Companies work very differently when it’s 5 people, 50 people and 500 people. In tech, rapid growth is far more common than in any other area right now. Scaling developer teams and company size is a huge issue to tackle, and one of the keys to doing it successfully is scaling culture the right way.
Just building the right culture is a tough job, let alone scaling it as the company grows. New people join all the time, the structure keeps changing, and the way your core group used to work quickly becomes obsolete.
This is the moment of truth: will you be able to scale developer culture, or will everything fall apart?
We talked to veterans in the software development industry, mixed it with our own experience, and put together a guide to scaling culture in your developer team, to help you avoid the most destructive trap of scaling.
From this post, through real-life examples you will learn:
It’s weird to start a post about scaling culture with “it’s not about culture,” but it seems to be the case. Culture is the sum of the processes and the ways your team and company works.
The idea of scaling culture is adapting it while retaining its essence. Culture is the subject of change in the process, so it can’t govern the change itself. Instead, the core values need to be the base for the shift.
Culture is the manifestation of the values your team has. Naturally, it can’t be the same with 5 people as it is with 500. But the values and the vision could and should be the same. It needs to be strong enough to hold the team, the company and the culture together while scaling up.
Work out your values
You should work out your company’s values early on. You have to give it some thought, discuss with the top leadership and put work into it. It’s all about integrity, not how cool it makes you look. There are no wrong answers. Whatever guides your actions and informs your decisions are your values, and you should be clear on them.
To get there, you can start by asking yourself questions like, “In X situation, why did we choose Y?” It naturally leads you to what’s important to you and your company. Values don’t just come out of thin air. They need to be authentic, otherwise they’re empty words.
The exercise we did at Coding Sans to determine our values looked like this: be objective and honest with yourself. You don’t need many values in the end, but when you look at them, you need to know they’re spot on.
Once you’re done brainstorming company values, check your ideas against the next questions. It needs to pass at least the first three.
1. Is it true, or at least easily attainable?
Is this really true about you, or is it just wishful thinking? If it’s attainable, it may not be true right now, but it surely has to become true very soon.
2. Do your employees care?
It might be true but completely uninteresting. If you were the employee, would you bother giving it any thought? If the answer is no, drop it.
3. Is it relevant for your employee?
Will this drive a person to want to do a good job? Will this make it more likely for a potential employee to choose you, or is it like “Okay, whatever”?
4. Will this differentiate you?
You need to differ from your competitors. You can be different simply by telling your story differently. You could be attractive and different in the way you talk about yourself and in the things you say about yourself.
The result should be: true, exciting, relevant and differentiating.
You might go through different iterations of your values. It’s okay as long as the core remains the same, and only the wording changes.
You need a story people understand, and care about. These values will provide the base for that story, and that will be the cohesive force keeping your team together in the rough times. And that could be the story you will sell in your employer brand.
There are many practices you can use to keep your culture intact, to get your new hires to understand, get involved, and make your culture their own. They are useful, and you may see great results by implementing them, but the baseline for culture is to lead by example.
Culture is what you do
The idea is simple: culture is what you act out. If you act it out, if the top leaders act it out, the managers and seniors act it out, then you can expect everyone in your company to follow it. Only when you have that, do you really have a consistent, company-wide culture.
Showing a good example is extremely important when scaling culture, New people may bring with them old habits, old ways of thinking, and your culture may suffer from those. You need to become your company’s best employee. You need to embody everything you expect from others, and be consistent about it. Communicating it is important, but if you don’t practice what you preach, it’s just noise.
You go first
As a leader, you could start writing a blog with company stories. Preferably funny or at least light-hearted ones that don’t hurt anyone but communicate your culture and values. It may help to address your direct reports sometimes at the beginning of any regular meeting to reassure trust in your culture. Admitting a mistake is powerful, some managers regularly do it at meetings to keep up a blameless, open atmosphere.
All the leaders need to buy in
So, first make sure you embody your company’s culture. Then, make sure you are in sync about it with the top level leadership. Then, make sure only people who understand and follow your culture make it to manager or senior positions. It means every team has at least one person leading with a good example, which is the key both on team and company level.
