It’s been difficult to miss stories of tech and startup culture fails of late, whether it’s Uber or Thinx, and there have been many excellent suggestions on how to improve diversity and the employee experience, but I’ll throw another one into the mix: hire an archaeologist*.
No, it’s not a joke, though I fully admit it may be a head-scratcher at first, but hear me out: I’ve been working in technology for 20+ years, and while I’m emphatically not speaking about my current role at AWS, where I’m the Culture Lead (yes, we’re secretive, but you knew that, and no, I’m not claiming we’ve ‘solved’ everything culture-wise), I can assure that my two archaeology degrees have been incredibly useful in this field — though never more so than in my present position. Allow me to explain -
I fell into technology while working on my MA in archaeology at University College London in the 1990s; I began my tech career as a coder and moved (kinda/sorta) swiftly into people and technology management in Silicon Valley, NYC and elsewhere — I’m now happily situated in Seattle, where I get to do all sorts of Secret Things I Can’t Tell You About Right Now. Along the way, I’ve seen some pretty bizarre things from a company culture perspective (terrible brand rallies! awful ‘culture fit’ excuses in hiring! team and product names that are totally offensive to colleagues in other regions!), but I’ve also been lucky enough to see the good as well. After a few general culture protips, we’ll discuss how having an archaeological viewpoint can be a huge benefit — for real.
First, though, a few notes on What You Should Do; your company culture, like any other aspect of business, can’t be left to good intentions — it needs structure and mechanisms to reinforce it and to help it evolve in a positive direction. Whether you are a tiny startup or a huge multinational, you need mechanisms that will scale with your organization’s growth, and that can be consistently applied wherever your people are. You may need to modify them to work in some regions or for remote people or teams, but they should still be scalable and repeatable.
Your culture is modeled by your leadership, and that’s at every level, from the c-suite to brand-new dev managers. While it seems that every company has ‘values’ or ‘principles’ that were drawn up early on, in my experience the uptake on these ranges from absolutely embedded and referenced on a daily basis to openly mocked and derided, with most places falling somewhere in between. When they work, they are a valuable tool and a core driver of your business — they dictate hiring, promotions and offer direction on key decisions. When they don’t work, there’s usually an obvious reason:
- They were developed by outside consultants to ‘sound good’
- They are meaningless platitudes that simply take up time during the onboarding process
- They are actively terrible, and are used as an excuse to avoid diversity
I won’t dig too deeply (see what I did there?) into the third point, simply because it needs to be its own discussion (as it is here), but I’ll pivot to why they work when they work:
- They are thoughtfully, and intentionally, developed in-house, taking into account a wide range of viewpoints
- They are flexible and can be specifically applied to daily work, but aren’t ‘rules’ that must be obeyed
- They are regularly reviewed and updated as the company grows
- They are an expected, and hence unremarkable, part of daily worklife
If your company’s mechanisms for people management don’t reflect whatever your company’s stated values are — or if they overindex on a specific one or two points — you’ll very quickly get drift away from the good intentions that went into their creation. Having repeatable, measurable processes around your business life cycle and the people who make it happen is the key to a healthy culture, and this is where the archaeologists come in.
The popular view of archaeologists falls into one of two main camps: we’re either Indiana Jones or scruffy bearded people with a fondness for drink who wish they looked a bit more like Indiana Jones. I surely don’t need to point out that both of those impressions skew almost entirely male (feel free to insert a Tolkien joke about dwarf wives and their beards), but there’s a lot more going on than just drinking digging and/or punching Nazis. While I won’t get too deeply into describing different approaches to archaeology (for example, did you know that theoretical archaeologists mainly argue about French social theory, and rarely, if ever, go outside, much less dig? Did you know that post-processual archaeology is real? Mostly true facts!), there are some commonalities that give archaeologists an edge in mapping and shaping company culture.
Everyone ‘knows’ that archaeologists can take an artifact (or, more typically, an assemblage of artifacts) and use clues from that artifact to tell us more about the people who created it, traded it, used it or who perhaps just thought it looked cool. At work, we create ‘artifacts’ every day without thinking twice about it — documents, wikis, websites, apps, you name it. And when we’re speaking about those internally-created artifacts that are used to hire and manage people — interview notes, performance reviews, presentations and so on — it’s easy to forget that the mechanisms that generated those artifacts were designed with specific long- or short-term goals in mind. Indeed, there may have been considerable ‘cultural drift’ between a mechanism’s original purpose and its current usage; for example, it may have once been the case that ‘big ideas’ went through a presentation-heavy gating process to get executive buy-in, but now it seems that absolutely every decision goes through some version of that. That’s not to say that processes and mechanisms like that can’t work, but that the rationale behind them needs to be understood, and that they need to be regularly reviewed to ensure they are still fit for purpose. Not infrequently, most employees who need to actually follow these processes have little-to-no information about why it was created, or what the unwritten rules are — it’s purely tribal knowledge.
And that’s another way archaeologists ‘get’ how to dig (har) into corporate culture: when they don’t know why something was created or can’t pin down an obvious purpose, there’s a default answer — ritual! (In all seriousness, this is a thing. It’s practically reflexive). But so much of what happens day-to-day at work falls into this bucket as well; as mentioned, the people who designed (or inherited) a process have left, or have long since forgotten its origin, and it has become almost entirely ritualistic — we do it ‘just because.’ Sure, we’d like to fix that broken process or mechanism, but it’s like that For A Reason, we assume — and thus are corporate sacred cows born. This is just as true looking at archaeological sites; while some pretty weird things do, indeed, fall under the ‘ritual’ heading (at least without further evidence), it’s also clear that people in the past not infrequently did things just because they were fun or looked cool — they aren’t so different from us.
Throwing an archaeologist at your company processes and mechanisms can turn up all sorts of unexpected things about your company’s culture; simply having a complete audit of all the ‘things’ you’re doing, how they came about, whom they affect, how and where they are implemented is quite illuminating. Turning an archaeological lens on this adds further value; as mentioned above, people rarely know precisely why they created something or how it evolved, so having a background in making educated guesses in that regard, based on data, is quite useful.
With this information in hand, you can begin to make better data-driven decisions that drive your company culture — did you discover a gap in your onboarding process in a specific region? Perhaps there is no policy to handle difficult employee situations, or you may simply have not had time to develop a codified, shared value system for your organization. Knowing where you have a potential problem and what resources you need to allocate is job one — you can thank an archaeologist when they help you unearth these clues.
Finally, a closing thought for the archaeologists out there: want to come work in tech? You have great skills in data analysis, project management, research and writing (to name just a few), and many of you have excellent coding skills — while we don’t get to spend much time studying the past over here, we have the opportunity to help our organizations be thoughtful about how we build the future. Bonuses: excellent pay and benefits (actual excellent pay and benefits, not what most rescue digs or academia can afford), opportunities to work remotely and/or travel, and a work culture that still enjoys a drink or three — though that’s not certainly a requirement. Beards are entirely optional.
*Other types of social scientists are also available, but I don’t know if they are as much fun.
This post also appears on LisaGrimm.com, along with a lot of things about beer.