Cultivating an Engineering Culture Where People Thrive

Room to experiment, elevating voices and encouraging innovation are just a few of the ways two Austin engineering leaders build a successful team culture.

Written by Cathleen Draper
Published on Mar. 31, 2023
Cultivating an Engineering Culture Where People Thrive
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When coach Ted Lasso first lands in England to manage the fictional AFC Richmond football club, he finds a team described as uninspired, disjointed and joyless.

It’s a group of individual egos that aren’t thriving on their own, and because of that, they’re not particularly thriving together. 

To build a winning team, Lasso first must build a winning culture. He starts small: a submission box so players can have their voices heard, even if it’s anonymously. He asks them to believe in themselves, in the team and in their goal. He lays a path to victory and pushes them each to grow personally and professionally, individually and as teammates, on that journey to success.

But what Lasso does in the first season of the Emmy Award-winning AppleTV series isn’t revolutionary. It’s a very basic lesson in how leaders can help their teams thrive by developing a culture that encourages them to do so.

Abena Saulka, director of engineering at Pluralsight, creates that culture for her team in a multitude of ways, but most importantly by creating a direct path to the finish line.

“It is imperative to set clear expectations with engineers by establishing goals and communicating them effectively,” Saulka said.

Senior Engineering Manager Mike Udelhofen couldn’t agree more. At ThousandEyes, he and his team establish clear long-term visions that are guiding lights for the team. They inform strategies that are then distilled to help meet those goals. 

“We could have the fastest project delivery, but without a distinct finish line, we’re more likely to end up somewhere unexpected,” Udelhofen said. “Execution counts for little without direction.”

With a direction in mind, Saulka and Udelhofen both focus on cultivating space for their engineering teams to thrive. Their approaches look a lot like Lasso’s: taking opportunities to collaborate, creating chances to learn, fostering ownership and making time for fun. 

 

Abena Saulka
Director of Engineering, Discovery • Pluralsight

Pluralsight is a workforce development organization that provides strategic skills consulting and helps companies develop critical skills among employees, improve processes and gain insights through data. 

 

What are three words you’d use to describe your engineering team culture? What does that look like in action?

Collaborative, innovative and agile.

Engineers are encouraged to mob, a form of pair programming with more than two engineers. In our case, a mobbing team consists of three to six engineers. This style of working provides instant feedback. Team members have a sense of camaraderie, and everyone is willing to lend a helping hand.

The team continuously looks for better ways to solve problems by experimenting with new technologies, exploring alternative design approaches or finding ways to optimize processes. Engineers are encouraged to take risks and try new ideas. There is undoubtedly a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

The team can also quickly adapt to changing requirements or priorities. They use Kanban to manage their work and regularly assess their progress. Engineers are empowered to make decisions and prioritize their work based on the needs of the business. There is a culture of transparency and open communication, so everyone knows what others are working on. 

 

As a leader, I must lead by example and model the behaviors and values I wish to see within the team.

 

As a leader, how have you worked to cultivate this type of culture?

I foster a transparent and open communication culture by creating a safe space for team members to express their ideas and concerns, and I actively listen to what they say. 

At Pluralsight, we have “protected learning” time. Engineers are encouraged to set aside two hours each week to learn and grow. There are endless opportunities for training, mentorship and knowledge sharing. We openly celebrate successes and consider failures as growth moments. Team members are given significant autonomy to make decisions and are encouraged to own their outcomes.

I also establish a cadence with engineers where I provide regular feedback and demonstrate that I recognize their value and contributions to the team. Finally, as a leader, I must lead by example and model the behaviors and values I wish to see within the team. When I make a mistake, I admit it and learn from it.

 

What are some ways this culture sets the engineers on your team up for success and allows them to grow and thrive in their careers? 

One surefire way to promote growth is through hackathons. During these creative challenges, engineers can experiment with new technologies and ideas. They can take risks and explore their creativity in a low-risk environment. 

