Open Source Culture

One of the biggest achievements of my career to date, one of the biggest impacts that I have made so far, happened almost as an after-thought. On March 26th of 2015, I released publicly the engineering ladder that the team created for Rent the Runway. I want to reflect on that for a moment because I keep hearing more and more people refer to this ladder.

Why has the Rent the Runway ladder been so viral? I've been told that companies from Kickstarter to Slack to Lyft and beyond have used it to inspire discussion and serve as a starting point. Why now?

We are in a point of rapid evolution in startup culture. A few years ago, everyone was obsessed with flat organizations, zero-process anarchy. And then we all started to live through the consequences of that, and many of us realized that it wasn't the utopia we were promised. Suddenly we saw that having no title didn't actually mean that every voice in the organization was heard equally, it often just meant that the loudest voices were the only voices heard at all. People began to push back on this.

We have become aware of unconscious biases and the challenges presented there. There's a huge temptation to have a very lightweight, low-detail engineering ladder. Unfortunately, that gives people only a vague idea of how to move forward. As we become more aware of the impact of bias on human decision-making, we attempt to provide more clarity to combat this bias. I realize that no amount of ink spilled can ensure a perfectly quantifiable process that takes all human bias out of it, but I also think there's little harm in trying for more clarity. And it turns out that many people appreciate it, and not just the people most affected by unconscious bias.

The devil is in the details. But putting in those details is hard, so providing a thoughtful starting point is better than providing a basic outline. Just as you only use the features of open source software that you actually need, you only need to take the details from open source culture that you want. Companies can (and often have) taken out details from this ladder that they don't like, but it's much harder to take a basic outline and flesh out all of the details yourself.

People want to know what they are getting themselves into. A recruiter commented to me once that the public engineering ladder was a massively useful tool for recruiting. Candidates knew what the structure of the org looked like, what the potential paths forward from a career growth perspective were available to them, and what we were looking for at a given level. It gave them more clarity into the workings of the organization in a way that most companies at the time were not providing.

This has gone beyond hiring people. Leaders of other companies who have adopted the ladder tell me that the process of getting the ladder done and adopted internally has gone smoothly partly because they started with a known, widely-adopted ladder that their teams already felt comfortable with. People are getting used to the idea of an engineering ladder as a tool to help them progress in their career, not a tool to stifle them or create unnecessary hierarchy.

Engineers like to share and learn from each other. The veil of secrecy around HR-related issues has existed without questioning for a long time. Let's question it! When I proposed publishing the ladder, no one in HR batted an eye. We're all comfortable with sharing our source code, and we might blog or speak about the processes for running our teams, but few of us have ever shared the core documents for running our organizations. It is awesome to see Clef share their entire handbook on GitHub, and I hope to see more organizations share not only the processes that they use to run their companies, but the actual documents they rely on for core policies, procedures, and standards.

Open source culture requires you to openly care about culture. You can't open source what you haven't created or modified. I'm excited to see people truly caring about the craft of creating healthy organizational cultures, processes, and documents, and sharing them with the world. I'm excited that people are proud to show that they care about making the culture of the technical workplace better in tangible ways. This is the best of techno-optimism. We can share ideas, and make things better for the whole tech community and the workplace as a whole. I'm proud to be an early adopter of open source culture, and I hope many others will continue to join in the movement.