Codelescence: Socrata Engineering Comes of Age

May 1, 2014 2:22 pm PST | Data as a Service

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Open Innovation magazine. Curious about working for Socrata? We’re hiring! Check out our careers page.

Socrata is maturing, and it is most evident through the evolution of its engineering—past, present, and future.

“What’s really exciting about Socrata right now is that we’re transitioning from a startup – in the true sense of the word – to a company,” says Steve Greenberg, one of Socrata’s newest Engineering Program Managers.

When Socrata was originally founded, it began with a small team of scrappy software engineers. Team structure was simple, and early team members quickly developed an office culture that paralleled the products they were building: open, engaging, and collaborative. They encouraged free discussion, shared a love for challenges, and held events – planned or spontaneous – that built camaraderie.

Since the earliest days of the company, dozens of engineers have joined Socrata, from part-time high school interns to veteran programmers with decades of education and experience. The engineering team has grown into an engineering department, and the original infrastructure must evolve to accommodate more members and bigger projects.

Dividing Teams without Causing Division

When companies expand, they must be careful not to let growth impede progress or dull internal culture. So how will Socrata’s engineering team restructure itself without sacrificing its liveliness?

“We’re emulating Spotify’s ‘Tribes, Guilds, Squads’ model,” says Jerome Gagner, Socrata Director of Engineering. “Through it we’ll keep the culture that we have as well as develop engineers’ careers and individual disciplines.”

Based on Spotify’s model for structuring internal teams, Socrata’s engineers are reorganizing into three types of groups. All engineers dedicated to a specific service or product form large teams called “Tribes.” All engineers who share a discipline (front-end development, back-end development, user interface design, etc.) collaborate through inter-tribal groups called “Guilds.” Within each tribe are also “Squads,” small teams dedicated to specific disciplines within the tribe. Squads act like miniature startups in their own right, maintaining their own cultures and core values.

A Culture of Code and Character

Anyone who has visited Socrata can attest to the dedication and personality that each employee brings to the company, particularly the engineers.

“One thing I frequently talk about with friends outside of work is that Socrata’s engineering team is filled with a bunch of unique, funny people. We have a lot of characters here, but at the end of the day, everyone is deeply committed to our customers and to the company’s mission,” says Greenberg.

Socrata’s engineers are inventive and rarely bored. When they aren’t building or running code, they run marathons, make hot sauce, craft micro-brews, and use 3D printers to produce models of Iron Man’s helmet. In between tasks, they also pursue friendly feuds, from office Nerf-gun battles to internet pranks.

Tradition is another important part of Socrata’s culture, with the engineers being among its most avid followers. Since the company’s founding, engineers have eaten lunch every Friday at the same teriyaki place in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. They enjoy an office happy hour on Friday afternoons, bringing in beer or whiskey to share. On their anniversary of employment, team members also share one pound of chocolate for every year they’ve worked at Socrata.

While these perks and traditions are part of what makes Socrata great, ask the engineers what they love most about their job and they will likely reply “learning, coding, and problem-solving.”

“We face a lot of hard engineering challenges, and those challenges are very exciting to work on,” says Anthony Nowell, a Socrata Software Developer. “I have no doubt that I’m surrounded by ridiculously bright people who can overcome those challenges, and I’m really encouraged knowing that we’re helping each other to grow technically.”

Data is Socrata’s business, and it handles datasets of all sizes—from those with only a dozen records to others with records ranging in the millions. A search request on a small dataset takes only a few seconds, but advanced searches on large datasets naturally take much more time to process. Socrata’s engineers have recently enjoyed the challenge of developing methods to make even advanced searches in large datasets complete in less than four seconds.

Exponential Growth

Pioneering tech companies like Google, Spotify, and Facebook have demonstrated that well-defined culture and open organizational models are valuable growth tools. They help attract new team members, develop employee competency, and foster loyalty, which in turn inspires employees to produce innovative projects that put the company on the leading edge of entrepreneurship.

Socrata adds members to its team on a near-weekly basis, many of them engineers. Part of this growth success comes from the attractiveness of Socrata’s culture, which the company has nurtured since its founding. Moving forward, Socrata will continue to emphasize organizational models that maintain that culture, so that in time, its name will be added to the list of best companies to work for.

“It’s amazing seeing Socrata grow as big as it has,” says Chris Metcalf, Director of Developer Platform and six-year Socrata employee. “I don’t have kids, so to me, this is like seeing my child go off to college.”

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