Company culture can’t be understated. A big portion of what we do revolves around building exciting projects, tackling hard problems, and working with talented folks in our industry. These often constitute high pressure situations that necessitate fostering bonds between coworkers. Some folks want to clock in, sit down and work for eight hours, and then clock out without having interacted with another person all day. You won’t often get many recruiters beating down your door or job offers in your inbox framing your impact that way, though. Collaboration is essential to successful companies and so it’s critical that these companies build a work environment where employees are comfortable and enthused at the idea of creating something together. Employee happiness can be a huge propelling force.
Projecting that sense of involvement in the company is also a huge factor in attracting top talent. Many employees leave when they don’t feel they matter at a company, when they don’t feel like they have a place with their peers, or they’re simply not working on projects that they perceive as impactful. If you’re a budding start up with an angel investor and a hot new idea, it makes sense for you to grab top talent that can build out your idea quickly and efficiently. Poaching an experienced engineer can help get your idea off the ground, so you’ll want to sell that idea and your company in every way you can.
The problem here lies in what that means to people. It’s unlikely a company is going to mention working 100 hour weeks and cramped open office plans to get their employees to complete projects. They might instead describe the job requiring hard working, dedicated employees closely collaborating on mission critical projects. Worse still is completely eliminating any mention of work culture in place of cultural substitutes. “We want to seem like a company where everyone is getting along, happily plugging away day in and day out so we’ll instead mention things that are happiness adjacent. Like beer? So do we! In fact, we have a tapped keg. It’s right next to our ping pong and foosball tables. On Tuesdays, we pull out the karaoke machine and belt out our favorites. Come work for us!”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those activities in particular. It’s fine for some folks to enjoy a drink every now and then, table sports can be fun, and even off key singing can be entertaining to join in. The problem is that none of those individually will make your company culture. It’s trying to replicate what other companies do with their teams who want to feel a sense of togetherness, but that doesn’t inherently create that camaraderie. You need to build the trust between folks before they want to spend time outside the bounds of work.
There’s also conflicts when this pseudo-culture is forced on people. Maybe you’re not comfortable singing in front of others or you don’t drink. Mandatory activities that attempt to shoehorn this cultural bonding can do the exact opposite. If your company is mostly composed of younger folks without partners or children, able bodied people who can go play paintball on the weekend, you might feel like an outsider separated from your colleagues. There are plenty of cases where underlying tensions in a team are masked with bonding events in an effort to sweep things under the rug.
Does that mean never apply to companies that either mentions these as benefits or has them as part of their perks? Not necessarily. There are lots of positions available where you can do things like have a steady well paying job with great benefits where you can do escape room style puzzle games with your team or have a nice dinner out. Just be sure that’s not how they’re fully representing their culture and to ask either with personnel there or former employees how much of an impact those who aren’t able to participate can have at the company.
Culture isn’t static. The company you have today won’t be the same one in a year. Sometimes that’s good – the maturation of a workplace to better understand their employees’ needs or even the repairing of team unity after a toxic coworker departs. It also means that culture isn’t the only thing to focus on as part of your job. You can’t, after all, negotiate much about a company’s culture when discussing the terms of your employment. Larger companies will often tout their unique bonding through the teams built, highlighting all of the ways they’ve forged this bond that you can be a part of.
Two things are important to highlight. The first is that by the dynamic nature of systems, just by joining the team it will shift around you. You influence the team’s shape and in influencing you back, it morphs in subtle ways. Perhaps you can add another member to an oncall rotation which reduces stress. You might also, in writing more code, increase the number of code reviews required which makes it more difficult for the team to keep up with.
The other is that culture falls apart pretty quickly when, be it real or imagined, the existence of a company’s financial outlook is at risk. They’ll tell you how excited they are to have you on board and how together you’re going to disrupt an entire industry, that your particular set of skills is just what is needed to set the world on fire. An economic downturn, a failure to get the next round of funding, or even wanting to make stock price go up, and you’re now a number on a spreadsheet to be subtracted.
How do we wrestle with this cognitive dissonance – being part of a team without getting lost? As you get older, it’s ok to find out that good things won’t last forever – and that’s ok itself. Folks coming into your org to change things, even when it feels scary, can prove beneficial. Think of all of the things you can learn as new people join your team! Likewise, you should maintain an anchor on what your career path looks like, both within and outside your current role. Develop your intuition as to the essentials of a well working team, especially where you can contribute. Much like the role itself, the culture around you is never guaranteed, so positioning your career in terms of how you grow – even if it means seeking employment elsewhere – is in no way a betrayal and you don’t owe other folks your presence beyond what you sign. Be fulfilled -work at a nonprofit or even a private firm that’s not top of market if that’s satisfying to you – but don’t buy too deeply into the “we’re all in this together” mantra. Be loyal to people first.
This post is the current version of a section in my book on interviewing for technical roles. I’m trying to help out with any advice I can while I’m putting all of this together. As part of that, I’m looking for constructive criticism and feedback. My experiences as an engineer are also not universal and so my own biases will creep up in my writing.