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Etsy occasionally runs an engineer exchange program, where they trade engineers with another tech company to give both organizations insight into what the other does differently. PagerDuty was their most recent participant, and in May, I had the pleasure of spending a week at Etsy’s office in Brooklyn. I learned from their practices, observed what they were doing well, and gained insight into their team dynamics. Etsy has an amazing culture, and I observed the customs they put into place to maintain their environment of empathy, autonomy, and learning. It was a great example of the traditions a company can foster to maintain a productive and happy work environment.
As companies grow, maintaining core values can be hard. Empathy is a core value at Etsy, and I was impressed by how they’ve woven it into so many aspects of their culture. Engineers are encouraged to be aware of their impact on other teams, and address each other in positive, non-confrontational ways.
It starts with hiring. They reconfigured their interview process to search for employees that have an empathetic demeanor. Most interview slots include a behavioral component to judge a candidate’s “Etsy-ness,” even technical slots.
Once these new empathetic employees are hired, they are immediately sent to a 5-week bootcamp, so that each employee starts with a well-rounded understanding of the organization. They work with other teams for a week each, learning their process and delivering an actual work product. The new hire still meets regularly with their primary team and manager, so it’s not like they’re just sent off with no chance to build relationships with their team.
Senior engineers have the option to do an exchange with a different team as well, but for a much longer sustained period. In that senior engineer exchange, the engineer typically works on some project that they have a personal interest in. They might also use it as a way to just recharge on some completely different work before returning to their team.
Empathy also extends to how they talk about failures. They instituted a culture of blameless post-mortems and began running group dynamics sessions teach teams about empathy. When you focus on making your post-mortems blameless, you focus on how the mistake was made, not who made it. It promotes a culture of seeing each team member as doing their best possible work, and not approaching mistakes as a reflection on an individual.
Etsy has a culture of autonomy amongst its engineers. They’re encouraged to dive in, have confidence in their work, and make meaningful individual contributions. This starts on Day One: Etsy is well-known for having new developers push code on their first day. What might be less well known is that the change they push is simply adding oneself to their team page.
Obviously the team page could simply be programmatically generated from an employee database, but Etsy leaves that process as a manual change to provide an opportunity to learn the deployment process without the stress of releasing an important change.
Their culture of autonomy is also reflected in their tools. Etsy values tools that are tightly integrated together, which often pushes them to build their own version of every tool they use. I sat in on a demo of a SaaS mobile analytics tool they were using in their iOS and Android apps. They were getting lots of value out of this tool, but they said that, at some point, they will probably build their own.This is pretty much the polar opposite of PagerDuty, where we leverage SaaS solutions as much as possible.
The Etsy teams recognize that there is a lot of cost to switch tools in an organization. So, whether new tools are built or bought, the engineers spend extra time making sure the new tool was well integrated into Etsy’s systems and usage patterns, and give a demo for all interested teams to introduce the tool.
Etsy understands the value of taking advantage of every opportunity to learn. It leads to a culture of continuously assessing what is happening across the business and using those insights to grow and improve. This sort of culture contributes to making a company agile, as teams are always examining issues, learning from past actions, and moving forward in an efficient, enlightened manner.
I already mentioned Etsy’s blameless post-mortems. It’s general practice at Etsy to hold a post-mortem for every outage, no matter how minor. I had the opportunity to sit in on a post-mortem and, despite it being for a fairly low impact issue, the team still set aside an hour to discuss it. The discussion focused, as you would expect, on the timeline of events when the issue was discovered and remediated, but, surprisingly, a good amount of it focused on the work-life balance of the responders. The incident occurred on a weekend, and was worked on by two engineers that were not on-call at the time. The team was concerned about distributing the burden of on-call, and wanted to understand how they could ensure their on-call processes were doing that effectively.
In the same vein of self-assessment, I got to experience an interesting cultural aspect of Etsy that I hadn’t heard of before. Departing employees are given the opportunity (or, some might say in jest, are required) to give a presentation to the company that they call Last Lecture. It allows them to give some wisdom back to the organization, and is essentially a post-mortem for one’s tenure at a company.The speaker is given free rein to discuss whatever they want to discuss. At the presentation that I attended, many members of the senior leadership team were there to hear what a long-time employee had to say, reinforcing that this tradition is a key aspect of Etsy’s culture.
I greatly enjoyed my time at Etsy, meeting and chatting with various groups. It was a pleasure to gain some insights into their engineering department and get a better idea of how they work!
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