The mark of a healthy engineering culture

The primary benefit of healthy engineering culture is predictability—the ability to ship high-quality software on time, reliably and repeatedly. It flows from the bottom up.

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Nataliya Sdobnikova

When you hear leaders talk about the power of great cultures, you often hear talk of communication, integrity, and openness, and these are all important dimensions. Of course, there are as many definitions of healthy cultures as there are opinions about Kubernetes.

Even though we can’t define them precisely, we all want great cultures. 

So when we hire CTOs, we put all the important things we want into the job post. Things like “technically skilled, hires well, ships software.” You rarely find anything about culture in the job post, and that’s disappointing.

Because it turns out that if you don’t have a great culture, you can’t ship software on time with high quality. At least not predictably. And predictable engineering output is essential to a healthy business. Predictability is, surprisingly, something that comes from a great culture. 

As my colleague Preeti Somal, EVP R&D Platform at HashiCorp, put it:

Engineering culture is really important. Our culture is based on our principles and our Tao of HashiCorp; these written touchstones guide our vision, roadmap, and product design.

A big part of our culture revolves around asynchronous communication and decision-making largely because we were founded as a remote-oriented, open-source company. The truth is that written communication is really what enables us to be inclusive, open, and transparent. 

And, in terms of predictability, writing reduces surprises; we’re all on the same page.”

Healthy cultures build great products, predictably

You’re smart and your team is great. You ship software, and sometimes you even ship it on time and with high quality. But, if you’re like a lot of companies, shipping high-quality software on time, reliably and repeatedly, eludes you. 

We all want to ship great products, and do it as quickly as possible. In fact, in today’s ultrafast and ultracompetitive world, that’s really the bar. 

But shipping great products requires a bunch of things to come together like the Masquerade scene in Phantom of the Opera. All of those people on stage and backstage have to work together perfectly, even when they can’t see or hear each other. They just have to know their parts, cold, without talking to each other. On a stage, everybody knows their cues, follows their blocking, and says their lines. At a company, everybody has to be aligned on what’s important, what’s not, and what their part is in order to produce great products.

My colleague Chad Verbowski, SVP of Engineering at Confluent, put it this way:

I like to set direction from above. To start to map out how we do it, where we’re going, and why. And then offer a lot of freedom around how people get there, and push those decisions about the designs and things to the teams executing on the vision.

On the other hand, what if the teams aren’t aligned? 

Customers willI get three features that are great for one use case, and three other features that are great for another use case. And, at the end of the day, they’re going to have a product that satisfies seven out of 10 things for everyone. But 10 out of 10 things for nobody. And the quality will be inconsistent too. 

The result is disappointed and betrayed customers, a flailing sales force, and high churn. 

It’s like the junior high school version of Phantom where people keep bumping into each other and missing their lines.

Alignment creates predictable outcomes

Predictability at the macro level of a company comes from predictability and alignment at the micro level of every employee every day. 

Here’s the rub for leaders: Exactly the thing you want so much—alignment and predictability at the leaf nodes—is exactly the thing you can’t demand. 

You see, predictability doesn’t flow from the top down. It flows from the bottom up.

Predictability flows from the leaf nodes of the organization where the engineers sit in front of their monitors thinking, Do I put the assert in? Or do I just rush it out? Do I sit here and write some massive test because database correctness is so important? Or are we processing web click logs from a website, so if I lose one in a billion, no one’s going to care or notice?

If all the leaves of the tree do their job wonderfully, all the micro decisions get made right. It’s too bad that top-down command and control leaders can kill all this so quickly.

Predictability and magic

As CTO, I create culture. My direct reports create healthy teams. And we all create aligned values and decision processes. 

Out of that come informed, empowered, and engaged employees who literally do magic. 

Chad Verbowski believes it’s the flexibility in the system that creates the magic:

My teams are accountable for outcomes, but not necessarily committing up front on how they’ll get there. And that seems to maximize flexibility for how we can promote a culture of innovation all the way to the most junior engineer. And it, ultimately, leads to the predictability of outcomes that we’re all seeking.

If every employee knows how to make all the many decisions they make every day, they’re predictable. And so the songs play, everybody does their dance right, and the customers are delighted.

Culture and values flow down in an organization, and high-quality products delivered predictably come back up. 

Culture and the competitive edge

Even as CTO, I am only one person. And of course my team is expected to create high-quality software quickly and predictably too. As the engineering org at MongoDB is closing in on 1,000 engineers, it’s impossible for me personally to gauge the velocity, or heck, even the quality, at an individual project level. Top-down inspection and control just doesn’t work at this scale. No matter how much I wish it did. 

Instead, I have to depend on our culture, our values, our team health, and the behavior of every engineer to do the right thing. If we have a culture where the way people behave with each other, how they make decisions, and what they expect from themselves and each other is clear, I know that we’ll hit the velocity and quality we need to thrive as an organization.

If you have those things, then things move ahead at a good pace. Without them, things still get done, but everything is hard and moves at a crawl. And that crawl is how orgs and companies lose their competitive edge and ultimately die.

Have the leaders at your company done their job of building a great culture? Do employees get clear decisions and value frameworks, and do they respond by producing high-quality products predictably? If so, then your CTO has done their job.

Mark Porter is the chief technical officer (CTO) of MongoDB, where he is responsible for crafting the long-term technology roadmap and vision for the company. He has been professionally coding since he was 16 years old and founded and ran his own electronics services integration company. Mark holds a BS in Engineering and Applied Science from Caltech.

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