How to Avoid Crappy Culture and Keep Engineers Happy

Software engineers know how much they are worth—everyone wants them and there aren’t enough of them to fill that demand. While the need for tech talent is greater than ever, the pandemic has shifted priorities for many engineers. And they’re not alone. It’s a reality shared with millions of others in a variety of fields around the world.

If the so-called Great Resignation has taught us anything, it’s that everyone is tired of crappy workplace culture. People are beginning to question why they’d stick around at a place where they don’t feel valued and supported. And for those companies not investing time and energy into their culture, good luck holding on to software engineers. They know their value!

In this uber-competitive environment, the best way to keep software engineers happy and make the company a desirable place to join may seem counterintuitive, but hear me out: Just back off. Trust engineers to do their jobs well.

Put in place the building blocks for a supportive environment where people feel comfortable taking risks and voicing their ideas—even contradictory ones—in positive ways. Then, get out of the way. Leaders have a responsibility to make these values ​​stick and to hire people who fit them, even if that means not always picking the most qualified person available.

Don’t Be Afraid of “Dumb Ideas”

I’ll be the first to say it—I have a lot of dumb ideas. I’m thankful to have worked in places that encouraged me to share those ideas. It taught me to focus on building a company culture that values ​​openness to new thought processes. Because you never know when something that might seem like a dumb idea could actually become the next big thing.

No one wants to feel shamed for speaking their mind. Encouraging people to share their ideas, even those that aren’t fully developed, fosters a sense of trust in the team and can lead to greater creativity and innovation. It also makes the company stronger by reducing stress on employees and avoiding negative outcomes like burnout and other health concerns that may ultimately lead to turnover.

Getting to this point of psychological safety in the workplace is not an easy process. It has to be highly intentional given the standards that are often at play in the professional world. For too long, people have been thought of as replaceable cogs in an organizational structure, not as humans with unique and valuable skills, talent and shortcomings.

It’s about recognizing that people are human and often want to feel authentic in how they work. That’s why it’s valuable to talk about new ideas to improve the company and its products, as well as talking about how you talk; set a defined standard for how important topics are discussed as a team.

Fostering a supportive culture doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements. But there are ways to offer opposite opinions without being a jerk about it. This mutual respect between engineers allows people to look at things with a critical eye without hurting anyone’s feelings.

At CodeSee, we do a weekly product review. And this often leads to statements like “the product does this, but I wish it did this.” This isn’t a criticism of anyone, and everyone knows that. It’s everyone helping each other in the pursuit of making things better.

Don’t Hire Assholes

Instilling these values ​​in a company is a rewarding experience that allows engineers to flourish. But none of that matters if they don’t also show up in the hiring process. The same things we place importance on in our day-to-day operations are top priorities in hiring: Humility, trust and self-reflection.

We’d rather have a decent engineer that fits our culture and embodies these values ​​than a great engineer that isn’t supportive of others. We don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s OK to treat people like dirt just because you’re a genius.

These ethos show up in the questions asked to prospective employees. Two of our go-tos are fairly simple. We often ask interviewees to define three strengths and weaknesses. It’s a number that requires some real introspection and helps us see if a person knows where they could stand to improve and have identified personal growth strategies. We’ll also ask, “When we call previous managers, what will they have to say about you?”

These questions are meant to tease out some self-reflection, naturally. If they can put themselves in the shoes of their past managers, that shows a high level of self-awareness and empathy.

Surprisingly, these questions have gotten under the skin of more than a few applicants. I’ve actually had people yell at me, the person doing the interview, because they’ve been made to feel uncomfortable. Obviously, that kind of response told us everything we need to know.

Tools for Success

Institutional knowledge is an asset to any team. However, it puts additional strain on senior engineers, who are already stretched thin, to hold that information in their head and teach/explain it to less-experienced colleagues.

This is something that needs to change to free up senior engineers to focus more on the big picture. We can solve that with tools to visualize code and by investing in models that provide these models to engineers to improve training.

Today, many engineers spend 60% of their time reading code. What if we could reduce that to 40%? Or 20% or even 10%? If all our engineering talent spent 40% of their time doing other stuff, think about where we could be?

However, productivity tools can be a double-edged sword. Instead of giving more freedom and trust to software engineers, some companies are using technology to wring every last ounce of productivity out of the workforce, efforts that are surely doomed to fail by encouraging talented engineers to start planning their exit.

The bottom line is that everyone needs engineers. Losing at least some is inevitable. But if you are thoughtful about creating a supportive, innovative culture—and maintaining it—then it’s a lot easier to compete.

But it’s no simple task. Every decision you make—from who you hire to the products you build to the way you talk to each other in meetings—plays a role in shaping culture. Engineers will be compensated everywhere they go, so the best chance to get ahead is to build the best, least-crappy culture possible.

Leave a Comment