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How to build a winning engineering culture

The culture of an engineering team is the DNA that defines the principles a group of engineers will use to make decisions about technology, strategy, and planning. Wherever you work, you want to contribute to the evolution of the engineering culture to build scalable, cross-functional, and successful teams. This article will help you find out how to achieve that.

Engineering culture is the collective principles and practices that shape how engineering teams operate and collaborate within themselves and with other business units. By defining its engineering culture principles and practices, any organization sets clear expectations within its workforce and builds the team's infrastructure to succeed.

  • The engineering culture should focus on solid principles that allow the team to nourish itself with external stimuli and ideas to continuously evolve and improve the culture.

  • Also, it must be adaptable to different contexts, be technology agnostic, and be designed to build a circle of excellence. That circle is a group of individuals with different perspectives that equally chime in and push each other toward engineering excellence.

  • What matters is creating a culture of innovation that doesn't celebrate any ego or vision but serves the organization's end users and customers. 

  • The engineering team should work with precision, being aware that the one-size-fits-all approach does not apply to today's technology landscape, and ensuring that each decision is intentional and crafted to fit the specific needs of each project.

The organization's engineering culture must be an open, reliable framework that supports the team, builds trust, and favors debates without compromising timelines and deliverables.

Pitfalls

When the engineering culture fails to adapt to the organization's needs, it creates barriers for the engineering team to quickly inspect and adapt solutions to meet the user's needs. These barriers can take the form of lengthy processes (such as 10+ page decision briefs), which hamper the team's ability to work within short iterations.

When the principles and practices of the engineering culture impede the team's progress, it can lead to resistance to changes and innovation, as well as a lack of communication and transparency within the organization. Long and frustrating processes often create this resistance to change and innovation. At the same time, the lack of communication and transparency is due to the team's concerns about cumbersome bureaucracy and red tape when trying to raise an issue and change a process.

Top-down decision-making processes erode trust and limit team initiatives. Empowering the team is key for successful organizations, but this approach requires high-level guidance about the decision-making process.

Foundations

A thriving engineering culture that fosters a successful team is not an intangible concept but rather a practical approach that can be applied on a daily basis in the workplace.

The five essential components of a successful engineering culture are actionable tenets—mechanisms to manage and mitigate imperfection, working backward from customer needs, rigorous metrics, and engineering excellence.

Tenets

The engineering culture of a team can be effectively described through a set of principles and core values known as tenets. These tenets serve as a guiding framework, directing the team's efforts toward delivering value to the customer and embodying the team's purpose and mission. Tenets are principles and core values the team uses to fulfill the team's mission.

Tenets should start from the customer and work backward, ensuring that at least one principle directly focuses on delivering value to the customer. This approach aligns the team's efforts with customer needs and emphasizes customer obsession concentrating the team's efforts on what truly matters to win in the competitive technology landscape.

Memorable tenets are essential for effective teaching and guiding team behavior. They challenge the reader and are concise, ensuring they remain at the forefront of the team's collective mindset. Good tenets should excite people about the team's work and provide insight into the team's unique identity.

Tenets play a crucial role in helping individuals make difficult choices and trade-offs, guiding them to prioritize one aspect over another. Tenets drive rather than prescribe detailed actions by taking a stand on important issues.

Each tenet should focus on a single essential idea, ensuring clarity, memorability, and actionability. This simplicity makes the tenets more effective in guiding the team's behavior and decision-making processes.

Imperfection

Imperfection is an inherent part of the human experience and often shapes our understanding of progress, innovation, and success.

For example, imagine the time that a software engineer dedicates to meticulously crafting a complex algorithm with the goal of flawless execution without running the program (or writing tests). In the best-case scenario, unexpected errors will emerge when the program runs, revealing the code's imperfection.

The resulting imperfection is not a sign of failure but rather an opportunity for growth and learning.

