From stacks to snacks: How to build culture that keeps developers around

by Andreas Rekdal
March 24, 2016

The ability to attract and retain great developers remains one of the most important factors in determining whether a tech company sinks or swims. But how do you attract employees who can freely choose between pretty much every company out there? We reached out to some of Chicago’s leading tech companies to ask them what they do to foster a culture that draws developers in and makes them want to stay.
 

Founded in 2001, Solstice Mobile is one of Chicago’s leading developer shops. The company works on everything from mobile and tablet applications to wearables and IoT devices.

What their developer culture looks like

“Our devs always respectfully challenge one another in their work,” said Mike Koleno, director of solution delivery. “They are all driven to find the absolute best solutions for our clients, so they share ideas across project teams.”

Developer traditions

Solstice has an annual tradition of celebrating Engineers Week with activities, challenges, games and prizes. The company also has “developer communities,” where developers can submit projects they’ve worked on to host lunch-and-learns to discuss progress, ideas and implementation strategies.

On the social side, developers get together after hours weekly to play board and video games. Team favorites include League of Legends, Avalon, Settlers of Catan and Seven Wonders. Many Solstice engineers also make a daily ritual of taking a break from their monitors at 3 p.m. to head to CVS for a snack and some fresh air to regroup for the rest of the day.

What sets their developer culture apart

“Our developers have a strong sense of community both inside and outside of work,” said Koleno. “Our Agile environment allows for tons of communication and transparency throughout the organization.”

He also cites the close collaboration between designers and engineers — internally termed the ‘design-gineer’-relationship — as a unique trait of the company’s culture. But perhaps most important is the emphasis on letting team members’ personalities shine.

“We truly appreciate and highlight everyone’s unique personalities and quirks,” said Koleno. “Quirkiness is contagious and our environment thrives off of that self-expression and individuality.”

How teams are structured

“Our project teams are Agile/Scrum, so a dev is typically 100 percent focused on one client engagement at a time,” said Koleno. “They are always challenging one another to ensure that the team has the right solution in place.”

The aforementioned ‘design-gineer’-relationships are also reflected in the seating charts, with designers and developers co-located throughout the space.

What they look for in developers

“We weigh interpersonal skills just as highly as technical skills throughout the interview process, specifically because of our consulting environment,” said Koleno. “Candidates must show the potential to become a trusted advisor to both our clients and to our employees.”

Added Koleno: “We also keep an eye out for creativity with our coding challenge — what cool features do candidates take the initiative to build in that initial step?”

How they build culture that keeps devs around

“The nature of our business tends to give us a leg up in this area,” said Koleno. “Consulting allows us to provide constant new challenges, new teams, new technologies to work on, and so on — we are more so challenged to continue providing diversity in the work they do internally. Solstice has a strong R&D program that allows our developers to tinker with the things they love and stay passionate about the space that we work in.”

 

Headquartered in Salt Lake City, Instructure has a significant engineering presence in Chicago. This team is developing the company’s Canvas platform — a cloud-based learning management system for K-12 teachers and students.

What their developer culture looks like

“Instructure is the best company and best team I've ever worked with. There are a number of factors that set us apart and I’ll address three of them: our values, the people we hire and the business we're in,” said engineering VP Steve Townsend.

“Culture in a company and on a team changes just a little bit every time someone joins or leaves,” he added. “When developers join our team, we embrace the passion, experience and skills they bring with them."

The company also strives for open communication — a goal that’s reflected in the configuration of its office space.

Developer traditions

“We support and encourage technical excellence within our development process and with activities that occur throughout the year,” said Townsend. “These activities include quarterly hack weeks, twice-monthly 'Avocode' sessions where engineers share the state of the art with their fellow engineers, and Pandamonium, which is our annual engineering conference. This all works together to nurture a healthy culture in which developers can thrive.”

What they look for in developers

“We look for people who share and embrace our values. Specifically, we value openness, drive and technical excellence,” said Townsend. “Our developers have an internal drive to get things done in the right way. This allows our managers to contribute technically on their team because they aren't worried about motivating people with 'carrots or sticks.'”

What sets their developer culture apart

“We're in the education technology industry on a mission to build software that makes people smarter. Our flagship product, Canvas, is a leading learning management system globally in K-12 and higher education institutions,” said Townsend. “Most of our interns and recent college grads used Canvas in their schooling and love the product and what it allowed them to do in their education. We are helping to transform the relationship between students and instructors in higher ed. And, in school districts around the country, we are changing the conversations among parents, teachers and students.”

“I've worked in the software industry for 25 years for 'important' companies. But this is the only time where people hug me at our user conference and thank me with tears in their eyes,” he added. “We're making a difference in the universe.”

 

Headquartered in Ravenswood, Guaranteed Rate is a pioneer in the digital mortgage industry. The company was founded in 2000, and is one of the country’s biggest lenders.

What their developer culture looks like

“Our culture is centered on our values, which includes radical autonomy, bias to action, working with the best of the best, and thinking big. We foster an environment that upholds our values and attracts like-minded individuals,” said Chief Information Officer Martin Logan.

