The following is first of a series, reflecting on my time as a Midwestern engineer working in Silicon Valley. The opinions expressed are my own, and do not directly reflect the official policies or practices of any company or entity. #YMMV
It’s been said before: culture is key.
As I currently see it, there are two types of company culture: a Culture of Business and a Culture of Builders. Each carry pros and cons, strengths on which to build and weaknesses to overcome, products that fit and products that don’t.
In this piece, I’ll give my description of the two.
What is a Culture of Business?
A Culture of Business is driven by the marketplace.
- Members of thought leadership and sales are the most valued in this culture.
- What to build and When it is delivered are priorities — they focus on the customer.
- How it is built defaults to tried-and-true technologies — they maximize Who is building it and utilize past success.
- Design and direction are paramount. Driven by the market, those with deep knowledge of the customer push the product forward.
- Schedules, requirements, visuals are detailed and imperative, as they dictate the product, and, thus, any success.
- Risk is sternly calculated, balanced, and avoided if necessary.
- “Chain of command” is rigorously constructed; decisions are often made quickly and confidently by someone one or more levels above.
- Waste is constrained — time and money spent and ROI vs. potential money earned are closely compared and optimized.
- Engineers are seen as resources to allocate, and often as the thinnest bottleneck.
A Culture of Business is considered successful by the products it produces and the money it earns.
What is a Culture of Builders?
A Culture of Builders is driven by its people and how it builds.
- Builders and those who enable them are most valued in this culture… and anyone producing the product is a Builder.
- How it is built and Who is building it is prioritized. This does not mean the technology used, (though that is important). It means that all Builders are expected to participate, all are expected to build, all are focused on each phase of iteration.
- What to build is loosely defined by a vision, When it is delivered is nebulous and driven by progress.
- Builders are expected (and trusted) to make decisions to execute the vision. Designers can explore new heuristics, engineers can explore new technologies, managers can push their people in new directions.
- Risk is calculated, but tolerance for risk is very high.
- Organization structure can be quite flat. Decisions are made by consensus, (perhaps by demonstration).
- Waste doesn’t really exist, perhaps only in cases where communication between Builders was poor and execution was hampered.
- Any Builder can be a bottleneck, and other Builders either work around the constraint or offer ways to avoid it.
- Tooling is prioritized — the culture attempts to remove any and all obstacles from the process of building, even at the cost of more investment, (time, money, resources, thought, etc).
A Culture of Builders is considered successful by its innovations and how well it enables its people.
A Culture of Business is best at identifying a need in the market, designing a solution, and then deploying that solution quickly. They tend to make money just as quickly, focusing on maximizing revenue and delivering a solid minimum viable product, (MVP). Customers are often engaged before the product is built, and financing is found through sales or trial contracts. This makes finding additional resources easier, and development (sometimes) faster.
A Culture of Builders looks to its people quickly after an idea is formed. Products start as a question or mission and are formed by consensus: stakeholders state their desire, designers formulate a vision, engineers posit feasibility, people and product managers coordinate the effort. This often happens at the same time. Construction is fluid: iteration takes precedence over final product. A failed product is a nebulous term, and once a product is considered a failure, much can be gleaned in technical and design assets.
For a Culture of Business, stakes are high, and the margin for “failure” is wide. If a Culture of Business champions the wrong vision, if the read of the market is wrong, if the product is not bought… the product dies. The largest ROI of a failed product is what is learned about the market. Built on tried-and-true technologies, it gleans little in terms of tech or design lessons. A Culture of Business can burn out its talent pool with too many failures.
For a Culture of Builders, products can be more likely to be considered failures. Patience is required to see a product to its MVP state, which can be longer than expected. In addition, paralysis can be common. With so many people from so many disciplines, the temptation to direct the next iteration is strong. With the wrong culture mindset, this can prevent anything from getting accomplished.
A Culture of Business has the pulse of the marketplace, and it can formulate products well in advance. It has the power of prediction, which is invaluable to a company. It also has the ability to analyze its competition quickly, and identify ways to either carve its own niche, or overtake a shortcoming in a competitor’s product.
A Culture of Builders has the pulse of each Builder’s community, and is poised to both leverage and contribute back to each, internally (between teams) and externally (open source). Tooling that successfully optimizes the process of building can be shared in the industry, facilitating improvements, recruitment, etc. This culture can also pivot quickly, as upfront vision/design/requirement costs are minimal.
A Culture of Business can be beaten to the market and threaten as much work as has been allocated. Acceleration is slow, but powerful: pivoting to respond to a unforeseen change in the market is a tumultuous process, (akin to trying turning a cruise ship 90° in 60 seconds). A talent pool can be hard to source or maintain in certain sections, as much of the creative process is controlled by a certain sector.
A Culture of Builders can be beaten by itself. Burning through cash, time or even Builders can cause a product, (or, indeed, an entire company) to implode. Acceleration is quick, but too many pivots and the vision can be lost, resulting in a product that resembles Frankenstein’s Monster instead of a well-oiled system.
So… what are they?
A Culture of Business is a beehive: a collective of minds driven by singular goals, sharply attuned to the seasons outside, fully prepared with past experience to take advantage of the weather and stockpile golden riches in its walls.
A Culture of Builders is like a clock: ticking away into infinity with lots of gears turning, weights lifting, springs unwinding, hands moving… all well-oiled by caretakers and each fully aware of its responsibility to all of the clock’s purposes.
Which are you?
Which culture describes your workplace? One or the other, or a mix of both? Do you see it favoring one or the other? Is there more to say? Let me know in the comments.
In the next of this series, I’ll explore examples of these cultures, where they’ve succeeded, where they’ve failed, and where I see the Midwest and Silicon Valley.