Building a Great Engineering Culture

5 minute read

Here’s a bold statement: If you can build a team that performs at a high level, you’ll fundamentally empower your business.

OK, now an actual bold statement: My years of engineering experience may make me biased, but I firmly believe that engineering teams are the catalyst for a truly high-performing organization. Which means developing a positive culture within your engineering team is critical to any business’s success.

I lead a team of engineers on our Bankrate business at Red Ventures, where we love evaluating real, measurable impacts of culture on performance. (Nerds.) Here’s some of what we’ve learned over the years:

First of all, let’s define “building a culture.”

For some teams, it means establishing a shared set of beliefs, values, and behaviors. In my opinion, more specifically, it’s the decisions we make every day as a team. It’s the actions we support, and the actions we don’t support. It’s not something that’s pushed down from management, but rather something that happens every single day. As a team, we must collectively own our culture, and we must collectively protect our culture.

Evaluate everything, always.

If your team has certain practices and processes in place because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” – you’re doing it wrong. Remember, what got us here won’t get us there, and it’s a leader’s responsibility to look ahead. On my team, we’re constantly evaluating if there’s a better way to manage projects, if our technical practices are the best they can be, and even if our team is structured in a way that truly optimizes our impact. It’s not a sign of weakness change things up on your teams often. In fact, it’s a great way to unlock new potential.

Measure what matters.

Set up some key metrics that let you and your team know you’re moving in the right direction. For example:

  • Lead time: How long does it take your team to get things done? If you’re not operating on an optimal timeline, what’s blocking you?
  • Deployment frequency: In the past, my team would actually only deploy on a weekly basis – which means if we missed a weekly ‘deadline,’ we’d wait another full week to deploy something that was ready to go. Obviously, the business doesn’t operate that way (the business waits for no one!), so our engineering team doesn’t anymore, either.
  • Mean time to restore: Things are ALWAYS going to break in unpredictable ways, regardless of how hard we work to prevent it. What’s more important to us is how long it takes our team to recover. Look for trends that either prove you’re as nimble as you think you are, or find the deeper issues within your tech or your team that prevent you from recovering quickly.
  • Change fail rate: Introducing failures at a frequent rate impacts more than just your reputation; it affects your productivity. If you’re busy dealing with unplanned work that needs to be corrected, it means you’re not doing any new work that would move the needle forward.

Create a feedback loop.

Be approachable, and make sure everyone on your team feels comfortable asking questions. If my team doesn’t understand how to test drive a feature, they should be able to reach out to someone to get that help, as opposed to slowing all progress because they’re afraid to ask. I hold frequent 1:1s with my team to get to know them personally and to find out what obstacles they’re facing on a regular basis. It’s my job as a leader to get those things out of the way, so they can focus on doing great work.

Hold “blameless post-mortems.”

If something breaks or doesn’t meet your standards, call a mandatory meeting to figure out what happened together. This is never about calling one individual out for failure. In every case, you’ll find there was a miscommunication or missing information, there was a process missing, there was pressure coming from a stakeholder which wasn’t mitigated. We’re looking for where our system failed and where we need to adapt as a team, not blaming a particular engineer.

Inside look: Bankrate engineering

Ownership and Accountability.

We all became engineers because we want to build things, right? More than that, we want to make a real impact on our organization. So make sure your team is working for a purpose and is doing meaningful work. Give them real freedom to make their own decisions and influence important projects. I LOVE it when my engineering team challenges me, because it lets me know they’re invested. Will I challenge back? Absolutely. And that healthy debate results in better, more thoughtful decisions on our team.

Make work visible.

Everyone always LOOKS busy… but what are they actually working on? For stakeholders, it’s incredibly important to know what progress looks like on a regular basis, so make sure you’ve got some communication processes in place. On my team, we hold Sprint Reviews every two weeks. That way, everyone has an opportunity to provide feedback before we’re too far into a project. We always want to be responsive and adaptive to the business needs.

Remove unnecessary checks and balances.

For us, there’s absolutely no correlation between how many Directors and VPs check a project and the quality of work. In reality, the people closest to the work are always the most capable of making important decisions about it. As leaders, we should empower them to own their projects and be accountable for the quality of their work.

Clear a path.

Leadership is not about command and control. It’s about communicating a vision, removing obstacles, and giving your team the time they need to learn and grow. For engineers especially, it’s critical for them to be engaged with things like Hackathons, conferences, and even book clubs. We’re very intentional about providing external and internal stimuli, which helps us maintain a fresh perspective and a growth mindset.

It’s a journey.

Building a culture is not a destination. It’s a process which takes time, energy, and investment from the whole team. As a leader, it’s up to you to keep these things in the back of your mind and to set expectations. Then give your team the freedom they need to do their best work.

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About the Author:

April Gibson-Fulton | Director, Engineering

April Gibson-Fulton is Director of Engineering for the Bankrate mortgage tech team at RV Florida. She has 19 years of experience working with cross-functional, collaborative teams to deliver high-quality software solutions that enable business growth. Before that, she played basketball in college and became a complete sports fanatic. (Is it time for college football yet?!)

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