Tech Life We must not ship crap

The Culture Chart

They played bridge every Wednesday at Netscape. In the middle of the cafeteria. Like clockwork.

The players were a collection of ex-SGI guys and they worked for a variety of different groups at the company, but as I learned a few months later, this core group of men quietly defined the engineering culture of the company… with a bridge game.

Ninety Days

If you follow the rules in Ninety Days, you’re going to have a solid feel for the construction of your immediate team. Who is who. Who does what. What they know. Who the freak is. Who the free electron is. In a start-up when there are only 12 of you, you’re done. You know the people landscape because, from where you sit, you can see them all and you interact with all of them regularly. In a larger company, however, ninety days is only going to give you a brief glimpse of what you need to know about your co-workers, the company, and its culture.

Fortunately, in a large company, tools and documents have been created to help you traverse the culture and process and figure out where people fit. For example, what do you do when you get a random urgent mail from a co-worker stranger? Even if the stranger takes the time to explain who they are and what they do, you still fire up the corporate directory with the simple question: “Who does this bozo work for?”

The corporate directory is the digital representation of a formerly very important document: the organization chart.

A quick glance at the org chart answers a lot of ego-based questions like:

  • Which org does he work in? A cool one?
  • How many direct reports does he have? More power?
  • How close is he to the CEO? More influence?

As sources of information go, the org chart is essential, but it is an incomplete picture of your company, which brings us back to bridge at Netscape.


If you looked up the four core bridge players on the org chart, you’d learn a bit. One engineering manager, another guy from some oddly named platform team, another guy who had a manager title, but no direct reports, and the last guy who looked like a program manager.

My org chart assessment: Meh.

What I learned months later was that the folks sitting at that regular bridge game not only defined much of what became the Netscape browser, they also continued to define the engineering culture or what I think of as a culture chart.

Unlike the org chart, you’re not going to find the culture chart written down anywhere. It doesn’t exist. The culture chart is an unwritten representation of the culture of your company and understanding it answers big questions that you must know:

  • What does this organization value?
  • Who created this value system?
  • Given this value system, who contributes high value?
  • Who is most aware of how value is being created?

This is fuzzy philosophical mumbo jumbo, so let’s bring it home. In your current job, right now, tell me what it’s going take to get you a promotion.

“I need to work really hard.”

Ok, so you knew you need to work hard to get a promotion before you set foot in your current gig. My question is, what specific thing do you need to do in order to be promoted? I’d argue that for any engineer who is actively managing their career, it’s essential to figure out the answer to this question as quickly as possible, and to do so you need to understand the culture.

Detecting Culture

If you are going to be promoted, you are going to succeed in a group of people when you provide that group things that it think it needs. Now, your gut instinct is that this group of people is the management team, and that’s a good org chart-centric answer. The problem is it’s your job to stay ahead of your manager. You’re not going to get promoted giving your manager what he wants; a promotion comes when you give him what he wants as well as what he does not expect, but desperately needs.

It’s unfair. This guy is tasked with your career development and I am saying it’s your job to tell him what he wants. You don’t have to do this; you can take the reactive cues from your boss, but I derive intense professional satisfaction when I deliver the unexpectedly needed and I discover the unexpected by first finding the culture.

To deduce the culture of a company, all you have to do is listen. Culture is an undercurrent of ideas that ties a group of people together. In order for it to exist, it must move from one individual to the next. This is done via the retelling of stories.

“Max was this nobody performance nerd and three weeks before we were supposed to ship, he walked into the CEO’s office with a single piece of paper with a single graph. He dropped the graph on the table, sat down, and said, ‘No way we ship in three weeks. Six months. Maybe.’ The CEO ignored the paper, ‘We lose three million dollars if we don’t.’ Max stood up, pointed at the chart, and said, ‘We lose ten if we do. We must not ship crap.”

Whether this story is true or not is irrelevant. The story about how Max saved the company ten million dollars by telling the CEO “No” is retold daily. In hallways. At the bar over beers. The story continually reinforces an important part of this company’s culture.

We must not ship crap.

There isn’t a corporate values statement on the planet that so brutally and beautifully defines the culture of a company.

There are other stories that you’re going to hear over and over again, and inside each of these stories are the real corporate values. Each one, while designed to be entertaining, teaches a lesson about what this particular company values, and these are the lessons that are going to get you promoted.

