Spotify’s success is largely down to the way it gets developers to work in small groups on autonomous engineering projects, according to one of the company’s project leaders.

The firm, which has 60 million people using its music streaming service worldwide, has grown to over 1,200 employees globally, with a significant number of those in the UK. 

©Flickr/Scott Beale
©Flickr/Scott Beale

Speaking at an event in London, Niklas Gustavsson, a project leader at Spotify’s development office in Gothenburg, Sweden, explained how Spotify has put developers into “Squads” to help the firm deal with its growth, while maintaining a high product development velocity.

“We divided the whole development part of the company into very small, very small, autonomous teams,” said Gustavsson at the Monki Gras Nordic tech and culture conference in Shoreditch last week. “We called these 'Squads', for lack of a better name.

“Squads are almost always grouped together and they're given a mission to work on," he said. "This can be a finite task that they’re supposed to solve or it can be a more long-term mission. They’re given a very high degree of autonomy so they’re very much free to solve those missions and solve those questions on their own."

When Spotify was born in Sweden in 2004 it employed a handful of developers across offices in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Gustavsson said this allowed the company to work in a very agile way but as the tech team behind the music streaming service grew to more than 500 people the company needed to rethink its structure.

Gustavsson explained that all the Spotify design work happens within these individual Squads, adding that they are given free rein on the tools and programming languages they want to use to solve their problem.

“That means we need very little synchronisation between teams,” he said. “Teams can move at very high velocity and solve their problems extremely efficiently compared to places where I’ve worked before. It also means that teams own they’re entire workflow.

"They have responsibility from the [moment they get] an idea for a feature until they operate the product. So they build it and then they operate it.”

Global growth

Nearly “every adult in Sweden” that listens to music uses Spotify now, according to Gustavsson.

But the company, which ran into trouble recently when pop sensation Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify's library in protest against the company's royalities, has had a global outlook from the start.

“We’ve said from the very beginning that we want to provide all the world’s music,” he said. “We want to do this in all markets. We're in 58 countries so far so we’re getting there. Slowly but steadily.”

But expanding to new geographies has its challenges. “We’re now launched in countries with very different infrastructure and user behaviour to Sweden,” said Gustavsson. “We needed to adapt to being a good product in other markets. In Sweden we have an extremely good network infrastructure, meaning that delivering audio is somewhat easier. We can do that with extremely low latency and good bandwidth. Doing the same thing in the Philippinesis a completely different thing.”

To support Spotify’s global growth the company has chosen to employ developers outside of Sweden.

It has several outposts around the world, including an office in London, where it is currently hiring, and it has successfully managed to attract employees from 63 different nations to its head office in Stockholm.

“While we started as a Swedish company we’re now highly multicultural, which is awesome when it comes to building a global product,” said Gustavsson.

Attracting talent

However, Gustavsson said it can be hard to attract workers to Sweden due to the lack of affordable housing in cities like Stockholm.  

To complicate matters further for Spotify, several other companies around the world have launched very similar music streaming services and are attempting to steal customers away from Spotify.

Wealthy rap artists such as Dr Dre (Beats) and most recently Jay-Z (Wimp and Tidal) are behind companies that rival Spotify. However, for now at least, it holds the lion's share of the music streaming market in the UK.  

Last week it was reported that Spotify has hired Goldman Sachs to help it raise $500 million in funding, which would bring total investment in the company to over $1 billion.

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