Promote Good Engineering Culture for Success

By Shammy Narayanan

An organization’s foundation must rest on an unshakable bedrock of a sound and solid engineering culture, which will outpace its competition and outlast in the race for relevancy.

Although we fundamentally agree on paper and, in principle, deviation sprouts, blossoms, and branches during execution. Just as fireworks distract and take the eyes off the target, demanding operational drill drains and distracts the management entirely from the end product but obsesses them into the byproducts such as margins, colorful dashboards, meaningless and mindless meetings.

Even if you have the slightest doubt in accepting and assimilating this truth, let’s do a reality check through a simple design question. Assume your team is tasked with building two applications, the first one processing 100,000 messages per sec of 1Kb each, the second processing three messages per minute but of 2GB each. Both apps handle the same amount of data from an overall throughput perspective. Get these applications designed by your tech team. If your senior developers present an identical solution or versions with a slight modification of the base design, then be vindicated that it is time to seriously and sincerely revisit your engineering culture.

While the tech team’s depth is just a barometer check, overall culture is a product of management commitment and relentless focus. Can we do a similar assessment to study the gap between management preaching and practices? let’s run through a brief checklist

  1. Does the senior management team spend at least 20% of the time in a week on purely technical topics such as – architecture, tech debts, self-healing designs, non-functional requirements?
  2. What are the well-known phrases you keep hearing in a regular weekly meeting? is it resourcing, revenue, re-fitment, invoices, margin, or is it scalability, fault tolerance, performance indices?
  3. When you approach your leadership with a challenge in technology, is your problem getting addressed? or does it end up with additional tasks of creating slides?
  4. When you bring up tech items with directors and above, is it brow-beaten as too tactical for a leadership discussion?
  5. Does your management prioritize an affluent English speaker over a passive technical doer?
  6. Can you bump into a leader at a coffee table and confidently broach on tech/domain topics expecting meaningful guidance?

Once you have responses to the above questions, you can self-grade the effective support to your organization’s engineering culture. I am not making a case for downplaying the significance of financial fidelity. Sales and operations are essential, but an overconsuming obsession in these areas shouldn’t surpass, stifle, and cannibalize the organization’s core offerings. We are in an overzealous drive to transform every role into a sales agent. When a junior spots a new opportunity to staff a couple of positions, we celebrate it. But, the same jubilant spirit goes missing when the developer/tester optimizes an application to avoid memory leaks. Managers conveniently and incorrectly assume that such sound engineering techniques are mundane and part of the work packet.

Such sales-focused transformation may yield short-term gains but causes long-term liabilities. Case-in-point, consider Boeing an organization synonymous with aircraft safety. A management change shifted its focus from its core engineering. It started over-emphasizing the need for all departments to drive decisions keeping an eye on the stock price. As a result, cost optimization adjudicated engineering choices rather than “safety and security norms.” Playing to the gallery, Boeing sales did temporarily spike up, but the strategy backfired, resulting in back-to-back flight crashes within a span of 5 months, a first of its kind in the impeccable history of Boeing. To salvage it took a complete management overhaul, $2.5B federal fines, grounded flights, and above all, an irreplaceable lifetime dent on the brand Boeing. A textbook example of misplaced priorities.

If leaders think technology is too tactical and should be relegated to the junior ranks, rethink as Elon Musk, despite being the wealthiest executive on the planet, still focuses on “exception handling routines,” Bill Gates reviewed code even in his prime and Steve Jobs’ obsession with product designs are well-known industry facts. I hope current-gen leaders don’t claim to be smarter or busier than these cult figures.

The good news is it’s never too late to start over, All we need is leaders to shift from a fixed to a product mindset. Recruiting designers and architects shouldn’t be viewed as an egregious extravagant expense but make it a primary and priority investment. Transform an architecture track into a lucrative and sought-after career path. Encourage certifications and incentivize the upskilling in the true sense, not as a routine tick mark exercise with a cheaper online portal. Stay invested in research, and don’t punish failures. As a leader, preserve and protect your core engineering team away from the debris of management idiosyncrasies. If Steve Jobs can turn around an ailing Apple from the verge of bankruptcy to the planet’s most valuable organization, we are definitely at a much better starting point. By fostering a culture of excellence, it’s a matter of time when the north star is within your striking distance.


  1. Downfall: The Case Against Boeing: Netflix
  2. Designing Data-Intensive Applications: The Big Ideas Behind Reliable, Scalable, and Maintainable Systems –Martin Kleppmann