What a Learning-Focused Engineering Culture Really Looks Like
Insight from Turo's Catherine Patchell
Catherine Patchell likes to learn. Whether it's concert photography or road cycling, she enjoys the challenge of stepping outside of her comfort zone and picking up something new.
And as it turns out, she especially likes sharing those new things with others. She flew her road bike out with her to visit family in Maine, looking to coax a family member or two into joining her on the road. And she's met some great people in the photographer pit at concerts, jostling for position with strangers who turned into friends.
As a senior front-end software engineer at car sharing marketplace Turo, learning new things with peers is a big part of Catherine's job—and the culture at Turo writ large.
We sat down with Catherine to hear more about her career path, what Turo's culture of learning feels like and what specific activities support it, and what her team is looking for (they're hiring!).
Right subject, right people
When Catherine saw that Northeastern University had a dual program in computer science and interactive media, she knew she had to apply.
The east coast native grew up thinking she wanted to work on animated movies, and the chance to study something that was both technical and artistic stood out to her. She chose a mix of art and design classes to complement her computer science curriculum, and while she loved what she was learning, there was an imbalance in the culture and makeup of her classes.
On the computer science side, Catherine says she was one of about 15 women in her whole class.
While overall she had a positive experience in her program, that disparity did sometimes hamper productivity and growth. "I went through some very terrible pairing sessions, where I just felt bad asking questions," Catherine says.
When it came time to look for a job, Catherine knew she wanted to stay on the technical side, but to work at a place where she felt like she could really learn and grow. She'd enjoyed the culture while serving as the tech director of a student-run design studio at Northeastern, and was similarly impressed by the culture she saw at Turo while interviewing there.
"The thing that really stood out to me was how welcoming all of the team was," she says. "And even on my technical phone screen, they paired me up with one of the women on the team, so the first touchpoint of talking to engineers at Turo was another woman. At the time, she was the only woman in the satellite office, and hearing that she felt it was such a supportive group of people, it sounded like a place I could flourish."
How Turo's culture works to support learning
The way that work is set up at Turo, says Catherine, supports collaboration and learning from the start. "They give me the space to go in and think about a project or a problem, do some research, collaborate with a more senior engineer and start reviewing," she says. "It's very much a supportive environment that allows me to make the wrong choices from the beginning, see what doesn't work, and explore alternatives."
Alongside a top-down belief in the value of learning, Catherine found certain specific aspects of the way Turo does work to go far in supporting growth. Now, as a founding member of a culture guild that leads learning sessions focused on engineers' interests and knowledge gaps, she's helping to run and evolve those aspects. They include:
- Front-end learning groups. When all the front-end engineers need to learn something new at the same time, like when they needed to pick up React a while ago, they all get together to learn from and with each other. "Everyone tries to help each other learn and make the right architecture decisions for this big platform," she explains. Even if there's not a specific skill everyone is trying to pick up, every Friday afternoon, all front-end engineers gather together to share best practices, unstick each other, and watch tutorials. "We recognize that everyone has different learning styles, so by catering to those different approaches, it helps keep things fresh," she says.
- Thoughtful pair coding. This isn't the pair coding Catherine experienced in college, where mismatched experience levels or personalities sometimes created challenging situations. Turo is careful about who they pair, and they ask the person who has more experience to direct the session verbally, while the less-experienced person types. That way, everyone can participate and the pace is set at the comfort level of the person who's learning.
- Structured code reviews. "There are bad ways and good ways to do code review," says Catherine, "especially in a remote environment where you're not seeing your colleagues and everything is a written form—you can only use emojis so much to communicate friendliness." To get around that, Turo approaches coding as a collective effort, aiming for a code base that is cohesive and can't be easily broken up by author. "That really provides a sense of collective ownership, because we're all writing at the same level. When there's a problem, it's not about who might have written that code, but rather working together to fix it," she says. They also have a very specific process for intaking pull requests with recommendations, best practices documentation, and clear expectations around timing.
- Tech guilds. The front-end team, the back-end team, iOS engineers, Android engineers—each group comes together once or twice a week to talk through new things coming to their platforms, upcoming features and changes, and to support each other. "If you have an idea, you can bring it to the table or add it to the agenda. Whether it's written or verbal, you have a lot of opportunities to share a thought and have a conversation about it."
- A supportive Slack channel. When Catherine gets a random error message or is confused about a project, she immediately jumps into Turo's front-end Slack channel and asks for help. "We have a great culture of allowing people to be vulnerable and ask questions. That's not always the case on engineering teams. One thing that's really important to having a successful environment to allow people to learn is having that space where it's okay to ask questions, and everyone's voice matters," she says.
"Being in an environment where there is healthy discussion and debate, and where people's opinions are respected, really makes for an environment that is conducive to supporting people and learning new things," says Catherine.
What Turo hires for
Recently, Catherine's been expanding beyond specific technical knowledge and learning how to lead technical interviews, since her team is hiring.
But in those interviews, she doesn't have a specific checklist of technical skills she's looking for.
"When we hire at Turo, we don't necessarily require that people know exactly all of the tools that we use every day," she says. "We hire good people who are passionate about building things and are excited about working with an awesome group of people."