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Anna
Dziuba
Delivery Manager at Relevant Software

How to Build a Winning Engineering Culture: Expert Insights

Management

Have you ever wondered why giant tech firms like Google, Netflix, Facebook, and Spotify talk fondly about their astounding engineering culture? 

Engineering culture is no doubt a key factor behind the outstanding performance of leading tech companies. It determines the hiring and task execution processes, which all have a significant part to play in the overall quality of the product.

As the head of the tech department, you should find ways to improve the quality and performance of your software development team. And one of the best ways of achieving such goals is to establish an engineering culture. 

Engineering culture: Hype or necessity?

Imagine having a developer who rarely hands in tasks as expected. One who keeps other team members waiting, hindering them from also delivering their projects on time. How would such behavior affect the morale of the other team members? How would it also affect the final product? 

This is only one of the many scenarios that shows a lack of strong software company culture.

So, what is engineering culture?

Engineering culture is a set of collectively shared values and expectations of each team member that promotes teamwork and improves performance. It is a code that explains acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in the workplace.

Engineering culture is not only applicable to subordinates. It applies to everyone in the organization, including software engineers as well as the managerial team. It is vital for large and start-up organizations alike.

Building a winning high-tech culture is beneficial to a company in more ways than one.

Allow me to expound.

Importance of building an engineering culture

The importance of building a strong engineering culture cannot be overemphasized. Actually, an agile engineering culture plays a vital role in the success or failure of a software development company.

Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Spotify are some of the well-known companies with the best engineering culture. By setting up a dedicated development team, these tech giants gain a big competitive advantage and succeed.

So here are the major advantages of developing a strong software engineering culture for your company.

Key Benefits of Building A Strong Software Engineering Culture for Your Business

Product innovation

A healthy engineering culture breeds creativity and innovation. It liberates engineers to find new and better ways of solving a problem. This results in a quality product that addresses client pain points.

For instance, Google created a workplace environment that allows engineers to share their thoughts and ideas freely. Such collaborations make it easier for Google to implement ground-breaking innovations.

One good example is Google bots. Thanks to the regular updates on how Google bots interpret queries, searchers enjoy better and more accurate browsing. 

Attracts and retains the right talents

Google’s exceptional engineering culture makes it one of the most sought-after companies. The organization attracts a whooping 3,000,000+ applications every year!

Why so many applications? 

You guessed right! People love to work in an environment where they feel valued and are allowed to express themselves in ways that bring value to the organization. Whereas many tech firms experience a high level of employee turnover, Google, not so much.

Career development

Creating a software engineering culture also provides career growth opportunities. An industry giant like Airbnb, for instance, has two tracks that encourage career progress for engineers – as an individual contributor and as a manager. 

This aligns with their belief that engineers can progress in their careers as individual contributors and as managers. Thus, they support, celebrate, and reward personal successes.

Airbnb also encourages progress by helping engineers build their profiles outside of the company. The company showcases the engineer’s best work on their blog posts on various social media platforms, increasing knowledge of their work locally and internationally.

Seamless processes

Successful organizations understand that complex and redundant business processes only slow down progress. A good culture, on the other hand, encourages team autonomy and ownership of processes from design to implementation.

Also, there is an emphasis on cross-collaboration among different teams. For example, the engineering culture of Spotify views its engineers and teams metaphorically as a jazz band. Although each musician plays a different instrument, they all listen to each other and focus on the same song, which works for the company’s success.

Customer satisfaction

A good culture of engineering makes employees happy, promotes creativity and innovation. Engineers are free to design and implement better ways to help solve problems. As a result, the company creates better products and services that customers value and appreciate, achieving customer satisfaction.

The anatomy of strong engineering cultures

Every software company has its unique culture. This uniqueness is very much determined by the goals this firm wants to achieve. We have summarized the similarities and the characteristics of cultures of big tech giants – Google, Amazon, Spotify, and Airbnb.

So here are the good engineering practices examples.

4 Examples of Companies with Great Engineering Culture

Google’s culture

Google is renowned for its world-class company culture. No wonder that in the year 2019, it earned an impressive 15 awards from Comparably. Interestingly, one of the awards was for the Best Company Culture. 

Google also appeared several times on Fortune’s list of Best Companies to Work For and is featured every year in Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work list.

Google’s engineering culture didn’t happen accidentally. It is the result of focused efforts, particularly of researches, carried out to understand the impact of managers and company culture on the performance of an organization. 

The research uncovered eight best practices, which were released in 2008 under the name Project Oxygen. Ten years later, in 2018, the organization added collaboration and strong decision-making as two other practices that influenced a company’s productivity. These ten behaviors are the basis of Google’s engineering culture.

It comes as no surprise that Google’s software engineering culture encourages creativity and autonomy. Staff are free to work remotely. The company believes that happier employees are more creative and productive, which is one of the reasons why Google’s workplace is designed as a fun environment. 

It financially supports its employees, prioritizes innovation, hires for not only skills but also character, and maintains an open communication policy, to mention a few. All these cultural practices establish Google as a company to be admired by job seekers and other companies alike.

