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Lessons from 7 highly successful software engineering cultures

Dan Pink, who has authored several books on the changing workplace, says people are generally happier and more productive when they have autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work. Some of the most successful high-tech companies in the world have integrated these principles into their company culture.

Don't believe it? Just look at their employee handbooks.

By either sharing slides, web portals, or employee handbooks, several successful companies (many of which are high-profile, market-disrupting firms) have given the world a glimpse into their company cultures so that you can learn from them.

The companies highlighted in this post all shared company culture documents to inspire, and to make people consider new possibilities for how their organizations can be run. While it’s not feasible for everyone to implement all of the practices these organizations follow, you'll find clear themes and values that are worth exploring with your own teams.

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Netflix

The company that changed the way we consume movies and television has one of the most enviable engineering cultures in the software industry. Ever heard of a little thing called microservices? This is the company that started the movement.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the development of microservices at Netflix is the way in which it affected the engineering culture. Every developer runs what they write. They're responsible for fixing their tools if they break, writing the documentation, and dealing with any operations pain they create.

Themes: Freedom and responsibility are at the core of Netflix’s business strategy. They attract talent by giving employees the freedom to be creative and flexible, but they only hire responsible people who are worthy of that freedom. By having a responsible workforce that is free to innovate without much bureaucracy, they're able to grow and adapt in a competitive marketplace.

Source: Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility.

Netflix also touts its high pay and high standards. Even the woman who wrote Netflix’s culture documents wasn’t immune from the company's regular assessments on whether to keep various positions. All managers are encouraged to ask themselves, “If this person said they were leaving for a peer company, would I fight to keep them?”

One could write an entire article covering just the fascinating insights contained in Netflix’s slideshow on its company culture, which has over 15 million views. Here are just a few insights: 

Money quote: “Responsible people thrive on freedom and are worthy of freedom. With the right people, instead of a culture of process adherence, we have a culture of creativity and self-discipline.”

On vacation policies: “There is no [vacation] policy or tracking. There is also no clothing policy at Netflix, but no one comes to work naked. Lesson: You don’t need policies for everything. Netflix leaders set good examples by taking big vacations—and coming back inspired to find big ideas."

Culture document: Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility

GitLab

The GitLab platform includes tools and a pipeline for virtually every stage in the development process from Git-based version control, project management, code editing, testing and code review, to continuous integration, staging, production, and feedback.

GitLab's employee handbook is as comprehensive as its platform. The values are concise, just like Netflix, but the handbook is more than just culture and values. It has detailed onboarding steps, task guides, and workflows for developers, marketing, sales, finance, and more.

The company's engineering groups typically consist of small teams of four developers that cover front- and back-end development, along with UX and product management. Developers are encouraged to work through the entire stack, even if their designation is just front-end or back-end.  Then a person with the title of “miniboss,” or “endboss,” checks their work and signs off on the code merge.

GitLab gives its employees a lot of freedom for the tasks on which they work, and in the way in which they work. They call themselves a remote-first company, which means they build all of the company’s workflows around remote work, regardless of whether employees are co-located or not.

Themes: GitLab engineers have the advantage of getting to build a tool that’s used by the people who do what they do. Thus, "dogfooding" is part of GitLab’s DNA. Engineers quickly become domain experts for their products. Here are a few more themes from the online handbook:

  • “Everything is always in draft and subject to change," and that includes GitLab's online handbook. You can submit a merge request to change something in the handbook just as you would in an open source GitHub project.
  • Diversity is important to GitLab. It encourages inclusive language, empathy, and kindness.
  • In the same vein as inclusiveness and diversity, GitLab understands that employees are at different skill levels and have different specialties. No one knows the same things. Therefore, they encourage people to feel comfortable admitting when they don’t understand something or don't have an answer. And it’s important for others not to act surprised or demean other employees for not knowing something.
  • Be honest and direct, but still kind, the handbook says. GitLab would rather have employees share any job dissatisfaction with their boss or the CEO as soon as possible, so that the problems don’t become worse.
  • GitLab only cares about output and results. It doesn't care how much time you spend working, or if you check Facebook and Twitter throughout the day.
  • Transparency is important. Everything GitLab does is public by default, just like its handbook.
  • Boring solutions are encouraged. Why? Because they are often the least complex, easiest to maintain, most efficient solutions. You can always iterate, innovate, and make things more complex if necessary.

