Fixing Engineering's Loyalty and Longevity Problem

Fixing Engineering's Loyalty and Longevity Problem

Tiho Bajic, CTO of Nitro, on how engineering culture has become destructive and how to fix it to foster loyalty and longevity.

Tiho Bajic started his career at a fortuitous time in the history of tech — having just missed the dot-com crash but before the advent of 'the social network billionaire.' In the calm between the storms, he cut his teeth as a developer at Toronto-based Workbrain, on a 50-person engineering team that he watched grow gradually and thoughtfully into a diverse organization several times that size.

In 2011, he moved to start Rypple's engineering team in San Francisco and was shocked by what he found: Jobs were intense, talent was constrained, and engineering teams bore a distressing resemblance to one another. He saw an industry that had gleefully thrown work-life balance and diversity out the window. People bragged about not sleeping and working through weekends fueled only by Redbull and mini kitchen snacks. Many of them moved on to new jobs less than a year later. Perhaps most notably, he met leaders who assumed this was what good engineering had to look like.

Now as CTO of cloud document productivity company Nitro, Bajic has learned that the most effective engineering culture isn't about long hours and constant sprints — it's about striking a smart balance. In this exclusive interview, he explains why diversity, loyalty and balance are the keys to a startup’s longevity, how to hire for these qualities, and what to do when things go wrong.

The Problem No One Talks About

A troubling engineering archetype has emerged: He’s young, male, and proud of his fast-hacking ways. And he needs to be; after all, he’s expected to prove his mettle with legendary all-night coding sessions multiple times a week. What was once a startup myth has gained widespread adoption in reality and, alarmingly, new leaders often believe that sticking to this blueprint is the only way to succeed.

But Bajic knows that it doesn’t have to be this way. More importantly, he knows that for the long-term health of any startup, it shouldn’t be this way. “I’ve heard VPs of engineering preach about how to run a team on the edge of burnout, all while acknowledging the toll it can take on personal lives,” he says. “I’ve been on teams like that, and early on in my career I lost friends and star employees because I didn’t know how to manage for burnout.”

The social cost of burnout culture is too high; it’s a dirty unspoken truth that we keep perpetuating.

One of the main casualties of this system: diversity.

To some extent, it’s understandable that early teams look the same. Founders tend to scour their own networks to build their startups’ inner circles; if they went to an Ivy League school, for example, odds are good that their closest connections did, too. “While it’s great to have that level of familiarity in the beginning — when it’s about getting from 0 to 1 as soon as possible — at some point they have to start hiring outside of that circle. Most aren't prepared for it; they’re not prepared to grow and change their culture. They have actually implicitly set themselves up for groupthink,” Bajic says.

When you build a uniform team like this, you're optimizing for speed. You want to get everyone on the same page and keep them there. But as a company scales, your continued success depends on having perspective, experience, core differentiators.

This brand of creativity — the kind you need for sophisticated strategy — isn't fueled by long hours of linear heads-down work. It's powered by good communication, space to think, and people looking at problems from different angles leading to non-linear breakthroughs. Grinding away on a single path isn't going to cut it, and comes with significant drawbacks. If you're looking for the best antidote to the engineering burnout spiral, diversity of work styles, personalities and approaches is it.

How to Actually Hire Missionaries Over Mercenaries

Of course, there's one more trait that archetypal engineer has that isn't so great: He doesn't stay put for long.

“Many engineers in Silicon Valley are acting like mercenaries,” says Bajic. “They jump from one team to another. Their employer is actually all of Silicon Valley.”

This is so common that there's now an accepted expectation that engineers won’t stay at your company — and that a long resume of short stints is proof of worth even if it wasn't great for the companies left in their wake. Founders don’t need to buy into that culture.

Consider the tech giants that rose to prominence a few decades ago — companies like Intel, Apple, and HP. They were built to last with teams that lasted, too. “If you’re hiring for longevity, you’re looking for missionaries — not mercenaries.

When you’re creating a complex product, engineering is the team that needs the most context and the deepest understanding of the market you want to launch into. Why would you agree to a system that assumes you’ll lose a key asset just as it becomes most valuable? “Engineers are leaving jobs after 12 or 18 months, and it takes that long to really develop all that context. So before you start receiving long-term return on your investment — and before those engineers do — they’re off to the next thing.”

