Swizec Teller - a geek with a hatswizec.com

Senior Mindset Book

Get promoted, earn a bigger salary, work for top companies

Senior Engineer Mindset cover
Learn more

    Keeping a high engineering culture, tips from the field

    You are what you do. Culture beats everything.

    There's an old saying in startup circles:

    First-time founders focus on product. Second-time founders focus on distribution. Experienced founders focus on culture.

    That's because culture builds products, guides engineering quality, and determines long-term outcomes. A skilled group of motivated folk can keep any pile of crap going for 18 months. It takes culture to survive long-term.

    After dealing with yet another "make sure function was called" test in our codebase I asked my manager in exasperation: How do you keep a high quality engineering culture?

    His answer: It's a lot of gardening and thankless work. You nudge in the right directions, lead by example, and hope for the best. If you do it right, nobody will know it was you.

    He's right. But that sounds exhausting ๐Ÿคจ So I asked you, the readers, for what you've seen work and not work in the past. 15 readers shared their thoughts. Twitter also had lots of ideas. Below are high level themes that emerged.

    What is high quality engineering?

    A common theme was people saying that first you need to define what high quality engineering means to you. Do you care about shipping fast? Or is it stability?

    This depends on what you're building. Software for a billion dollar rocket needs to meet a different quality bar than your experimental feature that 10 people will see.

    In high school we had a guest lecture from a person working on airbag software (I went to a CS-focused high school). That environment bans console.log because a forgotten log could mess up the microsecond timing precision required during a crash. ๐Ÿ˜ฌ

    For us SaaS/web folk, scale drives quality requirements. A one-in-a-million bug hits different with 10 daily active users than it does when Shopify ran 19,000,000 SQL queries per second during Black Friday.

    And remember: if your billion dollar rocket is meant to explode after 10 minutes, don't worry about memory leaks.

    Leadership and incentives

    The next common theme was that culture flows from leadership. This is true!

    Leaders get what they incentivize. This can be subtle. Saying "I like that" to some suggestions and staying quiet for others is enough. People are quick to pick up on social cues.

    Do this right and the culture becomes self reinforcing. You get what you incentivize when you're not even in the room. This is both intuitively true and supported by experiments showing cultural acquisition of behavior in monkeys. This is likely the underlying research for that "group of monkeys in a room with bananas up a ladder and a water hose" story you may have seen floating around the internet.

    Leadership, incentives, and the culture they create always win in the end. You can't fight your environment forever.

    Hire good and step back

    The final big theme was to focus on hiring. Hire people who give a shit and let them work.

    Don't shoot down ideas. Don't bog people down with needless meetings. Don't hit them over the head with a 1000 page rulebook. Don't nitpick and bullshit. Let people contribute early in the design process. Actually listen to those contributions.

    Good engineers want to do good work. Those who don't have had it beaten out of them. Avoid the beatings and you'll be fine.

    Tactical suggestions

    Here's what people have seen work in the past. My favorite kind of advice โ€“ battle tested. Many of these match my experience, others I'll have to try.

    1. Code review when used as a gut check and learning opportunity
    2. Linters and formatters to enforce rules that everyone agreed on. Cuts down on nitpicking and useless debates.
    3. Approve with feedback. Gives engineers the choice whether they want to implement what you suggest.
    4. Internal talks create an opportunity for people to learn from each other. You have to actively encourage low-fi easy-going talks or people get spooked and overthink this. Finding folks who want to share is usually the hard part.
    5. Time to hang and shoot the shit builds camaraderie and team cohesion. Many engineers think this is bullshit and a waste of time but lots of research shows it matters.
    6. Pull request templates nudge everyone to double-check their code's ready. Similar to how checklists save lives
    7. Put code quality on the product roadmap. My favorite PM says things like "Okay this experiment worked, I'm adding a ticket to our next sprint to clean up the feature flag" ๐Ÿ˜
    8. Let Juniors Speak First builds a culture of sharing ideas
    9. Apprenticeship. Pair newbies with experienced pros (that match your desired culture) and watch them learn by osmosis.
    10. Blameless post-mortems. There's a whole TV series about how a culture of blame leads to big problems. It's called Chernobyl.

    I'll leave you with this great summary:

    Or as a coworker once said: "You know Swiz, culture is just what we all do. It's not something external for others to fix."


    PS: doing this topic right could be a whole book ๐Ÿ˜…

    Published on December 8th, 2023 in Leadership, Mindset, Software Engineering

    Did you enjoy this article?

    Continue reading about Keeping a high engineering culture, tips from the field

    Semantically similar articles hand-picked by GPT-4

    Senior Mindset Book

    Get promoted, earn a bigger salary, work for top companies

    Learn more

    Have a burning question that you think I can answer? Hit me up on twitter and I'll do my best.

    Who am I and who do I help? I'm Swizec Teller and I turn coders into engineers with "Raw and honest from the heart!" writing. No bullshit. Real insights into the career and skills of a modern software engineer.

    Want to become a true senior engineer? Take ownership, have autonomy, and be a force multiplier on your team. The Senior Engineer Mindset ebook can help ๐Ÿ‘‰ swizec.com/senior-mindset. These are the shifts in mindset that unlocked my career.

    Curious about Serverless and the modern backend? Check out Serverless Handbook, for frontend engineers ๐Ÿ‘‰ ServerlessHandbook.dev

    Want to Stop copy pasting D3 examples and create data visualizations of your own? Learn how to build scalable dataviz React components your whole team can understand with React for Data Visualization

    Want to get my best emails on JavaScript, React, Serverless, Fullstack Web, or Indie Hacking? Check out swizec.com/collections

    Did someone amazing share this letter with you? Wonderful! You can sign up for my weekly letters for software engineers on their path to greatness, here: swizec.com/blog

    Want to brush up on your modern JavaScript syntax? Check out my interactive cheatsheet: es6cheatsheet.com

    By the way, just in case no one has told you it yet today: I love and appreciate you for who you are โค๏ธ

    Created by Swizec with โค๏ธ