Building a Culture

Technology Culture Business

I've been talking about culture a lot lately in my organization, and it occurs to me that it makes life easier on myself (primary ulterior motive) to just (poorly) write my thoughts and reasoning down here instead of (poorly) regurgitating it over and over.

This is, and has been, a really important topic for me for more than a decade. I don't like doing the name drop thing, but I will here because it's important to set context: my eyes were opened while I was lucky enough to work at Netflix, where the culture is famous in tech circles and beyond. During and since, I have continued to spend a lot of time studying culture (more on what this means to me shortly), discussing it with colleagues and peers in and out of the organization I work for, and generally working hard at trying to become good at it. And wow have I screwed up a lot along the way, and no doubt, I'll continue to. But most importantly, I take it really seriously. I think of it as a delicate and living thing that needs to be fed and cared for, and something that will be fleeting if you don't. Shitty cultures are really easy to create (that's why they're so common!), average cultures are actually really hard to do (in part because most folks lack a reference point to something better) and really strong cultures are really fucking hard to do right, and even harder to maintain.

So, let's set a little groundwork here so I'm not floating around in the WTH-is-he-talking-about clouds. When I say culture, I mean an environment that starts with really highly functional (behaviour/maturity) and high performing (output) teams. I don't just mean a place where people like to spend their days and lounge around and get money in exchange for that. Without amazing output, none of the rest of it matters. It can be the most enjoyable and happy place in the world, but if you aren't getting shit done, who cares? If your organization is so successful that your people can suck, good on you, but you're judged on the company you keep, and professionally, we all should strive to surround ourselves by the best. A rising tide and all that. I know I've said it before, but we Engineers got into tech because we like to problem solve (the more gnarly the problem, the better), and because we like to build stuff. Yep, it helps to like the people and not dread going in, but if you're not building and problem solving, then you're just talking about a social club. I'm talking about business.

Additionally, you want your culture to provide the contributors on those high performing teams the support they need to grow. Amazing contributors don't stick around in environments where they're going to get stale. Amazing contributors don't want to do the same thing for years on end. You have to provide opportunity and variety. Now, to be clear here, I don't consider myself responsible for creating the curriculum and learning paths for everyone to achieve their professional goals. I do consider myself part of that equation insofar as making sure we have budget set aside to help make that a reality, to make sure I'm helping to carve time out for people to pursue those things during "normal business hours", that I'm offering some level of mentorship if it is desired, and am generally aware of a contributor's desires, so I can partner with them in any way possible, but your career is your responsibility. I think a good culture promotes and enables it, but doesn't assume the responsibility for it.

So, great, we want a high performing team, and we need to take care of the people that make up those teams. No problem. Pretty basic stuff. How do we get there?

Here's my first real point here, and for some reason, I feel like this is too often lost. I read about companies and have been at startups where the founders think they get to "pick" culture. That's ridiculous! Nobody gets to "pick" their culture. Not the board, the CEO, the Head of Whatever or anyone within the organization. Now, I'm not a Mystic, but I'll use this for illustration, a culture is more like the aura of the company: an energy that emanates from the organization, if you will. It's bigger than any person (but delicate enough to be destroyed by one), but it's not pseudoscience. And it's something that I believe you can create, and you do that by setting expectations, holding one another accountable, and then by making a concerted effort focused on talent acquisition and (the right) talent retention. I'll get into this, but (as always) you have to bear with me as I meander.

Getting back to our high performing team, let's start by setting some ground rules for who the contributors are that make up these high performing teams. What characteristics do they have?

I want to be careful here to simply not rip off the culture deck I linked to earlier, but there is a lot of amazing content there, and a ton of it that I'd love to make my own, but I'm going to try and resist the urge as much as possible and generally try to describe the characteristics of folks we want to hire, without cheating. But c'mon. Let's be honest here, that deck is going to do a lot better job than I will. Anyway, here goes:

  • You're an adult and can handle being treated like one
  • You're not an asshole
  • You're focused on outcomes and results
  • You're a natural collaborator and find joy in the success of others
  • You can't help but be honest, and are candid in providing feedback
  • You embrace good failure as a positive
  • You have humility, but are quietly confident
  • The edge of chaos is a more comfortable place than one of rigid process and structure
  • In challenges situations, you will always opt to do the right thing

I'm going to stick with that last one for a second: everywhere I work, and in my home office, I tend to have a reference to the 1989 Spike Lee movie "Do the Right Thing" because I think it's a good mantra to live by. I also think it's a good starting point/cornerstone for a culture deck. The reason I like the idea of having a deck is pretty simple, really. I want to have something that I can hand to people who are interviewing, and be able to say this describes the candidate we're looking for. And most people are going to read this, and they're going to say 'awesome, yep, that is what I want, too', but honestly, I think most people can't handle it.

