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Building a Generative Culture at Redgate: QCon London Q&A

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A generative culture has a clear sense of mission and there’s a high degree of cooperation and learning. In a generative culture, people have the time to learn, and the space to bring in new ideas.

Jeff Foster, head of product engineering at Redgate, will present how Redgate improved the way they build products by developing a generative culture at QCon London 2020. This conference will be held from March 2 - 6.

According to Foster, a generative culture is one in which new ideas are taken seriously, experimentation is encouraged, and learning from failure is encouraged. Most people want to work in a generative culture.

Redgate is using mob programming, which gives them free and open exchange of ideas. They also provide dedicated time for learning, and are running regular open space events and inhouse conferences.

The real challenge for Redgate is to keep their company culture as they grow. Some of the questions they have to answer are how to help new Redgaters adapt to the culture, and how to shape the environment to get the most out of the people they hire.

InfoQ interviewed Jeff Foster about the culture at Redgate and how a generative culture supports people in their daily work.

InfoQ: How would you define a generative culture?

Jeff Foster: If I had to define a generative culture, it’s one I’d like to work in!

More formally, Ron Westrum introduced a typology for describing cultures and he described three different forms, all measurable by how organizations process information. In a pathological organization, information is a source of power (rather than something to be shared). This creates an environment where cooperation is almost impossible.

A bureaucratic organization has very formal operating procedures; information can get from A to B, but only if you follow the correct processes. They’re very slow to react and dominated by paperwork. In a software company, imagine a change advisory board who requires forms to be filled out correctly before anything can happen.

Finally, we arrive at a generative organization. In this kind of organization, there’s a clear sense of mission (what are we trying to achieve) and there’s a high degree of cooperation. Everyone is pulling in the same direction, new ideas are welcome, failure prompts inquiry and yields creative solutions.

Even if you ignore any benefits to the organization, I think most people want to work in a generative culture.

The work from Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim in Accelerate provides strong evidence that not only is a generative culture one you’d like to work in, it’s also one that produces better results for your organization.

InfoQ: What’s the culture like at Redgate?

Foster: When Neil Davidson and Simon Galbraith founded Redgate, one of their goals was to build a company culture that represented their moral values and who they were as people. This gives us an advantage; we’ve always been mindful of adding processes and bureaucracy and tried to keep things simple. In fact, one of the guiding values of the company is ingeniously simple. Creating a great place to work in is part of the company DNA.

InfoQ: What steps did you take to build a generative culture at Redgate?

Foster: Just like everything else, there is no silver bullet. The approach we’ve taken at Redgate is to do the right things, and then hopefully we look up every now and again and things have improved.

A small scale example would be introducing mob programming. If you haven’t come across it before, the entire development team works together on a single computer to deliver a feature. Woody Zuill introduced us to the practices around this, and a number of teams use the practice. Why is this important to a generative culture? Well, mob programming done right is the free and open exchange of ideas - if you’re doing that, you’re a one-step culture.

A larger scale example would be around learning and development (L&D). Like all technology companies, there’s an almost infinite amount to learn.

We’ve been on a journey around L&D. We started by giving people the time, stealing some ideas from Google and introducing dedicated time for people each week to do learning and development. This started OK, but the novelty wore off and people weren’t taking advantage of it.

We started running regular open space events - a kind of conference where the participants create the agenda just-in-time. This is great, and gives plenty of opportunities for people to bring in ideas from the outside world. We’ve watched videos from conferences, run workshops on Kubernetes, discussed difficult issues and even learnt about sorting algorithms with bells. Open spaces don’t work for everyone though. There’s not a whole lot of structure and the sessions are unpredictable (part of the fun!).

So, we did what in retrospect seems a bit daft. We decided to run an entire conference by Redgaters for Redgaters. We hired out an aircraft museum, took it over for the day and put on a full-day event around the important themes for Redgate. This has been amazing for Redgate; we’re into our third year of doing this and we’re scaling it to the whole company this year.

Despite all this, we’ve still not got learning and development where we want it to be, but we’ve got a generative culture and great people so I’m confident we will.

InfoQ: How does the generative culture support people in their daily work building products?

Foster: As I’m sure is the same for all companies, building great software is a challenge and it’s also very experimental. You have plenty of great ideas, but they don’t all work out. A generative culture not only helps bring a steady stream of ideas into the business, it also helps us take time to reflect why (sometimes!) things don’t work out the way we intend.

A good example is mob programming - I mentioned the positives in a previous answer, but through an open culture we realized there were some negatives. We found it didn’t work well when the mob had too many senior developers - they spent time discussing the finer details, without noticing there were much more basic questions still to be answered. The fact we can have these discussions early and often is an essential part of being a generative culture.

Our daily work as software engineers revolves around solving problems, that generative culture supports all aspects, from fixing a bug, to retrospecting about a problem to bringing in new products.

InfoQ: What have you learned?

Foster: Actions speak louder than words. If you’ve got an idea, the best way to demonstrate the value of it is to try it.

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