Hackathons, lunch & learns and more: How 4 Austin companies fuel dev team innovation

by Kelly O'Halloran
April 12, 2018

In any field, employees can feel stagnant and complacent in their positions after they’ve settled into the job. It’s no different in software engineering, despite the industry ever evolving.

Fortunately, companies can take measures to combat stasis with ongoing learning and growth opportunities. Here’s what four dev teams do to keep their colleagues sharp, motivated and up-to-snuff on the newest trends.

 

spredfast
photo via spredfast

With more than 500 employees globally, Spredfast might not be seen as a startup by those on the outside. But internally, the company’s dev teams operate like autonomous startups, deploying code as often as possible to build applications for the social media space. To fuel innovation and bolster individual and team growth, Spredfast hosts a handful of events throughout the year. Brian Dainton, Spredfast’s SVP of engineering, filled us in.

We expose our engineers to a diverse, tenured team of professionals and give everyone the ability to work with top tech.”

What processes does Spredfast have to support professional growth for its engineers?

We have a generous conference attendance policy so engineers can choose unique development opportunities specific to their professional goals. Then, engineers get to present and share their learnings to the broader team when they return so everyone can benefit.  

Additionally, we hold monthly guild meetings, where engineers of a similar discipline can learn from each other. We also host an annual hack week, where we dedicate a full week to internal creativity and innovation that focuses on product, process and people. Teams of Spredfasters self-organize into groups to creatively tackle challenging ideas.

Lastly, we have our own in-house public speaking training group known as “Spredtoasters," made up of individuals from all departments who come together to strengthen their public speaking skills.

 

Outside of those formal events, what is the most exciting professional growth opportunity at Spredfast?

The most exciting aspect is in the technologies and people we work with daily. We expose our engineers to a diverse, tenured team of professionals and give everyone the ability to work with top tech in a highly dynamic market (social). Some of the tools we use include React, Scala, Kubernetes, Kafka, microservices and more.

 

civitas learning
engineers of civitas learning. photo provided by civitas learning.

The engineers at Civitas Learning are developing data analytics applications that provide intel and next steps for students, faculty, advisers and administrators to increase educational outcomes in higher ed. Jason Pattinian, director of engineering, highlighted how he and his leadership team ensure their engineers are progressing.

Whether junior or senior, everyone has a voice and everyone has the opportunity and the space to learn.” 

What processes does Civitas have in place to support professional growth for its engineers?

We provide several avenues for professional growth. It starts with focused individual coaching and feedback via regularly scheduled one-on-ones between manager and engineer. We conduct bi-annual performance reviews coupled with a detailed engineering rubric so every engineer knows exactly what is expected of them at their current title, how they are performing against those expectations, and what progress is necessary to graduate to the next level on the technical ladder.

On a technical level, we invest heavily in training for the team. We send a large contingent of folks to AWS Reinvent every year as well as various other conferences around the city on topics like accessibility and design, SPARK, and numerous front end and Javascript topics. We bring external experts on site to conduct training on tools, technologies and processes like Kafka, Kubernetes, web security, agile scrum, etc. In addition to external training, we also hold regular developer-driven lunch & learn training sessions on topics like ElasticSearch, Kibabna logging and React.

 

Outside of those formal structures, what are the most exciting professional growth opportunities for your team?

I believe the best way to learn and grow is by doing. To that end, I empower all of my engineers to really lead and own the projects they work on. Whether junior or senior, everyone has a voice and everyone has the opportunity and the space to learn, take on new challenges and make mistakes. We're also working with a lot of very new and interesting technology from the latest and greatest on the front end and infrastructure - React/Redux, Node.js, Docker and Kubernetes to emerging platform technologies like Kafka, Apache Atlas, NiFi and Janusgraph. And, of course, we make heavy use of a wide variety of AWS tools and services.

 

wellsmith
Wellsmith engineering team. photo provided by wellsmith.

Mike Kerrigan, Wellsmith’s director of engineering, helps to empower his team by providing industry-leading technologies that encourage learning new skill sets, approaches and techniques. Together, Kerrigan and team are building a platform that connects consumers with healthcare providers to promote healthier routines based on patient data from fitness apps, wearables and more.

We make sure there are opportunities to jump in and help with technologies [engineers] are not yet familiar with.” 

What formal tools and processes does Wellsmith have in place to support growth for its dev team?

When we are adopting a new technology the team is unfamiliar with, we offer onsite training to get them up to speed, but more commonly people learn from each other. We have a very experienced dev team, and we expect developers to be involved in all aspects of our platform — not just one subspecialty. We make sure there are opportunities to jump in and help with technologies they are not yet familiar with and expand their knowledge base. We find that this helps everyone feel greater ownership over our platform.

 

What are the most exciting professional growth opportunities at Wellsmith?

Aside from being part of the product itself, we collect, analyze and act on large amounts of data in near real-time. In order to process all that data, we get the opportunity to use a lot of cutting-edge, open-source streaming technologies. Right now, we are in the process of re-platforming using these technologies so that we can scale to bring on even larger customers. This makes the work challenging and rewarding and gives our engineers important experience to grow professionally.

 

praxent
praxent engineers. photo provided by praxent.

Praxent has provided more than 300 companies with customized software solutions by working in mini scrum teams that own the decision-making process. That autonomy and freedom also spills into Praxent’s approach to professional development. Chris Walker, the company’s director of operations, said Praxent will fund and support individual learning opportunities in addition to hosting larger, on-site sessions — including two-day hackathons.

We host the coolest, in-house hackathons. We literally shut down the office for two days twice a year, allowing our developers and designers to work on any project of their choice.”

How does Praxent support professional growth for its engineers?

We host the coolest, in-house hackathons. We literally shut down the office for two days twice a year, allowing our developers and designers to work on any project of their choice. These projects allow developers and designers to work on skills, learn new languages, try out different techniques and have fun with their talent.

Praxent also reimburses employees for their investment in professional development activities outside of our company. In 2017, we covered 100 percent of the requests to reimburse professional growth activities. Praxent paid for conferences (including travel), books, online courses and even an improv class.

 

What are the most exciting professional growth opportunities at Praxent?

Every week we have practice lunches. At these catered lunch & learn meetings, developers present insight, research and thought-provoking angles that challenge the way we work and encourage out-of-the-box reflection. In December, one developer presented on blockchain technology and how it's changing the digital landscape. Another popular presentation was on how the most awe-inspiring companies leverage UX design to get ahead.

We also sponsored Austin’s 2017 Diversity Hackathon, hosted by Women Who Code, to support both our developer Holly Gibson, who is the executive director at Women Who Code Austin, and our local dev community.

 

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