One last theme that stands out is quirkiness, which makes the work environment more interesting and encourages people to celebrate diversity and different personalities. Open source projects are a community, and GitLab wants to encourage a community of open, giving people.

Money quote: “To maintain our rapid cadence of shipping a new release every month, we must keep the barrier low to getting things done.”

On enthusiasm: “We recognize that inspiration is perishable, so if you’re enthusiastic about something that generates great results in relatively little time feel free to work on that.”

Culture document: GitLab Team Handbook

Facebook

Only a few pages of Facebook's employee handbook, or “little red book,” have been shared publicly. It first created the handbook in 2012 (the year the company passed one billion users) to explain the social media giant's mission, history, and culture to new employees.

Facebook named it the little red book because it contains pithy stories and aphorisms that illustrate the values and the mission behind the company, much like the historical “little red book” by Mao Zedong, the founder of Chinese communist party, which contained speeches, quotes, and writings embodying his philosophy.

Some of the book’s stories are meant to inspire new hires by showing them how simple ideas and concepts can change the world. For example, Facebook started as a social mission, not as an idea for a company. It also states that by changing communication, Facebook is changing the world.

If that’s not enough to make a new engineer feel important, the book's statistic of having approximately one engineer for every one million users on Facebook certainly might.

Themes: Facebook’s little red book emphasizes that they do not want to be beaten by competitors. “The quick shall inherit the earth,” it says—stressing the importance of releasing fast, failing fast, and learning fast. Management believes the industry is moving so fast that there’s no point in having a five-year plan. Instead, they have a six-month plan and a constantly shifting 30-year plan

You get the sense of a healthy paranoia at Facebook when you read some of the other passages: “If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.” There’s also an aura of tough love, similar to the tone in Netflix's cultural slideshow. "Greatness and comfort rarely coexist,” it proclaims. Greatness, not money, seems to be the goal because Facebook says it makes money so that it can build better services. It doesn't build services to make money.

Money quote: “Fast doesn’t just win the race. It gets a head start for the next one.”

Culture document: Excerpts of Facebook’s little red book

Buffer

Buffer's social media post-scheduling tool was made by a group of people in an unusual company culture. The small company of 60+ people has taken transparency to the extreme. Employees blog about their rationale for the company’s decisions and experiments all the time.

Buffer is the most transparent company on this list. A big example of this transparency is the fact that you can find out exactly how much anyone on the Buffer team makes (the CEO, for example, made $218,000 in 2016).

Themes: Buffer is all about transparency. Code, revenues, diversity stats, and employee salaries are all published publicly on Buffer’s transparency page. Even the way it calculates salaries is publicly available.

Salary levels vary based on experience, role, and cost, of living, but it also gives 5% raises for every year of service. You can see a list of all employees (first names only) that includes roles, start date, location, and salary. Buffer also changed the formula when feedback was negative about one policy that gave employees an extra $3,000 per year for each dependent. In response, it moved that money into grants and other family support benefits.

Diversity is another major part of Buffer’s mission. Closing the women and minorities gap in tech is important to the company, so management created a diversity dashboard. It’s an incredibly data-rich visualization that includes both employees and applicants. Buffer's belief: If you measure diversity, it will be addressed and improved.

Source: Buffer Transparency

As for the rest of Buffer’s values, it takes a page or two from Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” In addition to transparency and diversity, Buffer's values also include positivity, self-improvement, listening, communication, reflection, ego-less productivity, gratitude, working smarter not harder, and doing the right thing.

Money quote: “Transparency breeds trust, and trust is the foundation of great teamwork.”

Culture document: Buffer + Transparency

Basecamp

Formerly known as 37signals, Basecamp develops web-based project management and CRM tools. The company is famous for employing Ruby on Rails inventor David Heinemeier Hansson (aka. DHH) and Jason Fried, who co-authored two books on business (Rework) and remote working (Remote: Office not Required).

Themes: Like Netflix, Basecamp focuses on attracting talent by paying in the top 5% of software industry salaries. Its values include excellence, experimentation, honesty, and kindness. One of Basecamp’s less commonly seen values is its culture of charity: Management encourages employees to have a positive impact on the world and to give back.

A key focus for Basecamp is keeping its employees happy, healthy, and not overworking them. The company institutes "summer hours" from May 1 to August 31, during which most employees work Monday through Thursday. Employees receive a $100/month fitness stipend, a $100/month massage allowance, and a community-supported agriculture allowance to buy local produce.

