2013-08-22

Co.Labs

Why Your Startup’s Culture Is Secretly Awful



Startups love to talk about their culture and use it as a selling point, but product manager Shanley Kane contends that “culture is made primarily of the things no one will say.” Every team’s culture consists of a submerged set of beliefs and values, priorities and power dynamics, myths, conflicts, punishments and rewards. Kane wrote a blistering critique of the official line on startup culture in a blog post called "What Your Culture Really Says" and went on to slaughter a few more sacred cows in "Five Tools for Analyzing Dysfunction in Engineering Culture." Co.Labs spent a merry hour quizzing her about power, unicorns, and founder myths.

Why did you write What your culture really says?

When I was in school, I took a number of cultural studies. I studied a little bit of philosophy and some gender studies. I had a very strong interest in that field, but never thought that it would be applicable to the real world. I was surprised when I started working, at how much all that stuff was relevant. I noticed in Silicon Valley, and the tech industry in general, that a lot of people were giving these talks about what their culture was and it was really superficial and focused on the privileged aspects of the company like free food and massages and all that stuff. I thought this was pretty destructive in terms of telling people that this is what culture is. It's much more serious and much deeper.

So what is culture, then?

Culture, especially a team culture or a technical culture, often involves how you choose or prioritize between multiple things which are good. The classic example is you are trading off shipping something quickly versus spending more time on it, making sure that it's perfect before you launch it. Those are both good things. Culture often has to do with which one of multiple good things we think is most important. Sometimes overemphasizing some of those good things can have a negative impact. One of the reasons that it can be difficult to unpack culture is because it involves making these very difficult choices between lots of things which, on their own, are good.

How is power a factor in startup culture?

Power dynamics are so critical to understanding your culture. One of the things which makes it especially difficult to examine startup culture is that we (in the startup world) are so against the idea that power is functioning inside our workplace at all. You see all these ways of operating startups that are based on not having managers, so there's no traditional power structure. It's part of our self-esteem in a way. It's part of our core identity that we say we don't have a traditional corporate structure and don't have these negative power roles in the workplace.

The problem is that power is an aspect of every human interaction, even if you don't have managers. When people say “we got rid of managers” they think “we don't have to think about, or deal with or critique power in the workplace.” In places where there is no formal hierarchy, you actually have to pay more attention. We are really taught not to question power, not to question authority, not to critically examine power in the workplace. Fully addressing power in the workplace means that we have to develop healthy safe mechanisms and spaces to discuss it.

Are deadlines a form of management “microaggression”?

On the one hand, you absolutely have to have deadlines. Things need to ship. Things must move forward. But I have absolutely seen scenarios where deadlines are used as a power play to set up teams to fail. You have to look at who is coming up with the deadlines? Has the engineering team bought into the deadlines? Are they realistic? What ulterior motives might people making a deadline have?

In a negative power scenario, deadlines often come from outside the team that's actually creating the technology. Often the people who set deadlines don't understand the process of building software and all of the things that can go wrong. When deadlines get really destructive is when people outside the engineering team use deadlines to try to influence the engineering team, since they don't have any other means of doing so. Marketing departments who are like “We don't know how to work with the engineering team so instead of finding ways to productively work together, we are going to give them some date to deliver to make them move faster in order to incentivize them.”

Who are the heroes of founder fairy tales?

At the risk of getting too simplistic, there are two types of people that are very much mythologized in the culture. One of them is someone who went to MIT or Harvard and has a strong engineering background. That's a very specific economic and often racial set of privileges.

But you also have this other type, which is the idea of the high school or college dropout who, despite that, has been programming since they were very young, is brilliant, a genius. It's an underdog story on the surface. Person dropped out, they didn't go that traditional path but have managed to make something of themselves. However, below the surface, these are people who were able to have access to well-paying jobs, they were people who had computers when they were very young, they had the time and access to resources to develop these talents. The high school dropout story is always the story of a white guy. You never hear about women who drop out of high school and go on to found companies. I think it's very interesting that even within that narrative of the dropout-hacker-redemption story you actually have a lot of privilege operating.

Why do all startup teams look alike?

Startups in San Francisco tend to be almost entirely white men. People who get funding tend to be white men. People who are able to take economic risks are white men. There's a number of startup programs and incubators out here who give a certain amount of money that is not really a living salary, but it can be enough for one individual to get by. There are a lot of people who can't take advantage of those opportunities: People who don't have parents subsidizing their living, people who have school debt, people who have families, who need to be able to support other people whether those are parents or children or a partner.

It's this fairly narrow class of person which has a certain level of economic stability that is able to take a risk like that. So we have set this idea that only a certain type of person with some degree of economic security, who has very little ties to the community or other people in that they can just go off on their own and pursue these projects, can found these companies.

The one thing I would really change would be to get more women and minorities into startups. Women, gay people, trans people, all kinds of different people. I think that would be the most transformative thing in startup culture.

What's the problem with “cultural fit”?

This idea that someone is not a culture fit functions both during the hiring process and when people are already in the company. I know a number of women who have been turned down from jobs because they “weren't a culture fit.” I know a lot of people, not just women, but it seems that women are disproportionally affected. “Not a culture fit” is used as a reason to turn people down for a job. Once they are there, it's a way of kicking them out of the culture.

People will say “not a culture fit” without having to define what that means. It's almost this sacred space which lets them uncritically reject people from the company or from the team. On the surface level it tends to mean “We just don't like you. You're different from us. We don't want to figure out how to work with you.” “Not a culture fit” gives us a really easy way to disregard your experience and you as a person.

How can unicorns be destructive?

In our industry we put a lot of value on this myth of the brilliant individual contributor who is coming up with ideas pretty much in complete isolation. Oftentimes this type of person is very charismatic and carries a lot of social weight on the team. I think the way that you see the unicorn function is that they are not necessarily tied to the formal structure of the organization in the way that other people in it are, and they won't have the same set of responsibilities and ongoing obligations that other people in the team have, because we are giving them time to think and be creative and wander around coming up with ideas. Because these people aren't necessarily sharing in the everyday work of the team they have more time to come up with these things and everyone else is trying to hold the business together so they don't have that critical time and space to be doing inventive work.

Also when the very thing we are mythologizing is that it is this one person who comes up with something in isolation, you are excluding the very notion of a team. But everyone wants to participate and contribute to the creation of new products. So pretending that it's a certain type of person sets up this very negative mythology that excludes a lot of people who are interested in that type of work.

How can companies start to examine their own culture?

In order to get people to see what their culture really is, you have to give them tools that help them to break down and analyze and see what's going on around them, the same as we learn from studies of representation. You go to a movie. A lot of people just see the movie, but some people have been trained to see the hidden messages about race and gender. How do we educate people about these hidden worlds and hidden messages?

One of the most obvious examples is that I just wrote a piece about women in technology and I got a few women leaving comments like “I don't experience sexism in the workplace.” It's highly unlikely that they are somehow magically immune to sexism, it's just that they don't have the tools to see and understand what's going on.

One way to start people down this path is to get people to study Pop Culture studies. Tools like how do you examine what's going on as far as power dynamics? What do characters in this movie or fairy tale have in common? There are huge fields of study around these topics. How can we bring those tools and skills into the workplace? Why aren't we applying our same approaches to measurement and precision and all these things that we are using to build software, that we are using to build companies? Why is culture completely untouched by those means of inquiry?

[Image: Flickr user Stig Andersen]