Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What Makes a Good Engineering Culture?

This question was asked several years ago on Quora and has gotten some great answers! I was going through some of my old drafts and came across an answer that I had almost completed writing and decided to finally push through (better late than never!). I've copied the full text of the answer below.

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In my experience, a company's engineering culture is possibly the most important thing a person can consider when evaluating a job offer. I've seen many Quora questions touch on similar topics (e.g. "Where should I work?", etc.), and I feel like the root of almost all of the answers stems from the culture. Thank you for asking this question.

My answer to this question is rooted in my ten years of software engineering, numerous blogs & books on the topic, and countless conversations with engineers. It also comes with the expectation that no answer to this question can speak for all software engineers. Everyone has different and changing needs, and with them different and changing views of what makes a good culture.

So, here goes -- the prevailing concepts that have stuck with me are as follows.

Teams


High quality software engineering is the product of a team. No one individual can be expected to deliver, nor take credit for, a successful product on his or her own. This gets fuzzy in small startups where there may only be one engineer, but otherwise holds true. A culture that celebrates one individual at the cost of another is making a grievous mistake.

There is an important distinction to note here about what comprises a *team* of engineers versus a group. The distinction is that a group is not a team until everyone in the group is committed the purpose [1]. In my experience, this commitment comes from inspirational leadership and transparency. The fact that an engineer is employed by a company is not reason enough to incite the determination, dedication, and thoughtfulness necessary to produce quality code. Committed engineers are engineers who are proud to work where they work and excited to talk about their jobs and their company's products.

Stake in the Product


A healthy culture builds a product that means something to them. This can happen in a lot of ways, one of which is by connecting the engineers with the users. Some examples are providing engineering the opportunity to sit with the customer support team, to join sales or product folks on customer visits, or to attend company conventions. As an engineer, it is such a rewarding feeling to meet a customer and hear their story about how a feature you built makes their life better or how the bug you fixed made their day. This kind of connection is what makes the software you build at your job significantly more meaningful than any college project or homework assignment.

The next critical piece of this is a healthy relationship between the product and engineering teams. I've always been baffled by product management teams that treat engineers like they are incapable of contributing to product design. Product and engineering need to function together like two sides of a brain; and respect needs to flow in both directions. Giving engineers a say in the product design simultaneously gives them stake in outcome. People are much more likely to care about the success of something they helped design versus something they were told how to do.

Equally, a culture that does not respect the purpose of its product team is no better off than one that does respecting engineering. The truly successful cultures of which I have been a part were made up of cross functional teams of product & engineering talent working together to set short term and long term goals; write achievable design specifications; and build software that makes both groups proud.

Experiments


Next up: Experiments! Happy cultures promote experimenting with features over endlessly debating them [2]. One company where I've seen this really done well is Yammer, where each feature has a clear definition of success, but is assumed to be unnecessary until proven otherwise by objective usage metrics and customer feedback [3]. This precludes endless debates or analysis paralysis, and effectively lets product and engineering teams focus on what matters: building software. A positive side effect of writing software that inherently supports experimenting is that it encourages a culture that commits to small, manageable deliverables.

Encourage Learning


Another hallmark is a culture that encourages establishing a *deep understanding* of the tools, work flows, and responsibilities that go into producing production ready software. A team that knows __why__ something must be done in a certain fashion will encounter substantially less mistakes than a team kept ignorant by relying too heavily on process scripts. Intuitively it seems natural to reduce mistakes by automating processes and restricting influence. In my experience, it is a fine balance of the safety in automated process and the danger in freedom that produces a well rounded team more apt to optimize the whole rather than their own piece of it. Automated process saves time and avoids unintended errors, but that intentionally dangerous freedom lets the engineers know that they are respected and responsible for the success of their own products. That responsibility provides the motivation to go the extra mile to truly understand, for example, how a service is going to function in a production environment, or how version control really works.

Deployment Is Just the Beginning


Engineering is more than development, it's also deployment and support. Time spent in development is just a fraction of a project's lifetime. The majority of a product's life is in production. Engineering teams that fail to structure priorities around this concept will either produce poor quality products or endlessly miss deadlines because they are fixing bugs.

Learn From Failure


Nothing is perfect. Even rocket scientists at NASA make mistakes [4]. Expect failure and plan for it, in your code and in your culture. Learning from failures and *improving* from them makes a team stronger. I won't say too much about this because much has already been said elsewhere. Etsy has published some great material on this subject [5] and [6]. The Pragmatic Programmers also published a great book on ways to mitigate failures in production [7]. For my part, I'm proud of how we learned to learn from failure at Box [8].

Finally


Ultimately, all of this represents my own opinion based on my time spent engineering software. One prescription does not fit all and any prescription should be an ever changing vision.

[1] Leading Lean Software Development: Results Are not the Point: Mary Poppendieck, Tom Poppendieck: 9780321620705: Amazon.com: Books
[2] Always ship trunk: Managing change in complex websites
[3] Why Yammer believes the traditional engineering organizational structure is dead
[4] The Martian
[5] Failure is an option - Velocity 2015
[6] Kitchen Soap  –  Learning from Failure at Etsy
[7] The Pragmatic Bookshelf | Release It!
[8] The Three Letters that Saved My Tech Debt

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