At CircleCI, Growth, Diversity and Innovation Take Center Stage
Sara Read starts her typical workday like any other. She makes breakfast, organizes her workspace with her laptop in tow, and pulls back the curtains to let the morning sunlight filter in. But she’s not met with a glaring view of high-rise rooftops or residential balconies suspended over busy city streets below — she’s greeted by mountains, sprawling wildflower meadows and even a quaint small town landscape.
That’s because, as engineering manager of a global team at CircleCI, Read is able to collaborate with management to design an optimal work-life experience that meets everyone’s needs. In this case, it’s working remotely from anywhere she has access to a WiFi connection — which just so happens to be the camper she’s taken around the country. This has not only given her freedom to construct a custom schedule that suits her professional life, but reinforced balance within her personal one, as well.
“I was no longer strictly stuck working 9-5 — I was managing the entire support team, so I was able to adjust my schedule to meet with employees in the U.K. and Ireland before meeting with folks in Japan,” she said. “Those are wide time differences, and traveling helped balance it out because I was never tied to a single time zone; I was just always in flux.”
However, this opportunity wasn’t simply a result of the newfound remote world the tech industry has recently adapted. CircleCI celebrated a remote-forward philosophy prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing employees the freedom to work as they are most productive. CircleCI’s remote opportunities are role-dependent. When new roles are opened, teams and departments work with hiring managers to determine how to create great employee experiences while meeting the needs of the role. This foundation built on autonomy and trust has not only empowered teams to push the envelope on product innovation through work-life balance, but also allowed co-workers to forge collaborative relationships by learning how they best communicate. For Read, it works.
“It gave me a lot more ownership over how I could craft my day,” Read said. “I could come to a cafe and meet with my early morning crew, take a few hours off in the middle of the afternoon to enjoy whatever new area we parked the van at, and finally meet with my later-in-the-day crew in the evening. It really empowered me to chase the best fit for my life and empowered me to do my best work.”
CircleCI’s freedom-forward company culture and cohesive communication hasn’t just allowed employees to blossom in their unique work environments. It has also empowered leaders like Lakeisha Coston-Nhep to carve out new spaces to lift marginalized groups up by establishing new employee resource groups (ERGs) when they needed them most. In 2020, as topics of racial injustice and country-wide protests were at a high, Coston-Nhep took notice of how social unrest was impacting herself and other Black employees at CircleCI.
“I started to have conversations with my colleagues of every background and realized if I want things to be different, I have to be a part of the change I want to see,” she said. “The idea for the Onyx Circle ERG came out of a need to create a space for Black employees to not only decompress and express themselves, but also to get support, have access to resources and advocate for ourselves along with our allies.”
CREATING EMPOWERMENT WITH DIVERSE REPRESENTATION
As a leading CI/CD platform processing more than 90 million builds per month, it’s apparent that CircleCI’s environment of ownership, flexibility and camaraderie has been pivotal both for internal team success and the clients they serve. Built In sat down with Read, Coston-Nhep and Manager of Marketing Insights and Strategy Ron Powell to learn more about why continuous integration isn’t just essential for CircleCI’s products, but for their collaborative company culture that’s taking them into the future.
Tell us a little more about the culture at CircleCI, especially as a remote-first company.
Coston-Nhep: Collaboration is an essential part of our culture. A label or title is never going to stop us from doing really good work, or be a hindrance for someone having an honest conversation. Just look at the three of us today — I think it speaks to why it’s important. You have three different folks coming from different backgrounds, adding unique perspectives to this conversation and also to the greater story that is CircleCI. We strive to make it feel like everyone has a seat at the table. To be in a space where you can raise your hand, go off mute and speak your mind about something that you feel strongly about — without fear — is incredibly important. That’s the equity, that’s the inclusion and that’s one of the reasons why I stay at CircleCI.
Powell: My team has been really big into building rapport. We try to make sure that relationships have respect and empathy, so that when it comes to critiquing, everyone knows it’s coming from a place of respect and careful thought. It allows us to set an incredibly high bar of excellence while building friendship and camaraderie with each other.
How do you ensure every employee brings their best self to work? How do you help employees when they experience burnout or ask for help?
