7 steps to creating a great software engineering culture

Peter Simic
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14 minutes
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Managing
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The term culture might sound like a buzzword HR likes to throw around, but it’s actually a critical factor in a company’s success. 

Research shows that culture was the most important issue for over 3,300 businesses and HR leaders from 106 countries.

In a corporate setting, culture is roughly defined as the beliefs and guidelines that employees behave by—the values that define workspace behavior. 

If you have a strong company culture, you probably have satisfied employees who regularly achieve business goals. Who wouldn’t want that? 

This article will advise you on building a great software engineering culture.

Start with your mission statement

First things first—defining your mission statement. 

A mission statement is the initial building block to creating a superb software engineering culture, as it encapsulates the core characteristics that explain your company. 

This one sentence should briefly sum up the following three points:

Source: Shake

By answering these three questions, you describe your business strategy and the values behind it, i.e., your company’s principal motivation. 

Think of the mission statement as a brief guideline by which your business functions. 

If you’re able to define that, you already have the foundation to build your software engineering culture on.

Red Hat’s mission statement is a perfect example of how this one sentence can epitomize what the company stands for. They decided on the following statement:

Source: Book of Red Hat

It looks a little messy, right? That’s because more than 400 Red Hatters reworked their mission statement. The entire company came together to edit it. 

The open-source software provider greatly values community and, as such, defined its mission statement with an open-source approach—by having the entire company work on it together.

Bug and crash reporting tool for your mobile app.

Your mission statement is the guiding light for you and your entire team. Every employee in the company, from the interns to the C-level executives, should keep it in mind as they work. 

You should be able to find it in onboarding materials, on social media, and in job ads—it should be communicated wherever possible. This will drive home the culture you wish to create.

Furthermore, employees who understand the mission statement are much more engaged and efficient, ultimately benefiting the company.

Source: Shake

If your employees are in tune with your mission statement, they will be more motivated, increasing return and improving retention. 

By imparting your mission statement to them, you establish shared, company-wide goals that will incite productivity. 

Decide what your ideal culture looks like

Once you have your mission statement, it’s time to think about the ideal culture that will support it. What values and principles will create that culture? 

What are the best practices for maintaining it?

You will have to decide on the values relevant to your company, don’t just copy-paste Spotify’s culture. Amazon, for example, has a strong ownership culture

Saying “that’s not my job” or passing a task over to another team is not an option. 

However, while this can be motivating to employees, it is perhaps not the best approach if you value collaboration and cross-departmental teamwork. 

Therefore, you’ll have to evaluate what type of culture you want to build to help your business succeed.

That being said, the culture you choose must be followed company-wide. Every individual has their own personal values, but it’s important to agree on some shared professional concepts. 

Call a meeting, talk to your employees, and decide together what principles you’d all like to pursue. Some examples can be found below.

Source: Shake

Look at these statements. Do you recognize any credos or ideals you’d like your company to adopt? 

Sit down with your employees and ask them if they agree with the above or if they have other propositions—get the conversation going to determine your ideal culture.

Source: Shake

As Matt Heller states, it is imperative that your entire company lives, breathes, and walks your culture—so make sure it reflects values all employees can resonate with.

Slowly but surely, you will also, with time, identify cultural ambassadors —workers who will drive cultural change internally and serve as cultural role models for other employees. 

Candidates for this role are usually long-term employees, involved in improving the office environment, and have strong soft skills

Globant recognized two such cultural ambassadors among their employees, Agustin and Ivan, pictured here.

Source: StarMeUp OS

Agustin had participated in company events at Globant India’s office, and Ivan was a Chilean employee. 

The two were the perfect match to transform Globant’s Lima office into a workspace more in tune with Globant’s company culture—Agustin by communicating Globant’s corporate culture and Ivan by understanding Chilean values. 

Compare your ideal company culture to the current one

After you’ve determined your ideal culture, examine the current state of affairs – how much of your ideal environment is a reality?

Let’s say your company culture prizes encouraging professional development. However, not everybody can be a manager

It requires outstanding communication and organizational skills, and technical knowledge alone isn’t enough. 

So, although you want all employees to progress, you can only promote a select few to managerial positions. What to do? 