Amazon’s culture

Amazon derives its culture from its unique leadership principle that empowers autonomy. This allows each team to make decisions and implement them in the customer’s interest. 

As a result, Amazon can innovate much faster than its competitors and has evolved at an astonishing rate from being an online bookstore to a retail giant.

Another core component of Amazon’s engineering culture is its customer obsession. Before any new feature is introduced, engineers ask themselves questions like, “What do our users want?” or “What change would alleviate the pain of our users?”.

To find the right answers and create products that address customer pain points, they communicate with users and monitor their feedback. They do this with the help of their console feedback system, social media channels, and product managers.

Amazon is also strong on its ownership principle. Each engineer’s name is tied to the feature they deliver to customers and are regarded as subject-matter experts. This is a huge motivator for engineers, further driving creativity and innovation. 

The best engineering cultures do not stifle creativity and innovation, but promote it. These are just a few of the different components of Amazon’s engineering culture, which has helped position the organization as a global leader in various fields.

Spotify’s culture

Spotify engineering culture is perhaps one of the must-mention. The company has witnessed exponential growth in recent times. With an expanding team, the company sought ways to elevate the engineering team by equipping them with knowledge and ensuring every idea was heard. 

Some Spotify engineers started attending conferences, reading books, and speaking with other talented software engineers from Twitter, Google, and Netflix. Also, Spotify re-organized their engineering team into smaller groups of 8 engineers – referred to as squads. 

This allowed for greater autonomy. Each squad was allowed to adopt its mission statement that aligns with the overall mission of the company. The goal here is to enable each squad to find creative and innovative ways of solving arising problems. This approach leads to more creative solutions and satisfied employees.

Additionally, Spotify implemented an internal open source practice that enables squads to be more productive.

This is how it works. 

Let’s say squad Y needs access to a code written by squad X; they first ask for permission to change it. But if, for instance, squad X is too busy to respond, squad Y can change the code and submit the code to squad X – the original owners for review. 

This engineering culture at Spotify is unique and has proven to be effective, especially in knowledge sharing. It is an enviable culture of peer code review that has dramatically improved the quality of products.

Spotify’s dynamic culture has also helped the company scale, adapt, and innovate with ease. Teams aren’t bogged down by dependencies to other teams. The company has developed one of the best cultures in modern times, something that companies looking to succeed should consider.

Airbnb’s culture

Airbnb is another disruptive company that has changed tourism and how people take vacations globally.

A significant component of Airbnb’s engineering culture is how it creates value for its employees. The company gives engineers access to all the tools and resources they need. To further improve the company’s work culture, the company involves its engineers in the decision-making process.

Their culture also prioritizes helping others, especially the new engineers. No one in the team is too busy to help. 

Although each team is concerned with a specific aspect of the company’s business, collaboration is common because their culture encourages it. This culture of collaboration across teams helps close gaps, allowing processes to run seamlessly.

Another important aspect of Airbnb’s engineering culture is its belief that engineers can progress as far as individual contributors as they can as managers. It created two tracks for career advancement, which are individual contributions and management. 

At Airbnb, becoming a manager isn’t about being promoted. It’s about changing the focus of your work to becoming a facilitator. A manager’s responsibility is to support the people around them and participate in technical decisions, while the responsibility of an individual contributor is to execute projects that impact the business. 

It also made the payment scale parallel, so there are no compensation advantages in becoming a manager at Airbnb. Their culture is designed to empower engineers to do their best work and gets them excited about coming to work every day.

How to spot a bad engineering culture?

Certain workplace behaviors are symptoms of bad engineering culture. Although they can be easily overlooked or dismissed, they subtly undermine engineers’ creativity, innovation, and potential. Worst of all, it results in the delivery of mediocre products and services to customers. 

Here are some of the bad cultural signs you should look out for and avoid in your organization.

4 Warning Signs of a Bad Engineering Culture
  • Leader dependence. One major sign of a bad engineering culture is the dependence on leaders for decisions. When engineers are not given the freedom to make technical decisions, it dampens creativity and innovation. It means the leadership doesn’t trust engineers to make the right judgment. This policy slows down processes.
    As a Tech team lead, CTO or founder, give your team the liberty and autonomy they need to drive innovation. A good engineering culture values autonomy, and it unleashes your team’s creativity.
  • Formality in communication. This is perhaps one of the easiest signs a visitor can pick up in an organization. Interactions are very formal instead of friendly, and relationships between team members are cold instead of warm. This might look normal to everyone in the organization, but it has adverse effects on productivity. 
    The fact is, communication helps to refine ideas, improve processes and output. This, in turn, affects the quality of products and services delivered to clients.
  • Engineers and leadership dichotomy. This is another toxic engineering culture that frustrates engineers. At best, the managers or leaders tell engineers what to do and how to do it. There is little or no interaction or collaboration in decision-making. Here, engineers work more like robots, always receiving others and being told which tools to use for a given project. They have little or no freedom as to how they do their work.
    As a result, engineers can’t speak up when presented with impossible ideas to implement. This has a detrimental effect on their productivity, inhibiting them from working to their full potential. With such a culture, you can hardly find groundbreaking ideas.
  • Monotonous culture. People are diverse. There is diversity in age, gender, ethnicity, and behavior. But some software companies prefer to hire people who behave and think alike. There is no diversity in the team. 
    This stifles tolerance and acceptance of different points of view. When everyone looks and sees a problem in the same way, they tend to think of a solution in the same way. But when there is diversity in the team, everyone contributes ideas which are then synthesized to produce solutions. 

