More Than an Assembly Line: Building Ownership on Your Engineering Team

Six Colorado companies share how their teams are empowered to do their best work.

Written by Brigid Hogan
Published on Aug. 12, 2022
More Than an Assembly Line: Building Ownership on Your Engineering Team
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During the Industrial Revolution, mass production and assembly lines led to sweeping changes across the United States, Great Britain and continental Europe. Technological development occurred rapidly across industries, fueled by the labor of workers who often only touched one component of the manufacturing process.

During the Information Age, the opposite is needed for innovation, according to David Stamm, an engineering manager at CompanyCam.

“A team without ownership is like a shift of factory workers, assembling parts for someone else,” Stamm said. “A team with ownership is more like a workshop of artisans, where everyone is a craftsman that takes pride in everything they create.”

According to the groundbreaking social psychologist David McClelland, Stamm’s perception is entirely correct. McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory states that for people to feel a sense of motivation, they need to feel three things: achievement, affiliation and power.

As part of an ambitious team, people are able to have a sense of achievement and affiliation while building new products and completing a successful launch, but a culture of ownership builds opportunities for employees to feel empowered within their organizations.

Built In Colorado talked with Stamm and five other engineering leaders about the strategies, systems and solutions that support a culture of ownership on their engineering teams.

 

 

Dustin Phillips
Vice President, Device, Identity and DNS • Spectrum

 

Spectrum builds and operates the telecommunications systems people rely on across the United States, including mobile, internet and television on over 500 million devices.

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

I think of culture as the set of shared values, goals and practices that characterize a team of engineers. However, the textbook definition of ownership doesn’t quite capture the spirit of what it means to truly own something in the context of our work. I think of ownership as an obligation to recognize the responsibility, accountability and duty that comes with my team’s work. 

To us, owning something means being proactive in its maintenance. We cannot wait for someone else in the company to act on something we own. We cannot sit idle while something fails on our watch, expecting someone else to jump in. We do not allow something to fail despite being aware of potential weaknesses or fault spots in a particular application or platform. We take pride in that ownership mentality and use it as a measurement of success within the team.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

I rely on sound decision making, asking questions, trust, acknowledging that everyone is human, learning from mistakes and leaving room for laughter. I try to stay out of the way as much as possible, yet always be present in case I’m needed. My team needs to believe that they are supported, and it’s my duty to prove that they are. 

My framework is building the latitude, attitude and aptitude for each team member to make sound decisions on their own. While giving independence for that decision making, I try to instill in my team the mentality that we must understand something to own the project. To understand, we need to ask questions.

For myself, I remember that everyone on my team has a purpose. People tend to operate with good intentions, and I do not allow myself to forget that. Mistakes happen and the best response is to focus on what could have prevented it and how to prevent it going forward. The mistake is not the failure — the failure is not learning from the mistake.

Beyond that, I find humor in everything. Connecting more than 32 million customers to the things and people they love is serious business, but balancing the gravity of our work with levity is needed so that my team doesn’t become overwhelmed by their duties.

My framework is building the latitude, attitude and aptitude for each team member to make sound decisions on their own.”

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a leader, and how did you overcome it?

I moved into people leadership eleven years ago after having been an individual contributor for about the same amount of time, and I took a familiar path of transitioning into the leadership of my peers.

Aside from the general awkwardness that can be present when you are managing former peers, what was a true challenge was giving my team the space to solve problems in the way that works best for them and not necessarily advocating for the way that I would have solved it as an individual contributor.

This goes together with simply letting go of some individual contributor day-to-day duties, which is required to afford time to focus on leading and is also paramount to initiating that framework of latitude-attitude-aptitude. It’s important to remember that giving people latitude allows for freedom. It all starts there.

 

 

 

Upasana Haveri
Technical Tribe Lead • Tipico - North America

 

Tipico allows sports fans and spectators to participate actively through a mobile sports-betting product now available in the United States.

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

As an engineering manager, I often get asked what soft skills I’m looking for when hiring. I usually say being solution oriented, fostering team spirit and demonstrating end-to-end ownership. At Tipico, we foster a culture that encourages those values, especially the culture of end-to-end ownership. For the team, ownership culture means being involved from the get-go to define why we do the work we do, collaboratively working with other teams to deliver their work all the way to production and once on production, monitoring the results to determine if we achieved what we set out to do. Simply put, we build it, we own it! We, as a team, care about what our users experience as a result of our work, and we strive to improve it.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

As a leader, I strongly believe that one needs to lead by example. You need to live the culture you want to see in your team, and so to spread the culture of ownership it is important for an engineering manager to demonstrate ownership in all they do! If we are customer centric, work is driven by the value it brings to the customers. If data driven, that work is validated by measurable outcomes. If we’re transparent and inclusive, work is collaborative and thus builds a culture of ownership.

