What I Learned Having a Coffee with Every Engineer

By Ash Furrow

In early 2018, I was set to begin my fifth year working at Artsy. Something about my imminent Artsyversary had me thinking about my role within the Engineering team. Not my role as an engineer per se, but my role as a colleague. This is the longest I’ve ever worked for one company, and as Artsy started growing the team last year, I wanted to leverage my impact as a longtime colleague to help scale its culture.

Artsy collects quarterly, anonymous, company-wide surveys through Culture Amp to determine how everyone is doing. These are great for answering quantitative questions about the team, like “how engaged are we on average?”, and I always check out the breakdown of answers in the Engineering team. But there’s something unsatisfying about these reports – they’re super-valuable, but they feel impersonal to me.

If I wanted to leverage my impact, I needed to play to my strengths and interests. I’m keenly interested in people – as individuals – so I decided that the best way for me to contribute to the team was to get to know everyone as individuals. To become someone the team could talk to. Someone outside the typical manager/employee structure, who could use their history at Artsy to answer questions (or at least point them in the right direction).

So, I set off on a project to meet with every member of Artsy’s Engineering team for a one-on-one. With no explicit goals or expectations, but in line with Artsy’s People are Paramount value, I got to know my colleagues better.

I didn’t want this project to interfere with my product work, so I decided to take things slow. I started with a list of every Artsy engineer and then removed anyone I already had a close working relationship with. Next, I prioritized the team leads and randomized the rest of the list. I set up a recurring task (yay OmniFocus) to schedule a coffee with an engineer every week. When we met, I’d cross them off my list.

That was over a year ago, so what did I learn? Well, a lot, actually! But to get a sense of the impact my project had, you’ll need some context.

2018 was a complex year for Artsy, where we both gained and lost more engineers than usual. The increase in engineering turnover was generally attributable to what I’ll call “cultural churn.” Scaling a team comes with new challenges, and our team leadership tried to meet those challenges with changes to the team’s structure. Some of these changes turned out to be tougher than we’d hoped. Our team is in a great spot now, but we didn’t get from there to here via a straight line.

In the midst of this cultural churn, I was trying to have a one-on-one with every engineer. I was asking people “hey, how are you doing? Want to grab a coffee?” And that actually had a pretty big impact: if I met someone and they told me “this situation is stressing me out” or “this feels bad”, it was really validating for them to hear me respond “yeah, I’m feeling this too. It’s not just you.” This dovetailed with my contemporaneous research into building compassionate teams, which I leveraged throughout this project.

Turns out: people feel better when they know the problems they have are shared by others. Sharing suffering is actually one way to minimize suffering, and minimizing suffering is at the core of my beliefs on compassionate teams.

Once I knew something was wrong with our team culture, I went to my manager to discuss the broad-strokes themes of what I was hearing from my peers. I would never betray the confidence of a colleague, but being able to say “lots of people are all feeling X” provided an important data point. While leadership already knew that something was not quite right, this data point was a strong indicator that leadership had to intervene quickly. I’ll skip the details of how we ultimately addressed our cultural churn (tl;dr it involved our leaders asking IC’s questions, and then listening to what they had say). I’m quite happy to say that things are a lot better now!

While my “have a one-on-one with everyone” project obviously didn’t “fix” the situation, it put me in a position to help fix it. In addition to getting to know everyone as individuals, I got to help identify and help address our cultural churn.

So what next? Well, a lot, actually! Even more engineers have since joined Artsy, and I admittedly haven’t had a one-on-one with all of them. But through this project, I realized that I’m very keen to do more of this kind of people-work. When my manager recently brought up the possibility of becoming a tech lead, I jumped on the opportunity. I started last week.

My initial goal, to have a coffee with everyone, remains unfulfilled. It probably won’t ever be, considering that I now have even less free time in my new role. I’m not an IC anymore – my one-on-ones have to now be focused on my team. While the goal of meeting everyone for a one-on-one will never be accomplished, the journey turned out to be more important.

Important both to me – getting to know my colleagues (and myself!) better – but also important for the team. I got to help our team’s culture scale up, and through that experience, I found and expanded the perimeter of my sphere of influence as an IC.

I can’t thank Artsy enough for giving me the freedom, as an IC, to research team dynamics, to pursue this project, and for taking all my feedback seriously. If you’re a senior engineer wondering what’s next, try turning your attention to your team. I would bet that you’ll learning something worthwhile.