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Moula Good Business

Good People: Scaling up prioritisation with Sravanthi Kalepu

Good People: Sravanthi Kalepu

Good People is a series where we take a peek into the lives of our team, and learn what makes us tick. Here we chat with Sravanthi, our Head of Product Delivery, about making Agile work, the process of prioritisation, and going from two teams to six teams in less than six months.

Tell us about your early experiences working at Moula.

I started at Moula as our first Product Owner shortly after we had kicked off our Agile journey. At the time, the most immediate measure of success was to absorb the various requests directed at the tech team from all corners of the business and funnel them into a centralised prioritised backlog, and give back the team time to focus on the active sprint. 

When we launched Hector – our machine-learning based algorithm for automating underwriting and application approval – our team of devs split into two. With two development squads and an expanding set of work streams, we adopted a more mature backlog management. We developed the sprint composition framework that combined streams of growth initiatives, continuous improvement, tech debt, and ops support. In collaboration with a growing executive team, I started to run monthly prioritisation councils, which evolved into quarterly planning rhythms.

We launched Moula Pay about a year after I started, built from the ground up as a team of 10 devs, which for me remains a fine example of Agile delivery at Moula employing story mapping, velocity-based estimates, and iterative feature delivery.  

Working closely with both Product and Tech at Moula has enabled me to learn from a wide pool of people and also shape the processes and culture on both sides of the pond, which is a rare privilege.

What led to the creation of your role, Head of Product Delivery?

As the Product Owner for two full-scale Agile teams, I had the responsibility of balancing strategic priorities with continuous improvement for every sprint, and along with that came release planning and delivery management tasks. As the amount of work into the tech funnel increased, my role evolved into Program Delivery Lead where I shed some of the product management responsibilities and took on the role of delivery and program management in a more focused form. 

Running prioritisation councils and tackling various streams of work, with limited tech team bandwidth, became a growing challenge. I started using the monthly councils as a platform to paint a picture of our speed of delivery through the lens of sprint velocity. We could see there was consistently more work in the pipeline than the engine room could practically deliver.

And then came the quickest growth we’ve experienced, going from two to six teams in under six months. This required a significant step up in the sophistication of prioritisation, product management, delivery execution, change management, and our ways of working within and across teams. 

To shore up our product execution and delivery function, we created the Product Delivery pillar with a team of POs and BAs. A little out-of-step, perhaps, is that our POs are not assigned to a dev squad, instead own the end-to-end execution of a strategic or CI initiative and typically specialise in a product domain. They design product features to align with strategic objectives, while planning incremental releases through story mapping techniques. POs are supported by Business Analysts, who are our pillar’s key conduit with the dev squads and play a key role in the functional and qualitative success of initiatives. 

With a team of Product Owners owning the end-to-end execution of initiatives, and Business Analysts elevating the scrum practices with the teams, my role as Head of Product delivery is ultimately accountable for the successful execution of initiatives shaped and prioritised at the strategic level, along with ownership of continuous improvement across the product portfolio. I’m very much a ‘what’ and ‘how’ person, so leading the function that brings initiatives to life in all their detail and finesse of user experience resonates with who I am both in and out of the workplace.

Sravanthi Kalepu

You mentioned prioritisation councils. How does prioritisation work at Moula, and how do teams collaborate through this process?

The process of prioritisation has played a critical part in all my roles at Moula. One of my first asks was to prioritise around 150 initiatives of varying sizes and business benefits through a Cost of Delay (CoD) framework. Soon after, monthly planning meetings with executive team members evolved into quarterly prioritisation councils. We’ve levelled up a lot over the last three years, with prioritisation being something we’ve consciously iterated on, and continued to refine every 3 to 6 months.

We’re starting to establish a more mature, scaled rhythm of delivery and prioritisation to cater to the growing number of teams. It’s the role of the Product, in collaboration with Tech, to shape business cases and initiatives for quarterly councils and publish the 12-18 month strategic roadmap, following big room planning sessions with the dev squads. Engineering and architecture functions underpin this workflow, cutting across both these pillars, making technology a core component of our delivery and prioritisation processes.

