What is Our Culture, and What Do We Want it to be?

According to Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim’s Accelerate, a generative culture and team experimentation predict software delivery and organizational performance. Generative culture relies less on hierarchy and power and focuses more on performance and trust. What do generative culture and team experimentation have in common? They both rely on a community of highly-skilled and engaged engineers.

Previously on “Practice Advisors – What do we do here?” we examined the following questions:

  • What sort of things are our engineering teams struggling with currently? 
  • What are our current stumbling blocks? 
  • Do our engineers have enough time to learn, grow, and be the best engineers they can be?

To answer these questions, we started in the most grassroots way possible: talking to people. We sat in high-traffic areas around the office, opened ourselves up on Slack, joined engineers’ discussion forums, and probed at things during office hours.

As we talked to people, we started noticing some trends, both good and bad, and the scenarios that engineers found themselves in stopped being unique pretty quickly. Junior engineers found our mentorship system confusing and hard to get involved with, unallocated folks didn’t feel enough sense of direction, and client limitations stifled independent growth regardless of level. Additionally, without proper cross-talk, initiatives aimed at solving these problems were spun up, but often only amplified the problem, such as our multiple mentorship programs.

What about the positive trends? We recognized that engineers who consider themselves successful at WillowTree have been on projects aligned with their personal growth, or have been able to find other outlets for that growth. They have also likely found mentors along that same alignment that have encouraged their growth both within and outside of their project work.

With this context, we now had a loose mental model of some of the different types of situations that our engineers fall into, but we wanted something more formal, something we could look at to connect and guide our initiatives with our engineers. After all, our engineers are our users. Enter Product Strategy, featuring Hank Thornhill, to help us out!

“Getting Product Strategy to help us is like a senior hopping in to fix a beginner’s issue, they might’ve spent 2 hours spinning their wheels, but the senior’s experience can help get to the solution in 5 minutes. We just have to realize we’re the beginners now.”

-Andrew Carter

With Hank’s help, we were able to devise two axes that we felt illustrated both where we are now as an engineering organization, and where we want to be. One axis is engagement, spanning from Passive to Active. The other is knowledge, ranging from Learning (someone that’s just starting to learn) and continuing up to Expert (someone with a high level of expertise). Combining these axes results in the two-by-two square you see below.

From this chart, we developed some personas to help illustrate what concrete points along these axes may look like. We recognize that these personas don’t represent every individual at WillowTree, but feel that they adequately fill that role of illustration. Some of the traits of these “individuals” are prescribed by the client, and fall on the broader organization to help shift, such as working on a hyper-embedded team. Others are more easily pushed simply by providing more obvious opportunities, such as mentorship.

Chart displaying different axes of engagement

We want to move people towards Active-Expert, represented by the upper-right quadrant of the chart. To do that, we need to engage people and improve their skills. Fortunately, these things feed into each other. Someone that is more engaged and excited, will be more easily upskilled if given the opportunity. This also creates a positive feedback loop wherein active experts are better positioned to serve as mentors, further bringing people up into that quadrant. Organizing our thoughts here has also helped us identify initiatives that can help support these conversions. For example, more opportunities for group learning can move junior engineers toward Expert as they participate, as well as senior folks towards Active engagement as they mentor.

We want to build engineers’ excitement around their craft

With this framework for our thoughts, we now feel prepared to approach the engineering groups more formally than just ad-hoc conversations. This will also allow us to remove some biases in our data that we’ve introduced by relying on people that already felt comfortable talking to us. We’re going to run a series of “retros” across all of our offices during our regularly scheduled GROW time. There we can capture what people’s goals are, what’s supporting them, what’s holding them back, and what they’re concerned about for the future. Tune in next time for the exciting results!