We recently hosted our latest roundtable for VPEs on scaling and community, describing the challenges facing modern engineering leaders coming out of COVID-19. 2020 was a transformative year, and 2021 is shaping up that way as well – it has become more clear than ever that enterprises small and large need to find new and creative ways to grow and engage with their employees and broader community. Over the last 18 months, companies have really had to adapt and exercise their leadership muscles around persistence, resilience, empathy and trust.
What are some effective strategies to continue growing engineering teams in this remote work environment driven by COVID-19?
- It’s crucial to leverage culture when you bring people in. Pre-COVID, this was easy. You could bring interview candidates to lunch and avoid seemingly too uptight. The place you met up at, could be, itself, a kind of recruiting tool. But it’s a lot harder to get that kind of comfortable vibe when you’re talking to someone on Zoom. As a result it’s important to lean into hiring a little bit more than before – everyone is feeling that right now, that extra time and effort spent on new candidates.
- Expanding to new locations unlocks a lot of hiring potential – go where the talent is, rather than looking for talent where you are located. A popular way of looking at this is establishing something like four core hours a day, and requiring all employees regardless of time zone to be on for collaboration during that time, with the rest being flex, and delivery-based.
- Set expectations around what times employees are needed and what times they are not. This can be made even easier by banding certain teams around time zones – you can have employees in Canada and South America all working in the same time zone.
- Having flex hours can really help, especially on the diversity hiring side and for parents.
How can companies mitigate attrition? Are there signals you can use to see how employees are doing?
Employee engagement scores are a popular answer here – it’s easy to see the overall health of the org and if it’s just a few folks having a really hard time, vs the entire team. This can be dovetailed with talking to managers and asking them to check on people – how are they doing? How are their kids doing? Additionally, there may be a little bit less attrition happening on the engineering side, particularly since engineers have always generally worked around a more flexible schedule.
Direct 1-1 outreach to check in on how people are doing, and giving employees as much freedom as you can to sort out their lives is also fairly necessary. It’s about the long game vs. how much someone is working this particular week. There is some risk that when you provide a lot of flexibility that you’re losing committed resources or missing deadlines, but the alternative just isn’t feasible. You wind up having to re-train a new person and then you won’t just miss your deadline, your deadline will be gutted. Of course, if there are repetitive issues that are just a never-ending problem, that’s a different scenario than someone who does a good job for you, where you have that trust built up. If you make someone quit right now – they will.
Where are the breakdowns happening with this new remote-first model?
- Career early-hires have been a challenge for many places. A lot of employees, when they’re first starting out, are heavily dependent on the people two cubes over. An unfortunate response in the market right now is the attitude that managers will just hire fewer of them – but this is not a good long-term solution. You need to support those early career folks, give them a peer group, mentors, etc. vs. them showing up and feeling as if they are out of the loop and on the path to getting fired. Previously, these new hires would have been celebrated, brought around, and gotten to know everyone. Dealing with that new employee onboarding, whether for entry-level employees or otherwise, is now a top priority for a lot of companies.
- Mental health issues have sprung up in some places – the Zoom life is not for everyone and being away from peer connection, collaboration, and happy hours has been tough for some cohorts, although not all. Many places have left the office open for folks who want to come in and get a break from their homes, especially those of an age and demographic who may not have an awesome set-up in their small apartment.
- Remote work is creating a bit of a bifurcation on the talent side – a lot of people will now only consider roles that have some in-person elements, or they will only consider roles that are 100% remote. You see people who never want to go back into an office, but also people who are really wanting that in-person camaraderie – it’s tough to balance.
- Avoid excessive collaboration – Zoom has become too much screen time all the time – there is a fine line between needing to collaborate and excessive collaboration (“I have to be there”). You don’t want people to feel like they have to be in every meeting. If the meeting isn’t value-add for that person, they shouldn’t be there.
How can you build out a company’s culture when everything is remote?
When organizations are smaller, you get a lot of stuff for free from osmosis – you’re hanging around in the kitchen and you get to know each other. If your CEO isn’t a jerk, you adopt that flavor. As you get bigger however, you have to really start to think about culture and invest in, you have to really think “What is our company’s opinion on this?” – in a way, remote work kind of forces that documentation process a bit sooner, it forces you to be thoughtful about your culture a bit earlier.