Younger companies can find it a challenge to prioritise small-scale continuous improvement (CI) alongside shiny new things, which end up competing for tech bandwidth. Being accountable for CI at Moula, how do you go about tackling this?

As a core tenet of Lean methodology, solving for a successful CI delivery framework has been a worthwhile challenge to commit to during my time at Moula. The leadership team now recognises that CI, while not stacking up on its own against any single large-scale initiative, when executed consistently over a period of time, delivers a measurable uplift to the product feature set, level of internal operation automation, and even improved employee experience.

We prioritise CI initiatives independent of large-scale strategic initiatives, and they are managed exclusively by Product Delivery, in collaboration with stream leads across the business. Around 15 per cent of every dev squad’s capacity is allocated to CI work each sprint, which over a quarter, amounts to about a sprint’s worth of CI work for each squad.

Like many enthusiastic young companies, Moula spent its early years operating in the ‘second diamond’ of the Double Diamond model of product development. Startups often skip ahead to designing products, racing towards development and delivery, sometimes at the expense of reaching the right level of depth in the discovery phase. We recognised this, and have worked on improving insight gathering in the research and discovery phase along with the execution phase, which helps us strike the right balance between divergent and convergent thinking.

You’ve worn a couple of different hats at Moula, seen new teams form, and experienced changes in direct leadership. What have you learnt in taking a fintech from startup to scale-up?

My biggest learning so far has been that change at an organisational level takes time, dedication, and perseverance. What the mind knows to be rational and right, habit takes much longer to accept and adopt, and this plays out resoundingly in a workplace that’s continuously growing and evolving.

It’s important to speak your truth, but also to know how to support your truth, backing it up with data and facts. What’s obvious to you won’t always be obvious to others, because we all see through our own lenses, so you have to learn to build a narrative through a common lens and speak the language of your audience. 

It’s also critical to have clear accountability and ownership of roles, so people can define their own measures of success for their roles without having to navigate ambiguities of expectations.

As a senior leader, what’s your view on leadership and how has Moula influenced your leadership skills?

Embracing uncertainty and taking intelligent risk demonstrates leadership in life, as well as the workplace. Moula particularly highlighted for me that a core leadership attribute is the ability to find clarity and make decisions in the face of ambiguity. Often, it’s not about having all the answers or doing it on your own, but enabling others to find their own answers in their own ways which still speak to the definition of success you have laid out. 

It goes without saying that leadership, unlike management, doesn’t carry titles. Leadership doesn’t need direct reports. It shows up in the smallest gestures of courage, proactivity, vulnerability, and humility and encourages others to be more than what they thought they were capable of.

What makes Moula a unique place to work?

Our workforce is made up of T-shaped people. We look for people who can demonstrate breadth and depth of expertise, plus a willingness to collaborate outside their circle of competence. It’s more important to be kind than clever, a bottom-up belief which carries through to the hiring function. For leadership roles, in particular, attitude always trumps experience and technical skills.

What surprised you the most about joining Moula?

How engaged in the detail our executive team is. Some of the top-rated Excel skills are concentrated among Exco, and a remarkable amount of the automation that exists within Moula today is based on prototypes built by some of our senior leaders. 

Our senior leaders exemplify servant leadership at its best and I haven’t run into ivory towers at Moula. Every executive is approachable, and open to honest conversations among themselves and the rest of us.

We hear you’re an avid reader. What books have greatly influenced your life?

Not everyone gets to experience a book series phenomenon in their life: I am a Potterphile and was one of the ‘older kids’ JKR deftly turned into an avid reader. Staying up until 1am to finish a book, waiting in queues outside Borders on release day, re-reading all the books 10 times over – I’ve done it all. In the wise words of Dumbledore, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Quiet by Susan Cain, which shines a light on the quiet power of being an introvert in a world that’s conditioned to favour extrovertism. As a closet introvert myself, and a parent of both an extrovert and an introvert, it helped me better appreciate the yin and yang that comes from surrounding yourself with all types of personalities, both personally and professionally.

Also from the field of personality research, The Molecule of More by Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long, which explores the influence of dopamine on our personalities, and ‘The brain that changes itself’, a classic read on neuroplasticity that drives home the point of mind over matter in a fascinating narrative. Currently most of my reading is centred around the teenage brain and its vagaries!

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