Katrina moved into engineering leadership from a varied career in individual contributor roles across software development, solution delivery engineering, and testing. She became “famous” in the international testing community as the author of A Practical Guide to Testing in DevOps, an international keynote speaker, a co-founder of the WeTest New Zealand testing community, the founder of Testing Trapeze magazine, and a prolific testing blogger and tweeter back when those platforms were popular.
Over the last five years Katrina has been responsible for leading engineering culture at a variety of NZ organisations. She has worked in a large bank, a high-growth SaaS business, and a Series B funded start-up. Katrina has been told that she creates a good engineering culture in each of these contexts. This talk will be a reflection on how she achieves that.
Kiwiana & Code: What is unique about engineering culture in Aotearoa New Zealand?
Now, our keynote speaker is certainly someone special.
She has written a book on testing and DevOps.
She was a founder of WeTest Community, and led many engineering culture initiatives in multiple organisations — including the ones that I've been involved with.
So I've had a pleasure of seeing her work firsthand.
It is an honour to introduce Katrina Clokie, the Chief Technical Officer of Fergus.
Hey, nice to see you.
Uh... it's weird doing a talk in NZ.
I don't normally, and I know a lot more faces in the audience than normal, which makes this feel a bit more high stakes.
So the premise of this talk.
I wanted to take the conference theme that Prae just kind of talked about, and riff off it for a bit.
Be just spicy enough to give you something to talk about at morning tea.
There's nothing like, too challenging in here.
The premise of the talk is... we get a lot of content from overseas and some of it you can just lift and shift.
But some of it, if you try it in NZ, it's going to fail spectacularly.
I wanted to talk a little bit about why.
I also thought it was a good idea to start with the best rugby team in the country on the first slide.
All right, so this keynote is kind of a reflection on the universal foundations of good engineering culture.
I've tried to tie this into kind of Kiwiana, and talk a bit about how things are different in NZ.
So I'm going to talk about people, leadership, org design, problem scope, and measurement.
Who knows who these people are?
Yeah. When I was putting this together, I realised that all my references are really dated.
This is Ches 'n' Dale.
Ches is a dairy farmer, and Dale is a cheese factory worker.
They sang the jingle for Chesdale cheese on TV.
I wasn't alive when this was on TV for the first time. It was in the 60s and 70s.
But I feel like there was revival in the 90s — potentially — because I can sing the song.
I'm not going to, but I could.
This is kind of the stereotypical NZ view of people.
I think there's a bunch of stuff that's kind of default to build good engineering culture from.
You need a diverse team with good hiring practices, some competency frameworks, some clear promotion processes, clarity around how reward and recognition works.
That's a whole talk someone else has already done it.
You should listen to this at some point I made you a tiny URL: Sensible defaults for tech management.
Because you don't want a team that looks like Ches 'n' Dale.
It's very hard to build good engineering culture from a Ches 'n' Dale team.
Take all that as a given. Then I thought it was kind of interesting to talk about what's different about people in NZ, and how you build culture with people in NZ.
So I pulled some stats from the Immigration NZ website.
These are from 2019. Which I assume is because we use the 2018 census data so they're a bit out of date.
But at this point, the tech sector in NZ had 20,000 companies 114,000 people.
This is 5% of the NZ workforce, and we were at this time generating 8% of our GDP.
NZ is less than 1% of the United States' tech workforce.
Uh... I just pulled these numbers from a Google search, so like... sources.
What I find really staggering about this, I found a TechCrunch article, that in January this year 84,714 tech employees were laid off globally.
Which is like, over 75% of the NZ workforce got laid off in January.
So NZ is a small place — which we all know — but the tech sector in NZ comparatively is really small.
The stuff you're going to get from thought leaders overseas, comes from a premise of an industry that's a lot larger.
This manifests in funny ways.
Here's a picture of a Countdown.
I like the Tawa Countdown.
If Aaron Hodder is in the room right now, I know he's full of joy at this being part of my presentation. Tawa Countdown.
During covid I went to Tawa Countdown.
My first COVID supermarket trip, with all the trauma that comes with that because it's very stressful.
The police were there helping the security guard do the entrance and stuff.
Got my mask on, getting in the line...
This is an absolutely entirely true story.
