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How to run digital engineering in a large organisation

How do you run a successful digital engineering function in a large organisation? This was the core theme of our recent TechTalks podcast episode, where Guardian News & Media’s Director of Engineering, Mariot Chauvin, joined me for a live Q&A session. If you missed the event, you can view the on-demand recording and transcript.

From this fantastic event, we’ve picked out some event highlights below for you to consider in your own organisation.

Keep teams small

Even as an organisation grows, digital teams should remain small, highly focused and autonomous. You may have seen this type of approach described as the ‘two-pizza team’, which is what Amazon famously calls it, on the basis that teams should be small enough that you can feed everyone with two pizzas.

Mariot also highlighted the benefits of regularly rotating people between these compact teams, to share technical knowledge around the organisation and keep teams fresh. It also reduces key-person dependency risk across all teams, by ensuring plenty of people understand each project. Remember that rotation will require every team to have good onboarding processes.

Consistency is important

As your organisation grows – and to facilitate the aforementioned team-member rotation – it becomes increasingly important to standardise processes and tooling. While this may sound like an unpopular, top-down diktat, Mariot said this was actually something developers tended to ask for. It turns out people don’t want too many choices!

Overseeing this standardisation at the Guardian is its Developer Experience team, which provides a suite of standard services and libraries for delivery teams to use. For example, the Guardian has a standard deployment tool, which has massively streamlined operations.

Of course, there will be situations where a team needs to diverge from the standard ways of working, and that’s OK. Mariot described this as a ‘break the glass in the event of an emergency’ approach, which his teams use successfully.

Your values can help you attract the right talent

With so much competition for digital talent, how do organisations stand out from others when recruiting? More importantly, how do they make sure they attract the right people?

While the pay and employment package is obviously part of the story, values play an important role as well: people want to work for organisations whose values align with their own.

Mariot highlighted ‘working in the open’ as one of the Guardian’s core values. In the digital space, for example, its code repositories are public by default. This has several benefits: as well as enabling the Guardian to give back to a community that financially supports it, it works as a motivator for developers, who can show external peers what they’re involved in. It also helps with the attraction of new talent, because prospective employees can see the sorts of projects and technologies they’ll be working on.

Be open about your culture

Linked to the previous point, is the need to publicise the culture of the digital engineering function. Mariot recommended putting details about this on GitHub (other platforms are available!), and encouraging employees to periodically review and update it.

Being open about the culture helps attract and retain people who share the same values, as they’ll know what to expect if they join. Moreover, Mariot noted that doing so provides a standard for everyone in the function to hold themselves to: “This is what we say publicly that we do. Are we actually doing it?”

Give people time and freedom to develop themselves

Most organisations give their people time for learning and development. But in many cases, this needs to be justified by being linked to a person’s current role. Not in the Guardian’s digital engineering function.

Mariot noted that members of the engineering team are given regular time in which they’re free to develop their skills in any way they choose. It means people learn things they wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have the time to.

As well as helping to improve team morale, you never know when those newly learnt skills may come in useful.

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