How to develop a healthy startup engineering culture

Lucas Bédout

Published on September 15, 2020


Trust and culture. Two words that represent what could either be the biggest strength or deepest weakness for any startup.

Ever worked in a company where communication was broken? Where nobody’s ever on the same page, and everybody lacks the information they need? Sure you have.

And many of us have experienced that tense moment when everyone’s looking at each other to see who’ll leave first in the evening. In some companies, that’s every day.

When these issues arise, it usually means that there’s a lack of trust within your company. You don’t trust your peers to judge you on what really matters, so you stay late to appear to be working the hardest. You don’t trust them enough to tell them what you think, because you’re unsure about their reaction.

In this article, I’ll explain how we’ve built an engineering culture at Spendesk we’re all incredibly proud of.

As you’ll see, it always comes back to trust.

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Why trust is crucial to a strong startup engineering culture

Especially for engineers, trust is key. Unlike other startup business teams, our work can’t be measured with shiny KPIs. Engineers are creatives (despite the common stereotypes), and need to think freely to find the right solutions to problems.

Engineers also need to work as a cohesive team. Almost like a single person. Whether you have one person or 15 writing code, it all comes out as a single finished product. So everyone needs to be on the same page.

That doesn’t happen if you can’t trust your team.

Trust has been a core company principle since Spendesk began. And this really paid off two years ago when we started really growing. That growth meant we needed to hire the right people - people who’d feel and act like this company is theirs, and who’d be aligned with our missions and values.

And then we built our hiring process to match - I'll get to this shortly. We're now over 40 engineers across eight squads. And the more people we hire using this process, the more we're convinced it's a winner.

Finding the right fit for your engineering team


In a nutshell, any company hiring process boils down to “making sure the right people join your company.”

The first component in this objective - finding the right people - is often executed well by most companies, at least in terms of hard skills. It’s easy to draft a few coding & design exercises and be sure that you hire someone competent after a few rounds.

But the problem with this kind of process is that you’re looking at the person out of context. Not every good software engineer is a good fit for your company - it depends on your stage, the existing team, your engineering vision, and many other things that you may not think of.

Pure competence doesn’t build a great team.

When we designed our process, we asked ourselves what kinds of engineers were the right fit for us. At that time, we had passed the MVP stage and needed to invest in quality, which meant that developers interested only in shipping fast and not thinking long-term were not a good fit, no matter how talented they were.

We also had a young team with a lot of quick thinkers, who loved their job and the culture we’d already built, so it was important to hire similar-minded developers.

The final step was to ask the team what kinds of profiles they would want to work with. We managers couldn’t impose a culture on them. And thankfully, their views matched our own.

Most importantly, our existing team wanted more experienced people they could learn from.

Once you find strong engineers, how do you ensure they join?

So we had our standard candidate profile. Of course, we don’t only consider perfect matches, but this gives us a starting point.

And then we had to attack the second component of our objective above: making sure they join.

So we built the hiring process to suit the candidates more than ourselves. It  takes more time and effort for us, but it's more interesting and efficient for them.

This process is split into several key steps.

1. The screening call

As the only manager in the team at that time, I personally took every screening call at the start. This continued until we passed 20 team members. Today, the other hiring managers follow the same pattern.

We introduce Spendesk and the potential missions to the candidates before they talk us through their experience and skills.

This small focal point turned out to be very effective, as people love the transparency. And it also means they can project themselves into the job before having to answer personal questions. They explain their past experience with better knowledge of what we're looking for.

2. The informal interviews

After this call, candidates have two informal interviews with developers, usually in our break room. The discussions are mostly around their technical preferences and opinions, what framework they like and why. And then other general questions - their favorite podcasts, for example.

Talking about tools and stacks with other engineers is a very good way to see if the relationship could work. It also lets the candidates envision themselves among their future colleagues before having to work on a technical test and prove their motivation for the remaining interviews.

And it’s a good occasion for us to cut the process early if something isn't right.

3. The technical test

The technical test is short. We don’t want people to put 4 hours of their time into a random exercise. It's done on-site as a (very intensive) 1-hour pair-programming session on a task you might do as a Spendesk engineer.

Pair-programming makes it easier for the interviewer to judge a candidate’s skills through the way they type, think or search on Google, as well as their behavior when confronted with a problem.

Having run this test for a few years now, we very rarely find someone lacking the technical ability. And we get a lot of positive feedback on the format (even including from those who don't pass).

4. The cultural fit

The last step is the cultural fit interview. It’s a way to make sure the company stays culturally stable, and that we’ll be able to trust the candidate as we want to.

This test would require an entire article to explain everything, but overall it consists of two informal on-site discussions with selected members of the wider team. The interviewers are people who’ve been with us a long time and are seen as cultural champions. They represent the company exactly as we expect them to, and can accurately evaluate the candidate’s potential fit.

A fast track for really good engineers

Often with good candidates we already know we want them. So we adjust the interview format to make it more convincing. We spend more time describing the company, the culture and why it would be a great career move.

It turned out to be one of the greatest strengths of the process, and current employees often refer to this as the reason they joined.

One small change

We used to offer everyone a 30-minute conversation with Rod, our CEO. This was to ensure they were aligned with the overall company vision - plus, it's always nice to involve the CEO.

We still talk about the vision a lot - candidates learn about our values and roadmap for the foreseeable future. But we’re over 200 employees now, and Rod can’t sit down with everyone we might hope to hire.

As your engineering team evolves, so does your culture

Both parts of the process (skills & culture) are equally important, and failing one means you won’t get hired. It may seem harsh when looking at the talent shortage in software engineering, but think about it: wouldn’t you be happier and more productive in a company that doesn’t have the issues we talked about in the introduction?

Everyone is at their best when they feel trusted and connected to the core objectives. And hiring people that aren’t a good fit has a negative effect on everyone else.

Trust & alignment are how small teams can achieve great things. Look at Notion: they built an incredible business with a 20-person team.

It’s also how companies can grow fast while keeping a healthy culture, because their core beliefs won’t change along the way.

Spendesk is growing very fast and we’ve recently modified some parts of our processes to reflect our evolving culture. If you apply tomorrow some things may seem a little different, but don’t worry, our team is still (and will always be) built around trust.

If you believe in our principles, we’re hiring more than 40 software engineers in Paris. I have no doubt that you’ll find a role suited to your particular brilliance, so visit our Careers page.

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