Your “Culture Stack” is more important than your Tech Stack

Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

Key Takeaways

  • Product and Engineering teams have important and distinct roles, but must work together to be successful. Your culture is the glue that holds them together.
  • You should think about your “culture stack” just as often as you think about your tech stack.
  • Don’t forget to put the “fun” in “cross-functional”.

What does company culture have to do with building great products? In my opinion, almost everything. Without tight relationships, open communication, and a lot of mutual respect, it’s hard for product managers and engineers to have maximum impact. Humans work best when they feel understood, safe, and supported. Otherwise, incorrect assumptions are made, important issues aren’t surfaced, and productivity and impact take a nosedive.

I manage a team of Product Managers, and while we have a high-performing workplace of PMs and engineers, we are individuals, and getting individuals to work together productively is a challenge. I’ve been a Product Manager for fifteen years now, and have worked as a PM in four different companies, from a startup where I was the only PM, to eBay where I was among a hundred other PMs. As every good PM knows, no matter how good you are at your job, your ability to connect and communicate with your engineering partners is critical to your success. The challenge has many culprits, but one that I’ve noticed recently is that status differences between product and engineering can have a huge impact.

Without naming names, I’ve found that at some companies, the product team walks around like they own the place, while engineers scramble to do their bidding. At other companies, engineers dominate decision-making, and PMs are relegated to grooming the feature request backlog. It’s a delicate balance to keep each team focused on what they do well, collaborating in the overlap, and ultimately, delivering value to the company.

Think about this in your workplace: are PMs and engineers playing their positions? Do your counterparts consult you regularly? Do you know what’s important to them? Do they know what’s important to you? These seem like obvious “yes” answers, but if you’re at a “no” or even a “maybe”, things are probably out of balance, and worth addressing immediately.

I’ve been at Yelp for seven years, where I’ve had a front row seat to understanding, and in my own small ways, influencing, healthy product/engineering relationships. When I joined in 2011, I was one of about ten PMs at Yelp. Accordingly, the PM team was tight and there were only a handful of engineering leaders that I had to know and work with. Nowadays we have probably five times the number of product and engineering staff, and it takes more infrastructure and deliberate effort to keep operating at a high level. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

One thing I remember clearly from my Yelp interviews, is that I asked each interviewer what they liked most about working at the company. Every single person said, in one way or another, that Yelp was a “fun” place to work. This was either highly suspicious or fundamentally true, and what I’ve found is that although not every part of the job is fun, there’s a pervasive and highly-cultivated culture of making work as fun as possible. This isn’t just about Nerf darts (although there is some of that), but rather about a fundamental sense of equality and balance between product and engineering, and a deliberately choreographed work life that supports it.

As a product manager, I like to talk in specifics, so what follows are some of the specific ways that Yelp has worked to develop and maintain our fun, inclusive, and impactful culture.

Operationally inclusive

Yelp actually has two separate heads for Engineering and Product, but you wouldn’t know it from the way that we work operationally. From daily standups to annual budget planning, almost every work task includes representatives from both teams. When an engineer evaluates an infrastructure improvement that will affect product metrics, their PM is by their side. When a PM is pitching a new initiative to the executive team, their engineering counterparts are in the room supporting them. This may be obvious, but I can’t (or shouldn’t?) expect my engineering counterpart to wholeheartedly support my initiatives unless they also have a seat at the table and are hearing the reservations and buy-in firsthand.

Over-communication is the only communication

One of the mantras of our former COO, Geoff Donaker, is that you have to constantly and continuously communicate to get awareness and buy-in. We adhere to that mantra in the Product and Engineering team by holding a weekly 30-minute sync meeting that’s open to everyone in the organization. Teams announce their improvements and feature releases, and organizational initiatives are rolled out. These are followed by smaller and smaller organizational meetings on a regular cadence that helps managers reinforce their teams’ goals and priorities.

How about some more communication?

Aside from larger group meetings and gatherings, like many other tech companies, Yelp has a strong culture of 1:1s. I meet with my manager on a weekly basis, and try to keep the discussion as far from status updates as possible, and instead focused on challenges and roadblocks. The rule of thumb is that if it’s something we could discuss at the water cooler, it’s probably not worth spending time on in our 1:1. Instead, I send a weekly status update with the things that have happened that week for their information.

