Publicly Dogfooding Your Culture

January 10, 2017 holman

One of the easiest ways to get a job in the early GitHub days was to work on one of our open source projects. We’d start to recognize your username and ability, and you’d be able to get a better idea of how we operated internally. For a small, scrappy, bootstrapped company, this was a huge time saver for us early on.

Something that’s been fascinating to watch over the past few years is the aggressive march towards openness in technology companies. Open source software is a big deal as always, sure, but now startups are opening up their HR policies. They’re doing open product development planning. They’re even doing open salaries.

Companies that espouse this openness benefit from a variety of advantages, ranging from faster product development, quicker support cycles, and sometimes a decent marketing bump. When you’re talking about the organizational side of the company, though, I think there are three very important advantages: recruitment, ramp-up time, and guidance.

Recruitment: attract the right kind of employee

Like attracts like.

If you write about how your culture values a responsible work/life balance, then you’re likely going to attract potential employees who seek that type of balance.

If you write about how your company has real dope lunches, then you’re likely going to attract potential employees who seek real dope lunches.

The more a potential employee knows about you, the better prepared they will be when they finally talk to you. The company won’t often have to get three interviews deep before one of the sides figured out they’re not a good fit.

Ramp-up time: ease the time require to onboard new employees

Along those lines, the more data which is public about your company, the less the ramp-up time is required to onboard a new hire.

The best example of an open startup right now is GitLab. Like many, their product is almost entirely open source, so yeah, that’s cool, but as an organizational geek I really love what they’re doing in terms of openness within the company.

GitLab’s handbook is open source and accessible to anyone. Not only is that really helpful for similar companies to use as a benchmark and to collaborate on cross-company ideas, but it’s particularly great for new hires. Instead of spending a week sitting in a meeting room trying to indoctrinate your new hire, they can just read the handbook. The amount of context that makes available for a potential hire is huge.

GitLab’s been recently playing with being open about their compensation packages, both their option grants and salaries. There’s a big discussion happening around open salaries (see Buffer’s initial post which, in many ways, kicked it off), but taken organizationally, it’s really helpful in terms of making employee onboarding quicker and less ambiguous.

Guidance: think about — and then hold yourself — to a standard

Once you’ve written something down, you’re forced to defend it.

If your company has a value that you’ve publicly written down as “don’t steal shit from the customer” — to take an extreme example — then when someone in the company suggests doing something Really Wrong you can point back to your written value and say hey, maybe we shouldn’t do this.

The same goes for the reverse, too. When a company grows over time, policies and values will sometimes shift or change completely. That’s the nature of growth. Once you drawn a line in the sand, you can later change that line. (It is written in sand, after all.) To realize whether you’ve outgrown your old values, you’re forced to spend time thinking about those values.

I’ve known companies who would say cultural things internally, kind of as a catch phrase. But since they weren’t written down and defended against, either publicly or even internally, no one sat down to actually think about whether the company still held those values. Then everyone looked like a dork, continually puppeting out these things that weren’t relevant anymore. Shit’s just weird at that point, and further decreases the effectiveness.

I’m just a big fan of being open and transparent about a company. Everyone learns more. Your company is built on a stronger foundation. You can more easily adapt when things change by reexamining your positions over time.

Write more, talk more, be more honest.