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Cultivating the Company Culture in a Hyper-Growth Startup

Company Culture
Hiring

11 January, 2021

Ken Pickering, VP of Engineering at Starburst Data, emphasizes the importance of cultivating the company culture -- particularly its most important aspects -- during a hyper-growth phase.

Problem

When an organization goes through rapid growth and ingests a large number of people, retaining certain aspects of culture is exceedingly challenging. Understanding what aspects of culture are critically important for the organization and what you could do to maintain them is the key component of culture cultivation.
 

Actions taken

You should start by distilling what aspects of culture are crucial to the organization in the early phase of growth. Once you single out those, you should codify and write them down. They should be embedded at the very foundations of your organization but particularly enforced during hiring and onboarding. With large numbers of new hires pouring in, you want to assess if people you are about to hire will find your fundamental values as important as you do. Culture is not determined or safeguarded by any document you happen to compile but by the people you hire, as well as by the people you fire, promote, or retain.
 

A common misunderstanding is that culture can be controlled by being codified. There is little that management can do to change what people value. When you are scaling from 20 to 200 engineers, you will be engulfed by 80 percent of new people who could easily dilute your culture. This is something that should be thought ahead of time and made part of the hiring and onboarding process.
 

There are things that are, obviously, important in varied ways at different levels. On a broader, high level, understanding how the business operates is a value I find critical. Of course, that differs in sales-, product- or technology-focused companies, and it is something to be cognizant of. Engineering leadership often focuses too far down into engineering and doesn’t understand values foundational to the company culture. As a result, misalignment between the engineering organization and the business tends to be relatively common. Things would get further skew when there is no understanding of underlying values causing that misalignment.
 

In addition, the very nature of the organization can change as it scales and the team often gets unaware of it. The team would hire for a high-tech company, unaware that the organization is steadily transforming toward becoming a merchandising one. As priorities are shifting, the cognitive dissonance between the business and team values can emerge. In the early phase, companies tend to reflect the personality of their founders. This can translate to principles they personally value -- if engineers are required to be very technical, if speed is valued over architectural diligence, what type of product development people prefer, how much documentation they deem sufficient, etc.
 

Then there are more operational, day-to-day values that I find essential. Bias for action and getting things done is critical at any growth phase. They should be tightly connected to championing meritocracy -- if people contribute and excel, they should be rewarded for their effort. As the company grows, you will be exceedingly hunting for leaders, and this is how you will get leaders. Cultivating a culture of excellence includes determining what results are important and finding people who can deliver on them.
 

In practical terms, it means understanding when to invest in architecture and technical excellence, and when not. Most engineers are inclined to go for stability and automation, but there is a time to invest in that and a time when they should focus on other things. Knowing that will help you understand what kind of engineers you want to hire and how you will use their skills. Knowing if you want to make your system bulletproof or prototype rough code and throw it into production will tell you what type of engineering profile you will need.
 

Finally, transparency and honesty are values important at all levels. Acknowledging your mistakes and not being afraid to walk things back is the key to success. You have to be honest when things are not working, own mistakes, and be willing to work through them; these are qualities I find indispensable in engineers.
 

Lessons learned

  • Cultivating culture is hard. People would rather assume things about culture than having an open discussion about it. It is understandable since culture is often not logical and borders the realm of subjectivity. Also, it is frequently taken for granted, if not perceived as the status quo. No one feels like taking ownership and challenging the nature of its existence. People simply are not too keen to question how culture is shaped or in which direction it is going.
  • A significant portion of engineering leadership responsibilities should be about understanding culture, caring about it and being willing to change things that work or don’t.
  • Most engineering companies are making intellectual property that is profoundly derived from human nature. Human beings are creating that property and it reflects their values and, more broadly, their culture. I’ve seen instances of culture being organically grown but also efforts to enforce it (which never went well in the long run). You can’t forcefully instill values on a large scale without using the most Draconian measures, which can often backfire with unforeseeable consequences.

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