Culture. Of all the overloaded, over-used, buzzword-bingo, five dollar corporate-jingoistic catchphrases of leadership jargon out there, are there any that are more hyped yet seemingly less tangible than this one? Developer teams are not immune cultural risks and benefits.
“They offer catered lunches, free snacks, a kegerator, and foosball!” Don’t get me wrong—I like those things! But once you’re in the door and working at a company, what really matters is feeling like you’re part of something special; that you “fit” there.
Whether you’re leading a small dev team, are in charge of a large cross-functional crew that spans the entire technology ecosystem, or are a founder who is building everything from scratch, there are real, tangible, practical steps you can take to improve your work environment, without having to clear out a conference room for another foosball table.
Let me start with a few admissions. First, although I have helped craft the cultures at a number of organizations, I’m by no means the foremost authority. Second, Stackify (my current organization) doesn’t have it all figured out. We’re as imperfect as the next company. To be a part of a company is to embrace a certain level of imperfection. An important corollary to that is that no culture is perfect for all people. Nor should it be. What a culture can be is a vital instrument that propels the success of an organization. Or, on the flipside, propels its undoing.
Culture will happen no matter what. You can be intentional about how you want it to look and help it develop its shape, or you can let it happen organically and become something on its own—for better or worse. I think you’re better off taking action to try to shape it to your company and team’s benefit.
Everyone wants to be on a winning team; to feel they’re a part of something meaningful. It’s hard to know where to start and how to make strides in practical terms. Here are some key principles that you can apply right away to help you in your journey toward building a successful, meaningful culture. That is, an organization you’re proud of, your team is proud of, and your company can grow with.
This first principle is perhaps the most fundamental, yet misunderstood, of them all. Your culture is the result of the people interacting within your organization. You can do a lot of things to influence culture, but nothing is more powerful than simply hiring those who match the idea you’ve created in your mind (or better yet, on paper) of the kinds of people who embody what your “tribe” looks like. Speaking of which…
I’m a big fan of Stephen Covey’s books, and one in particular that I always go back to is 7
Habits of Highly Effective People. A core tenet of the book is that we should “begin with the end in mind.” I use this lesson nearly everywhere in my life. It’s especially applicable when thinking about culture. When you finally get it right, what will it look like? How will it feel from your perspective, and from the perspective of your team? If you can’t envision that, you can’t really put the first tip to use. How will you know who fits and strengthens your culture if you don’t know what’s important in the people who are your culture?
With Stackify, I wrote a list of qualities that I look for in the people I want to work around. I knew I wanted the kinds of people who make it fun to come to the office, who I can trust, who want to do great work, and who want to collaborate to build something special. If your people are your culture, your culture is the culmination of their traits and personalities. What kinds of personalities do you want to be surrounded by, and what personalities accelerate your business? This should help guide you with a new level of clarity when deciding who belongs and who doesn’t. And that’s important, because…
It’s easier to find people who match your ideal than to convert someone who doesn’t. You shouldn’t cut loose everyone who doesn’t exactly match some mold down to the most minute detail, but for the traits that matter most to your culture, you should have a system built into your selection process to identify the existence or absence of those qualities.
I mentioned that I started with a list of the traits that matter most. The next step was to learn how to spot the presence of those qualities in people who also happened to be otherwise qualified for a given job, and to size up existing people on the team and determine if they possessed those qualities too. You know the people on your team through their everyday work, but it’s not so easy in a short-format interview.
The reason you begin with a list of desired traits is partly to guide the crafting of your interview process, and partly to train your eye to more effectively spot the things going on around you already. I decided early on that the single most important trait I wanted throughout any culture I was part of was a strong ownership mentality, mostly because that would ensure a healthy culture of stewardship-style delegation (as opposed to a more dictatorial, “gofer” style of delegation, which frankly sucks for everyone but the dictator). To learn to effectively identify “owners,” I had to craft a short list of questions that could be used consistently with anyone I was interviewing, from lead developer to marketing intern to CXO, that would reliably tell me if this person had a track record of owning stuff that mattered and doing it effectively.
Today, I have eight traits that I focus on when interviewing, but still the one I’m most keen on assessing is ownership. After years of asking the same questions of every single candidate, I have developed a keen eye for it. We’ve baked it into our interviewing process more broadly than just my purview, and we rarely miss. If you were to observe Stackify, you would find a company full of owners. I have never once wondered if someone had something covered that had been successfully handed off to them. Any breakdowns have been entirely on the leadership side, not on the side of our team. Typical, right? It’s always the bozos “up top” that are your weakest link. Which reminds me…
If you’ve ever planted a garden, you know that the easy part is planting the seeds and the real work is in keeping the weeds at bay. The weeds in your culture happen when you’re not nurturing, guiding, supporting, and reinforcing. Just hiring the right people will help you get it mostly right, but don’t forget to have conversations with people, to share your perspective on the right actions in a given situation without judgment, to help guide outcomes, and to course-correct when needed. Being consistent about what matters in the day-in, day-out decisions helps reinforce the company’s values and ensures that all decisions are consistent with your corporate values. I have yet to see an incredible and resilient culture where there wasn’t also real trust and ownership opportunity extended throughout the organization. Help people make the sound decisions you know they’re capable of with a little guidance in those moments where things are trending wide of the mark. The rest will take care of itself. Which leads me to the final point…
Nobody wants to go into an office that sucks the joy out of work. We have an amazing opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the world, to do really cool things with our talents that will benefit others. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not performing brain surgery or doing something else that is, quite literally, life-and-death work. Your work certainly matters, but nobody is going to give you “that look” if you laugh a little on the job.
Have you ever bonded with people that you couldn’t also laugh with? Enjoy the people around you, and let them enjoy the camaraderie that comes with doing important work around a shared cause with like-minded people. If you have hired the right people, given them meaningful responsibilities, and provided them with the right kind of coaching and support along the way, you can trust they will make good choices when you’re not looking. When you are looking, well, loosen up a little! You know, come to think of it, maybe that foosball table isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Craig Ferril is currently the COO of Stackify, a company of developers that make software for developers. He has a passion for applying Lean principles to software and business alike, along with more than 15 years of experience leading software engineering and IT operations for start-ups, SaaS companies, and large enterprises. His background includes leading teams that supported production software.