Engineers Don’t Need to Be On An Island. Here Are 5 Teams Who Are In It Together.

Five local engineering leaders share the key tactics they use to build a tech team culture where employees feel connected.

Written by Eva Roethler
Published on Mar. 31, 2023
Engineers Don’t Need to Be On An Island. Here Are 5 Teams Who Are In It Together.
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Software engineering is often considered a solitary task.

In fact, legal work, science and engineering were the three of the loneliest professions in a pre-pandemic survey of 1,600 full-time employees by BetterUp and Harvard Business Review. And the pandemic has only added fuel to this fire, with many people developing even more tendencies toward habitual loneliness. 

In organizations that lack a healthy culture, engineers may feel as though they are alone on an island in space. 

By contrast, organizations that have fostered a healthy culture have engaged engineers who rely on collaboration to push more innovative code into production. Ultimately, teamwork helps build better products. 

Built In Boston is highlighting engineering team leaders who have created the types of cultures that allow engineers to thrive. The methods vary widely, from using the buddy system to creating publicly accessible, crowdsourced engineering handbooks. Read on for more. 

 

Photo of the Iterative Health team at a bowling alley.
ITERATIVE HEALTH

 

Jeremy Freeman
Senior Vice President of Technology • Iterative Health

Iterative Health uses artificial intelligence to transform gastroenterology treatment and improve patient outcomes.

 

What are three words you’d use to describe your engineering team culture? What does that look like in action?

Pragmatic, collaborative and mission-driven.

So much of software engineering is about finding the balance between short-term needs and long-term strategy. We’re at a foundational point in our growth, where we’re taking a step back and looking at the overall technical foundations we want to build, which means we need to think of the big picture. Doing this demands that we apply a healthy sense of pragmatism to everything we’re building — and focus on the impact it’s going to have both today and tomorrow. We want to cut all of the right corners that will speed us along, without cutting any of the wrong corners that will leave us regretful.

The company is growing and changing, which means we need leadership from across the team. We empower our teams to act as leaders and owners of their domains across the org. Everyone’s voices matter in decision-making; diversity in our teams and opinions makes us stronger.

Everyone’s voices matter in decision-making; diversity in our teams and opinions makes us stronger.”

 

Working here means making a meaningful difference for people and their medical care. This is an exciting opportunity to truly do good. You can see it in the way people show up every day. People join Iterative Health because they’re eager to make a difference. You can feel the collective energy the team brings to achieve this goal.
 

As a leader, how have you worked to cultivate this type of culture?

Hiring the right people is critical. We crafted an interview process that allows us to hire engineers who are not just exceptional, but who will also fit well in our company. This meant defining core competencies and carefully evaluating them in interviews. Specific technologies can always be learned.

I also instituted a request-for-comment process for getting feedback on plans and decisions. When you’re solving a problem, you write out the context, your options and how you recommend proceeding. This is valuable for technical architecture conversations, but just as good for other considerations. It creates a forum for feedback for the rest of the team, plus it is a great record of the decisions we made and why. 

Early on I engaged the team in writing a handbook. There’s no room for unwritten rules on growing, distributed teams. We wrote it as a way to capture our principles and practices so that everyone is on the same page. It’s a living document; as the team and business evolves there will be process changes, but that’s part of why it’s so important. We’ve made it public so that people thinking of joining can see what they’re signing up for.
 

What are some ways this culture sets the engineers on your team up for success and allows them to grow and thrive in their careers? 

One example I’m particularly proud of is how we ended up adopting Hasura to replace some of the services we were going to write. An engineer was on the team and was tasked with fleshing out the designs for how we wanted to manage access to a portion of our data, and many of us showed up with the assumption that we’d be building simple CRUD services with REST APIs, but she found a better, faster path that she was able to share and get rapid approval for.

 

 

Photo of the RapDev team.
RAPDEV

 

Eli Kapetanopoulos
Senior Engineering Manager • RapDev

RapDev is a team of Site Reliability and DevOps engineers that offers platform deployment and implementation services. 

