Jaime Woo 10/25/2017

Tell Your Stories: The Benefits of Strategic Engineering Communications

In early 2016, we faced a problem at Shopify. We were growing quickly, and decisions could no longer be made across the room, so to speak. Four offices became five, accommodating that growth raised interesting questions like: how would new people know the history of the company, and how could existing Shopifolk keep up with new developments? In addition to sharing knowledge inside the company, we also wanted to let people outside Shopify know what we were working on to give back to the community and to support recruitment efforts.

Engineering communications was born to solve a specific problem. A valued saying here is “do things, tell people,” but, while we’re very good at the first part, we weren’t living up to expectations on the second. Ad hoc worked when we were smaller, but with technical stories now coming from teams as varied as production engineering, mobile, front-end development, and data engineering, we needed something more formalized. Strong communications inside the engineering team could help prevent the overlap of work by different teams or the duplication of mistakes, and it could support cross-pollination of ideas.

Starting from scratch had its benefits. One insight we had was that the divide between internal and external communications felt artificial for our situation. We couldn’t assume that everything we released to the public would be already known to Shopifolk, because we’re all busy here and it can be easy to go heads down. We made Shopifolk developers one of our primary audiences, putting emphasis on the weekly technical talks we broadcast across all our offices and with an internal newsletter that told the story of interesting projects in an approachable, comprehensive way. We aimed for magazine articles, not dull corporate memos.

One of our issues of DEbrief, an internal newsletter

Shopifolk were among the first to learn about our GraphQL efforts, move to Rails 5, or integration with Facebook and Amazon. The newsletter became so successful we shared it across the company, and we often receive messages from Shopifolk that they appreciate the ability to learn about the work of their peers.

How did we find these stories? This can be a challenge for any communications team. We can’t be passive, but instead go hunting for stories. We regularly connect with engineering project leads to learn about their work, understand why they’re doing it, and how we can share this with the community. By building and fostering relationships, we’ve been able to create a pipeline of ideas and stories as they happen.

From the archive of talks and newsletters, we then have a wellspring of stories to begin telling externally. Obviously, we can’t share all the information we make available internally, but these seeds often blossom into blog posts and conference presentations. We believe in having Shopifolk present their work at conferences because knowledge sharing is really important as part of the community and because it provides an opportunity for Shopifolk to chat with others in the industry. We work to create an editorial calendar so that over the year we have a sense of when to tell certain stories and where.

Let’s face it: writing and public speaking can be daunting. Many of us have been scarred from school where the focus seems to be judgment and grading, and it can lead us to believe that strong communicators are born, not made. But that’s not true: like playing an instrument or performing in a sport, crafting a compelling post or delivering an impactful presentation comes from practice and coaching, not DNA.

Production engineer Daniella Niyonkuru presenting

People are at varying degrees of speaker experience, so our team works to coach speakers and help with presentations to ensure the narrative is clear and meaningful. We trust that Shopifolk know the stories they’re telling, but we support them to have a stronger impact with tactics such as breath control, body language, and ensuring calls to action at the end. We view it as analogous to making their code cleaner. That support pays off for Shopify as Shopifolk feel more confident on stage and the engagement level is much higher. In fact, we’ve had attendees express increased interest in working at Shopify based on the talks, which we see as a sign of the enthusiasm of our speakers shining through.

In addition to conference presentations, we also tell our stories through posts on our engineering blog (which you’re reading now!). Before having a dedicated team, our blog had spurts of activity and then long stretches of radio silence. It wasn’t that there weren’t stories to tell, but developers were busy and there wasn’t enough support to fill an editorial calendar. A post seemed like extra work.

We work alongside developers making sure to keep their voice in the posts (no ghostwriting for us), and we remind folks that we value both doing things and telling people. Our job is to get posts to the finish line, not to critique people’s writing skills. We’ve found this approach to be successful: after all, our developers are proud of the work they’re doing, and they’re excited to share it.

Finding the right cadence is important. How many stories do people need from a company? And how do people find those stories? This year, we set an ambitious goal of two stories a month, and we are looking to hit it and then some. Like others providing content, a lot of our traffic comes from social sharing, so we can’t expect people to be refreshing the blog every day. Good content finds a way, though, with posts hitting the top of "Hacker News," introducing more people to our developers’ words.

Storytelling is one of the oldest tools used by humans, and the benefits aren’t just for the readers and listeners. We’ve found a benefit also for those telling stories. People begin to understand the work that they are doing from a new perspective, because now they are explaining it to an audience outside of their team, and often outside this company. As people tell their story, they inspire others inside the company to also do the same and those outside the company to learn more about what you’re doing.

We’ve seen a virtuous cycle. Speaking at conferences and publishing blog posts inspire teams to want to tell their stories as well, and that leads to more content for our newsletter, internal talks, conference presentations, and blog post pipelines. We believe storytelling is a vital, strategic part of our org, and in future posts we’ll dive more into our process along the way.