I get in the line, the guy in front of me turns around and looks at me.
I thought it was like, the whole situation of masks, and like intensity... and he turned back. Then he turned around to me again and he goes:
and I was like... yes?
He nodded and he turned back around.
And I was like.. Oh my God, I have no idea who this guy was, and I'm standing there racking my brain.
Who is this?
Why do they know me?
And then he turned around again and goes:
You don't remember me do you?
And I said no, I... I don't.
And he goes: You rejected me for a job, twice.
Then he turned around again.
And we had to stand there! He was a metre in front of me!
And you know, he would move, I would move, and I was just like... this is so awkward!
So NZ is a small market.
My takeaway from this is:
Decline candidates, like you will bump into them in the supermarket.
I have done a lot of interviews, and said no to a lot of people right?
I've also done — as a manager — performance management.
You can't do those things in a way, where you have anonymity the way that you would in a larger market right?
The other interesting thing about NZ is that, a lot of people who work in NZ, come into the NZ's IT industry from overseas.
So this stat is also pre-COVID.
Over 80% of the new jobs created in 2019, were filled by the 3,683 IT migrants who arrived in the country.
It's kind of the... accompaniment I guess?
To it being a really small place, in a really small market.
We need talent from overseas to help fill some of those roles.
Where I see companies excelling in NZ, is where they think more about culture add than culture fit.
So because NZ is small in insular, odds are when people apply to your role, there's going to be a CV in there who's like: your neighbour's brother's second cousin's wife.
There'll be some kind of connection to a candidate in the candidate pool because... NZ.
The companies who only hire within that network — I believe — are less successful than the companies who hire more for culture add, than that that fit piece.
So thinking about the massive pool of talent of people that come from offshore, and prioritising people who are complementary to your culture but are going to bring something new to it as well.
Last point around people.
This is the exec leadership of a government department in Wellington.
Some of you might know which one.
[an audience shouted the name]
There's a microphone in the room, now that's going to be on the recording you all!
I did briefly work at this government department. Not for very long.
And I have nothing against these people.
This isn't about these people, or this department specifically.
What the point I wanted to make with this picture, is that I think many people in NZ would consider this to be a diverse exec leadership team.
Diversity is not white woman.
I think in, NZ we're still not great at.
Over 80% of the roles' entry-level are coming from offshore, and then our exec leadership teams still look like this.
Potentially some of these people are immigrants from England or something.
As I said I don't know these people. But I think the disparity is really jarring if you look at the people at a stand-up, and you look at the people in the exec level.
I think NZ is lagging in general. If you look at overseas exec teams, I think there's a lot more deliberate measures to ensure that diversity bubbles the whole way through.
Talk about leadership.
Who knows who this is?
[little response from audience]
Yeah man, this is depressing...
So this is Footrot Flats.
It's a comic strip by a NZ cartoonist. His name is Murray Ball. It ran from 1976 to 1994.
The comic's protagonist is the little Border Collie sheepdog, in the bottom, the white and black one.
[noticed the protagonist's image covered by the live caption UI]
Oh no... oh yeah, so you can see his eyes.
Footrot is the farmer with the hat and the singlet, who — arguably — is the leader of the farm.
So in leadership, there's lots of good stuff that you can just steal from overseas around leadership.
These are four books that I have read, valued, and have really influenced the way I operate.
If you were to read the author's names, you might note: Lara, Sarah, Camille, and Julie, are all woman.
The main point I wanted to make about literature that you take from overseas, is that if you're part of an underrepresented or marginalised community, you should look for authors who have similar privilege to what you possess, to take your leadership advice from.
For me personally, I find reading advice from men in America is generally not going to give me a solid foundation to apply as a woman in NZ.
I get feedback like: I'm being too brash, or arrogant, or other things.
I don't think that's about the American-NZ thing. I think it's about who you are.
But all this advice is good. [gesturing at books on the slide]
What is different about NZ, and being in a leadership role in NZ?
People have a really low tolerance for language that they think is... rubbish?
I don't know a better word than rubbish.
So for me, the words I don't like are "synergy" and "leverage".
I hate those words.
Sometimes I use them and a little part of me dies
I found this slide online when I was searching like "aversion to words".