 

What are three words you’d use to describe your engineering team culture? What does that look like in action?

Our engineering team would be best described as collaborative and innovative, yet scrappy. We are always iterating and coming up with new solutions that differ from the rest of the field. Our team is constantly pushing the boundaries of the platforms we work on. We strive to learn new technologies and use that newfound knowledge to build solutions that serve the customer’s needs. 

No one on our team works in a vacuum. We recognize that we are only as successful as our teammates, partner together on solutions whenever we can and know that the level of collective knowledge we possess is far greater than any individual player. Plus, we really love working together!

No one on our team works in a vacuum.” 

 

As a leader, how have you worked to cultivate this type of culture?

It is crucial that we foster an environment where both our remote and in-person teams feel included in the collaborative nature of what we are doing. We host daily standup meetings each morning to connect with one another, work through our to-dos and set ourselves up for a successful day. We have monthly team meetings where we share updates, successes and come together to review go-forward activities and how we can support one another. Every engineer on our team has a buddy and this person is accessible at all times for any need. As a manager, I conduct one-on-one check-ins with everyone on the team weekly. Again, it’s vital to remain plugged into each engineer’s work to offer the highest level of support. 

I think one of the most important components of our culture is transparency. We communicate openly in public channels on Slack. This gives the entire team the opportunity to stay connected to the business overall, learn, grow and dive into all areas of interest. Keeping with this transparency, I encourage knowledge sharing and questions across the team so that new perspectives can be provided on problems we are trying to solve. 
 

What are some ways this culture sets the engineers on your team up for success and allows them to grow and thrive in their careers? 

The biggest component here is ensuring every engineer feels empowered and supported to take on new challenges. The buddy system really helps to drive this forward. From day one working at RapDev, it is made very clear that every question is an important one, and every person around you is a resource to expand your knowledge. Our newer engineers partner very closely with our senior team members in order to build confidence and enhance these skill sets to be prepared for customer-facing activities. We have multiple instances of internal promotions which prove our efforts are working! 

We share and celebrate everyone’s successes on this team openly. If a customer communicates positive feedback to a leader in the company about a particular engineer, we share it across the entire organization. 

We push the boundaries on what we do, which keeps our team engaged. This is key in ensuring the team always feels challenged and that each day holds a new puzzle to solve and solutions to design. In doing so, we foster a culture of creativity so that our customers identify us as the partner that provides unique solutions to their problems.

 

 

 

Tony Wieczorek
Director of Engineering • 1upHealth

1upHealth is a data platform providing resources that enable fast healthcare interoperability. 

 

What are three words you’d use to describe your engineering team culture? What does that look like in action?

I look at engineering culture as the way we come together to collectively solve problems. We are a company with the audacious goal of making healthcare work better for Americans, but we can only achieve that together. Culture affects how we make decisions, how we stay engaged with our work and how we build products that matter. 

Our culture is: 

  • Open: Department and company meetings openly share information on the company that would otherwise be kept only for executives. Our code is available for reading to any engineer by default.
  • Empathetic: We are human first, and we make products for humans, so we take care to understand how others think and what they experience. When things go wrong, we start from an assumption of good intent and trust among team members.
  • Curious: With so much to fix in healthcare, and therefore so much to learn, it’s always OK to dig into a problem until you understand it. Engineers are encouraged at all levels to understand not just “the what” but “the why” of the work they are doing. If you don’t know something, it’s always appropriate to ask questions until you do. Employees lead by example and ask clarifying questions during all-hands meetings.

 

As a leader, how have you worked to cultivate this type of culture?

As a leader, I practice empathy to ensure my team feels psychologically safe. People will feel afraid to challenge the status quo or deeply understand a problem they are facing if they don’t feel psychologically safe. I don’t want people to second-guess themselves by asking, “If I make a mistake, will my manager have my back?” or “If I ask that question, will people think I’m not qualified for this role?”