Read: We use Range for our daily check-ins. This tool gives us the option to rank our mood by color (green, yellow, red or even an emoji), list our main focus blockers, and throw out a fun question of the day. In our team Slack channel, we have a daily thread to say “good morning” and share a little about our weekend or day-to-day routine. It’s a good way to build team connections as folks share pics from vacations, vent about needing a home repair or let us know they have a sick kiddo at home.
We also do quarterly fun activities: Most recently, we painted Space Turtles and created an emoji based on our attempts. For everyday fun, we celebrate the small wins pretty much daily. These are also re-shared during our bi-weekly retros. Everyone on the team loves ensuring “all boxes are checked.” If there are only a couple of outstanding pieces of work to call a project done, we will prioritize that work higher and work together to wrap it all up, giving the team a sense of accomplishment.
CIRCLECI’S BIG HIRING PLANS FOR 2022
Tell me about CircleCI’s vision for the future? What’s the ultimate goal, and why do you think your work is unique among the industry?
Coston-Nhep: I work directly with our customers who are pumping out millions upon millions of pipelines. I’m in awe of what they do because there is no user case that is the same, but as you work with customers, you actually start to see these recurring themes. Just like with our values — which are to be resilient and to embrace failures as a source of learnings to generate innovation — I think it speaks broader into what we’re trying to do with our product, which is to help build a system where you can fail fast, produce good code and build healthy, powerful front-end and back-end systems.
CircleCI is impactful because it’s creating the space for people to get creative, get innovative and also embrace failure because failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing — failure is where the learnings are. We learn just as much from the products that we’re delivering out as we do from our customers as they’re exploring and innovating with their own pipelines. We’re opening up the pathways of innovation, speed and learning.
CircleCI exposes us to projects from every language, every framework deployed to every environment that you could think of.”
Powell: These ideas of fast failure and encouraging innovation are philosophies and inherent parts of continuous integration. Since the “CI” stands for continuous integration, one of the things that really makes me feel empowered about my work is that CircleCI doesn’t own continuous integration — continuous integration by itself is the most advanced application development paradigm that you could build software under. That’s not something that we necessarily have to go out and convince the world of: The world is buying into that idea wholly without our encouragement. We enable folks to see the benefit that is promised from that philosophy of application development.
To watch growth on our platform from organizations that show up to run their first tests and automate the first few steps of their application pipeline to seeing them four years later using sophisticated deploys to multi-clustered availability zones all over the world, that type of evolution that we service feels like a really empowering place to be. That showcases us as folks who help our customers not only build their products, but learn how to do it.
What kind of career growth opportunities are available at CircleCI? How does leadership guarantee growth for every employee?
Read: As a manager, I try to seek out growth for my employees and make sure that they are gathering the skills necessary so it’s not even a question if they’re ready for that next role when the opportunity arises. Within engineering, we have an entire matrix for each position level — if you are an associate engineer, a senior engineer or staff engineer, it’s very clear what you need to do to be successful in that role as well as move into the next role. We also make sure to hold conversations about accurate availability and the need for each higher-level role to be as transparent about it as we can, as we can’t endlessly create new positions when they’re filled. But we’ll always support our employees to grow in any way they can and desire.
I’ve transitioned a lot at CircleCI, starting as a support engineer and then managing the support team for a number of years before moving over to engineering management in 2021.
We’re all rewarded when we can not just find ourselves in our work, but forge our own growth paths because of our work.
Powell: I started at CircleCI as a contractor during my first six months before becoming a full-time employee, and I’ve had four promotions during my four years here. I’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth in my own career. Now, as part of leadership, we can enable employee growth by finding projects that breed the skill sets that people need in order to accomplish their individual goals. It makes the quality of work at CircleCI that much better.
CircleCI is still relatively small for a significant tech company at a little over 650 people, and being able to bring context to the organization is a huge gift. Almost any role six months in means that you have six months experience and wisdom which is invaluable for us — an employee’s strongest suit and opportunity for tenure is their context. Creating opportunities for career growth has been something that has always been a focus for me, because it’s something that I have benefited from so much throughout my career at CircleCI. I want to facilitate and give that back to my team.