Highly aligned, loosely coupled: How Shopify uses writing to get its 7,000+ employees on the same page

At Shopify, writing has helped the company grow, succeed, and plan for the future

Published: Dec 6, 2022

Since its humble beginnings as an online snowboard shop in 2006, Shopify has grown to be the world’s biggest e-commerce platform with over 7,000 employees globally. Editor in Chief, Courtney Symons is keenly aware of the role writing has played in keeping the company on the right path as it grows. “A mantra that’s often repeated here is that we’re highly aligned, but loosely coupled. Meaning, we all know the direction we’re going in, but there’s enough trust so that we can take our own paths to get there. Good, clear writing helps to build the alignment that helps us reach our business goals.”

Growing writing culture over the years

While Shopify’s writing culture is strong today, it wasn’t always. “As we expanded, first beyond our Ottawa office and then beyond Canada, we realized that the quickest, easiest way to communicate was through writing,” says Courtney.

In 2016, Shopify ran a company-wide, month-long work-from-home experiment to test how well they could communicate outside of the four walls of an office. This experiment laid the foundation for Shopify’s asynchronous collaboration today. “We found that working remotely meant having to write down and figure out how to deliver status updates in the best way,” says Courtney. “Learning that has served us well in setting ourselves up to be the remote-first company we are today.”

Welcome to Shopify, where everyone’s a writer

New hires are introduced to Shopify's writing culture on day one with an internal guide and a course, Improve Your Everyday Writing. “The course is built around the ethos that many people may not think of themselves as writers, but we all are,” says Courtney. Everyone can become a better communicator by sharpening their writing skills. The focus isn't on improving spelling and grammar–the writing course and guidelines emphasize organization and clarity of thought. A couple of examples:

  • A ban on acronyms, since they assume a subject familiarity that may not exist for the reader. The ban, ironically, was announced in a company-wide memo titled “RIP Acronyms”.
  • Format Slack messages with bullet points, line breaks, and emphasis where it makes sense to avoid the “wall of text”
“Improving people’s confidence in writing is foundational. It helps take away a lot of the pressure that people feel.”

These writing resources send a clear message to new hires: writing is a huge part of Shopify’s culture, and each employee has access to the tools that will help them leverage writing in a way that helps them do their best work.

How writing keeps projects moving

In trying to quantify Shopify’s writing culture, it’s easier to think of the question in terms of its negative space; how much of Shopify’s business isn’t influenced by writing? The answer: not much.

Look at the “vault”—the company’s internal wiki—to see proof of this. The vault is where all internal documentation for any project, current or past, is stored. “Everything is saved in the vault, from conversation transcripts on important decisions, to project boards, to briefs,” says Courtney. “The idea is that anyone can find what they need here.” Having a record of the company’s projects, learnings, and decisions is essential.

“This is a product-oriented company, so sharing the product knowledge we have is baked into the company culture.”

While the vault helps contextualize and justify decision-making, Shopify relies on synchronous communication to keep things moving. Much of the company’s project updates are communicated through Slack. They have dedicated channels for project updates that people can subscribe to. “There’s a push and pull. You have to follow the projects you want, but once you do, we have a number of levers in place to ensure that everyone’s up to date,” says Courtney.

It’s essential that this information is made widely available, both synchronously and asynchronously. “With so many different teams working across so many different products, sharing project updates ensures that we’re not creating redundancies or interdependencies that are unclear,” says Courtney.

Rapid and widespread growth has also driven the need for well-documented project plans. “Having a well-written brief about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and who needs to be involved has only gotten more important over time,” says Courtney.

“One missed or misunderstood word can derail productivity, and we’ve realized we can’t waste time by not clearly communicating requirements from the start.”

Shopify employees can quickly get up to speed on anything. “We’ve gotten to a place where when anyone asks, ‘What do you mean by that?’ more often than not, there’s a document they can read that will give them that understanding,” says Courtney.

Documenting the past to prepare for the future

One thing that’s obvious is that keeping projects, decisions, and outcomes well-documented will always be essential to keeping the company moving forward.

This goes beyond documenting the company’s successes. “Our CEO likes to say that failure is the successful discovery of something that did not work,” says Courtney. “Being able to find a product in the vault and read about why we shut it down, what did work, and what didn’t, is a quick way to level up and not make the same mistakes twice.”

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