Building a Strong Engineering Culture

We're passionate about engineering culture, mainly because we've personally seen its transformative effects on engineering groups during our growth at TSGS. It's true that we've witnessed both positive and negative transformational effects, but we've arguably learned more from the negative ones.

What type of organization are you in?

Having recently read this paper entitled "A typology of organizational cultures", I tend to agree with its three proposed categories:

  1. Pathological: Personal power, needs and glory
  2. Bureaucratic: Rules, positions and departmental turf
  3. Generative: The mission itself

Having worked at more than one tech company in your career, you've probably seen these qualities at work. There may be one group in your company that operates pathologically and another that operates bureaucratically. It is less likely (but possible) to have one group operating generatively whereas other groups do not. In the paper, the benefits of generative approaches to groups are extolled.

This distinction is important for one main reason: how you build, change, or improve your engineering culture will depend on which type is predominant.


  • How are decisions made? Does the team make compromises, and if so, how/when?
  • Where do new ideas come from?
  • How are code reviews conducted? Pair programming?
  • What are the technical standards of the group?

What are the benefits of culture?

Culture helps a company in a variety of ways.

To begin with, if the mission statement of the company is the interface for the organization's operations, its culture is its implementation. Having a strong culture will attract, grow, and retain talented people.

By implementing the mission in a way that your people can endorse, culture creates a unique working environment. It is important to determine whether axe throwing or jedi training are compatible with the culture of your team before taking those steps.

In good cultures, standards are well maintained, allowing leaders to spend their time strategically. Rather than spending time corralling teams and demanding they do the right thing, a good culture allows leaders to focus on making the company better in ways they are uniquely qualified to do. Both sides win.

TSGS Culture

The open source movement

Engineering groups are not required to contribute to open source. Open sourcing good and useful code, however, can improve the reputation of your tech team outside of your company if your team has the bandwidth to respond to questions/suggestions from outside interest. It's good to see this. Please make sure you are open-sourcing good code, as this tactic can easily backfire and make it seem like your tech team doesn't 'get it'.

Start by contributing fixes to an existing open source project that your team already uses if you are committed to open source but aren't sure your code is good enough to be open sourced. You can do this without overextending your team, which is especially useful if your team is small or junior.

The innovation process

In engineering organizations, there are countless posts, books, and opinions about innovation. Your organization's type (remember from the beginning, pathological vs. bureaucratic vs. generative?) plays a huge role in how innovation will work at your company.

Hackathons are a proven method of generating new ideas for your company. There are two important questions to answer: whether or not these ideas are good, and if you are willing to incorporate them into the product that generates your company's revenue.

Outings for teams

It is definitely possible to improve cohesion and team performance through team bonding. Please don't think that team outings equal engineering culture. A team outing is great; a lunch break, a coffee break, a fun activity, a corporate sports league, a happy hour - these are all reasonable things that can help the team. Volunteering, through an organization, is a great way for people to bond and fulfill their need to help others.

Pay attention to your team members while at the event - there is a thin line between a fun outing everyone enjoys and "forced fun" with your team outside of work.

Is the Culture Change Working?

Pay attention to what's going on. The metrics you will use to objectively measure the success of your culture change should already be in mind. Surveying employees can help, as can listening to hallway conversations discreetly to determine the team's mood. You will likely feel the office is more purposeful if the culture improves; conversations become crisper, and less moping should result.

It is important to listen to your cultural advisors - some cultural constructs will not work, so pay attention to that and ditch what doesn't work. Things that work over time will need to be tuned; sometimes an event series that was very successful runs out of steam after a few years.

Ready to talk

Feel free to contact us today.