Engineers are the lifeblood of any SaaS company, which is why it’s worth building a culture that attracts them. Darragh Curran knows this better than most; as VP of engineering at Intercom, he’s overseen a fast-growing team at a time when the required skills are in high demand. At SaaStock 2017 in Dublin, he shared his thoughts on growing a great team under four main headings.
Focus on ‘why’, not ‘what’
Today’s employee doesn’t just want a paycheque, they want a purpose. Darragh encouraged leaders to make engineers passionate about the company’s mission and vision. “Great companies talk about why they exist, and the change they want to make in the world,” he said.
A company’s mission should be clear, actionable and massively ambitious over a long timeframe like 10 or 20 years. Aside from helping to ‘sell’ a company to potential hires, it also drives action. “When faced with uncertainty, it helps to make a decision: does it help our vision?” Darragh said. “Having purpose is what helps a team to be a great team. It’s a palpable thing: everyone’s on a mission together, fighting to succeed. It’s a wonderful feeling, and it’s the opposite of just phoning it in.”
The tech industry cliche is “hire engineers and get out of their way” by removing obstacles to having them make an impact on the product and let them get on with doing what they enjoy the most. That gets harder as a company grows and it puts more structures in place.
Intercom’s solution was to think about how it builds and ships software. According to Curran, the team realised this process was about learning and discovering. “Build what you want to build, learn and feed back,” he said. “Shipping is our company’s heartbeat. We realised how much more it meant than just removing friction for engineers. Even today, it’s a big part of our culture.
It literally breathes life and energy into the company.”
Now, when a new engineer joins Intercom, they make a change to the product on their very first day, so they experience very little overhead before making an impact. “We removed friction at a relatively low-level place for how engineers ship their code and that had downstream consequences for how the company works,” said Curran.
Work closely and collaboratively with the right people
After removing friction for engineers, the next source of opportunity is in the surrounding business. Engineers want to work with other great engineers, but in a small and growing team it’s important to learn from everyone in the company, whether that’s design, user experience or engineering. “It’s still possible to fall into the trap of behaving in silos. Interact and be curious about design decisions, for example. We all learn about the thing that’s adjacent to the thing you’re good at,” said Curran.
Enable freedom and expectation to improve
Anyone in SaaS faces the reality that “lots of things are broken”, said Darragh: it’s the nature of shipping code and iterating constantly. The risk is, that leads to frustration and a lack of positive outcomes. “Or, you can see things as positive opportunities to make things better,” he said.
Intercom uses a feedback tool, Culture Amp, to record what things the company is doing well and what needs fixing. “When we were small, and there were 20, 30 engineers, a lot of this came for free. We saw everyone every day in the office or the canteen.” The growth process can put a strain on this culture of easy and instant feedback, so Intercom actively encourages its engineers to act as leaders and drive improvements.
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