HOWTO: Maintain a Rock Star Culture

In a recent post I described a few bullet points on how I’ve managed to go about recruiting great engineers. That’s all and good, but what happens when you manage to land a few of these people? A common retort to my recruiting efforts at SimpleGeo has been, “How are you going to get them to work together without killing each other?” It’s a common misperception that all top engineers are also prima donnas who are impossible to work with. I’d argue that the truly talented engineers are far from prima donnas.

So here is a small list of things you’re going to have to prepare yourself to do if you want to hire, encourage, and foster a team of top engineers.

  • Don’t skimp on making them comfortable. You’re paying this person over $100,000 a year so why cheap out on their hardware, desk, chair, snacks, etc.? What we do at SimpleGeo is we tell them they have about a $3000 budget to purchase an Apple MacBook Pro of their choice and whatever monitor setup they desire. We make sure there’s plenty of water in the water cooler, soda in the fridge, nice chairs, whiteboards, etc. in the office as well.
  • You need to be prepared to fire a great engineer. There are going to be great engineers on your team who, for one reason or another, are not going to work out. They’re causing more harm than good – act quickly and decisively when you identify this. Yes, I just told you to fire great engineers.
  • Do not allow language and other technology zealotry to take hold amongst your engineers. Truly great engineers will run benchmarks, be pragmatic in their technology choices, and abide by bake-offs. I hate Java with a passion, but if it will pull five times more jobs a second off of RabbitMQ than Python then we’re using Java for our queue processors.
  • Allow ample time for proper development and, if that’s not possible due to arbitrary deadlines, allow developers to circle back after the fact to clean up. Great developers loath writing shitty code; at least give them the opportunity to revisit quickly/poorly written code. They’ve got a reputation to uphold you know!
  • Institute and promote proper development cycles and practices. Great engineers will naturally do this on their own and, when they do, get out of their way or figure out how to help with the process.
  • Hire or promote a great engineer to manage them. Great engineers, for lots of reasons, tend not to trust non-engineers to ensure their voices are heard within the company. If you think about it, engineering is one of the only disciplines where people who were not trained in the vocation are allowed to manage a trained team. You wouldn’t put a marketing person in charge of accounting would you?
  • This is a personal preference of mine, but I don’t think you should hire or have any dedicated product/project managers.
  • Your engineers should, for the most part, drive new feature development. You’ve just hired a small army of the best technologists on the planet. Nobody in your company knows technology trends better. This is where it becomes crucial that you’re adequately communicating your vision for the product and company. If your engineers buy into that vision they’ll dream up and program things you never thought possible. If they don’t they’ll tell you they don’t and why; listen to them carefully as your business’s success might depend on it.
  • Within reason, give them flexibility in where, when, and how they work. It’s true that face-to-face time and pair programming lead to better code, but sometimes an engineer just wants to walk to his favorite cafe and work with IM turned off. Let them.
  • The phrase is “Work hard. Play hard.” not “Work hard and then work hard some more.” This applies generally to the entire team, but especially so with highly cognitive vocations such as accounting, engineering, etc. Give your team ample vacation time and encourage them to use it. I’ve gone so far as to enforce reasonable hours at the office. Your engineers simply aren’t producing great code if you’re forcing them to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some engineers will resist this, if they do, read Alex Payne’s great post on not being a hero.
  • Promote a culture amongst engineers where their first response to a technical question is, “I don’t know.” A good way to tell a good engineer from a great engineer after you’ve hired them is a willingness to quickly admit when they don’t know something.

The above is just a small list of things I’m actively doing in an attempt to maintain a team solely built of great engineers that are producing great products at a very rapid rate. The usual caveat being that your mileage may vary when you attempt to do this yourself.