A Look into the Engineering Culture at ISRG
Engineers design systems and processes to ensure high quality outcomes and solutions - what if the same lens could be used to build a workplace where these very same engineers can thrive? Many organizations toil on how to build an environment where employees are engaged, challenged, and happy with their workplace, and while ISRG is not immune to those challenges, we do implement a few distinctive practices that help mitigate some workplace difficulties. Because 68% of our staff are engineers, we will be focusing in this post on how we are building a workplace culture where engineers can thrive.
1. Aligning Growth Aspirations
It happens again and again: a solid engineer grows and moves up the ranks and is then promoted to team manager, where they are supposed to juggle individual contributions, technical oversight, and people management. Many times, the engineer may not even have growth aspirations in people management, and yet they are put in a position where they are expected to know how to manage people and do it well. This could lead to the employee feeling like they cannot do their job sufficiently, feelings of imposter syndrome, burnout, or unreasonable expectations for everyone else put in a similar position.
To address this issue, our engineering career ladder intentionally does not include management requirements. This enables engineers to continually grow as individual contributors without having to be forced into responsibilities they may not be interested in or skilled at.
Many of our Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) have a background in operations work. To support their growth, we run a job rotation cycle where SREs spend 12-18 months on our Developer team to foster coding, architecture, and design skills. Some extra benefits to this are the strengthening of mentorship amongst team members as well as the connection between the two teams for better alignment in priorities and understanding.
It is essential to support employees in their growth and goal setting consistently so that workforce planning can be done with the employees' best interests in mind. This is done through cultivating a psychologically safe environment where employees feel comfortable asking questions, making mistakes, and are encouraged to reflect and be open about their aspirations. Processes that help this along are regularly structured check-ins, performance reviews, blameless post-incident debriefs, and open feedback and communication with their peers and leaders.
2. Mitigate the Management SPOF (Single Point of Failure)
Every engineering team at ISRG is led by a Technical Lead and a People Manager. This separation of technical and people oversight allows for the work of leading an engineering team to be broken up so that it is not all resting on one person. The Technical Lead can focus on being in charge of the technical viability, structures, and processes while the People Manager can focus on things such as individual and team goal setting, growth opportunities, and conflict resolution.
The Technical Lead and People Manager come together when it comes to process development, visibility, and recognition. They also work together to address things for each other while not playing the other’s role, thus mitigating the “who manages the manager” quandary. There are more instances where collaboration is needed between the two positions and that crossover lends to more perspective and opinion on what could be a complex issue.
3. Intentional Scalability
It is easy to dive straight into action items and deadlines, and then before you know it, things are rapidly scaling in efforts to keep up. The analogy of “building the plane while it’s flying” comes to mind. Later down the line those scaled systems show flaws that are far more difficult to repair.
Much like designing a reliable and scalable engineering system, our goal is to create a workforce system that can handle increases in load while maintaining effective performance without redesigning the whole thing or “rebuilding the plane.”
Our dual leadership approach sets up our management with increased load and changing priorities in mind. Both people have more wiggle room to anticipate and adjust. It may seem superfluous to have Engineering People Managers in a small organization, however this prepares for future growth with a relatively lean solution without the extra complexity.
Like all scalable solutions, there is the upfront investment of time and money. However, the benefits will far outweigh the costs in the long run since building on scalable systems is typically less expensive than trying to adapt or redesign less agile systems.
While reflecting on our engineering workplace systems and how they came to be, we recognized that many were organically built out of having a remote workplace, autonomous teams, and the driving values of flexibility and inclusion. We will continue to design practices with these things in mind.
All in all, when looked at with a holistic lens, building an engineering workplace culture has several considerations that are similar to those we focus on when designing software systems. The obvious difference is that instead of functions and data, we are dealing with actual people with feelings and ever changing wants and needs. That is why it is important to once again acknowledge that no two workplaces are the same and there are no perfect solutions, but we hope that these few points lead to thoughtful reflection on how organizations can improve their engineer workplace experience.
If this sounds like a culture you’d like to be a part of, check out our open jobs!
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