In my nearly 15 years as a software engineer, I’ve learned firsthand the effect of different engineering cultures on a company and its employees. While a lot could be written about how to suss out company culture and find the right fit for you, I have a heuristic that’s helped me narrow down opportunities: Look for engineering-led organizations.
Engineering-led companies are those where a good portion of the founders and/or high-level leadership come from engineering backgrounds (as opposed to sales or marketing backgrounds). Here at Levels, the only person on the founding team who can’t write code is our Chief Medical Officer Casey Means — and she’s a former surgeon, which is kind of like an engineer of humans.
Prior to joining Levels, I started a job search platform to help companies show off their engineering culture. In our research, we found that a lot of engineers liked the idea of working for an engineering-led organization when we brought it up, but they didn’t even realize that was something they could seek out. I’m here to let you know that you can prioritize working for engineering-led organizations, share some of the ways doing so improves my day-to-day, and give some advice for finding great companies.
What Makes Engineering-Led Companies Different
Obviously, it’s nice to be able to talk to folks in leadership about what you’re working on, or a challenge you’re facing, and have them really understand rather than blankly nod and smile. But the pros of working for an engineering-led company go much deeper than that.
Complexity is Expected, Timelines are More Collaborative
By far the biggest difference when engineers are in charge is that they understand that complexity in engineering projects reveals itself as you’re doing the work, and therefore they think about timelines in more flexible ways.
When I’ve worked at marketing- or sales-led companies, there was an all-too-common (and all-too-frustrating) scenario that played out: Leadership would sell a product or decide on a priority, create a plan, and tell customers the launch date — often without asking an engineer whether the timeline was feasible. Or, if they do ask for engineering input, they’ll get upset if the timeline is longer than they think it should be, and set the schedule for their timeline anyways. That leaves the engineers in a bind: either hurry the project out at the expense of quality, wildly overwork at the expense of quality of life or miss the deadline and have the rest of the company mad at you. It’s an easy way to feel like a crappy engineer.
Engineering-led companies like Levels still care about deadlines, and we want to meet them whenever possible. But I’ve noticed much more collaboration in setting those deadlines, and more understanding of potential ambiguity that will lead to adjusted timelines.
For instance, when we start a new project, whatever engineer is leading it might give a rough idea of when it can be done. As we get going, the scope becomes sharper and any unknown unknowns become more clear, engineers can openly communicate back to the team if the original deadline won’t be met and why. Because they’re not afraid to bring this up, we can more proactively address any implications the new timeline will have on the larger team rather than all panic at the end. And, because we typically haven’t told customers exactly when to expect the launch, going a week or two over the original estimate usually isn’t the end of the world.
Risk-Taking is Normal, Failure Doesn’t Mean You’re Doing a Bad Job
One of my favorite things about working for engineering-led companies is that there’s often a bigger appetite for risk because leadership understands the tradeoffs and the potential value of taking those swings.
As an individual contributor, this kind of culture gives you more space to work on interesting problems and come up with creative solutions. At marketing-led companies I’ve worked for, there were ideas I wouldn’t even bring up because I knew they would be viewed as too risky by management, and just be rejected outright. Ultimately, the company lost out on some valuable improvements — from small optimizations to things that would have prevented larger problems down the road — and I was less engaged as an engineer. At Levels and other companies with engineering leadership, this type of self-censorship isn’t as common because you know leadership will at least be open to exploring risky ideas that could seriously pay off.
Bonus? This means engineering-led teams often foster a culture where failure is accepted, or even celebrated. Recently, one of my teammates was doing some pretty major maintenance — and ended up taking production down for an hour. At a marketing-led organization, he may have been absolutely reamed for this and probably wouldn’t have tried again. Instead, he was encouraged to try again and ended up finding a new approach a few days later that worked like a dream. Now, he feels valued and our app is more secure — all it cost us was a culture of safety and trust (and a meager hour of production).
Work Processes are Engineered to Make Life Better
Another great thing about working for engineers is that they’re down to engineer just about anything and everything — including the processes you use to organize work and get things done as a company.
At places where engineers aren’t in charge, it feels like they just blindly apply the bog-standard operating procedures of the industry: working agile, doing sprints, etc. Those can work great for some people, but they’re not the right fit for every team. Even worse are the companies with the “management style” of locking their engineers in a room and sliding pizzas under the door until they get the code they want. I much prefer working for organizations that really think intentionally about how to best run things to keep everyone as productive and happy as possible.
Our engineering processes at Levels are in flux right now precisely because our leaders are taking the time to consider different options, run experiments to see how they work in practice and keep tweaking until we figure out what works best for our team. Our CEO recognizes the importance of engineering quality of life and knows that taking time to streamline things for our developers will pay off dividends in the long run.
How to Find an Engineering-Led Company
Of course, the easiest way to find an incredible engineering-led company to work for would be to apply for a job at Levels. I can promise you that all of the above is true — and there are a lot of other great reasons to work here.
But, if you want to explore other options, I recommend starting by shifting where you’re looking for opportunities. Mainstream job boards like LinkedIn or Indeed are going to have mainstream companies (most of which are marketing- or sales-led). Instead, head to sites where other engineers hang out — like Hacker News, dev.to, and Y Combinator’s Work at a Startup — which are likely to have a higher percentage of engineering-led representation.
Then, screen the companies you’re considering. Go to their about or team pages and read the bios of the founders and leadership, or dig into their LinkedIns for more information. Do any of them have engineering backgrounds? Are there other indicators that they prioritize more than just selling their product and care about engineering culture, like an engineering blog?
Ultimately, companies run by marketing and salespeople need engineers too — and plenty of are great places to work. On the flip side, not every company run by engineers is going to be amazing. Be smart about asking questions during interviews or doing backchannel research to figure out if any given company will be a place where you can do your best work. I’ve just found working for other engineers to be the fastest track to finding that fit for me.