Guest Post

What Your Culture Really Says: The Toxic Lies Afoot in Silicon Valley

"Culture is not about the furniture in your office. It is not about how much time you have to spend on feel-good projects. It is not about catered food, expensive social outings, internal chat tools, your ability to travel all over the world, or your never-ending self-congratulation."
wm9shvwl220q6tcysjnc (1)

(Photo: Twitter/Shanley)

This is a guest post by Shanley Kane. It was originally published on her blog Pretty Little State Machine and is republished here with her permission. Ms. Kane works in product management and enterprise software in San Francisco and is interested in culture studies, the developer community and television for fun. You can (and should!) follow her on Twitter here

Toxic lies about culture are afoot in Silicon Valley. They spread too fast as we take our bubble money and designer Powerpoints to drinkups, conferences and meetups all over the world, flying premium economy, ad nauseam. Well-intentioned darlings south of Market wax poetic on distributed teams, office perks, work/life balance, passion, “shipping”, “iteration,” “freedom.” A world of startup privilege hides blithely unexamined underneath an insipid, self-reinforcing banner of meritocracy and funding. An economic and class-based revolt of programmers against traditional power structures within organizations manifests itself as an (ostensively) radical re-imagining of work life. But really, you should meet the new boss. Hint: he’s the same as the old boss.

The monied, celebrated, nuevo-social, 1% poster children of startup life spread the mythology of their cushy jobs, 20% time, and self-empowerment as a thinly-veiled recruiting tactic in the war for talent against internet giants. The materialistic, viral nature of these campaigns have redefined how we think about culture, replacing meaningful critique with symbols of privilege. The word “culture” has become a signifier of superficial company assets rather than an ongoing practice of examination and self-reflection.

Culture is not about the furniture in your office. It is not about how much time you have to spend on feel-good projects. It is not about catered food, expensive social outings, internal chat tools, your ability to travel all over the world, or your never-ending self-congratulation.

Culture is about power dynamics, unspoken priorities and beliefs, mythologies, conflicts, enforcement of social norms, creation of in/out groups and distribution of wealth and control inside companies. Culture is usually ugly. It is as much about the inevitable brokenness and dysfunction of teams as it is about their accomplishments. Culture is exceedingly difficult to talk about honestly. The critique of startup culture that came in large part from the agile movement has been replaced by sanitized, pompous, dishonest slogans.

Let’s examine popular startup trends that are being called “culture” and look beneath the surface to find the real culture that may be playing out beneath it. This is not a critique of the practices themselves, which often contribute value to an organization. This is to show a contrast between the much deeper, systemic cultural problems that are rampant in our startups and the materialistic trappings that can disguise them.

We make sure to hire people who are a cultural fit
What your culture might actually be saying is… We have implemented a loosely coordinated social policy to ensure homogeneity in our workforce. We are able to reject qualified, diverse candidates on the grounds that they “aren’t a culture fit” while not having to examine what that means – and it might mean that we’re all white, mostly male, mostly college-educated, mostly young/unmarried, mostly binge drinkers, mostly from a similar work background. We tend to hire within our employees’ friend and social groups. Because everyone we work with is a great culture fit, which is code for “able to fit in without friction,” we are all friends and have an unhealthy blur between social and work life. Because everyone is a “great culture fit,” we don’t have to acknowledge employee alienation and friction between individuals or groups. The desire to continue being a “culture fit” means it is harder for employees to raise meaningful critique and criticism of the culture itself.

Meetings are evil and we have them as little as possible.
What your culture might actually be saying is… We have a collective post-traumatic stress reaction to previous workplaces that had hostile, unnecessary, unproductive and authoritarian meetings. We tend to avoid projects and initiatives that require strict coordination across the company. We might have difficulty meeting the expectations of enterprise companies and do better selling to startups organized like us. We are heavily invested in being rebels against traditional corporate culture. Because we communicate largely asynchronously and through chat, it is easy to mentally dehumanize teammates and form silos around functional groups with different communications practices or business functions.

We have a team of people who are responsible for organizing frequent employee social events, maintaining the office “feel”, and making sure work is a great place to hang out. We get served organic, vegan, farm-raised, nutritious lunches every day at work.
What your culture might actually be saying is… Our employees must be treated as spoiled, coddled children that cannot perform their own administrative functions. We have a team of primarily women supporting the eating, drinking, management and social functions of a primarily male workforce whose output is considered more valuable. We struggle to hire women in non-administrative positions and most gender diversity in our company is centralized in social and admin work. Because our office has more amenities than home life, our employees work much longer hours and we are able to extract more value from them for the same paycheck. The environment reinforces the cultural belief that work is a pleasant dream and can help us distract or bribe from deeper issues in the organization.

20% of the time, or all of the time, people can work on whatever they want to
What your culture might actually be saying is… We have enough venture funding to pay people to work on non-core parts of the business. We are not under that much pressure to make money. The normal work of the business is not sufficiently rewarding so we bribe employees with pet projects. We’re not entirely sure what our business objectives and vision are, so we are trying to discover it by letting employee passions take root. We have a really hard time developing work that takes more than a few people to release. We have lots of unfinished but valuable projects that get left behind due to shifts in focus, lack of concentrated effort, and inability to organize sufficient resources to bring projects to completion.

We don’t have managers and the company is managed with no hierarchy
What your culture might actually be saying is… Management decisions are siloed at the very top layers of management, kept so close to the chest they appear not to exist at all. The lack of visibility into investor demands, financial affairs, HR issues, etc. provides an abstraction layer between employees and real management, which we pretend doesn’t exist. We don’t have an explicit power structure, which makes it easier for the unspoken power dynamics in the company to play out without investigation or criticism.

We don’t have a vacation policy
What your culture might actually be saying is… We fool ourselves into thinking we have a better work/life balance when really people take even less vacation than they would when they had a vacation policy. Social pressure and addiction to work has replaced policy as a regulator of vacation time.

We are all makers who are focused on shipping.
What your culture might actually be saying is… Features are the most important function of our business. We lack processes for surfacing and addressing technical debt. We have systemic infrastructure problems but they are not relevant because we are more focused on short-term adoption than long-term reliability. We prioritize fast visible progress, even if it is trivial, over longer and more meaningful projects. Productivity is measured more by lines of code than the value of that code. Pretty things are more important than useful things.

Closing
Talk to your company about culture. Talk to other companies about culture. Stop mistaking symbology and VC spoils for culture. Be honest with yourself, and with each other. Otherwise, your culture will kill you softly with its song, and you won’t even notice. But hey, you have a beer keg in the office.