Tech outside the box: How culture feeds creativity for Seattle dev teams

by Quinten Dol
November 28, 2018

The relationship between company culture and how developers approach technical challenges tends to be cyclical — one informs the other, and vice versa. The four tech companies featured here encourage their developers to think outside the box in a variety of ways, including regular brainstorming sessions, team-building exercises, a healthy dose of autonomy, collaboration across disciplines and — this being Seattle — industrial quantities of coffee.

We spoke to several developers around town to find out what makes their teams tick.

 

karat developer team culture seattle tech
photo via karat

Filling an engineering role can be a vexing proposition for many businesses — especially older businesses that didn’t require complex software before our current tech-centric age. To help, Karat conducts interviews with engineering candidates and uses data-driven insights to inform hiring strategy and become increasingly predictive.

Engineering Manager Kevin Bao said his team runs on brainstorming sessions, a touch of self-direction — and a certain caffeinated beverage.

 

What projects has your team been working on lately? And how have individual developers collaborated on those projects?

Our theme this year has been innovating for growth and scale. We have a solution that is serving our clients really well, and will continue to do so as we experience tremendous growth. Everyone brings their own perspectives and domains of expertise to each problem that we solve; anyone is free to sit in on design meetings and contribute to technical decisions.

Giving people autonomy and the right resources can go a long way. ”

 

How do you encourage creativity among developers?

Coffee — lots of good coffee.

In all seriousness, I believe giving people autonomy and the right resources can go a long way. We also have a lot of open discussions and brainstorming sessions, to which anyone can contribute. This is all in pursuit of figuring out what works best for all of us as a team.

 

Does your team have any fun traditions?

I think we’ve developed quite the meme and emoji culture in our online communications. Our interns got the ball rolling this past summer, and now even our co-founder, Jeff, tries his hardest to include a meme whenever he can. I’m also looking forward to our Karat ski days this winter!

 

dreambox learning edtech dev team bellevue seattle
photo via dreambox learning

Based in Bellevue, DreamBox Learning helps school children improve their math scores. The platform’s artificial intelligence algorithms gather data as students solve math problems, analyzing their strengths, their weaknesses and their work. Armed with this data, the platform can then alter its teaching methods to suit the learning style of an individual student. The company raised $130 million in July to accelerate its growth throughout North America.

Chief Technology Officer Todd Howson said DreamBox Learning sets aside four days per quarter during which employees can work on their own ideas and pet projects — some of which are ultimately adopted by the company as a whole.

 

What projects has your team been working on lately? And how have individual developers collaborated on those projects?

The DreamBox team is always working on a number challenging, innovative and exciting projects. All of our projects are collaborative from early requirements through implementation to site reliability, with a unique team of teachers, product managers, designers and engineers working together to produce amazing learning software. In addition to some challenging scalability and data projects, we are actively building out new fractions and geometry lessons for students as well as a feature for learning guardians to have access to “replay” the exact approach (and exact problems) a student took in any particular lesson, in order to best assist and support them.

We sponsored a hack week that produced numerous exciting ideas, prototypes and implementations — some already fully in production!”

 

How do you encourage creativity among developers?

Creativity at DreamBox starts with the inspiration that comes from our mission: To radically transform the way the world learns. Each new hire that joins DreamBox is inspired by this mission and joins a team who lives our company values day-in and day-out. In addition, we are passionate about Agile and DevOps practices where every person is encouraged to shape approaches and outcomes with innovative ideas.

We also sponsor four days per quarter that employees across our company can use under a program we call DreamBox Labs. This is self-selected and self-directed time to work on projects of an employee’s choosing. We recently had our most successful implementation of DreamBox Labs yet, where we sponsored a hack week that produced numerous exciting ideas, prototypes and implementations — some already fully in production!

 

Does your team have any fun traditions?

There are a number of fun traditions at DreamBox: from our dog-friendly offices (including pictures of the “office dogs” on the wall), Nerf dart wars, a bell in sales to signify big deals and a gong to signify new concurrency records. DreamBox is also big-time into Halloween, with elaborate decorations and team competitions.