It’s best to assign a couple of weeks annually or twice a year, when the leaders actually managing the scaling can discuss the long-term plans with top level leadership. This should unify the vision, and help keep the focus.
Coding Sans story
A few years ago, our developers at Coding Sans had a really tough time with this one project. New people were hired constantly, deadlines were closing in, and progress was a lot slower than anticipated. So naturally, our co-owners, the CTO and the engineering manager started staying in longer hours and even over the weekends to hit deadlines.
No other employee was expected to do the same, yet many colleagues started following them, and it ended up creating a great connection and team spirit. These people bought into getting work done, and it built the culture. Some of them are highly valued senior developers at the company today.
Obviously, this can’t work in the long run, and most of the time you should do the exact opposite. The lesson was learned, planning has improved vastly since those days. This story is just meant to show the power of leading by example when it comes to scaling culture.
For a long time, while Coding Sans was no bigger than 15 people, and we hired exclusively for cultural fit. The main criteria against applicants was chemistry between them and the tech leads, and it took only minutes to see if it was there. Naturally, there are many downsides to this method, and it can’t work for a bigger company, so we’re moving away from this.
However, for Coding Sans, even when in rapid growth, cultural fit was the highest priority. This is the best way to keep the integrity of the team and to keep the work productive. The right people will grow into their roles quickly, as proactivity is a core value for us. The wrong people may have brilliant technical skills, but the overall team performance may still suffer from a negative cultural impact.
Be aware of your surroundings
You need to be aware of any dependencies the growth of your team requires. Whether it’s project management, design or anything else, make sure you let them in on your plan to scale. Then you can make decisions together, and you’re more likely to make the right ones.
Some of the industry best practices include implementing a thorough hiring process including peer interviews and social interviews as well. It’s a more nuanced and better organized version of the same. The idea is to keep the team culture while scaling the company.
Cultural fit is in the top 4 hiring criteria according to our survey, the State of Software Development.
Google invites people from completely different departments for the interviews, just to see if they think the interviewee fits the company’s standards. Obviously, they can’t measure competency, but they can tell if applicants have a similar mindset to other Googlers.
You can get some insight to how well new people fit into your team, if you put them in the same room. Even better is to set up a couple hour-long coding sessions, where you could actually see them work together, and get some feedback from their peers. As long as information flows among the developers efficiently, you can expect them to fit in well.
Again: it’s not about culture, but values
[Dip Dhingani, Creole Studios, CEO] Another opinion we heard on the topic is to just straight up ignore cultural fitness when hiring in rapid growth. They also added something very important on top of it: culture isn’t that important, but you absolutely need to get new employees to buy into your values.
By making sure new hires understand and agree with the core of your culture, you can expect them to be able to adjust to your culture. Even if they cause the culture to shift in time, it will still be in sync with your values, so it’s more like a natural evolution.
Careful with seniors
Hiring seniors is especially difficult, as they are likely to want to bring the culture they are used to with them. They also have a lot of experience working their way, so it’s also likely they have a lot tougher time adjusting to a different environment. So, you better be extra careful; otherwise, you could end up breaking up your developer team, or going through a painful firing.
It’s unrealistic to expect seniors to have worked within the same culture you have, but you better make sure they are willing to buy in to your values at least, so they are likely to adapt. Have your values ready, explain to them what they are, how they translate to daily work, and see what your potential employee has to say.
At Coding Sans, we used to do a short on-boarding, and then throw developers in at the deep end. Proactivity is a core value for us, so we expect developers to speak up if they are stuck or have a problem.
It has gotten a lot more professional since then: we have better documented company values, we improved the on-boarding, we are testing iterations of buddy systems and do regular open space meetings. All these serve to get new hires up-to-speed with company culture as quickly as possible, and to make sure they have their voice heard when needed.