Take a look at your role models—research what other companies are doing, and compare their practices with yours. 

For example, Airbnb offers two career paths for its designers—a traditional management track and a path for those who wish to continue designing, both allowing progression. 

Why not take this type of system as inspiration for your own company?

Source: Shake

Each trajectory has its own benefits, and comparing this model to your current culture might bring about necessary innovation.

However, the most important factor when comparing reality to ideals is to sit down with your fellow senior colleagues

Take notes—each of you has insights into the current culture. How often are managers in one-on-one meetings vs. team meetings? Which is more beneficial? 

Examine employee interactions—are they challenging one another or blindly agreeing? Gather the data, and act. 

Changing your corporate culture is a senior-level task, as you’ll have the best overview of the goings-on at the company.

Source: Shake

Company culture will not change by itself. Leadership must take an active approach, scrutinizing current procedures so as to cultivate your ideal values. 

A great example of this can be seen with GoDaddy

After Katee Van Horn joined the company, she took it upon herself to make the environment more welcoming to all, but especially its female employees. 

She hadn’t noticed diversity or inclusion when studying the company’s values. This went against the desired company culture, so she implemented the following strategy:

Source: Shake

Van Horn stopped condoning behaviors such as interrupting co-workers, taking credit for another’s ideas, and laughing at others. 

She also encouraged non-managers to host presentations, helping junior workers receive more spotlight. 

However, if the leadership hadn’t initially recognized the problem, none of these positive changes would have been possible.

Prioritize hiring candidates who fit your culture

Now that you realize what your company culture should look like, a great start would be to prioritize hiring candidates who represent a good culture fit

Although recruits should have the fundamental technical knowledge needed for the role, at the end of the day, skills can always be trained. 

What is most important is that they agree with your company’s culture and thrive in that environment. 

For example, you might use a time-tracking software because it helps you understand how long specific tasks take. 

However, not every candidate will agree with this practice—they might find it restrictive or consider it micro-managing.

Lee-Anne Edwards, CEO and founder of OneinaMil, offers another interesting example.

Source: Shake

The language in the job ad described by Edwards showcases company culture and serves as a window into the office atmosphere. 

Job-seekers can then decide if that environment is one they see themselves flourishing in.

It is good practice to impart your company values to potential employees right from the get-go, assessing if they are a good fit. 

This is bound to increase employee retention. Just look at these statistics:

Source: Shake

In light of the above numbers, hiring for a culture fit is practically mandatory for decreasing employee turnover and retaining new recruits.

The Competing Values Framework is one great metric for hiring based on culture fit. Determine where you stand in this schema, and then see where the candidate does. 

Once you have that data, you can see how strongly the candidate’s values match those espoused by your company. There’s an example of this below.

Source: Devskiller

As you can see, you can utilize these types of measurements to ascertain whether you and the candidate are compatible.

Have your work processes support your values

After revamping your hiring process, the next logical step is to ensure that your company’s procedures support your values. 

For example, if you promise a healthy work-life balance, it’s not unreasonable for your employees to expect ample vacation time. 

If you advertise professional development, workers will anticipate educational webinars. It is crucial that your official policies are in line with the company values.

Suppose you want to encourage open communication on all levels—especially from employee to manager? 

Try opening a Slack or Teams channel designated exclusively for questions junior-levels can ask senior-levels

In fact, you can promote this practice yourself—utilize this channel to address your superior, even if they’re the Chief Technical Officer, asking a real question. 

This way, your team will see that the chat wasn’t started just for show, and you’ll hopefully inspire a culture of open communication. 

Karl Wiegers theorized the following:

Source: Shake

It’s not a bad philosophy to adopt. 

Firmly, yet delicately, direct employees in the right direction again and again—they will slowly adopt mechanisms that uphold the culture you want to promote. 

Squarespace is a fantastic example of a company that follows through on its professed values with its work processes. 

Their career page lists several perks: free food, 20 weeks of parental leave, and flexible paid time off.

Source: Squarespace

None of this is a lie—multiple reviews on Glassdoor attest to that fact, and one review in particular gushes about the culture and perks of working at SquareSapce. Read it below:

Source: GlassDoor

As you can see, Squarespace is a company to emulate. They genuinely follow through with their promises, and their employees greatly appreciate this. 

