The Small, Less Visible Differences in Silicon Valley Corporate Culture

The whole professional landscape, from networking activities to office decision-making, changes from culture to culture. At Quibb, the social network for professional content, we’ve been collecting thoughts from entrepreneurs who moved to the Bay Area from other countries. The observations below come from Lisa Enckell, a marketing and product consultant, and Sandi MacPherson, the founder of Quibb.

In some ways, the cultural uniqueness of Silicon Valley is obvious and much-discussed. For example, the hyper-individualistic and hedonistic Burning Man Arts Festival is often cited as an extension of the Valley’s party scene. On the corporate level, most startups are considered to have very “flat” hierarchies, and Facebook’s old maxim “Move fast and break things” is considered widely representative. But what are some of the less visible ways that Valley culture can surprise newcomers?

Lisa Enckell is a marketing and product consultant who moved to the Bay Area from Sweden. She says: “In Sweden, work is very consensus-based — you talk to everyone before you make a decision and everyone agrees. I had the opportunity to lead a team both in Sweden and in the US, and here in the US, as the manager, they expected me to make the decision. In Sweden, it’s more like, whoever is the expert should run with it. They are trusted. Here you are the manager. It was good for me because I had to work on those things and be more in charge.”

In other words, it seems that some corners of Bay Area startup culture are more managerial than one might expect, given the Valley’s reputation for flat organizations. But the Valley’s still well-known for openness. Sandi MacPherson, founder of Quibb, moved here from Canada. She observes: “Startups here are much more open and recognize the value of sharing information and working together. In Toronto, I met a couple of entrepreneurs who wouldn’t actually tell me what they’re working on — they were afraid I’d steal their idea. I’ve never experienced this perspective during my four years in the Bay Area.”

A South Korean tech employee who preferred not to be named shared some thoughts about networking differences between cultures.

“In South Korea, where I grew up, everyone knows everyone. There are only a couple of good schools. So we don’t have to do the active networking. Here, people need to get to know each other first, just to start working on their goals.”

Perhaps this is partly because many Bay Area personalities are outsized and value their uniqueness. After all, when strong personalities meet each other, they may need extra time to gel before they’re able to accomplish anything. MacPherson talked a bit this, too: “Unique personalities and perspectives are highly valued in the Bay Area,” she says. “I remember working with someone in Toronto who wore Vibram toe shoes to work for a few days. Everyone thought he was kinda goofy, and made fun of him, and he couldn’t wear them on days when he had important meetings. I don’t think that would ever happen here — the US and the Bay Area definitely value individuality in a much different way.

“At the same time,” MacPherson continues, “I have a feeling that it’s only a certain type of ‘tech nerd uniqueness’ that’s really valued and has some sort of clout associated with it.”

This “uniqueness” has specific cultural identifiers: they might include Vibram-wearing, Burning Man attendance, and having a set “uniform” (i.e. wearing the same color t-shirt each day, in order to reduce decision fatigue in the morning). How many other uniquenesses are truly valued? Perhaps it’s hard to say from within the bubble.

Find other stories about professional experiences like Lisa’s and Sandi’s by joining Quibb. You can follow Lisa to see what she’s reading for her product and marketing consulting work. Follow Sandi to see what she’s reading as founder of Quibb.

Thanks to Lydia Laurenson, writer and media strategist, for her work on this series.

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