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Great Engineering Cultures and Organizations - Morning Sessions from QCon London

| by Ben Linders Follow 26 Followers on Mar 15, 2018. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes | NOTICE: The next QCon is in San Francisco Nov 5 - 9, 2018. Save an extra $100 with INFOQSF18!

The building great engineering cultures and organizations track at QCon London 2018 included talks from practitioners representing digital leaders of the consumer internet as well as transformational corporates from "traditional" sectors. The speakers presented how they established and scaled engineering cultures that keep their organisations ahead of the rest. The track was hosted by Finbarr Joy, group CTO at Superbet.

Culture of Continuous Improvement

Kevin Goldsmith, CTO at Avvo, gave the opening talk Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement. He stated that in a culture of continuous improvement there is no status quo. People continuously ask "can we do this better?". It’s a deliberate people first culture: people over process, as the agile manifesto states.

Continuous improvement requires objective measurements to know what to improve. People can have different opinions on what should be improved, where data can help to take the right decisions. Goldsmith stated in the InfoQ interview data driven thinking for continuous improvement that "data democratizes the decision-making; it clarifies the options and potential outcomes".

To prioritize improvements, Avvo uses "Wildly Important Goals" or WIGs. This concept comes from the book "The 4 Disciplines of Execution". They limited the number of goals that they work on at the same time, currently the WIP-limit is two. Based on these WIGs, sub goals are defined (sWIGs), they are currently WIP-limited at four per WIG.

Goldsmith previously worked for Spotify where he used the concept of Data Insights Beliefs, Bets (DIBBs), described in the article Spotify want to be good at failing. At Avvo he introduced a similar concept, which is called DUHB(R):

  • Data
  • Understandings
  • Hypotheses
  • Bets
  • (Results)

Organizational change is done using a mechanism similar to a Request for Comment (RFC). If someone wants to initiate change, they will write it down using a template with the DUHB(R) sections. Next the change is proposed to a board for feedback and improvement. After approval, the proposed change is sent out to the larger organization.

Changes are done by working groups. Since these groups will disolve once the change is implemented, the change proposal will state who owns the long-term support for things impacted by the change.

Everybody has an internal change budget, said Goldsmith. When you are doing too much change you will exhaust the budget of your people. This can also happen with pull-based change, where people and teams drive their own improvement journey. When you see this happening, you need to manage how much change is happening simultaneously and give people time to build up their flexibility.

Panel discussion on engineering culture

The next session in the track was a panel hosted by Finbarr Joy, where the challenges of engineering culture development were discussed. The panel members were Vlad Galu, Amanda Bellwood, Tom Clark, Andy Walker, and Sally Goble.

The first question from the audience was how to regain trust when it’s lost due to issues or insufficient performance. Walker suggested to be open and transparent on what happened and what’s happening now, and dare to admit when you are wrong. According to him, regaining trust has to come from the top. Clark said that as a manager you have to give trust, and accept that people might screw up. Making mistakes is fine, he said. You will have to balance internal versus external trust to improve the image that your company has. Galu stated that you want to prevent people to become risk averse. Bellwood added that it takes time to earn trust.

From the audience came another question on how to do architecture change and what can be done to get people to actually change behavior and govern the changes. Walker argued that it is hard to measure change; his suggestion is to try to break it down. You have to be really open to why the architecture needs to be changed, he said. Clark suggested to start small and grow it. Galu shared his experience from rebuilding a platform. When they were halfway, to avoid the board losing patience, they offered a beta version to some of their customers. Based on this they received early feedback. Bellwood proposed to find out what motivates your people when you want them to change. Walker spoke about a team that he worked with where people arrived in the morning to their work but didn’t show a sense of belonging. He brought it up to discuss what was happening. His suggestion was to bring people together and ask them to solve problems together if you want change to happen.

With the ongoing digitalization and 24 hour economy, someone from the audience asked the question if people working 9 to 5 is a bad thing. Walker stated that he has sent people home from work. It’s important to have a life outside your work and to take care of yourself, he said. If I see people on Slack after doing a long day of work I check with them, said Clark. Goble stated that as a manager, you have to set the example and go home on time. Clark confirmed this and added that as manager you shouldn’t send emails over the weekend. When you do that, you are putting social pressure on people, he said.

The panel members were asked for advice on how to get feedback. Galu stated that in a small company you should try to keep it simple. Much can be learned from looking at the dynamics in the room, the way people collaborate and communicate. Walker recalled a story about the first time that someone came up to him and said "I’m uncomfortable with what you are doing". The way that you deal with that situation can make a huge difference, he said.

The last question from the audience was about if the team should decide if they want someone to be hired, or if it’s up to the recruitment department? Walker stated that choice is a really important thing for people, he prefers to have teams involved in hiring decisions and when onboarding new employees. Goble argued that if you hire people into a particular team then as a company you might lose flexibility. She advised to be careful with involving teams too much, as you want to keep the possibility open to move people to other teams over time.

InfoQ is covering QCon London 2018 with Q&As, presentations, summaries, and articles.

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