Long gone are the days, when company culture did not matter or was a second-class citizen. Today, when choosing a company to work for, above all you choose the culture (may be even not realizing it and thinking that you are after technology or product). When you look at the job openings or office photos with employee smiles and general cheering atmosphere you will likely not see the culture of the company. You may get a glimpse of it during the interview process, but it is not enough.

Why is culture important?

Culture (/ˈkʌltʃər/) is the social behavior and norms found in human societies.

To me company culture boils down to every day activities, like running projects, exchanging information and planning. I do not think that culture can be imposed. Observing it and declaring core values however makes sense.

You can make a simple test to see the edges of your culture: if you have two employees sharing the same language talking in the kitchen and third one — of different nation — enters, will the first two switch to a common to all three language? You can argue they don’t have to. And this is where the culture begins: is it inclusive? Is it about socializing together or in smaller groups? This in turn will most likely affect on collaborativeness level amongst these groups during real projects.

Beyond language, there are many aspects of culture that directly impact the results of a company. Take decision making for one. When conflicting parties meet to discuss a pressing matter — how will they exchange ideas? In what fashion will they criticize each other’s ideas?

Why all this is of such importance? Well, it depends. Some will say — “we don’t care about the internal kitchen of how a result was achieved”. But you can also ask yourself: what kind of place you would like to work at? Is it something where everyone contributes their share and want to be heard? Or is it the place where everyone (100% inclusively) knows that sharing ideas will be supported no matter how smart or stupid an idea is? “What does it matter, if the result is what it is” — you may argue. If you are building a great place to work, you would like to make it great for everyone, not just a few. And the hardest part is to re-evaluate your culture as if you just joined the company (really hard, I know).

Ingredients of a solid culture

1. Readiness to support. Do your engineers willingly walk an extra mile to support each other? Beyond sprint meetings, calls with product managers and status updates. Do they walk around the office / scan work chat and ask if they could help in passing? If there is a culture of support it prompts a lot of things to happen, like idea formation, knowledge sharing and general positive vibe in the office / chat. This combined makes work not only fun, but also more efficient. Again what to watch for here is “abuse” of helpers. It is best to be measured and rewarded in some way to see, if all tune in to the same way of collaboration.

2. Ego and ability to acknowledge own mistakes. It is not infrequent when knowledgeable people will tend to speak up / show off just because they carry the knowledge and may come across as arrogant. The cultural aspect to watch is ego. Less the better for internal communication / collaboration. This way you achieve higher level of inclusiveness — everyone can learn from each other without mental punishment and is free to impact on larger architectures. Connected with low ego is a rare skill of acknowledging own mistakes. First, it shows that you value learning process. And second, you are human, not a metal-made robot that only improves. You can make a mistake, you are human and can communicate that freely. This shows a great example to peers, that making mistakes is not going to produce a career impacting drama and more — they can even be rewarded for mistakes, because it is a crucial knowledge bit. Share it on a weekly demo! You may save time for your team.

3. Knowledge sharing sessions. Surprisingly a lot of information flies past engineers, when they are not involved in that particular project. Knowledge sharing sessions are the key. But not only within the team / adjacent departments. Overall on a company level. It is the venue to convey a large message, related to a process update in how tickets are filed or a way to document your component / feature. Or a way to break down a release. Taking first two points — it is also a way to share some painfully earned bit or a glorious bit of system design, that would not be acknowledged by pretty much anybody unless light is shed on it with good colour.

4. Meaningful meetings. Meetings without prep are time eaters. Save 30 min for a prep-less meeting and ask relevant parties to prep for the next one. If you can avoid a meeting, do! It is way better for an engineer to go read a blog post on some tech / algorithm / system or spend extra time figuring out more test cases for their code. Don’t waste their time by asking their statuses, unless it leads to a good discussion. There are other ways to share statuses over work chat for instance. How making meetings a king may kill your culture? People will evade them or use smart phones to mentally “fly away” while the other dude on the team shares a status. If you do such meetings, cap them at 15 min and ask everyone to put down their phones, listen and participate.

5. Culture of retros. Retrospectives (after a milestone or project completion) are a great way to achieve two things: a. Understand and plan on improving what went wrong. b. Release stress after a tough milestone / project. Saying that something needs an improvement in passing over a chat / email / call will lead to 0% positive outcome.

6. Have all folks in the company equally accessible. The early days of a startup enjoy full connectedness. So easy to lean over to a next desk and ask a question — to everybody. The bigger the company, the harder it becomes: vastly different time zones, narrow focus in teams, “busyness” syndromes. If you are a top manager, take all efforts possible to be available for a chat. It will only help to retain good level of bonding and will help information circulate in the company. Consider it as a constant retraining of your staff. Sharing info in the memos? Might be the only way in triple digit headcount company. But better personal 1–1's.

7. Maintain wide focus. The issue I’ve seen in IT product companies (can apply to other industries too) is narrowing focus over time. The winning argument is: it helps with velocity of development. But there is a downside too: engineers will tend to narrow down their view of the product and eventually degrade as professionals. Generating ideas of how to improve the product, practicing dogfooding are the gateways to keep engineers motivated, learning and contributing. Roles are great because they identify the responsible drivers of a particular functionality. But getting input and feedback loop from thinkers and tinkerers (engineers) can push the product to new frontiers.

I hope these culture ingredients are useful to consider in your company. What other large cultural aspects you maintain in your company? Feel free to share!

Originally published at http://dmitrykan.blogspot.com.

Founder, tech team lead, software engineer, manager, but also: cat lover and cyclist. Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/@DmitryKan

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