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Managing Developers

How to Build a Strong Engineering Culture

Written By Ryan Loftus | February 13, 2023

With a direct impact on product quality, employee engagement, and team turnover, having a strong engineering culture is essential for every technical team. But the prospect of building and maintaining an engineer culture can also feel abstract. What is an engineering culture? And how can you create organizational processes that foster a culture of innovation across a global workforce?

What Even Is Engineering Culture, Anyway?

A company culture is the set of shared values, goals, and practices that define an organization. More specifically, it’s how things get done in a workplace, and it’s defined by a combination of organizational processes and the people that make up that organization.

Every company has a unique culture that defines its business practices. However, companies that employ engineers also have an additional set of values known as an engineering culture, which can be defined at the company, department, or team level. 

Features of engineering culture include:

  • Code reviews
  • Agile development
  • Process automation
  • Technical mentorship
  • Professional development
  • Engineering excellence

Why Is Engineering Culture Important?

To succeed, an engineering team needs to have certain organizational practices not present in other disciplines. A strong engineering culture is vital for fostering these practices and values, which are likely not established by the broader company culture. 

Without a strong engineering culture, key concepts like innovation, code quality, engineering excellence, and code reviews disappear from an organization. In this way, a company’s engineering culture directly impacts the quality of the products, systems, and its profitability.

Imagine an engineering team without a cultural expectation of engineering excellence. 

In the short term, such a team would likely have cursory or non-existent code reviews, leading them to ship products and features with a poor technical foundation. At scale, this could lead to service outages, high labor costs, a poor user experience, and low customer retention. 

In the long term, an engineering team with a weak culture would likely fail to develop innovative new products. Within a few years, the company has a higher risk of falling behind competitors and fading from relevance.

Fortunately, establishing a strong engineering culture doesn’t just avoid negative business outcomes. It also provides a number of benefits, including:

  • Reduced employee turnover
  • Higher employee engagement
  • Reduced support costs
  • Reduced technical debt
  • Innovative products
  • Clean, high-quality code

How to Build an Engineering Culture

Structure for Innovation

Building an engineering culture is a pretty abstract concept. Culture is often described in terms of key values or shared beliefs. However, for an engineering culture to thrive, it also needs to have tangible structures that guide the day-to-day operations of the engineering team. There are a few organizational models out there for encouraging innovation.

The pod-centric approach

A pod-centric model is an organizational structure that establishes small, cross-functional teams that are completely dedicated to solving one problem. A small team with a narrow focus is more likely to come up with innovative solutions, particularly if focused around problem statements, not just functional areas. One example of a pod-based organization is Spotify, which developed its own organizational model for an engineering culture that balances autonomy and scalability.

The 80/20 model

Another option for team organization is the 80/20 model. Under this structure, 80% of the engineering team focuses on executing the company roadmap and addressing customer needs. The other 20% of the team, however, invests in re-architecture and prototyping new ideas. In the 80/20 model, multitasking is forbidden. Each engineer is either entirely focused on production or innovation. This structure helps teams keep up with typical production demands while making space for constant innovation.

Shift from Culture-Fit to Culture-Add

If employees are the foundation of a company’s culture, then the principles driving the hiring process will have a direct impact on that culture.

The phrase “culture fit” is widespread in hiring processes, with 82% of hiring managers citing it as a key hiring factor. Often, hiring teams that use the term are looking for candidates whose values and behaviors align with the existing culture. 

However, companies are starting to notice a number of drawbacks to culture-fit hiring, including:

  • High turnover
  • Unconscious bias
  • Underperforming DEI initiatives
  • Poor company performance
  • Lagging innovation

In contrast to culture-fit, many companies are shifting to culture-add hiring. Culture-add hiring is the concept of hiring candidates who will contribute to and evolve a company’s culture, rather than conform to an existing one.

A culture-add approach is important for engineering teams because it leaves room for the team culture to change and improve with each new perspective added to the team. In that way, an engineering team’s culture undergoes the same process of continuous improvement as the technologies they’re working on.

Prioritize Upskilling

Engineering culture is also punctuated by how well an employer supports its current workforce. One of the best ways to do that is through upskilling programs that ensure engineering teams stay up to date with the latest technologies and skills. On a basic level, upskilling involves identifying the missing skills on your team and providing learning opportunities for employees to cultivate those skills.

How to Demonstrate Your Engineering Culture to Candidates

Use Modern Interview Tech 

Developers and tech teams work at the forefront of innovation. But many companies continue to conduct technical interviews with outdated tools. 

It’s 2023, and it’s still common to force candidates to code in word processors, share screens—or even write out solutions longhand with pen and paper.

If a company wants to establish and communicate an innovative engineering culture, these approaches send the wrong signal. The tools you use to interview candidates should demonstrate a commitment to a higher level of innovation.

The key change is to adopt an integrated development environment (IDE) built specifically for technical interviews. IDEs allow candidates and interviewers to code, create and collaborate on questions in real time, while giving hiring teams the admin tools they need to make smarter hiring decisions.

Interview for Real-World Skills

The first time an employee learns about a team’s culture isn’t when they join the team. It’s actually during the hiring process. And for developers, one of the most important criteria for accepting a role is the quality and relevance of the interview questions.

In a survey of our community of developers, 32% reported that the relevance of questions was the first thing they noticed about an interview process. In another survey, 65% of developers reported that they want more interview questions that test real-world skills. And there was also noticeable interest (15%) in more collaborative question formats.

These findings shouldn’t come as a surprise. Engineers care about solving exciting, challenging, and relevant technical problems. And so, when interviewing for a role, an engineer uses the questions the hiring team asks them as a gauge for what problems they would get to solve at the company. In this way, interview questions are a key channel for communicating an engineering team’s culture. 

Algorithmic coding challenges signal to candidates a dated engineering culture. In contrast, questions that test a candidate’s real-world skills signal to candidates a strong, skills-based engineering culture focused on solving real-world problems.

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