When looking back at the various teams I’ve been part of throughout my career, I often think about what made certain teams successful, and why others struggled more? What makes a certain group of people work better together than others? Did the organizations put any thought into who they might be putting on the team and what might drive them to achieve successful outcomes for the organization and its clients? Perhaps they simply assembled teams from whatever technical resources they could bring together and hoped for the best.
Like me, maybe you have never encountered a company culture described as an operating system, or an OS as we call it. At Stitch Fix, we have an OS devoted to ensuring the best outcomes for our people, projects, and clients. Having worked for small startups, consulting firms, and contract software projects, it wasn’t until I saw this OS that I realized just how little thought had been put into building some of the teams of my past.
It’s no secret that Stitch Fix builds winning teams of engineers, data scientists, UX product designers, business partners, managers, and more. I’ve had the privilege of working with many talented people at Stitch Fix for almost 2 years, and each day I’m positively impacted by three core traits that my team members at Stitch Fix exhibit from our OS.
The first attribute we look for in our people is that our people are bright! Google Dictionary defines bright as “intelligent and quick-witted”. However, our OS docs go a bit further to detail what bright people bring to Stitch Fix.
- Someone who is thoughtful and astute in their approach.
- Someone who exercises strong intuition while also being resourceful.
- Someone who is perceptive in their observation and synthesis of information and thinks critically.
Working as an engineer supporting our warehouse operations, I see this characteristic manifesting daily. People from many roles in our division, including those on the warehouse floor, business partners, and engineers, help to brainstorm ways to arrive at an MVP for a product. You might have heard this defined as a “Minimum Viable Product”. We like to call them “Minimum Valuable Products” since we focus on providing maximum value with our engineering effort. We focus on the things that will impact our operations in the most positive and cost effective way. In turn, this helps ensure our clients receive quality products in a timely manner.
Every day, I see bright people coming up with intuitive solutions to maximize our MVP efforts. We work with our business partners, who spend time developing efficient solutions for our warehouse operations, to evaluate cost effectiveness when it comes to engineering efforts. We brainstorm solutions where business impact is maximized from engineering effort.
Brightness comes into play in many other areas with engineering. My exceptionally bright teammates provide thoughtful and astute pull request reviews. They advocate for the end users of our products in intuitive ways. Another example comes to mind as we handle support rotations. People are always eager to dive into a problem and help resolve it quickly.
Kindness is perhaps my favorite benefit of working at Stitch Fix. Our OS docs define kind as:
- Someone who is genuinely interested in others and takes an empathetic approach.
- Someone who does what’s right, not what’s easy and gives the necessary feedback.
- Someone who is willing to lend a helpful hand.
We do a considerable amount of pair programming and problem solving in our daily engineering. This is something many other organizations struggle with in my opinion because they are missing kindness and trust. All too often, engineers have had bad experiences with pairing because their pairing partner grew impatient, frustrated, or even judged their effectiveness after the fact. At Stitch Fix, we focus on pairing, mentoring and teaching with kindness and patience.
I have the opportunity often to pair program during technical interviews. I ask candidates to relax and be themselves, as this pairing exercise is not only for me to observe, but also for them to gain a realistic view into what pairing would be like on this team. I’ve had some positive feedback in this regard and candidates have mentioned the pairing has been the most positive and effective pairing session they’ve had. I’m not patting myself on the back here, as I owe this compliment to those that have taught me to pair in this manner, and shown me the same patience and kindness.
My favorite example of kindness often comes out in what we call “Collect and Reflect” where we interview peers about our own performance, collect feedback and reflect. I was somewhat terrified to both give and receive feedback the first time. Our team was relatively new, and had been growing together, but I didn’t really know what my teammates thought of me. I can remember the first feedback I received actually bringing tears to my eyes because my teammates had realized how hard I had been working, appreciated what I was doing for the team, were also genuinely concerned that I didn’t overdo it, and wanted to help. Never in 20 years of software had I received this level of empathy and kindness, and it would be important to me that any future organization I work for have kindness at the forefront of their cultural OS. Being built up, while still receiving valuable feedback pertaining to my growth, has helped me develop considerable trust with my teammates.
Perhaps the greatest example of kindness at Stitch Fix has come to light during the COVID-19 pandemic. All levels of the organization have exhibited kindness. There has been an understanding that everyone’s situations are different as we tread this new ground. While we focus on meeting our goals as we are largely remote, it has been understood that some goals may slip. In other cases, parents have required more time to adjust to their children’s online learning, or the lack of daycare. Teammates have stepped in to pick up in-progress stories midway through completion. This focus on kindness will ensure our teams remain successful during this challenging time, and that people aren’t overpressed which would result in burnout.
Motivated by Challenge
The only quality that amazes me more than kindness is how team members are motivated by challenge. Once again, our OS documents define Motivated by Challenge as:
- Someone who embodies a growth mindset and the belief that there’s always a better way.
- Someone who operates with hunger, #StitchFixGrit and perseverance.
- Someone who thrives in ambiguity and is resilient.
- Someone who is goal oriented, has drive, and who thinks challenge is exciting.
I had the pleasure of leading a project to improve how we designate where our apparel is stored. My teammates and I were mostly experienced in Ruby/Rails, learning Golang, and one had Android experience. Suddenly we found ourselves evolving a system that included Rails, Golang, and Swift iOS development. We quickly identified gaps in testability at the iOS level of the stack, and engineered a way to provide easier testing without having to rely on a physical scanner and device. This allowed the team to focus on learning enough Swift to improve our scanning application. In the end, every team member contributed to all levels of this diverse software stack. We combined pairing, knowledge sharing, and PR reviews to quickly help each other ramp up and ensure the project was delivered in a timely manner.
This project had other challenges that motivated us. We collaborated with our business partners to arrive at an MVP that would take less time, yet still provide significant improvement to our overall warehouse operational efficiency. Operational efficiency is critical to ensuring that our warehouse associates are able to provide clients with quality inventory sooner as demand grows.
The project was implemented across the summer period of the year, during which I took a 10 day family vacation. Team members stepped up and led portions of the project during my absence. Working with highly motivated team members made it possible for me to take such a vacation while remaining confident that success would not be impacted by my absence.
The most significant example of being motivated by challenge again came in recent weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic. As our warehouse network adjusted to state and local stay-at-home orders, suddenly engineering was faced with new challenges due to warehouses having to temporarily close. We had purchase orders for fresh inventory arriving at warehouses that were unable to process the receipts. We had all teams pivoting and reacting efficiently, without complaint, to ensure we could help those warehouse associates as much as possible. We quickly configured a new Men’s warehouse at a location that was not closed, which allowed inventory to be redirected so it would be available for our clients.
This level of motivation extended from the earliest career engineers up through the top of the organization. Everyone was motivated to solve problems and pause current goals to ensure the safety of our warehouse associates, while still providing our customers with scheduled Fixes.
Bright. Kind. Motivated by Challenge. This foundation of our OS continues to ensure we deliver an unparalleled personalized experience to our clients, while providing a winning and rewarding environment for our team members. Bright, Kind and Motivated by Challenge empower a culture of innovation and experimentation for people at all levels of Stitch Fix. This culture produces more exciting ways to shop like Shop Your Looks and Shop New Colors. It drives a sense of autonomy that is used to break down ambiguity to solve challenges each and every work day. Building diverse teams located across the US that embody these traits allows us to provide a better experience for our diverse population of clients.
What qualities do you see in people at your employer that make your work life better? Do you see yourself exhibiting the above qualities? Perhaps you start modeling these principles in our organization, and influence others to join in. You should also check out our careers page if you are interested in being a part of an organization built on these traits.