Aside from meeting with my own manager and the PMs that report to me, I also have about ten other 1:1s with other people in the company, just to catch up and maintain a strong relationship with them. These people include my manager’s manager, other PM managers, engineering managers who my team works with, and other stakeholders in the organization. The approach with these audiences is similar: try to stay away from status updates, and instead talk about our hopes, dreams, and (importantly) darkest fears.

Inclusive and supportive

I met with a new manager a few weeks after they joined Yelp to check in. We had worked together previously, so I knew they’d give me the straight dope when I asked how their first few weeks were. “Surprisingly few assholes” was their reply, which was memorable both for the colorful language and because I think it captures the culture well. An example that has surprised me consistently is how often I’ve reached out to someone for their help, and they’ve wholeheartedly given it. I rarely get “that’s not my job”, and much more often either get help, or hear “I don’t know, but ask so-and-so”. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of Yelp’s core values is “Play well with others”. If it’s good enough for your kindergarten report card, it’s probably a good thing to carry into the workplace.

One of the cultural norms that’s near and dear to my heart (pun intended) is an internal tool called Yelp Love. If it sounds strange to send “love” to your coworkers, just think of it as a lightweight way to express your appreciation to someone. For example, I can send love to a PM who just finished an important project, or an engineer who helped debug a major customer issue. It’s so popular that Yelp employees send thousands of love every single day, and the top love receivers (because of course there’s a leaderboard) commonly receive more than 100 love messages per week. Even if you only get one every few days, it’s hugely motivating to have regular reminders of the support and appreciation of your coworkers.

Open and honest

One of the practices we have that I’m most proud of is how we respond when something goes wrong. I’ve worked in companies where errors result in shaming or dismissal. Instead, at Yelp, when something goes wrong, someone writes a postmortem. The idea is to examine the issue, highlight the learnings, and explain what’s being done to prevent it happening again. The postmortem is shared with the entire engineering and product team. One important detail is that it’s not about assigning blame. Ideally, this helps the whole organization (not just the affected team) learn about risks and avoid them in the future.

So what exactly makes it “fun”?

Yes, there are some parts of working at Yelp that are just fun. For one thing, we love our hackathons. Three times a year we have a two-day hackathon where engineers, PMs, and designers work together on the practical, the sublime, and the ridiculous. A lot of projects imagine wild new features or purposes for Yelp, but some are just a chance for employees to play with new technology, tackle a pet project, or finally create that K-pop music video that they’ve always wanted to. There’s something about having a no-holds-barred creative outlet that is really invigorating and team-building.

Is Yelp utopia?

No. It’s the healthiest work culture that I’ve been part of, but by no means have we figured everything out. And the playing field changes naturally over time and with the growth of the company. One natural challenge with growth is that teams can’t sit as near one another as they used to, and the chances for serendipitous meetings and conversations goes down. One thing we’ve done to combat that is that we have a tool called Yelp Beans (as in coffee beans), which sets up coffee dates between different people in the organization. It gives people a chance to expand their network, talk about what they’re working on, and maybe get some career advice.

It’s also worth noting that we’re constantly evaluating and improving how we manage our culture. In the same way that we’re managing our tech stack over time, we’re also managing our “culture stack”, so to speak.

You might notice that paradoxically, a lot of what we do to drive productivity is anti-productive in a classic “meetings are unproductive” sense. But what we’ve found is that without a strong culture of cross-role and cross-team communication and cooperation, we aren’t as productive in getting product built. Teams and roles may get out of balance, or bypassed altogether.

I hope this has given you a glimpse into how engineering and product culture works at Yelp, and maybe a few concrete ways to think about the culture in your own workplace. Steal some of these examples, or start with a blank sheet and try to figure out how you can create a framework that increases communication, respect, and interdependence. And then throw a little fun in there, too. Because fun is what might make the difference to the next job candidate who walks in your door.

Andrew is a group product manager for Yelp’s Multi-Location business, which makes Yelp a great place for small and large chains and franchises to advertise and grow their business.