Their company procedures uphold the flexible, supportive culture they wish to create.

Align your workspace with your culture

Having aligned the company policy with your values, aligning your workspace with your culture is next in line. 

How are the teams arranged, can they communicate with ease? Do they need to? Is an open floor plan or one with cubicles more conducive to the kind of atmosphere you want to create? 

Shockingly, Google isn’t always right—an open-plan office is not necessarily the solution for your company. 

If your employees frequently work in a solitary, concentrated manner, an open floor plan can be detrimental to productivity. 

The noise and distractions that an open office naturally creates often disturb workers, preventing them from gaining the focus necessary to sink into deep work. 

In fact, there can even be health risks involved.

Source: Shake

Although the above statistic is worrying, this might not necessarily be the case with your company.

On the flip side, maybe an open office is precisely what your business needs. Is communication considered an essential factor, especially between employees and executives? 

Do different departments often collaborate and brainstorm with one another? If so, an open office is an excellent solution for those types of work cultures. 

Kay Sargent has addressed this question, highlighting that there is no right workplace that will magically fit every company. 

Instead, companies need to realize what type of arrangement is the right fit for them.

Source: Shake

As outlined above, assess the way your company does business, as well as how your teams operate, and decide what type of workspace would best support their work habits. 

Not every office plan suits each work culture.

Pixar is a famous example. Initially, the company had animators, computer scientists, executives and editors in separate rooms. 

Steve Jobs believed such segregation halted problem-solving and exchanging ideas and redesigned the office, as we see below.

Source: Fubiz

The new cavernous spaces encourage precisely what Steve Jobs considered essential for Pixar—creativity, communication, and collaboration.

Communicate your values

You’ve made it this far—keep at it! The last step to building a great software engineering culture is communicating your values to the employees and the general public.

By conveying the company’s values, your engineers will better understand the importance of the culture and why preserving it is a priority

If your culture begins to falter, your employees will be there to pick it right up again, having realized the benefits those values bring to their work life. 

By increasing the awareness of your values, these values become self-sustaining—more and more workers advocate for them, and more and more customers expect them, so there is less chance of them fading. 

So, when to communicate these values? As often as possible. 

As mentioned earlier, your company’s values should be part of your formal onboarding process and printed in employee guidelines, as well as, where possible, promotional materials. 

It also doesn’t hurt to remind older employers of them, for example, during appraisals or Town Hall meetings. 

Below, Jelena Glavaš describes her pleasant experience with Procter & Gamble’s onboarding.

Source: LinkedIn

Ms. Glavaš was thrilled with the onboarding, emphasizing that the company’s values and principles immediately made her feel part of the team. 

Another way to communicate values is to lead by example, embodying the company’s concepts in your own practices as a leader. 

Richard Branson from Virgin is fantastic at this. 

The airline group’s founder is brash and bold, known for his eccentric personality—as attested by the time he dressed up as a flight attendant as a joke.

Source: airasia Super App on Youtube

Such silly, quirky behavior can seem unprofessional at first, but it’s actually a perfect representation of some of Virgin’s values: Smart Disruption and Delightfully Surprising.

Richard Branson is an extreme example, of course. You won’t have to cross-dress just to demonstrate your company’s values. 

It can be as simple as never talking badly about your co-workers or truly empathizing with a stressed colleague. Gwen Voelpel is a strong supporter of such behavior.

Source: Shake

When leaders act according to their values, they send a strong message of genuine belief and support, encouraging employees to follow in their footsteps. 

Conclusion

There you have it—these seven steps are the building blocks for creating a company culture. 

Starting with a mission statement and ending with consistent communication of your values, as long as you practice the methods listed here, you’re well on your way to fostering the perfect culture.

It’s worth pointing out that these processes take time. After all, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. 

Don’t expect your desired culture to develop overnight, but stick with the process and be consistent about executing these strategies. 

It might take time, but in the end, you’ll have a great software engineering culture. 

About Shake

Shake is a bug and crash reporting tool for mobile apps. It was founded in 2019 with the mission to help app developers spend less time on debugging and manual overhead — and growing daily since thanks to a small and dedicated team of geeks based in the EU.

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