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The Importance of Company Culture in Your Software Development Career

Culture makes the difference between "just a job" and a software development career that you love

It is said that if you love your job, you will never "work" a day in your life. How a person defines professional satisfaction is completely subjective, but if you ask many folks, they would probably name factors such as schedule, compensation, workday pace, or the type of work they do as measures of work satisfaction. But what is it about a job that makes it "work" versus something we love to do all day? Is it a balance of the aforementioned criteria, or is there another factor contributing to job satisfaction?

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I once had a candidate visit our office for an on-site interview. I escorted him from the entry lobby through the engineering department's area to a meeting room, and the first words out of his mouth when we sat down were, "This place is awesome! There is so much energy here." None of the criteria mentioned previously had been discussed yet. He made his comment solely based on a 30-second observation of the team. His comment told me that we had built a vibrant atmosphere and palpable dynamic that others could immediately identify. As with all interviewees, I went on to explain the other aspects of our operations that we believed enrich an employee's experience. A company's culture includes all these aspects: the way the team interacts, how employees are treated, and company policies (e.g., openness, fun events).

In this article, we will explore the notion of culture and its importance in creating and maintaining an environment where its employees want to come to work each day. We will examine how fluid and fragile culture is and the important role that you play in defining it.

What Culture Do You Thrive In?

About five years ago, I was in consulting and was traveling heavily Monday through Thursday. My wife and I decided we wanted to start a family, which meant that I needed to give up the consulting job and find a position locally that didn't require me to travel. After my first month at the new job, my wife asked why I still wasn't home before dinner.

I realized my wife was correct in her observation, but I had to stop and think about why. No one was cracking a whip over me. There was no looming deadline. The answer was actually very simple: The culture of our team was built upon a formidable, shared understanding that we were in the trenches together and that as a unit we would succeed. I would find myself working late or on the weekends, not because I had to, but instead because the problem I wanted to solve was intriguing and I wanted to get the job done. The insatiable drive to build something amazing was contagious, and it took being a part of a team like that to make me realize the kind of dynamic in which I thrive.

We've all been at jobs where we count down the minutes till 5:00 p.m. when we can bound from the office into rush hour traffic to go home. Stop for a minute and think about why you couldn't wait to leave at the end of the workday. Was it because the job wasn't engaging? Was there no clear mission? Did you feel like another cog in the wheel? "Yes" answers to these questions are all clear signs of cultural incompatibility. When you're asking yourself what your ideal workplace is, I feel it's vitally important to consider what you'd be doing in your spare time anyway. If you can make your own personal goals and interests align with the work you'll be doing, you'll find yourself giving it your all on the job without even realizing it.

Creating and Defining Culture

As our workforce continues to evolve, so do the theories of what creates a productive, motivated team and allows it to flourish. This is particularly true in the software engineering world, where many of us have enjoyed a segmented culture that is uniquely "IT." With companies placing ever more emphasis on technology in the enterprise, the IT and business aspects grow closer and closer together. So how does a company establish a unifying culture that all employees can embrace and share?

The creators of a new company must give thought to the type of culture they want the company to have when it "grows up." Some company founders look to more established firms or firms similar to theirs on which to model their organizations' cultures. In other cases, the founders know what they want the company to become and seed their influence into its formation. To ignore culture from the start means that a company's evolution has no set of guidelines and no litmus test for recruiting.

Defining culture can be an elusive endeavor, but it's absolutely essential to figure out the things that make your company unique. Perhaps it's an accessible corporate hierarchy where everyone from junior employees to executives can interact freely. Or your company's uniqueness is its policy of transparency: informing everyone from a business perspective what is going well and what the team needs to rally behind to resolve. Perhaps what makes your company distinctive are more commonplace characteristics, such as a relaxed dress code, fun games for when employees need a break, or a catered lunch each day where the teams can socialize about something other than work. These types of perks are as much a benefit to prospective employees as are their salaries and health/financial benefits, and such perks contribute to enriching the environment in which employees will spend the better part of their days.

There are plenty of examples of successful companies known for both their products and their culture (Apple, Google, and Microsoft, to name a few). These are the employers that attract top talent because of the companies' name recognition and their power in the marketplace. The list is not exclusive to "big names," though. If you look for them, you can find many smaller, niche companies whose staff will tell you they never want to leave. Especially within IT, it is rare to find people who stay with one company for an extended period of time. In this regard, the average tenure of the team is also a good indicator of whether an engaging, enjoyable culture has been created.

If you're fortunate enough to be among the startup group in your organization, remember that the structure and culture you develop in the initial period will influence how outsiders perceive your company, and it will set the basis from which the culture will evolve. (See "Working for a Technology Startup" for a more detailed discussion about startups.) Employees hired post-startup will inherit the culture that you've created and will look to the startup group to ascertain what is acceptable and what is not.

Preserving Culture

Some would argue that culture is manageable only when a company is small, and that as the company grows, keeping culture alive becomes increasingly more difficult. Personally, I think this is utterly false and seems an excuse to treat culture as nice-to-have fluff instead of working to integrate it into the business process. Because culture is tied closely to overall employee morale, I am shocked at how many organizations choose to ignore or downplay its importance.

Other organizations, however, fully incorporate culture into their planning and budgeting. Some continue to evolve their work environments from a design and architectural standpoint—perhaps by bringing in silly furniture or funny posters to put on the walls. Some companies even remodel the office to create a certain look and feel. For example, one company created a removable wall around the kitchen area with block-shaped chairs, which could be used during company gatherings and in the process opened up the entire space. This is a simple yet effective way to encourage the social side of a company's culture.

A company that defines its culture but doesn't hold its employees accountable to it will likely see it evolve uncontrollably into something else. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, culture is a fragile thing. Everyone within the company is responsible for maintaining it, from their own actions on down to how they instruct new employees. Even the simple bits make a difference. At one place I worked, an important part of our culture was having NERF darts all over the place (an idea implemented by our CEO). So we decided to make NERF guns part of the standard issue with the welcome packets and laptops.

Related: Software Career Development: Tips for Choosing Your Next Programming Language

In my own experience as an interviewer, I treat the cultural portion of the interview with at least as much weight as the results of the other interview sections. Every individual who joins the company will have some impact on the culture, either directly or indirectly and positively or negatively. A wrong hire can destroy culture very quickly, but similarly, a great hire can give a huge boost to the team. In both cases, it's important to realize that the influence even one person has on culture can spread like wildfire.

Referring back to the NERF dart anecdote, although this might seem incredibly picky, we turned down some candidates partly because they said they wouldn't be happy with having NERF darts thrown around. For us, this alone wasn't a showstopper issue, but it spoke to how the candidate would fit in with our type of environment. We made a conscious decision to keep culture a crucial factor in our hiring.

Culture Is Crucial to Job Satisfaction

Let's face it: We're going to spend a significant part of our lives at our jobs. Shouldn't the job, then, be someplace where we want to be? These days, with company culture becoming an increasingly important criterion for job-seekers, your company's reputation as a great place to work will help distinguish your organization from the competition.

Regardless of your job level or seniority, by virtue of your being part of the organization, you are empowered to be a beacon of your company's culture. I've found that one of the best ways to attract talented prospective employees who would fit into your company's culture is simply to talk with them about what you do and what your work environment is like. When you talk to people at career fairs, conferences, or even just in casual conversation about what you do, they will notice your enthusiasm. It is extremely gratifying to hear a candidate say, "I can tell you're very passionate about this place! I would really like to work here."

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