Fostering Collaboration and Innovation through Databox Engineering Guilds

People & Culture Dec 8, 2023 11 minutes read

Table of contents

    Helping companies leverage their data to make better decisions and improve their performance is something we strive for at Databox. Until recently, this type of analysis has only been reserved for larger enterprises with dedicated teams and budgets for complex tools. Fortunately, recent innovations are reshaping this landscape. Our goal is to create powerful analytics features but make them intuitive and easy to use so any owner, manager, or individual contributor can make use of them without needing a data science degree. So far, this has resulted in new products such as Benchmarks, Forecasts, Anomaly Detection, and Performance Summaries. 

    Given our diverse product portfolio, we thrive on collaborative approaches, prioritizing innovation and knowledge sharing. While we recognize the significance of streamlined operations and clearly defined roles, we also cherish flexibility and freedom in our work culture.

    Companies, such as Spotify, have developed more modern organizational structures and cultures that reduce centralized power and enable more employee flexibility with developer communities called guilds. In terms of organizational structure, guilds are informal communities of employees who share common interests, skills, or areas of expertise. They promote knowledge sharing, cross-functional collaboration, and personal development within a larger organization and often take on projects and initiatives that align with their expertise, contributing to various aspects of the organization’s operations. Embracing this flexible approach allows individual growth and a culture of empowerment, adding agility and adaptability to the overall organizational structure. 

    Historically, guilds can be compared to associations of skilled craftsmen who united to preserve their craft, knowledge, and traditions. Similarly, within the modern context of Databox, engineering guilds have taken on a new life, becoming hubs of innovation, collaboration, and growth.

    In this blog, we will take a closer look at the concept of Engineering Guilds within Databox, exploring activities and knowledge-sharing practices that thrive within them and the impact they have had on our company culture.

    The Introduction of Guilds to Databox

    Currently, Databox’s organizational structure is team-based. It has evolved through many iterations and has been refined in a way where each team has properly defined roles and a set of responsibilities. 

    Over time, each individual team employed different technologies, strategies, tech stacks, best practices, guidelines, or architectures in order to optimize performance in their respective area. Although this setup worked well, we have observed some limitations, mostly related to the team encapsulation, such as:

    • Little opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas and approaches
    • Experienced team members lack sparring partners who challenge them
    • Teams work as bubbles and can sometimes reinvent the wheel
    • Lack of communication & synchronization between teams,
    • Some teams miss out on being part of exciting new projects
    Team-based Structure at Databox

    While our teams have a level of synchronization and collaboration, we still want to encourage sharing knowledge and ongoing learning effortlessly. In the last year, we stepped away from the traditional IT team structure and started spontaneously organizing knowledge-exchanging groups around specific domains or technologies as a way for us to collaborate, share knowledge, and improve our skills. In other words, we started forming guilds with people sharing common interests or skills. We decided to formalize these groups to help us drive the culture of innovation at all levels – technological and organizational. By focusing on a guild model, we wanted to create a more dynamic and adaptive engineering ecosystem.

    Databox Guilds and Team Dynamics

    Forming our first guild occurred organically with the simple purpose of onboarding new team members into a relatively new tech stack (.NET) in the company. With a small number of developers and a lack of teams supporting the stack, there was a natural tendency to work together, although coming from different teams. Once we started working on Benchmark Groups, it became even more essential to communicate internally about new technologies, coordinate tool selection, and share best practices. When hiring new .NET developers, we faced the challenge of sharing our collective knowledge effectively, which prompted the creation of a group with .NET experts who could help each other move forward during monthly meetings. Leveraging our existing expertise, these gatherings became a valuable platform for knowledge sharing, best practices, addressing challenges, brainstorming, and maintaining alignment. The ultimate goal was to prevent redundancy and make the most of our accumulated knowledge, which is why we formalized that group as a guild.

