Entries Tagged 'Culture' ↓

My thoughts on Disrupted

During my commute (and while doing yardwork), I listen to books using Audible. Unlike everyone else who mentions Audible, I don’t have any advertising affiliation there, so I can’t give you a link to sign up. Sorry, but I’m guessing you can figure it out :).

Recently I wrapped up Dan Lyons’s bestseller Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. Dan Lyons, who found himself out of work after a lengthy media career, took a job at a Boston-area start-up (HubSpot) where the average age was half of his, and wrote a book about the experience. It’s a great read, even more so if you’re in the industry in any way (and doubly if you’re over 40).

As Lyons has worked as a writer on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” I came in expecting some wacky hi-jinks and light-hearted but pointed criticism at the ridiculousness of start-up culture. And while that is present, the overall package is much darker, and it’s worth experiencing it for yourself. To make sure I had a bit more context, as soon as I finished the book I read some of other press about HubSpot, including their official response to the book (posted by one of their founders, in a LinkedIn post).

As someone who cares about how people are managed, a few things stood out, and I felt they were worth writing about here. As a disclaimer, I’m talking about how Lyons portrays HubSpot. I have no direct experience with the company, and I am not assuming that what he’s relating is actually happening.

People Management

Lyons severely criticizes the management culture at HubSpot throughout the book. From individual line management (where young men with no management skills or experience do a poor job of managing others) to executive management (where a frat-boy sales culture seems to be encouraged by executives who value “cultural fit” without thinking too hard about how that impacts diversity and inclusion), everyone has some share of blame. The relationship between Lyons and his direct management is always portrayed as clunky, and sometimes downright toxic. In passage after passage, I found myself wondering why his management couldn’t handle any given situation better. So much of the difficulty could have been avoided if management had been receptive, open, transparent, and supportive.

Of course, we all know the people-skills side of management is not given enough weight in general, and this is especially true in a fast-growing cut-throat environment.

I’ve said over and over in my career that the first lesson I had to learn as a young manager was that not everyone likes to be managed like I do. Perhaps, in a very homogeneus workforce, this isn’t as easy to learn early on. This may especially be true if that homogenus workforce is inexperienced and not very demanding of their management, which it sounds like was the case at HubSpot. Maybe in that situation, you can put people into management roles without much coaching, and not have it backfire spectactularly … until you have someone join the team who is outside the norm. And when that happens, saying it’s a cultural mismatch is a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it?

Human Resources

This brings me to the second thing that jumped out at me. I’ve always felt that there’s an inherent conflict of interest when you have to deal with HR about anything sensitive about the company itself, because disrupting the corporate norms isn’t necessarily in HR’s interest, though it may be in your interest. For example, how many harassment claims seem to get shoved under the carpet at companies because it’s easier to shuffle people around than replace one executive?

This conflict seems to be even greater when the company is a start-up and so much of each person’s compensation is tied to stock which has no value yet, but whose value will eventually derive completely from shareholder confidence in the company. As an HR person (perhaps the only HR person) in that company, what’s your incentive (besides your own ethical code) to dig too deeply into something that may hurt the company?

So, in the book, when Lyons asks HR “Do we have any statistics about diversity in our workforce,” and they answer, “Why?”, it’s partially because there isn’t a clear separation of role here for HR. HR is proactively acting as a mix of HR, PR, and Legal. This is exceptionally true in a start-up environment but it’s not unique to that. I don’t know the best way to address this, except that in countries where strong legal protections exist for workers’ rights, it’s very much in the company’s best interest to adhere to those laws, and that falls directly into HR’s area of expertise (i.e. protecting the company from itself). It’s unclear to me, though, whether American voters have any strong desire to press forward in that realm.

Diversity and Inclusion

Speaking of diversity brings me to a tougher question in the book, and perhaps its central thesis. Lyons spends significant time discussing ageism at HubSpot and in tech in general. His points are all valid, and everybody should read them and absorb their implications.

I couldn’t help, though, being a little uncomfortable with some of Lyons’s own blindness towards inclusive behaviors. While talking about how uncomfortable older workers with families might be in the youth-oriented start-up culture, he hits the nail on the head. But then he brags about how confrontational and brash the newsrooms of his early career were, and lauds the raunchy jokes he’s free to make as a writer in Hollywood. It leads me to wonder if he’s really concerned about inclusion on principle, or just making sure he’s included. Because I’ve worked with many people who would be as uncomfortable in his dick-joke writing room or his confrontational newsroom as he was in the “everything is awesome” frat-house kindergarten.

Corporate Kool-Aid

The final thing I’ll mention which rubbed me the wrong way in the book was how Lyons portrays what I tend to think of as fairly mainstream corporate “stuff.” Whether it’s intentionally softened jargon or being terminated upon giving your notice, Lyons acts surprised at standard operating procedure for a 21st century company. I can understand being surprised at these things if you had been living in a newsroom bubble for the past 30 years, but Dan Lyons covered the tech industry for a living for a good chunk of his career. He went to conferences, interviewed corporate PR drones, and generally absorbed the mainstream corporate world for years. I find it unlikely he was as surprised by everything he encountered as he acts when he writes about it. I wonder if he’s intentionally playing this up a bit for an audience who is coming from further outside. I don’t blame him if he is, but it does impact the readability a little.

Overall, I found the book darkly fascinating. It was addicting, even though some days when I shut off the audio player I was stressed out and feeling depressed about our industry’s future. It’s definitely good reading, but it’s worth reading it with an eye towards your own workplace environment and how you can avoid falling into the pitfalls that obviously befell both HubSpot and Dan Lyons himself.