“At Guaranteed Rate, we are delivering technology that is changing the way people across the country buy homes, and we are doing so rapidly. Our developers don’t sit back and wait for an assignment, they come up with big ideas and then see them implemented,” he added. “On a purely technical level thinking big means things like doing a ton of dev with Clojure (Lisp on the JVM) and having built an incredibly advanced deployment automation system among other things. We are not shy about experimenting and innovating. It can be messy at times, but we are not shy about that either.”

Developer traditions

Guaranteed Rate’s developer team bonds over foosball tournaments, vintage video games on home-built rigs, and the occasional keg.

What sets their developer culture apart

“We offer the opportunity to work in an environment with a startup ethos and the stability of a large company. Many companies say that, but we live it. We have almost no hierarchy and the developers may change teams as they wish, which helps engineers grow professionally and do their best work,” said Logan. “Guaranteed Rate engineers are responsible for working with internal and external stakeholders, generating new ideas, designing, implementing, and operating their product (yes, we do DevOps).“

Logan said two of the company’s most successful initiatives were conceived of and executed by developers. The company also lets developers choose their own tech stacks, whether that’s Node.js, C# or Clojure.

How teams are structured

“Our teams are cross-functional and include all of the roles necessary to design, build, and operate the team's product. This gives teams the ability to deliver their products without gridlocking on external resources,“ Logan said. “On the process side, we are agile but are not set on any specific methodology. It's important to understand the underlying agile principles and then evolve. An agile system like Scrum is just a starting point — not a rigid set of rules to keep forever.”

Moreover, Guaranteed Rate’s organization is surprisingly flat. The company’s engineers only find themselves a hop or two away from the CEO in the hierarchy.

“All of our engineers regularly meet with business stakeholders, including our CEO, in order to demo, review customer feedback, go over the roadmap, and discuss new product designs,” said Logan.

What they look for in developers

“The three things we pay close attention to are ability to deliver results, technical depth and culture fit. We look for engineers who understand technology at a deep level and are always curious to look under the hood,” said Logan, adding that the team also puts a huge emphasis on culture fit. “Not everyone wants a lot of autonomy or can thrive with it.  Being able to mesh well with our existing team is just as important to us as having the technological know-how.”

How they build culture that keeps devs around

“Solid engineers are in high demand, and they are driven to be a part of something great. If you are not providing an opportunity for them to make a real impact, they’ll go somewhere else,” said Logan.

“It’s important to me to attract top talent and then empower them to make meaningful contributions. With a motivated, highly-skilled team of engineers, we are able to build technology that is inspiring change throughout the largest consumer financial market in the country,” he added. “We’ve had tremendous success — quickly becoming a top 10 retail mortgage lender, and launching our Digital Mortgage solution. There is still so much opportunity, and people want to be a part of that.”


One of the biggest names out there in data-based marketing, Signal works with brands like Audi, Crate & Barrel, Macy’s and Starwood. But beyond winning over the hearts and minds of consumers, Signal has proven remarkably good at holding onto its tech talent.

What their developer culture looks like

“Software development is an inexact science and requires creativity to achieve the best outcomes. Signal’s developer culture embraces this, providing a structure that recognizes, rewards, and gives space for innovation and rapid iteration,” said CTO Eric Lunt.

“Quality of work is another tenet of our developer culture,” he added. “The success of Signal and our products are directly tied to the technology we create, so we’re very protective of the quality of our work. Sustainable code is more important than ‘good enough’ code.”

Developer traditions

“Signal’s tradition of once-quarterly hack-a-thons (two ‘Hack Weeks’ and two ‘Shark Weeks’ every year) are demonstrations of the importance we place on innovation and quality,” said Lunt. “The events give developers the opportunity to pursue new projects that might be outside of their typical work, or to improve on existing projects, programs, and processes.”

What sets their developer culture apart

“Signal’s recognition that development is a creative process and not just a spec to be implemented is unique and an important part of our culture,” Lunt said. “We understand the value in providing creative space to come up with the right way to approach development, which drives quality in everything we create.”

Moreover, Signal’s employees spend time together outside of work, doing things like playing ‘Magic: The Gathering” or competing in the company’s annual dodgeball tournament.

How teams are structured

“Signal’s development organization is broken up into teams of 6-8 people, each of which includes a representative member from the product team. We find that this is the ‘sweet spot’ for team size — it gives every team the resources that they need, without negatively affecting to their speed of execution,” said Lunt. “We take inspiration from the Jeff Bezos ‘two pizzas’-rule: never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn't feed the entire group. This keeps the overhead and friction from meetings as low as possible.”

The company also has cross-team ‘guilds’ centered around shared interests. Within these guilds, developers host educational sessions and lunch-and-learns for each other.

What they look for in developers

“First, a true passion for coding, not just aptitude for it. Our developers are people who would still want to code even if it wasn’t their job. We want developers who are genuinely excited about learning and continuous improvement,” said Lunt.

Second, they’re looking for initiative-takers — developers who don’t hesitate to suggest or create solutions to problems as they arise: “This doesn’t mean we look for people with the loudest voices in the room, but rather for those who exhibit quiet leadership and responsibility,” he added.

