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How to Create a Culture Document to Help You Scale Your Engineering Team

by Gábor Zöld
/ May 27, 2020
Engineering Culture Deck

How to Create a Culture Document to Help You Scale Your Engineering Team (Interview with Rob Volk, CEO, Foxbox Digital)

Having a culture document is just another useless document, right?

Not quite.

Creating a culture deck is as valuable as it is cool. It makes you more authentic, and it gives you access to better talent and clients. But it’s not obvious at all how to make your own culture document.

This post tells you how.

In this case study, Rob Volk, CEO of Foxbox Digital, will share how he changed his organization’s day-to-day work by creating a culture document. As always, this interview was hosted by Karolina Toth on the Level-up Engineering podcast.

What you will learn:

What’s in your company culture document?

Rob 01

Here are some examples of what’s in our culture deck.

1. The client isn’t always right

The client isn't always right, so I encourage my team to challenge the client gracefully. It may seem counterintuitive at first.

We've found that we often have a good idea of our client’s goals, and sometimes they ask us to do things we don’t think are aligned with their goals. This is why we encourage our people to challenge them. We may be able to show them a better way.

We also encourage our team to challenge leadership. We all know that we aren’t always right, so our managers and leaders don’t mind it if they’re challenged gracefully.

2. Focused work is more important than Slack

We encourage focused work, so we give everyone permission to close Slack and focus on what they’re building at the moment. Once it’s done, they can look at Slack and catch up.

These are just a couple of examples from our culture document. You can check out the full culture deck here.

Is there anything you've excluded from your company culture document on purpose?

Rob 02

We left out trivial things

Looking at other companies’ culture documents, they tend to have a list of obvious things. We've excluded those, because they're a given. Our document doesn’t say, “You should do the right thing,” because of course you should.

We focus on what sets us apart. Our culture deck specifies things that are meaningful and actionable.

What motivated you to put together a company culture document?

Rob 03

Our culture turned out well accidentally

We've always had a strong company culture, but early on, it was accidental. I hired engineers who I thought were great, and the engineering culture formed organically.

Currently, we have 30 people, and by now, we've had cultural miss-hires. We've had some contentions and issues. These are signs of a bad culture.

We aimed to make it predictable

So, we tried to distill the good parts of our culture down to a cultural document.

The purpose was to be able to maintain the culture as we scale up. We aimed to make our accidental culture predictable, so we can grow with it.

What were the first steps in distilling your engineering culture into a company culture document?

Rob 04

We took note of our values

It started organically. We've taken note of things that were meaningful to our culture and set us apart. It grew over time.

When I made it intentional, we took everything that we had bookmarked in our minds and wrote it down. This process took around two months. It required collaboration and many iterations to get right.

We’ve involved key people

I involved key leaders in my company, engineers and even people who were outside the company but close to it. They had a valuable perspective, seeing our culture from the outside.

We got an outside opinion

This outsider works with us on some contracts, over a longer period of time. He understands our culture, but he isn’t with us all day, every day. This gives him an outside perspective.

It helped, because when you're inside your problems, you can't see the solution. Yet when you ask a coworker, they have the answer instantly.

What was the impact of your company culture document?

Rob 05

The new hires love it

We rolled it out a few months ago. The first new hires we onboarded with the help of the new cultural document were blown away, it definitely supports our engineering employer brand.

I have a remote meeting on Zoom with every new hire, and we cover the culture deck. I go through everything in it. It's not a pre-recorded video; we do it live, because it’s meaningful.

It improved communication

With the culture document now in place, we’ve seen signs of better communication, even during contentious times.

For example, we have the rule I mentioned before about closing Slack.

It results in people getting work done more effectively. They don’t immediately respond on Slack, but eventually, they log in and respond. This is a good trade-off for us, so everyone is understanding when they don’t get instant responses.

Another example is our “Kindness matters. No jerks, please” rule.

Disagreeing with anything is okay; it’s about how you handle it. You have to understand the other point of view and explain yours to see if you can come to an agreement.

We're far from perfect, but we’re going in the right direction.

What are the signs of a healthy company culture?

Rob 06

An unhealthy company culture has more obvious signs you should look out for.

Watch out for toxic behavior

For instance, we had a defensive developer who refused to look at his own code for problems, and he kept pointing fingers. That was a sign of an unhealthy aspect of the company culture.

Another developer was sassy with clients. As a consulting company, we have to behave a certain way.

These signs played a part in triggering the creation of our culture document. We try to hold on to things that work and correct things that don’t.

How can you develop and sustain the company culture using the document?

Rob 07

1. Define it

The first step is to do some soul-searching, and define the aspects of your existing culture. You have to make yourself aware of it, put it into words, and write it down.

2. Communicate it

The second step is to roll it out, and make everyone aware of it. We started out with one-on-one trainings, and I held some sessions for small groups myself.

3. Lead by example

The most important thing is to lead by example.

For instance, if you have a “Don't be late” rule, the CEO and the management have to arrive a minute early to every meeting. Only then can you expect the developers to follow this as well.

