Overview

This is the first blog post about technology at Koyo.  It is purposefully about culture.  If the culture is right then everything else follows – coming to work is a pleasure, people feel valued, they are productive, problems and difficulties are addressed head on and solved.  If the culture is “wrong” then you have a battle on your hands: good people leave, performance is sub-optimal and attempting to change that culture is notoriously difficult. 

Early in my career I, and the industry as a whole, did not think much about culture.  I remember in one of my first jobs that all programmers were required to wear ties – this at a startup biotech not a City job.  Recently, there has rightly been a focus on culture.  As a tech leader, it is tempting to think we are breaking new ground here.  But having the right culture is not a tech-specific problem and cuts across business.  Indeed, many sport teams talk about a winning culture and it is the psychological that often separates the great sports teams from the rest where winning margins are so narrow.  Warren Gatland said that Wales had “forgotten how to lose”.    

Firstly, let me define what culture is not.  It is not free beer, free breakfasts, ping pong tables and bean bags.  Too often these are practiced by companies aping a good culture by following others.  This is probably the most obvious manifestation of a “cargo cult” that I have ever seen – blindly following the external manifestations of culture without understanding the intrinsic drivers.  Further, these trappings are designed to merge work and play – often with the result that people spend more time in the office.  I think there will be a swing away from this merger back to a cleaner separation between the two.  (That doesn’t mean that you do not socialise with people at work – but this will be done outside the office.)  

In my career, I’ve experienced a range of cultures – ranging from the good to the downright toxic via the indifferent.  Senior managers are often terrible people managers and terrible guardians of culture.  I suspect this is because they are often very driven and find it difficult to empathise with others who have different motivations. 

With startups, culture usually follow the beliefs and actions of the founders and early employees and is organic.  As the company grows maintaining that culture is often difficult.  It is my hope that by being explicit about our tech culture from an early stage that we can maintain a healthy culture. 

The company has a culture & values and the technology team within the company has its own sub-culture.  These two do not need to be the same but they need to be compatible and share the same values.  So what is the tech culture at Koyo?  There are (currently) two key values and a further five secondary  values.  This blog post will consider the first two key values: 

1. Psychological Safety 
 
From a tech perspective, we practice “psychological safety”.  This terminology is unabatingly stolen from Google re:work

This is creating an environment where everyone feels safe and able to air their views – even if they are not sure they are right or they feel that is a “stupid question”.  I have been in many discussions where “stupid questions” have pinpointed deep routed (and wrong) assumptions or a lack of clarity about objectives.  
 
Earlier in my career, we were practicing Scrum and in a retrospective one of the most junior developers (straight out of university) observed that at the end of each sprint there was always a drop in productivity – some people were busy completing tasks but otherwise were “spinning” and looking for things to do.  He opinioned that “wouldn’t it be more efficient if there was a more continual flow”.  He was describing Kanban without realising it (Kanban was still rather new at the time).  We moved to a hybrid Scrum/Kanban model and saw productivity rise. 
 
This dovetails with the concept of “Strong opinions, weakly held”.  I like the caveat around this about not becoming submissive to the person shouting the loudest (see this article).  A similar technique to help brainstorming and make sure people feel valued is the simple process of saying “yes, and” instead of “yes, but”. 
 
Following on from the above, someone saying “I was wrong” is not an admission of fault but to be applauded.  Indeed, it is a “red flag” if someone never admits they are occasionally wrong (no one is right 100% of the time!) 

2. Ownership 

People work best when they have ownership on what they are working on and can understand the value that it brings to the company. 

When I first started in development the term “analyst/programmer” was prevalent.  Over the years, that has morphed into “developer” (or “engineer”).  The change is a significant one.  Agile has undoubtedly brought untold benefits to the management of software development.  However, it is now common for the “product owner” to create user stories often referencing mockups of functionality created by a “UX designer”. The developer then implements the stated functionality, with little awareness (or indeed interest) in the business value it brings.  In this scenario, outside of a purely tech remit the developer is disempowered.  This is both bad from a personal, morale perspective and also a company perspective –  quicker technical solutions that (mostly) meet the business requirements are likely to be missed.   It is a team responsibility to determine the best solution. 
 
The book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What motivates us by Pink covers this and related concepts in some length.  It also reminds us that tech management and culture is not uniquely a tech problem but is cross-functional.  Whilst I do not agree with all of it, Netflix’s Powerful is also relevant.  

Conclusion 

Creating an environment of psychological safety where individuals and teams take ownership are the two pillars of the tech culture at Koyo.  In the next tech-focused blog post, we will consider our next 5 values. 

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