How TED built a devoted tech team with a near-perfect retention rate

TED’s technology team in South Dakota’s Black Hills, May 2015. Photo: Thaniya Keereepart.

I’m on a flight to New York. About ten minutes ago I unfolded myself out of my seat and walked to the rear galley to stretch my legs. As I returned I took a moment to view how passengers were passing the time. Some watched movies or read novels. Some were chatting. Others were “sleeping” in various uncomfortable positions.

Then there were the two pair programming. And I happen to know them. In fact there are six other passengers I know on this flight. We’re all part of TED’s Tech group, 30 people in all, and had just spent the last four days together at an offsite meeting in San Diego. And I really mean four, solid, 16-hour days.

And I’m not sick of them. Not even a little.

We’ve lost only two people over the four years I’ve been a part of this group, so our turnover is very low. You want some turnover, and there are reasons why this metric isn’t necessarily the best measure of a team’s wellbeing (e.g. keeping unhappy employees in positions by paying them more). But I think for us, particularly when considering why people join the team in the first place, it is an indicator of health.

So why is our retention so high? And why do my colleagues a few rows behind me still have enough motivation to code together after spending four days clustered with their coworkers?

I don’t think there’s a single outstanding reason, but I’ll share with you five things I’ve noticed about this team that I think help explain why.

1. We cultivate and protect our culture

I really hesitate to use the word protect, but that’s what I mean. I don’t use it here in an exclusive, cliquey, circle the wagons sense. I use it in the sense of not letting our culture drift into something inauthentic, something we’re not. Great work cultures aren’t formed or maintained by chance. They take intention and cultivation.

Jai Punjabi, Senior Product Development Manager. Mireille Pilloud, Community Support Manager. Ryan Toronto, Front-end Developer. Photo: Dian Lofton.

I’ve worked in tech my whole career. For me, the word culture in a work context, especially in the tech field, meant foosball tables, beer in the fridge, and dogs roaming the office. Those are fun things, but my idea of culture has evolved to mean the habits, values, and traits of those around me over the more tangible work environment we inhabit. Any time I interact with my team in any context I’m reminded of those traits.

Those two engineers back in row 22, and everyone on my team, are likely at or on their way to the top of their craft, yet not one of them would ever say they’re the smartest person in the room. That is one of the reasons why there is a refreshing lack of egos at TED. The successes I’ve seen here have never resulted from a sense of certainty and overconfidence, but from listening and a willingness to be wrong.

Culture can also be an organization’s secret sauce ingredient. Companies that are intentional about their culture are more likely to create great things together.

On the importance of diversity

My career has taken me through companies large and small; Tiny startups, medium sized agencies, and globally recognized media companies. Some were entirely male, others male dominated, others balanced. Invariably, the most effective teams I’ve worked with have also been the most mixed.

“This is by far the most comfortable and welcoming team I’ve been a part of.” — Brenna O’Brien, Front-end engineer, TED

In terms of gender balance, TED at large is over 60% female (higher when including contractors) with key leadership roles held by women. And though the tech group is only about 1/4 women, they report a very female friendly environment, but perhaps more importantly one that is conscious of and open to discussions on how to improve. One female engineer remarked to me that “this is by far the most comfortable and welcoming team I’ve been a part of.”

But ensuring diversity requires ongoing conversations about it. Our team doesn’t turn a shoulder to open or uncomfortable discussions about gender and tech, and while we’re doing well in this area that is not to say we can’t or shouldn’t be better.

2. We stay connected

TED’s tech group is distributed throughout the United States, Canada and Australia. We routinely see each other’s faces on screen, but we also convene in person multiple times throughout the year during offsite Tech group summits, an annual TED staff retreat, and the TED Conference itself. It’s expensive to bring us all together, but more expensive not to.

The biannual Tech summits, like the one we’re all returning from, are indispensable for developing a shared stake in each other’s wellbeing. They’re a sort of unconference where we discuss, plan, debate, ask questions, solve issues, challenge each other’s thinking, and generally bond as a tribe. They can be draining, and heated at times (we call those moments “the hangry sessions”), but at no time are we stepping backwards in terms of problem solving.

Like the Tech group, TED as an organization is distributed worldwide. It holds an annual staff retreat for three days of talks, group activities, break out sessions, and even a talent show. It gives everyone a chance to more fully connect with both TED’s mission and with each other personally. Without these annual retreats, I wouldn’t easily see the passions, gifts, and personal nature of my colleagues outside of the Tech group.

TED staff retreat. Left: Stephanie Lo, Director of TED-Ed Programs. Right: Milton Speid, Global Partnership Development. Photos: Ryan Lash.

Kate Torgovnik, TED Prize Storyteller, at the TED staff retreat. Photo: Ryan Lash.