To prevent this from happening at Nitro, Bajic gets ahead of this conversation as soon as an engineering candidate crosses his path.

I tell every single candidate I interview, ‘Do not talk to me if you can’t really see yourself here for at least several years.'

You have to be upfront. Make commitment a quality you hire for. In the same way you might look for someone whose coding style matches yours, identify candidates who value putting down professional roots.

It’s much easier to assess coding skill than loyalty, but there are questions you can ask to suss this out. Look for patterns and listen for clues as candidates describe their background and style.

“If someone’s telling you that they’re all about short bursts and hacking, if they believe that they can build something of immense value by working twice as hard as anybody else in a period of just a few weeks or a few months, they don’t really know what it takes,” Bajic says. Hacking your way through a project is one thing; building a multibillion-dollar company is another.

Bajic compares the commitment required to that of Olympic athletes. “There are hundreds of thousands of engineers out there — think about other human endeavors where there are hundreds of thousands of people competing. You don’t get to the Olympics unless you’ve been really training for 10, 15 years, pretty much on a daily basis.” No doubt, an engineer who is smart and has reasonable social skills will be courting offers — lots of offers. Your goal, as a hiring manager, is to find the people who want to invest in their careers, who are aiming for mastery and not just looking to make more money or build a shiny resume.

Identifying a professional who values longevity is certainly easier when you can probe a decade of experience, but you can spot promising patterns even in recent grads. “If they’ve gone through their computer science undergrad cramming for tests, and they’re really proud about the number of all-nighters they pulled during finals, that’s a huge warning sign,” Bajic says. Ask new grads about the longest project they’ve worked on, whether academic or professional; ideally even engineers in their early 20s can cite something they’ve contributed to for multiple years in a row.

Build a Culture of Role Models

Finding engineers who will stick with you is just one part of the hiring challenge. You also need to be sure that those hires will help define and create a healthy workplace culture one person at a time. That’s particularly true at a startup’s earliest stages.

“Most of the culture of a company emanates from the CEO and the founding team, so your first hires are crucial. Jesus couldn't have started Christianity if he didn’t have disciples,” Bajic says. Your first engineers don’t necessarily need to be your future CTO or COO — but they do need to help hone your team's character. “When you’re not there or busy doing something else like fundraising, these people are the engineers new people will look to for an example.”

So, for example, to craft a culture that values balance over burnout and strategy over speed, you want to rally a team of people who will exhibit these behaviors day in and day out, and make it clear that there are lot of benefits to not overworking. It might seem counterintuitive, but this also means weeding out people who push themselves to the brink.

Founders should be prepared to act quickly and decisively when an early hire isn’t working out. Your earliest employees might not technically be part of the founding team, but they will be perceived as an inner circle of sorts. “If you get it wrong, you have to own up to it and deal with it ASAP,” Bajic says. When you see behaviors you don’t want in your organization at scale — even if they seem harmless in one or two people — don’t let that go unchecked.

Be utterly and brutally honest with yourself and your team about what you want your company to be like at 100 people. It should already be that way at 5 or 10.

That extends to prospective team members, too. Don’t wait to set these expectations until someone is already on board. After years of hiring, Bajic has found that four interview tactics pay the greatest dividends when you’re looking for partners in culture making. (Note, all four of these should be enshrined in any documented recruiting protocol).

1) Own Your Strengths and Weaknesses: Remember that hiring is a two-way street; you can only achieve a productive conversation when you’re clear about your skill set (and vulnerabilities), too. “Ultimately, you need to be confident about what you know you know, and transparent about where you need help,” he says. Your team, particularly the early folks, should be not only compatible but complementary; be candid about where you intend to delegate, or what you need a candidate to own from day one.

2) Articulate Your Values: The interview is your chance to start immersing candidates in your company and team’s values. Bajic recommends sticking to the rule of three — “that just seems to be a magic number” — and uses simple, easy-to-recall language. The top three values of Nitro’s engineering team, for example?

  • Functional excellence
  • Ownership
  • Hustle

Don’t just list values, though; help candidates see how they play out in real-world scenarios. Take hustle, for example. “If we’re true to our values, hires need to be able to do their jobs on day one, not six months down the road,” Bajic says. “We need to find that fit where they can hit the ground running and start feeling valuable right away.” State these goals and priorities early and often during your interview process. If you hire the candidate, you’ll have a leg up on onboarding. And if your values don’t align, you’ve created a mutually beneficial opportunity to opt out.

