A peek inside the dev team traditions of 3 Chicago startups

November 17, 2016

Developers work really hard, but they also know how to celebrate wins, get pumped up for releases and just make sure they don’t get burned out. We talked to three Chicago dev teams to learn what traditions they keep to stay sane in one of the most demanding jobs in tech.


When edtech startup Instructure was founded in 2008, it had a tight-knit development team. Over the years, the company grew, making it hard to keep close contact across the company. But a strong core culture helped stabilize that growth.

“If you start from a base of high quality culture and have many open lines of communication, this fragmentation is a good thing,” said senior software engineer Josh Orr. “Just as genetic diversity builds stronger species, thought diversity builds stronger ideals.”

That means Instructure devs have not just one tradition, but a web of rituals. New speakers come in for bi-monthly learning sessions, Polish sausages are served when polishing off their front end development and an annual panda-themed developer conference brings together engineers from across the company to learn from each other.

“Traditions come and go any time that teams organize and disband,” Orr said. “That's part of a startup growing up. We know that it takes more than technical excellence to succeed. We know that it takes unity and teamwork to create new and exciting products. Just as real life families must come together and reaffirm their bonds through tradition and ritual, our work family of engineers needs the same care in order to remain one as we grow and diversify.”


For information security firm 5thColumn, traditions are focused on ensuring improvement through discussion. Every week, the company has a "Defend Your Decision" session to make sure only the best ideas are implemented.

“The basis for the session is that it allows for all developers, regardless of experience or specialization, to introduce new ideas, technologies, processes etc. to the development process,” said Dan Morgan, director of development. “It gives each developer a voice in determining direction and adding good practice or removing bad practice. Good ideas float to the top where poorly defended or incomplete ideas sink.”

The tradition wasn’t implemented because the team was afraid of bad code coming from devs, but because of past experiences where those making development decisions were too removed from the process to react effectively.

“I fully recognize that I am not the end all be all of developers. The landscape changes too quickly and too frequently for me to be aware of everything,” Morgan said. “I wanted to grow a team that had a vested interest in building and contributing to the team as well as a process that is fluid enough to address those changing needs. An added benefit is that it also gives exposure to other parts of the development process to all team members. The collective experiences of everyone is an asset I like to use to our advantage.”


Overthrowing how we traditionally get eyewear prescriptions also means overthrowing some traditional, well, traditions. Opternative adds some creative flairs to its standard standups, according to community manager Eric Pitt.

“Daily standup may seem like a run of the mill meeting, but at Opternative, every standup check-in starts with a game of darts,” he said. “It’s the only fair way to decide who goes first.”

The company also offers perks for efficiency, helping to keep discussion focused and on track.

“To increase the efficiency of bi-weekly sprint meetings, the development team is rewarded with a game of Mario Kart if they finish ahead of schedule,” Pitt said. “Because what is the need for extra time if we can’t spend it playing Nintendo 64?”


Images via listed companies

Does your team have a tradition? Drop us a line or tweet us @BuiltInChicago

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