The Importance of Culture and Values When Building Teams

Elwin Lau

Director of Software at JANA Corporation


In the Beginning

The room was literally being demolished around us as I sat with my small tech team. I was a young team lead working with my team to deploy a key update to production well after hours.

Our process was to first install onto a staging environment, smoke test, then make a final deployment to production. No sooner had we started our deployment process however, when we hit our first technical hiccup. Our updates weren’t taking hold in our staging environment.

Next thing we knew, we heard a massive BANG. The head of a sledgehammer was now visible as it penetrated through a hole in the wall across the room.

I’ve had the good fortune over my 20 years of experience to have the opportunity to assemble several high performing teams, many in hyper growth companies. Early in my career, my prevailing focus was always on technology fit, years of experience in a particular tech stack, and ensuring that strategies and processes were properly in place.

It wasn’t later till I realized that I was focusing on the wrong things.

We looked at each other, startled, but also wrapped up in the absurdity of it all. Here we were trying to push a key piece of code into production, meanwhile the office seemed to be falling apart around us.

To be fair, we were warned by upper management that renovations would be happening and taking place throughout the building, but we never could have imagined that they would bring the house (room) down around us.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

We’ve all heard the saying “Culture eats strategy for Breakfast”. Well I contend that “Culture eats strategy for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, and still has room for dessert”. What is culture, and why does it have such an incredible ability to either be a destructive force, or something that allows you to overcome impossible odds?

Simply put, culture is the shared set of attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and most importantly, values, that a group of people collectively hold. Why I deem values the most important is that values are really the underlying foundation that drive everything else that people do (behaviors, attitudes, beliefs).

How many times have you heard: “It’s only at your most challenging times you truly learn about yourself?” When faced with extreme adversity, is when we as individuals really start to think about what’s important to us.

Think about a truly tough time in your career. Think about the questions you started to ask yourself during those times: what matters to me, what do I value. When everything's falling apart around you, it’s your values that determine how you behave and react.

Culture is very much the same. When the going gets tough, as they often do in hyper growth, high pressure environments, the first thing that usually gets thrown out the door is processes, next technology (let’s just get it working, we’ll clean it up later), till all that you have left is your culture.

Does your team value risk and a “just get it done” attitude, or do they value caution and restraint? Do they value elevating each other and sharing equally in the credit and blame, or do they point fingers at one another when things go awry?

Undeterred we steeled ourselves to ignore the destruction around us and continued to deal with the staging issue at hand. Our systems admin proposed an unconventional solution.

He suggested we clone the production environment back into staging, and that we apply our changes onto staging one by one to isolate which change was causing the problem.

Even though this wasn’t our standard procedure, we all agreed this would be a good approach. We started the cloning process when suddenly the lights in the building shut off. The backup batteries kicked in and the emergency lights came on.

Everyone’s phones started beeping incessantly and I could tell by the looks on my colleagues’ faces that this couldn’t be good.

Values and culture form the very foundation of every company. Regardless of the type of company, Start-up or Multinational, Mercenary or missionary, culture will dictate the default state that your team will revert to when times are at their most challenging.

Aligning Values to Build Culture

Formation of the culture of your team and organization starts with leadership. Leaders ultimately set the priority on what values are most important. I once was reading a book on parenting and the advice they gave was: “Parents, you get what you tolerate”. If you tolerate your children fighting and acting badly, well that’s the kids you get.

The same holds for leadership and values—what values and behaviors you allow for show those you lead, what you will tolerate. Do you value correctness above all else, or do you value curiosity and experimentation? Do you place a priority on integrity and respect, or are you more focused on results and outcomes?

Whether you realize it or not, your values will shine through in your everyday leadership. If you let that smart jerk on your team dominate conversations, the inherent message to your team is that it’s okay to be a smart jerk and acting that way is a path to success. If you readily own up to your own mistakes, you’re signaling to your team that honesty and owning your mistakes is the way to behave.

That’s why it’s essential when assembling a team that you find individuals that align with your organizational and leadership values. Ask yourself, we spend so much time on the whiteboard asking about algorithms and data structures, when was the last time you asked a question specifically assessing cultural fit?

This is doubly important if you’re in a position to hire a leader. I tell interviewers, you’re not hiring a manager, you’re hiring a leader– someone with their own set of values and ideas on culture.

Think about that, a person you’re hiring will dictate the culture of their team. Do you feel safe having this person represent the culture of our organization?

We had production servers running in the building and the blackout + phone alerts, told me they were in trouble. Without saying a word, my manager and system admin immediately stood up and ran off to deal with the fallout of the power failure.

These days, unlike my earlier ones, I always make sure to spend at least half-an-hour in an interview asking nothing but questions that focus on cultural fit.

I have disqualified candidates who have the right tech skills and experience but don’t align with our values.

Alternatively, I have hired candidates who don’t have all the right tech skills, but are an incredible culture fit.

I have never regretted hiring people who fit the culture, because I know that the individual’s values that I emphasize will drive them to be successful.

With my manager and systems admin gone, it was left to me and one of my developers to start updates on our newly cloned staging environment. We began to apply our changes slowly one by one to isolate the issue just as the lights came back on.

As we finally isolated the issue to a faulty script with insufficient permissions, my manager and system admin returned. Sure enough, the power to our production servers had been knocked out and had flipped over to backup power. They had made it to the servers just in time to flip over to a backup server before our production servers ran out of power.

In the meantime, the lights had just come back. Now with the power restored and the issue isolated in our deployment process, we were free to move forward with our deployment and eventual successful push into production.

Strange Days

The pandemic has brought significant hardships on many and has disrupted the way we work for the foreseeable future.

Work from home and hybrid arrangements are slowly becoming the norm in the software industry. With all this upheaval and change, the emphasis on culture and values becomes all the more important.

I see many software companies now trying to mandate their employees back into the office. Meanwhile, they list trust, and integrity as one of their core values. There seems to be a bit of a contradiction when on the one hand a company is touting integrity and trust, and on the other hand, is telling employees that they need to be in the office at all times to do their work, even though they’ve successfully been working at home all this time.

Your staff has worked hard over the last two and half years to adapt to a change in work styles. A great way to reward them is by being flexible to accommodate their preferences as restrictions loosen up. If trust is an important value in your organization, it will be a great way to build it and allow you to further your cultural identity.

The Importance of Culture

Regardless of working arrangement, culture should remain at the forefront of your growth strategies.

Clearly establishing your culture and values and ensuring that it becomes an integral part of your recruiting and team building are keys to building out a hyper-growth company.

Having a firm well established culture will also help you navigate our brave new world of hybrid and work from homework environments.

Incorporating culture throughout your leadership directives as well as in your hiring process can help to bring better chemistry throughout your teams and set them up for success through trying challenges.

I often think back to that eventful deployment and the many challenges we faced. What should have been a mundane deployment turned into an adventure.

With each additional challenge we faced, we could have easily thrown in the towel, or delayed our deployment, yet we kept pushing forward, focused on completing the task at hand, no matter what wall got demolished, or if the power went out.

Reflecting on that time today, I recall my manager never panicking. I suspect it’s because he had trust that he could count on us and knew that we all shared in his core values to get the job done. That was the culture he fostered and those were the values he sought for his team, and when the time came, we were all able to lean on them collectively and succeed.

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Elwin Lau

Director of Software at JANA Corporation

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