A peek inside how YouTube tackled the 2008 to 2014 hypergrowth years with a unique set of rituals for everything from strategic planning to effective meetings.
I joined YouTube in 2008, soon after the Google acquisition, and started on one of the most incredible roller coaster rides of my life. Much has been written about the
accomplishments of the YouTube team—growing from a (mostly misunderstood) video sharing property to the platform for millions of creators to connect with audiences all over the world. Interestingly though, very little has been written about the
workings of YouTube.
When I arrived, the team had grown to a couple hundred employees (~1/3rd pre-acquisition, ~2/3rd post). My initial role was owning the monetization strategy, and over the course of the following years, that scope grew and we settled into a pattern where three of us primarily drove YouTube; I ended up taking on ownership of most of the core tech functions (product, engineering, and UX), Robert Kyncl covered the business functions (content, sales, and marketing), and our boss Salar Kamangar was the CEO. The team we constructed was fairly special and was the key to our success.
An intertwined three-sided marketplace:
While some businesses have natural separations, YouTube’s business was very interconnected—changes we made in our product rippled quickly through our creator and advertiser communities. And adjustments we made to our go-to-market model had to be synchronized with key product bets. It was quite common for initiatives to be cross-functionally coordinated with a set of engineers, product managers, content partnership managers, marketing folks, press relations, lawyers, and others.
In the early days, this mostly led to a mess. A few symptoms we saw:
We slowly constructed a set of rituals and best practices that worked well for us. Over time the YouTube team went from being known for “controlled chaos” to being known as a well-aligned team that could simultaneously run a complex business while taking on meaningful strategic initiatives. Our culture became a highlight—something our team held on to as a reason to push through hard challenges, and an attraction to new employees.
As this doc has grown, I’ve found that it has three primary levels for different audiences:
It’s worth noting that this is now an almost decade-old snapshot. Most of the processes here have since been adapted and adjusted by the current YouTube team. And for my own company Coda, we have kept some of these rituals, but also operate differently in a number of ways (more on that in a separate writeup). But since this was such a special team and time period, I’ve found many readers excited for this historical perspective.
every 6 months (26 weeks) gave us more time to set and achieve meaningful goals—and include every team in the company along the way.
Strategic planning took awhile (generally 3 very focused weeks) and was very comprehensive (every team in the company was involved). While it was an intense 3 weeks, the output was the backbone of how we operated—most YouTube employees could immediately recite the current stack of Big Rocks and had an idea about how their team contributed to them. The process also served as a key step in keeping the team aware and aligned with each other.
every 6 weeks allowed teams to narrow commitments to what they could realistically get done in that time frame. Instead of Google OKRs, which were aimed at “70% success” criteria, these sprints were meant to be true commitments that other teams could actually depend on. We tried to keep this as lightweight at possible, and tried to timebox it only be a couple of days of alignment. We settled on 6 weeks as the ideal cadence, mostly because it aligned to how our iOS releases were staged, but it turned out to feel about right in terms of overall planning cadence.
Forking from the Google quarterly process was not easy, as we still had to collaborate with many Google teams. But we found that shifting to a 6-month / 6-week split planning model was more appropriate for how our team operated.
With our strategic plans in place, we could then focus on driving healthy execution on a weekly basis (the bottom “green” part of the diagram).
Avoid ad-hoc meetings.
Definitely the most controversial, but our process was designed to avoid the “just in time” ad-hoc meetings. We found that the trap of ad-hoc meetings had a lot of downsides. First, each one requires schedule coordination of attendees, so it can push discussions out (”can I get 15 mins to chat about X” ends up happening 2 weeks later). But even more importantly, the lack of a clear structure can often lead to unproductive meetings - people don’t know if it’s an information sharing meeting or a decision-making meeting, and it’s not clear what level of prep, etc is required. So a key litmus test for us was minimizing ad-hoc meetings by creating the right regular forums with enough time and the right attendees. Our approach to “tag-ups” turned into a unique way to handle this.
But if you’re responsible for your team cadence or looking to implement these processes, the next few pages go into a lot of detail about how each of these processes worked and include some templates for how to apply these techniques.
A huge round of thanks to the following folks for reviewing and contributing to this doc. Their comments have made it immensely better (and any remaining shortfall is entirely my fault!): Zach Abrams, Gene Alston, Prabhu Balasubramanian, Clay Bavor, Henry Benjamin, Monica Caso, Nikhil Chandhok, Aparna Chennapragada, Joe Dimento, Andrey Doronichev, Rushabh Doshi, Henrique Dubugras, Ea Due, Daniel Ek, Phil Farhi, Larissa Fontaine, Wade Foster, Dean Gilbert, Cristos Goodrow, Dan Greene, Manik Gupta, Deeksha Habbar, Nina Hammarstrom, John Harding, Matt Hudson, Nundu Janikaram, Ambarish Kenghe, Andrey Khusid, Gabor Kiss, Curtis Lee, Matthew Liu, Noam Lovinsky, Aagya Mathur, Apoorva Mehta, Kavin Bharti Mittal, Hosain Rahman, Shiva Rajaraman, Peeyush Ranjan, Vivek Ravisankar, Sam Rogoway, Jonathan Rosenberg, Satyajeet Salgar, Naren Shaam, Lane Shackleton, Evan Sharp, Dror Shimshowitz, Ben Silbermann, Jonny Simkin, Angad Singh, Baljeet Singh, Shan Sinha, Shantanu Sinha, Oskar Stal, Hemant Taneja, Hunter Walk, Andy Wilson, Hans Yang, Tamar Yehoshua, Michelle Beaver, and Irvin Zhan.