Some of the words on that slide are weird to me, but whatever.
It's just that kind of reaction, of like [cringes]
I've met people overseas who also have low tolerance for this, but I feel like culturally in NZ, no one's really buying into this.
There's really low tolerance for communication that people think is not genuine, or honest transparent, or authentic.
So as a leader in NZ you have to communicate in a very genuine way.
I think leaders in NZ also expect their teams to communicate back to them in a very genuine way, like they're inviting feedback.
They want that to be a two-way dialogue.
Similarly... I couldn't find a version of this that included a hoodie, without the phrase "sloppy" underneath it.
So similarly, clothing in NZ.
I feel like there's low tolerance for people in senior roles, visually indicating that, by dressing better than other people.
I'm not saying everyone's gonna be in hoodies.
But I'm saying, if you work in an organisation where casual is the standard dress, everyone in the hierarchy of that organisation will dress in casual.
Again, I think overseas there's anomalies like Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck, but signalling hierarchy with clothing is — I think — more accepted overseas, and something that's more normal.
So status, rank, and hierarchy in a kiwi workplace can actually be quite hard to figure out, because the cues that you would take to determine that in other parts of the world, aren't necessarily going to be present.
Which must be quite hard for 80% of people who join our workforce from overseas, and all those queues are not there.
I think that kind of is partly due to tall poppy.
I kind of assume this is pretty well known so I'm going to skip past it quickly.
Tall poppy is when, people believe their peers are too successful, and they're getting too big of an ego.
They basically kind of rip them back down to a more comfortable level. These things kind of play out in interesting ways.
So... one of the things I found is that people don't want to be paid the most in NZ.
They just want to be paid fair.
People who get paid the most, end up on the front page of Stuff (news publisher).
We revel in the Stuff's comments section, about how much this person gets paid, and how dare they? Think they are worth that much money? Of course they're not.
Nobody wants to be that person, but everyone wants to know that they're getting paid the same.
I'm getting what you're getting, we're in the same band, it's all relative, then I'm happy... right?
I have had very few conversations as a manager in NZ with people who genuinely just want the most.
I have had a lot of conversations with people who are like "help me understand how my salary is fair".
So okay cool.
The other thing about this that I find really interesting as a leader in NZ, is that you have to be really careful how you give recognition because people don't generally like to stand out as an individual.
Often people prefer to be recognised in a group, or in a team kind of scenario.
I've seen this play out.
The last 3 organisations I've worked in, have had values around team based kind of culture.
So at Fergus we talk about one team, at Xero there was #team, at BNZ they had grow together.
I don't know if that's still a thing I was at BNZ a little while ago.
But they're all about like "all of us" "yay all of us".
So in this culture one thing becomes really hard.
It's really hard as a leader in NZ to foster and support ambitious people.
My mum gave me this fridge magnet when I was... I think at uni?
It's been on my fridge for like 20 years.
I thought it was real Neff. You know when your parents give you things and you're like, thanks...
But actually, I'm kind of glad that this has been on my fridge because I see it every day.
It makes me think: Yeah! If you want something just go do it... right?
I think this is an unusual attitude in NZ more broadly.
Like... you can't use fancy words, can't dress fancy, can't want more money than anyone else, need to make sure you're getting the same praise as all the other people.
You know, this kind of mentality of... equality?
As a leader getting my staff to want things is really hard.
And getting them to own what they want, is really hard.
I feel like junior staff, they're getting up to the level where everyone else is, so they've got a lot of like "Yeah! Let's go".
Then there's a point where everyone's like "Nah I'm good".
So for me, good engineering culture in NZ are the organisations that make it safe for people to stand out, and to want to stand out, in our culture where everyone's supposed to be all the same at all times.
If you're a leader who can do that, you've created a good culture
Who knows what this is?
Yeah come on!
The Wikipedia page says Pavlova is a meringue based dessert originating in NZ.
There's actually an end of the sentence, that says "or Australia". But I'm going to...
[Katrina gesture cutting something out]
Originating in NZ. So why is Pavlova on this slide for org design?
My family's RS6 egg Christmas pav, with cream and strawberries.
That's the correct way to eat Pavlova.
But you know, Pavlova you can vary the number of eggs. You can vary the toppings or design.
Org design is kind of the same.
There's a couple of excellent books about org design, the way you make teams, and reform teams.
I find the advice in these translates pretty well to NZ.
We have pretty similar education systems to the places that these work for. Structurally much of that kind of a place.
Things that are different in NZ.
Do you know this one? Yeah!
This isn't a kiwi reference.
This is was a popular cartoon of the 80s.
So this is Inspector Gadget. He's a Cyborg; part man part machine, with thousands of high-tech gadgets installed in his body, which he activates by saying "go go gadget!".
This is "go go gadget arms" and all these arms come out.
This is where I think NZ is different.
This actually gets called out on the Immigration NZ website, where I was pulling stats from earlier in the presentation.
They specifically talk about NZ being a culture, where you're going to be less specialised in your role and you're going to be asked to do more stuff.
So you might get hired as A, but you're going to have to have Gadget arms across B, C, and D because we can't afford people for B, C, and D.
So... Tada! That's your job too.
They've obviously framed this in a very positive way.
On the immigration NZ website, it said "This will give you opportunities to expand your skill set you will have to be flexible, and prepared to apply Kiwi Ingenuity to solving new challenges."
I think this is true. Especially given that many of our organisations are small.
One of my peps/slightly spicy observation, is that I think larger orgs in NZ lose some of the NZ differentiation and that they do have enough... money arguably?
Just volume of staff to be able to have people for B, C, and D.
So you become very siloed — almost — in a particular place within the organisation.
I think people who work in those types of organisations then struggle to go back to a Go Go Gadget kind of environment.
It's really interesting actually.
I went from Xero to Fergus.
Xero was really big, Fergus is 85 staff.
It's been really apparent to me, how much lateral freedom there is in a role, when you're in such a small place.
I almost feel like in the NZ Tech Community, there's two strata.
There's people who are really happy working in the big orgs in a role like this, where you feel cozy and this is my place to be.
Then there's the people who really enjoy small orgs, where you're like "Yeah, let's go I can go anywhere here, and no one's gonna get pissed off"
Am I allowed to stay pissed off on YouTube?
The other thing I... So I did a practice run of this talk at Fergus, and I sort of talked about this in a negative way which I'm gonna do again but then I'm gonna give you a little addendum.
So I think it's unique in NZ, that you're expected to like your colleagues.
And you're supposed to like... hangout with them.
A lot... Like a lot.
Morning teas, team lunches, afternoon teas, the quiz in the paper or on Stuff, team events...
We're supposed to go play like... mini golf together, Friday drinks...
Like the week is over!?
Oh no no stay here and enjoy the company of your colleagues
So I... I kind of like... to be honest, I now work from home full-time.
This was never a positive feature of the Kiwi kind of vibe for me personally.
But like I said I did this talk at work and I actually had a Slack message from someone who immigrated to NZ from India.
And she said to me... I'm going to read out her select message.
"A highlight of Kiwi culture for me personally, is that we're not just a number, or someone responsible for delivering X.
But we're treated as humans with things like family comes first, or take time off for your kid's events, flexibility of work, etc.
Back in India that would be seen as an excuse or not acceptable."
And I say, oh yeah, maybe I take that for granted a little bit.
It never occurred to me that the organisation would question my reason for not being at work.
You know like, I haven't worked in that kind of environment before, where you're just an employee number
And I decided to put that quote with this slide because I think it kind of goes together.
Like the vibe... the vibe is collegial, and you can take some negative from it but you can probably take some positive from that too.
Cool, let's talk about scope.
So I think what makes engineering culture great is also the problems that you get to solve and the problems that you have to ignore.
I want to talk a little bit about Swanndri.
Swanndri is the jackets that they're wearing: the red one and the blue one.
They're heavy bush shirts, and they originated in NZ in 1913.
The original design for these... They were short-sleeved, they were long at the back, and you're supposed to put them on top of all your farming clothes.
You'd be warm, and you'd be shower proof.
The way that they produce these.
They sewed up the jackets, and then they dipped them into this secret mixture that made them waterproof.
The secret mixture caused the garments to shrink in uneven ways, and the guy who created Swanndri was like "this is a feature not a bug".
And he sold them as one size fits all.
Which — you know — is good business sense.
I watched this really interesting talk...
[noticed live caption UI covered the url]
Oh my URLs cut off. It's a tiny URL. The end of it says how CTO.
So Gil Tene at YOW! in 2019, did a talk titled How I CTO.
I'd rather you didn't think about how I found that talk as a CTO.
But I watched this, it was a really good talk.
He talked about how people don't usually think there's a problem, until they think there's a solution.
So in the context of Swanndri right?
I want a Swanndri. I can't pick the size.
It always fits a bit weird because it shrinks in different ways.
Euh, that's just how Swanndris are.
In 1952. the business was sold. There was a new owner.
They began purchasing fabric that was woven differently, and pre-shrunk.
It enabled them to actually have sizes for the first time.
And then suddenly the people who had this weird misshapen thing were like
"Oh hang on, I can buy a Swanndri that actually fits me? This is way better. Now the one I have is a problem."
For like the 40 years prior, not a problem.
But now that there's one on offer that fits, me this has become an issue.
I think this was the same with Xero.
Rod Drury was annoyed that he can't access his accounting data from anywhere, because it was desktop based.
He's like this should be in the cloud, it's dumb that it's not, he solved that problem, and then a bunch of people who couldn't access their data from anywhere were like
"Okay, now this is a problem for me too"
So having a problem to solve is part of good engineering culture.
And I think it's even better, if you can solve a problem that people didn't know they had.
Those are interesting ones.
Let's talk a little bit about what types of problems make good engineering culture.
So I think there's two types of work that engineers get to do.
These horses have on those things that mean they can only see... like this
[mimes seeing straight ahead]
They probably have a technical horsey name. I'm going to call this the "Blinked Work".
So I feel like people don't really acknowledge this enough, but it's not like you get to do anything at work.
A lot of the time, someone's going to tell you what you have to do.
For you to build good engineering culture in a scenario where people are getting told what they have to do...
I think in NZ we either want work that is purposeful and that we think matters, or we want to use some really interesting piece of tech, and then we don't care if it's purposeful or not.
Because we're like "Whee this is really fun".
So this is like Autonomy, Mastery Purpose right? from Daniel Pink.
But I guess I'm saying, I reckon in NZ, we're happy with either purpose or mastery.
It's nice if you get both, but we're okay with one or the other.
And I reckon, whilst people in NZ want autonomy.
I think we're happy enough if we get this opportunity some of the time.
So in my last few roles, we've run like basically Freedom Days for the engineers to gallop wildly through the paddocks.
We've called them like "Innovation and Learning Days" or "Fly Time"
This picture is the Kaimanawa horses by the Desert Road.
Did you know that NZ actually has legit wild horses?
Every time we drive through the Desert Road, I keep wanting to see one. I still never have.
Anyway, my point with this is... Autonomy = a little bit.
Mastery or purpose = all the time.
I'm pretty sure that's not what Daniel Pink's book says.
When I was reflecting on this, it made me remember a comedy show I went to.
So Michele A'Court did the skit kind of thing.
Is skit the right word for stand-up comedy? Probably not.
She was talking about how Kiwis are prepared to accept things that are a little bit average.
So national bird: Kiwi. Bird that doesn't fly. We're okay with that though.
National colour: black. It's not a colour. It's okay for us.
It's a very funny bit, and I think it's reflective that we're kind of conditioned to expect things to not be amazing.
So we're prepared to accept Mastery or Purpose with a little dash of Autonomy, and be like "Yeah that's all right".
You can build good engineering culture off that in NZ.
I think you'd have a lower tolerance for those kind of scenarios in other countries. I speculate.
But then there's a point where Kiwis just have had enough.
So I feel like you go from
"Oh yeah, it's not ideal but it's okay"
"Screw this! Everything must change right now!"
So this is a picture of a teenager from Taranaki, whose mum cut her finger while she was chopping firewood.
She was basically like, red haze,
"There has to be a better way of chopping firewood than this! It's ridiculous that we just put up with this average system of going out and hacking at stuff with this random axe."
She invented this kindling cutter.
That black thing at the bottom is a blade, and you can just smash it with a hammer and get kindling.
It's pretty cool.
I feel like there's this point right? Where there's the moments of like "Raah!" and then you become inventive and resourceful and pull out your number 8 wire and do something cool.
But a lot of the time, you're just like
"Yeah I mean it's probably fine".
Okay, last bit.
The longest drink in town is a syrup for milkshakes and thick shakes.
Very popular in dairies, cafes, and takeaway shops around NZ.
Did you know about this one?
[audience respond positively]
I mean I feel like everyone knows about this, but if you don't, I'm pretty sure other people will talk about this today.
Accelerate and the metrics around lead time to change, deployment frequency, mean time to restore, or change failure rate.
These are good metrics I use these.
You should read this.
Actually I don't really like this book. I don't know if you're supposed to say that.
It's really boring, but the data from it is good.
So you know... I actually don't recommend reading the book.
Just like, scan and then take the...
Anyway, so things that are different in NZ.
I think we have very low tolerance for vanity metrics in NZ.
People will call you out if you put up a number that looks good, but you can't explain why that's the number that we should all be caring about.
We talked before about... that notion of equity, and people wanting to be kind of level.
I feel like if you're going to put up a vanity metric, and try and claim that you're better than you are, someone's gonna tear you back down.
So you want to make sure that whatever you're measuring, you know why you're measuring it.
You've got a strong rationale, and you're prepared to show when it's not so good, and when it is good.
That builds up some authenticity, and then people will buy into what you're trying to look at.
I kind of disagree with this one a little bit in NZ, and I think it's really interesting.
So the premise of this is "If you can't measure it you can't improve it."
I think you can improve it, but no one's gonna know if you haven't measured it right?
You can still do the work to improve something and it's still going to be better.
It's just harder to publicise that success.
But I think people don't care about this as much in NZ, as perhaps, they do elsewhere.
I see a bunch of people in the teams I've worked, in who have strong appetite to improve things, regardless of what any measures say.
And actually often... they don't always ask permission, or get any kind of buy-in, and they've just kind of secretly reserved a bit of their time, to hack away at this thing that's been really annoying them.
They make it better, and maybe no one else ever knows, but they know and that's okay.
I will say, I think like the DORA Metrics (the Accelerate kind of stuff) is really good as a forcing function where, of all the things you wanted to do, if your manager is talking about like deployment frequency, or lead time to change all the time, potentially that's going to help you secretly pick something that's related to that type of improvement measure.
It makes you make a conscious and deliberate choice to focus an improvement task there, as opposed to any of the other things on fire, that you might be able to fix.
Then last one on measurement.
I also think NZ doesn't have a strong culture around targets.
I haven't been in a lot of organisations where, it's real like "rah-rah" to a specific number in an engineering context.
Definitely in business growth and revenue kind of context, yes.
But in engineering context,
I don't see a lot of like "We must get to this 200 deploys a..." I don't know, "a week?"
So yeah, let's go with that. "200 deploys a week!" that's my random target.
Generally there's not a lot of that.
People are more inclined to go with trend-based motivation, and recognition and reward, and then just keep pushing for the trend to continue as it does.
When I talked about this, I must confess, Goodhart's Law was not on the slide.
Someone at my work said that's Goodhart's law, so I put it on the slide so I look smarter about knowing this.
Yeah thanks Nick.
So that was just a wee reflection on the universal foundations of culture, good engineering culture, people leadership, org design, problem scope, and measurement.
I wanted to give you a quick summary of what I think good engineering culture is in NZ.
Thanks Prae for making this slide way better.
So I think, what's good and different is that our teams are small, multicultural, social, and people care about each other.
We're really focused on fairness, and succeeding and failing together as a team.
We want it to be a safe environment, for the people who have ambition to express it, to chase it, and to individually achieve.
We want flexibility in the role that you have, and what you need to do. Not just a but also some B, C and D.
We want some interesting problems or interesting technologies, because we're prepared to accept that we might not get both.
And it would be nice to have some freedom sometimes too.
And we'd like some key metrics that focus on improvement and help us take our secret improvement things and publicise them.
Thank you very much Katrina for that.
Basically this is my fault. I ate into her 5 minutes of Q&A.
So please go and pester her for questions after this.
We'll be fine. Sorted. It's the Kiwi way.
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