Why is that? Ever heard someone say "hey, that's why they call it work"? Not only have I heard it, I've said it. What did I/they mean? That work sucks, but it's part of adultin'. It's part of that whole thing where you go put your time in and they give you money and you get to buy shit. Yep, I get that, and I don't disagree, but it doesn't mean it has to suck your soul out and beat the living hell out of it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if it's true that we spend 90,000 hours of our lives or, looking at it another way, a third of your life at work, and another third of your life asleep, you had better have something to do professionally a bit more appealing than that's why it call it work. But if it's all you've ever known, then hey, I can't fault you. But I can promise you that when you come in and work for me and I explain the problem, give you enough rope to hang yourself and minimal direction to figure out what needs to happen to find a solution, it can be really uncomfortable. And when I follow it up with candid feedback that you're underperforming my expectations, it can be very foreign, and really, really uncomfortable. The alternative is WAY easier. If I take a bunch of time to describe the problem in detail, then put the time in to develop a cohesive solution, you know exactly what expectations are. You have targets. We're all on the same page, and we can both point to this thing and say "yay" or "nay". That's structure, and agreed upon deliverables, and everyone is aligned. But honestly, I can't even imagine how much that would suck on both sides of the equation. From the contributor side, thanks for taking the creative and problem solving side away from me. Why did I become an Engineer again? From the other side, thanks for making me do the job I hired you to do. Actually, I can imagine it, because it's incredibly common. Corporate babysitting. Hire people, then treat them like children.

What I'm saying is, if I give you so much direction that you can't fail, we'll get to done, but we'll get to my definition of what the solution should look like, which isn't necessarily the best solution, and quite frankly, me giving you all these guard rails and then micro-managing your daily progress means I probably could have done it myself, or at least hired someone who flourishes in an environment where they're given the freedom to make decisions. I'll say this, a helluva lot of people think they want to be treated like adults at work, but aren't able to handle what that really means.

The same goes for radical candor. And I don't necessarily mean by the aforementioned book; rather, I just mean the act of being radically candid, like you would with your brother, or your oldest mates, or your spouse. You know, other adults in your life that you know and trust to whom you're comfortable saying what you're feeling. Now, I lived in NYC for many years, and probably that place beyond all the other places I've been lucky enough to live really resonated with me. I loved being able to have passionate debates with other New Yorkers at work and then be able to grab a beer afterwards without a hint of concern for the topic, but a weird respect for one another for having the gonads to go toe to toe on it. Ah, sweet geographically normalized and accepted dysfunctionality.

That's a really important thing at a company with a strong culture. It doesn't mean it's all rainbows and unicorns. It means that there are moments of deeply passionate debate and disagreement, with a small handful of caveats: there needs to be enough mutual respect that all parties are willing to listen and consider one another's viewpoints, that there are no opinions that don't get represented (this can be difficult for folks who are a bit less comfortable with confrontation, especially if others have big voices), and, most importantly, at the end of the proverbial day, when a decision is made, everyone must agree to get behind it 100%, even if it's significantly different than the decision they would have made. Here's an easy way to put it: don't be a dick. A strong culture has (hopefully many!) people mature and confident enough to call it out and to assure everyone gets a voice, and it's really, really important to reinforce that behaviour.

So far, I've talked about radical candor as having tough debates. But maybe more difficult is pulling that colleague, or friend that you work with, aside and saying "hey, that thing you just did there, I don't think that's the kind of thing we should be doing because...". And sometimes, it can even be awkward to say nice things, like "hey, that thing you just did, I really appreciate that", but they're all super important, especially (and only) if those minor corrections and reinforcements are delivered in a timely manner. So, culture is about holding, and being held, accountable. Radical candor really does get easier the more you do it. It really can be part of your culture. It can be uncomfortable and challenging to give and receive, but if everyone is on a shared mission, and that feedback is ultimately about the mission, it's doable, and it works, and it's required.

