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Great Engineering Cultures and Organizations - Afternoon Sessions from QCon London

| by Ben Linders Follow 23 Followers on Mar 17, 2018. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes | NOTICE: The next QCon is in San Francisco Nov 5 - 9, 2018. Join us!

The Building Great Engineering Cultures and Organizations track at QCon London 2018 contained talks from practitioners representing digital leaders of the consumer internet as well as transformational corporates from "traditional" sectors. Previously InfoQ published a summary of the morning sessions; this is the summary of the afternoon sessions of this track.

The speakers presented how they established and scaled engineering cultures that keep their organizations ahead of the rest. The track was hosted by Finbarr Joy, group CTO at Superbet.

It’s People, Stupid

Andy Walker, engineering manager at Google, presented It’s People, Stupid (People are Stupid?), in which he shared his experiences from developing and coaching teams.

"People suck", said Walker, "we all suck". Understanding why the human machine is broken enables us to work around it, he argued.

If you put someone in a situation where they perceive threat, you are shutting off the rational part of their brain. He stated that "their stupid reaction is not their fault, it is your fault for putting them in that situation". As a manager, if you want predictable reactions from people, he suggested that you should not surprise them or put them on the spot.

Authority is a terrible thing. If you are using authority to make people do things then you are training people not to think for themselves, said Walker. People hate being told what to do; you have to give people the choice to decide what to do.

In the InfoQ interview Dealing with the Broken Human Machine, Walker explained what leaders can do to create a culture where people work together:

This is where the role of a leader becomes important as you adopt a servant leader model where you are facilitating your teams rather than telling them what to do. Your job is to help people understand why they’re doing things. Then helping everyone improve how we operate. It’s rare I tell someone how to write a piece of code.

As a manager, make things as obvious as possible and state why you want things. You shouldn’t leave things unclear, so people are afraid of what lurks in the depth, argued Walker.

An Engineering-Led Culture at Scale

Amanda Bellwood, people operations manager at Sky Betting and Gaming spoke about an engineering-led culture at scale. She presented her view from the intersection of HR vs People Operations and showed how organizations on a path of ’digital evolution’ can revisit their approach to organizational-wide people management.

When most software teams are tasked with the move to more digital practices they will typically call out "HR" as one of the barriers -- hardwired performance gradings -- and often just "dumb" bureaucracy completely flying in the face of digital aspirations to put people first, said Bellwood.

Performance appraisals in particular often do more harm than good, creating forced rankings where people must be categorized according to an arbitrary bell curve or 9-box grid. Under such regimes "We were demotivating half of our workforce twice a year", said Bellwood, "Regardless what ranking system is used, people will perceive it as unfair". Sky Betting and Gaming has taken an alternative route, identifying that the "challenges in the work, and working with amazing people" is what motivates people.

Bellwood mentioned that there is a whole HR community evolving around agile approaches which has defined an Agile HR Manifesto.

Sky Betting and Gaming has adopted a new appraisal approach, focused more on genuine personal development decoupled from the financial award. As a result of their new approach Sky Betting and Gaming has seen overall business results improve and the quality of work continues to rise. The level of colleague engagement has risen to such an extent that the approach is now being adopted throughout the entire organization, said Bellwood.

Building and Growing Sustainable Teams

Vlad Galu, VP of engineering at GlobalSign, presented building and growing sustainable teams. He showed how to cultivate great engineering culture while establishing teams at scale and pace.

As a first example, he highlighted the challenge of growing from a team of 20 to 100 people in just over seven months - a new hire every 2-3 days. His first principle in this is the control of quality throughout the recruiting and selection process; you must not sacrifice quality in the name of pace or scale he argued. Your process must establish people’s capabilities, not the bag of skills and reference on their CVs.

Galu stated that, subsequent to the hiring process, it is crucial to establish a robust onboarding process that enables developers to test their boundaries in your organization. He suggested to create some form of "sandbox environment". "If new hires do not make mistakes during probation, the company likely does", argued Galu.

Galu mentioned the importance of creating unifying objectives for teams distributed across locations. While distinct country cultural practices may differ significantly, you can nonetheless mobilize teams behind common objectives, architectures, and activities, he stated.

Engineering Culture Revived

The closing presentation in the Building Great Engineering Cultures and Organizations track at QCon London 2018 was given by Finbarr Joy, group CTO at Superbet, who spoke about engineering culture revived. It was a call to action to software engineering teams to "reclaim" the core good practices that create a sustainable work environment such that good engineering culture can thrive.

Joy pointed out the imperative for culture to be a first order concern. If we all reflect on our most successful endeavor in software, it’s a safe bet that for most, it wasn’t the technology, nor the process that made the difference, but the team - "what an amazing team that was". While technologies are informed by blueprints and there are many playbooks for process frameworks, the characteristics of great engineering culture are harder to pin down, yet they are most crucial consideration of all, he stated.

A number of organizations are now underway with their second or even third digital transformation in as many years. Joy mentioned that both the frequency of change, and the misappropriation of "classic" engineering approaches, "re-skinned" as "digital transformation" management speak is generating only cynicism and resentment in software engineering teams. Too often those teams are on the receiving end of top-down driven interventions that impose "process over people" in most scenarios. While sympathizing with the sentiment of those "burned" too often, Joy called on team leaders not to disengage, but to structure their own cultural practices that would place their teams on the front foot of change.

Joy urged teams to ignore the "white noise" of transformation for transformation’s sake, and get on and claim their territory. Teams can be underway with proven practices such as incremental delivery, customer feedback-driven software evolution, and leading with innovation.

He presented an excerpt from the Bell Labs Unix Timesharing systems documentation, from 1978, and revealed the source of many of the practices we now associate with microservices, cloud, DevOps and agile as being founded in classic engineering best practice.

InfoQ is working on interviews with Bellwood, Galu, and Joy, which will be published under the QCon London coverage.

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