How to build a strong engineering culture

As experts in building strong engineering cultures with years of experience helping software companies hire remote developers and managing distributed teams, we have identified five steps to guide you in creating a winning engineering culture.

1. Develop a mission statement

Certain workplace behaviors are symptoms of bad engineering culture. Although they can be easily overlooked or dismissed, they subtly undermine engineers’ creativity, innovation, and potential. Worst of all, it results in the delivery of mediocre products and services to customers. 

Here are some of the bad cultural signs you should look out for and avoid in your organization.

  • Leader dependence. One major sign of a bad engineering culture is the dependence on leaders for decisions. When engineers are not given the freedom to make technical decisions, it dampens creativity and innovation. It means the leadership doesn’t trust engineers to make the right judgment. This policy slows down processes. As a Tech team lead, CTO or founder, give your team the liberty and autonomy they need to drive innovation. A good engineering culture values autonomy, and it unleashes your team’s creativity.
  • Formality in communication. This is perhaps one of the easiest signs a visitor can pick up in an organization. Interactions are very formal instead of friendly, and relationships between team members are cold instead of warm. This might look normal to everyone in the organization, but it has adverse effects on productivity. The fact is, communication helps to refine ideas, improve processes and output. This, in turn, affects the quality of products and services delivered to clients.
  • Engineers and leadership dichotomy. This is another toxic engineering culture that frustrates engineers. At best, the managers or leaders tell engineers what to do and how to do it. There is little or no interaction or collaboration in decision-making. Here, engineers work more like robots, always receiving others and being told which tools to use for a given project. They have little or no freedom as to how they do their work. As a result, engineers can’t speak up when presented with impossible ideas to implement. This has a detrimental effect on their productivity, inhibiting them from working to their full potential. With such a culture, you can hardly find groundbreaking ideas.
  • Monotonous culture. People are diverse. There is diversity in age, gender, ethnicity, and behavior. But some software companies prefer to hire people who behave and think alike. There is no diversity in the team. This stifles tolerance and acceptance of different points of view. When everyone looks and sees a problem, in the same way, they tend to think of a solution in the same way. But when there is diversity in the team, everyone contributes ideas which are then synthesized to produce solutions. 

A clear mission statement is a foundation of winning engineering culture. Your mission statement should be based on what matters to you. Don’t copy popular cultures because they work, but develop one that is unique to your company.

Dig deeper and identify what you want to achieve for your company. Is it more sales, better products, and services, or a new product for an identified market? Without clarity of mission, you have no direction and can’t identify values that will facilitate the achievement of your mission.

2. Identify important values

The next step is to identify key values by which you can achieve your goals. These values need to be embraced company-wide, not just in a single team. Is your company driven more by sales or delivering quality products? What values can help you achieve your goal?

3. Set up mechanisms

After establishing your values, the next is to set up mechanisms to support them. This could involve reviewing your processes and operations and employing the right people to fill different roles. You have to make sure you hire the best talents because one bad hire can negatively affect the culture you’re trying to build. 

Next, you have to review your organizational structure to see if it supports the values. Sometimes, you may have to change your company’s structure to accommodate your values. Also, how are your teams structured? Do you need to set up cross-functional teams to speed product deliveries?

Also, consider your workspace. How are the offices arranged? Do they encourage communication and collaboration? Can employees work remotely? Do you have systems for managing distributed teams? These are some of the mechanisms you need to drive your organization’s culture.

4. Live your values

Identifying key values and setting mechanisms won’t guarantee success unless you live these values.

Hold your values in high esteem. Understand that people look up to you as the leader. So, you have to champion these values for them to see.

Also, communicate these values to everyone. Make it a core part of your onboarding process, and remind employees as often as possible when you have the opportunity. Don’t forget to validate those who live up to the values, as such actions help in shaping culture.

How to Build a Strong Engineering Culture: Checklist

Wrapping up

There are no shortcuts to building a winning engineering culture, and it doesn’t happen automatically. It also doesn’t work by copying cultures from other companies. For example, here at Relevant, our investment in developing, testing, and refining values has resulted in strong engineering culture.

How do we know that? 

Our engineers feel challenged, engaged, and excited by what they do and stay with our company for years.

We’ve also developed a thorough recruitment process that helps companies hire the best talents and set up dedicated development teams. We specialize in providing companies with senior tech talent and product development expertise to build world-class software.

We have helped 200+ companies worldwide build high performing engineering culture and hire remote developers. More and more companies in the USA, UK, and Europe trust our recruitment process to hire developers for their teams. 

Contact us so we can help your company hire the best tech talents.

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Written by
Anna Dziuba
Delivery Manager at Relevant Software
I ensure delivery excellence and high-quality of software development services our company provides. We carefully pick each employee and stick to high standards of product development to ensure the highest quality of code.

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