Building a winning engineering culture: best practices

Peter Simic
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A company’s engineering culture is a set of values, priorities, and practices that employees share in their work. When these elements complement each other, nothing stands in the way of achieving your business goals.

In this article, we’ll explore the best practices for building a winning engineering culture that you can use to transform your team and your business.

Make transparency a core value

Transparency is vital in building a healthy and strong engineering culture in your organization. With it as a foundation, your team can thrive, as can your relationships with your clients.

First of all, transparency breeds trust, and trust stimulates collaboration. The best possible results and high-quality work are difficult to achieve without collaboration in your team.

Of course, developer teams can’t be a lone island of transparency in your organization—that core value should stem from the managers. 

If they’re transparent about their work, inform their teams about everything relevant to the company, and involve them in the decision-making, transparency becomes a natural way of thinking and working.

Source: DECODE

Furthermore, transparency should expand to your relationships with the clients, too. The more the developers include clients in their workflow, the more the clients trust your business.

For example, developer teams can arrange meetings with clients to discuss progress, gather feedback and attain perspective on their pressing issues with the product. 

That’s what Compuware developers did when they spent a week visiting their clients from the Lloyds Banking Group.

Source: bmc

The photo above was taken at one of their meetings at their client’s offices. 

There was also a follow-up visit where the client visited them. By meeting them face-to-face, the developers had an easier time pinpointing issues that needed to be fixed and analyzing their clients’ needs. 

Of course, it isn’t always possible to arrange business trips and meetings with international clients. But, luckily, technology can help us bridge any distance. 

Bug and crash reporting tool for your mobile app.

Communication tools, like Slack, for example, can enable you to keep a high-touch relationship with the client. 

Giving them access to the product backlog where they can comment on the work you’re doing for them is also a good idea. 

While talking about transparency in engineering, we should also mention Buffer, the company that has pushed the boundaries of this core value.

Everything about the company is publicly stated on their website—their revenue, code, company policies, values, product roadmap, team diversity, and even salaries.

Source: Buffer

As you can see, in a few clicks, everyone can see how much each employee makes, their role, and what team they belong to.

There are more companies that subscribe to a transparent approach. GitLab is one of them. 

In addition to providing access to their very detailed handbook for employees, they declare themselves to be “public by default”, which means making everything, including their infrastructure, marketing, and team members’ profiles, publicly available. 

However, they keep some aspects of their company private, like financial information or acquisition offers.

GitLab’s value hierarchy is clearly depicted in the company handbook, and transparency is high on that pyramid.

Source: GitLab

As you can see in the examples above, transparency can be a stable foundation for a vibrant engineering culture, boosting the growth of the whole business. 

Whether you opt for complete transparency on all fronts or moderate openness towards your clients and within a team, the company can flourish thanks to it.

Create an environment conducive to growth

If you want to create a flourishing engineering culture, you need a motivated, productive team that’s hungry for new skills. You can cultivate that kind of mindset with the right working environment.

Bear in mind that employees value a good work environment above everything else when looking for a new job, so it’s well worth your effort to invest in providing one for your team. 

Source: Statista

Of course, a positive work environment conducive to growth encompasses more elements than the opportunities for learning and professional development; however, those two factors are essential.

Many developers are constantly learning to stay updated on new technologies and new programming languages. 

According to data from a Stack Overflow survey, 75% of them learn something new every year, and more than 50% learn new things every few months. 

And the business benefits as a whole from an environment where learning is a top priority, too. 

If employees acquire new skills and broaden their knowledge, they add new value to the company.

That’s apparent when you consider the case of Spotify, the music-streaming giant. They created an environment where their engineers can learn, read, attend conferences and connect with engineers in other companies.

However, they also allow more autonomy and risk-taking. 

Developers are organized in smaller groups, and every one of them has the freedom to solve problems in their own way. Below is a typical team setup at Spotify.

You can see the team members on the right. Working next to each other makes collaboration easier. They have a lounge area for planning sessions and meetings on the left.

This kind of setup allows engineers to learn from each other and leads to more creative and innovative solutions while also creating the circumstances for a thriving engineering culture. 

Nurturing an environment conducive to growth has certainly contributed to Spotify’s rise.

