Apprenticeship Community

Ask-Me-Anything with Doc

April 7, 2015 6:00PM PDT to 7:00PM PDT

Michael (Doc) Norton spoke with the Apprenticeship Community about workplace culture for the engineering teams at Groupon, as well as hiring and retaining employees.

Doc is a technical leader with a deep compassion for people and is always willing to invest in his teams’ professional growth. As director of engineering culture at Groupon, he works with teams all around the world to facilitate working environments that foster learning and growth.

Over the past 23 years, he’s run his own consultancy, worked as a senior consultant at ThoughtWorks, and run a custom software development studio with LeanDog. His hobbies include long distance running and spending time with his wife, children, and grandchildren.

The full AMA with Doc follows, edited for length, clarity, grammar and style.

kmanion: Your title made me curious, What does it mean to “engineer culture”?

Hah. Director of Engineering, Culture is probably better…I work in software engineering – I focus on our culture. I also have delivery teams that report up to me.

Zee: What would you say defines Groupon’s engineering culture?

The people. I mean that in two ways. People are the primary component. Our people define our culture – literally and figuratively. It’s an interesting place – grew super fast and through a lot of acquisition.

Now we’re trying to bring all these disparate groups together. You can do that top down, I suppose. But we’re trying not to do that. It can be a challenge. If you’re asking me for some pithy statement that embodies our culture, I don’t have one.

Zee: What kind of challenges? (Understood if secret)

Well … There are a few things I observed after spending time with people. One is that we all know what the “Groupon Way” is – it’s the way my team does it. Everybody else is wrong and doesn’t know it yet. The other is that our “enemies” were all within – that team, that office, that country. In other words – we were very siloed.

ltrainpr: How do you know you are or have been successful at shaping culture? How do you measure culture change?

I do run a check-in that is based on Gallup’s prior work. It measures employee engagement and satisfaction. It’s one aspect of what we look at. We also monitor turn-over, 360 review data of managers, and a few other things. Gallup did a huge study several years ago. They narrowed down engagement to 13 key questions. The book “First Break All The Rules” is based on their work.

We focus on managers a good deal. Managers and above. I refer to them as “leadership.” I do that to remind them they are supposed to be leaders. Ideally servant leaders. We roll-up the survey data and share it with the entire organization. You can see how managers compare to one another. We do a simple “start/stop/continue” review on managers at least every six months. We ask people they’ve interacted with to fill it out.

geekoncoffee: Do you do 360’s for just managers? or for all employees?

360s are done for all folks in engineering, but are not (as of yet) an official part of the corporate review process.

mattpolito: How has the influx of potential candidates coming out of boot camp-type schools changed how apprenticeship is handled, if any?

Great question. I’ll be honest with you, we don’t have an official apprenticeship program yet. We’ve tried in the past and had some really great success and some solid fails. When I looked at the challenges we were facing, I didn’t see how we could make apprenticeship work until we solved some other problems.

We’ve also not hired a lot of boot camp graduates. We’ve been trapped in this, “I need someone who can hit the ground running” mentality for a while. Those we have hired have worked out well and it is paving the way for others, I think/hope. Zee: What patterns have you noticed from solid junior contributors?

Solid junior contributors – Great learners and teachers at the same time.

Zee: What about great mentors?

Same answer. Great mentors are patient, care about the individual more than the task, see potential, can work on someone’s strengths. Often the best thing a mentor can do is point you in a good direction and be there when you get exhausted (but not much sooner).

krystyna: As a veteran, it was sort of hard for me to step into the world of development, I really wasn’t sure where to start.What do you think should be done, or needs to be done, to support veterans in the future, especially with the new initiatives that are coming down from the government to get more of us into tech?

I do think apprenticeship is a good path for helping with this. Companies can actually afford to take a little “risk” – The benefits are worth it. Having your existing staff teach keeps them more skilled. Bringing in junior folks and helping them learn is a good way to “mine” for untapped talent.

One of my first hires (way long ago) was a machine press operator who had taken their first computer course. Since then, he’s designed multi-factor authentication systems for major banks, is an advisor to Oracle, and works on security systems.

He wasn’t even sure he wanted to “do this computer thing” Most of us are capable of far more than we can imagine. And we’re afraid. I know I am. Sometimes we need people who will believe in us when we’re not ready to.

kmanion: I understand the tendency for companies to prefer to hire someone who can “hit the ground running,” For my former company, it was because we were tiny and claimed to not have the resources to train someone from the ground up. But what do you think drives this tendency at large companies like Groupon? And how can we combat that?

Deadlines. Myopia. Optimizing for the short-term. I think too many companies (Groupon included) are trying to do BIG things. Charging for the grand ta-da. This causes all kinds of dysfunction. Chunk it down. Experiment. Learn as you go.

What does that stuff have to do with hiring/training juniors? When you get caught in this, you feel like you can’t slow down. You can’t afford to make an investment that doesn’t have a certain payoff. You NEED talent NOW. But it’s bogus.

kmanion: What makes that idea bogus? I mean, the idea that someone who looks good on paper is certain to pay off vs. someone who can be trained.

Companies that aren’t making an investment in their future (and genuinely in people) will have to keep searching further and wider for “top” talent while the true top talent goes someplace more humane.

“Looks good on paper” is easy to do.

How can I say this.

I’ve met plenty of jerks who look good on paper. And do more damage than good, even if they can crank code. Someone who WANTS to be trained already has personality traits I think are invaluable – humility and a willingness to learn.

coralineada: You’ve talked a lot about hiring… What suggestions do you have for retaining talent?

Autonomy, Connection, and Excellence.

Not to sound too much like Daniel Pink. People (individuals and groups) need these three things at various levels.

Connection is sense of belonging, unity, kinship, as well as feeling connected to the purpose of the company.

Autonomy is having some control over your destiny – having a voice in HOW you do things as well as what you do. It’s not free-for-all. It’s not subordination.

Excellence is about personal growth AND doing quality work. We need to be able to see progress toward a desired end. Be it a finished product or a promotion. If you can provide these three things, good people will stay.

Easier said than done. A.C.E is the framework my team, ETHOS (Engineering Traditions Habit, Operations, and Standards), uses when we take on projects. If it doesn’t clearly bolster these things, we pass.

Does that make sense or does it just sound like “management tip of the week” smoke?

coralineada: That makes sense. There’s a certain abstract quality which is probably necessary for a broad question like that.

Zee: Could you provide some examples of stuff you’ve done to boost ACE?

Interest Leagues. These are communities of practice, but under a cooler name. Anyone can start an interest league. We have them for Java, managers, speakers, board games, etc.

Autonomy – run by the members, supported by the company. We fund them, but don’t tell them what to do.Connection – brings people together with a common interest who are not on the same team. Excellence – many of these groups have evolved to become the place our standards are discussed and agreed.Excellence – people learning from one another.

Our GEMs (Groupon Engineering Mentoring) program is a mentoring program where you get mentored by someone not in your direct reporting structure.

GEEKon is an internal hackfest that runs three times per year, and people can work on “anything” – the (unofficial) rule is, “If you can squint at it and see Groupon, you can work on it.”

These are some. A lot of the other stuff we do is more subtle. My hope is not that people will say, “Look what ETHOS did for us.”, but, “Look what WE did.”

Doc will be speaking at Spark the Change in Toronto later this month and Agile 2015 in Washington, D.C., in August.

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