“How are you hiring engineers? What can I do to hire someone with (XYZ) skill?” These are the types of questions I hear from virtually every new engineering manager or founder who is looking to make her first few hires. Surprisingly, it’s a lot rarer that I hear this question: “How can I set up an environment where the people that work on my team continuously grow and innovate?”

Failing to answer this question is a huge mistake that a lot of us at young companies, including myself, have made. But, having an answer for your company will make it attractive to candidates and increase the longevity and productivity of those engineers you DO hire.

At Prolific Interactive, we decided to focus on a singular way to build this environment:

Make the company a PEOPLE company.

This can seem a bit obvious, but it is not. We are an agency, where typical business models usually involve profit margins, continuing business, and client management as top priorities. Your startup may be product or user-growth focused. Shifting from that mentality to pro-actively solving problems about the internal environment for your team may be a bit of a departure.

We decided to focus on making the experience of working at Prolific be superb and learning-focused, predicting that through the growth, creativity, and high standards of our employees a lot of other things tend to fall into place. For the engineering team we structure the department around this ideal and drive it using a few principles:

Professional Growth is Directly Linked with Teamwork

If the company is doing well, employees should have the chance to grow with it. Conversely, the company will grow as employees are doing better.

At Prolific, the strong emphasis on people is built into that growth path. Not only do engineers start taking place in increasingly larger company process improvements, but their seniority is also attached to their ability to mentor and be generally great with their co-workers.

The typical career path for most of our engineers is the following:

  1. Interns – We take our internship program seriously here because a lot of our interns end up becoming full-time engineers. Having interns also gives the rest of the engineers an opportunity to get hands-on experience teaching their craft.
  2. (iOS / Android) Engineers – These engineers lead by example. They deliver awesome products and are also awesome to work with. They feel comfortable communicating with partners, designers, and product managers.
  3. Senior Engineers – Lead the technical side of our product teams, which consist of 2-3 engineers or interns. They are experts in solving problems where technology meets the people who are implementing it.
  4. Lead Engineers – Once an engineer has proven to be at least able to oversee a smaller team, he or she now has the choice to move into either technical leadership or a management track. Even for technical leaders, the experience managing a small team allows them to think of solutions that actually work for the people around them, not just in code.

Mentorship is Foundational

Based on this growth path, it becomes apparent that mentorship plays a large role at Prolific Interactive. If you do not have an internship or apprenticeship program, thoughtbot put together a great blog about how they set up theirs, and ours is quite similar. We also have a mentorship structure for all levels.

Since our product teams are the fundamental building blocks of the company, this is the primary place where a mentorship structure needs to take hold. We also make sure that these teams are physically located right next to each other with limited remote work to remove communication barriers.

The technical side of the team at a Prolific product team looks like:

mentorship-map

red-arrowThe direct training that Senior Engineers give to other Engineers on their team that help them be better mentors and communicators. These are done via 1 on 1s, leading by example, and pair programming.

solid-arrowThe technical training that Senior Engineers give to other Engineers or Interns. Again these are done through 1 on 1s, leading by example, and pair programming.

dashed-arrowThe technical example that Engineers set for Interns. This mentorship is more organic, but still requires leading by example and pair programming.

The main tools of mentorship for the engineers are:

Promoting Education

Mentorship is the primary education tool for a people-focused engineering department. We also have a general budget for individual learning, but, education as a whole must permeate the environment in subtle, indirect ways as well. We do this by incorporating education touch points into the daily process for our engineers.

Opportunities for injecting education:

We have an opportunity as an agency to work with external partners often, and making all engineers partner-facing means they practice listening well, communicating ideas productively, keeping the engagement positive and collaborative, and being knowledgeable, succinct and clear constantly. Our company blog along with the internal DevTalks also serve as great practice grounds tools for our engineers to practice the soft skills like writing and presenting.

Flexibility

Last, but not least, a people-focused engineering team views the differences between individuals. Many of the processes in this post set the general direction for how career growth, mentorship, and education can be achieved at our organization, but making sure that an engineer has these addressed on their own terms supersedes the prescription of the organization. These processes are there to create a positive environment, not a means of controlling how people work. Furthermore, part of a great people-focused team is also about re-evaluating what works for each individual and for the group as a whole on a regular basis.

These are the strategies that have worked for Prolific Interactive thus far, and have helped us create an environment that fosters growth and learning. It’s not necessarily what will work at every company, but promoting the basic, people-focused ideal should be an imperative, so build a structure that meets it and your business. How will you make this happen for your team?

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  • Cassie_Wallace

    love it!