How developer experience became a strategic pillar at American Express

American Express’s developer experience journey began in 2015 when the company started hiring thousands of engineers to modernize their engineering skill sets. They recognized they needed to resolve issues that were hindering engineers in order to allow these new hires to be successful. That led to the formation of two working groups, the Jedi Council and the Obstacle Remove team, which later evolved into a dedicated DevEx function.

Our CEO, Abi, recently hosted Amex’s VP of Engineering Enablement, Michelle Swartz, on his podcast to talk about this journey. This story is excellent inspiration for anyone spearheading developer experience investments within a traditionally non-tech company.

What follows is a summary of the core parts of Amex’s journey. You can also listen to the full episode here.

Origins of the DevEx team

American Express’s journey with Developer Experience started with a critical realization: their engineering community faced a growing backlog of requests and inconsistencies in knowledge management. Amex saw this as an opportunity to overhaul their tech infrastructure. They kicked off a dedicated team to dive deep into developer needs through sentiment surveys and direct engagement. By 2020, Amex formalized their DevEx strategy, aiming to empower engineers with standardized tools and processes. This proactive move tackled immediate issues and laid the groundwork for ongoing improvements in their tech environment.

To supercharge this effort, Amex formed the Jedi Council, a pivotal initiative targeting systemic issues within the engineering workflow. The Jedi Council, a diverse group of seasoned engineers, meets regularly to identify recurring problems and prioritize the most critical ones impacting developer productivity. They escalate these concerns to higher management, ensuring that urgent challenges get the strategic attention they need. This council has been instrumental in fostering a more transparent and efficient problem-solving process within the engineering teams.

Alongside the Jedi Council, Amex launched the Obstacle Removal team to tackle specific bottlenecks faced by developers. This team emerged from the realization that many issues required dedicated resources and cross-functional collaboration for effective resolution. The Obstacle Removal team collaborates closely with developers to pinpoint and eliminate roadblocks—whether technical, procedural, or organizational. By focusing on actionable solutions and promoting cross-departmental collaboration, this team ensures developers can work more smoothly and efficiently.

Together, the Jedi Council and the Obstacle Removal team have significantly enhanced the developer experience at Amex, boosting satisfaction and productivity among engineers. Their structured, strategic approach has transformed Amex’s tech landscape, making it a model for continuous improvement and proactive problem-solving.

How Amex identifies major points of friction for developers

Amex’s journey began with the recognition of significant challenges in managing developer requests and understanding the impact of various issues on their workflows. The backlog of requests from engineers was overwhelming, making it difficult to discern whether problems were related to scrum, platform, or other areas. This lack of clarity often led to prolonged wait times for engineers seeking resolutions, which in turn affected their overall satisfaction and productivity.

To address these issues, Amex turned to sentiment surveys, initially conducted in 2019. These surveys aimed to gather comprehensive feedback from engineers and identify key areas for improvement. Swartz emphasized that the team sought to go beyond merely reporting survey results; they aimed for deeper analysis to uncover underlying themes and actionable insights.

Amex’s developer survey program

Swartz took over the team in 2022 and continued leveraging the sentiment survey process established earlier. The surveys were designed to align with Amex’s colleague value proposition, which is built on four pillars: meaningful career, diverse and inclusive teams, growth as a leader, and holistic wellbeing. Unlike typical surveys that merely report responses, Amex’s approach involves rigorous analysis to uncover underlying themes and actionable insights. This method enables them to prioritize areas for improvement effectively, aligning with their goal of enhancing satisfaction, productivity, and overall developer experience. The team mapped around 50 questions in the survey to these pillars, ensuring that the feedback collected was relevant and actionable.

One innovative approach mentioned by Swartz was the concept of “storylines.” These storylines helped group survey questions thematically, making it easier to identify trends and areas needing attention. For instance, they analyzed whether junior engineers responded differently compared to senior engineers and looked at regional differences in responses. This thematic analysis enabled the team to prioritize efforts and resources effectively.

Addressing key issues: onboarding and knowledge management

One of the critical insights from the survey was the need for a better onboarding process, especially during the pandemic when remote work was prevalent. New engineers struggled to understand Amex’s internal ecosystem and the path to production. In response, Amex developed an onboarding bootcamp for all new joiners, including both colleagues and contractors. This bootcamp combined online learning with curated experiences tailored to different experience levels.

Knowledge management also emerged as a significant challenge. The absence of physical office interactions made it difficult for engineers to access necessary information and documentation. To tackle this, Amex created the “Amex Way Library,” a comprehensive repository of documentation categorized into four quadrants: architecture and design, path to production, culture, languages and patterns, and tooling and frameworks. This initiative aimed to centralize knowledge and make it easily accessible to all engineers, facilitating smoother workflows and reducing the need for repetitive queries.

How Amex aimed to balance standardization and freedom using paved roads

Another major focus of Amex’s DevEx strategy was the implementation of “Paved Roads,” a concept aimed at standardizing tools and practices while allowing for flexibility where needed. Swartz explained the delicate balance between standardization and freedom, highlighting that too many tools performing the same function could lead to confusion and inefficiency. The goal was to make standardized paths so efficient and user-friendly that engineers would naturally prefer them over creating their own solutions.

Amex brought together a broad community of engineers, including principal and distinguished engineers, to ensure that the tools and practices developed were both practical and widely accepted. Central to this effort were guilds like the Golang Guild and JVM Guild, which played a crucial role in creating and maintaining their respective Paved Roads. These guilds fostered communities of practice around specific technologies, providing targeted support and resources. The Golang Guild united developers using the Go programming language, promoting knowledge sharing, best practices, and collaborative problem-solving. Similarly, the JVM Guild served developers working with Java Virtual Machine languages, offering a platform for insights, performance optimization, and addressing common challenges. By fostering these focused communities, Amex ensured that developers had access to specialized support and a network of peers, enhancing both productivity and satisfaction. This collaborative approach fostered a sense of ownership and engagement within the engineering community.

How Amex is currently measuring success and looking ahead

Swartz acknowledged that measuring the success of these initiatives is an area where Amex is still evolving. They currently track usage metrics, activity in support channels, and changes requested by engineers as indicators of engagement and effectiveness. However, she emphasized the need for more sophisticated measurement techniques to ensure continuous improvement.

Looking ahead, Amex’s DevEx strategy focuses on several key outcomes: reducing developer cycle time, accelerating success, streamlining the development journey, increasing developer platform efficiency, enhancing code quality and risk posture, and fostering a vibrant developer community. Swartz also highlighted the importance of making engineers feel proud of their work and their workplace, and of engaging with the external tech community through open-source contributions and participation in key events.


Amex’s path to making developer experience a strategic pillar demonstrates the company’s commitment to creating a supportive, efficient, and satisfying work environment for its engineers. By leveraging sentiment surveys, developing comprehensive onboarding and knowledge management systems, and implementing collaborative Paved Roads, Amex has set a strong foundation for continuous improvement in developer experience. As Swartz and her team continue to refine their strategies and measurement techniques, they are well-positioned to maintain and enhance Amex’s reputation as a tech-forward organization that values its engineering talent.

Listen to the full episode here

July 2, 2024

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