Building Engineering Culture with OGP, Stripe, Carousell and Endowus

Community
|

A couple of folks from Open Government Products (OGP) felt the gap in the tech events scene and came up with Deep Dive - a new talk series launched in collaboration with a few prominent tech organisations here in Singapore. 

Our team went for the session, transcribed it, and summarised the key nuggets during the sharing. We hope you will find this useful!


These days, you hear a lot of the term “engineering culture”. Big tech companies like Facebook, Google, Netflix all talk about their amazing engineering culture. But what is it? 

In this session, we are super lucky to have a couple of great engineering leaders to share their thoughts:

  • Li Hongyi, Director, Open Government Products
  • Victor Neo, Director of Engineering, Carousell
  • Noah Pepper, Business Lead, Stripe APAC
  • Joo Won Lee, CTO, Endowus

TL;DR - our favourite parts during the sharing

General culture

  • Culture is both implicit and explicit - if you want consistency, be explicit (Li Hongyi)
  • Do not treat engineers as merely implementers (Noah Pepper)
  • Be firm on the cultural values you want and accept departures if people do not fit (Joo Won Lee)
  • Solve team burn out by solving team’s workload, purpose, and friction (Li Hongyi)

Documentation

  • Documentation helps reduce difficulty of remote communication (Noah Pepper)
  • Documentation helps lessen quantity of meetings (Victor Neo)
  • Start by writing documentation on the small things, eventually grow confidence on the bigger documentations (Noah Pepper)

Speed vs Consistency

  • Constant trade off between consistency in process and speed of delivery (Li Hongyi)
  • Have a standard definition of what “urgent” means (Li Hongyi)
  • Great in the next week is more important than perfect in the next month” if optimising for speed (Li Hongyi)
  • Move fast on iterations with little consequences, be thoughtful on iterations with potentially huge implications (Noah Pepper)

Growth

  • In the early days, always rely on referrals (Joo Won Lee)
  • If team grows faster than your learning as manager, step aside but monitor their leadership and give feedback (Victor Neo)

Summarised transcripts of Deep Dive #1: Building an Engineering Culture

What is Culture?

Open Government Product’s Li Hongyi
  • Culture is essentially the operating context of all the people working together
  • It translates to the consistency of behavior in the team
  • Culture can be either implicit or explicit
  • Explicit are typically written rules eg. work hours, standard operating procedures (SOP)
  • Implicit could be unspoken rules eg. can you change the code base without approval? 

How did the engineering culture change since the start?

Stripe’s Noah Pepper
  • Stripe has a unique and strong engineering culture maintained since founding of Stripe
  • Engineers are expected to deeply understand customers’ problems
  • Engineers are never implementation headcount eg. sales reps telling engineers to “build this feature”
Carousell’s Victor
  • Victor is the first engineer and now the director of engineering in carousell
  • Early days there isn’t much of an engineering culture - it is just the founders and engineers
  • As the team grew, culture of caring deeply for users kicked in
  • Everyone joined in on brainstorming and discussions with the business folks
  • No longer just about writing code, it is about solving problems for customers
  • This mindset developed over time organically with people who joined automatically doing so implicitly
  • There are instances where people just wants to write code. In such cases, expectations that engineers have to do more than coding ie. solve problems for users, will be made explicit
Endowus’ Joo Won Lee
  • One thing the team really well in the first 3 years is having Empathy
  • Providing emotional support and having an enjoyable working culture is the most important 
  • Making sure engineers feel safe about sharing mistakes and even personal issues without any criticism or judgement is critical
  • This gives a psychological safety to the team

How has COVID-19 affected engineering culture?

Stripe’s Noah Pepper
  • Stripe uses a lot of writing, memos, and documentation to communicate
  • Such artifacts make communication easier especially as a global company with timezone differences and remote working
  • During COVID-19, more businesses need Stripe to run, interestingly this gave the team more conviction about their work
Carousell’s Victor
  • Carousell was already transitioning to written communication before COVID-19
  • Turns out nothing went wrong when COVID-19 hits and turned remote
  • You can also reduce number of meetings with more documentations
  • However, difficulty in bonding team remotely
  • Experimented with games over zoom
  • Tried having more sharing sessions with the team
Open Government Product’s Li Hongyi
  • Big thing that really changed was speed
  • The team had to move a lot faster than government traditionally is used to
  • As government systems are extremely important, huge amounts of time goes into planning and building
  • However, OGP needs to really push things out fast
  • Team faced a strange convergence between speed and importance
  • While government focuses more on processes, public impact matters more in OGP
  • The conscious trade off is lesser consistency on processes
  • Great in the next week is more important than perfect in the next month
  • One example is the COVID-19 Vaccination Appointment Booking system 
  • Policies were changing and introduced almost on a daily basis
  • Another interesting thing during COVID-19 is the calibration of the definition of urgency in the team
  • While urgent could mean something is on fire and needs to be fixed on a national crisis level, in some places, urgent could mean “oh my boss needs it”
  • The team eventually calibrated the definition to “I need to wake Li Hongyi up even if it is in the middle of the night” 
  • This allows everyone to calibrate according to this empirical bar and communicate on the same page
Stripe’s Noah Pepper
  • Some things at stripe must move really fast, some have to move relatively slower
  • It depends on the impact the change could bring
  • Things like changing the color of a button can be iterated quickly without much approvals
  • Some changes are one-way doors and require CEO approval
  • Say Stripe makes an API updates, it could break and potentially affect many
  • Historically, Stripe has almost never deprecated any API updates
  • Thus, the team stays very thoughtful about any updates pushed out

How do you know if the team is scaling faster than you? When do you know if you should hire externally?