"We don’t want people working more than 40 hours a week in any sustained fashion (we even built in a 'Work Can Wait' feature in Basecamp 3, which turns Basecamp notifications off after work hours and on weekends). In a crisis, or a once-every-couple-years special push, we may require very short-term extended hours, but otherwise we strongly encourage a maximum of 40-hours a week, and 8-hours of sleep a night." —Jason Fried

Basecamp has purposely remained small, with less than 50 employees, to reduce complexity and maximize efficiency. It's also fiscally conservative, never spending more than it earns. It has remained profitable for 15 years in a row.

Money quote: “We encourage 40-hour work weeks. I only make this point since our industry is perverted, and often asks people for regular 60+ hour weeks + regular pushes on weekends.” — Jason Fried.

Culture document: Culture crushin’ on Basecamp

Etsy

The online arts and crafts marketplace has a very different application architecture compared with Netflix’s microservices. While it’s been called a monolithic architecture, Etsy reminds us that they employ a service-oriented architecture with a disciplined continuous delivery process and a complete feedback loop of about 21 minutes (it might be less now). Its engineers deploy code about 25 times a day, and that gives developers the feeling that their work is making an impact.

Source: Optimizing for developer happiness

Themes: Etsy believes engineering processes that make its developers happy are also best for product quality. “Easy deploys = developer happiness,” is the motto.

Developer impact starts on day one. The company is well-known for having new developers push code through on their first day—they just add themselves to the team page. Although that profile could be generated from a database, Etsy keeps the process manual so that new hires can learn about their deployment process on their first day by making a small change that won’t break anything. If employees do break something later in their tenure, it’s okay—they do blameless post-mortems

A company that does continuous delivery can feel the impact of their work every day, and Etsy's culture cites this quotation from Dan Ariely's book, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home

 “If companies really want their workers to produce, they should try to impart a sense of meaning—not just through vision statements but by allowing employees to feel a sense of completion and ensuring that a job well done is acknowledged. At the end of the day, such factors can exert a huge influence on satisfaction and productivity.”

Like other companies on this list, Etsy has a relatively flat organizational structure. In fact, they say that their company operates internally like an online community. They are both self-regulating and self-sustaining. Workers (especially developers and operations) are encouraged to “watch each other’s back.”  The result of this organizational style is what the company calls a “radical decentralization of authority.” They put a lot of trust in the team as a whole (like Netflix, Valve, and others on this list) to move things forward.

Empathy and diversity are large components of Etsy as well. The business builds its own pipeline of female candidates by sponsoring a summer hacker school, which offers grants to women. Etsy grew the number of female engineers it employs by 500% in 2014.

Perhaps the most unusual practice at Etsy is that it offers departing employees the opportunity to give a post-mortem presentation on their time at the company. It’s meant to be a chance for employees to summarize and share the knowledge they’ve gained during their tenure.

Money quote: “Optimize for developer happiness”

Culture documents: The Etsy Way, Optimizing for developer happiness, Key Takeaways on Etsy Culture from the Etsy DevOps Developer Exchange

Zaarly

Zaarly, a site for finding, contacting, and paying housework professionals, doesn’t have a vacation policy, and offers flexible work hours. The Kansas City-based company includes many remote employees. If people need to have face-to-face meetings, Zaarly is “very happy to pay for plane tickets,” says the Zaarly employee handbook.

The company wants employees to work wherever and whenever they feel most productive. It emphasizes that anyone can set up a meeting with anyone else, even if it’s their first day.

Themes: Good communication is a key focus at Zaarly. Its handbook details the strengths and weaknesses of every form of communication, from email, to instant messages, to face-time. While the company believes that work can happen anywhere, it insists that full collaboration only happens when people are in the same room.  According to its handbook, 9 out of 10 internal conflicts arise because of a lack of communication or a miscommunication.

Prioritization is another goal. Zaarly's management isn't worried about spending large amounts of time figuring out if they’ve got the right priorities. They also don’t mind if you need to talk to half the company to get feedback before you know what to prioritize. And in all arguments about priorities and other issues, they believe it’s important to use definitive data, or direct customer feedback, rather than opinions or intuition. However, in the absence of clear customer feedback or data, Zaarly encourages people to go with their gut, because they believe that it can lead to some great insights, or mistakes to learn from.

