The culture at issuu
Engineers already enjoy working together, but that doesn’t mean this work is done.
When I came on board at issuu in March, the first thing I noticed was how well the members of the Engineering team liked working together. In fact, I found some of that surprising. Once I settled into my role leading the group, there were other insights particular to issuu worthy of note, and more broadly some points that I want to share regarding our engineering culture. I’m going to elaborate on these a bit, and from time to time expand on my thoughts on building and organizing teams.
My focus for issuu is bringing engineers as close as possible to the product, to customers and to users. I have come across many engineers in my career that are working on some back-end server and don’t have a good sense of what they are contributing to the business. I’m happy to report this is not the case at issuu, but that doesn’t mean the culture work is done. As we continue to build the engineering staff (and I will talk more about hiring in a future post), what’s central is making each member realize how he or she really delivers to the user.
In the Pink
Being close to users and customers is what gives our work meaning, and is also how to best assess and measure the impact we are having. These are not just my preferences; it turns out people really do a much better job when they see that what they develop matters for users.
I keep up with other engineering leaders in person or hear about their experiences in social networks, and read as much as possible about ideas on managing and structuring teams. It’s not often that someone puts into very nice words what I’ve always felt in my gut, but it happens. The main influence for our company’s thinking on the engineering team comes from author Daniel Pink’s analysis on what motivates people. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he lists three core principles: autonomy, mastery and purpose. They might seem straightforward, but are essential to what we’re doing:
Autonomy: I’ve already mentioned the camaraderie that is ingrained among issuu engineers; they are committed to doing interesting work with great colleagues and not necessarily in the shiny next thing. At a group level, though, our people have the ability to self-organize and choose their own approaches to addressing solutions, with the goal of having a clear outcome on product decisions.
Ideally this can be done with almost no dependencies. That is, a team is considered self-sufficient if it can deliver on 95% of its backlog without relying on others. The result is that instead of spending most of my time managing what people are up to, I get to stay out of the way and have more sway with the senior management and in nontechnical aspects of the company.
Mastery: People at issuu want to get better at what they do, and my job is to help them get on with it. Everyone has the option and the budget to visit conferences, and this year, engineers have attended the ICFP Conference in Vancouver, the Reactive Conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, and the RECSYS 2015 in Vienna.
I am also giving every engineer the right to switch teams, moving to a different product and a slightly different tech stack. This helps people get to know all of our stack in more detail and have deeper connections with colleagues. In addition, it creates new challenges for staff inside of issuu and not outside!
Purpose: Pink is devoted to the question of what drives creative people to get out of bed and get stuff done. Ironically it’s rather simple: Indeed people can be motivated by fear and outsize rewards (the so-called carrots and sticks), but only for routine jobs. For creative endeavors they can be motivated at much higher levels to do things that matter and have impact. We at issuu are innovating and optimizing the world’s best publishing and reading experience, no small feat, and our engineers are at the controls. Purpose is the most important element of our culture.
I have another principle to append to Pink’s list based on my instincts, and that is trust. My default is to trust. Why? My experience as a manager bears out that employees feel empowered when they see they’re trusted, and this unlocks their motivation. Otherwise, if there is mistrust, they may be nervous and confused. You’d be wasting time and effort blocking engineers out of systems (or worse, talking about it in meetings), and signaling that everyone’s job is to implement specs and then go home. That would be completely counter to what we seek to accomplish in terms of issuu culture, and what’s more, we would be closing off opportunities to learn from mistakes that end up improving our technology.
In the spirit of autonomy, mastery and purpose, once a quarter we set a theme — and within that theme everyone in the company (not exclusively Engineering) is free to choose and work on a hackday project. Then the next day, presenters are welcome to show what they’ve put together. We usually give out two prizes: one for the most awesome hack, and one for the hack that is most likely to land in production (and those actually land in production). That is an important part of our engineering culture among iterations, demos and retrospectives.
Hackdays are aligned with our quarterly plans so that hacks have a bigger chance of rolling out. To wit, our new issuu.com page, which introduces readers and potential publishers to our amazing publications and platform capabilities, is a great example of a handful of engineers having direct input on product, and fast. That project was created in our October 2015 hackday and landed in production in mid-November.
Even as we can take quick steps and roll out releases as a result of our collaborations, getting the culture right is not as simple as saying we are autonomous and have purpose and then it just happens. This endeavor takes constant reinforcement and repetition. Our biggest task over the months ahead is to cement the fundamentals of autonomy, mastery, purpose and trust across the team.
Once these are solid, engineers will have a creative foundation to think beyond just the technical aspects of issuu.
Alexander Grosse is VP of Engineering at issuu. Follow him @klangberater.