There’s a big misconception that culture in the tech/startup scene is all about foosball and in-office kegs. With some of the biggest names in technology flaunting on-campus spas, insane perks, and on-site entertainment, it’s easy to see why it was easy for tech culture to become massively stereotyped.
I think it’s worth saying that there are companies out there that disguise bad culture and work environments with gimmicks. Fortunately you’ll find that many companies benefits and perks are a result of the companies culture and values, not the cause.
And this is where we get to the “meat” of the situation, tech culture often comes down to a companies values and how it instills them.
It’s easy to see how some companies values differ, while some have give back programs, others have neon “RAGE” hats. I bet you can guess which company has the higher employee turnover.
When coming up with a companies values I think it is helpful to return to the core values that can be expected of all employees of a company (from C-level exec’s down to inters).
People in the company accepting other people’s values, ideas, beliefs, and personalities. Employees who do not feel accepted are less likely to provide ideas and partake in discussions. Diversity breeds success.
Providing the resources to help employees become leaders and decision makers within the company (ensuring scalability of growth for both the employees and the company). An ideal scenario is when every employee can find opportunities, asses risks, and feel confident in making decisions and backing those decisions up with the “why”.
Working for the good of everyone, training people out of the “power grab” mindset between departments, builds a mindset of making decisions that are best for the company and it’s employees as a whole.
Ensuring there are ways for people to mingle, talk, ideate, and socialize cross-company (even globally). Encourage cross-departmental social and work activities, lunches, and cross department teams.
From a technology standpoint, ensure that your company has a diverse array of communication tools for both work and social communications.
Providing a mindset that embraces learning (even through failure) to remove fear from decision making, and allowing employees to seek help and advice when things get tough.
Providing open communication with leadership, mentor programs, educational tools, open-door policies, and ensuring that managers work with their subordinates can help in a big way. Supported staff bring more to the table, and are more successful decision makers.
Things never get better if mistakes or problems are covered up internally. Honesty allows better decisions and learning through the company as a whole.
Promoting honesty in a company goes hand in hand with good management. People who made mistakes, or the wrong decision should not be punished unless it was done with malice, or a repeated incompetence.
In most cases mistakes can be a way to learn for all people involved in a project, but one thing is for certain.
Nothing is gained when a mistake is covered up, and in the long run it can do more harm.
Bringing it all Together
Quite a few of these overlap, and most (if not all) of these are complementary, but I feel like all of these values are essential to building a successful tech culture.
Companies that push a cultural image but do it in a self-serving way, or only apply these values at lower tiers of the company, are far more likely to have cultural problems no matter what gimmicks they provide to increase employee happiness as a whole.
Successful companies are often focused on employee success. By providing a supportive, trustworthy, and educational environment for all employees of a company you’ll see a positive company culture blossom.
One thing is certain though, all levels of a business need to be held to the companies values.
Failure at the top can be disastrous, and turn powerful company values, in to a company joke.
I’d love to know what peoples thoughts are on this, did I miss something? Do you think some of these values are non-essential?
A few thoughts from some of Austin’s tech leaders…
Sage wisdom Oliver! I love that you are initiating this important conversation and seeking diverse feedback. I definitely agree that the elements you noted feed on and support the others. I would perhaps adding a theme that embraces long term orientation. Focused on the long term growth, nurture and advancement of individuals, teams, partnerships, customer relationships, and the company as a whole. Great work!Heather Brunner – CEO, WP Engine
I’ve been at startups that did this well and ones that … well … didn’t do it well at all. Too much focus on the chef-prepared meals and ping pong acts as a veneer for underlying issues in some cases. But then again, they attract a demographic that will happily sacrifice substance for a sense of belonging and having fun. I think HomeAway was a great example in its early days. We had some fun, but there was no question as to why we were there. We were there to work, not form a fraternity. Other companies? I won’t name any, but there’s a reason you hear a lot about them for a while … and then nothing.Keith Goode – Sr. SEO Strategist, IBM
I love this. I’m currently working on a presentation that asks the question: “Are you a firefighter or a firestarter?” Firefighters focus most of their energy on solving emergencies and being reactive with short term fixes. Firestarters proactively spark the flame creativity and empowerment to inspire long term resolutions. Firefighters extinguish creativity; Firestarters fan they flames of the imagination. Firefighters burn out; firestarters light the way.David Noland
I have this talk I give startups about how culture, pitch, and messaging align and how not only does a business need to do that work, a city/region should do so, by industry, to really distinguish the economy.
Got it recorded once but it looks terrible.
Idea is this…
Philosophy drives culture
Culture drives values.
Values drive vision.
Vision drives mission.
The extremes (philosophy and mission) are all but concrete. They don’t change. How we work, what we believe in, what we set out to do, etc.
Culture and vision are fairly immutable but evolve over time and as the team, stage, etc. evolves.
Values actually change frequently. As we tackle different markets, have different products, or need to meet different expectations. These become our Value Propositions but you can see how they’re driven and bookended by a clear Mission and shared Philosophies, and Culture and Vision that align us.
How that aligns with messaging, a pitch, communications, etc…
Companies, industries, cities, and communities that thrive are clear about those. Thing is, we don’t communicate and prioritize them in that order, we so this way..
And when we’re clear about those, they align with the first set of thoughts…
Mission: why, who, when
Vision: who, when, where
Value Prop: who, when, where, what
Culture: when, where, what
Philosophy: what and how
Good culture starts with shared philosophies and requires an established mission and vision. Developing and retaining that culture requires good communication (and I think Austin is a good example of a city that struggles with all this): why, who, etc..
Paul O’Brien – Media Tech Ventures