Here are a few more themes from the handbook:

  • Output is all that matters, not the amount of face-time or the number of hours you put in.
  • The organization should be as flat as possible.
  • Small teams should form quickly, as needed, and anyone can lead them.
  • Short, clearly addressable projects are preferred—bigger problems should be broken down into short projects because it’s hard to maintain a sense of urgency over several weeks.
  • Employees should have a realistic view of the present, but be optimistic about what is possible.

Although the organization is fairly flat, Zaarly does have a structure that includes four groups: people who find service providers, people who build the tools to help homeowners and service providers work together, marketers, and people who help those three groups thrive.

Money quote: “Doing one thing extremely well will beat doing five things with mediocrity every day of the week. We’ve learned the hard way that the best way to get nothing done is to try and do everything.”

Culture document: Zaarly Employee Handbook

Valve

The employee handbook at Valve, creator of the Steam online game platform, is one of the most heavily shared and debated among software engineers, probably because the company's vision for its culture is so radical.

It has no hierarchy, and no job descriptions. Even their founder/president, Gabe Newell, doesn't manage anyone, and every employee has both the power to green-light projects and ship products. Newell believes that a totally flat structure removes many organizational barriers that get in the way of developers creating great experiences for customers. At Valve, the customer is the only true “boss."

Employees collectively decide what projects they would like to work on. They vote on projects by joining them, which means that new projects have to be pitched to certain employees that are necessary for its completion. People vote with their feet by joining the projects they choose.  Projects that don't get enough people don't get done.

To maintain a culture like this, Valve puts an intense emphasis on its hiring and firing process. Anyone can choose to participate in that process as well. Before firing someone, you need a consensus, as with everything else at Valve. And even then, employees still get a chance to turn things around.

As far as promotions go, Valve uses stack rankings and peer reviews. It does stack rankings as a way to adjust compensation, and employees rank each other according to an established set of metrics. Groups conduct peer reviews and gives people feedback on how to grow as individual contributors.

Themes: Valve looks for responsible, entrepreneurial, self-managers to join the company. In its handbook, Valve states that “Any time you interview a potential hire, you need to ask yourself not only if they’re talented or collaborative but also if they’re capable of literally running this company, because they will be.”

In hiring, Valve looks for what it calls a “t-shaped” person, broad-range generalists with deep expertise in one area. This is important because employees need to be flexible, but also provide high value and specialization in crucial areas.

Nothing at Valve has a permanent structure. Project teams have internal structures optimized for each team’s needs at any given point in time, so that, once employees join a project, they know what they need to do. Ultimately, however, the only real requirement is to constantly look for the most valuable work to do, and then do it.

Long-term and short-term goals emerge organically from this philosophy. Valve employees constantly challenge each others’ assumptions and decisions. But it’s okay to make mistakes, even expensive ones. All are considered opportunities to learn.

Valve is also happy to admit in its handbook that it's not good at certain things. One of those things includes mentoring people. It is also not good at helping people grow in areas where they are weak. And disseminating information is also not a core strength.

Money quote: “When you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value.”

Culture document: The Valve Handbook for New Employees

Common themes

One central theme runs through all of these culture documents and employee handbooks: Remove all barriers to productivity. Other common themes include:

  • Cut the red tape. Don’t impose processes for every little thing.
  • Hire responsible people. The best people require less process and overhead, and people with good ethical judgment and time management skills require fewer policies for guidance.
  • Reduce complexity. Smaller teams and simpler solutions are more adaptable and maintainable. Shorter, smaller projects keep teams from getting bogged down and losing momentum.
  • Exercise kindness, good communication, and humility. Along with data-driven debates, these qualities help companies remove barriers to productive collaboration.
  • Allow mistakes. Place greater emphasis on learning from mistakes and focus less on repercussions. Doing so creates a more innovative, experimental, and versatile organization that can adapt quickly to changing markets.

Dan Pink’s themes of autonomy, mastery, and purpose are common themes across all of these companies' employee handbooks. Facebook gives employees a sense of purpose by telling them that they are changing the world. Etsy helps its employees feel a sense of mastery by letting new hires deploy a change on the first day, and by guiding people to self-improvement throughout their tenure. Valve allows the ultimate autonomy—anyone can work on anything.

Diversity is also a major focus for several companies on the list. Not only is diverse hiring an excellent way to make a positive impact in the world, these companies believe, but research shows that diversity makes teams better.

What makes your software engineering culture successful? Which of these themes would work for your organization, and which just wouldn't work? Post your comments below and join the discussion.

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