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An Engineer’s take on “Company Culture”

milandry profile image Michael Landry Originally published at rondotechnology.com ・7 min read

The "Company Culture" topic comes up quite often, and for good reason. The culture of a company is a chief driver in the success of the company. Despite of its profound impact in both the operation of a company as well as the interview process, I feel that most discussions revolving around it are often nebulous, almost always devolving to mentioning something about having a ping pong table in the break room. Having been bewildered by such discussions in the interview process, I decided I at least needed to come up with some sort of take on it of my own, or at least forming a definition that that makes sense to me:

"The company culture is the set of principles and values that drive the ideas and actions of a company. "

After spending some amount of time researching, and interviewing with a variety of companies, what turns out to be a nebulous and expansive topic actually turns out to be the same usual concepts rehashed in different forms. This topic is very important, but it need not be daunting or confusing. Whether the discussion is about the success of the company in general, seeing if a team is a good fit, or tackling the issue in an interview, maintaining a straightforward understanding of the concept is key. I myself, in subscribing to my usual Rule of Three to keep things simple yet sufficient, subscribe to the three following principles that I adhere to when I need to be productive. I find that these three principles compliment and synergize with each other, and that these principles can be easily extended to encompass all sorts of different virtues of productivity:

Be results driven

I start with this one, it's the most important. When I view a company as a whole, we can ascertain on of this principle is important or not based on one simple criterion, do the actions of the company aide in providing a better good or service to its customers, which in turn drive profits to the stakeholders of a company? It seems obvious that this is what a company should be doing, but quite often I observe companies spending a lot of effort on extra curriculars, be it maintaining its image, fudging markets, hamstringing competition, or tilting the scales of one social issue or another. Some of these things can be important, but CEOs that get caught up in everything except improving the good or service of their business will keep like-minded individuals employed underneath them. It is important for teams to be aware of objectives, that each individual has a goal, and the team has a goal, and that the company has a goal. Only when goals and results are clearly stated, understandable and communicated throughout the entire company (specifically, that means that something was written down and not just allegedly declared in a meeting you may or may not have attended) will an organization enjoy measurable success, and be able to recognize and reward good and strong effort.

Good teams:

  • Favor results over processes.
  • Clearly communicate objectives
  • Recognize good effort and work
  • Focus more on finding solutions and less on finding excuses

Bad teams:

  • Drown in bureaucracy and process
  • Lose focus
  • Spend a lot of effort on making (bad) policy
  • Love having meetings, with many people, for long periods of time, while never encouraging anyone to withdraw if they are wasting their time.

Meaningful and impactful ideas and actions

If one assumes that a company then is doing everything it can to achieve some goal, then the next sensible question is whether or not the objective is worth pursuing, or if there is something better. This principle can be expanded into many important values. A team can only know what is meaningful and impactful if they can 'see the big picture.' The big picture exists not within a single team but across an organization.

Good teams:

  • Are capable of prioritizing important and urgent tasks over other tasks.
  • Rigorously vet any new ideas and initiatives through an appropriate amount of cost/benefit analysis.
  • Constantly reflect on existing practices and can change, expand, or discard practices as necessary.
  • Can be agile and change as needed.
  • Can see the big picture

Bad teams:

  • Tend to have many people who are always 'too busy', often indicating the lack of ability to manage and prioritize.
  • Defend bad ideas based on custom and seniority over merit.
  • Adhere to ritualistic activities that do not have any meaningful value or relevance to the present situation.

Communication and collaboration

This principle is rapidly being recognized as critical to modern software engineering efforts. The days of the brooding programmer hunched over a keyboard pecking away in solitude are long over. The Software Development Lifecycle is much more well understood, and in order to execute, all team members must be in communication and work together to be successful.

Good teams:

  • Understand that all members will succeed, or all will fail, as a team.
  • Focus on the success of the team over promoting oneself
  • Maintain regular feedback from management to team members, including and especially good feedback.
  • Respect and trust all teammates
  • Stay openminded to new ideas and approaches
  • Promote the spread of ideas and knowledge throughout the team
  • Find time to ensure that individuals are set up for success
  • Recognize the value of constant improvement, and are eager to invest in, train, and support all team members.

Bad teams:

  • Tend to have many people who are always 'too busy', often a 'clever' tactic to appear important, disregard the team, and refuse to take any responsibility.
  • Conceal, hide, and mislead key information
  • make it very difficult to have conversations with key teammates on other teams.

A few case studies

As I mentioned previously, the best practices and values for every company are pretty much universal. Let's view a few company cultural declarations and map them back to one of these core principles.

Amazon:

Results Driven:

  • Deliver Results
  • Dive deep
  • etc...

Meaningful and impactful actions:

  • Customer obsession
  • Think big
  • etc...

Communication and Collaboration:

  • Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
  • Earn Trust

And another to establish a trend, here is Rocket Mortgage:

Results Driven:

  • Ignore the noise
  • Numbers and money follow; they do not lead.
  • etc...

Meaningful and impactful actions:

  • Obsessed with finding a better way.
  • Every client. Every time. No exceptions. No excuses.

Communication and Collaboration:

  • It’s not about WHO is right; it’s about WHAT is right.
  • We are the “they.”

This is my take on company culture. While many might like to make it that their team or company is very unique in terms of their culture, I find that defining a set of values that apply universally goes a long way in simplifying the concept, and will help people understand what distinguishes the great companies from the rest. Oh yeah, and be wary of people who are busy all the time.

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