?
As teams change and reorganize, how do you ensure that everyone is accountable for tasks getting done? Ming: We drive accountability by committing to plans. If you say you’re going to do something, you have to fully understand what that entails and follow through. You also have to trust other people to deliver on time. If something doesn’t go well, it’s important to understand what could have been done differently.
Stephanie: Transparency is also key. We’re making big strides with our engagement model, so anyone can pull up our tracking system to verify progress on key projects. We want clear metrics and a rewards structure for great contributors.
Prakash: The accountability comes when the individual knows how they are contributing to the bigger vision. As a manager, it’s our responsibility to aware team on the Okta vision and help them understand the motive behind the reorganization or team changes, once they get that, getting the tasks done is pretty easy.
Looking back at how the IT team has evolved over the past decade, what are you most proud of? Chris: As a team, I think we should be proud of how we all came from different internal organizations and figured out how to work together. With the executive PMO council we ran, we had executives showing up every time. To earn that level of organizational buy-in is a tremendous accomplishment.
Ming: I’m proud of how we’ve learned to think and plan more proactively. We went from managing ourselves with a relatively short-term mindset, looking only a few months ahead, to understanding that we need to manage ourselves years at a time. With that, we’re able to look critically at what is about to happen, not what is happening. That makes a big difference.
Over the last decade, we’ve learned that taking a proactive approach is the best way to prepare our teams for growth. Now more than ever, we look to technology to help us save, leverage, and focus our team’s time so that we can scale more effectively. By centralizing teams, streamlining processes, and using best-in-class tools and technologies, Okta has created a forward-looking IT organization ready for the next decade of changes.
Learn more about how we are helping other companies to scale their IT and prepare for the future.