Pirates with Keyboards ~ (Dev)eloping HootSuite Company Culture
Originally published in Vancouver is Awesome’s yearly print edition, this article is now shared in original form for posterity and your enjoyment.
Inside of HootSuite, we often hear about what people think our internal company culture is like. From typing cats, to crazy rumours, all we can say is that it’s different and possibly weirder than you might expect.
My point of view is a bit unique as I joined HootSuite as the first non-technical employee from the outside. At that time it was me, the CEO, and a core group of developers (devs). From my time here in the nest, I have a few observations to share about what makes our largest department unique.
A Culture of Camaraderie
Dev culture is dev culture. Throughout the company, we have programs and activities to connect different departments together in social settings. This is critically important when companies scale by bringing in different disciplines like sales teams, partner and affiliate programs, and marketing. These all have their own distinct cultures and the devs consistently show off their pieces of flair.
Dev camaraderie is forged during late night coding sessions and time sensitive problem solving, leading to a mutual professional respect. Of course this respect also manifests itself in foosball duels, nerf gun battles, stacks of pizza boxes on release night, and even arts and crafts.
We don’t have to manufacture culture… it grows organically.
#FunFact: One of our front-end devs, Eric, routinely sketches pictures of his colleagues on the back of cardboard or notebook paper… he’s even been known to make shrines to colleagues who are celebrating a birthday.
No Dev left behind
Devs want to produce code which gets used. In some big companies, programmers will digitally write poetic code which never sees light of day due to company direction changes, internal bickering, or lack of coordinated execution.
At HootSuite, my dev colleagues seem to thrive on developing code which is both deployed quickly and will be used widely. This isn’t just for senior devs, the egalitarian approach means all worthy code is used no matter who wrote it.
Devs own their projects and are thus responsible for figuring them out. It’s a collaborative atmosphere where small task forces develop to address specific problems, and they’re given an opportunity to choose their tools in order to fulfill their mandate. This stands in opposition to being pushed into a dogmatic technical solution from someone outside the team.
Front Row View of Rapid Growth
There’s a big difference between managing services and writing code to serve a 100,000 user market, compared to a 5 or 50 million user market. At HootSuite, we have a unique view of the challenges around scaling rapidly – and globally.
Faced the challenges of ensuring services are up around the clock, everywhere, in many languages, while also coexisting with major social network service providers, our devs flourish. This situation offers incredibly valuable skills and experience which can only be gained in this kind of rare environment.
Keep in mind, HootSuite isn’t just for helping people sell more widgets or sharing what they had for lunch… HootSuite plays a role in major world events including the Egyptian Revolution, where Twitter and Facebook were blocked by the Egyptian Government, but HootSuite remained functional. So for 36 hours, we facilitated the voice for the revolution, the counter-revolution, major media, and even the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Fortunately, one dev added right-to-left scripting for the iPhone, which allowed people to use HootSuite in Arabic in the midst of the struggle. Luckily for us, the systems were able to sustain 7000% growth overnight from Egypt.
Nimble & Agile
Each morning, the devs gather around a cardboard sign that reads “what i’m doing.” While circled around a screen with columns of cryptic tickets, much like medieval monks contemplating the gospels, they massage every idea and distil each into a domino-like line of micro tasks. These tasks are then dutifully moved from column to column until released into the wild.
Keep in mind, projects will go from idea to completion and release in a matter of days. As was the case in the Secure Profiles Tool which came on the heels of noteworthy social media PR conundrums from Red Cross and Chrysler.
From idea on Thursday, to product release and announcement on Tuesday, this is more than just agile – this is yoga-like flexibility!
Oldschool is still school
When I first arrived with small group of devs, I noticed how they relentlessly worked to ensure quality. Three years later, the core founding devs still work hardest and continually lead by example.
They’re doing it because they love doing it, and the passion and tenacity is contagious to the juniors. While HootSuite enjoys attention from the outside, at our core, the devs are guardians of their culture and work to bring the newbs to rarefied air rapidly. No room for b-lists skills in this tribe.
#FunFact: Our “QA Dude” has documented HootSuite’s good times with a seemingly endless stream of wigglies. These fun snaps capture the bits of our growth and culture that the major media will never see including our semi-secret shotgun ritual at each million milestone.
While some companies can get away with displaying ‘fail whales’ and stock outage messages when things go awry, we take a different approach at HootSuite. With a global audience doing remarkable things from managing social at heavy hitting brands or sharing mom’s clam chowder recipe, we take our system seriously.
I recall the morning when the Amazon Web Services Cloud went offline, and i noticed our normally serene CTO’s brow slightly furrowed(!) This let me know that we were in for the long haul on this problem. I headed for a large coffee.
Without missing a beat, our systems admin (who is constantly on the ready for the zombie apocalypse with a CB/HAM enabled transformer jeep) headed out the door to Army and Navy saying: “i’m gonna need a toothbrush, a towel, and two packs of smokes.”
Fifteen hours later, we were back online (the first such company of the downed companies), and through some resourceful and ingenious solutions, we had data in store back up and running. We also managed to spin the Amazon outage chaos into a positive story and a case study.
While HootSuite’s brand is often manifested via our Owly mascot, lists of the notable brands using the tool, and our noble CEO’s face seemingly *everywhere*, within the company we all know that without the devs rocking the keyboards with precision and dedication, we’d be nowhere. Further, what they are doing is far from vanilla – there’s some heavy duty, wild tech going on under the hood and a crew which is encouraged to actually innovate, not just talk about it.
Whether through arduous nights of coding, wearing pirates outfits, or staging their very own watermelon Olympics, the devs at HootSuite have forged a contagious culture of innovation and perfection, delicately balanced with skullduggery.
To them, i say, “Thanks for letting this liberal arts community guy hang out with ya.”