Building a product engineering culture at Pinterest

Michael Lopp | Pinterest Engineering

Pinterest has a strong culture of building. As you walk into our San Francisco headquarters, you’ll immediately be surrounded by strong visual reminders — we like to build.

Last month, the Pinterest engineering team took an entire week to get back to our builder’s roots with a week long HackWeek (also known as a “Make-a-thon”). The concept of a HackWeek is not new. For a period of time for a day to a week, the engineering team is set loose. Go build… whatever. It’s an opportunity to build a new feature or learn a technology without the daily tax of meeting or interviews.

The reason I love HackWeek is that the principles that guide this event are the same ones we’re building into our engineering culture.

I’ll explain.

1. The Triangle: engineering, design, and product management

At the end of HackWeek, teams that want to show off their projects can do so in front of the entire company. While some individuals choose small efforts, many teams organically form around a specific project. As one of the judges for these projects, the team composition often reflected what I consider to be one of Pinterest’s secret weapons: the triangle.

When I joined Pinterest just over a year ago, I was drawn to the promise of the product. Pinterest is a discovery engine used by tens of millions people to find the thing they love and things they may not even know existed. What I began to understand during my interview process and now firmly believe is that we are able to fulfill this promise thanks to engineering, design, and product management working together. Simply put: engineering understands how to best build, design understands how to make it human, and product management understands what we could build.

We hire people who not only work well with others, but who aren’t afraid of healthy tension and debate, who thrive in an environment where diverse views are represented and welcome. When no one role dominates the discussion, more meaningful ideas result, and lead to higher quality, well-designed, and more strategic products.

We’re taking it a step further.

2. Diverse teams build better products

There’s plenty of research showing that diverse teams are more successful. It’s no surprise that a team made up of people from different experiences and backgrounds can invent and build better products than a team of like-minded people.

Making meaningful change around diversity is a company-wide effort and it starts with educating our teams. We’re making diversity top of mind for everyone by improving our process and outreach.

We’re working with consultants to identify where bias is likely to occur in all our processes whether it’s hiring or promotions, and beginning to develop mitigation strategies. For example, we (and others) found that the common practice of white boarding exercises disadvantaged female engineering candidates , even though they performed at the same or higher levels of male candidates during coding exercises. As a result, we removed the exercises from the engineering hiring process. We’ve also rolled out unconscious bias training with our leadership team and plan to roll out to the whole company in the coming months. Finally, we’re increasing outreach efforts to more diverse candidates through our university and youth programs.

It is only fair that everyone has equal access to the same opportunities. This is reason alone to make diversity a cornerstone of our engineering culture. While HackWeek teams are organically built, through our diversity efforts, we’re working to make sure that every voice is heard. Diversity in teams isn’t just the right thing to do it, it’s how compelling historic products are built.

3. Small groups moving at a fast pace with strong mission.

In addition to clearing engineering’s plate of the troublesome, but important bureaucracy that results in large teams figuring out how to work together, HackWeek is an effective reminder of how we want an ideal team to work together.

HackWeek teams are small. They self select into a team, sit in the same area, and communicate quickly and efficiently because they have line of sight on everyone. This allows them to move quickly, but what really drives them is their strong sense of their chosen mission.

Last month a similar small team of engineers, designers, and product managers launched a product from a war room. Their mission: provide a unique mobile shopping and discovery experience for millions of Pinners at a scale that companies 10x the size of Pinterest have only begun tackling.

The Buyable Pins team took a complex system for fulfilling transactions for thousands of merchants and built a simple and secure front experience for the countless Pinners who’ve been asking for a product to do just that. It’s launches like these that show the impact a small, collaborative, and mission driven team can have and it’s a culture we’ll continue to invest in.

The Buyable Pins engineering and product teams

Creativity at Scale

We’re growing fast. Around 60% of Pinterest has been hired since I arrived over a year ago. We’re at a size where investments in process are important to coordinating an ever growing team, but of equal importance are investments in the principles and culture that got us here.

As we’ve talked about our culture, we return the question of, how do we encourage creativity. Whether it’s figuring out how to improve the scrolling speed of our mobile clients, sifting through millions of Pins looking for new signal to connect them with Pinners, or building a graph storage system, we know that as builders, the more we can encourage teams to be creative and creative at scale, the more we’ll be able to build valuable products for our customers.

We know that most of Pinterest hasn’t been built, yet.

Interested in learning more about Pinterest Engineering? Check out our new Engineering site.

Michael Lopp is the head of engineering.

Pinterest Engineering Blog

Inventive engineers building the first visual discovery engine, 200 billion ideas and counting.

Pinterest Engineering

Written by | Inventive engineers building the first visual discovery engine |

Pinterest Engineering Blog

Inventive engineers building the first visual discovery engine, 200 billion ideas and counting.

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