The company you keep

In February, I started work at Rainforest.

When talking to friends or family about my new work I’m having trouble articulating myself. The words ‘Employees’ or ‘Job’ don’t seem to be suitable anymore when I’m trying to describe how it’s like working here. A lot of things I took for granted about work aren’t true anymore.

For example: I used to think that it’s perfectly normal that work sucks at least half of the time.

I’ve gradually learned that work can be awesome, 99% of the time.

I also learnt that the primary ingredient for happiness at work is culture.

At Rainforest, culture is a big deal. It’s something that we put a lot of effort into getting right. It’s never done, because there is always room for improvement. In fact, if you have opinions on what makes a good company culture, or just want to say hi, drop me a line at julian@rainforestqa.com.

Happiness  Success

Work impacts my emotional state. The happier I am at work, the easier it is for me to be a decent dad and partner.

Moving to a better workplace has changed my life. The relationship with my partner has reached a new high. I’m able to find more time with my kids and have the head-space to be ‘in the moment’ with them.
For the first time in a long time I have the energy and motivation to grow personally and professionally. Most importantly, I feel like I am collecting enough happiness to shield myself from depression.

I’ve worked at a bunch of companies before Rainforest, so this is my personal account of what I think makes a happy organisation:

Work whenever, wherever you want

If your contributions to the company you work for are meaningful, should it really matter when and where you work? This is something I really don’t understand about companies like Google or Facebook. How much money would they save if they were distributed. How much more efficient would they be if they didn’t have to worry about the overhead of having the physical space to accommodate thousands of employees.

I’m 100% certain that with the right processes distributed teams can work, even at massive scale.

Being a parent one thing I quickly realised is that every minute counts.

Commuting takes up a lot of time, which I’d rather spend with my family. That’s one of the reasons remote work is the only option for me.

Flexible work time means that I can do more stuff with my family or friends because I can adjust to their schedule. For example, I get up very early (sometimes at 4–5 am) work 2 hours and have a 3 hour lunch break for going to the park with my kids or whatever it is we want to do.

Another big strength of distributed companies is that we aren’t constrained to hiring only in SF. My colleagues work from Canada, Peru, Brazil, Germany and Indonesia. If you’re looking for the best talent, I don’t see why you would constrain your staff to one area. Amazing people can be found everywhere, in the most unlikely of places.

Remote working bonus: There is a cafe at top of the nearest mountain (1800m above sea level) which has not only pretty decent internet access but also a pretty decent view!

Of course, not being in the same room with your colleagues has downsides. One big downside is that communication is much harder. To make a distributed team work, everybody needs to be excellent at communication.

Over-communication is key

The worst thing that can happen to a distributed company is bad communication. Todays communication tools (Email, Slack, Skype, Google Hangouts, HipChat) are better than ever, but they don’t measure up to talking to somebody who’s in the same room with you. Since you can’t be on hangouts all the time, written communication is your primary means. Chat can very easily be misunderstood out of context.

Too often I’ve seen this result in misunderstandings, conflict, or just plain inefficiency, which is why if your company is distributed, everybody has to work on improving their communication skills, at all times.

Quick responses are core to good communication. I’ve had jobs where I was waiting on responses from colleagues for hours, even though they were online and available. Nothing is more frustrating, especially if you’re blocked.

At Rainforest we over-communicate™, so even if you haven’t got the answer to a question yet, you at least let the person on the other end know that you’re there and are looking into it. This goes for support as well, we do our best to reply to tickets as fast as possible. Good support is the most immediate way to provide good UX and thus, key to our product.

I’ll be honest my communication sucked before joining this company. It still isn’t amazing, but I’ve come a long way with the help of my awesome colleagues.

Transparency and Trust

I’m generally fairly extrovert, so transparency suits me, love it.

At a previous job I was once told off for mentioning my wage in a conversation that other team-members could hear. Secrets about money are bad and cause envy. Most people at Rainforest could work out my wage by themselves because the same method for calculating a wage is used for everybody including the founders. (more of that later)

In previous jobs I was also always in the dark about general company finances. How much are we making, what’s our growth, how high are our expenses? The answer I usually got was that that’s above my pay-grade.

