Q&A: Shopify’s R&D head on how research can help retain talent

As Shopify Inc.’s senior vice-president of engineering, Jean-Michel Lemieux is responsible for developing the Ottawa tech darling’s technology strategy, infrastructure, and platform.

He’s also become an advocate for the role research and development (R&D) plays in a company’s culture – and, consequently, its efforts to retain talent.

At Shopify, Lemieux says, R&D is key to the company’s ongoing efforts to “re-recruit” workers, and therefore stave off its chances of suffering from the so-called “skills gap” – the shortage of 216,000 professionals expected by much of Canada’s tech industry 2021.

We decided to chat with Lemieux in July after Shopify held its first internal R&D Summit – in which its user experience, engineering, data, and product teams formally gathered together to share their knowledge – about some of the ways Shopify is using culture initiatives such as the Summit to help inspire talent.

ITBusiness.ca: Let’s start with the obvious: Why is it important for a company to develop a strong R&D culture?

Jean-Michel Lemieux: Building a strong R&D culture is paramount to the success of any company. The tech industry has the highest turnover rate of all sectors, with many Fortune 500 tech companies keeping talent for an average of just one year.

Because there is such a high demand for expertise in the field, we know that retaining talent means we need to add more value to our employees’ experience than other companies. That’s why we heavily invest in our employees growth, impact, and well-being, so that we can build their long-term excitement for where they work and what they’re doing.

ITB: What are Shopify’s goals for its R&D culture?

JML: We want our teams to feel like they’re challenged, autonomous, and having an impact long after they’re hired.

ITB: And to again state the obvious – why?

JML: We – Shopify the company – are solving an important problem. Commerce is historically old, and complex, and we hold ourselves personally responsible for making it more accessible. The culture we have is one where we invest deeply in helping people build their craft, because everyone is going to bring their own expertise and unique perspectives to the table as they help shape our industry.

Shopify wants to make commerce better for everyone, and that mission is behind every decision we make. It’s helped shape our company values – being merchant-obsessed, making big decisions quickly, and constantly learning – things that we believe will help us achieve our mission.

ITB: How does Shopify’s R&D team go about pursuing its culture-based goals?

JML: We’ve identified three core tenets that help us execute our R&D culture goal: craft excellence, cross-functional leadership, and feeling impactful.

We cultivate craft excellence by making sure that everyone has access to the tools and support they need, and by carving out company time for development. This not only improves the team’s expertise, it also helps uncover opportunities for growth in other disciplines.

For example, this year we launched the R&D Summit, an internal event for our R&D team to network with their peers and celebrate their craft. For three days, employees led workshops and talks that explored how to level up skills, showcase technical aspects of projects, and look at the impact their work has on the business. This allowed employees to learn from each others’ experiences, and served as a training ground for developing brand ambassadors comfortable speaking both internally and externally about their work.

We take a cross-functional approach to leadership which allows everyone to better hone their craft, understand how their work impacts others, and build out a T-shape for their skillset.

Finally, understanding your impact on the team is critical to a fulfilling career. Many companies structure their teams around techniques, with one team responsible for data integrations, another on visualization, and so on.

We think that’s a mistake. That strategy means that employees are tied to techniques that will eventually cap – and therefore hinder – their growth and creativity. It also means that employees might not see the collective impact their work is having. Chances are, that’s not the type of career your employees signed on for.

By providing unique opportunities like the R&D Summit, we’re investing in each employee’s personal and professional growth, and empowering them to evolve in their role for years to come.

ITB: When discussing skillsets, what do you mean by “T-shape”?

JML: A T-shape refers to a person’s abilities and skills in the workforce. The vertical bar represents the depth of their related skills – what we call craft excellence – and the horizontal bar represents their ability to collaborate across disciplines with other experts. Together, it shows how other disciplines’ knowledge is applied back into that vertical bar of craft excellence.

For example, our product teams are run by trifectas – representatives from user experience, product, and engineering are embedded into each and every team to create cross-functional connections, discover new approaches to problem solving, and provide a deeper understanding of the problems we’re solving.

ITB: What are some of the tangible ways Shopify’s R&D culture has changed during your time there?

JML: I’ve been fortunate to work with companies who understood the value of R&D culture, and it’s definitely played a role in how I’ve prioritize culture throughout my career. That said, there’s always more a company can do to make sure their initiatives and investments are effectively supporting their teams.

One great example from Shopify was the introduction of our Developer Acceleration – known internally as the “Dev Accel” – team. We found that our developers were spending too much time on superficial aspects of the job which took them away from solving actual commerce problems that had a real impact on our business. So we started building out the Dev Accel team. Their goal is to make our developers as productive as they can be by providing creative tooling to support their work.

ITB: What are some of the tools they provide?

JML: They’ve built a tonne. One great example is Shipit, a tool that makes deploying code easier, faster, and smoother, and can deploy more than 200 projects with the push of a button. We open-sourced ShipIt to the development community in 2015 and it’s a tool we still use today.

With the tool Dev, they’ve made it possible for developers starting at Shopify to have their local environment setup within an hour. At other companies it can take days to weeks for developers to set up everything locally.

The Dev Accel team has a massive impact on our engineering culture and it shows not only how much we value the experiences people have at Shopify, but that we value their time and impact as well.

ITB: What are some of the benefits that companies can expect from investing in their R&D culture?

JML: The primary benefit that companies will see right away is innovation. If a company builds and encourages the right culture, they’ll see more innovative products, more problems being solved, and a more inspiring work environment for their teams. A pitfall that many organizations fall into is building a culture that contributes to their bottom line. If you do this, you’ll never see the benefits you’re looking for.

Another benefit is ownership. By providing the right tools and resources, like mentorship or public speaking coaching, individual contributors are able to lead their own professional growth. At Shopify, one side effect of encouraging self-directed growth has been an increase in informal mentorship, with employees regularly sharing knowledge across teams.

ITB: What advice do you have for other companies looking to refine or ramp up their R&D efforts?

JML: There’s no easy way around it. Investing in your employees is just that – an investment. It needs you to commit resources, and put the time you need into developing an intentional and authentic plan to support your employees. Discovering your company’s core values and building tenets that support them will definitely help.

But like it or not, there’s a time and resource investment. When was the last time you openly chatted with your teams to see if they’re getting the support they need? Do they feel challenged, autonomous, and impactful? Carve out time for them to build relationships, uncover issues, and develop meaningful programs and tools –your teams will benefit in the long run.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of ITBusiness.ca turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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