The influence of engineering culture on the startup economy

Thanks to the startup ecosystem, San Francisco is an engineering capital of the world. Or, is it the other way around?

Everywhere you look, software startups are popping up that are innovating every industry under the sun — a quick search on CrunchBase lists over 1,000 within one mile from my company Nitro’s headquarters in the Financial District. Physical products are also being redefined through hardware companies such as Tesla and SpaceX, the latter of which has reached a level of engineering previously reserved only for NASA. No industry is being left “undisrupted.” For this, whom do we have to thank?

I believe engineering culture is the driving force behind startup culture. Engineering has obviously been around a long time, but what is pushing startups to innovate at the fastest pace ever seen? The reason for engineering culture’s growing influence is very simple: the foundation of any successful technology company is a thriving development environment and infrastructure. No matter how well Internet startups diagram, communicate, brainstorm and build synergies, in the end it is the code that’s comprising them that makes them work, the infrastructure running this code at Web scale and a coherent gang of engineers making sure it stays up and prospers.

Engineering culture is so pervasive that it has even permeated the media, spreading from Slashdot to Reddit to HackerNews to various technology outlets, with its terminology and ethos adopted by the tech, product, business and VC communities alike.

Here are several key values of engineering culture that are contributing to today’s startup boom:

A high standard of work. Engineers can’t afford to have something go awry — a click or tap that leads to a HTP 404 page ruins the user experience and, potentially, the sales funnel. Consequently, engineers are relentless perfectionists who know how critical their performance is to their organization’s bottom line.

The same set of obsessive, perfectionist behaviors that keep an engineer debugging a site also enables him or her to wake up from a PagerDuty alert and fix the site if needed at 3 a.m. Engineering is so integral that many startups pride themselves on how simple their code and integrations are to adopt by companies at any scale.

Self-motivated, lifelong learning. With new programming languages continually entering the fray (this year we welcomed the arrival of Apple’s Swift) and established ones evolving through new frameworks and modules, engineers need to stay on their toes. Although it is possible to have a successful career by mastering a single technology stack, most engineers are motivated to cultivate expertise in a number of languages. A popular way to stay up to date is through meetups, with folks gathering in startup-heavy areas in the evenings to learn everything from new open-source software and algorithms to DevOps setups. Meetups, conferences and tech talks are self-organizing, and engineers often find jobs, co-founders and projects this way.

The more engineers explore these new languages and get the most out of legacy languages, the broader the possibilities and the more today’s businesses will enjoy an online presence that speaks to their customers in exactly the way they need to be successful.

Diversity and charity. Engineers come from around the world to descend on Silicon Valley, bringing with them diverse perspectives and cultural customs. We recently started seeing a strong drive among male engineers to be more inclusive of women in tech as well. Conferences actively reach out to female speakers, reserve seats for women who code, and so on. This is good news for everyone as organizations that strive for dynamic, diverse cultures lead to the greatest products and strong performing companies that our economy relies on.

Engineering open-source culture is always activist, from GNU to Linux and beyond, taking up causes for good. Many startups have a charity and/or volunteering support programs, and there are meetups and conferences oriented around giving back, such as AI for Development and Data Mining for a Cause. These help to bring balance to an engineer’s life, so they don’t feel like a cog in a commercial machine. More and more innovation relies on the autonomy and empowerment of engineers at all levels – engaging them is critical to the success of your business.

Overall, there’s never been a better time to be an engineer. Young men and women from around the world are dreaming about San Francisco startups, and our engineering culture is only better for it. We should work hard to uphold its standards, encourage diversity, and ensure work-life balance and so on. But with the smartest folks anywhere, I’m positive we’ll meet that challenge.

Interested in workspace? Get in touch.