There’s a chance you’re not going to find these stories. My hope is that you’re in a company where engineering is valued and, as such, has an influence on the culture of your company. If it’s been six months, you’ve been actively looking, and no one has told you a great story about how engineering shaped the fortunes of your company, there’s a chance that in your company engineering doesn’t have a seat at the culture table. My question is then, “How are you going to succeed, how are you going to be promoted, where engineering isn’t an influential part of the culture?”

Culture Definers

After you have a healthy collection of stories, you’re going to have a good idea about some of the culture, but you’re still missing essential data for your culture chart. See, the folks who tell the stories about culture usually aren’t the folks who created them.

Stories are told, but first they are born.

The people who are responsible for defining the culture are not deliberately doing so. They do not wake up in the morning and decide, “Today is the day I will steer the culture of the company to value quality design”.

They just do it. The individuals who have the biggest impact on the culture and company aren’t doing it for any other reason than they believe it is right thing to do, and if you want to grow in this particular company it’s a good idea to at least know who they are and where they sit. You need to pay attention to this core group of engineers because as they do, so will the company.

Game Over

Your company is networked in more ways than you can possibly imagine. Just because you’ve reverse engineered the development culture in your organization doesn’t mean you’ve got a complete map of the overall culture. There are endless connections tugging any decent sized group of people in multiple directions at once. There’s the been-here-forever network, the I-survived-the-layoff people, and the untouchable-did-something-great-once crew.

Culture assessment is an information game and it’s never over. Your job is to continually situate yourself in such as a way that, as quickly as possible, you can assess subtle changes in the culture of your company.

I wasn’t concerned when Netscape started losing market share to Microsoft. I didn’t sweat it when the stock price stalled. The reason I started thinking about my next gig was, months before either of these two events occurred, one of the lunchtime bridge team left.

The game stopped. The small group of four no longer spent a long lunch quietly, unknowingly defining the culture of the company and everyone who was watching noticed.

They noticed when one of those who had humbly done the work that defined the company no longer believed enough to stay.

10 Responses

  1. Richard 15 years ago

    So what if the engineering culture defining the company comes from the hardware side and software (by all accounts) has always gotten short shrift and is viewed mostly as a necessary evil?

  2. There’s quite a few crossovers between this article and the parable of two programmers. In quite a few organizations, it’s the programmers who are perceived as lazy that are the ones who are in a good position to define a good engineering culture.

    I’ve seen a department where the culture was defined by the other type. It’s terrible.

    Anyone who hasn’t read it, should:

  3. wibble 15 years ago

    I agree, the culture of a company is more than bits of paper and org charts.

    The largest org I ever worked for was 500+ but even there, the effective org size for me was around 50.

    Ever since then I have worked for small orgs. I like the chance to make a difference. I like knowing everyone. I like having a finger in every pie.

    I’m on the management team but since we only have 30 staff at HQ and a few others spread around the world we have a really flat org. I have a team below me and the CEO above. Nothing else in the way at all. Feels good and (sometimes) exposed but at least you know where you stand.

    Having said that there is still a bias towards the atom arranging disciplines as opposed to the electron arranging ones. You can see arranged atoms, arranged electrons are less visible.

  4. I really enjoyed the article. I do have some questions however. The 4 people who defined the culture, who did they perceive to be the people who defined the culture? They are only human after all, and by all accounts they weren’t really aware of defining the culture. Therefore they must have had people that they looked up to in that regard.

    What I am leading up to is when one of the 4 left, what were his motivations, maybe he left because someone that he perceived as defining culture also left?

    It seems to me that culture is not really defined by several individuals, but is rather a result of many people ‘feeding’ off what is important to them. Some particular individuals may become more prominent but only because they reflect the underlying leanings of the majority.

    Just my amorphous thoughts, I apologise if it sounds cyclical or confusing (I confused myself a little bit as well :)).

  5. AlexJander 15 years ago

    Is Rands back to regular posting? Nice!

  6. The story about how Max saved the company ten million dollars by telling the CEO

    Seven million, surely?

  7. Ryan A. 15 years ago

    Rands, your writing is utterly fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, thanks.

  8. Wow, so true, but far from obvious. I echo the crowd, thoroughly enjoyed this.

  9. Truly eye-opening stuff. Thanks for writing it. I think cultural undercurrents are the backbone of most, if not all communities – not just organizations.

  10. Marcus 15 years ago

    Awesome. This reminds me of the guys at Intel Massachusetts who would play board games each lunch.

    Thanks for this.