3) Seek a Learning Mindset: Look for candidates who display a willingness to learn and to teach (for example, they can point to past experience doing both). This is an essential trait in scenarios of rapid growth. “When a company is booming, it’s likely that company growth will outpace each engineer’s personal growth. It’s a tough challenge; either you get run over in a stampede or you learn and adapt,” he says.

To weather this challenge, you’ll want engineers who can cope with falling behind and catching up. They should be approachable and open to coaching (including being a coach). “Imagine that you have an engineer who is capable of teaching something new they’ve just learned, thereby multiply learnings; ultimately, that engineer can accelerate everyone around them along the maturation curve. To do that, they need to be able to express hard, very specific areas of knowledge in general terms.”

How can you look for this? Ask your candidate to explain something, anything, that they’re passionate about. Stipulate that they should assume you know nothing about the topic. Are they excited, and can they walk you through a multi-step explanation using non-technical language?

If a candidate can’t describe something they’re passionate about clearly and easily, they’re either not that excited by anything or they simply can’t explain things — and that’s a huge issue.

To further assess willingness to learn, Bajic recommends always meeting with candidates twice. At the start of the second interview, give the candidate some feedback based on their first interview and see how they react. “If I’m the hiring manager, then I'm the one who will need to manage this person's performance going forward,” he says. “I want to know how they’re going to handle performance management early on, not six months down the road when it’s too late.” Do they respond well to unexpected feedback? Does it make a difference in their behavior? Do they ask questions if they disagree with something?

Build a team with a learning mindset and the benefits will extend beyond hiring for retention. “Great engineers are inherently curious about how the world works, so showing them how to tweak their own performance is a learning opportunity for them,” Bajic says. If you create an environment where engineers can learn, teach, and have an impact on the world, you’ve achieved a crucial trifecta. This generates a sense of ownership that makes your company more difficult to leave.

4) Give them the 'Hangout' Test: The only way people will feel comfortable sharing information and becoming role models is if they're liked, respected, and approachable. Those are the three qualities that define any effective role model. How can you find people that embody all three traits? Give them what Bajic calls the hangout test.

“Everybody wants to be surrounded by people that they can learn from — it might just be about crocheting or lacrosse. But if somebody is really passionate and you can kick back together, drinking beer or eating lunch, that’s hugely valuable. You want to have those conversations,” he says. “When you're talking to someone, really consider whether you could see yourself hanging out with them outside of work. If yes, that's a great sign that they'll be able to effectively form useful connections with their co-workers. If not, ask yourself why.”

Importantly, this test should not be used to enforce uniformity of thinking. In fact, it should be a gut check for diversity. You want to use it to recruit people who are very different from you, with different skills and passions, who you still want to spend time with and learn from. The reason you want to hang with them should be their enthusiasm, knowledge, and interests. Diversity of thought doesn't matter unless it can be communicated. Friendships and collegial relationships strengthen the impact of diversity.

Investigate Your Own Biases

Diversity has become an increasingly hot-button issue and buzzword in tech as more articles come out about drastic race and gender imbalances across engineering teams. Bajic agrees that diversity needs to be prioritized more than it has been, but not just for diversity's sake. His argument: A diverse team will allow founders to make better, smarter decisions.

“If you surround yourself with your frat brothers, you're basically committing one of the cardinal sins of bias management: you’re going down the path of groupthink, of yes men,” he says. It’s been demonstrated time and time again that diversity of thought is perhaps the most valuable tool in any organization’s arsenal.

I’ve seen firsthand how powerful it is to infuse your team with all kinds of diversity: life stage, life experience, school background, academic versus applied, all of these things.

According to Bajic, to really commit to diversity, you have to accept the converse: Bias is inevitable — and it’s not always bad. “It’s how human beings interpret floods of information, and how we make split-second decisions, he says. “The key, though, is to distinguish good bias from bad. For every different person on your team, you gain the benefit of a new filter. Pass a decision through those filters, and you’ll test and ultimately prove it with far more confidence. Where multiple candidates are equal, look for the person who is more diverse in more ways, the person who is going to engage you in an intellectual debate on the way to a solution.