Finally, they’re looking for developers who demonstrate respect for their colleagues.

How they build culture that keeps devs around

“The number of technology opportunities continues to grow in Chicago, which certainly keeps us on our toes,” Lunt said. “We know that if we remain true to Signal’s culture and values, we’ll continue to have an environment that attracts and retains the best development talent.”

 

Clarity Consulting builds enterprise software within the Microsoft ecosystem. The company works with household brands like Intel, Kraft and Microsoft itself.

What their developer culture looks like

“We have an energetic, collaborative, technical company,” said senior consultant Matt Ivers. “We share ongoing technical discussions online, and are constantly pushing into new areas of interest.”

To that end, the company will pay for its developers’ tools, tech and training materials used to broaden their horizons and improve as programmers. They also require developers to work on a personal project at least once a year.

Developer traditions

“Each quarter, Clarity showcases particular individual achievement with the Mellmen Awards —  a physical trophy bestowed based on categories and nominations submitted from the employees themselves,” Ivers said. “Clarity also conducts technical competitions every 6 to 9 months that usually take eight to 40+ hours to prepare for. The competition generates a lot of excitement, and the competition day itself has a big following with plenty of shouting and laughing involved.”

What sets their developer culture apart

“Clarity has an amazing pool of expertise,” said Ivers. “Due to our varied projects, customer verticals and technical solutions, we have experts in almost every software technology platform. This makes it much easier to get exposure or explore interest in a technology or personal project, since there is always a friendly resource to give you tips, guidance, or code references to get you started.”

How teams are structured

“We work typically in smaller, focused teams of one to three developers,” said Ivers. “Each team is managed by an engagement manager, who has a developer background as well and directly contributes to the codebase.”

“We may have one to three teams staffed on a particular client at any time. For larger projects, we like to have a mix of experienced and less experienced developers,” he added.

What they look for in developers

“We look for talented individuals who show a passion for technology beyond just their academic or professional obligations,” Ivers said. “We want technologists — people who care about how a solution is implemented, and are vested in a project’s success. As such, we’re looking for people who have a clear passion for the work that they do, and show initiative beyond the norm that exemplifies their willingness to learn, their ability to bring past experience to bear even in unfamiliar technologies and an excitement in developing their technical expertise.”

How they build culture that keeps devs around

Since Clarity’s consultants are scattered across a huge range of projects, the biggest challenge is breaking developers out of their day-to-day work to engage with each other. The company places a big emphasis on making room for developers to get together and explore new areas of technology.

Images via participating companies.

Do you have a tip for us? Shoot us an email or follow us on Twitter@BuiltInChicago.

Jobs from companies in this blog87 open jobs
All Jobs
Finance
Data + Analytics
Design + UX
Dev + Engineer
HR
Internships
Legal
Marketing
Operations
Product
Project Mgmt
Sales
Content
Developer
new
Solstice
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Data + Analytics
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Marketing
new
Solstice
Chicago
Product
new
Signal
Chicago
HR
new
Signal
Chicago
Developer
new
Solstice
Chicago
Marketing
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
HR
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Signal
Chicago
Sales
new
Signal
Chicago
Developer
new
Solstice
Chicago
Finance
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
HR
new
Solstice
Chicago
Sales
new
Solstice
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Data + Analytics
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Marketing
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Marketing
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Product
new
Solstice
Chicago
Operations
new
Solstice
Chicago
Sales
new
Solstice
Chicago
Design + UX
new
Solstice
Chicago
Project Mgmt
new
Solstice
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Developer
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Developer
new
Solstice
Chicago
Project Mgmt
new
Solstice
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Operations
new
Signal
Chicago
Developer
new
Solstice
Chicago
HR
new
Signal
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Developer
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Data + Analytics
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Developer
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Project Mgmt
new
Solstice
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Design + UX
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Marketing
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Finance
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Marketing
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Internships
new
Solstice
Chicago
Internships
new
Solstice
Chicago
Internships
new
Solstice
Chicago
Content
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Finance
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Design + UX
new
Solstice
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Marketing
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Finance
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Finance
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Project Mgmt
new
Solstice
Chicago
Sales
new
Signal
Chicago
Content
new
Signal
Chicago
Finance
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Sales
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Developer
new
Solstice
Chicago
Operations
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Marketing
new
Guaranteed Rate
Chicago
Product
new
Solstice
Chicago
Design + UX
new
Solstice
Chicago

Chicago startup guides

LOCAL GUIDE
Best Companies to Work for in Chicago
LOCAL GUIDE
Best Software Engineer Jobs in Chicago
LOCAL GUIDE
Coolest Offices in Chicago Tech
LOCAL GUIDE
Best Sales Jobs in Chicago
LOCAL GUIDE
Best Perks at Chicago Tech Companies
LOCAL GUIDE
Your Guide to Healthtech in Chicago
LOCAL GUIDE
Best Data Science & Data Analyst Jobs in Chicago
LOCAL GUIDE
Best Marketing Jobs in Chicago