Great Products Come From Great Culture: 2 Engineers Share How Support Shapes Their Work

Engineers from Toast and Opendoor chatted with Built In SF about the importance of teamwork and company values in the product development process.

Written by Dana Cassell
Published on Aug. 11, 2023
Great Products Come From Great Culture: 2 Engineers Share How Support Shapes Their Work
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A recent study from mThree found that half of 18 to 28-year-old tech workers were ready to leave their jobs on account of uncomfortable company culture. Even in the depths of engaging work, engineers can’t build great new tools without a supportive culture and team surrounding them. 

Fortunately, Toast and Opendoor have struck a winning balance between freedom and a supportive infrastructure to help their engineers thrive. 

At Opendoor, an ongoing startup mentality keeps teams focused on rapid experimentation. Striving to get products in the hands of customers sometimes calls for unorthodox methods, said Staff Software Engineer Mike Schreifels. The team is able to experiment because of its collective orientation toward action — without sacrificing quality.

At Toast, Engineering Manager Martin Zhu appreciates the company’s customer-centric approach to new products. 

“Everyone on the team speaks directly with customers, which gives us invaluable first-hand feedback,” he said, noting that the practice allows whole teams to examine issues from all angles. 

Built In San Francisco sat down with engineers from both tech companies to learn how company culture sets the stage for rapid and robust innovation.

 

Martin Zhu
Engineering Manager • Toast

Toast provides a single platform of SaaS products and financial technology solutions that give restaurants everything they need to run their business.

 

Describe the product or feature you worked on. 

I was the second engineer on the team that created Toast’s integrated waitlist and reservations solution called Toast Tables.

As one of the first members of the team, I contributed to building the initial prototype. While building, we focused on iterating and deploying quickly. I then led the effort and wrote a large amount of the code to mitigate the prototype into Toast’s traditional tech stack.  

I also had the opportunity to expand Toast Tables' integrations, which helps to streamline the reservation creation process for guests. Lately, I’ve partnered with other engineers to work on additional features and scaling initiatives as our product usage has grown. 

As the engineering manager, I work with our product manager on roadmap planning and prioritization of features, as well as keeping up to date with all the projects currently in progress.

 

What was the most exciting or interesting aspect of working on this product? 

I enjoyed being able to work closely with our customers. 

For example, a customer emailed us saying that they urgently needed help as they were launching the next day. I realized there was a bug, was able to fix the bug in real-time, and enabled that restaurant to launch Toast Tables in time for their grand opening. 

 

Toast employees sit on a grey couch and chat over their laptops at the Toast offices.
Toast

 

How did your engineering team culture support the successful creation of this new product or feature? 

Everyone on the team is aligned on delivering the best value to the customer. We all will do what needs to be done, even if it falls outside the typical scope of our roles. Every engineer is able to approach challenges through different lenses, which allows us to figure out the best solution possible for the Toast community. 

When we think about the products we’re building, we not only look at them from an engineering standpoint, but we also put ourselves in the shoes of restaurant owners and restaurant patrons to ensure their needs are our focus. 

When we build products, we look at them not only from an engineering standpoint but from the shoes of the customer.” 

 

Keeping these perspectives top of mind has been immensely helpful in building the best products possible. While working on this product, we often go through the same motions that a restaurant owner would during implementation. Although this takes a bit more time, the process helps us better understand what may be confusing or tedious for customers. 

Looking at our products from all angles allows us to continue to create a better customer experience.

 

 

RELATED READING‘Go Where Your Energy Flows’ at Toast

 

Mike Schreifels
Staff Software Engineer • Opendoor

Opendoor’s mission is to empower everyone with the freedom to move. Opendoor’s goal is simple: build a digital, end-to-end customer experience that makes buying and selling a home simple, certain and fast.

 

Describe the product or feature you worked on.

Our core selling experience enables homeowners to bypass the hassles of the traditional process and sell their homes directly to Opendoor for an all-cash offer. 

Earlier this year, we launched a new product where sellers can choose to list their homes on the MLS while having the option of Opendoor’s offer in their back pocket for 60 days. For a customer who isn’t on a tight timeline, it’s the best of both worlds —  they get the certainty of an Opendoor cash offer in addition to the opportunity to test out the market. 

I joined the listing team to help iterate on the early versions of the product and scale it beyond the initial pilot market. We weren’t sure how the product would resonate with our customers, so we wanted to get the first version out quickly. 

From there, we built out the product, shipping user experience wins and experimented with the mechanics on a weekly basis. It has been a very rewarding process to see the product take shape. Since launching in Charlotte, the product is now 30 percent of our eligible contracts.

 

What was the most exciting or interesting aspect of working on this product? 

One of my favorite parts about working at Opendoor is that you have the opportunity to work on extremely unique products. For example, the option to list your home on the MLS, while having the certainty of a backup cash offer, is not commonplace in real estate. We are building highly bespoke and innovative experiences for our customers. 

We are building highly bespoke and innovative experiences for our customers.” 

 

The option to list with Opendoor changes the mechanics of our core cash offer product in a variety of ways. To build it out, I needed to develop a deep understanding of the code that drives our core product. 

I still remember the delight and satisfaction of tracing all the backend code paths involved in a customer going through the onboarding flow, triggering our pricing models and ultimately receiving a preliminary offer. 

Our backend systems are necessarily quite complex, and it’s very gratifying to understand how all of the pieces fit together for our core product.

 

An image of a colorfully slatted logo wall at Opendoor’s offices. CAPTION: Opendoor
Opendoor

 

How did your engineering team culture support the successful creation of this new product or feature? 

One of Opendoor’s operating principles is “startup mentality,” meaning we operate with a sense of urgency and bias towards action without sacrificing quality. 

I mentioned earlier that at the start of the project, we needed to validate whether our listing option was a product that would resonate with our customers. In order to do this, product, engineering and operations worked closely together to define the minimum set of requirements that engineering would need to implement. 

One unorthodox decision that came out of this process was to to drive some back office operations workflows through spreadsheets rather than implementing all of it in code.

Of course, this wasn’t a sustainable long-term solution. As we’ve scaled out the product, we’ve migrated these workflows into code. However, by taking the approach we did, we were able to save a ton of time early on and get the product in front of customers much sooner. 

This granted us a lot of flexibility to experiment with our operations processes as we built out the product. I think it’s a great example of Opendoor’s embodiment of the startup mentality and our culture of rapid experimentation!

 

 

RELATED READINGHow Engineering Teams Can Maintain Both Speed and Quality

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Shutterstock and companies listed.

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