Annie

Demystifying Culture - What Does Culture Really Mean?

Annie is a software engineering leader on Square’s platform & infrastructure engineering organization. Prior to Square, she worked at a number of startups across a spectrum of industries from consumer products to enterprise solutions, as well as a wide variety of teams from sales to engineering.
Don’t work at Company X, they have terrible culture”
“Company Y is my dream company because I heard they have a great engineering culture…”
What do people really mean when they ask about company culture? Where does culture come from? How do you set a culture that builds your dream team?
When I first started in the software industry, my colleagues and I threw the phrase “culture fit” around in almost every interview feedback. We even designated a specific interview as the “culture fit” interview. A sales candidate was not a “culture fit” if the individual was overly aggressive. An engineering candidate was a definite “culture fit” if the individual was charismatic, an engaging storyteller, or friendly and approachable. Notice how none of these characteristics give a direct indication as to how well the individual would perform on the job function? That’s okay! Because culture fit is about maintaining our culture and not so much on job function. No one could articulate what it meant to be a “culture fit,” but everyone seemed to have an understanding when the interviewer failed a candidate for poor fit.
At my current company, we actively discourage interviewers from using the phrase “culture fit” in their interview feedback. The reason behind this is because “culture fit” means something different to everyone. Every individual has their own top characteristics and traits that they value. For instance, one individual might value friendliness and approachable demeanor while another might value bluntness and transparency. These two interviewers will look for different traits in the candidates they interview and if they both used “culture fit” in their review, the hiring manager reviewing the feedback would not actually know which characteristics the candidate demonstrated.

What defines the culture of an organization and what constitutes good or bad culture?

Culture is an environment defined by a set of shared principles or philosophies. Whether or not the set of principles are consciously articulated or defined, culture is the result of these intrinsic values.
In my mind, culture is not binary. There are many different types of culture that optimize for different things. Sometimes, a company optimizes for cost and efficiency, which results in fewer benefits and perks given to employees. From an employee’s perspective, this might constitute “bad culture.” From an executive’s perspective, this type of culture saves operating costs and is in turn a competitive advantage. A company that spends an exorbitant amount of money on employee benefits won’t have those funds for growing the business. Everything comes with a trade-off. Think Amazon.
Similar to leadership philosophies, which I described in my Engineering Management philosophies post, what a company or team optimizes for will be reflected in their work environment.
To create the best work environment for your team, you have to figure out what matters most.
What drives and motivates the individuals on the team? What do you want an individual to get out of his or her role? Is it a relaxing environment to work in? What defines team success? Is it in getting majority market share or is it in customers’ love of the product? What operating principles do you want the team to believe in and follow?

How Operating Principles Affect Culture

Let’s look at an example of how one operating principle can affect the resulting culture. Assume an operating principle of a company is seeking divergent perspectives. To demonstrate this principle, leaders at that company would greatly encourage empathy and understanding different perspectives. The shared belief could be: only when a full 360-degree perspective of a situation or problem is considered can we collective find the best solution. At this company, even when there is internal incentive misalignment, everyone would be stepping into the shoes of their colleagues and work together to find an agreeable solution that’s best for the larger team: the company.
To give another example, some companies may choose to make titles private. The reasoning behind this is to give everyone an equal voice at the table. Titles can distract the group subconsciously and can cause a discussion to fall into the trap of seniority wins. On my team, I intentionally hire individuals from a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences, since challenges on a project can take many different forms. Some may be deeply technical while others might be complex because of product workflows. Different individuals have different levels of experiences and instincts in handling these different types of challenges and their title(s) do not reflect this well. I encourage every individual on the team to chime in and work together to find solutions. That way as a team, we have a wider perspective and can be better informed when making principled risks and decisions.

An Example: a Hiring Principle

Any large company will be made up of many engineering teams; sometimes these teams can even be distributed into different business units.
Despite being distributed, one engineering hiring principles could be Hire for the company and not the team. This means the company unifies engineering hiring and any candidate must be “place-able” on any engineering team, not just the one she is interviewing for. Of course, there are some other considerations, such as the candidate’s skill set and product interest, but first and foremost, the candidate has to pass the company-wide engineering hiring bar.
All engineers coming in will be leveled evenly thus making internal mobility easier. Maintaining the same engineering culture is very difficult in a distributed engineering organization, but in doing so the company can maintain the same standard across all of their engineering teams. On the flip side, it makes hiring for a specific skill-set on one particular team more difficult. Hiring for the team makes it easier for individual teams to move faster, but the engineering cross-company standard becomes harder to maintain.
There is no right or wrong approach, rather there are different ways of solving problems that optimize for different things.

An Example: Mercenary Culture

Now, let me give an example of a culture that I personally do not align with: mercenary culture.
A mercenary will work solely toward personal goals. They’re essentially contractors for hire. They can be very skilled, but the main distinction of a mercenary is that they have less interest in the team’s or company’s purpose. Let’s say the team hired a group of “mercenary” engineers. This is great in a culture where the product manager wants to move quickly without needing too many “buy-in” controversies or discussions. The mercenaries will build whatever they’re told as long as their personal financial goals are met. They won’t have as much of an interest in product direction.

“Culture comes from above”

Culture is heavily influenced by leadership because leadership clarifies and upholds the operating principles of the groups they lead. Leaders are responsible for articulating core values and frequently reminding the teams of them. For example, positive-reinforcement incentive structure can be put into place to reward employees who demonstrate certain operating principles. Leaders themselves must also believe and follow their principles and lead by example. Every leader should have his or her own set of leadership philosophies that align with that of the company. Only then can the operating principles be practiced and consistently maintained as the organization grows.

The power of the individual on the culture

If culture comes from above, what power might an individual have? That’s a fantastic question! The culture is the result from the underlying operating principles of the team, and these operating principles must be pursued day in and day out by every member of the team. This is why it’s crucial to make sure one’s own principles do not conflict with that of the team. If a team is made of individuals with differing principles, the resulting culture will be filled with disagreements and chaos.
On a similar note, if an individual feels passionate about a principle that’s not currently practiced by the group, she should feel empowered to discuss that with the rest of the team and influence the culture.
For example, imagine a team where engineers normally operate very independently, meaning every engineer has her own project and rarely talk to others about her daily work. If someone on the team believes pair-programming or working together on the same tasks can improve code quality and output, that person should make these suggestions and introduce some changes. If the ideas get adopted then this new principle of team-collaboration becomes part of the new team culture.

How to set a culture that best attracts your target talent

Culture is constantly changing as the team and the company grows and evolves. Now that you know how to better articulate culture and where it comes from, how do you use hire future team members without negatively affecting the culture? I recommend starting with identifying what your team’s core principles are. What are the shared motivations? What goals do you want the team to accomplish and what are your aspirations for your new hires?
If these questions are hard to answer, think about the type of work environment you want to create for your team. If you want to create a fast-paced environment, the underlying driver of that culture should incentivize delivering results quickly. If you want to create a balanced, work-life friendly, collaborative environment, then the core values you set should be ones that favor quality over quantity, emphasize teamwork, and working at a sustainable pace.
It’s crucial for the company and individuals to align on a shared set of principles so that everyone is surrounded by peers and leaders who are passionate and motivated for the same reasons!

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