Carousell’s Victor
  • Carousell did hire experienced Individual Contributors and Managers during its journey
  • As a young manager, there is always a cycle of learning and unlearning, which can be painful
  • When the company grows, the amount of leadership and direction to be provided to the team also changes
  • When that happens, it’s a good chance to step aside and see how the new hire leads the team
  • Had many discussions amongst the founders to decide on the desired engineering culture, and if the new hire is going along the same direction
  • All in all, managers will grow, albeit at different pace

Do you face resistance when introducing new engineering practices?

Endowus’ Joo Won Lee
  • Sometimes as the engineering leader it is important to explain to the business side and get buy-in when engineering team has new processes
  • Within the team, there will be engineers who may be resistant to the culture the manager wants to establish
  • The engineer will leave eventually
  • The departure is not as painful as engineers these days have many options 

Can Singapore become the next Silicon Valley?

Stripe’s Noah Pepper
  • There are always more roles open than there are engineers to fill them
  • It's a global problem not unique to Singapore
  • We see Silicon Valley as a gravitational force 
  • It’s a force that pulls in other talents, forming the critical mass of talents for ecosystem to thrive
  • In Singapore for example, a lot of Crypto engineers and companies are coming here
  • This creates the critical mass required to attract more Crypto talents and having the healthy ecosystem
  • Ultimately, for ecosystem to succeed, need a bunch of players from small to large organisations 
  • The large organisations train the fresh graduates
  • Startups and home grown successes (eg Grab, Carousell) help create the vision and excitement, allowing engineers to take riskier bets by paving the way that startups can succeed
  • Super early startups for engineers to play and experiment with new technologies

As someone who has seen Carousell grow in name, what changed?

Carousell’s Victor 
  • Some things got easier and others got harder 
  • Easier to gain trust from talents (eg when they Google’d about funding)
  • Harder to meet the rising expectations of hires, especially on engineering quality and processes 

How to face burnout in the team?

Open Government Product’s Li Hongyi
  • Burnout can be caused by a few dimensions: workload, purpose, frictions
  • On solving Workload:
  • The limitations to productivity in a group is not how much you work
  • Like a car, to go far, it is not how hard you press the accelerator, you need to optimise for fuel, pit stops, etc
  • Work modulation is important for the long term 
  • On solving Purpose:
  • Share stories of impact on actual users
  • It takes mental energy to think about the impact of their work
  • A lot easier for the team if leaders share the stories upfront 
  • On solving frictions:
  • Slacken the tension in the team
  • Push people to take leaves and breaks
  • Aim to bond and build relationships amongst team members
  • Without warm connection, minor frictions in the team can become terrible friction. 
  • Connections help make conflicts easier and more manageable

“I am the first engineer, I am keen to know how to scale to a team of 100”

Endowus’ Joo Won Lee
  • We are not 100 yet, can only share how we grew to size of 30 
  • From 0 to 10, it is early stage, no option but to ask network of friends who are brave enough to join you
  • Need to convince them this will become something big
  • Growing from 10 to 30, need to ask these friends to ask their friends to join
  • Eventually, consider hiring recruiters, join career fairs, etc

What do you think is the biggest push and pull in your organisations

Carousell’s Victor 
  • Seen everyone that joined and left
  • Sometimes departures are not a bad thing
  • People do leave, if they leave to learn new things
  • It can be good for the ecosystem as they go on to spread the knowledge
  • One of the year Carousell tech team grew from 25 to 100 and spawned a lot of cultural conflicts
  • Have to learn how to balance between people who prefers processes versus “fire fighting”
  • Ultimately as some scale, it boils down to acceptance of people leaving for cultural misalignment
  • As leaders need to take feedback and hear from people who left or stay
  • Eventually with the feedback, need to decide what is the culture you want to build

How to overcome inertia to start a writing engineering culture?

Stripe’s Noah Pepper
  • Getting comfortable with writing comes from just starting
  • Start by writing for lower stakes products 
  • Slowly becomes habit
  • When time comes to write documentation for higher stakes products, you will have more confidence to write
  • It is also okay to write and rewrite documentations
  • Modulate the depth and quality of the documentation based on how many people will benefit from your writing

Hope to make smarter tech career decisions from today onwards?


Join NodeFlair's Telegram channel! We strive to help tech talents like you make smarter career decisions with updates on the latest

  • Salary
  • Company Insights
  • Jobs
  • Content
  • Events

PS: A giveaway is coming up real soon too, so be sure to follow our Telegram channel to avoid missing out - t.me/nodeflairsg

Related Articles