    After seeing the benefits of the .NET guild, we decided to move that concept into other areas of work as well. Thinking ahead, we thought more in-depth about how guilds can positively impact our business, so we approached this concept strategically and formalized it by creating a presentation of guilds for the entire Product & Engineering team at one of our monthly Show & Tells. We predicted which guilds would be beneficial for Databox but allowed for them to form naturally.

    The guilds we have created present another dimension in which we work. They include individuals from various different teams and focus on certain topics that require cross-team collaboration and diverse expertise from guild members. We can still go further in terms of creating new ones, as one team member can be a member of more than one guild.

    Goals: Fostering Collaboration, Learning, and Innovation

    After we started introducing the guild model, our focus was on giving guilds a solid form and purpose without imposing strict guidelines on how to build and manage them. Instead, we defined the goals we wished to achieve.

    • Flexibility (outside of the corresponding teams)
    • Transparency and sharing ideas
    • Cooperation by brainstorming sessions
    • Communication that leads to bonding
    • Collaboration that solves problems
    • Experimentation & innovation

    To create a new guild, at least 3 members must come together (recommended to have at least 5 at one point) to address a problem that goes beyond individual teams, necessitating cross-functional expertise and collaboration.  Each guild should also have defined the following items:

    • A clear purpose, defined specific goals, identified challenges, and business impact.
    • A well-defined vision to guide the guild’s progress.
    • An inclusive, non-restrictive, free-to-join policy for membership.
    • A collaborative structure without hierarchy, promoting a rotation of members as driving forces.
    • Well-documented outcomes to ensure transparency and clarity in guild activities.

    Identifying Projects that Benefit from Guilds

    Determining which projects need the involvement of guilds at Databox is not bound by strict guidelines. Instead, our approach to guilds operates flexibly, adapting to the unique needs of each project. At Databox, projects continue to be our primary focus, and guilds are enlisted when additional expertise and knowledge sharing become essential. Moreover, we kickstart certain projects within our guilds, which means this structure goes both ways. This flexible approach ensures that guilds can step in to help our projects and promote knowledge sharing whenever required.

    Forming and Joining Guilds at Databox

    At Databox, we only use guilds in Product & Engineering teams but plan to expand that concept to the entire organization in the future. We currently have 6 active guilds: .NET, NodeJS/TypeScript, QA, Frontend, Project Managers, and Security. Databox guilds are open to all and have no restrictions, welcoming anyone interested in joining. They have all naturally emerged as we sought new ways to progress.

    Specific Databox Guilds and their mission

    Each guild serves a specific purpose and contributes to the overall success of the company’s projects.

    • .NET guild: Focused on sharing knowledge, best practices, and fostering innovation, the guild plays a vital role in ensuring that our team stays at the forefront of .NET technologies. 
    • NodeJS/TypeScript: Focused on excellence in development practices, ensuring scalability and efficiency in our services, and empowering team members through knowledge sharing and collaboration.
    • Security guild: Focused on driving security initiatives on security topics from Application Security to Security Operations.
    • Frontend guild: Focused on elevating and aligning frontend development practices at Databox while ensuring a cohesive and user-centric experience.
    • QA guild: Focused on ensuring the highest software quality standards and implementing best practices to guarantee a seamless and reliable user experience across our products.
    • Project management guild: Focused on sharing best management practices and ensuring successful and efficient delivery of projects across our product portfolio.

    A Closer Look at Guild Operations within Databox

    Databox guilds have established an efficient and collaborative approach to handling projects. Each guild uses Asana for project management and Slack for communication. This combination of tools ensures effective communication and coordination among our guild members, creating an environment where projects can thrive, and knowledge can be seamlessly shared.

    Members of each guild typically meet on a biweekly or monthly basis. The foundation of our guild meetings lies in our project structure, which essentially serves as the meeting agenda. Members have the opportunity to add topics they wish to discuss and suggest action items that should be part of the meeting. A few days before the meetings, the guild finalizes the agenda and shares it on Slack. During these regular meetings, all topics are thoroughly discussed, and action items are generated. Interestingly, action items resulting from these discussions usually do not have strict due dates and may not be top priorities unless they are vital for advancing other projects. We categorize action items based on their urgency and priority, with labels such as “urgent,” “high,” “medium,” and “low.”

