Create your engineering culture with your first engineers

David Zhang

VP Engineering at mos.com



As a new CTO, there were many things that I was unaware of, one of those things being engineering culture. The root of this problem stemmed from my lack of experience working with an engineering team. Looking back at it, it turned out to be a good thing because it forced me to genuinely take inputs from all team members as it also posed as an advantage giving me and my team a clean slate from which to start from. We needed to consider how we worked together in terms of process and how we would define our culture. Knowing it was my first time doing something like this, I saw myself in a unique position to seize a great opportunity and to shape a culture.

Actions taken

I was honest with my team about my experience and, therefore, welcomed their opinions and feedback. I put my engineers in a spot where they felt that they could bring more to the company than just their technical skills. And most importantly, telling them that we'll iterate on how we work, the same way we iterate on the product. Nothing is set in stone. Do we believe that something can improve the way we work together? Let's try it, test it, iterate on it. For example, as we were looking for a way to work together efficiently and in an organized manner, we sat down altogether and an engineer proposed to begin using the agile methodology and Jira telling us it worked well in his previous company. Everybody agreed, and he happily took the lead role on implementing the system. Though after a few months, it was pretty clear that Jira and the full agile methodology were too heavy for us, at the early stage of the company. We took what was working, removed everything that was painful to do. We ended up doing weekly sprints with Trello and Google slides. Throughout the whole process, we worked together to define what was best for the whole team. It was a common effort.

In the end, the engineering culture fundamentally looks like you. Though I do believe it's important that processes, team traditions, etc. come from your team. It creates this sense of ownership. They built the working environment as much as you did, and they'll be proud of it, happy to work in it. Another example includes the frustration from an engineer who wanted to take on more leader tasks but couldn't find the time. She settled upon the idea that one day per month be dedicated to doing anything that you wanted. In principle, it sounded good, so we developed what we now call Creative Day. The day was modified from doing anything you wanted to do, to doing anything you wanted to do within three categories.

"The engineering culture fundamentally looks like you."

"They built the working environment as much as you did, and they'll be proud of it, happy to work in it."

The three categories for Creative Day are:

  1. You can work on something for the product. This is usually something that is not a priority but on Creative Day you have the time to do it. For example, the person who is in charge of the website might want to create a cool animation for the holidays. For Independence Day, there would be bursting fireworks, Halloween there would be bats flying on the screen, or Thanksgiving you would see turkeys falling down. A little extra something to give the website a bit more personality.
  2. You can learn a new skill. This could mean you're a backend engineer that wants to learn a new language, or you're in marketing and you want to learn to code. We had an engineer on our team who built a cloud in the office that was linked to our backend. Anytime somebody printed in the world the cloud would thunder and change to red. If we had a new purchase on the website it would be green thunder. The changing colors of the cloud were a conversation starter. Curiosity got the best of people who would ask and then have it explained to them.
  3. You can do anything related to team happiness. As an example, our team built a photo booth. They bought wood, built the booth, put in lights, and a developer even tweaked a tablet app so that it was placed inside the booth where it would take photos and also print them. The project was a change from the routine, it was really great to have around, and the team was really happy about having it in the office and around for parties.

Lessons learned

  • I think every member of the team was humble enough that they were open to do new things.
  • The team and I were on the same page, and so it was easy to build a culture. We had fun and it worked well with very few issues.
  • 80% of what we would call our engineering culture and process came from the team. The processes created new traditions. It makes them feel like they are a part of the bigger picture and that they own a piece of it.
  • Hire people based on criteria of the culture you want to build or grow. For me, the three main cultural points or traits are humility, hard work, and curiosity. Now that I know those things are important, I look for and hire people that will fit into the culture that we have already put in place.

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David Zhang

VP Engineering at mos.com

Culture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementLeadership Roles

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