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How to Inspire Mission Among Engineers

Company Culture
Impact
Sharing the vision

27 June, 2020

Agata Grzybek, ex-Uber Engineering Manager, outlines her efforts to inspire mission-driven culture among engineers on her team.

Problem

Most of the companies have an inspiring mission that underlines the company’s purpose and its positive impact on the world. If you created a company yourself, a high chance that it started with the mission. A company mission can be one of the most important factors, alongside the culture, people, and compensation, deciding on whether a candidate joins a company and once they join, whether they stay motivated and satisfied. Our role as leaders is to not only inspire the mission among our teams but also to choose the mission that matters to us the most, so we can feel motivated and inspired as well. One of the challenges I faced when leading and building engineering teams is that inspiring a mission-driven culture is not always trivial. It is natural to inspire the mission among engineers when the problem requires to solve hard technical problems, as many engineers are motivated by solving hard engineering problems. It can be more difficult to inspire the mission when the problem is not that tech-centered and does not require sophisticated algorithms or AI systems. I’d like to share what actions helped me inspire a more mission-driven culture in my teams.
 

Actions taken

  • Articulate the mission clearly and often. It is not enough to share the mission one time when the person joins, it is important to keep bringing up the mission regularly. I also like to have an open discussion about the mission with the team, and ideally, co-create and tune the mission together. This way engineers feel more connected to the mission. I also like chatting about the mission during more casual team events like lunches, or offsites.
  • Lead by example. Don't forget to share why this mission is important to you personally. Personal stories allow you to show up authentically you and make the mission more relatable to your team.
  • Try to understand the motivation of your engineers (and candidates). I ask: what motivates you to come to work? There is no bad or good answer, but the goal here is to get the most honest response. The most popular answers are to achieve financial independence, work on interesting technical problems, and make an impact.
  • Share your own motivation and how your motivation evolved. I found out that when I share my story of how my motivation evolved from making money and learning, to helping people grow and making a positive impact on the world, it can help people see that motivation is naturally evolving. I encourage everyone to open up to the possibility that their motivation is evolving as they develop personally.
  • Do not compromise the quality of tech. Even though making the positive impact on the World is important to me, I wouldn't compromise the quality of engineering, because I want my engineers to be proud of the technology they build and I want our product quality to be the best. Additionally, well-architected and written systems are more reliable, scalable, and extensible what pays off in the long term with the ability to make even more impact with larger scale and more features.
  • Always explain the why of the project. It is important to explain to your team how each project contributes to the mission. This is crucial because no engineers want to work on something that is not important. This exercise also helps me identify projects that do not matter and should be discontinued.
  • Make sure that engineers learn something from working on a project. It does not always need to be a technical skill they learn, but there needs to still be something for them to learn, as most of the people are driven by learning. They can learn communication and collaboration skills, or learn more about the domain expertise. If there is nothing for them to learn, assign the projects differently.
  • Consider bringing your engineers closer to the customers. When I worked on a consumer-facing product, I invited engineers to meetings with customers so they could relate more directly to the problem they are solving. When I worked on a platform product, I organized meetings with the consumer teams where our engineers could get to know each other better. Also, sharing the feedback from your costumers with your team goes a long way. We usually have a separate email group or Slack channel where we share customer feedback so engineers can see the real-life impact of their work, but they are not overwhelmed by excessive communication.
     

Lessons learned

  • Some of the world’s most challenging problems do not involve the most exciting tech problems, and that’s OK. It is still possible to inspire great engineers to work on them because these problems are still very hard problems. Presenting the problem to the engineers as such a hard problem and inviting them to be a part of the solution can satisfy their problem-solving needs, as a technical problem would.
  • Motivation can evolve (e.g. from building technology for the sake of technology to giving back and making a social impact). It’s worth remembering that a more meaningful job can bring more satisfaction and purpose in our lives than a big fortune. Additionally, mission-driven teams might be happier and more performant due to higher motivation and satisfaction.
  • It is important to remind ourselves that we are privileged to work in tech and we are in the position to give back to society. As leaders, we can inspire engineers and other leaders to use technology as a tool to make a positive social impact. It's crucial to talk openly about the mission with the team, especially during recent social crises, like climate change crisis, COVID-19 pandemic, or Black Lives Matter. These events clearly show us that we are all interconnected and dependent on each other. If we can improve the lives of others we improve all of our lives.

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