What is culture?

Stay in the tech sphere for any trivial amount of time and you start to hear about the importance of culture. Ask anyone what culture is and you won’t get a definition, but will instead receive various examples ranging from free food to mandatory hack weeks. One of the largest tech companies even coined the term ‘Googleyness’ to describe an employee’s alignment with its culture.

Even though no one really understands it, companies emphasize culture so much that there’s a good chance one or more sections of an onsite interview are reserved for “Culture Fit” questions. How can something so ephemeral and hard to describe be considered such a cornerstone of modern tech workplaces?

Culture is a conglomeration of tangibles and intangibles that – if done right – can solve turnover and improve productivity.

Perks

The most obvious and often first-mentioned aspect of a company’s culture is the perks. Tech has great perks. Catered lunches, overflowing snack cabinets, cold brew on tap; vacation stipends, summer Fridays, parental bonding leave; scholarships, software subscriptions, book budgets. Facebook pays employees to live closer to the campus, Microsoft charters buses to bring employees to work, and BlueApron gives employees a discounted subscription to its subscription kit.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are common perks that are missing – working in the finance industry could mean giving up free snacks and a lax dress code for higher end-of-year bonuses.

Perks vary so much between companies it’s often hard to compare them apples-to-apples, often the best we can do is figure out which perks are most important to us and decide if it’s a deal breaker when a company doesn’t provide them.

Alcohol

I thought it was important to split ‘alcohol’ out of general ‘perks’ because its presence can positively or negatively impact culture depending on your perspective.

For better or for worse, alcohol is a huge part of tech life. Some companies provide wine or local brews on tap and encourage employees to chase the Ballmer Peak, others ban it from the office and ask employees to partake on their own time.

It’s never mandatory to partake, but if a company’s alcohol policy is hugely different from your personal preferences, you could find yourself feeling left out as colleagues enjoy their 3 PM Jaeger Hour.

Diversity

This is a sensitive topic nowadays, but it’s pretty common knowledge that the tech industry as a whole isn’t happy about our performance when it comes to diversity. Is a company making an effort to hire a diverse staff or simply hiring the most convenient candidates? Does the diversity of management reflect the composition of the employee pool? Are steps being taken to improve accessibility of both the workspace and the product? Lack of diversity could mean a more difficult journey up the promotion ladder for certain minority groups. A company’s approach to diversity could illuminate oversights in its culture.

Goof-off time

Similar to work/life balance is work/play balance. I’ve worked at companies where the work was nonstop – immediately after a feature was launched, we moved right into the next sprint and the next feature. Milestones were celebrated with a quick pizza party and it was immediately onto the next one. As a result, there was never an end in sight, never a “light at the end of the tunnel” to look forward to.

I strongly encourage some company time to allow employees to take a break from routine day-to-day tasks. Often everyone will return to their duties refreshed and with new ideas. Whether it’s a Hack Week to work on passion projects and moonshots or offsites to get to know one another better in an out-of-office setting, there are myriad benefits to using company resources in a way that doesn’t have obvious positive impact on the bottom line.

Open Source

Maybe you’re an engineer who also likes writing a tech blog once in a while. A company with a good sharing culture can give awesome opportunities to tell the world about how your team solved a complicated scaling issue or recovered from a disastrous outage. Companies with strong emphasis on sharing often provide generous support when you want to speak at conferences or patent/publish your ideas.

If the company contributes to or actively maintains non-trivial open-source projects, they are more likely more aware of more modern technologies and clean code practices. Open source can be advantageous when interviewing as more people will be aware of projects you’ve worked with.

Culture tells you a bit about what’s most important to a company

Culture means different things to different workplaces. Asking a current employee “what’s the culture like?” is a great way to figure out some of a company’s values apart from its mission statement.

It’s important to join a company where you believe in the product, but it’s also important to look for a culture that compliments your values. A company whose culture is “we work 9-5 and have summer Fridays” might attract candidates who feel strongly about work/life balance. On the other hand, a “we have quarterly offsites fueled with alcohol and you’re encouraged to work on side projects at work” culture might appeal to people who have a work hard/play hard mentality. Keep in mind culture is never established by founders in a manifesto or slide deck, but rather evolves with the employees, so it’s a relatively good indicator of the peers you will be working with.

Which aspects of culture are most important to you? How have companies impressed you with creative ways to improve culture?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *