engineering culture

It’s impossible not to have a culture in your company and when there are a group of engineers, a common engineering culture will emerge. Many CTOs who do not actively manage their culture may be unhappy with the emerging one but are unsure what their culture should look and feel like and how to create it.

Generally, the right culture can improve employee engagement and productivity, reduce turnover and give employers an advantage in the fight for talent. In addition, the right engineering culture can save a CTO a lot of time and stress and is an underused and undervalued management tool. However, implementing and cultivating a desirable company culture takes thought and effort but repays you greatly as data shows that toxic organisation culture costs the UK economy £20.2 billion per year.

Therefore it’s essential to consider what your tech culture currently looks like and where you want it to be. Deloitte believes the engineering culture is an, ‘Often overlooked secret weapon,’ and that an agile culture can deliver a competitive advantage, while a chaotic culture can act as a barrier to achieving critical goals.

So, how do you get your culture right in reality?

What is company culture?

‘The tech culture of an organisation is critical to a Chief Information Officer’s (CIO) ability to succeed.’ Deloitte.

Your company or organisational culture encompasses several areas including your company values, goals and mission, expectations, leadership style and ethics as together these factors create the behaviours and attitudes of your company and its people.

However, it’s not uncommon for departments to have their own subculture which may be influenced by the company culture but may differ due to different leaders, employees, values and behaviour. This is certainly true of engineering, where demand and change will differ from other departments and internal and external pressures will create a distinct culture. 

Who influences culture?

I have been on several culture and value committees over the past few decades. Most of these initiatives failed as often values to form a culture have been influenced and decided upon by employees – often without the involvement of top management – then posted to the wall and forgotten.

Therefore, your engineering culture must be lived and breathed by everyone at the company and those who join. Furthermore, leaders must be prepared to adapt when unexpected change hits. Tech leaders must be able to nurture their culture, put people at the heart of it and support and embrace individual differences.

How does culture help a CTO?

So, what exactly does an engineering culture look like for the CTO? Most CTOs I know don’t have enough time on their hands, and problems and challenges occur left and right and new challenges pop up every day. Then the code quality is down, developers are not writing tests, and unfinished features need to be pushed to completion. Things the CTO thought were done, emerge again and sabotage a tightly build schedule of features. And so on.

With the right engineering culture in place, there is less work for the CTO and they can focus on the more important things instead of working on the same problems over and over again. With the right culture in place, scaling is easier.

How do you build the ‘perfect’ culture?

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to create the perfect engineering culture, as it’s a work in progress and something that will be influenced by changes in management, external trends (e.g the increase of hybrid and remote working) and company changes. 

This year’s winner of one award in the Top Workplaces Culture Excellence (a global commerce enabler for established and fast-growing brands) believes culture growth is continuous, ‘Creating an exceptional workplace culture, including work-life balance, has never been a ‘one-and-done’ concept. We continue to listen to our employees and work together to build a culture that allows people to thrive both in their professional and personal lives.’

Engineering culture as a management tool

As a CTO the engineering culture is (next to 1:1s) the most potent management tool in a CTO’s tool kit. Values and behaviour that are anchored in culture make management easier. Everything that is in a company’s culture and followed by developers should not, therefore, need to be managed by the CTO. This should free up time and reduce stress. The right engineering culture also shows developers how the CTO is ‘on their side’.

In Deloitte’s Global CIO survey, 45% of CIOs said that a high-performing culture in their technology department is essential to their success. Yet only 22% said that currently, this was excellent in their company.

If the culture does not help the CTO, the CTO needs to drive the culture. They should not allow the engineering culture to emerge or be a bottom-up effort. The CTO must be clear about what their culture needs to look like to be helpful to the CTO as a management tool.

Feedback, communication and culture

Ideally, CTOs should communicate that they want to roll out or formalise an engineering culture. No one likes to be surprised and employees want – rightly so – to be informed. 

However, you need to gain insights into what your current culture is like before you start trying to change it! So, gather feedback (through a feedback survey, focus groups or team meetings) from your direct reports and across the department about the idea of changing or formalising the culture. Then you can review what is important to your people and you and makes your job easier and the department more effective.

Start culture communication early

When you hire new starters, you must communicate your culture early and transparency is key. What will suit one person may not suit another, so be sure to be clear about your organisational culture during the recruitment process. Once you have made an offer and onboarding commences, your culture will be demonstrated through your communication, actions, etc.

For example, new starters at Google are included in a buddy system to help starters integrate, settle and feel welcomed. Such a scheme highlights their culture and commitment to employees and in a competitive job market, leaders must actively consider and practice how they can attract and retain employees and make a positive cultural impact early on.  

What impact do diversity and inclusion have on tech culture?

What values and behaviour do you want to be part of your company culture? Often human values are already part of the cultural document. Nevertheless, I would start with human values and concentrate on personal interaction. 

To me, engineering is often not inclusive and open enough, so inclusiveness and openness are on the top of my list – though your list may differ. 

A recent report shows that men fill 77% of tech director roles and women fill 23%. In addition, gender-diverse boards have a £70,000 turnover premium on average and internationally diverse boards raise 453% more investment than non-internationally diverse boards. Therefore, it seems imperative that diversity and inclusively feature in your engineering culture for business success.

What values feature in your culture?

Your engineering culture needs to work for you not me and each culture will differ from business to business.

My starting engineering culture list looks like this:

  1. We are inclusive and open
  2. Always be respectful
  3. Own things and take responsibility
  4. No shortcuts
  5. High quality, craftsmanship and being proud
  6. We’re professionals

And for the management team, I add:

  1. Be transparent
  2. Care about your people

It’s good to keep the points short and the number of points low. Sure, you want much more, but the more you add the less value has each item. Later in the same document, you can have one or two paragraphs for each point to explain it in more detail and give some examples – from your company – that exemplify those values and behaviours.

Rolling out culture change

Developers often think don’t-repeat-yourself is a value beyond code. But this is not how things work in management. Employees get a lot of information every day and need to decide what is important and what isn’t. If something is important to the CTO, they need to repeat the topic over and over again, may it be security or engineering culture. 

The things and behaviour the CTO repeats developers deem important. Therefore, try and start every meeting with a culture slide. Where possible, point out behaviour you have seen that doesn’t fit the engineering culture. More importantly, point out behaviour that exemplifies engineering culture. Too often we only see negative things instead of focusing on positive behaviour.

Some managers think they need to announce a decision or change once and things will change. Then they are unhappy that nothing changes. Culture change takes time and a persistent effort over months and years to stick. When it sticks, everything works smoother. Changing your culture is not only a deliberate act but also requires continuous monitoring.

Every company changes. Startups change even faster, with new business, new technologies, new organisational structures, and new people joining. After some time, parts of the engineering culture no longer look important and other things don’t feel addressed. Engineering culture is a living thing that needs to adapt to a changing company and environment. Rinse and repeat.

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