As I sat down to put these thoughts together, I asked myself if I expected to be penning this piece three years into my journey with Thoughtworks, and the answer is both yes and no. "No" because the skeptic in me suspected that our growth would inevitably lead to less autonomy and agility, and yet here I am, writing about how the opposite is true. “Yes” because as a part of this community, I never once felt bored enough to consider a career move.
There are opinion pieces out there citing 2-3 years as a good time to move jobs due to a plateauing learning curve, but my learning curve has never plateaued during my time here precisely due to this continued autonomy that has allowed me to pick my challenges. This autonomy thrives due to the competitive advantage that we have: community.
I wrote an observational piece on the community and self-sustaining ecosystem aspects during my first year in Thoughtworks. This piece touched upon the common attributes that bind our community as one: the pursuit of excellence, trust and integrity, and community mindset.
Following that, I continued to monitor if it would break away or continue down a similar path as we grew in both our size (headcount) and impact. While this might not represent every Thoughtworker’s opinion on the topic, I am of the opinion that the people-centric culture that underpins this community aspect is as strong as ever.
What’s the big deal with community?
First off, what makes the community aspect so beneficial? If you’re thinking, “Surely this effort that you’re putting in is not something that’s completely altruistic?” you’re right. Sharing and investing beyond our own organizational bubble has multiple benefits which include but are not limited to:
Learning through teaching: before you start teaching, you naturally prepare for your sessions, find out the gaps in your understanding, and fill those gaps by engaging in deeper learning. The last thing you want is to have someone poke holes in the content of your lessons, right?
Diversity and freshness of viewpoints: in sharing with the community, you also get a response through feedback. This validates whether or not what is shared is applicable to the external world. It can also provide valuable data to be acted upon in order to adjust your approach. This data would have been unavailable if you hadn’t shared it with anyone.
Reciprocity Principle: the Reciprocity Principle is one of the basic laws of social psychology. It says that in many social situations we pay back what we received from others. In other words, if someone does you a favour or gives you something, you are more likely to return the sentiment. Give and you shall receive.
As Thoughtworks grew, I observed how the community aspect of our culture formed a competitive advantage in three spheres of influence:
Individual: members of the local tech community (job candidates, meet-up group members, blog followers, etc.)
Business: our business’s relevance in the ever-evolving technology market
Industry: the tech landscape in Singapore and the way we hire
As a community, our most direct impact was on the people that directly interacted with us: members of our Thoughtworks Talks Tech meetups, candidates, our clients that benefit directly from our successful projects, and beyond. We hold meetups to share our learnings as part of our goal in the second area of our vision (see our 3-part vision) to champion for software excellence and revolutionize the software industry.
We exchange knowledge with candidates through transparent feedback during our job interview process. We share knowledge with our clients to enable them to bear the standard of excellence after we’ve exited the engagement instead of hoarding it and milking every cent that we can get. Thoughtworks Jumpstart is part of us contributing back to the community by mentoring and training software engineers who want a headstart in the field of software engineering.
How does sharing make this a competitive advantage for us? We learn more through teaching, we learn more through sharing feedback and getting the responses, and we learn more through enabling others, so we can expend effort on other problems that need to be solved.
Within the Thoughtworks business, the issues we deal with on the ground never remain far from the rest of the organization. When I say issues, I’m not talking about fires in projects that need putting out, but rather the blockers that prevent our clients from having their problems solved. Blockers, like capability gaps, do not remain isolated at the project level. The flatness of our culture allows those capability needs to shine through to the rest of the business. We then provide the training or bring in the right people to close those gaps in a timely fashion.
On the other hand, there have been times where we’ve failed fast. Times where we’ve gone in, made our assessments, pushed for progress, but did not create maximum impact for the client. In these cases, we have gracefully exited the engagement with a clear plan to maximize value for our clients. By reducing costs for clients with whom we’re parting ways, we can also accelerate value creation through heavier investments in our new and existing clients.
From the rescue projects that we’ve taken over from other consultancies to the array of platforms and products that we’ve built, our diverse portfolio of work has inadvertently allowed us to identify trends in software development (see our bi-annual Tech Radar) as well as gaps in terms of skills that are in demand in the technology industry.
Using this knowledge, we preemptively build that capability to bridge that gap. When I mention capability, I’m talking about the collective technical capability that our global network of consultants possesses, one that constantly and continuously exchanges and shares knowledge through direct or remote collaboration.
Yes, agile software development is important and we’ve been doing it since 2001, but that’s not a process, it’s a mindset. We use that mindset to evolve what we provide our clients to not only build high-quality custom software but envision the products of tomorrow. We advise and enable our clients to be organisationally ready to work with those products and build data-driven products to reach that goal.
As a result of both internal and external factors mentioned above, we are able to ramp up our capabilities to be relevant and influence industry growth. As an industry, IT is no longer just a cost to be managed. It has evolved into the differentiator for businesses and has a direct impact on the revenue of companies today. This has directly translated to a surge in demand for talent in software engineering that is not going to be slowing down anytime soon. This surge in demand for talent in the industry has also translated to an increased demand for our work and expertise, which has been an increase not just in terms of volume, but also in complexity.
There are a few ways to build capability; one way is to grow it internally, the other is to hire externally. At Thoughtworks, we take both approaches, with the former mentioned in a paragraph above. As for hiring, while we have been improving our processes and methodologies to increase our accuracy and quality of hiring, a key underlying philosophy has remained: we don’t just hire for existing skill sets, we also intentionally assess one’s learning ability and potential.
You can find links to various articles that describe a Thoughtworker’s learning journey from trainee consultants to a tech lead and beyond; a common tenet between many of these pieces is how that learning happens. We take a measured approach to growth by ensuring that we have the right amount of support set up first before bringing someone in, instead of throwing people at a problem and taking a sink or swim approach. The latter option would not work at Thoughtworks, especially with the complexity of the problems we deal with.
One of the things that I’ve seen most prominently in my time in the community of Thoughtworks is how we’re all so unique, but are still able to make such a massive collective impact in the industry. It is a place where I can be honest about my weaknesses and proud of my strengths. It is a place where our diverse skill sets don’t create boundaries between the different groups in the company but come together to create our unique community advantage. It is a place where I truly am free to make my mark in the best tech company in Singapore.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.