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Understanding the Importance of Tech Microculture Within Large Corporations

Company Culture

19 October, 2020

Fei Xu, Engineering Manager at Square, Inc., discusses how tech microculture, typical for tech teams operating within large corporations, emerges and what are its main characteristics.

Problem

I was working in a number of tech teams operating within large tech and non-tech corporations and they all developed their own microculture. While corporations can have different cultures, their tech teams will nevertheless share the same goal -- delivering high-quality products in the fastest and most reliable way. This common goal will give rise to its own microculture. Tech microculture is most often aligned with company culture, but discrepancies and variations are not rare either.
 

Actions taken

Methodology
Many non-tech corporations still predominantly apply the waterfall approach -- they plan things years in advance, prefer slow and steady changes over the fast-paced redoing. On the other hand, most tech teams these days apply agile with an intent to deliver faster and ensure continuous deployment.
 

Processes
Large corporations are all about processes. Meetings of all types, sync-ups, or status meetings are filling up people’s calendars and most engineers find these processes burdensome. Engineers don’t understand why they have to share updates with all the different managers. At my current company, rather than having a Scrum master and project manager, we only have a product manager to report to that allows us to move faster. I personally try to minimize team processes, but not to the extent to jeopardize the team’s productivity.
 

Autonomy
When there is a difference between company culture and team microculture, I would empower the team to affirm their autonomy and focus on moving and delivering fast. To enable them to act quickly I would take on myself the operational burden, for example, attending tiresome status meetings. Microculture allows the team to hold to its power and be able to move fast and control things. Oftentimes things happening outside the tech team would impede the team, but creating a microculture that demarcates ownership and responsibility, makes it easier for engineers to focus on things they can control.

 

Values
Trust and empathy are at the very foundations of my values and I try to inculcate them in my team. First and foremost, you have to understand your team. I would extensively talk to my team members trying to understand their strengths and career aspirations. Then I would distill things that are unique for particular individuals and those that are shared by the majority of team members. Those shared things will translate to team values that would serve as a foundation of team culture.
 

Alignment
To ensure that there is alignment between the company and team culture I would always come up with a mission statement for the team before we would start any discussions about culture. I would try to align our team mission statement with the company mission statement that would serve as our North Star when developing our team culture.
 

Lessons learned

  • Team culture is an integral part of the wider company culture. Building a microculture is a team effort that should include input from all team members.
  • Developing team culture takes time and is a gradual process that is closely connected to your understanding of a company, individual team members, stakeholders, etc. The common mistake is to try to build it quickly and impose your views on what team culture should look like.

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