Imperfection, in its essence, is a reflection of the human condition. It reminds us of our capacity to evolve, adapt, and improve. Consider the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, renowned for its imperfection. Despite its unintended tilt, the tower has become a symbol of architectural ingenuity and human resilience. Its imperfection has not diminished its cultural significance; instead, it has transformed it into a timeless emblem of human creativity and determination.

In technology and engineering, imperfection underscores the importance of meticulous planning and attention to detail. A project plan, no matter how comprehensive, is inherently imperfect without robust safety guards. Just as the Leaning Tower of Pisa required corrective measures to ensure its stability, a project plan without safety mechanisms will never be reliable. It is analogous to constructing a bridge without factoring in potential stress points or environmental impacts.

Embracing imperfection as a catalyst for growth and learning is essential for building a culture of engineering excellence.

What matters is not to confuse imperfection with approximation.

Applying a random buffer to a project plan means that you are just protecting yourself from failure without the required deep dive. Accepting an engineering technical brief without estimations implies that you are not creating accountability in your team.

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Working Backward

Working backward is a strategic approach that involves beginning with the end goal or a desired outcome and then systematically planning the steps necessary to achieve that goal. The goal is not merely a deadline but the definition of a strategic moment when a team believes that a deliverable will be more impactful on the market.

Instead of following a traditional linear approach, working backward requires envisioning the final outcome first and then identifying the specific actions, requirements, and components needed to reach that outcome. Working backward necessitates a clear and detailed definition of the desired end state of a feature that delights customers, or users of a system. On the other hand, the end state of the system is not perfect because the team will likely apply simplifications to the original design to reach the desired customer-centric business goal.

Working backward involves iterative planning and refinement as the team gains new insights and solves more challenges. This allows for continuous alignment with the end goal throughout the development process, but should not imply a shift in the deadline without a deep understanding of the unforeseen problem that the team encountered.

Metrics

Metrics play a crucial role in measuring a team’s success. However, it is important to note that anything that cannot be measured is not delivering customer value. This is the reason why metrics can be applied to various aspects such as project management, customer satisfaction, and systems efficiency and reliability.

By utilizing metrics, teams can ensure they deliver value to their customers and continuously improve their processes.

Metrics are an ever-present part of a team's life, and with a curious mindset, a team should be able to discover the ones relevant to their business easily. However, it's important to note that metrics can be biased and require diligence when a team defines, verifies, and effectively applies them. Metrics must be observable and automatically detectable to ensure their accuracy and reliability. 

Technical Debt

Technical debt refers to the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy or quick solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer. It represents the eventual consequences of shortcuts taken during the software development process, such as using temporary fixes, neglecting refactoring, or prioritizing speed over quality.

Similar to financial debt, technical debt accumulates interest over time and can impede the efficiency and stability of a software system if not addressed.

A team must manage technical debt as a feature backlog and rely on engineering opinions about when it's the time to address it. Engineers must be able to accept challenging questions from other stakeholders to validate their recommendations.

A winning culture is a culture that appreciates internally raised challenges because they help the team to make better decisions to delight users and customers.

Conclusions

Creating a winning culture is a challenge. Although it's possible to apply the practices and models discussed in this article, each organization has a different history. Therefore, this model needs some adaptation.

It's important to listen to the organization's needs and team members' perspectives and look at historical data. Every organization will resist changes; a leader should find a way to make the team realize the need for a change before rolling it out.

Accept imperfection and failure before fostering a winning culture.


With over 20 years of experience in software engineering and leadership, Giorgio is passionate about creating and delivering innovative, scalable, and accessible web, mobile, and embedded systems solutions.  As a seasoned engineering leader, Giorgio managed and mentored global and cross-functional teams in various domains, including fintech, payments, security, education, retail consumer industries, and browser development. 

Giorgio is also an international speaker, book author, and conference organizer who enjoys sharing knowledge and insights with the community. Giorgio is driven by a vision of a web that is safe, private, and equally accessible to everyone.

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