Why Culture is Important for Engineering Teams

Blockdaemon is in the blockchain business. The success of blockchains (such as Bitcoin, Polkadot and Ethereum) has largely come from the culture of their communities. This culture is the set of beliefs and values that members share. 

For Bitcoin, the community values are clear. Immutability, code is law, permanence. These are just some of the tenants of the Bitcoin ethos. This culture has grown organically (and successfully) for more than 10 years of the digital asset’s existence. 

Today, there are thousands of projects and millions of members. Each has its own community and culture. 

Organizations such as Blockdaemon develop their culture quite differently. When I joined as VP of Engineering in February 2020, the engineering team was quite small. There were only eight members. The structure was quite flat and not hierarchical. 

Now, our engineering department spans over one hundred people, and counting, on several continents. By 2022 this will scale even further. Our beliefs and values will be our North Star on this journey. 

As a fully distributed, global engineering team, our culture is carefully crafted. It needs to be fit for purpose as we scale. Just as the quality of a blockchain network depends on its nodes, so too does the talent of our engineering team members on the success of our business unit. 

Together, the value of our team is greater than the value of members working individually. Our engineering culture sets us up for success as we grow. 

Challenges with Scaling an Engineering Team 

Scaling a team is both challenging and rewarding. As head of the department, I identified the top three challenges to tackle as we scale. 

  1. Minimizing technical debt while keeping up with innovation.
  2. Serving our product team with an adaptive strategy.
  3. Hiring the best talent at pace to meet our clients’ demands.

For me, growing the team meant overcoming these obstacles and more. Working across three time-zones became the norm. Staying up-to-speed with the rapidly evolving blockchain technology on-the-job was its own task.

Overcoming Scaling Challenges 

We tackled these obstacles through the following ways.

  1. Established an adaptive strategy as our guiding light.
  2. Balanced budgeting with aggressive hiring.
  3. Hired people who were strong managers.
  4. Managed our technical debt but prioritised innovation.
  5. Established the SRE function early on to guide how we implement DevSecOps.
  6. Prioritised our team members to be happy and healthy from day one.
  7. Just enough software architecture, the slower pace layers are non-negotiable.

Defining engineering challenges early helps us succeed. Our culture helped us overcome these challenges.  This culture must be shared across all players to win. Building and maintaining such a winning culture is a conscious effort. 

Whether spoken or unspoken, culture plays a very real role. This shared culture filters who we hire, how we work and how we communicate. In the words of Peter Drucker, culture eats strategy for breakfast

How to Build a Great Engineering Culture for Scale 

A great engineering culture must be built and maintained

Firstly, we’ve built a culture where engineers can reach their potential. This is by ensuring that our actions are accountable, regardless of role within the company. 

We’ve imbued the culture with three key elements. These three things help engineers reach their potential.

  1. Remove Boundaries:  We remove geographical boundaries from engineers. We ensure from day one that people know our mission no matter where they are. Our cultural DNA runs from the early founders to the latest recruits.
  2. Know Your Business Values: We are focused on unity. This means making sure everything we do is tied to the business vision. Everyone in the business knows our mission and why this matters. By making sure that message is reinforced, we set ourselves up for success.
  3. Focus on Innovation: Great engineers always have ideas. Some of these can change the world. We promote innovation at every step. 

It’s the culture’s job to give oxygen to these innovations. It is important to engineers and important for our growth as a company.

Secondly, a good culture must be managed. This follows a top-down approach. Leadership sets the culture at a high level. Managers are responsible for nurturing this with employees. 

We look for candidates who will fit the culture. This simplifies the job for managers. Over the years, we’ve built strong relationships with top 5 recruiting firms. These firms have supplied us with top talent. 

We also regularly recognize the great work of our engineers. We look at the salary bands across the organization every six months. We’ll adjust our engineers’ salaries to reflect the market. This makes sure our team members feel valued. 

This kind of compensation retains talent in a competitive market. We also offer six-figure referral bonuses ($100k) to current employees. 

Top Tips

Be brave. Be prepared to challenge yourself. Keep checking in on yourself and remind yourself that you can do it, as countless others have, and will. 

Set yourself up for success by not trying to have all the answers, but making sure you have an adaptive strategy. Put stepping stones in place so that you can lean on those to react to a change in strategy – it will happen.