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Some people say you can measure the potential of a tech business by the quality of its engineers. Ryan Shuttleworth thinks you can go one step further – and measure a business by the quality of life it offers its engineers.

If you want great people, you have to offer them a great culture. If you want them to do their best work, you have to give them the best tools and the best environment to work in.

Ryan, Head of Application Engineering at Barclays, is one of the five Distinguished Engineers who champion engineering across Barclays. And he’s set himself one of the toughest challenges in tech. To make a global bank the kind of place where engineers can thrive.

“I consider myself Chief Troublemaker. I ask a lot of questions. How do we help engineers produce their best work in the best way possible? How can we improve their happiness and drive retention? How can we increase our velocity and reduce our risk?” explains Ryan.

In a huge, highly regulated business, like Barclays, it’s hard to make things easy and easy to make things hard. In a start-up, if an engineer wants to try something, they just give it a go. But millions of people rely on banking systems every day. And regulators hold financial institutions to the highest standards of security and reporting.

In some banking environments, that pressure can mean that layers of management and oversight are added to every process. “Engineers get frustrated with all the bureaucracy. And they leave, taking their expertise with them. So your tech game gets weaker. And people trust each other even less. The less trust you have, the more barriers there will be. And the vicious circle keeps turning.”

Barclays can’t afford to work like that because it is, at heart, a tech business. Everything we do is based on technology. We invest hugely in technology because it’s the best way to deliver value for our clients and our customers. But we haven’t always recognised the leading part tech people can play in our business. That has changed and you can see the positive potential everywhere. 

It's easy for senior people, even in our tech teams to lose sight of what engineers are dealing with. We have to walk a mile in their shoes. We have to understand and improve the experience they have every day. Because if we can make things work well for them, that positivity will bubble up to every part of our business.

Engineers are our first line of defence, against financial, operational and reputational risk, and most importantly, against letting our customers down. That’s why Ryan is passionate about inverting the natural food chain in a banking environment – and placing tech voices firmly at the start of every conversation.

“If we’re missing something, or approaching a problem in the wrong way, they’ll find out before anyone else, because they are handling the work product. They are creating the code that’s going to deliver for our colleagues, clients and customers.”

The aim is to create a consistent Barclays engineering culture. So that a new engineer, dropped into any part of the bank, has everything they need and can feel like they are contributing, from day one. Meanwhile the bureaucracy and red tape around them is vastly reduced, simplified, or automated away. This new approach to Engineering Quality of Life rest on four pillars.

People: ensuring our colleagues are fully equipped to deal with technology and change.

Guidance: well-defined ways of working that help us deliver strong solutions architecture with reduced risk and minimal stress.

Standards: measuring the quality and performance of our output based on the right data and baselines.

Tools: having the right tools, services and platforms to deliver software into production with the least effort possible.

As ever, it’s the engineers themselves who are at the heart of the plan. Developing our people and giving them varied career paths is vital for creating a consistent engineering culture. So there’s now a clear technical career path for engineers, to Principal and Distinguished Engineer level.

Traditionally those pathways took great engineers and made them into managers or locked them in an ivory tower. Ryan says that defeats the object.

We need these talented people doing their work, making a difference for customers and influencing their colleagues. Principal Engineers will be like the NCOs of our engineering culture, sharing knowledge, creating resilience, cross-pollinating the right engineering methods and behaviours. They will drive our peer review systems and allow us to self-govern more effectively.

To help people make the step up to Principal Engineer, Ryan and his team have developed a stellar new Expert Engineering programme. It’s a high-impact two-week course that balances leadership and soft skills with a challenging role-playing exercise.

“They will never forget the exercise. It will equip them to think differently and navigate difficult situations in a new way,” says Ryan.

Once engineers have been through the programme, they’ll be part of a community focused on improving engineering, and quality of life for engineers, across the business. But they’ll spend the majority of their time doing real work, making a difference for our customers, because that’s what really matters.

Ryan accepts that working in a global bank can never be like a working for a start-up. But says Barclays can offer something different. “The type of work we are doing is hugely impactful. Helping to drive the global economy. Touching millions of people’s lives every day. Tech challenges don’t come any bigger. And we’re rebuilding our consumer bank from the ground up, on the latest technology. Projects like that don’t come around very often.”

And while Barclays may not be a start-up , it’s not your traditional banking environment either. “There’s a massive culture gap between Barclays and other global banks. We’re serious about creating an environment where engineers have the tools and influence to genuinely make a difference.”

It's also a place where diversity matters. “Two of my team went to Florida to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. Our section of the conference was queued out. We had the biggest tech firms in the world trying to sneak into our social event. All because we have a fantastic record on equality and diversity. On my team, the leadership is 50/50 male and female. Unfortunately, in engineering that’s too rare,” says Ryan.

Ultimately, Ryan says, it’s the desire to make things better that gives a culture a sense of momentum.

Whatever their background, colleagues and candidates can see that we fundamentally question, challenge and improve in order to create an environment where all types of engineers can thrive.

A better way of working. It’s happening here.

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