The Professionalism Snowball

I’ve found a calling in helping as many companies as possible create world-class engineering teams. That is why the matter of cultivating a culture of professionalism is often on my mind. Some companies have no such problem. They easily hire incredibly talented people all around. Highly motivated people that come equipped with the knowledge of pushing themselves forward.

For the vast majority of companies, though, that’s not the case. They get some great hires. But unless you have a specific unfair advantage in reaching talented people, you have to find another way. That is the professionalism snowball. Set it into motion. Move obstacles out of the way. Reap the benefits.

How It Looks

I’ve seen different instantiations of the snowball. It can be effective in small startups as well as unicorns and public companies—guaranteed. The beauty of it is that it always starts the same, but takes on different shapes as it grows. That’s because once you get it rolling, everyone else starts piling on to it. And so every different person in your company adds to it his or her layer.

Companies with a high professionalism bar—one that keeps moving up—have a lot of ownership and camaraderie. You see team members openly discuss how to make things better. Provide one another clear and honest feedback. Try new ways of doing things.

Comfort zones are regularly changed, or expanded, as the team improves in more aspects. Rather than getting improvements in bursts once every few quarters when things go bust, they are often on top of things. It does not necessarily apply to the entire engineering organization. Sometimes it’s a pocket of excellence inside a larger organization. And yet, these are force multipliers that have low Peter Pan counts.

Setting It Into Motion

You’d like to get that (snow)ball rolling. The three principles I’ve found time and again to be required to achieve that are Egoless Peer Feedback, the existence of a Professional Improvement Platform, and a high Communication Focus.

  • Egoless Peer Feedback is often bootstrapped in the form of pull request reviews that are helpful and open across ranks and sometimes teams. As the leader, you might need to make sure the feedback is never ad hominem and focuses on the right kind of culture you are trying to cultivate. Have everyone in the team involved. A junior engineer might not be the only one approving code, but she can participate in the review.
  • A Professional Improvement Platform takes many forms and tends to change as engineering organizations grow. The critical aspect of it is that the team regularly invests the time in discussing its own and other tools, processes, approaches, and so on. It can be during the sprint retrospective, which already takes place every few weeks. Sometimes teams have regular tech lunches, tech talks, and book/article clubs to discuss these. Start with something, send the calendar invite, and set it to repeat. If the team is small, you might need to lead these in the beginning. However, I recommend sharing the responsibility with others in the group as soon as possible.
  • Communication Focus refers to the habit of formulating clear and succinct summaries of approaches and decisions. Not everyone can or should attend each discussion, especially in remote or hybrid work situations. Taking the time to put down decisions in writing (e.g., using ADRs for tech decisions) maintains transparency and openness for discussion.

Common Obstacles

As the snowball is rolling and expanding, you might notice some obstacles on its path. Here are the frequent offenders:

Blitz Mode: If you are always burning the midnight oil then the team is not likely to have the time and mental capacity to invest in becoming better. People rarely grow when they are under constant pressure. I find it is a bit like working out. You have to incorporate quality rest time and sometimes even schedule “deloads.” If you’re often blitzing, you have no chance of creating a culture of growth and professionalism.

Goals and Goals Alone: Very similar to blitz mode but frequent enough that I thought it worthwhile to mention by itself. Some teams focus on achieving their goals and shy away from anything that doesn’t seem to immediately move the needle and get them closer to these goals. It might not be as intense as working in blitz, but it still locks people squarely in their comfort zones. A delicate balance must be kept to ensure your team can also invest in its long-term capabilities and not just sprint towards short-term results.

Tech Focus: The other side of the coin of the previous point. Theoretically, the snowball can grow out of hand, and the team starts wasting time doing tech for tech’s sake. You should be aware of this possibility and ensure you track where your developers end up on the Tech-Product continuum. I’ve written more about ways to tackle it here.

Gatekeeping: A subtle detractor for the snowball is when the team, as it grows, does not immediately accept new hires to the “professionalism circle.” Ensure that as part of your onboarding, every new hire is made privy of the habits, rules, and culture, and invited to participate.

All these together should allow kickstarting this process of setting a professionalism bar that’s shared across the organization and having the team slowly raise it by itself.