Connecting to the Company Story: Coding is Crafting for Etsy’s Engineers

by cv harquail on November 21, 2011

Every organization has a story. Any group that wants to be an important part of that organization needs to craft a place for itself in that story.

The story an organization tells itself and shares with others helps everyone make sense of who the organization is. For members, the organization’s story helps them articulate their connection to the organization, because it explains how their work contributes to who the organization is and to why it exists.

Etsy_Logo 300.jpgCrafting a place in the organization’s story can be harder than it seems.  Especially in consumer-facing companies, groups that are not visible to consumers often fall outside of the story. Departments like Accounting, IT, HR, Facilities Management, et. al., are rarely part of the organization’s brand, and they are often distant from the core promise of who the organization is, what it does, and why.

 [When I worked in the manufacturing and sales divisions of a consumer products company, folks in both divisions felt like under-appreciated step-children. If you didn’t work in marketing you weren’t a full-fledged member of the organization, because only marketing was featured in the organization’s story. ]

So how does a part of the organization that might not be seen as central to the organization’s purpose make itself part of the organization’s story?

The Software Engineering group at Etsy has what looks to be an effective way of connecting themselves to their company story. Their example shows how some clever and authentic self-description can knit a traditionally ‘backstage’ group into the main fabric of the organization’s identity.

Etsy’s Company Story

Etsy’s company story revolves around artisans, makers, crafters, and the community these artisans create with each other and with their customers. At Etsy¹:

Our mission is to enable people to make a living making things, and to reconnect makers with buyers.

A company story about a marketplace for handmade and unique objects doesn’t seem like a story where software engineers could be lead characters.  Conventionally (meaning, outside Silicon Valley and Alley), software engineers work in the background, off to the side, in cost centers that support but don’t create the organization’s identity.

But at Etsy, engineers have cast themselves as craftspeople – as people who make a living making things — just like everyone else in the Etsy community. With their Code as Craft initiative, Etsy’s engineers have designed their group as a central, direct, and explicit contributor to Etsy’s mission and Etsy’s overall success.

201111211324.jpgThe Code as Craft Initiative at Etsy

Back in June of 2010, the Etsy tech group launched a blog “Code as Craft” to focus and share their conversation about how the engineering group sees itself and how it fits with the larger Etsy community.  In the inaugural blog post, Etsy CTO (now CEO) Chad Dickerson explained:

At Etsy, our mission is to enable people to make a living making things. The engineers who make Etsy make our living making something we love: software. We think of our code as craft — hence the name of the blog.

It sounds a bit over-reaching, until you realize that the Esty Engineers’ Code as Craft initiative based in something real.

Genuine, not fake.  The language of “Code as Craft” captures and highlights something that is already true, indigenous and authentic about software engineering. Just as light is both wave and particle, software design is both mechanical and organic.

The “Code as Craft” movement /meme has been around since the dawn of computing. While mathematical rigor, linearity, discipline, and a mechanistic orientation might characterize how outsiders see software engineering, engineers themselves see this and more. They see themselves as artisans exercising skill, judgment, taste and creativity.

The computer technology folks aren’t over-reaching posers for calling themselves craftspeople. Their sense of themselves as crafters and their work as craft is real, rooted in years of professional self-description. The Code as Craft language may be strategic, but it is also a very simple act of engineers’ highlighting the part of their work that they choose to identify with most. In the Etsy environment, engineers are artisans whose work is simultaneously functional and beautiful.

Chosen, Not Imposed.   Etsy’s software engineers chose the language of craft themselves. The language wasn’t imposed on them by someone else in the organization trying to fit them into a tidy little box.

You might think it’s just a nice coincidence that software engineering would have words like ‘art’, ‘craft’, and ‘beauty’ in its toolbox of self-description, and that software engineers would be critical for enabling Etsy’s code- and data-heavy business model. But while there many organizations like Etsy that couldn’t exist without a cadre of software engineers, for these same companies words like ‘art’, ‘craft’ and ‘beauty’ are irrelevant to the company story.

For Engineers at Etsy, describing themselves as crafters isn’t a coincidence, but a leadership choice.

mouse-with-felt-ears longthread.jpg

Craft Connects Coders to Etsy’s Other Crafters

At Etsy, engineers striving for improved run times and multi-layer design compliance can use the same words — craft, crafting, craftsperson — to describe their work as do the artisans making sweet mouse pincushions.

The shared vocabulary literally helps them communicate across differences that in other organizations could be barriers.  Moreover, shared language helps vendors, marketers and engineers see each other and recognize what each group is contributing, because they can use criteria that everyone understands.

Whether rendered in colors, textures or command lines, skill and beauty can be recognized by any craftsperson.

By connecting their discipline and their department to Etsy’s core story about “making things”, the Code as Craft initiative presents engineers as central and  relevant contributors to Etsy’s purpose. As a result, engineers can be recognized, affirmed and appreciated by other members of the Etsy’ community, who share the values and skills as craftspeople, albeit in different media.

Craft Connects Coders to Etsy’s External Role and Image

Engineers’ link to the company story is also useful outside the organization. Because they are crafters, Etsy engineers can represent Etsy and its company story to outsiders, not just other crafters but also the start-up community and the software engineering community.

For years, Etsy’s Community & Education group has been hosting regular after-hours Craft Nights at the Etsy Labs. Artisans come to learn and and share techniques for making products. With the advent of the Code as Craft initiative, Etsy’s engineering community has begun hosting occasional Code as Craft” nights at Etsy Labs, where members of the tech community can come to learn and share techniques for running websites.  (Even better, the engineering group holds these events in a room lined with bins of sewing machines and fabric scraps, and feels perfectly at home.)

Their position as crafters helps the Etsy Engineers become both like other crafters in the Etsy community, and distinct from other software engineers in the tech start-up community. Etsy’s crafty coders become “optimally distinctive” — the same and special, at once.

amazingminiatures blog Etsy-illustrated-Logo.jpg

Enabling, Engaging and Contributing as Crafters

The Code as Craft initiative is a way of embedding the professional brand within the organization’s brand to the benefit of both — like employee branding from the inside out.

What I like the most about the Code as Craft initiative at Etsy is the way that it invites engineers to contribute — from their uniqueness  — at their highest level. Code as Craft recognizes a specific part of a software engineer’s (potential) professional identity — the skilled craftsperson.  It engages that identity by inviting engineers to speak in the craftsperson’s vernacular, allowing them to communicate more easily within the Etsy crafting community. It puts their work right at the heart of the organization’s purpose — making a living making things — and aligns them with Etsy’s goals.

When we can craft our place in the organization’s story, we can create an authentic connection to who the organization is, what it does, and why that matters. That connection makes our work relevant and imbues our contributions with meaning.


See also:
How Social Media Create Organizational Meaning
Be Your Own Hashtag

The “New” Crisis of Meaning?

Authentic Student Entrepreneurs: Embedding Personal, Product and Organizational Brand

Mouse with felt ears, from July 2011 Craft Lab, by
I Love Etsy from  


¹ It turns out that identifying Etsy’s current mission statement is harder than you’d think. More on that in a future post.

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