All right, we're getting there. So far, we've established (I mean, I contend) that a culture is kinda like a corporate aura, which is to say that it's like an energy field for a company. Which, of course, is bullshit, but it can feel like that if everyone in the company shares this belief and holds it in the highest regard. And it's always part of the decision making process ("is this decision in line with the culture we all want to have?"). When a culture becomes part of the proverbial DNA, and your folks truly buy into it, people are afraid to screw up the culture (which is good!) and work really hard to reinforce it (which is great!). And how do we make sure that we find those resources that buy in? Because we publish our cultural expectations, and we make a significant effort in talent acquisition (I promise, more than you currently are, and I bet I'm right 99% of the time).

This one is really hard in real life. Really think about this and think about how you would really react: a candidate hits your desk and they check all the boxes from the generic LinkedIn job posting you did. They have all the technical skills, they have a bunch of relevant experience, they've got some big sexy tech company names on their CV, and they can talk the talk. But if you are not convinced that they embody every aspect of the culture you expect (demand!), then you have to pass. As painful as it is, you have to pass. One person can completely ruin the culture. Even if they check all the boxes and they shit pep8 compliant code and are smart enough to feel comfortable using phrases like "[c]omplecting things is a source of complexity" (and just so we're clear, that's a really good video. I'd totally hire that guy!). But I'm telling you, the wrong hire (especially in a small company) can screw...it...all...up. Go with your gut, and trust the people on your interview panel, and make sure they trust their guts.

Warning: somewhat related side rant coming; two paragraphs only. Your interview panel is really important. Stop mixing up great Engineers with great interviewers. Or, for goodness sake, give your Engineers some help to become great interviewers. They are doing the most important job in your company (and it's not Engineering!). They're the ones finding and deciding on who else comes along on this ride. They're the ones who are making the decisions about who the people are who are the going to have to embrace the culture you want to create, based on the expectations you laid out. Please, give them support and help them be great interviewers.

Paragraph two of the somewhat-related-to-the-topic rant: here's a great way to make your interviewers good at interviewing, and really put your culture to the test: tell your employees to interview. I do, without hesitation. I think it accomplishes three really important things: (1) it gives perspective and helps your interviewers be better interviewers. And that's super important, again, because talent acquisition is the most important thing for your company and your culture . (2) It's the best-est test of your culture. If you believe in your culture, then trust it. Put it to the test, and this is the ultimate measure of that! And (3), there's a human element to this. The average (mean) years at Google job is 1.1 years and Apple is 2 years (at least per this blog post), but even if we're being conservative, there's a lot out there to say it's about three years. Anyway, the point is that most of us are not in the job we're going to retire from. Certainly, the high performing team that I am lucky enough to be working with right now won't (seriously, they're all destined for amazing careers), and when it's time to see if the grass is actually greener, they should be ready for it. And you're not ready the first time, especially if it's been years since you last interviewed. Let them interview. Encourage them to interview.

End of side rant. Okay, so we've agreed on a set of principles explain our ideal culture. And we published them so we all have an agreed upon set of blueprints to that we want to embody. And we've made a commitment to talent acquisition, realizing that hiring people that we think embody those principles is the most important thing, and we've committed to it full force by making sure our interviewers are good at that skill, not just good Engineers who are doing interviews. And we're being radically candid, holding one another accountable, calling out the good stuff and the bad stuff, in a timely manner.

And there's one thing I want to call out when it happens, because it's made a huge difference in my own career, so I know it's real. Patty McCord is the best of the best in this space. I'm a hack who finds writing therapeutic and secretly fears people reading my rants, but something she talks about in the linked video about what if we made companies great places to be from? just hits me every time I watch it. Being from Netflix has opened doors for me in ways I'm unworthy for. And I'm going to make it my mission to pay it forward by trying to create organizations that have the same effect. It might not be at that scale, but I want people I work with now to someday have that interview where someone asks them "wow, tell me what it is really like to work at [insert company name here]?" And, as Patty says, it means that people who leave your company become ambassadors for your company. So, then those ambassadors become the talent acquisition pipeline that you have to have when talent acquisition becomes your primary focus, and when talent acquisition becomes your primary focus, then you get to have a fighting chance to actually get the culture you dream of, and when you do, even it's fleeting, it's amazing, and it's sooooo worth it.

Categories: Technology, Culture Tags: #business