7 things I learned from Engineers at TransferWise

Engineering

By Mallory, Engineering Experience at TransferWise.

I really like people so it came as little surprise when last summer, after 3 years at TransferWise, I joined the People team and began to run our quarterly company people insights survey called WiserPulse.

The team I most liked working with in that role were our Engineers. Their minds work differently to mine and they have a really refreshing no-BS approach to life.

During my time in the People team I found that if I talked to lots of Engineers from specific areas of TransferWise and then summarised the patterns, it helped them identify trends quickly and work to find solutions. 

The process turned out to be so useful (and fun!) that after a year in the People team, I joined Engineering full time. I’m now a proud member of our Engineering Experience team. 

The first step in my new role was to interview every Engineer in our Singapore office — a location with a growing engineering presence that was launched a couple of years ago. 

So off I went: The food was delicious. The weather was hot. And I learned heaps. 

Here’s a few things our Singapore Engineers taught me in my week there.

Mallory in Singapore

The team mascot we adopted from a restaurant in Singapore!

1. Engineering at TransferWise is a relationship-ocracy.

Our Singapore Engineers have noticed they get a lot more done, and faster, if they work on building relationships with members of other teams even across big time zone differences. 

They find time to get to know people and their story, figure out what makes them tick, and then start collaborating on code changes.

“Nilan (VP Growth at TransferWise) told me that if I was frustrated with poor pull requests, then I should travel more. He said if I met the people in person, then their pull requests would suddenly seem higher quality. (Grin.) He was right.” Singapore Engineer

2. TransferWise is a dream-come-true for product-minded Engineers.

After sitting down with all of our Engineers, it became clear that for those who really wanted to get into product, working at TransferWise was a bit like Disney World (without the mouse ears).

Over and over again, I listened to Engineers get excited as they spoke about all of the things they were able to do and the impact they had on our product. They were no longer sitting behind screens, taking orders but helping to shape our product’s future and build a better experience for our customers. 

“I’ve been coding for many, many years. But this is the first time I’m not expected to be a code monkey. I can actually influence the product and see the direct results of my decisions on our customers. It is absolutely incredible.” Singapore Engineer

3. Teams working in different locations need something to bring them together.

Most of the teams in our Singapore office are co-located so everyone on the team works in the same office but that’s not always the case. Often people work in what we’d call ‘distributed’ teams, where leads, teammates and Product Managers are spread across two or more offices which can make maintaining the team trickier. 

Team members in distributed teams with leads in different offices only had one-to-one meetings with their cross-office leads every 3-4 weeks, rather than the co-located team average of every two. If they weren’t working on a team project and didn’t have teammates in the same office, they could often feel disconnected and directionless.

“Just a few months ago, our team was in a really rough spot. We were in 3 different offices and 3 different time zones. We didn’t know each other. We all worked by ourselves. We were losing people left and right. And, to be honest, we weren’t really a team. But today? Everything is different. We work on one single project together. We have meetings. We travel to see each other. We hired a Product Manager. I can finally say we’re becoming a team. And the future is bright.” Singapore Engineer

4. Investing in people pays off. 

When TransferWise opens new offices, we implant a few people who really embody our values and set them up in the middle of a whole new city and culture. When we started our Singapore office, Vadym was one of those people.

He’s been at TransferWise for 7 years and had been the primary Engineer launching many of our Asian currencies. (While I was there he told me a story about launching our product to send money to Japan while he was in the country over holiday).

As I listened, so many great stories led back to Vadym. How he spent an incredible amount of time working to hire Engineers who cared more about our customers than their own egos. How he structured his time to ensure he could look after people and make sure they were doing okay. And how he prioritised promoting leads who saw team members as more than coders but as friends and humans. 

Investing in his team really paid off. 

Vadym and some of the engineers taking us out.

5. Ask questions. But not as you know them.

When people are busy, they often ask things like:

“Why isn’t it working?”

“What do you mean by ‘it’?”

“Who needs to fix it?”

But what they really need to do is provide context. We need to tell the other person what we’ve tried to do to fix the problem, why it didn’t work and then ask the question so we can get to a solution faster. 

Because we don’t have managers at TransferWise, we need to ask competent and clear questions, so we know how to help each other. Want to know more? Check out our talk on giving feedback.

“Our CTO said I should try not to say ‘that, them, or it’ when I asked a question. I had to get specific about what the problem was, how I got there, and what I had already tried. Then the person knows what I already did to try to solve it myself and they’re a lot happier to help me out. I’m so glad I learned that. Because, in Singapore, 90% of my communication with other teams is through Slack, and I know I’m getting better responses this way.”  Singapore Engineer

6. Senior (and senior-ish) Engineers need tech mentoring, too.

People in senior roles are looked up to, to share their wisdom and help mentor others, but they still want to develop too. 

They’ve not completed their career journeys and don’t have all the answers yet, so they still thrive on challenges and growth opportunities. They also still make mistakes and question their decisions. They’re only human after all.

They often gravitate towards really tough projects to give them the opportunity to learn so you never stop learning – you just learn different stuff. 

7. Listening is key for new leads.

At TransferWise, leads often come in wanting to impact the business immediately and that’s great but getting to know their team first is super important. 

The team have been working together for a while and they need someone to come in and listen to their plans, problems and solutions rather than telling them what to do and scrapping their ethos. 

The leads I’ve seen transition into their new roles most successfully are the ones who set aside their ambitions to “make an impact” to really listen for the first few months, getting to know their people, their domain and the company culture. 

Final thoughts…

TransferWise is always on the move, shifting and growing to adapt to new challenges and finding fixes. We work best when someone gives us a tough problem to solve and everyone in all our offices is always experimenting with bigger, better solutions. Talking to people helps us all learn loads that helps us move even faster.