Building A Meaningful Software Culture

October 4, 2019 Aaron Bach

Sixteen months ago, the software department at FWI was struggling. Our thinking had gotten stale. Toxic personalities were casting a dark cloud across the group. Priorities were changing (and changing back) at a rapid pace. Tension was on the rise. Although the work was challenging enough to keep good developers engaged, no one in their right mind would have categorized us as "happy."

Sixteen months later, we're in a very different place. There's a tremendous energy building within our group; we're more excited about our work than ever before; people are collaborating with passion, trust and camaraderie; there's honest-to-goodness laughter here. It's a completely different landscape.

I've spent a good bit of time trying to understand what happened. Why did we ever get off track? How did we get back on track? How do we cultivate this current atmosphere so it continues to grow?

There isn't a rote formula to getting that happy dev environment, but after all this time, I think there are some common-sense principles that apply to every such group.

You set the tone for what your culture is.

It's true that a team is integral in the building of its culture. However, leaders are the definers; as such, it is their responsibility to define it, pronounce it and protect it.

Sixteen months ago, our culture valued tenure over everything else. If a 20-year veteran had a bad attitude, we put up with it because they were senior members of the group. We tolerated poison because we couldn't bear the thought of losing the talent.

Over time, however, enough incidents piled up that we couldn't ignore it any longer:

  • One of our junior developers left the company and indicated this attitude (and the personalities it protected) was key to their departure.
  • Some of our newer developers were highly stressed by those personalities and intimated that if things continued as they were, they would move on, too.

We had to put a stop to this. So, we ended our relationship with those personalities. Immediately thereafter, I sent a communication to our department and stated that going forward, the protection and cultivation of our culture was my #1 priority.

Sounds great, right? Believe me, there were ramifications. Employees who had suffered under the old model didn't believe me right away. What's more, we stumbled a bit in our product development agility because those toxic, yet talented personalities were gone. We had a rough few months as we navigated new waters.

Sixteen months later, I can tell you that the temporary drop in productivity in the pursuit of our people's trust was a small price to pay for our culture.

Don't let anything–anything–threaten or damage your people. Don't let "real business matters" distract you from protecting their environment. Make it a priority, be diligent and I promise you: your culture will improve.

Get to know your employees–and their employees–personally.

Having worked at FWI for eight years, I have many relationships with coworkers who I've known for all (or a large portion) of that time. However, as I started to run a group of 50 people spread across the country, I relaxed into the idea that I was a VP, I had things to do, and it wouldn't be unreasonable for me to not have the same type of relationship with anyone below my direct employees.

Wrong. Dead wrong. Thank goodness I didn't hold onto that idea for long.

Too many leaders settle for one of two (ultimately incorrect) leadership styles:

  1. They believe that through oversight, declaration and authority, they will command respect as the leader.
  2. They believe in "respecting" their employees by leaving them to their own devices and "not bothering" them.

These don't work. #1 is an old-world misconception that creates fear, resentment and the rise of the toxic personalities that will poison your culture. #2 seems respectful, but it presents you as an absentee, out-of-the-picture leader who doesn't care.

Through diligence, you can earn respect by serving the people who report to you. One powerful way to do that is to learn about as many of those people as possible. What are they excited about in life? Where would they like to travel to? What's threatening their happiness? These questions (and the conversations they elicit) build relationships I guarantee those relationships will bear fruit in the form of a powerful, cared-for culture.

In sixteen months, I've gotten to know that:

  • Don, our Senior QA Automation Engineer, has multiple BBQ smokers and makes homemade truffles.
  • Courtney, one of our Senior Software Developers, has forgotten more about horses than I will ever know and has a profound collection of random facts.
  • Clyde, one of our Principal Software Developers (and the nicest person you will ever meet), is a formidable force in the World Series of Poker.
  • Jason, a wizard Software Architect, actually played soccer with Eric Wynalda (an icon from the late-90s U.S. Men's National Team).
  • Adam, one of this summer's interns, is a star with card tricks (I'm still * struggling to figure out the most recent one).

Every one of these relationships matters to me. I pursue them because I legitimately care about this "family" of mine.

Don't let busyness, perceived authority or other distractions take you away from caring about the people in your department. A kind word, a generous question and time spent will mean everything to them. And to you.

People want opportunities to grow.

In that sixteen-month period, we made two moves that, in retrospect, ended up representing something bigger:

  1. We developed a comprehensive career trajectory map. With it, every employee understands the objective skills and attributes they must attain to progress their career.
  2. Through collaboration with our architects and engineers, we elected to build the newest iteration of our platform with modern cloud technologies (and not the older stack that had previously defined the platform).

These are more than simple, tactical adjustments; they embedded some core, unshakable values in our culture. #1 reinforced to our team that we, their leadership, care about their professional growth and will provide a pathway to future career advancement. #2 reinforced that we would always be willing to give opportunities to work on cutting-edge projects.

Make growth (technological and professional) central to your culture. Talk about it. Reiterate that you care about it. Your team will notice.

"Bro-menities" don't cut it.

This last one should be obvious: no amount of kegs, foosball or free food will build the culture you're looking for (especially if you put those amenities on a pedestal). Don't get me wrong: add-ons to your culture are fine. The moment they become integral to your pitch, however, is the moment you've let them get out of control. This generation isn't bamboozled by such things.

~

Sixteen months has taught me a lot of "obvious" lessons. It's also taught me that it takes diligence to implement those lessons. This isn't easy work and it's often thankless. There have been many days where I stew over whether I'm doing enough to preserve our culture.

Greater than the struggle, however, is the joy at seeing it all come together. It's hard to contain. It spills over into every interaction (and in so doing, enhances the very culture that produced it). It makes me happy just thinking about it.

Be diligent, leaders. Take your culture seriously. Do the hard work to build it, maintain it, nurture it, proactively seek out its faults, and move forward. Your team is counting on you.

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