Culture Codes From Around The Tech World

by Oliver on Wednesday, February 8th, 2017.

Last week I found myself reading through all (ok not entirely all, I skipped the NASA one) of the slide decks on culturecodes.co – there are a variety of slide decks from tech companies, which attempt to describe what the company culture looks like, their values, or company processes that serve as an employee handbook. They are called Culture Codes and not Company Culture because culture can only be talked about or described, but cannot itself be seen. Hence – the content of the slides are codes for the culture.

At any company we express our culture naturally – it has been described as “what happens when nobody is looking” (and there are many more quotes about it you can Google in your own time). It would be interesting to think about what might be inside a slide deck about my own company’s culture, were we to put one together (we haven’t yet, hence my thoughts on the topic). To that end, I decided to read as many of the slide decks on the above site, and summarise my thoughts.

General Observations

These are stream-of-consciousness notes in no particular order about what I observed in the slide decks.

  • Usually has a value/mission statement for the whole company.
  • Things they aspire to do, some descriptions of what the culture looks like.
  • What makes the company (and culture) different from others.
  • Longer-form description and detail of company values (i.e. describe each value).
  • How the company works (as in workflow) and works (as in success).
  • How to make decisions.
  • Definitions of what success looks like.
  • High-level description of behaviours/traits of people who work well in the company.
  • Lots of justifications for “why” these values are here.
  • Culture deck is often shared publicly and used as recruiting/marketing tool (both for employees and customers).
  • Some have a small “history” section describing the founding of the company or bootstrapping of company values. Good if they are interlinked. Describes major milestones of the company so far.
  • Quotes from customers, employees, source material (e.g. entrepreneurs) for values or guiding statements, supporting the values.
  • If the deck is shared publicly, it sets expectations for employees before they walk through the door. Some are explicitly aimed at being marketing material.
  • Company involvement with community – greater impact than just through core mission.
  • It is tempting to copy values or content, but there are some slide decks which are very incompatible with our values, feel jarring (or just feel plain wrong). Some are very prescriptive, strict rules.
  • The language you use matters! Imagery too.
  • Many pictures of smiling employees / teams. Photos/descriptions of company events (e.g. parties/picnics etc).
  • Crediting culture with driving the success of the company.
  • Video where employees can give concrete examples of living the values.
    • BUT, culture is not just quirky work environments, posters on the wall, etc.
  • Many culture decks double as employee handbooks (e.g. Zappos, Valve). Some are extremely long (Zappos ~300 pages -> many personal employee stories and photos -> tell the values story through many concrete examples rather than analogy/metaphor and brief descriptions).
    • Length varies a lot. Lower limit is around 12 slides, which is not enough space for meaningful descriptions. 50-100 is the sweet spot, more than that just drags on.
  • Some (Genius, Trello) dogfood their own product to create their culture deck (or employee handbook), but it comes off as a bit messy and hard to understand, in some cases full of comments that obscures what is current or actual reality. NextBigSound, Sprintly, Clef store markdown on Github (which is optimised for authoring but not necessarily consumption).
  • Inputs sometimes also from partners and customers.
  • All culture decks walk a tightrope between cliché and meaningless catchphrases on either side. Extremely difficult (impossible?) to be original, quite difficult to be meaningful and capture reality that people can buy into.
  • Often both clarifying negative and positive statements: “X means that we do Y”, or “X doesn’t mean that we do Z”.
  • Google’s values are predictably different (and perhaps not a great fit for many other smaller companies with fewer resources). Same goes for NASA which has a completely different set of needs to most tech companies (safety!).
  • Although I don’t like the Big Spaceship culture deck too much (painful on the eyes) I like that they call bullshit on buzzwords and manager speak.
  • Lots of quotes from Daniel Pink, Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell, US and UK leaders.

Values

As you might expect, the values that companies strive to adhere to and live every day are very similar. I summarised them into a smaller number of similar themes (which may not all be entirely cohesive, but not much time was spent on this):

  • Autonomy / freedom / desire to reduce process / resourceful.
  • “Do the right thing” (also related to the above) / trust / responsibility / ownership.
  • Driven by a vision / vision provided by leaders / leaders living and demonstrating values.
  • Transparency / sharing knowledge / communication / feedback / questioning / openness.
  • Selflessness / not personally identifying with the work / using data rather than opinions.
  • Striving for results / outcome-driven / calculated risk taking / action over talk / results vs busy / building for the customer / doing more with less / growth / Get [Sh]it Done.
  • Learning from mistakes / great is the enemy of good / ship now / fail fast.
  • Helping others / treating colleagues with respect / coaching / mentoring / servant leadership.
  • Constantly learning / inventive / optimistic.
  • Mindfulness / empathy / care / reflection / time for being strategic.
  • Inclusivity / diversity goals.
  • Work/life balance, living healthily. Having fun / celebrating success / “family” feeling / friends at work.
  • Meaningful work / Company invests in community / serving a higher purpose.
  • Intertwining of individual/team/company values and missions.
  • At least one “quirky”, unique company-specific hashtag or catchphrase (several companies list “quirky” as a value).
  • Working with other talented people / hiring & nurturing.
  • Almost all claim to be unique! (really?)

“Anti-” Values

Some companies have very different values to others, which may be undesirable or completely destructive outside of that particular company. But perhaps within their own environment they do work. Presented here without further comment:

  • We start work at 8:30 every day.
  • Many sporting team analogies and metaphors (bro culture?).
  • Success is “hard” or a “grind”.
  • Work hard play hard / fast-paced / urgency / hustle.
  • Timebox everything. Strict scheduling.
  • Focus on competition mentality vs satisfying customers.
  • Only hire “A” players.
  • Do the thing you least want to do right now.
  • Blindly attempting to define culture around The Art of War.
  • Never compromise (never never? really?).
  • Do things that don’t scale.
  • Open Office! (I thought that wasn’t cool anymore…)
  • Many other things that work when the company is very small, but eventually fail and it turns into the same org structure and ways of working as most other tech companies (e.g. Github).

What are some of your own culture codes or values that you like, and see lived out every day? Leave some comments!

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Wednesday, February 8th, 2017 Tech