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Engineers in start-ups are often treated differently - here's why that's a mistake

Goodlord has created a culture that works for engineers and the wider team.

Leah Ellis

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The culture at most companies develops over time, interlinked with the business as it grows. While every start-up is different, it’s easy for company culture to diversify and segment as a business scales. In my time as a People and HR specialist, I’ve seen how company cultures can drift, creating pockets of people or even whole teams which aren’t connected to the wider business and its aims. In my experience, it’s most common for engineering teams to become gradually isolated from the pack, or treated differently. And when companies let this happen, the negative impact is felt by all. 

Over the last few years at Goodlord, we’ve worked hard to make sure our engineers are fully integrated into the wider team. At the same time, we made sure we protected and bolstered the values we’re really proud of, such as a progressive stance on accountability, independence and pace setting, alongside the creation of a positive, safe culture where it’s okay to make mistakes and questions are encouraged. Indeed, we source weekly feedback on our culture to ensure we’re delivering against these goals. 

Just like all teams at Goodlord, our engineers decide how they reach their objectives and are in charge of making sure they are clearly connected to the success of the business as a whole. They aren’t treated differently from other employees. Creativity and autonomy are massively encouraged. Personal development, and goals that can’t be measured metrically, are valued highly. This approach has kept a startup mentality and culture that sparkles with new ideas.

The size of the company allows the Engineering and Product team to be in regular contact with the rest of the business. Whilst physically separating engineering teams can often stem from a logical need for them to have some peace and quiet, this can escalate to a point where interactions between them and their colleagues are minimal. So we ensure catch ups are regular and inclusive - such as daily stand-ups which other teams are invited to attend. People from all across the company are encouraged to openly ask about the roadmap, and anonymous questions have been welcomed into company meetings. We host breakfast clubs where the tech teams seek out feedback and ideas from the wider business that they can weave into their product roadmap and we make sure engineers get direct exposure to our customers, so they understand the role of our sales and success teams. And we even structure the seating plan of the office to ensure this cross-pollination of ideas and understanding can organically flourish in a way that continues to protect productivity. 

Additionally, we make sure that social activities are designed to encourage attendance from across the whole company; we pick a range of things to do, so there’s something for everyone. Programmers are often stereotyped as ‘introverted’ and left out of wider social events. We want to make sure every team member feels included, in and out of working hours.  We also host a range of activities during work hours, catering for different personality types, those who do and don’t drink, people who have commitments outside of work - the list goes on! By considering different personality types we ensure we’re inclusive and respectful at all times. We want people to bring their whole selves to work, so we work hard to create a culture that embraces that. 

A quote from the book No Hard Feelings by Liz Fosslien & Mollie West Duffy sums up our attitude to this perfectly; “By best self we don't mean perfect self. Your best self might still become hot-headed, seethe with envy or cry out in sheer frustration... Your best self is authentic, without bulldozing other people's feelings”. We know no-one is perfect, but that everyone has something to offer. 

We’ve also started making sure that innovation within engineering teams is given the space and time to thrive. For one week every year, our 20-person team puts the product backlog aside and focus on the projects that they are passionate about, but haven’t had a chance to work on during the hectic day to day that is start-up life. During this “Tech Week”, engineers can work on any project of their choosing, in squads of their making, using their technology of choice. Any type of project is allowed, including building completely new features or internal tools, creating proof of concepts, addressing outstanding technical debt or even working on the feature that’s currently at the top of the backlog, with the pace set by the team itself, rather than being a top-down directive. In fact, we’re now looking at how we can apply these learnings and successes in other areas of the business. 

One of the few limitations put in place is that individual projects are banned. “We believe in the importance of teamwork and collaboration and want to see that on display at all times,” says Donovan Frew, Chief Technology Officer. “We have some talented individuals who could definitely deliver a full feature in a week but our strongest performers are team players and so know instinctively that they can make a bigger impact by working with someone else.”

We held our latest Tech Week just last month and, according to Donovan, it was “a win”. He adds, “It provided us with a great opportunity to do things a bit differently and left everyone feeling proud and re-energised. We worked on new technologies, with new people, tried new approaches and had fun while racing against the clock.”

A great culture comes from great people who are excited to work on tough challenges and push for success together, Tom Mundy, our co-founder says. “It’s a culture that values challenge and learning in a mature way. A lot of that comes from the experiences we’ve been through. We don’t hide from our past, but talk about it openly. We’ve become very, very good at having tough conversations, and as a result, there’s a sense that everyone is fighting for the same thing – an infectious atmosphere of teamwork that has allowed us to build the foundations of a truly great business.”

Great companies are built on great teams. We cannot create a great team if certain groups are siloed off, but we must also be mindful that different teams need to work in different ways. So while we greatly admire the prowess and skills of engineers, we cannot start to think of them as a different species. Whether you’re an engineer, a marketer, or a customer success lead; we are all Goodlordians, and we’ve built a culture to reflect that.

Want to join the Goodlord team? Check out our current vacancies here. 

About the author

Leah Ellis
Head of People
Leah's mission is to transform the common perception of people roles as fluffy to essential. She wants to help create cultures where people work hard, have fun and can truly be themselves. When she's not in the office, Leah can most often be found in the pub, watching sport or exploring new places.
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