What is culture?

Sachin Gupta
Apr 8, 2018 · 4 min read

HackerEarth had officially started in the first batch of GSF in 2013. One of the most useful thing about GSF accelerator was the sheer amount of exposure we had during those days. It was an intense program — for 2 months we met 3 different people every working day. That’s a total of 120 people from different walks of life, like founders, VCs, marketers, attorneys, sales professionals etc. Across most of the people we met at that time each one of them advised us on the importance of culture. Some even went to the extent of saying that the success of the company depends on the culture you create. Though all of them stressed the importance of culture, I could never figure out the right way to create the right culture. People had answers about the right way to do sales, things to do for digital marketing and so on but never a common set of things you could do to create the right culture.

It confused me for some time because I didn’t know what to do. But then the program completed, we moved on and got busy with work. It wasn’t before 2 years later when we had grown to more than 30 people, it dawned upon me what culture really is. The thing is, there is no defined way for creating your culture. Culture cannot be defined, culture happens. Culture is not what we put on our ‘About page’ or the posters on the wall. Culture is not a universally accepted set of behavioral traits, culture is not who we want to be, culture is who we are. Culture is defined by the minutest of things we do.

  • Culture is defined by what examples we set. If we come late to meetings, our culture is about coming late. We can’t preach to be on time but be late ourselves, people will be confused.
  • Culture is defined by things that get appreciated. If you appreciate velocity of work then everyone sees that and they realize that speed is important to this company — they start doing that too. If you appreciate someone who flatters you, everyone will know that flattery works in the company.
  • Culture is defined by what’s not tolerated. If you don’t tolerate bad customer experience then people will go out of the way to deliver customer delight. If you are indifferent to it, the indifference only increases over time.
  • Contrary to what a lot of founders believe, it’s not owned/defined by just founders. The early team has as much impact on the company culture as the founders.
  • Culture is defined by who gets promoted and who is let go. The most effective signal of company culture is the values basis which people grow in the org and the basis which they are let go.
  • There is no textbook definition of right culture. There are hundred of good values but an effective culture cannot have all of these values. Culture is a set of shared values of a group of people aligned towards a common goal. As long as the culture allows people to do their work well and work towards the common goal, it’s right.
  • Culture is fragile — it has to be protected from people who add negative values to it. People who don’t align with the culture have to be quickly identified and parted ways with.
  • Culture is evolving — it evolves rapidly when the company is small because every new person has reasonable influence on everyone else so they add significantly to the culture. As the company grows, influence for every new employee reduces so does their ability to significantly add to the culture — pace of evolution reduces.
  • Culture needs to be articulated repeatedly — in the early days everyone speaks with everyone and everyone knows everything so the culture is shared naturally. But as the org grows communication becomes a challenge. It becomes so much more important to articulate the culture. Your culture has to be visible, in the face, on the walls — it has to be everywhere.
  • Culture is the guiding light — often there are situations at work where it’s not easily possible to identify what’s right or wrong, culture is that guiding light that helps in making those decisions.
  • It’s extremely hard to change your culture — it means you have to change how everyone behaves consciously and sub-consciously at work.
  • Culture is extremely effective to resolve conflicts. Conflicts often arise because of individual egos, culture becomes the set of common values that everyone agrees to.
  • You cannot fake your culture — culture is not the posters you put up and the speeches you give, culture is what you do.

Three years into the company, I realized that it was important to write down what our culture is and that led to the core values of the company. Since then, these core values became the common set of principles for everyone in the company and everyone else who would come in later. Today, it’s been more than five years since we started HackerEarth and we feel that just putting down our core values is not sufficient to define our culture, we need to go a step forward and define in detail what culture at HackerEarth is.

In light of that we have created a detailed document on our culture and I am happy to share it with everyone https://www.slideshare.net/saching90/hackerearth-culture-code/

PS: It’s inspired by Netflix’s Culture document

Sachin Gupta

Written by

Building @HackerEarth, Ex-Googler, IIT Roorkee alum - Programmer learning how to build a business

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