Want to build wildly successful tech products?
Build a strong engineering culture.

Story by

Damith Chandrasekara

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I’m the CTO of Loadsure, and I’m going to say something that will probably surprise you: technology isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Don’t get me wrong – technology can be miraculous, and solve a lot of problems, but it’s not what gets me out of bed in the morning.

The thing that excites me most is culture-building.

Toxic culture is pervasive in engineering departments

Someone once said a good manager asks you how your day is – and then cares about the answer. Unfortunately, in my experience, that care has too often been missing from engineering organizations, and I know I’m not alone. More often than not, they’re tremendously dysfunctional.

It’s not hard to understand why.

The pressure within engineering departments can be intense, and the complexity of what these teams do is frequently underestimated. There’s often the old, “that should be really simple” assumption. Then, when something goes wrong in the frantic push to deliver, engineers get blamed. It’s why they often feel anxious about owning up to their mistakes, and why they’re only inclined to report the good news.

With this type of culture being so prevalent in engineering organizations, it’s frustrating that companies are still perplexed by their high turnover of staff, and why they’re scraping the bottom of the engineering barrel or struggling to build innovative products.

Often, they’ll try to address the problem with more organizational processes in an attempt to eke out greater efficiency, but that only tackles a small part of the problem. Scrum boards and task lists don’t equal happy teams. These are systems that measure and quantify efficiency while adding more pressure. Without a resilient team in place that can handle or even thrive under this kind of pressure, these processes can contribute to even greater unhappiness in the workplace.

So what do I believe?

I believe that if you create the right environment, the positive engineering culture will follow. Focus on the people, and they’ll feel incentivized and empowered to build successful, innovative tech solutions.

My approach to building a strong engineering culture

Simon Sinek once said, “the role of a leader is not to be in charge, but to take care of those in your charge.”

That really resonated with me.

Having experienced toxic engineering culture myself, I’m now able to marry wisdom like this with what I’ve learned throughout my career to do things differently. But how so?

For starters, I create a work environment that has safeguards in place. Teams and individuals shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes. Rather, the emphasis should be on learning – and so long as the cost of mistakes is minimal, the way I see it, we learn faster. Unfortunately, this isn’t the norm in engineering departments and, while fear might be motivational in the short term, it can be debilitating over time.

Team bonding is also critical, and something I encourage. Depending on the day, this might take the form of activities, lunches, or games. But no matter what it is, the central idea is to have fun together. Why not create your own little traditions? One of ours is to sing happy birthday to each member of our team in our native language. It’s both heartwarming and hilarious at the same time.

Ultimately, when teams are having a good time together, they bond. These connections build resiliency within the team, since they know they can rely on each other when things get tough.

Of course, it’s critical to lead by example, and that means modeling these behaviors. You need to participate in group activities and gel with your team, not stand apart. You also have to fiercely defend your team, and make them feel safe and trusted – but that doesn’t mean shielding them from reality. Be straight with them (clear feedback is important), and let them know you’re right there with them when things get hard. Above all, make everyone feel valued and respected.

I’ve seen changes in people who’ve experienced some of the same toxic working environments I have. People who are now comfortable sharing their mistakes, opening up, and bringing innovative ideas to the table. They’re in an environment where they feel safe, and they’re flourishing as a result.

Let me tell you, it’s tremendously rewarding.

Of course, this means they’ll someday outgrow their roles, and inevitably some may leave the organization to continue on their professional journey. Yet contrary to what many organizational thought leaders might have you believe – culture isn’t just about retention. It’s about investing in people so they feel fulfilled, bring the best ideas forward, and support those around them.

Loadsure is a far stronger team for this approach – and it’s how we’re able to keep driving such exciting innovation.