How To Find a Great Engineering Culture

November 19, 2013

Earlier this year I decided to return to startups after five amazing years at LinkedIn. Finding a company with an engineering-driven culture was one of my highest priorities. My challenge was developing a framework to determine if a prospective employer had what I was looking for.

Over the years I have observed that successful company cultures are defined by the function that drives them. For example, engineering drives Google’s culture because organizing and finding data is at the heart of their success. The same can be said of Intel during their glory days.

Service drives the culture at Zappos because that’s what is required to differentiate a company that sells commodity products. Yahoo is all about content, so it’s not surprising that business development drives its culture. Sales drives the culture of most enterprise software companies because they live and die based on the big deal.

How Do You Know if a Company is Engineering-Driven?

Most every company in the valley claims to be engineering-driven, but few in reality are.  Great engineering cultures are rarely easy to spot from the outside. To find an engineering-driven company you first need to look for a business that differentiates itself based on technology. Several attributes distinguish companies that do so:

  • Engineering is the largest department in the company
  • Their products are built to solve hard problems which demand sophisticated software, data, and analytics
  • Their clients are often engineers who love and respect their products

Engineering-driven companies must have deeply experienced engineering cultures if they hope to attract and retain the talent required to achieve their goals.

Three Characteristics of Engineering-Driven Cultures

I have observed three common characteristics among the best engineering cultures:

  • Decisions are made using objective criteria. Companies adhering to this principle use metrics and models to drive their decisions. They are transparent with regards to how decisions are made. Those who do the work most often make the decisions. They encourage debate prior to making decisions but require that everyone commit to the final choice whether they agree or not.
  • Teams are organized to maximize performance, not according to politics. The team owns the code, not individuals. Outstanding performance is rewarded disproportionately and recognized publicly. Hierarchy is avoided and authority is granted according to expertise rather than title. Collaboration and teamwork are encouraged.
  • Automation is highly valued. Manual processes are replaced with software wherever possible. Every possible process is optimized for iterating as fast as is reasonably safe. The principal of “proportional investment” applies and drives teams’ allocation of time and resources. In other words, when someone is forced to fix something unexpectedly, an equal amount of time is invested to fix it permanently.

Engineering Must be Embraced from Top to Bottom

The CEO and leadership team must want their company to be engineering-driven if they hope to build an engineering-driven culture.  They have to empower the engineering team to lead the culture for the entire company and constantly reinforce this behavior without equivocation.

Cultural leadership does not mean tyrannical rule.  Engineering needs to ensure the other functions in their company feel empowered to contribute equally.  All decisions should be held to the same data-driven standard for decision-making, relying on experimentation wherever possible rather than opinions.

Wealthfront is Built on Technology and Driven by Engineering

You might be surprised to learn Wealthfront is engineering-driven given its focus on investment management. I certainly was. However when you look inside we exhibit all the characteristics of an engineering-driven company, which has led to a strong engineering culture.

Unlike anyone in the financial services industry, engineers represent more than half our employees. Rigorously researched, peer reviewed data-driven algorithms built by engineers drive our investment models, not discretionary forecasts. We are building our service first and foremost to delight engineers.

We display metrics on our walls, so everyone understands what data drives our business. Our team is flat and self-organizes into ad hoc project teams, rather than traditional silos. We are dedicated to automating as much as possible, including client-facing features and our software development methodology. One example is our ongoing investments in continuous deployment and automated test infrastructure, from server to mobile.  Our goal is to eliminate the infuriating manual processes that plague traditional financial service companies and help drive up costs and fees to clients.

Claiming to be Engineering-Driven Is Not Enough

Talented engineers want to work in a company with a great engineering culture. No wonder everyone who wants to recruit engineers loves to crow about how engineering-driven they are. To make the most educated career decisions, you need to use objective criteria to evaluate how well a prospective employer’s culture fits your objectives. Doing so certainly worked for me.