Paying Down Cultural Debt

In her Calibrate talk “Paying Down Cultural Debt” Carbon Five’s Sonya Green explores the ways we confuse culture with culture’s byproducts. Rock walls, artisanal beer tastings, and dog-in-the-office policies may reflect aspect of culture, but they aren’t the thing itself. Culture, as Green explores, is the way workers talk to each other, treat each other, and make their most important decisions.

This is the tenth of a twelve-part series covering the sessions from Calibrate, an engineering leadership conference held September, 2015 in San Francisco.

For many engineering managers, the idea of “culture” offers some slippery challenges. Statements like “our culture is awesome” risk sounding like cliched slogans, particularly when startups promote the presence of a foosball table as a proxy for “culture.”

Green shows that transmitting culture to newer hires becomes much easier when you care enough to write it down. That’s right: writing down your culture is probably the most important thing you can do to improve it. (Storenvy’s Jon Crawford makes a similar point in “Building a Dysfunctional Team”). What do you value? What tradeoffs exist? Green delves into nature of those tradeoffs to illustrate how memorable phrases like Google’s “don’t be evil” can devolve into slogans that foster conflict, harm morale, and may even push talented people to leave.

Guided by her experience as former Head of Support at GitHub, Green explores the often unappreciated connections between explicit culture and hiring, and explicit conversation and re-evaluation of culture leads to stronger, more diverse teams that find their work meaningful and satisfying.

If you find that great people are moving on because they didn’t understand where your team was headed, it might be time to watch “Paying Down Cultural Debt.”