Engineers Don’t Talk: 3 Essential Communication Tools for Every Dev Team

By Guest Post

By Elias Torres – VP Engineering, HubSpot

If there’s one thing I have learned while scaling a product organization from 5 to 125 engineers and product managers, it’s that engineers will not share thoughtful feedback in front of others. Requesting feedback on the spot yields nothing more than blank stares. I have had more success getting information at lunches, parties and informal gatherings than during meetings. But with over 600 employees at HubSpot, we needed something that scaled with the organization. I have discovered three tools that help us draw vital feedback to maintain a high-performing team.

#1 15Five: On my radar, knowing the pulse

About two years ago our team was small – we had around 25 developers organized into very small teams. As we grew, we transitioned from everyone reporting directly to me, to establishing tech leads and delegating team members. This is the key moment when I realized we needed to document some of our conversations  to make sure I didn’t miss anything. We started off with Google Docs for each individual but that quickly became unmanageable.

We decided to try 15Five with a small group of folks first and we were quickly hooked. We started with a select few that gave up writing notes on Google Docs after each 1-1 and quickly grew to over 3/4 of the organization in less than six months. 15Five’s weekly cadence hit the spot for us because it gave each team the flexibility to accomplish many different tasks and choose what was important for others to know.

We asked questions like “what are the challenges you are facing? where are you stuck?” One of the easy first wins is that the tool served as a discussion board to talk about coaching and development issues.The ability for engineering leaders across the organization to like, comment and pass up individual contributions is key to our team-growth challenges. 15Five’s flexible access control through various groups allowed us to increase our transparency because more people are able to see accomplishments and concerns across teams.

I now (manually) aggregate every team’s wins and post that into a weekly engineering update. The weekly report contains wins, issues and my updates on direction and growth. This company-wide report has addressed several challenges we’ve had in the past.  First, it lets others know that it’s OK to voice your opinion. Secondly, it forces us to do something about it. Without some accountability, it’s common for managers to hear some concern and sit on it. But most importantly, it removes the virus that attacks most growing startups when someone says: “Why didn’t I know about X?”

#2: SurveyMonkey: No data, no progress.

Conversations are critical, but so is actionable data. The beauty of SurveyMonkey is that we get quick quantifiable answers on employee performance and morale. Approximately every 3 months, we run our internal Employee Net Promoter Scores survey where we ask all employees to rate three questions a scale from 0 to 10:

Would you recommend HubSpot as a place to work?

How would you rate your colleagues and team members?

How happy are you with the culture at HubSpot?

This is a simple and straight-forward way to measure engagement and gain a clear understanding of what needs to change. We do this 3 to 4 times a year to keep ourselves honest and make sure we do everything we can to support an awesome culture.

These surveys have a huge impact on our direction and make our organization better. Each question in the survey has room for open-ended comments that are shared with the entire company. We read and process every survey and then compile the results in our internal wiki. The raw data and easily digested presentation includes breakdowns by department and tenure and how they trend over time. Just today, I read this quarter’s raw results and felt immense pride when I see the progress we have made so far.

#3 TinyPulse: Anonymous has its place too

Although TinyPulse is a relatively new tool for HubSpot, (we have only been using it seriously since May 2013) it is a valuable addition to our feedback arsenal. It’s  focused on anonymous short (aka Tiny) surveys with the key ability to continue the conversation with the responder, anonymously. TinyPulse is hands-off in that it sets the frequency and even the questions being asked.

Most of us are not always ready to receive feedback on questions such as; “Are you happy at work?, How seriously is your feedback taken at HubSpot?, Would you re-apply for a job here?, How would you rate our culture?” But now I can’t live without the feedback.

As we make changes within the organization, this feedback gives us great calibration for what we are doing right and what we could be doing better.

We have a company-wide tradition to celebrate champions across every department every month. At Engineering, we decided to use TinyPulse’s virtual cheers section to nominate the ones with the most cheers as our champions. It’s open and transparent and gives our cheers a real value. It’s a great honor to be the champion of the month at HubSpot!

It’s 2014 and we are still learning how to communicate.  Our ultimate goal is to address every engineer’s concerns so they can focus on building our customers’ products. It’s not easy to obtain feedback from engineers but with 15Five, Survey monkey, and Tiny Pulse, we’ve created a culture of transparency and truth.  Whether feedback is quantifiable, anonymous, or the launching point for a discussion, it is extremely valuable. I don’t always like the feedback I hear, but playing the guessing game is way too risky and consequential.

Elias Torres is the VP of Engineering at HubSpot, where he is focused on building the best engineering organization in Boston. Elias joined HubSpot after they acquired Performable in June 2011, where he was the CTO and co-founder. His team at HubSpot builds a distributed, cloud-based software platform for marketers that powers HubSpot’s ambition to become the #1 marketing company in the world. He is obsessed with finding the best talent, sculpting company culture, and getting things done.

Photo Credit (cropped): Mark Anderson

How do you facilitate team communication? Are you getting the feedback that you need? Leave us a comment below. 

Know the pulse of your team each week and improve employee engagement with 15Five.

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