Growth and learning can happen even when things aren’t going as planned; a good way to learn from mistakes is by having blameless post-mortem sessions. 

During them, the team takes a deeper look at the incident without pointing fingers at anyone.

For example, there was an incident at Hootsuite when one engineer accidentally deleted the Hootsuite app from the LinkedIn Developer Portal. 

Because of that, Hootsuite users couldn’t post to LinkedIn or open new accounts.

After that, they conducted a post mortem where they examined what brought the incident about and how to prevent similar things from happening in the future.

Source: Medium

As you can see on their whiteboard, they reconstructed a timeline of the incident, listing what the consequences were, and what future steps to take.

Creating an environment conducive to growth is like carefully nurturing a young sprout—the fruit may not come the next day, but it’ll eventually grow if you follow the right steps. 

Similarly, a great engineering culture can form from your company’s potent, learning-based environment.

Break down silos for better collaboration

To strengthen the engineering culture in your organization, you should consider making an effort to break down organizational silos, the strict lines that exist between the teams at your company. 

There are many benefits to allowing your teams to connect in more meaningful ways.

One of those benefits is improved efficiency. When your teams share information, collaborate, and form a tight unit, they waste less time and move together towards a common goal.

The other benefit of breaking down organizational silos is a renewed sense of responsibility and increased trust in team members.

For example, when employees are free to take action outside their narrow field in the traditional organizational hierarchy, they might start to think in broader terms and become invested in the process from start to finish.

Therefore, they may start to naturally connect to other employees, other teams, or even other departments—in other words, they can instinctively start building an engineering culture at your company.

A big part of this process also involves blurring the lines of authority and hierarchy, and giving your workers a larger sense of autonomy in what they do. 

It might seem counterintuitive, but this is the secret sauce that helped many famous companies grow.

One of the companies that provide employees with a lot of autonomy is Etsy. 

Their former CEO Chad Dickerson called their approach “a radical decentralization of authority”.

What this means is that Etsy encourages its developers to watch out for each other and behave like a community, without a central figure of authority.

They believe that their developers are happier and produce better results that way.

The photo above shows one of their developers on his first day at the job. At Etsy, developers push code from day one and learn about the process along the way, with the help of other engineers.

The organization style at Etsy is built to avoid silos and create a strong engineering culture. But a company that takes breaking down silos even further is Valve, the creators of the Steam gaming platform.

They have no hierarchy in the traditional sense. Employees have the power to decide what projects they would like to work on, and which ones are left behind. 

They explain how to work without a supervisor in their employee handbook.

Source: Valve

They can pitch ideas for projects to other employees and vote on them. Voting is a big part of the culture at Valve—they even vote on hiring and termination decisions.

Valve’s approach to an organization without silos clearly works for them. 

Today, they’re one of the most famous companies in the game development space, and their engineering culture is often cited as a good example of a positive and stimulating work environment.

Source: Valve

In conclusion, the examples like Etsy or Valve show that an engineering culture can thrive without strict hierarchies constricting the employees. 

Organizational silos can take a toll on the efficiency and productivity of the business; by tearing them down, developers can collaborate more easily and strengthen their company culture.

Help everyone see the common goal

Engineering teams need to be connected to the company’s mission and goals to produce the best possible results and deliver the product that would satisfy the customer’s needs.

Your job as their leader is to help them clearly see their objective, so they can be more focused and make deliberate decisions towards the client’s needs.

Consider having regular meetings with members of your engineering team to remind them what you’re working towards, motivate them, and make course corrections along the way. 

After all, who better to explain the company goals than the higher-ups who had a hand in creating them?

For example, Amazon has an engineering culture focused on customer satisfaction, which is defined as a common goal for everyone in the company. 

Source: Amazon

Their engineers are encouraged to think outside the box when coming up with ways to make the customer experience better.

One product of that goal was the invention of the “buy with 1-click” button. If you ever visited Amazon, you’re probably familiar with it.

Source: Amazon

Peri Hartman, a programmer at Amazon, invented it to develop a way to make ordering a frictionless experience for a customer.

And the idea started to form at the meeting with Jeff Bezos, who nudged his programmer in the direction of their common goal. That’s an excellent example of a leader accurately explaining goals and motivating employees to participate in achieving them.