Whereas the Tech group summits and staff retreats are more about planning, problem solving, and personal connections, the TED Conference for us is more about teamwork under pressure. By the end of the conference we are exhausted. We spend a lot of energy but also receive a lot in the form of shared experiences and seeing the genesis of new content in a palpable and memorable way.

These three meeting points — the Tech group summits, TED staff retreats, and conferences — forge and strengthen ongoing connections to both the content we produce and to each other as a tribe.

TED engineers left to right: Alex Dean, Ken Hill, George Riley, Matthew Trost and Dan Russell at TEDGlobal2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Ryan Lash.

At TED2015 in Vancouver, BC, Chris Milk shows how VR technology can make us more human. Photo: James Duncan Davidson.

TED takes place at the Vancouver Convention Centre and surrounding venues in British Columbia, Canada. Photo: James Duncan Davidson.

3. We are mission aligned

There’s an African proverb that teaches “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The Japanese have the concept of Ikigai. Author of Start with Why and TED speaker Simon Sinek describes something he calls the Golden Circle.

Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action

Whatever the terms, the through-line is that we know why we do what we do before we know anything else—even before what we’ll actually work on, or how we’ll set about working on it.

We often talk internally not about roadmaps, but about compass directions. We know and agree on that compass heading, but the specifics on how to navigate from here to what’s just over the horizon has had a way of sorting itself.

Each of us might use slightly different language to articulate TED’s mission, but they all point to that same compass direction. There’s no confusion about why the organization exists, and what we are there to do. My preferred way of describing it is “spreading ideas so we author a better future rather than having the future happen to us.” Talk to anyone in the organization. Their roles may be specific, but you’ll hear a consistent version of what the collective mission is.

4. We find the right people, and they find us

We tend to attract job candidates that already have developed an affinity for TED’s content and purpose. That gives us a sort of head start in finding people that fit well, and a thorough interview process further refines that pool.

Ladan Wise, Senior Product Development Manager. Lara Press, Content Production Specialist. Michael McWatters, UX Architect. Photos: Dian Lofton.

But there are two things about our group that feel like weaknesses (and might be for a lot of people) but we think of them as strengths.

The first is related to TED’s non-profit status. While the total picture of compensation and benefits to our team members is competitive (and in many ways entirely unique), it is not untrue to say that any of us could secure higher compensation in the for-profit tech sector. We don’t obscure the fact that money is not the most compelling thing about working in our group.

The second is rooted in the size and composition of our group. Our staff is small compared to other media companies of similar reach, and we don’t have a deep and tangly org chart. In fact, literally, no one has ever created an org chart. The Tech group includes our CTO, operations, product and UX, developers, IT, and customer support — 30 people that support and other web properties, native apps, OTT and emerging platforms, and the applications that support the TED conference itself. There’s no clear path upward for those concerned with ladder-climbing, so skill development is much easier obtained than job title advancement.

These two facets of base compensation and upward mobility can be off-putting to candidates. However — and this is important — those candidates that understand and are attracted to the total picture of what TED is and what TED offers gives us more confidence that they are a genuine match.

5. We invest in ourselves

Professional growth benefits everyone, and that is encouraged and made possible through an annual stipend provided to each staff member. We use it for things like conferences, books, and classes — whatever we feel will make us better at what we do. This makes it easier for a junior product person, for example, to develop their UX knowledge or dabble in code or prototyping.

As much as professional growth is encouraged, personal growth is also a valued part of our culture. To prove it, TED curator Chris Anderson initiated an experiment at the beginning of 2015. Staff was given every other Wednesday off throughout the year — that’s four work weeks — to be spent on learning something. The parameters had some limits but were generally loose. A sampling of what TED staff have been doing on their Wednesdays this year…

  • Directing a documentary about environmental toxins and disease incidence
  • Writing short stories
  • Starting a community garden
  • Learning sign language
  • Playing the cello
  • Writing a screenplay

Finally, the Tech group’s take-it-when-you-need-it vacation policy is actually both a demonstration of trust and a statement of commitment. Rather than worrying about productivity and misuse, we’ve had cases of people having to be nudged into taking time off.

Bedirhan Cinar, Product Development Manager. Joe Bartlett, Front-end Developer. Thaniya Keereepart, Product Development Director. Photos: Dian Lofton.

Back in New York, the local members of the Tech team will see each other at the Manhattan office on Hudson street — but not for much longer. TED is moving to a new office two blocks away. Its larger size can accommodate the growing staff. It even has a new theater where we’ll film local TED Talks and hold other events. There may or may not be beer in the fridge, but it doesn’t much matter to me.

So while our physical surroundings will be new and different, I’m happy the culture won’t be.