I practice empathy to ensure my team feels psychologically safe.”

 

I like to model the kind of behaviors that I think lead to being more open, empathetic and curious. I make a point to ask clarifying questions in team or company meetings, even if I know — or think I know — the answer.
 

What are some ways this culture sets the engineers on your team up for success and allows them to grow and thrive in their careers? 

An important part of my job is continuously giving feedback to the managers and engineers on the team. We’ve got audacious goals as a company, and it’s natural in an environment like that that people will need feedback about what’s working and what’s not working. Without feedback we cannot grow and adapt, myself included.

It takes two to communicate — one to give feedback and another to be in the right frame of mind to receive it and process it. Our open and empathetic culture encourages me to have professional relationships where people know I am delivering feedback that comes from a supportive place. I need to be genuine so people really understand that feedback is my way of looking out for their career and for what the company needs. 

 

 

 

Joe Donahue
Lead Engineer • Simply Business

Simply Business provides small businesses with insurance and expertise.

 

What are three words you’d use to describe your engineering team culture? And what does that look like in action?

Supportive, energetic and fun. 

Engineering teams often work more efficiently when everyone is supportive of one another. Whether it’s through understanding different ways of working or collaborating on an initiative, a supportive team is a successful one. 

I chose the word energetic because bringing positive energy and excitement to your team is often contagious. It’s noticeable when you work with someone who is energetic and excited about the work they’re doing, you start to get excited about the work that you’re doing. It leads to a more fulfilling work environment. I have tried to bring that kind of excitement to every team I’ve been part of. 

Finally, it’s important for there to be an aspect of fun. It’s not necessarily possible to make everything fun, but there are ways to weave aspects of fun into your work. It allows for deeper connections with your colleagues and it’s a stress reliever. Not to mention, it’s difficult to be supportive and energetic without at least some semblance of fun.

It’s difficult to be supportive and energetic without at least some semblance of fun.”

 

As a leader, how have you worked to cultivate this type of culture?

I try to bring energy and structure to team meetings which are both necessary for success. I let everyone know that I’m there for support and look for ways to unblock people when they’re stuck on something. I also try to incorporate an aspect of fun into meetings.

 

What are some ways this culture sets the engineers on your team up for success and allows them to grow and thrive in their careers? 

Being energetic and supportive sets engineers up for success. If the team is energized about the work they are doing and are also supporting one another, the individuals on the team will be more productive and engaged. This will ultimately help members of the team grow within their roles on the team, while also making an impact on the greater business goals. As a leader, I am committed to helping my team progress through their careers in any way that I can.

 

 

Photo of the Dawn Foods team.
DAWN FOODS

 

Mike Callahan
Director of Digital Delivery • Dawn Foods

Dawn Food Products is a bakery manufacturing and ingredients distributor.

 

What are three words you’d use to describe your engineering team culture? What does that look like in action?

Empowered: We empower the team to work independently and take advantage of the various tools we have in place to push our technology forward. 

Helpful: We have diverse backgrounds and expertise in different areas within the team. There are no egos, and we encourage the team to bounce ideas off one another.   

Collaborative: The team works well independently but we also foster a culture where collaboration is crucial to what we do.

 

As a leader, how have you worked to cultivate this type of culture?

The team is working remotely, but it is important for us to be able to get together in person from time to time. Our team is largely local to Boston, so we can get together and do fun activities besides work. It is rewarding to see relationships grow stronger following the in-person gatherings. We try to keep things fresh with different activities that help the team bond more.

It is rewarding to see relationships grow stronger following the in-person gatherings.”

 

What are some ways this culture sets the engineers on your team up for success and allows them to grow and thrive in their careers? 

When we have a big project coming up, the team is given time to research the project before we start. We bounce ideas with each other, and team members get to engage with their peers about their approach and thinking on a particular feature. Our culture allows us to collaborate and innovate bringing on disruptive ideas.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Photos from listed companies and Shutterstock.

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