Etsy's engineering spirit - Technical.ly Brooklyn

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Jul. 28, 2016 12:14 pm

Etsy’s engineering spirit

Failure without blame, empowering junior developers and above all, an emphasis on humans. A look at what drives Etsy's engineering team.

Inside Etsy's 200,000-square-foot headquarters in Dumbo.

(Photo by Emily Andrews/Etsy)

Etsy is widely viewed by the mainstream as a niche marketplace where hippies and hipsters alike sell their handmade goods for people as weird as them (a painting of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Macho Man Randy Savage at a birthday party, anyone?).

But underneath those quirky wares is a people-driven engineering machine based in Dumbo that’s been lauded by the web engineering community.

Of Etsy’s more than 800 employees, more than half of whom are based in the Dumbo office, just under one-third are engineers, according to Etsy’s annual report. Those engineers contribute to the open source community and have inspired others developers to do so, too. They are 20 percent women, due to company leadership’s emphasis on gender diversity. Its engineers can also be found at tech conferences all around the country. CTO John Allspaw said that’s been a boon for his team’s strategic thinking and constant innovation.

“Explaining what you’ve done or accomplished is a part of engineering,” Allspaw said. “Nothing gets you succinct about what’s important about a particular project — or what’s not important about a particular project — more than having to describe it in 20 minutes or less.”

Allspaw, who was appointed CTO in September 2015 after seven years with the company, attributed the engineering team’s success to Etsy’s company culture.

No finger-pointing

One important tenet of Etsy’s culture is its “blameless postmortems.” Meaning when someone makes a mistake — whether it’s an engineer, C-level executive or marketing manager — they aren’t focused on assigning blame.

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Allspaw said the company has a straightforward process based on empathy and non-combative conversation that helps makes everyone comfortable when discussing failures.

“Let people explain the details about how they make their own mistakes,” Allspaw said. “If we turn people into teachers when they make a mistake, and we don’t allow this sort of cartoonist finger-pointing scenario, it turns out we do a pretty good job with retention, and we do a good job with improving and gaining confidence.”

The company even gives out an award — a three-armed sweater, Etsy’s symbol for an error — for the most surprising failure each year.

The plants in the office are fed by rain water from the roof.

The plants in the office are fed by rain water from the roof. (Photo by Emily Andrews)

The company’s empathetic approach is meant to keep hard-working engineers at ease, and that matches up with the atmosphere in their Dumbo office. Unsurprisingly, the office is decorated with a lot of items sold on their marketplace.

The space looks straight out of a catalog, and Allspaw says the company wants that kind of flair, that human touch in everything it does — especially when it comes to engineering.

The making of a “thought leader”

In the age of social media and the constant thirst for content, you may have heard (and OK, rolled your eyes at) the term “thought leader” to describe someone who says smart things about their industry, politics or anything, really.

Over the past few years, Etsy’s fostered the growth of its own highly-regarded thought leader: Senior engineering manager Lara Hogan.

In 2014, Hogan spoke at 15 conferences and wrote a book. Her social media presence exploded in the engineering community, and she’s become a name and face engineers around the world identify with Etsy.

She credits the content of her presentations and the weight of Etsy’s massive success for the rise in her popularity.

Tech leadership encourages junior engineers, who tend to underestimate their ideas, to give talks and write blog posts.

“It’s more than saying, ‘Look at us, we’re super cool and people like us,’” Hogan said. “It’s way more about what people learn. Etsy has the privilege of throwing out ideas and saying what we’re thinking about, and a lot of people end up caring about it.”

Allspaw said Hogan is probably Etsy’s prime example of a “social media rockstar/thought leader,” but he pointed out that many of the company’s engineers have been landing high-profile speaking engagements, and he’s very proud of that.

“It’s my and the leadership’s responsibility to make sure we create thought leaders from Etsy,” Allspaw said. “We need to keep an eye on it because you can’t ‘set it and forget it.’ This isn’t a crockpot sort of deal. You have to cultivate it, and you have to help grow it.”

Sometimes cultivating that growth in the staff means managers like Hogan and Allspaw need to encourage junior engineers to submit ideas in the first place.

“I’ve found that people take their work for granted in a funny way,” Hogan said. “Our engineers may not think about how the problems they’re solving are relatable for a ton of other people. Sometimes I need to tell an engineer, ‘Hey, that sounds really interesting. Have you considered writing about that?’”

Etsy has a rigorous editorial process once someone submits blog post ideas for its engineering blog Code as Craft or abstracts for conference talks, and both Allspaw and Hogan said that’s helped them land several major speaking engagements and spread the engineering team’s ideas throughout the industry.

It’s not about representing Brooklyn

A publicly-traded company as of April 2015, Etsy is viewed by many in the tech industry as Brooklyn’s flag-bearing “unicorn” — a startup valued at $1 billion or more (though that status has fluctuated this year) — but Allspaw said, despite loving Brooklyn and being happy with the community they’ve helped cultivate, he doesn’t feel a responsibility to “represent” the area.

“I don’t think we’re particularly concerned with championing the Brooklyn scene,” Allspaw said. “I’ve talked to people who are surprised to learn that Etsy is headquartered here because it’s such a national and international brand, but I don’t know if that’s just perception.”

The office is decorated with items from the Etsy marketplace. (photo credit: Emily Andrews)

The office is decorated with items from the Etsy marketplace. (photo credit: Emily Andrews)

Whether they’re trying to represent Brooklyn or not, Allspaw, Hogan and many others in the engineering team have done so by virtue of their presence on the O’Reilly Media conference circuit.

Allspaw is the co-chair for O’Reilly’s popular Velocity Conference, which is focused on web performance engineering. He said his favorite part of the conference is exchanging thoughts and ideas with engineers from all over the country, but there is definitely a recruiting benefit for Etsy, too.

“When you’re presenting at a conference, you pull back the curtain on how you work,” Allspaw said.

When it comes to down to it, Allspaw opts to describe Etsy’s engineering culture as one focused on humans, not computers and algorithms.

“Engineering is an entirely human-driven activity,” Allspaw said. “We have millions of members who are selling and buying things, and they’re buying things because they’re drawn to the narrative of it being built and designed by someone. So, we should take that same approach with engineering.”

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Grant Engle

Grant Engle is the Digital Marketing Manager at Load Impact and a contributing writer for Technical.ly. He's interested in tech startups, marketing, sports, data analytics and craft beer — pretty much in that order.

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