Technical momentum and shifting tides

I wrote some time back about how we all write throw-away code, how applications have life spans and you don’t want to work on the same code for two decades. Recently I was discussing this topic from a slightly different angle, in terms of how a product team’s technical culture has momentum and how important it is to be able to shift that momentum over time. I speak here of the collection of tribal wisdom and best practices that influence the technical decisions of a team over time, the technical values that the primary decision makers rely on when steering the ship.

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Picking up the workplace litter

We all want to work in better workplaces. Even people who have checked out, who have no connection to their work beyond their paycheck, could come up with ways their work environment could improve, or could get worse.

We all want it, but not all of us believe it can happen, and many of us don’t feel it’s our responsibility. And so it reminds me of how people approach the environment. As we head into spring here in New England, my mind shifts to the outdoors, and I can’t help but map the behaviors I see outdoors to the behaviors in the workplace.

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Cloudpets and culture

As a parent of an elementary-school child, I end up seeing a lot of children’s television. One of the most popular shows in our home is Teen Titans Go!, a brilliantly absurd comedic show about teen superheroes in the DC universe.

Since I see a lot of kids’ TV, I see a lot of kids’ commercials. One commercial I saw frequently last year was for Cloudpets, little teddy bears you could use to send voice messages to your kids from afar. The commercials showed a father who had to travel for business, a distant grandmother, and more all recording messages on their phones that their kids would listen to via their bears.

The bears themselves were not connected to the net. All messages would first be downloaded to a parent’s phone, and once approved, would be sent to the toy via bluetooth.

I immediately felt that this technology was an incredible waste of money (if you have connectivity, why not just call or send voice messages), but so are many toys, so I shrugged it off. I didn’t think of cloudpets again until last week, when Troy Hunt posted about yet another high profile breach (or rather, leak). I won’t spend a lot of characters outlining the leak; Troy does a great job of summing it up and he deserves the clicks.

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Shaping identity through naming

A few years back, during a project kickoff, we organized our engineers into teams, each intended to solve specific problems and deliver subsets of the overall project functionality.  Experimenting with some Agile concepts, we invited the teams to name themselves.

The team I was leading took this opportunity seriously; we campaigned for names we liked, we had suggestions both serious and humorous, and in the end we voted.  Our team name became Daemon.  We adopted the FreeBSD mascot for our informal internal communications, and often accompanied our team name with the following quote someone found online describing Unix daemons:

Thus, a daemon is something that works magically without anyone being much aware of it.

Over the next year, our team shifted to align with that definition.  We took pride in low bug counts, in delivering services that “just worked” and required very little configuration or setup.  Our focus shifted away from administrative use cases and focused more on infrastructure.  We sought out work that aligned with our mission.

In other words, naming ourselves helped define and shape our behavior.

We obviously took the name because we were proud of our ability to quietly deliver high quality work.  But that in turn shaped us to focus more on the traits we took from our name.

As another example, I’ve noticed this same pattern when defining strengths in performance reviews. Once someone names a strength, they are more apt to think of that as a character trait and seek out opportunities to prove it again.  Likewise, once the team leadership begins to discuss a person in certain terms, those terms may follow that person around their career (for better or worse).

So naming (or even labeling) can be powerful, and we should respect that.  Use it to your own advantage (the ever-present “personal brand”), help your teams use it to define their mission — but use it cautiously when defining others.

Tell me a little about yourself

I wish I had a picture to accompany this post — me, sitting on a chair, in front of a green screen, with high tech A/V equipment all around me, and bright lights shining in my eyes.  Me, nervous, blabbing off topic.  How did I get into that mess?
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Through the looking glass (door)

Polly Pearson recently spoke a bit about GlassDoor (indirectly, via “a tech gossip rag” which used GlassDoor’s ratings to classify our satisfaction with our CEO). I’m kind of disappointed nobody else called ValleyRag out on the awful statistics of using reviews from eleven employees to determine the rating of the CEO, but whatever.

What I wanted to do was take a look at GlassDoor and the state of EMC’s corporate picture as painted by GlassDoor’s users, now that the site has been up for a week.
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Saying Thank You

In the corporate world, it’s easy to feel powerless, but there are things within everyone’s reach which can improve the culture of your team (and taken to its logical conclusion, your company). One of these is taking time to say Thank You.

Our successes in the workplace depend a great deal on those around us. Every day, our co-workers make decisions which impact us. And when that person does something that makes our lives easier, what should we do? We all learned this as kids. We say Thank You.
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Is it time to break kayfabe?

If you’ve never followed professional wrestling, the concept of kayfabe is probably new to you. It’s an old carny concept – you had to deceive people into caring about your staged fights by making them believe the fights were “real.” So even though everyone in the wrestling industry knew that the outcomes of matches were predetermined, nobody would admit it, for fear of being ostracized and blacklisted. Kayfabe was stronger than just not breaking character – it was a code of honor that nobody broke.

The fact is, wrestling knew its product wasn’t good enough to survive any level of openness.

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Talk Hard

In my late teens (and beyond), I watched Pump Up the Volume more times than I can count. Released in 1990, it summed up the high school experience in a way that found a very enthusiastic audience (especially among disenfranchised kids who liked “weird” music, not that I knew anybody like that).

The hero of the movie, played by Christian Slater, has trouble talking to people face-to-face but uses pirate radio broadcasts to reach out to his classmates. Like a much darker Ferris Bueller, he’s loved by everyone, but nobody knows who he is.

DVD box from Pump Up the Volume
I imagine the movie would have a tougher time being understood by today’s teenagers.
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