An engineer on my team had been working on the same project for the past two years and felt like she was in a rut. When our annual hackathon came around, she decided to sign up and break her routine. She spent a weekend working on a project with other engineers and contributed her expertise and learned a lot from her teammates. Since they used a programming language different from hers, she saw a different problem-solving approach.

Now, she applies what she learned at the hackathon to her work. She’s more open to trying new approaches to problems and feels more confident in her ability to learn quickly. In the long run, that hackathon participation helped her grow her skills and take on more challenging work. Due to her improved performance, she is at the forefront of a promotion consideration this year.

 

 

Mike Udelhofen
Senior Engineering Manager • Cisco ThousandEyes

The ThousandEyes cloud platform provides immediate visibility for enterprises to see, understand and improve digital experiences for customers and employees. 

 

What are three words you’d use to describe your engineering team culture? What does that look like in action?

Empowering, iterative and intentional.

I trust engineers to own problems, not just their solutions. They are given room to creatively approach a high-level task, consider multiple ways to solve it, source input from others and share the result of their project with confidence. Giving space and trust breeds fulfillment, psychological safety and more engagement at work. For example, one of my teams started as a great idea between two individuals, and I now have the opportunity to foster their energy, bring others on board and keep the path clear for them to do their best work. Engineering teams here are truly empowered by leadership to identify business opportunities and ways to add value by increasing scope. 

The dynamic nature of our fast-growing engineering department, coupled with my teams’ charters as platform teams, means we have to remain nimble and open to change to meet the evolving needs of the organization. Processes that were effective last quarter might no longer fit after that team has doubled in size. We keep tabs on this in retrospectives, setting aside time to talk about how we’re working and whether our processes will scale resiliently as our team and customer base grows. A culture of openness and candid feedback makes it easy to bring up what didn’t work as well as we expected, and it strengthens relationships when we find solutions together. Leaders at ThousandEyes are big on operational excellence as well. We embrace continuous improvement to ensure we’re running lean and keeping our customers happy. 

More intent means more focus, less distraction and increased mental space for the tasks we’ve committed to. This framework ensures we remain proactive with our time, which is extra important when deadlines are tightening, we’re under pressure from multiple sources or it’s tempting to cut corners. Quality remains high and obstacles don’t look so bad when we keep our eyes on the horizon.

 

I do this by setting clear expectations, focusing on decision-making and making work fun.

 

As a leader, how have you worked to cultivate this type of culture?

I focus on what’s in my control. Culture is its own organism that grows according to environmental conditions. Thus, a big part of my role is to continuously measure the energy of the team and where it’s spent, put systems in place to keep balance and re-energize by rewarding successes and occasionally mixing it up. I do this by setting clear expectations, focusing on decision-making and making work fun.

Setting clear expectations fosters an intentional team culture and supports career development and project management. It also includes most interactions we have as human beings. I’m constantly either creating, following up on or closing out little contracts between myself and engineers, stakeholders, cross-functional partners or my manager. The most powerful, infinitely repeatable and simple tool here is the question, “who will do what, by when?”

Research has shown that the average person makes around 35,000 decisions in a single day — that’s a lot of processing power. I keep an eye on the resources we’re consuming and the weight of unmade decisions, which inhibit progress and create costly dependency chains. My job is to flag when we’re stuck or lacking clarity, identify the most appropriate framework for the situation at hand and push us through to the next step. I document our past decisions and make sure that future uncertainties will fit into a predefined decision-making framework or mental model to more or less automate them as much as possible, which keeps the mental cost to a minimum.

Most of us spend a heck of a lot of our waking hours at work, so I exercise my privilege as a leader to make that experience as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible. I genuinely enjoy all the people I get to work with, and although we’re continuing to figure this out as a hybrid workforce, fun comes easy if we commit to keeping conversations light every once in a while and remember what we have in common. I’ve been planning our first onsite, which will bring three teams together in person for the first time. I’m excited for everyone to connect, celebrate a recent product launch and get outside of our comfort zones and normal daily loops.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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