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Blog author
Sergey Kotlov

How to grow a thriving development culture

A lot of companies I visited have a thriving development culture where things like sharing knowledge and organizing meetups are the rule, not the exception. When I ask about it, I always get the same answer: “We only hire people who believe experimenting en cooperation are important.” In other words: They didn’t create a culture, it was a logical consequence.

Though the answer seems obvious I wasn’t ready to accept it. It is no help for organisations which don’t have this kind of culture yet. What should they do? Fire every developer and hire new ones? So…

Be a gardener

… I asked more questions, and the number one rule I learned from people working in great companies like Futurice, Spotify and Vincit is: ‘Don’t try to be a builder, be a gardener’. Everyone with a garden can tell you: It’s no use trying to force something to grow. All you have to do is put the right plants on the right place, make sure they get the food they need and, most importantly, give them the room they need to grow. It’s all about motivation, not about pushing.

If they need shade, don’t put people in the sun

In many companies involving developers is a challenge. When push comes to shove, they don’t really care what non-developers think of their work. But man, they do like doing great stuff. And the one thing they do appreciate, is praise from their peers. Those insights are tools you can use.

Did a developer give a talk at the conference? Someone contributed to an open source project? Your company hosted a tech meetup? Celebrate it and shout it out loud! There’s no need in organizing a party with Champagne and dancing the roof off. Some developers may not appreciate so extensive attention to their persona. However, it’s worth writing about it in the weekly newsletter in big red letters. Why?

Because whatever kind of people you have in your organization, the most important tool you have is transparency. Share what’s going on and give credit to the people who deserve it.

Let them show what they’ve got

Remember how developers like praise of their peers? Well, many followers and stars on Github is something they like. So motivate them to contribute to open source projects. Show your support by paying them for the time they spend on open source projects. Just like Futurice and Vincit do. Of course you can limit the amount of compensation to 10 or 15 hours per month, just make it transparent.

Another tool you can use are hackathons. Don’t make your developers participate if they don’t want to. Start small, choose a theme, limit the number of participants and pay for their accommodations outside the office. Or even better: Outside the city. And again: Share what’s happening.

Be strict on sharing

Letting your developers blossom starts with small things. Make it possible for them to show their work in an easy way. An example: SC5 includes tech tips from employees in their newsletter. Anything could be a tip: from a link to dev blog to IDE configuration tricks.

Also, don’t make people ‘prove’ why they should go to, for instance, a conference. Don’t be strict on budget, be strict on sharing. To my knowledge, Futurice and SC5 have a great practice where can go to any conference they want, as long as they share what they’ve learned with others. In that way you not only give them room to grow, you also tell them you trust them. It also helps if you make your office open for community events, trainings, conferences and so on.

Another trick for conferences. Limit a minimum number of participants to two employees. Yes, you’ve read it correctly — minimum two people. It will increase knowledge exchange and improve the quality of their post-conference presentation.

For the future

It all starts with people you hire but there are plenty of small things you can do. The one I haven’t mentioned yet — it’s important to learn what kinds of ‘plants’ you have for your perfect garden. It might take a while to figure out if they’re half-shade or full sun, but once you know, oh man. You could be on the cover of Home & Garden in no-time.

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