There’s More to Life Than Code: How to Keep Your Engineers Engaged


Building great new things requires hiring great engineers, but growing already great things requires keeping great engineers engaged. The key to that is making sure engineers feel rewarded and respected and to provide a sense of purpose, according to Camille Fournier, at the Open Source Leadership Summit in February.

In her talk, Fournier highlighted her experiences as CTO of Rent the Runway, which she also has chronicled in an upcoming book, The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth & Change.

Those three keys — reward, respect, and purpose — require constant curation and nurture, she said, otherwise even the strongest engineering teams will fall apart.

“Ultimately, it’s not a series of steps, it’s not a step ladder,” Fournier said. “Once you get people to ownership, it’s not like they’re just completely perfectly engaged and you’re done. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. You can undermine people by neglecting any one of these, no matter how engaged they are.”

The first need, reward, starts with an economic incentive to bring the talented engineers into your company or project in the first place. That can be pay – everybody has living costs – but it can also be the prestige in being involved in the project, or a belief in the mission of the company, Fournier said.

“If your project is cool, more people are going to work for it,” Fournier said. “We all know this. People go to open source projects largely because their employers are paying them to do it, so there’s an economic incentive. They’re going to open source projects because they’re using them at work. They’re going to open source projects because they think that having it on their resume… like Kubernetes mentioned earlier, having it on their resume means that they will be able to get more jobs.”

Once they’re initially committed, Fournier said the ability to actually their hard work put to use quickly is a major reward. Engineers like to see what they’ve built actually used, so a fast deployment cycle can really keep people engaged.

“Being able to move fast and being able to get things done is a reward,” she said. “Every day you get to solve a little piece of a puzzle, you feel good. This is part of why we all went into tech in the first place.”

The key from moving an engineering team from just contributing to commitment to the cause is respect, Fournier said. The first building block for respect is safety; people want an environment when they can ask questions, make mistakes, be vulnerable and honest. Fournier pointed to a Google study where psychological safety was the first key to impactful engineers.

“I think this all comes down to really a feeling of relatedness, a feeling of kinship, friendliness, community, feeling like you’re part of a group that has your back,” she said. “You’re part of a tribe. This is ultimately what gives you that psychological safety element.”

Fournier said this was something she had to work on in her growth as a manager; asking people questions about their lives instead of just trying to solve work problems.

“Just simple things, we’re not becoming BFFs at work,” she said. “Just treating people like they’re more than a cog in the machine.”

Cross-Functional Teams

She found that her engineers actually were most productive when they not only felt like they were part of an engineering team, but when they felt like they were a part of the entire company. When Rent The Runway created cross-functional teams — with people from all departments working together to solve single problems — her engineers were at their happiest and most productive.

“There is more to life than code,” Fournier said. “We see this in our open source projects. Big successful open source projects need more than just software developers. They need people who are capable of answering questions on mailing list, of getting up on stage, like I’m doing right now, and teaching people about how to use the project.”

When those cross-functional teams were solving problems, that’s when a sense of ownership permeated Rent The Runway, Fournier said. That’s the third key: a sense of purpose, where the engineers not only understand why they’re building what they’re building, but where that project fits in the direction of the company, and that the little decisions they’re making every day while building something are helping steer the company in that direction.

“When we created those cross-functional teams at Rent The Runway, they were successful not just because we helped people see the larger context of the business, but also because we gave them high level business goals and told them to figure out the steps that they wanted to take to achieve those,” Fournier said. “What features should we build? What products should be build to achieve those goals? That was incredibly, incredibly engaging. Giving away ownership, figuring out how to engage people, not just by saying, ‘Here’s what you’re doing, go do it,’ but saying, ‘Hey, here’s the goal, figure out how we think we should go do it.’ That is the true engagement that comes from a strong sense of purpose and a strong sense of ownership.”

Fournier said that each of those three desires — reward, respect and purpose — feed off each other, and require constant reinforcement from managers.

“We are always in great times of change in the tech industry,” she said. “Keep learning. Keep asking yourself questions and keep questioning yourself, ‘How do I keep my teams engaged?’ This is the secret to building great, motivated, and engaged engineering teams.”

Watch the complete presentation below:

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