 

sprout social dev team culture
photo via mig reyes/sprout social

Sprout Social’s all-in-one social media management dashboard aims to facilitate deeper, more meaningful connections between brands and their customers. The Chicago company opened the doors on its Seattle office when it acquired local analytics company Simply Measured around a year ago.

Software Engineer Samantha Brender works on Sprout’s web development team, which builds tools that allow marketers to measure how well they’re reaching their audience — and teaches them how to improve.

 

What projects has your team been working on lately? And how have individual developers collaborated on those projects?

Our team just launched a new Social Media Listening product in October. Getting this product out the door was a huge feat for everyone involved. At the end of last year, Sprout Social acquired a Seattle-based social media analytics company, Simply Measured. Our team was one of four that was formed out of the merger. With this brand new team split across Chicago and Seattle and working with unfamiliar technologies, we came together to build a product we are proud of and that our customers love.

Having a team with such diverse talents gives us the confidence to carve our own path.”

 

How do you encourage creativity among developers?

Sprout Social really values team autonomy, and empowers each product-focused team to establish their own goals and work practices. Our team, in particular, has three front-end engineers, three platform engineers, a QA engineer, a product marketer, a product manager and a designer. Having a team with such diverse talents — combined with the trust from leadership — gives us visibility over the entire development process, and the confidence to carve our own path. This freedom fosters a fun and creative environment where we are comfortable taking risks and innovating.

 

Does your team have any fun traditions?

Because our team is split across Chicago and Seattle, we put a huge emphasis on team bonding and traditions. One of everyone’s favorite traditions is what we call Goals of the Week. At the beginning of each week, we all pick a new self-improvement goal which can be anything from learning a new language, to getting enough sleep, to practicing piano. Then, throughout the week we share our progress with the team and cheer each other on. Goals of the Week are a fun way for us to learn about our teammates’ interests outside of the office and give everyone a little extra motivation to work on self-improvement.

 

98point6 seattle healthtech developer team culture
photo via 98point6

98point6 is out to change the way primary care works. For a small yearly fee, users can chat directly with doctors, who can provide the full spectrum of primary care services through the 98point6 app. The company recently raised $50 million from Goldman Sachs, with plans to roll out its services nationwide.

We spoke with three of 98point6’s developers, who filled us in on how the company channels their creativity into the realm of healthcare.

 

What projects has your team been working on lately? And how have individual developers collaborated on those projects?

Christy Pope, Director of Engineering: We have a few big projects right now. Our team just launched several features to help our doctors spend less time on coordination and more time on providing care. We’re also working on a new UI for our mobile apps to enhance the patient experience, as well as building out new functionality so 98point6 can expand our reach. There are endless opportunities to improve the healthcare space, and it’s satisfying to know we’re targeting those that will provide the greatest impact in both the short- and long-term.

If you give a good developer a hard puzzle and a chunk of time, they will move heaven and earth to solve it.”

 

How do you encourage creativity among developers?

Ethan Diamond, Lead Mobile Engineer: Developers are naturally creative, but not always in the way that most people think. I’ve found that if you give a good developer a hard puzzle and a chunk of time, they will move heaven and earth to solve it. Once you recognize that motivation, you’ll find it’s less about forcing creativity out of developers and more about giving us challenging problems and saying, “Go figure it out.” I’ve seen great ideas come from unexpected places, based on a hard problem and a little dedicated time. 

 

Does your team have any fun traditions?

Brian Dang, Software Development Engineer: There are too many to list, but my favorite is our Fortnightly Show and Tell. It happens every other Friday afternoon and gives us the opportunity to let the rest of the company see the amazing stuff we’re doing. It started out as an engineering and product demo time, but evolved to include the entire 98point6 team — clinical ops and marketing are frequent presenters. Attendance is optional but the majority of the company shows up, perhaps due to its casual feel or because it sparks follow-up inspiration and creativity between the attendees. My next favorite tradition is a new one: Jackbox Party Pack Rap Battle. The engineering and talent teams are known to drop some killer rhymes.

 

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