If you let one powerful personality dominate the conversation — or build a team that’s too similar — you’ll end up with an echo chamber. And once that chamber is in place, it’s much harder for new thinkers to break in. “Especially at bigger companies, you can end up with an executive team that’s the laughingstock of the engineers on the ground, who are definitely thinking, 'These guys don’t know what the hell they’re doing,'” Bajic says.

If you realize that you're inside an echo chamber already, all is not lost — but you do need to cop to it, and fast. “Again, the most important thing is to be honest with yourself and honest with your team,” Bajic says. When you see a distressing pattern — perhaps people are leaving your company in groups, or you’ve made a series of decisions that didn't pan out or yield what you hoped — face it, but don’t try to face it alone.

“You’re smart and invested. It’s not like you haven’t thought about what you’re trying to accomplish. But somehow you keep making mistakes,” Bajic says. “What people tend to do is admit that they have a problem, but then immediately go back into their caves and surround themselves with the same people who helped bring about the issue they’re trying to fix. Don't do that. Find new people to talk to. Come up with a radically different approach.”

Don't resist taking help in the form of professional coaches, advisors, and your board members, for instance. “External experts can come in and, because they’ve done this a number of times, really quickly assess the situation and give you feedback,” Bajic says. Similarly, third-party consultants can help evaluate your team, and identify personality issues or staff who no longer want to be there. “These are the toughest, most terrible things to admit to yourself — that your startup isn’t growing, that you no longer get along with people, or that someone on your team is no longer engaged. This stuff can be hard to see. Objective parties can pick it out immediately.”

That’s not to say that your internal team is off the hook — whether you’ve come through a rough patch or are just trying to avoid one, it’s crucial to set up the most productive dynamic among your inner circle. These are the disciples that you hopefully hired early, the ones who will be at your side as you build your startup’s culture. And you need to engage them early. “If you wait until it’s a couple of years down the road before you start really checking in with these people — your founding team or your early engineers — it will be too late. You need to do that on a very consistent basis out of the gate.”

Be transparent with your organization about how this internal brain trust functions, and who’s on it. You might even give it a name. Let people know the team will meet regularly, one day a month or quarter, to share their notes and observations on a particular topic or challenge. “If you start building that level of two-way conversation early on, it will help you scale through all of these cultural issues,” Bajic says.

Whether you make it official or not, your organization is looking to these founding engineers to model behavior. Empower them, and make their role in culture management explicit to the entire company.

When you’re not there, who’s minding your culture? It’s your disciples.

Empower Social Engineers

When it comes to building a healthy, lasting workplace culture, process engineering is just as important as product engineering. But, unsurprisingly, it’s not something that every software engineer loves. “I know that I really don’t get jazzed about organizing teams of teams to work together. But I've seen over and over again how important it is,” Bajic says. In the spirit of building a team that strengthens and replicates itself, he knew he needed to hire people who would immerse themselves in these issues.

“As your company grows, you need to surround yourself with people who really care about solving operations problems. You need talented social engineers.”

If no one on your team cares first and foremost about how people can work together better, that’s a problem — and over time, neglecting this role will only foster more cultural problems. “Delivering something on-time and on spec and keeping the team excited about every release is a full-time job, even in a super small startup,” Bajic says.

Whether you hire them or find them on your existing team, spotting good social engineers boils down to straightforward questions. “In a first or second interview, just ask them the top three things they’re looking for in a new employer. If ‘working with other great people’ isn’t on that list, it’s a huge red flag.” Or ask candidates what excites them at work. You need to be sure that they’re not burnt out, and that their answers speak to a genuine desire to engage with a team.

Unless it comes through loud and clear — emphatically and emotionally — that the person you want to trust with your social engineering is pumped about making other people more successful, you have a problem.

In Bajic's experience, the best engineering culture is one of mutual support and constant conversation about what's working and what's not. It has nothing to do with extreme hours or landing the best talent with high salaries. Hiring for speed and pedigree will not secure a long-term win. If anything, they'll work against loyalty, institutional knowledge and innovative thinking.

The best thing you can do is reject the myth Silicon Valley has built up around what makes an engineer 'good' or desirable and build a diverse team for longevity that’s committed to helping each other get better constantly through thick and thin.