What I did, experienced, and learned during my first 6 months at Gusto

Having had three very different internship experiences before joining Gusto, I knew culture could make a big impact on how you feel about your work. Yet, I still underestimated its power. When a company takes its values and culture seriously and carries them out in day-to-day works, everything seems different and has a bigger meaning.

After sharing what I did during my first six months at Gusto, I want to share what I experienced in this second post and, in my third post, I will share what I learned.

What I experienced

  1. We are one team, and it’s all about serving our customers.

Every Gustie has to shadow customer phone calls during onboarding. I was really excited about that. Knowing that our customers — people who believe in our product and use it — were on the other side of the phone made my heart skip a beat. “What a great way to start my work!”, I thought to myself. Yet I was half wrong: Serving our customers wasn’t just the beginning of my career at Gusto, it was the main theme around which all of our daily work revolves.

For a company of our size, we specialize into different teams and focus on different kinds of tasks like redesigning landing pages, answering customer phone calls, writing help center articles, or building out a new feature. At the end of the day, it’s all about serving our customers through improving our product and service, and sometimes through serving each other.

Cross-functional work happens a lot at the office. Every now and then, folks from the Customer Care team will pull up a chair and sit next to an engineer or a product manager to discuss what they learned from recent customer calls, many of which involve tuning behaviors in the app. Many conversations happen during lunch. A few months ago, while I was sharing a table with folks from our Partner team, they shared that our accountants comprised a significant portion of our users and that this segment could benefit significantly from a better product experience. Their voice was heard and a new EPD (engineering, product, and design) team was developed specifically for that purpose. We also have quarterly help-a-thons where everyone submits ideas about the tools they think could help them to perform their work more efficiently, and engineers will get together to build out some of them.

It feels quite amazing to be on the same team with everyone else in the company and working towards the same goal together. Much like playing a team sport, it is very motivating and fulfilling.

While implementing tracking and data visualization for the employee directory was not the most interesting task for me as engineer, what motivated me was knowing that this data would really help product managers to gain more insights and make decisions to better serve our customers.

  1. I’m empowered, not managed.

There are no managers at Gusto. Instead, we have PEs: people empowerers. My PE, Nick, showed me what it means to be empowered. Our 1-on-1s are meetings about me, meetings set to empower me to perform better and grow. In our 1-on-1s, I don’t report to Nick what I accomplished. Rather, I talk about problems I encountered and seek advice and guidance from Nick.

A few months in, besides regular tactical 1-on-1s, we started to do monthly introspective 1-on-1s which focus on my personal career growth. In the first introspective 1-on-1, I wrote down my goals for the next two years. For each of the following introspective 1-on-1, Nick and I will first separately write down areas I have improved in the past month and areas of improvements for the following month. During the meeting, we compare what we each wrote down and come up with action items for the next month. For example, we agreed that my past couple projects were heavy in frontend related work and I needed to gain more backend experience. So we came up with action items which included: For Nick, to keep an eye out and allocate more backend related projects to me; and for me, to dig into Rails in order to be prepared for upcoming backend projects.

I also felt empowered each time I sought help from my teammates. Every single time I asked a question, instead of getting annoyed by the interruption, they always went beyond simply answering my question and provided extra context to help me better understand the reasoning behind different design decisions. My teammates don’t see my questions as interruptions that slow them down, they treat it as opportunities to help me grow, so we as a team can grow better and stronger for the long run.

  1. We value introspection.

We believe introspection helps us to stay on track and be proactive instead of reactive. Three times a year, we have company-wide GustoFIED, which is our performance review that stands for Feedback, Impact, Engagement, and Development. There’s also the company-wide annual retreat: Gustaway. This year, we went to Camp Navarro for two days and a night where we relaxed, bonded, and reflected on our values. On each Gustie’s anniversary, he/she will also get a golden ticket to take a vacation anywhere in the world.

  1. We are all owners and we speak up.

Ownership mentality follows naturally when everyone in the company is empowered to work towards the same goal. At Gusto, I witnessed how engineers act as owners of the business.

Coming across others’ code is common when working with a code base contributed by ~60 engineers. There is code written five years ago, and as a startup, the way we write code and the tech we use are evolving quickly. I notice engineers at Gusto don’t have the concept of each owning separate parts of the code. We all own the whole code base together. When engineers see parts that can use some refactoring, they won’t forget about it and do nothing. Instead, they either go ahead and refactor them or pair with the engineer who wrote the code[^1].

Engineers often take initiative and claim things to work on. As owners of the code base, we know it the best and feel responsible to keep it healthy: Even if it sometimes means telling product managers we need to deliberately set aside time in the sprint to tackle tech debt.

When you are a owner of the business, you are expected to speak up. When I first joined, I had trouble coming up with items during our bi-weekly retrospectives, yet I noticed everyone else in the team had feedback to offer. As part of the team, I felt responsible to provide feedback and help keep the team stay healthy. It was only after the ownership mentality replaced the default idea of “I’m just here to get my job done and go home” that I started to be more sensitive about how things were going and what we should watch out for. Since then, I noticed how everyone in the company spoke up and raised their concerns whenever they spotted something that could be improved. We don’t care much about format or timing for giving feedback, it is always welcome and valued.The power of culture really shows in this case. Surrounded by people who care about the business and speak up constantly, I feel motivated to do the same thing.

  1. We grow and change rapidly.

The HR Engineering team was formed right before I joined. Before then, it was the Payroll Experience team. A few months in, a new team, the Partners team, was built within the HR team. Not long ago, the Developer Experience team came to life with the focus of adapting new tools and improving existing tools so engineers can work efficiently and happily. Around the same time, the Engineering Excellence Committee was formed because as we are constantly building out new features, our tech stack evolved and we agreed that we should pay more attention to tech debt.

Working in a rapidly growing and changing environment is very exciting. As the team grows, new challenges come along and push us to become better and more mature. You are also expected to grow along with the team. Being able to adapt to changes quickly, take initiative and bigger responsibilities happens all the time. It’s very much like playing a video game: Once you start to get a bit comfortable, a new level of challenges are unlocked.

In the last part of the series, I reflect on what I learned during the past 6 months. Most of the lessons were engineering-related and most applicable to fresh college grads without much industry experience.

1: Yesterday, Phan stopped by Rylan’s desk and said “Most engineers accomplish a lot by writing a lot of code. Yet, you accomplish a lot adding minimum amounts of code because you always refactor the old code before writing new ones. I admire you for that. You are my hero, Rylan!”

Originally published at sihui.io.