If we’re transparent and inclusive, work is collaborative and thus builds a culture of ownership.”

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a manager, and how did you overcome it?

In order to foster a culture of ownership, building trust with the team is key. When I started as an engineering manager, I learned that the foundation to building this trust is transparency. I worked on encouraging participation in all phases, creating channels for inputs and feedback and including the team in any decision making. And most importantly for building ownership, letting the team members take charge and make decisions.

 

 

 

 

Amy Tebbe
Senior Engineering Manager, Device Identity • JumpCloud

 

 

Joel Rennich
Head of Device Identity Engineering • JumpCloud

 

 

 

JumpCloud is a directory platform that allows secure access to technology resources from any device or any location.  

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

At JumpCloud, ownership means instilling a team with enough of our organization’s culture to make the right decisions and then giving them enough agency and confidence to actually make those decisions. It’s absolutely necessary to excel, especially in a heavily remote environment.

Working remotely can be fantastically productive and help an organization recruit and retain top talent; however, as a people manager, you have to be prepared for some of the downsides as well. If you have a team that is constantly blocked by waiting on a decision by a manager or another team, all of those efficiency gains go out the window.

With trust and confidence, we earn pride in ownership and a general feeling of all sharing the same goals.”

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a manager, and how did you overcome it?

When I started at JumpCloud as a senior engineering manager in the identity group, I had a team of three, which quickly needed to become three teams of six or seven people each. On teams where nearly everyone is new to the company and some are junior engineers, there is hesitancy toward ownership out of the concern of not knowing enough about the job, product or platform. New engineers can be hesitant to step out of their lanes, and cross-team coordination can be scary if they don’t know the established norms for collaboration. To overcome this, I focus on building connections both within and across teams. Within the team, we meet weekly for one hour for purely social team-bonding. For cross-team connection building, I take every opportunity possible to connect my team members to others outside of our area. We invite other teams to our Slack channels and make thoughtful, personal intros for new projects. With trust and confidence, we earn pride in ownership and a general feeling of all sharing the same goals.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

You have to personally model the behavior you hope to support. This means taking ownership of the health and well-being of both your team and what you are producing. All too often engineers will be put in where they feel the team is going in the wrong direction, but they don’t feel empowered to stop the train. As a leader you need to show that not only does that engineer have the power, but that you expect every engineer to use that power. You need to reinforce that not having all the answers isn’t a blocker from taking ownership of your code and the projects that you are working on. Doing this has been exceptionally helpful to our engineering teams at JumpCloud. 

You have to personally model the behavior you hope to support.”

 

The best way to implement this is to ensure that you’re doing that yourself as you advocate for your team to your management. This is where ownership really comes home. Being able to know when a project has gone off the rails also requires that the engineer be willing to put it back on track the right way. Most teams aren’t great at this at first. With coaching, they embrace the responsibility because they believe in the quality of the code they are producing.

 

 

 

AMP

 

Matt Koos
Software Engineering Manager • AMP

 

AMP is developing AI, robotics and infrastructure in order to modernize the global recycling process. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

The individuals on my team display ownership by championing the entire software development life cycle for a given project or task and constantly driving quality toward a level that both satisfies the customer and eases maintainability. Often this effort requires taking the initiative to communicate and coordinate with cross-functional teams that operate on different planning cycles. 

Ownership is also knowing when to ask for help. Being eager to support each other plays a big role by encouraging team members to seek the assistance that helps them build good software.

Everyone on the team should understand the behaviors that good ownership requires and feel comfortable discussing them openly. Ownership culture means creating and participating in new processes that help everyone strive for and maintain a high level of thoroughness across all projects.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

Leaders should communicate intentionally — make time to discuss ownership and why it’s important to the team’s growth and progress. Feedback on demonstration of ownership accelerates the learning curve for everyone.

Leaders should also demonstrate ownership to their teams. The nature of the problems that a leader owns may look different than the more technical problems engineers are solving, but the importance of ownership is no less critical. Show the team how to practice ownership both to normalize the concept and teach by example.

Leaders should communicate intentionally — make time to discuss ownership and why it’s important to the team’s growth and progress.”

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a manager, and how did you overcome it?

It’s a lot to ask of a team of developers to individually discover and manage all of this while also completing more concrete tasks on time. After considering the specific actions that result in good ownership practices for our team, I’ve implemented systems, tools and routines to reduce the mental and administrative burden of demonstrating ownership. Making the process easier promotes engagement and sustainability. By consistently prompting the tenets of ownership, you can quickly impart the concept and build systems to do the prompting, allowing the culture to scale beyond the manager.

