The Engineering Leadership Podcast · Episode 89

Operational & Organizational Innovation

with Zhichun Li

Jun 21, 2022
We discuss operational & organizational innovation with Zhichun Li (Director of Engineering @ Scale AI)! We explore the early days of Rapid at Scale AI, different organizational design experiments Zhi’s tested, and many of the principles behind their operational practices. You’ll hear about merging engineering & ops, designing orgs for autonomy, scaling into multiple products, and leveraging different org structures for innovation.
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Zhichun Li (@zhichun_li) is Director of Engineering @ Scale AI. She built the Rapid team from scratch with a focus on providing the fastest way to production-level quality labels within a day, with no data minimums. As an early employee of the company, she built up the infrastructure for Scale’s supply ops system and scaled up Scale’s 3D Sensor Fusion product.

Before Scale, Zhi worked at Lightspeed China Partners, Facebook, Microsoft and Airbnb with roles in investment and software engineering. She was a producer of VC Pulse, a podcast spotlighting venture capitalists in China. Zhichun was the youngest ever admit to the Yale MBA program, and studied computer science at CMU.

"We tried to basically brand it as like black ops, i.e. the special kind of ops where you get to do 10x work and build a lot of product out of it. And that actually, in a lot of ways attracted very entrepreneurial individuals to want to join.

So I think a lot of it is shaping the brand of the program, helping people understand how important it is and the things that I'll learn.

- Zhichun Li

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  • The early days of scale & why engineering runs operations (1:44)
  • What is ops engineering (3:48)
  • Why engineering first got involved in ops (6:29)
  • How to brand ops engineering to attract top engineers (8:51)
  • Merging ops & engineering to eliminate silos (10:07)
  • How to merge ops & engineering for the first time (11:39)
  • How team composition evolved at Rapid (12:46)
  • Designing your org for autonomy & customer empathy (17:07)
  • Rapid’s operating principles (18:53)
  • Generating Rapid’s operating principles (23:18)
  • Painful short-term decisions that yielded better long-term outcomes (24:57)
  • Scale AI’s evolution into multiple products (28:04)
  • Behind the scenes of Scale’s multi-product moment (31:04)
  • Leveraging general managers & org structures to drive product innovation (32:43)
  • When to invest in, or shut down a project (36:21)
  • Rapid Fire Questions (37:47)
  • Takeaways (40:41)
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