What it’s like to work on these fast-growing, fast-iterating engineering teams

John Siegel

Collaboration is a tricky thing. While tools like Google Hangouts, Slack and even email allow teams to be in constant communication, they all mean nothing if there aren’t processes and protocols in place to help teams start and finish projects. For some engineering teams, that means a series of meetings to hammer out a plan of actions; for others, it means setting individual goals and being aware of what everyone else is working on.

We spoke with four different engineering teams to see how they work together on a daily basis — here’s what they said:

 

Betagig co-founder and CTO Melissa Hargis and her team are currently in the midst of building out the second version of the company’s app. In addition to regular costume days, her team is a highly communicative, flexible group of developers working to create the first online job shadowing marketplace.

How would you describe your team’s communication?

“We all sit at one big table in our office,” she said. “There are four of us on the engineering team, and we are constantly communicating about our code and sharing insights to help another member of the team. Any one of us is often pulled over to sit and help another work through a problem. We have one-week to two-week sprints, depending on the feature sets being built.”

Can you walk us through what your team does during big projects?

“We are currently in the midst of a big project actually,” Hargis said. “We're building out an entire new rewrite of our app. We have a super talented product manager who helps plan out the project scope and guides the UI/UX. We simply split out the scope into small sprint units of a week or two. Each dev is in charge of a portion of the app and we tackle it feature by feature. Luckily, we've got a very dedicated team of developers, so I often find them taking the initiative to work occasional nights and weekends just because they want to.”

How would you describe your engineering team’s culture?

“We have flexible hours, as we understand that a given person may not be at their most productive during the same times as another person,” she said. “What this often means for us is that the dev team tends to roll in later in the morning and then work into the night.

"Beyond that, we are all highly into coding and we get ridiculously excited about our work. We're currently building out a v2 of our app in React/Meteor, and all of us are new to this technology. Translation: we are like giddy children on Christmas morning right now. In addition, as the CTO, I always collaborate with the other developers when it comes to decision-making. I respect their opinions and want to make sure I consider their thoughts. We tend to have lively debates where we all are encouraged to participate.”

Does your team have any interesting traditions?

“As a company, we have regular costume days, as Betagig was founded while wearing costumes at a hackathon,” she said. “In fact, ‘80s day is next Tuesday! As far as the engineering team goes, we do have something interesting: we like to blame any inconsistencies in code on our office poltergeist, named Lumberg. We're certain he's at fault.”

 

Smarkets, one of the world’s largest betting exchanges, has a unique command structure: There isn’t one. According to Pascal Lemesre, Smarkets Press Officer, the no-hierarchy structure involves constant communication, but it also creates an environment where one employee knows exactly what is going on in other departments at all times.

How would you describe your team’s communication?

“The bottom-up, no-hierarchy structure at Smarkets places a lot of emphasis on team communication,” said Lemesre. “There is little instruction from 'the top' — teams need to make big decisions and choose a direction on their own, thinking not only about themselves but also which other teams will be impacted. To ensure people are on the same page, there are regular standup meetings and interaction across teams is encouraged. We prefer it if people actually go and talk to colleagues, as opposed to pinging them on chat. Also, we have desks with wheels so if you need to go and work in a new team for a while it's really easy.”

How does your team approach large projects?

“Our tech teams don't work with strict deadlines, but, instead, two-month milestones, where projects are chosen and shared among all teams so that the company is up to speed with the overall roadmap,” he said. “We like to innovate quickly, so things get moving at a fast pace.”

What's your team's culture like?

“It's all about autonomy, transparency and freedom,” Lemesre said. “Self-management is one of the pillars at Smarkets — engineers are empowered to not only write code and fix bugs, but also make real business decisions. If you want to suggest a new feature or spend a large sum of money, as long as you seek the appropriate amount of advice and feedback then you can make those changes without unnecessary bureaucracy.”

Does your team have any interesting traditions?

“As a new starter, you rotate among every team and each one tries to pitch you to join them,” Lemesre said. “As our hiring process is extensive and we aim to hire the best and brightest, teams always want hungry new recruits to pick them as their first team. Hawaiian shirts are encouraged on Fridays — “Office Space” fans will get this — and we also hold a party on the last Friday of each month to reflect on achievements and celebrate successes.”