To promote ownership of scoping, I’ve involved the entire team in quarterly planning. Everyone participates in building, sequencing, and scoping the road map. Additional prompting for proper scoping occurs as we put together release kickoff documents. Building the routine of design reviews boosts quality by collecting team feedback at the right time. Simply marking a percentage of issues for pair programming normalizes this team practice that builds both camaraderie and good software.

 

 

 

 

David Stamm
Engineering Manager • CompanyCam

 

CompanyCam is a job site capture and communications tool for contractors made by a laid-back and fast-growing team.

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

A culture of ownership means a team is empowered to make decisions, not just execute them. For my team, it means engineers collaborate with their colleagues in product and design to help shape what the final product looks like. Ownership inspires people to care enough about the outcome to bring all of their intelligence and creativity to their work.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

You can’t have ownership without empowering your people to make decisions, so when you delegate, you have to really delegate! You must ultimately trust them to do the work in the way they think is best. You can and should provide the occasional nudge along the way and reflect with them on the results and what they could do differently next time. But if you want them to feel ownership, they need to have their hands on the steering wheel.

A leader also needs to help engineers find an emotional connection to the goals and outcomes that the organization cares about, whether that’s making the world a better place or just solving a problem for the customer. On my current team, we interview customers on Zoom every Thursday morning, and we encourage engineers to listen to hear how real people interact with the product they work on every day. The feedback from engineers who have participated is overwhelmingly positive. Even this small connection with the customer leads to an increased feeling of ownership, which you can see in the passionate debate over features that happens in team meetings!

Ownership inspires people to care enough about the outcome to bring all of their intelligence and creativity to their work.”

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a manager?

When I first became a manager, it was within a product engineering organization that had some issues, to say the least. A handful of engineers with big egos dominated all the conversations and exerted an unhealthy amount of control over how work was done. There was also a bit of “us versus them” mentality between departments, so I had to work to elevate the voices of the quieter people on the team, many of whom often had better ideas, and get people on either side of various entrenched groups to rally around the common cause of the organization’s very strong mission.

 

 

 

Aaron Lyons
Senior Engineering Manager • BAE Systems

 

Ball Aerospace is developing space solutions that allow for more accurate weather forecasts, provide new insights and observations about our planet and deliver actionable data and intelligence. 

 

What does a culture of ownership mean to your team?

In our team and throughout Ball Aerospace, a culture of ownership means that if you are part of the team, you are part of the solution. In other words, everyone contributes to our overall mission, which is protecting what matters most:, from monitoring Earth’s vital signs with actionable environmental intelligence to ensuring the security of our nation through innovative technologies that span the warfighting domain. Team members aren’t left alone when things get busy or tough. Anyone can rely upon the greater group to come together. For every challenge that presents itself, we ask what we can do to help find the solution. All perspectives are welcome and robust dialogue is encouraged so that we can develop creative solutions. It’s our people who design and deliver innovative strategies and ultimately make Ball such a great place to work.

 

What are the essential behaviors for a leader looking to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership across a team of engineers?

A leader consistently meets the commitments that they make, communicates when they cannot and admits when they make mistakes. In order to exemplify and spread a culture of ownership, individuals in leadership positions must lead by example in their collaboration, transparency and integrity, all at the heart of our culture at Ball Aerospace. A leader does not quickly dismiss concerns or point fingers but instead listens and explores to create a path toward success. They forge an inclusive workplace that fosters talent and new ideas. They encourage team members to give themselves grace and reach out for support when needed. Leaders provide space for team members to step up and contribute and then will recognize them for their contributions. With that, it never hurts to have fun and share the joy of every success that individuals and teams achieve.

Leaders provide space for team members to step up and contribute and then will recognize them for their contributions.”

 

What was your biggest challenge in spreading a culture of ownership when you first became a manager, and how did you overcome it?

As with many in leadership positions, I made it to where I am after being a very productive individual contributor in previous roles. I quickly learned that I needed to recognize and temper the temptation to do it all myself. Instead, delegating to others on the team helped to create space for others to grow. It allows for individuals to build ownership in the solution and enables our team to accomplish far more than otherwise could be done by one single person. My recommendation for ambitious engineers looking to move into leadership positions is to identify opportunities where you would like to contribute more within your program or organization and communicate that interest to your manager or supervisor. From a management perspective, it makes it much easier to delegate when you have someone eager for extra responsibility. We are proud to have so many pioneering minds at Ball Aerospace and intentionally develop career paths that help individuals learn and grow into new responsibilities.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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