This week’s OSCON (Open Source Convention) drew thousands of open source enthusiasts from around the globe to Portland for deep dives into a wide variety of open source technologies. But creating software success today requires more than great technology. It also requires mastery of “the new essentials”—including data-based decision making, fast and iterative development, and the building of a modern company culture that can maximize the productivity and results of your technical teams.
So this year, New Relic and O’Reilly co-sponsored Cultivate (@cultivatecon), co-located with OSCON but devoted to equipping the next generation of business leaders with the skills needed to build and manage teams and companies that can get the most from all their resources—including their people.
“We believe great engineers deserve great managers,” said Bjorn Freeman-Benson, New Relic SVP of Engineering and Cultivate co-host, in his opening remarks for the two-day event. To ensure they get the managers they need, it’s important that “management is a career you choose, not something you’re promoted into,” Bjorn said. Fortunately, you can build your skills to do that, he added. “We try to do that at New Relic.”
You have to execute, Bjorn said, you have to encourage developers, and make them all want to move in the right direction together. There’s almost no such thing as a solo software practitioner anymore. Engineers need to collaborate across the organization, and that requires the right kind of culture.
“Culture is more than foosball tables,” Bjorn continued, but “most culture happens accidentally.” New Relic sponsored Cultivate, he said, to help make creating culture an intentional process, not just a consequence of the first few people who happen to join the company hiring more people like them. That includes diversity of thought as well as gender and racial diversity, he noted.
To those ends, Cultivate was deliberately designed to foster management and leadership skills as well as fostering career-sustaining connections. Instead of rows of chairs, the more than 150 participants sat at round tables to make it easy to chat. The schedule included extra long breaks to allow more time for attendees to meet and talk with each other—as well as a Monday evening party at New Relic’s downtown Portland engineering headquarters, where attendees had the opportunity to discuss these concepts in a relaxed setting over drinks and appetizers.
The sessions themselves featured some of the industry’s leading thinkers and practitioners. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Anthropologist and president/CEO of CLIA Consulting Mary Yoko Brannan’s (@MaryYokoBrannen) exploration of corporate culture as “a tacit system of learned HELP (Habits, Expectations, Language, and Perspective).”
- Brian W. Fitzpatrick, founder/CTO of Tock, and Google engineering manager Ben Collins-Sussman, authors of Team Geek: A Software Developer’s Guide to Working Well with Others and the upcoming Debugging Teams: Better Productivity Through Collaboration, explaining the keys to culture and leadership through the HeaRT method (Humility, Respect, and Trust).
- Pinterest’s Michal Lopp (better known as @Rands) giving the “Vegetable Talk”: culture best practices that may not always taste good, but really are good for you. My favorite takeaway? “Busy is a bug, not a feature.”
- Liza Daly, CTO of Safari, explaining how to assess your technology culture and then extend it to the rest of your organization. One tip: “Draw the biggest possible tent around what you call ‘engineering’ in your organization” including groups like QA and customer support that might not always be thought of that way.
- Quip COO Molly Graham—who spent 2008 to 2012 helping to grow Facebook—sharing seven hard-won ideas on how to build and maintain culture in a fast-scaling environment. The toughest one was number 5: “Fire People,” because nothing has been shown to be as demotivating as low performers sitting next to high performers.
- Eric McNulty, director of research for Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, noted the three essential mental shifts leaders need to make now, even as they hang on to the tried and true, like this quote from leadership pioneer Warren Bennis: “To be a better leader, be a better person.”
- Phil Gilbert, IBM’s general manager of design (no, really!), followed the theme of blending old and new with an inside look at the extraordinary efforts the venerable company is making to change “people, processes, and places” to “bring design thinking to everything we do.”
- Chef VP Jez Humble explained the culture of high-performance organizations, and emphasized that “It’s organizational culture that makes productive systems, not 10x developers. Bad culture ruins good people.”
- Finally, a hard-hitting panel discussion that addressed “Hard Problems for Managers: The Questions Nobody Will Ask in Public” was moderated by Bjorn and included our own director of engineering Belinda Runkle as well as software engineer Kate Heddleston, Will Maier (VP of engineering at Simple), and Molly Graham.
We plan to share deeper dives into some of these specific sessions in a series of blog posts in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, how can you tell if you learned anything about culture and if you’re doing it right? One indicator, Bjorn noted, is what happens when the going gets tough: If you still do the things the way you want to, even when you’re facing adversity, “then you’re on the right path.”
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