The nature of Tala’s business demands that the company has a presence in continents around the world, and this creates an atmosphere of continuous learning. According to Sev Burmaka, Software Engineering Manager, the company’s unique command structure means that nothing falls through the cracks.

How would you describe your team’s communication?

“Communication is done in both structured and ad-hoc manners,” he said. “We have daily scrums for squads (groups of people working together to implement a feature or product), as well as sync-ups within guilds (groups of people with a shared field of expertise, like Android developers). We’ve also benefited from short weekly retrospectives. Having these weekly rather than per-sprint allows us to get feedback more rapidly and adjust as needed.

"Additional communication is done mostly through Slack. Our team spans three countries and time zones, and we’ve found Slack to be a very useful tool for expeditious communication.”

How does your team approach large projects?

“From the engineering perspective, the process starts with the design document,” said Burmaka. “The purpose of the design doc is to take all the requirements and create a detailed plan for how the implementation will work. This covers a wide range of topics: workflow diagrams, API endpoints, data flow, limitations, deployment details, and database schemas, to name a few. The design doc then goes through a rigorous peer review process and will usually have several iterations of feedback and improvements.

“This is all tremendously important to our process, ensuring that we have accounted for as many possible considerations as we can ahead of time while also acting as a convenient reference for the future. The design doc process has the added benefit of training our developers to think critically, consider a problem from multiple viewpoints, and plan for the future rather than just acting on the tickets that are given to them. After all, every hour spent planning is worth three hours of development time!”

What's your team's culture like?

“At Tala, we strive for engineering excellence,” he said. “Every part of the engineering process is created in pursuit of this idea. We also have rigorous code reviews where developers check each other on coding style best practices, as well as test coverage. Engineers are responsible for managing their workload as well as being the owners of their tickets from start to finish. We also practice the idea of rapid feedback. When there are conflicts, miscommunications or mishaps, we make sure to give feedback quickly and candidly to ensure everyone grows and learns.

“Tala has a unique role as a mission driven company, so part of the culture of our engineering team involves thinking about the problems we are solving for our customers or thinking about how our code will translate as we grow into countries in different languages. We work closely with teams in our markets, and we’ve enjoyed learning Swahili words from our Nairobi-based co-workers immensely (pro tip: go up to any Tala engineer and say “shoe jar” and wait for their reaction!).”

Does your team have any interesting traditions?

“Every year there is some sort of off-site retreat that everyone participates in,” said Burmaka. “Last year, it was camping in Santa Barbara. We also have happy hours every month to help foster a sense of community and togetherness.

We have a few fun naming traditions as well: we name our sprints after Pokemon characters and our product models after X-Men characters associated with the model’s purpose.”

 

With so many businesses employing individuals around the globe, it’s easy to forget how nice it is to have an entire team sitting within a few feet of each other. For Patrik Braun, VP, Core Data Systems at Ace Metrix, this makes otherwise redundant meetings obsolete and saves everyone time.

How would you describe your team’s communication?

“Our approach is a bit more organic than daily scrums,” said Braun. “We're a pretty small team and all local, so day-to-day communication is pretty easy throughout an iteration. Also, my team’s iterations are rather long, so morning scrums would get somewhat repetitive. Typically, at the beginning of an iteration, we meet for a while to talk through the high-level tasks that'll be included, then pop our heads over the cube when questions and things come up.”

How does your team approach large projects?

“Once we got a direction and some tasking for the project, the team will go off to build for a few weeks,” he said. “When the major pieces are dev complete and verified, the QA team will take over and we'll iterate with them on any defects. Our code base and services report data for clients that cannot change once it is published once published, so a lot of the release cycle time is spent making sure it hasn't with automated regression testing. The hours aren't terribly long unless you get to the end and things aren't right.”

What's your team's culture like?

“We try to hire folks that just need a direction to work toward without babysitting,” Braun said. “The organic style of development I like to practice demands that, or you spend as much time meeting about things as they take to build. Demonstrable code that can be iterated on is much more important to us than spending a month walking in the woods to perfect something. Like a lot of small businesses, our requirements change so frequently that a walk in the woods, more often than not, results in coming back to a cabin that isn't there anymore.”

Does your team have any interesting traditions?

“If you release a decent size defect into production and someone outside of the development team notices it, you get a lifelike skull that sits on your desk until someone else makes a big mistake. We call it, ‘The Bonehead,’” he said.

 

Image via featured companies.

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