Early hires are everything
[Rama Rajanna, CureSkin, CTO] Early hires are key to scaling culture with your company size. If you get talented people early on, and they buy into your values, you are far more likely to attract the same kind of people, especially since employee referrals tend to be a strong source for new recruits.
Don’t integrate with force
[Dip Dhingani, Creole Studios, CEO] One very valuable insight on the topic, is not to go to great lengths to make people follow your existing culture. Your people are your culture themselves, so you don’t want to change them, or push them to follow a set of rules they don’t feel are their own.
It’s better to look for the right people, to make scaling culture natural, rather than force your culture on people who don’t want to follow it. If you can make it work, basically leading by example should be enough to get everyone on the same page. Then scaling culture becomes organic.
Team building events
Team building events do a lot to integrate people into the team and the company, so putting effort into it could pay off. It’s a great tool to integrate fresh faces to a team, and it’s also great to encourage cross-department communication.
Getting wasted together never gets old. But actually participating in a playful and maybe even somewhat competitive activity is even better. Developers tend to enjoy hackathons, and if you leave the office, the possibilities are endless. You could do paintball, cooking competitions, have everyone explore a new place together or come up with anything else.
Also, putting people together who rarely interact at work is a good idea.
Leading by example is the greatest tool in your arsenal to retain culture while scaling your team and company, so you and all the leaders better be ready to show a great example. Still, it’s best to back it up by other reference points.
Create a document
Create some informal documentation of your values and culture for every employee, including yourself. It’s a great go-to tool whenever in doubt about making a decision. Some companies share it in text documents, others make videos, but the idea is the same: make it clear, and put it out there. Some companies, like Netflix, even make their culture-related documents public.
Designated buddies can help a lot not only on the technical side, but on the culture side as well. Any new hire will inevitably have lots of questions early on, and assigning a buddy gives them a go-to person, so they are more likely to bring up their questions. As with mentoring, the buddy usually gets a sense of ownership and accomplishment out of it.
It's even more important at a remote setting, so make sure to assign buddies if you run a remote developer team.
To realize when you need an update on your company culture, you need to be aware of your company’s day-to-day life. But there is the obvious marker: growth changes demands. AKA growth demands change.
[Rama Rajanna, CureSkin, CTO]
"The company culture has to radically change every 10x growth.
For example, at 5 employees, no automation is needed. It’s better if everyone communicates and shares knowledge.
At 50, you need to automate and have a single culture.
At 500, you need to have fewer global rules at the company level but allow each team to evolve their culture based on the team's requirements."
Listen to your employees
There are two ways cultural change can work in a company: it either goes from the bottom-up or top-down. It’s useful to listen to your employees, and make space for changes moving from the bottom-up. They often notice new needs and shortcomings way before managers and leadership. So, you should provide them with opportunities to express their concerns and ways to make change happen.
Common practices for this are 1:1 meetings, surveys, organized feedback loops and open space meetings. We at Coding Sans use all the above, and they help a lot with smoothing out any issue as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Measure what you can
[Hutton Henry, Beyond M&A, CEO] You can effectively measure the quality and speed of your team’s work, and the quality of your meetings. If you start noticing a significant drop in either, you should look at what you could possibly do to improve the situation.
Measuring the quality and speed of your team’s work is fairly obvious. To measure the quality of your meetings, you can end each with a scoring round. Once you start seeing lower scores on average, like under a 7/10, you have a clear sign that something isn’t working.
Feel what you can’t
Even if you can’t measure it, sometimes you can tell the team morale is down, or things just aren’t going as well as they should. It’s a great opportunity to look at what you could change, and experiment with different methods. In the long run, it could add valuable layers to your culture.
We at Coding Sans always try to learn from other companies and sometimes implement methods that are supposed to solve problems we don’t even have. When you can’t put your finger on an issue, it may be an opportunity to implement a method this way. It should be well organized but not forced on the employees. If it works, it will stick around, and if it doesn’t, you should be able to let it go.
Hire right, fire wrong
Often, people change for the better or for worse. So, while you should certainly put effort into hiring the right people, you should also note that firing people who are disrupting your culture and could break up your team’s unity is sometimes unavoidable.