Of course, most developers care about the product they produce and believe it’s the best that it can be. However, no amount of internal testing can substitute seeing the product in its natural environment—in the hands of the users.

That’s why, for instance, web development and web design company from Netherlands NowOnline connects their developers and customers in a very direct way.

Source: @NowOnline

Developers at the company have face-to-face meetings with real consumers to see how they are using their product in their daily lives in order to better understand the context of their issues while using it.

The picture below shows one of those interactions between a developer and a customer at the customer’s workplace.

Source: Dzone

This practice can result in findings that would be very difficult to identify without it. 

In one session, the developer observed the customer using their software and noticed that they were viewing their screen at an angle while speaking on the telephone.

The developer realized that the font they were using made it difficult to read the content on the screen that way—a frequent consumer complaint the development team had previously dismissed as less of a priority. 

Suddenly, the validity and urgency of that complaint became crystal clear.

Because of that lightbulb moment, the development team made changing the font size a priority and fixed it the same day.

This example shows that inspiration and new ways to achieve your goals don’t need to come top-down, but can also come from customers who use your software every day. 

In conclusion, it’s evident that a deeper understanding of the company goals results in heightened motivation and a sense of community as your team works as a single unit to achieve a common mission. 

Therefore, if you want to build a robust engineering culture at your company, make sure everyone knows what you’re working towards.

Leave room for play

For many people, “fun” and “play” aren’t the first words that come to mind when talking about work. 

However, creating a relaxed atmosphere and doing fun activities together can be very beneficial for building a winning engineering culture.

One of the benefits of scheduling some downtime during work hours is that it boosts productivity, and a productive engineering team should be the company’s driving force.

One study proved a direct link between having fun and attaining higher levels of productivity. In the experiment, the research team played a 10-minute comedy clip to the selected individuals or provided them with drinks and snacks.

They confirmed that those actions made the workers happy and then tracked their productivity. 

The results showed that those workers were approximately 12% more efficient in achieving their goals than those who didn’t participate in these enjoyable activities.

Source: Shake

In addition to improving productivity, having fun reduces stress and improves memory and learning ability.

A study from scientists at Loma Linda University Health supports that notion. In their study, 20 adults watched a funny video for 20 minutes, while the other group did nothing for the same amount of time. 

The group that laughed for 20 minutes did better on short-term memory tests, and their stress hormone cortisol levels were significantly decreased.

And let’s not forget this simple truth…

When people do fun things together, they usually bond and form stronger relationships, making the whole team more cohesive and relaxed. 

That definitely applies to the engineering teams as well and can be an important factor in forming a tight engineering culture.

Many major companies picked up on the importance of leaving some room for play. 

For example, Shutterstock offers their employees enjoyable perks like two game rooms, a secret library, a cafe, and a yoga studio with a professional instructor, which you can see below.

Source: Shutterstock

Similarly, Canva, the popular design app, also has a comprehensive fun activities program. 

Mind you, the purpose of having fitness and meditation sessions, team trips overseas, team building events, and sports days at Canva isn’t to be perceived as a cool workplace. 

Melanie Perkins, Canva co-founder and chief executive, summed it up like this:

“A happy, focused team is going to be able to get more done, take bigger risks, and have a lot more fun along the way than one that is stressed and feels as though the company they work at doesn’t care about them as humans.”

Building a strong workplace culture and celebrating achievements, like in the happy memory depicted below, is a way for that graphic design company to build a great engineering culture.

Source: work180

You don’t need to have an unlimited budget for trips or slides in the office like Google. 

Simple activities like going for a drink as a team or having a barbecue in the yard during a lunch break can go a long way in forming stronger bonds between team members and cultivating a thriving engineering culture.

Conclusion 

Building a winning engineering culture is an investment in a company’s future.

Engineers can drive the company forward or hold it down; it all depends on the factors that make up the culture they’re working in.

A strong culture is built around transparency, an environment that facilitates growth and learning, collaboration across the board, a common goal, and a workplace that still leaves room for relaxing.

Focusing on those practices will make a happy, productive, and creative engineering team with a winning culture.

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