Digital transformation has become the new business norm. Technology is now widely recognized as a “front of the house [and everywhere in between]” capability and gone are the days when IT was seen as a “back of the house” function. For established companies—like where I work at Northwestern Mutual (NM)—seeing technology as a key driver has also impacted the way we work. With more pressure on engineers to continuously deliver product innovation and digital solutions, many tech employees are at risk of spending too much time “heads down” and not enough on building relationships or cultivating a shared sense of community with others across the enterprise.

Our CTO, Emilia Sherifova, took notice and took action. Her goal? Bring NM technologists together across functions and campuses to strengthen culture and grow our engineering mindset.

To help turn her vision into reality, Emilia asked me to rally a small group of fellow engineers, developers and technologists to create a day-long engineering conference open to the thousands of tech employees at NM. Emilia felt strongly that if we were going to make this event value-added for engineers, it must be created by engineers (like this blog!).

Our task was to create a shared experience where we could teach, learn, and grow, while building connections with one another—ultimately breaking down our silos and uniting under the banner of “Tech.” We focused on creating a full-day summit and packed the agenda with more than 80 different topics and sessions that highlighted engineering problem-solving and encouraged learning from each other on the use of innovative technologies.

While attendance maxed out, the real success was that we had participants from almost every technical function and campus throughout our company.

Internal Engineering Summit

I recently caught up with Emilia to hear her thoughts on the Summit. We’re an agile company, and as is the case with any project sprint, it’s important to hold a retrospective to reflect on what went well and what we would do differently.

Aleisha: Emilia, how would you say we did? Did we achieve our goal of bringing people together?

Emilia: Without a doubt. I am amazed that we held more than 45 breakout sessions in one day, and that each was facilitated by NM engineers from various departments. The sessions spotlighted such a wide range of tech topics from the basics of working as a DevOps practitioner to learning specific development tools. One of my favorite parts of the day was our keynote speaker; hearing from Olympic Gold Medalist John Coyle on Design Thinking left everyone feeling inspired and energized.

engineering summit keynote speaker

Aleisha: What do you see as the key to the Engineering Summit’s success?

Emilia: The event would never have happened if it wasn’t for the passionate and engaged development community at NM. I was impressed by how much enthusiasm and inspiration the presenters and volunteers brought to the event. The Summit proved our engineering community cares about knowledge sharing—they are willing to take the time to reflect on the work they have delivered, and they want to help others across the company learn about it too.

Aleisha: What else went well?

Emilia: Bringing people together from across the NM tech community exposed us to our own outside-in thinking here at NM and gave us the opportunity to cross-train. For example, we had sessions about a variety of cloud platforms, which allowed cloud engineers to learn about new solutions developed on cloud infrastructure platforms that are different from what they may typically work with, enabling our team to sharpen their skills and grow beyond their normal daily activities.

Aleisha: Our engineering teams are spread across multiple campuses and cities—what were some of the benefits of having our teams together for this event?

Emilia: I believe it strengthened our connections, networks and community. Engineers discovered in-house experts that they can contact later for advice and ideas. Plus, getting people face-to-face helped build a greater sense of trust and involvement. It also broke through any feelings of working alone or in silos and helped us see ourselves as “one team” even though many of us work on different campuses.

Aleisha: What would you do differently next time?

Emilia: For future events, I would love to carve out more time for informal connections and relationship building since that’s such an important benefit of bringing everyone together. It would also be great to build in more hands-on learning activities like learning labs, focused on some more specific themes or skills, that allow participants a chance to test out the new skills and technologies they are learning about at the Summit.

Aleisha: Why are summits—and events like these—so important from a company perspective?

Emilia: Lots of reasons—for one, I am extremely passionate about providing development opportunities for our employees, especially when it comes to our engineers presenting and showcasing their work. Sharing work with colleagues helps us connect ideas, fill in knowledge gaps and position presenters as subject matter experts while also giving them valuable public-speaking experience. There is also a rich exchange of ideas and opportunity for presenters to receive constructive feedback on how to improve their presentation style and skills because the audience and presenters already have a relationship as colleagues.

Aleisha: What advice would you give to someone who wants to cultivate an engineering mindset in their own organization?

Emilia: Two things come to mind. First, listen to your team(s). Pay attention to areas where they may need to improve or better work together, and look for ways to be their advocate by helping them take action. Second, be clear and stay committed to providing the time, attention and resources your team(s) need to be successful. If you don’t give them permission to ‘step away from the backlog,’ that time may never come.