Building a strong culture at a mission-driven start-up

How our product and engineering team works better together

When many people hear the word “culture”, they probably think “this squishy, nebulous word makes me nervous. How does culture help me do my job and build great software and amazing products? Will I have to sit in a meeting listening to a lecture from HR? Will I have to go to a team offsite and climb ropes courses or do trust-falls?

We’ve learned here at the Flatiron School’s product & engineering team that culture doesn’t have to be scary or stress-inducing. Culture can be the distillation of your team’s values and best practices. It should help your team work together and stay together. And since each team is different, your culture will be unique, too (which means no trust-falls if you don’t like careening backwards with your eyes closed).

(Copyright: The Simpsons)

So, I encourage you to think about the goals, skill-sets and personalities of your team as you read about how we created our unique culture.

For some context, the Flatiron School’s mission is to “enable the pursuit of a better life through education.” The school was founded on several leaps of faith. We’re one of the first coding bootcamps in the country, and one of our co-founders started the journey by quitting his day job to teach students coding on Skillshare. For the first few years (until we created a self-paced online program), our students also had to quit their day jobs to enroll.

(The first class — learning to code in an ad-hoc conference room)

But somehow, the idea worked, worked some more and kept working! Students loved the learning experience and got dev jobs after graduation (check out our jobs report). And now a sizable portion of our engineering team is comprised of graduates from one of our classes! Many wanted to come back and pay it forward by contributing to a learning product that would help future students.

All of this is to show that our team is very mission driven and passionate about the life-changing power of education. Many members of our team are still early in our career journey, and we’re a VERY DIVERSE bunch! A sampling of previous jobs on our team include Whole Foods bagger, human rights researcher, fine art shipper, war journalist and baseball scout (full interesting list at the end of the article).

After about five years of trial and error, maturation, and now fast growth, we have honed in on a set of principles to define our culture and motivate our team. Here are a few key principles we’ve identified.

Build > Buy

As our co-founder has said, “Our competitive advantage will be an investment in the creation and development of talent.” Education is core to our company’s mission and our team’s culture, and we actively encourage learning on the job.

For example, we hold regular “book clubs” where each team gets together to learn a new topic for a period of time. Some recent engineering books include “The Art of Agile Development”, “Domain Driven Design”, and “99 Bottles of OOP”.

Some recent product management readings include “C.A.R.E. a framework for user onboarding”, “DACI — a decision making framework”, and “How Google sets goals: OKRs”. The product team loves our AAFs (that’s the acronym for Acronyms And Frameworks :) ).

People > Process

We value diversity and access to opportunities, both as a school and as a company. In the school, that means reaching out to communities not traditionally represented in tech and showing why technology is exciting, fascinating and lovable. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Our independently audited outcomes report consistently shows that our efforts are paying off, and our graduating classes average >40% women!

In the company, that means adapting our process while giving team members room to grow. We’re constantly holding project retros and updating our processes as our team expands and changes. For example, in the last year, we’ve started dividing into ~4–5 stable sub-teams with dedicated domains and leads so that we can build expertise and maintain velocity. We also enable asynchronous communication by sending weekly updates while still holding monthly team meetings and quarterly off-sites.

(Copyright: Pan Macmillan)

Talent > Tenure

We believe that everyone should be rewarded for their contributions and not just their tenure, so we try to celebrate ideas and actions. This is especially important because we’re trying to imagine the future of education and we constantly question the status quo.

On our team, we allow engineers of any level to lead a project, which encourages everyone to reach for stretch opportunities and grow their skills.

We hold weekly tech talks called “Code Readings” where we present learnings from our codebase, explore new tech, invite guest speakers, etc. We encourage everyone to lead a code reading on a topic of their interest and practice their public speaking skills.

Lastly, we give company-wide shout-outs and hold team social events frequently so that people know they’re being recognized for their great work :)

How do we measure success?

This is a tough one, but we’ve defined a few success metrics across our team and our school:

Staff retention — in the last year, we’ve joined the WeWork family, more than doubled in team size, and opened 6 new campuses. Through all those changes, the vast majority of the original team is still here! Plus, we’ve hired many more members while maintaining our diversity and cultural practices.

Student experience and success — we measure our student happiness by sending out several NPS surveys while they’re in our school. Our NPS score remains ~70 across those surveys!! Our outcomes report consistently show strong jobs placement results as well.

Product — we build our culture of support and learning into product features and measure impact through product metrics. For example, has many community-supported features like Ask A Question, Team Projects and Study Groups. We measure engagement, satisfaction and student progress to assess the impact of the features plus the overall learning experience.

The End?

So, thanks for getting to the end and reading about how we strengthen our bonds and develop our team!

We’re always learning so we’d love to hear about your team’s best practices and how you keep your engineering & product teams happy, productive and motivated. Please comment below and let us know how your team builds culture!

And lastly, in the spirit of celebrations, I sign off with this Flatiron School flash-mob dance-off:

A sampling of previous jobs on our team:

  • The publishing industry, specifically publishing tip-focused web content, podcasts and books.
  • Baseball — scouting and player development
  • Cutting cheese & slinging groceries at Whole Foods Market
  • Education, branding and software engineering
  • Journalism, war correspondent, and a startup
  • Online marketing — SEO consulting, PPC ad campaigns, website design, made email marketing templates for MailChimp
  • Operations at a New Orleans startup that consulted businesses on having a “triple bottom line” — equal focus on people, planet, & profits. Before that, bartender.
  • Content Director at an architecture startup (i.e. project management suite for architects and interior designers)
  • Legal researcher @ Human Rights Watch, huge corporate law firm, then as an instructor for a NGO focused on teaching refugees how to code in Iraq
  • Fine art logistics, aka handling shipping for museums, galleries, auction house, private collectors… pretty much anyone and everyone in the art world
  • National Economic Council for Obama White House
  • Worked at a restaurant/bar

Want to work on a mission-driven team that loves building great products and team culture? We’re hiring!

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To learn more about Flatiron School, visit the website, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and visit us at upcoming events near you.

Flatiron School is a proud member of the WeWork family. Check out our sister technology blogs WeWork Technology and Making Meetup.

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