Engineering Career Series: Building a happy, diverse, and inclusive engineering team
Sam Eaton, Chief Technology Officer
- Apr 8, 2021
I considered writing this as a clickbaity listicle: “7 secrets of engineering team management - you won’t believe number three!” Unfortunately that’s impossible, because it’s a much harder topic, and anyway, number three is: “many years of ongoing investment in building the right team culture, making a lot of mistakes, and learning from them.” Less catchy, but much more what this series is going to try and cover…
I’ve been at Yelp for eight years now, and I’ve been leading engineering teams for almost 25 years in both the UK and the US, at a wide variety of companies, at different scales and stages of their development, and in very different parts of the technology industry.
Over that time, with the assistance of many of my colleagues and mentors, I’ve developed a set of principles that guide my approach to management and building engineering team cultures. When I joined Yelp, I found a company with values that aligned very well with these principles, at all levels of the company, so I’ve been lucky to be able to try and apply them thoroughly in practice here.
A loose set of principles
Teamwork matters more than individual brilliance
People are indeed individually brilliant, and everyone has unique life experience and talents to contribute to their work. However, it takes teams to build something at the scale of Yelp. Building a culture that values empathy and teamwork pays dividends. A corollary of this is that a strong “no assholes” rule is vital.
Diversity leads to success, but only if there’s equity, inclusion, and belonging
There’s plenty of evidence that diversity makes teams more effective, but that doesn’t mean that just hiring a diverse team automatically leads to success. To really succeed, you have to build a company culture where you genuinely deliver an inclusive and equitable experience for everyone. Building and cultivating a culture where everyone can thrive and feel like they belong requires you to constantly examine what you’re doing as a company and what the real impact of it is on your teams. That includes listening to people’s lived experiences and constantly trying to improve.
Distributed teams help diversity
It’s a lot easier to build truly diverse teams if you’re not limited to having to hire people near the places you have offices. We’d already been hiring in multiple countries for some years at Yelp. Re-examining remote work and distributed teams during the pandemic has highlighted both the scale of the opportunity to really build teams that “meet people where they live,” but also the challenges in building successful distributed teams, abandoning the idea of a “head office” and creating a culture where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.
“No process” is another name for “bias”
It’s really easy to have no process in small organizations - which is where you start by default, and the flexibility of not having a process offers lots of advantages at first. The thing is, you never really have no process, you just have a process that you’ve never written down and examined critically. And processes that you’ve never examined critically generally hide a world of unexamined unfairness, even with the best of intentions. You need to articulate and examine what these implicit processes are and make them more explicit, to eliminate that unfairness and the biased outcomes it produces. That means looking in depth at how you hire, how career advancement works, how you compensate people, how you think about technical leadership, and many other more innocuous seeming things where you encode unintentional biases into the system and culture of your company, influencing the likelihood that different people thrive or fail.
You have to walk the walk
It’s no use just saying you want to be better at building diverse, inclusive, happy teams. You need to actually change things, measure the results of your changes, look at that data, and then try and improve things again. This continuous iteration driven by data is vital, you must be really transparent and accountable about what you’re doing, and its successes and failures. This directly relates to the previous principle about process, but fundamentally underpins every effort to improve here. And yes, it’s hard. And you will fall on your face sometimes, publicly. And it will hurt. And you need to get up again and keep trying, because that’s the only way things will improve.
Rather than just hearing from me on how we’ve approached trying to live up to some of these principles at Yelp, we have a series of blog posts over the coming months to further explain. These blog posts will go into detail on the how as well as the why, and share some of what we’ve tried, what worked and what didn’t, in an attempt to give back to the many people whose ideas and learning we’ve built on over the years. Over the next few months we’ll cover:
Hiring a diverse team: reducing bias in engineering interviews
How Yelp has approached hiring over the years, and the major lessons we learned. Once we started to standardise our approach to interviewing, we were able to analyse the data to find out if we were actually living up to our good intentions.
How we onboard engineers across the world at Yelp
Once you’ve hired someone amazing, you need to set them up for success on day one. The initial onboarding is vital, but is only part of the process. We’ve found that it’s critical to have a strong mentorship program for new hires, and that means choosing the right people to mentor and train them well. Mentorship doesn’t just stop at onboarding either, so we run an ongoing training and career development program to make sure people from diverse backgrounds can all succeed at Yelp.
Career paths for engineers at Yelp
Yelp previously had a completely flat “no levels” individual contributor career framework for Engineering. We’ll cover how we designed and redesigned our framework for career growth and levelling to move away from that, and discuss how that shift increased fairness and equity.
Technical leadership at Yelp
Why we approach technical leadership as a role you can choose to take on at Yelp, rather than just a level within our career levelling framework, and how we’ve tried to build a collaborative, cross-pollinating community of technical leaders who work together regularly to solve “big picture” problems, rather than just being experts in their own fields.
How Yelp approaches engineering management
What “success” looks like for managers at Yelp, what we ask managers to do and to value, how we’ve built this into the career path for managers, and how we hire and onboard them.
Ensuring pay equity & career progression in Yelp Engineering
“Walking the walk” meant actually examining in detail how we compensated people and how they progressed in their career, and whether that was actually fair and equitable across all demographics at Yelp. And then publishing the outcomes to the whole Engineering team and committing to do so annually, whatever the results were.
Fostering inclusion & belonging within Yelp Engineering
Improving inclusion and belonging requires you to provide for teams and groups in many different ways, like supporting Employee Resource Groups to encourage communities to socialise, collaborate, and empower themselves, providing flexible working practices to suit people with different needs, abilities, and lifestyles, as well as designing systems and processes that give people the support they need in the time and place and manner they need it.
I hope you’ll find this series informative and helpful. I welcome the opportunity to share our triumphs and setbacks with you, and look forward to the feedback on what we’re doing well, and what we still need to learn to do better.
And last but not least, if this sounds like the kind of company culture that you’d like to be a part of, and you’d like to help make it better… we’re hiring!