Shipping Spotify’s Culture: 5 Plugins (and 4 Principles) for Supercharging Developer Experience at Scale
ICYMI Spotify officially began selling enterprise software today: the Spotify Plugins for Backstage bundle subscription. Some of these commercial plugins began life as internal tools, built by Spotify developers, for Spotify developers. Other plugins in the bundle are brand new to the Backstage platform. But they all embody our ways of working — our secret sauce for improving developer experience at scale. And now that we’re sharing these plugins with the world, you don’t have to work at Spotify to see those principles in action. They’re right there in the plugins themselves, in how they work and how they were built.
Our open platform gets opinionated plugins
First, the basics:
- These new plugins are made to work with Backstage, the open source platform for developer portals that we donated to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.
- Plugins are how you add functionality to Backstage, from security alerts to integrating with CI/CD.
- Anyone can make their own bespoke plugins or get free ones from the Backstage open source Plugin Marketplace.
And, as of today, you can also buy plugins made by Spotify.
Tried and tested on thousands of Spotify engineers, daily
There are over 200 internal Backstage plugins at Spotify. Basically, whenever a team saw a problem they could solve with a plugin, they built one. And if it solved a common problem, the plugin became more popular, improving through a virtuous cycle of user feedback and iteration. The more useful a plugin was, the more people who used it, the more feedback it got, the more useful it became, and so on.
The ability for any team to build a plugin is part of what makes Backstage a two-sided marketplace: a platform for your teams to both build on and use, where solutions come from the ground up and follow an inner source model for development. From a technical perspective, it’s the plugin architecture of Backstage that enables this autonomy. Have a problem? Build a plugin! Don’t like a plugin? Open an issue or PR — and help make it better!
Built the way we build all our software
The plugins in our commercial bundle represent some of our best and most used plugins, as well as new plugins built specifically for Backstage adopters. Individually, the five plugins do very different things — from promoting software quality to managing access control to matching mentors with mentees. But they all reflect a very Spotify way of doing things. That’s because they were built with the same principles underlying how we build all our software. Let’s take a closer look at some of those principles.
Four Spotify principles for building effectively at scale
One of the ways we like to sum up our software development philosophy at Spotify is this: “Think it, build it, ship it, tweak it.” We want our squads to ship high-quality code, fast — and keep shipping it, while improving on it with each iteration. It’s an easy approach to understand, but it becomes challenging to maintain as complexity takes hold within your engineering org. So, to help ensure our way of doing things at Spotify, we’re guided by certain organizational ideas and principles. Here are four of them:
1. Keep squads fast by keeping them small, capable, and aligned
- Turn each of our 450+ squads into lean, mean, cross-functional machines that balance autonomy with collaboration.
- Prioritize individual development and mobility, because that makes our employees more capable and our business stronger.
2. Make engineering excellence and quality an everyday practice
- Strong engineering practices are the foundations for speed and agility.
- The fewer technologies we are world-class on, the faster we get.
3. The best solutions come from the bottom up, so empower the teams doing the work
- Give our teams the power to pick the right tools for the job.
- Try to avoid top-down mandates and instead focus on incentives that reduce fragmentation and drive alignment.
4. Our fellow developers are our customers, so build with empathy
- Developers deserve as great an experience as our listeners and creators do.
- Ensure that the tools in the Spotify platform are the right tools for the job — and listen and adapt when they aren’t.
Although these principles are well-ingrained within Spotify’s culture, we believe they also apply to a wide variety of engineering organizations, not just ours. Because even though we’ll argue all day long about Vim vs Emacs, tabs vs spaces, and whether a hot dog is a sandwich, we believe developers are fundamentally more similar to each other than they are different. They are creators. They want to build, collaborate, try new things, and have impact.
Five Spotify Plugins for Backstage
You can see various combinations of those principles underlying the new plugins in our bundle — both in what they do and how they work.
- What: Runs checks on your software components and displays how well they measure up to your org’s engineering standards.
- Why: Codify and promote engineering best practices that improve quality, reliability, security, and consistency throughout your software ecosystem.
- How: Seeing leads to doing. Instead of chasing teams down when their software isn’t meeting expectations, we’ve found that simply visualizing standards in the relevant context incentivizes action. No engineer likes it when they see they’re scoring 2 out of 5. They’re gonna strive for that 5.
2. Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)
- What: Makes controlling who has access to what in your Backstage instance flexible and simple.
- Why: Protect your company’s data in Backstage.
- How: Make the right thing to do the easy thing to do. If access control is difficult or opaque, then your teams are less likely to keep up with your evolving security and compliance needs. It’s good to set requirements — but it’s much better if you make it as painless as possible for your developers/customers to follow them.
3. Skill Exchange
- What: An internal marketplace for on-the-job learning opportunities, where mentors can connect with mentees, teams can find temporary help (“Wanted: Frontend Web Dev for Two-Week Embed”), programming partners can pair up, and ad hoc teams can assemble to work on hack projects together.
- Why: Promote a culture of self-led growth and unlock opportunities for collaboration and meaningful connection, no matter where anyone sits in the org chart.
- How: By making it easier for your developers to discover and borrow each other’s skills, both teams and individuals can learn, grow, and stretch their abilities together — leading to happier, more fulfilled, and more capable devs, which leads to more effective dev teams.
- What: An R&D survey framework — specific to product development — that lets you track key productivity and satisfaction metrics, and analyze the anonymized response data to discover trends. (Known internally at Spotify as the EngSat Survey.)
- Why: Find out how your R&D teams really feel. Collect the data you need to drive continuous improvements to your R&D tooling, processes, and culture.
- How: Understand and measure the feelings and experiences of your developers — just as you would your customers. You can’t improve productivity if you don’t know the most common blockers your teams say they’re facing.
- What: Tracks Backstage usage within your organization by capturing and displaying key data points, including daily active Backstage users and most commonly used plugins.
- Why: Understand how your organization is actually behaving in Backstage to inform your roadmap on which features to double-down on or deprecate.
- How: To build with empathy, you don’t just want to know how your customers feel, but also how they behave.
Built by developers, for developers
Five plugins built with exactly you in mind — the person hovering over your keyboard right now, having switched over to this browser tab while you wait for a build to finish in a different one. That’s because they were all built by developers, for developers.
Make no mistake, the Spotify Plugins for Backstage bundle is most definitely enterprise software: designed for medium to large engineering organizations at travel companies, car manufacturers, banks, telecoms, online retailers, and all kinds of other tech companies (we’re all tech companies now).
But the plugins are not made to solve car manufacturing problems or banking problems or telecom problems. They’re made to solve the problems all software engineering teams face, no matter which industry they work in: complexity, context switching, cognitive load, fragmentation, silos, and toil. All the problems that get in the way of you solving those car manufacturing problems and banking problems.
Backstage solves the problems that make the everyday experience of being an engineer a chore instead of a joy, preventing teams from delivering great software, consistently and quickly, at scale. We hope both the Backstage platform and these plugins will help change that, as they have done for us — improving developer effectiveness by improving developer productivity and developer happiness. (We even have a formula for it!) So that you are empowered to build better, faster, and happier. The Spotify way of doing things.
Learn more about Spotify Plugins for Backstage at: backstage.spotify.com/plugins
Tags: engineering leadership