Why Smartsheet gives engineers a week off each year to innovate

by Justine Hofherr
May 4, 2018
smartsheet
Photo via Smartsheet

Giving a bunch of engineers a week off each year to “work on whatever they want” might sound like a huge gamble, but that’s exactly why Smartsheet does it.

Smartsheet, which delivers a cloud-based work management platform, has found that its annual “Hack the Sheet” event is just one of the engineering traditions that have paid off in big ways.

“Some of the hacks make it into our product roadmap and have a direct impact on customers,” said Mahesh Guruswamy, senior director of engineering. “It’s an exciting event that spurs innovation. We also distribute stickers of monthly product release artwork created by employees, for employees. It’s a great way to rally the company behind the work the engineering team is driving.”

Team members should be empowered to come and go and work from home, as long as they can get the job done."

Hackathons and stickers might sound like trivial traditions, but they’re crucial to fostering the spirit of collaboration, innovation and autonomy that makes Smartsheet’s engineering squad so successful at doing its job: providing an end-to-end platform for business users to execute work.

From planning and capturing data to managing and reporting on work, Smartsheet’s platform empowers business teams to transform how they manage and share work, allowing them to be more productive, execute faster and, ultimately, to spend more time doing work rather than talking about it.

As Mahesh explains, Smartsheet engineers have a unique level of autonomy that is seldom seen at other tech companies. Apart from designated time for side projects, Smartsheet engineers also get to run their teams as independent business units, which can decide what they want to work on each day to accomplish goals for their customers.

 

smartsheet
Photo via Smartsheet

 

“The Boston engineering team is structured in a way that allows small groups of developers each to be laser focused on a specific product feature, with freedom to choose whatever they think is the right thing to do for their set of users, business and products,” Mahesh said. “Each team runs as an independent business unit, with a well-defined set of business KPIs, goals and roadmaps that the team jointly owns with the product team. It’s a great opportunity for developers with an entrepreneurial mindset.”

To this end, rather than enforcing “punch in, punch out” policies, managers try to encourage developers to spend the majority of their days coding. If that means working from their couches, or coffee shops — so be it.

“Team members should be empowered to come and go and work from home, as long as they can get the job done,” Mahesh said.

It’s this level of trust that Smartsheet looks for when growing its team. And more than technical chops and an arsenal of programming languages, Smartsheet looks for engineers who are a good culture fit.

“You can learn and refine technical skills over time, but your approach to solving problems and qualities like transparency, honesty and ownership can’t be taught,” Mahesh said. “I also look for individuals who are language agnostic (anyone with solid experience building distributed systems) and willing to learn and do whatever is needed to get the job done.”

Smartsheet also looks for side projects, which candidates can show off in their resume or LinkedIn profile.

While not every engineer will be the right fit for the fast-growing company, those who are hired often stick around.

“We have one of the highest retention rates out of the companies I have supported,” Mahesh said. “That was a big selling point for me when evaluating companies to work for.”

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