We don't have this rule, because I'm not great at being on time, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

4. Hold people accountable

The fourth step ties it together: you need to hold people accountable. We’ve included sticking to the guidelines of the company culture document as part of our performance reviews as well.

In a performance review, we look at our objective key results for the company and for the individual. We look at performance, and how the employee is doing as far as our culture document goes. We expect our people to uphold the values of the company.

Does your company culture document function like a code of conduct for you?

Rob 08

Our company culture document is a guideline.

We recognize that everyone's an individual with their own personalities. We want people to have their own personality and to act accordingly.

Some things aren’t acceptable, like defensiveness. This is a general rule; we consider it a bad trait.

Beyond this, I view the company culture document as a guideline on how to conduct yourself as a team member of Foxbox Digital.

What can you do as an engineering leader to improve your company's culture?

Rob 09

Lead by example

The most essential thing you have to do is lead by example.

As an engineering manager, you have a team that looks up to you. Your actions have to uphold the company's values every day. This makes them real.

You turn words into actions.

The opposite is true too. If you ignore the cultural guidelines, it makes them meaningless. It doesn’t matter what the company says if the manager does something else.

Whether you're an engineer, a QA person, an engineering manager, or an executive leader, you have to lead by example. Everyone needs to be aligned with your culture; otherwise, you have a problem.

Address issues head on

We have weekly leadership calls where we discuss what went well and what didn't. When problems arise, I always hear about them at these calls. There are weekly architecture calls, PM calls and many other calls, so issues always come up to the appropriate people.

Whenever a problem comes up, we address it accordingly.

How to build a creative culture

If you want to encourage creativity, you need your people to be willing to take risks. So, make it okay to fail, remove the time pressure, and give your team the time it takes. You can't force creativity.

Your values need to change depending on the goal of your organization.

How do you change your existing company culture?

Rob 10

I’ll give you an example. I mentioned earlier that we had a developer being sassy with clients.

He's an excellent engineer, and he's still on our team. But his brilliance came with an ego and an inability to communicate well at times. We had to work on this.

It starts with finding a problem

In one case, he was building the front-end for a machine learning application. The design he received for it wasn’t going to work. The designer didn't know this, because he didn't know the intricacies of AI.

Our engineer went ahead and built it in his own implementation. He didn't tell our product manager; instead, he went straight to the UX designer, saying, “You’re wrong; this is how I'm doing it.”

We didn't know about it until the client came to us asking, “What's going on?” We were caught off-guard; even our PM had no idea. It became a series of mistakes.

Address it straightforwardly

In the end, I talked to this engineer and explained what the correct process would have been.

It went like, “Your implementation was correct; the designs weren’t. It's fine to build it differently and to test your idea. I just wish you had gone to your product manager and your architect the next morning, and then we could have gone to the client together, to try to sell them on your idea.”

Instead, it had turned into a catastrophe. We made it through, but we needed to do some cultural cleanup.

Changing the culture is slow

With the engineer from the previous example, we're seeing incremental changes. This is what you can expect while working on creating a strong culture. Culture is difficult to change, and it takes a lot of time.

How do you check if a potential hire is a good cultural fit?

Rob 11

A company culture document improves your hires

One of the benefits of our cultural document is that we put elements of it into our job posts and marketing messages. This helps us to attract engineers and clients who resonate with our values.

It's hard to change behaviors and personalities. It's easier to attract people who fit your culture. It’s never a 100 percent fit, but if they mostly fit in, we’re happy.

Have an honest conversation

I wish I had a bullet-proof method to source out if candidates are a cultural fit. It comes down to having an honest conversation with them.

Our operations manager does cultural interviews with every candidate. She's in-tune with our culture, taking on a culture captain role for us. She puts in a lot of effort to improve the company culture overall.

She has this conversation with new candidates. She’s looking to understand if the way they carry themselves aligns with our values.

Is it better to hire diversely to expand your culture, or to hire people who fit your existing culture?

Rob 12

I don't think they're mutually exclusive.

You want diversity

You want to recruit a diverse set of people. You want your people to think differently because that delivers the best results. If everyone thinks exactly the same way, you'll fall on your face.

So, you want a cultural diversity.

And you want common threads

I don’t think setting up a company culture document excludes diversity. It’s just a collection of common threads.

For instance, we have a core belief that we're puzzle solvers. We want people who are inquisitive and who  want to figure out problems at all levels. But puzzle solvers can be different types of people.

We don't expect for a new hire to adhere to a hundred percent of our culture. We treat it as a set of guidelines, which opens it up to individuality as well.

Key takeaways

Creating a company culture document isn’t about looking cool; it’s about stating the values your company operates by every day. Doing this helps you find and fix problems, and it helps people who resonate with them find you. To create a great culture document, you’ll need the insight of the people your organization is built on.

As a leader or engineering manager, leading by example is the most essential part of keeping your culture alive. Anytime a problem arises, it is best to address it straightforwardly. Changing your culture is a slow process, so be ready for that.

As long as you stick to this, you should be moving in the right direction.

About Rob Volk

Rob Volk is the CEO of Foxbox digital, an engineering-focused digital agency. Before that, he was CTO of different startups. He’s a software engineer at heart with a technical background, currently leading an agency.

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