Another popular way to build culture and retain new hires (especially younger hires) is the buddy system. Essentially when there is a new hire, that person is assigned a “buddy” on the engineering team who introduces them to everyone on Zoom, introduces them to the product, the architecture, etc. and is there to really help them out for the first two to three months. This can really pay off as you can easily match employees with similar interests, and help get new hires deeply ingrained into the company and the culture. This also works very well with interns.
Is remote here to stay?
It’s still a bit untested how well companies will be able to iterate and communicate – especially during their high growth stages – in a fully-remote format. However, this is clearly an experiment in progress. The culture and talent issue will need to be solved, and there are certainly a lot of companies trying. One thought is bringing the group together every six months, where everyone is in a single place and you can really build that connective tissue (one example shared was a company that rents a lodge up in Breckenridge and has everyone spend two weeks working from there). Some teams have subscribed to the notion that you really only need that periodic connection in order to keep relationships sustained. That being said, we’ll have to see how this plays out in the long run – often, talent will join a company for money, but will ultimately stay for the culture. As a leader, you have to make the hard decisions to ensure that everyone understands and invests in the company’s culture.
Taking lessons from companies that have already adopted a remote-first culture pre-COVID, one major best practice has been standardizing processes across remote and in-person employees (e.g. even if you go into the office, you have to dial-in separately for meetings, or having small offices in many different cities rather than one massive HQ, less assigned seating, etc.). If you don’t consider these things methodically, you can find that teams become very fragmented, and it makes collaboration challenging. If you hire globally, it’s important to keep in mind as well that teams still need consistent collaboration hours. Don’t force a team to rely on leadership in a different time zone for decision-making.
Most companies are still considering their future strategy – with a mix of hybrid and remote offerings going forward. It will be important to stay on top of how things go with either model, and for companies to track progress against these fundamental changes. This can be managed through engagement surveys, productivity metrics, happiness metrics – there are a lot of tools for this (Jellyfish was one that was mentioned). You can make things like code commit rate, pull requests, comments etc. transparent across the entire company to ensure employees know how things are actually going and are held accountable for their remote activities.
How can internal developer teams work with the broader ecosystem – especially with the rise of open-source?
The stakeholders for VPEs are starting to change in many industries – it’s no longer just the folks on your team, it’s also external developers, DevRel, business stakeholders, the community, and so forth. One useful way to think about the broader developer community is in a 2×2 grid:
- Closed spaces to connect with your own developers (or those who are invited)
- Open spaces available to everyone
- Reactive spaces
- Proactive spaces
To take the example of a reactive, closed space: that could be something like your email support tool. Changing that to a proactive space would be saying “Hey – it’s better if that individual doesn’t even have to contact someone, if they can self-help through documentation.” Even better, if it’s open and available to everyone – that way the community around your company can gather and build upon itself.
What are some best practices on building a developer community today?
It’s very noisy out there with Stack Overflow, Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News – the list goes on. It’s important that when you build, you build on top of existing water holes. Going out there and trying to make your own thing is very hard in the beginning – this is the empty party problem. So, how do you build in a manner that allows you to create a healthy community that engages with each other? When you begin, it’s your team publishing content, publishing a changelog, a new API, etc. You then begin to find your biggest fans – maybe on Coinbase, or Stack Overflow, or Reddit, and you want to empower them to engage on your behalf. Human nature is to want an audience – so you can reach out to these influencers and say “Hey, we saw you published something on X, can we share it on our Twitter account?” There is always a high demand for quality articles for your followers, but a low amount of content you can create yourself. Leverage that to create an effective flywheel by connecting people who want readers, with people who want quality articles.
Also consider, the vast majority of people don’t want to create an account or engage. So many people barely post on Twitter or LinkedIn – and yet consider themselves to be members of those communities. People visit places to get updated, read things, try before they buy, etc. but may not immediately engage. Not every activity has to be directly related to the lead generation, retention, actions-taken domain, some of it can and should be around discoverability, brand awareness, developer education, and evangelism – where the effect is going to be a bit more of a slow burn.
Finally, remember that most people navigate the internet through search. Even if someone is searching for something, and they know that it’s on Stack Overflow, they’re still going to go through Google first. You really want all of your discovery to be through search if possible – optimize for search and consumption rather than putting up a big wall that says “If you want to engage with us you have to join our Slack first.”