The Culture of an Agency: A New Role

WillowTree is an organization that has absolutely exploded with growth over the last 7 years, since I started here as an intern in 2016. At the time, we were at about 150 people in the entire company, and now we’re eclipsing 1,300. With this growth has obviously come change. Information is harder to disseminate, and it’s harder to be on the same page with your fellow engineers when you’re much more spread out. This sort of spread means we end up solving the same problem multiple times, and sometimes incorrectly. My colleague, Andrew Carter, said it best, “building an app is your game to lose.” We have all the tools and knowledge at our disposal with the great minds here within WT, so how do we make sure we’re making the most of them?

Building an app is your game to lose.

You hear it all the time in the industry; a company got big and lost its culture. But why? Is it that culture intrinsically cannot scale? Is it that hiring needs to become less specialized to fill a larger number of seats? I think the answer depends on the organization.

WillowTree’s engineering culture has always heavily emphasized the importance of growing our own engineers’ abilities. A focus on mentorship, combined with truly great people make this formula work very well, and you can see it in WillowTree’s success. Pre-2020, this culture was heavily dependent on colocation. When the Covid-19 pandemic pushed all of us to work from home, that was a big shift, and our special sauce needed to be adjusted a little.

We saw a lot of changes happening with this shift to working from home. A lot of the crosstalk that would naturally happen across project teams simply stopped because we were no longer sitting together. Folks that were hired after this point (see: the majority of the company) were coming in with no opportunity to share a physical space with coworkers. It became much easier to lose your identity as a WillowTree employee, and be pulled solely into your project work. In the short term this may seem great, no pesky distractions from delivering quality products on time, but in the long term this has negative implications for things like mentorship, individual growth, and in turn, project outcomes. These implications are then compounded further when you consider the massive growth we’d taken on in that time. With that growth, it become more important to maintain our ability to raise people up internally and make them the best versions of themselves.

This is where Andrew Carter and myself come in. Some very smart people before us identified that there was a need for a more centralized role; one that wouldn’t be billed to a client. A role that would exist as a conduit for folks to more easily share information across project teams, and in turn, across the org. That role has been dubbed “Practice Advisor,” with Andrew and myself being the first two to take it on, specializing in iOS and Android, respectively.

“So what the heck does a Practice Advisor do exactly?” Great question; we’ve spent the last few weeks working on that, and to be honest, we’re still figuring it out 😬. But really, our first steps are focused primarily on setting a baseline for ourselves and for the organization. What sort of things are our engineering teams struggling with currently? What are our current stumbling blocks? Are there mistakes we see getting made repeatedly across the org, or are we learning from our own teams? Do engineers have enough time to learn, grow, and be the best engineers they can be?

By maintaining our technical expertise, we can stay close to the engineers doing the work, but serve as liaisons to impact broader org changes.

We’ve been spending a lot of time tracking and advocating for people’s involvement in some existing WillowTree shenanigans. For example, we’ve been looking at GROW, which is a space for folks to come present something they think is cool, something their team had a tough time with, or just something they’d like people to know. This has been flourishing recently with an influx of folks coming from Andrew and I’s consistent berating informing. Our backlog of content now extends two months out, and attendance has never been higher with our most recent GROW having over 40% of each practice in attendance. Besides GROW, we’ve also started holding Office Hours. These are meant to be a space for anyone to come and either ask questions about mobile, or have larger group discussions around potentially-controversial topics in the space (viewmodels with SwiftUI anyone?).

Looking ahead we’re going to be meeting more closely with various levels of the organization to further spread awareness of the role while also garnering more information about people’s needs or wants from the role. Andrew and I are still in client services, it’s just that now the client is WillowTree itself! We’ll be posting additional journal entries like this as we continue to flesh out and evolve this role, so check back to stay informed about this role and the other engineering happenings here at WillowTree!