If employees don’t know about finances, they miss out on a bunch of opportunities to feel a sense of ownership, another key ingredient to good culture.

Ownership

Stop me if you heard this one:

We’re looking for somebody who will own insert-responsibility-here

When I was looking for jobs this sort of phrase was used in almost every job-ad I’ve come across.

It’s also something I’ve heard from managers in previous jobs:

I’d like you to take ownership of insert-project-here

Ownership means the freedom to make decisions and taking responsibility for them. Yet when decisions have to be made, control is the last thing that people like to hand over, even if the decision is in your area of expertise, your manager decides. Giving up control is hard for people and yet not giving up control is completely counter-productive, because ownership empowers organisations and employees to be their best selves.

If you own your work and can make important decisions about it, what you do will become more meaningful as you steer it into a direction that you believe in and are responsible for.

I think people in managing positions often have the misguided belief that ownership can work without giving up a bunch of control.

A company that truly supports ownership can’t also have a strong top-down hierarchy. If you are serious about enabling ownership among your employees you need to be prepared to hand over decision-making to those in charge of implementing the decision.

We’ve adopted the advice-process, it’s a framework for ownership and decision-making and although we are still getting to grips with it, it has already positively reshaped our company.

Embrace the noob

I’ve worked in environments where asking a “stupid question” will earn me silly looks or even being told off.

That is a very clear symptom of toxic culture and it’s so typical among engineers. There’s this constant undercurrent in our industry that we must all look like experts at all times. Bullocks!

First of all there is no such thing as a “stupid question”!

Even if you are among the brightest you might be looking for answers questions that are obvious to others and if you don’t you’re simply not asking enough questions. You can’t know everything. The only way to get close to knowing everything is to ask a ton of questions and if some of them are “stupid” IT DOESN’T MATTER!

Also, making mistakes is human. I’ve seen engineers obfuscate their work with jargon to cover for their mistakes simply because the pressure to be perfect was too high.

A culture that doesn’t embrace the noob has a serious problem, fix it!

A healthy attitude towards money

Since becoming a dad money has been a big deal. The mere thought of not being able to afford rent, or my daughters school makes me anxious, nervous and miserable. I’m not great to be around when I have money-worries. It affects me deeply, to the point where my personal relationships are affected.

3 years ago, outside of my full time job at a web agency I also worked in my spare time as a freelancer to make ends meet. I had to, since rents in the South-west of England (where I lived at the time) aren’t exactly affordable.

When it came to negotiating my wage with Rainforest, I was pleasantly surprised by the model that the company have adopted:

Usually, the starting point of a wage-negotiation is about the company needs. Rainforest turn this on its head, it’s about your needs:

Starting from a base figure, you basically negotiate a wage that takes into account the living costs of the area you live in as well as how many beings depend on you. This means that it doesn’t matter where I live, Rainforest will support me and take care of those existential anxieties that used to haunt me.

I really like this way of negotiating a wage. It’s transparent, people get what they need and at the same time it’s a gate-keeper for greed and envy.

Wrapping up

Since implementing the self-management processes from Reinventing Organisations we are seeing big improvements, everybody on the team is excited about the changes. We’re “creating the company that we want to work for”.

There is still a long way to go, and we have to ramp up quickly to face the growth that we’re expecting. Because of that we’re constantly working on how we run the company. Everybody can have a say about it which we hope is in itself a recipe for happiness and success. I think it works! Try it, read the book, or just be done with it and come join us :).

Finally, here are the company values taken from an email to the team (no editing) by Fred Stevens-Smith, co-founder of Rainforest, friend and all-round-good-guy:

  • curiosity
  • no bullshit, EVER
  • continuous, honest and friendly criticism
  • cheekiness (this isn’t a sexual thing it’s British english, otherwise translated as being troll-y)
  • fighting for your beliefs
  • embrace the n00b

And in the spirit of cheekiness, Russell Smiths response (the other co-founder, also friend and all-round-good-guy)