    An interesting aspect of our guild meetings is the emphasis on shared leadership. Each meeting is led by a different member of the guild, promoting a rotation of driving forces rather than relying on a single project leader or manager. In our guilds, all members are equal, and there’s no hierarchical structure.

    Unveiling the Benefits of Guilds for Databox

    Guilds have had several positive impacts on our way of work.

    Knowledge Sharing: Guilds provide a platform for growing and sharing knowledge that extends beyond the boundaries of individual teams.

    Streamlined development practices: Guilds establish a consistent project structure and opinionated and supported way of building software, ensuring that new projects benefit from a pre-agreed framework. So teams don’t have to reinvent the wheel, have fewer decisions to make, and can use their productivity and creativity for higher objectives.

    Defined Shared Tasks and Challenges: Guilds centralize tasks that involve multiple individuals, streamlining collaboration and problem-solving.

    Cross-Team Collaboration: Guilds foster cross-team collaboration by establishing a common work system and approach across all P&E teams, facilitating easy transitions between teams.

    Connecting Isolated Roles: Guilds create connections between roles that might otherwise be isolated within their teams, offering growth opportunities and collaboration potential for roles like QA that exist in one-team units. This arrangement encourages sharing insights and expertise between teams.

    Besides the benefits described above, the formation of guilds has also created side-products that could help our Product & Engineering teams as well as the Databox business as a whole by making our feature roll-outs smoother, faster, and of better quality.

    Handling Team Dependencies

    Most of our projects have at least one dependency or more, which is one of the most common challenges our teams face on a daily basis. Guilds that have common standards can help the way we handle dependencies. It allows members outside of the team to handle dependencies, given that they have the proper knowledge to do so. For example, an engineer outside of the DevOps team, who is part of their guild, can implement the DevOps dependency if the respected team is not able to do so in time. This helps us move forward collectively and prevents projects from being delayed.

    Sharing Resources

    Having common standards and project structures opens up the possibility of sharing resources. A lot of our teams have resource restrictions or may only temporarily need more resources. With guild members who share the way of doing things, we suddenly have access to a bigger resource pool that can temporarily join the implementation team efforts and ensure timely implementation and even better quality.

    Guild Challenges in Focus

    While the use of guilds at Databox has brought about numerous benefits, it’s essential to acknowledge and address some minor challenges:

    • Secondary Priority: Right now, projects are a priority at Databox, meaning that guilds take a back seat due to time constraints and the high demand for other project commitments.
    • Lack of Leadership: The absence of designated leaders in guilds can sometimes prove challenging, as there is a need for someone to drive and initiate actions, particularly during the initial phases. It’s essential for all guild members to take ownership and feel responsible for the guild’s success.
    • Engagement: Balancing project work with guild activities can be a challenge. Not all members may have the time to fully engage in guild-related tasks, but at least some level of commitment is necessary to ensure effective collaboration and progress.

    Impact of Guilds on Engineering Culture and the Entire Organization

    The undeniable influence of guilds on our engineering culture has prompted us to connect with teams beyond our usual interactions, pushing us out of our comfort zones. This collaborative approach has established connections with colleagues we might not have engaged with, fostering a more inclusive and knowledge-sharing environment. Guilds have expanded our perspectives, strengthened bonds, and enhanced our ability to tackle challenges, fostering innovation within our dynamic engineering culture.

    Moreover, the adoption of a guild-based model has enabled flexible collaboration across our teams, encouraging cross-functional dialogues and the exchange of expertise. This approach transcends departmental boundaries, empowering teams to adapt swiftly to market demands and explore new avenues. The outcomes include heightened creativity, improved problem-solving skills, and an overall increase in the quality of our product. Embracing the guild-based model has not only elevated our product but also cultivated a dynamic, forward-thinking organizational culture, positioning us for continued success and growth.

    Get practical strategies that drive consistent growth

    Read some