Of course there are steps you can take before you fire anyone. Naturally, you should give them proper feedback, use 1:1s to discuss the situation, and make sure they have opportunities to speak their mind. Sometimes, all this doesn’t work out, and you have no choice but to act.
How do you check and prioritize cultural fitness when in rapid growth?
Metrics: There is a saying "You improve whatever you measure." Code-coverage metrics will improve unit-tests. Similarly, tracking bugs using tools like sentry helps developers get early feedback.
Hands-on: No matter how big the company gets, the CTO has to get hands-on with the codebase. As you grow, the time you can put in writing code reduces, but it should never go to zero. Engineers value feedback when someone is hands-on and knows the real issues.
Politeness: "Nobody is trying to harm the company." Always be polite. One of our engineers told us, the company is over-polite, everybody says "thank-you" even if you are helping them or receiving help. Politeness is one of the easiest aspects of the company to maintain as you grow. People naturally follow it and maintain it if everyone is polite to them in the first few days.
Ownership: As the company grows rapidly, there is always chaos. Every task depends on stakeholders. Adding ownership to tasks helps engineers know that they have to do the work or get the work done from the rest of the team. Distributed ownership gets more important as the company grows fast.
Open culture: It is easy for information to get lost, and if employees feel like they can ask and won’t be judged, you have won the openness game.
Promote inter-department talk: Frequently hold events where teams can talk to each other. Employees learn to empathize only when they understand the work of other teams. Do not have a chain of command for people to interact. Encourage everyone to talk to everybody else.
Early hires: Early hires are the biggest risk or the biggest asset for any company. The smartest people might not be the best hires. Open-minded, polite people who feel they belong to the company and are a core part of the company help maintain and continuously improve the culture of the company. Do not hesitate to let go of employees who do not fit in, even if they are doing their work efficiently. When the right people are hired, the sum of parts will be greater than the whole.
What do you do to get new team members to understand and follow your culture when in rapid growth?
Documentation: As the company grows, information flow gets scattered. Having a documentation culture will allow new hires to come up to speed faster.
Pairing with a Buddy: Nominating an employee as a buddy for a new hire is the best thing you can do for him. A new hire will have tons of questions. Without a designated buddy, he/she might be hesitant to ask them. An employee gets a sense of ownership and satisfaction when he is designated as a buddy.
Automated rules: "When it repeats, automate." For example, if a comment repeats in multiple code-reviews, see if you can write lint rule. Automation has several advantages: reduced manual load, faster to iterate, easier to track, always checked, etc. As you grow, the team will not be able to be thorough and consistent because of silos and sparse feedback. Automation helps in maintaining code culture even when growing very fast.
When do you know you need to adjust your previously successful culture?
Sometimes, senior hires try to bring in a lot of new elements to your culture. Many will be good for the company, but some will not be. The higher-ups need to be involved in navigating them and channeling their ideas.
What worked when the company had 5 employees does not work when it grows to 50. What worked for 50 does not work for 500. The company cultures have to radically change every 10x growth.
For example, at 5 employees, no automation is needed. It is better if everyone communicates and shares knowledge.
At 50, you need to automate and have a single culture.
At 500, you need to have fewer global rules at the company level, but allow each team to evolve their culture based on the team's requirements.
In what ways do you communicate your company culture internally?
- Centralized notes
- Daily standups
- Weekly team meetings
- Quarterly 1:1
- Team events
The key takeaway is to make sure you are clear on your values and the leadership embodies them 100%. Then you should be very careful to hire all the right people and to get them up to speed, so you can hold on to the core of your culture and keep expanding it. Then you need to listen to your people, as they often see the current situation of your company better than you do. Make adjustments using their input.
Unfortunately, there is no magic trick. All this is consistent, hard work, and everything needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis. As long as you do all the above, you shouldn’t get yourself into deep trouble by scaling culture in your developer team or in your company.
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About the author:
Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.