Cultural Confusion

What is company culture? Is it how a company works? Is it what a company does? Is it a set of policies or mission statements? Is it a list of perks and office amenities? Answer: it’s none of the above.

Company culture is the who, not the what or the how.

As we grow Medium, the company, I am thinking a lot about the kind of company we are becoming. We want to build a world-class product and a world class company. Before we even decided on a product to ship, we spent a couple days outside the office discussing the kind of company we wanted to build, without talking about product at all.

A lot of words emerged from that offsite. Humble. Transparent. Bold. Innovative. Honest. Funny.

Great, right? We want to be all of those things! Can those describe our company culture?

It occurred to us that those words describe people, not companies. Our culture is who we are, literally. If that’s true, great! We have humble people, innovative people, and funny people. If that’s true, that’s also really scary. If company culture is really all about the people, how do you affect it?

I don’t think you can affect company culture, much. I think culture starts with who the founders are and solidifies as the company grows. If the founders are insecure, you can’t have a culture of transparency. If the early employees are rock stars with huge egos, you can’t have a humble company, no matter what your mission statement says.

As companies start to grow, candidates are interviewed and a determination is made about possible fit. Determining “culture fit” usually plays a part in that process, but it’s rarely a deal maker or breaker. Furthermore, “culture fit” often translates to “is this person like us?”, which is a dangerous trap.

Diversity, across as many vectors as possible, is essential for a company to operate as the best version of itself. The problem with hiring similar people is that they often see problems in similar ways, which severely constrains the possible solution set. I remember hiring a young inexperienced engineer at Twitter who often came up with simple, naive solutions to seemingly difficult problems while more experienced engineers offered complicated, robust solutions. Many times, the simple solution was better, but overlooked by more experienced engineers.

Cultural Integrity

So, how do you assess culture fit? The answer is simple. Assuming a candidate has the skills to do the job you are hiring for, ensure they pass “the airport test”, which is determined by answering the following question: if you were stuck in an airport all day with this person, would you enjoy spending the day with them, or not? Would you head to the bar and exchange stories, or put your headphones on and watch replays of LOST?

If they fail the airport test, don’t hire them. They might be really smart, and you might really need their skills in your company, but don’t hire them. Maintain your cultural integrity. It is worth noting, however, that different people might provide different answers to the airport test, so it’s good to get more than one perspective.

The damage a bad culture fit can cause isn’t worth the productivity they can provide.

Company culture isn't reversible. As it solidifies, you can’t undo it, and as you hire more people, it gets harder to affect, but it's not impossible. You can’t say that you are something that you aren’t, but you can work on being someone better than you are.

At Medium, we are doing some interesting things to help people become the best versions of themselves. If we maintain our cultural integrity as we grow and always strive to be better than we are, we won’t have to worry about defining our culture. When we talk about perks at Medium, we ask how a specific perk will make our team better. When we think about where we sit, or how we operate, or how we relate to each other, we consider how we can leverage the best qualities of our team members and offer opportunities for those members to grow.

Bonus fact: If you are intellectually honest about who you are and maintain your cultural integrity, your product or service will reflect your culture! At Medium, we always talk about how our teammates can be the best version of themselves, and we recently launched a product feature to help our users present the best version of themselves with our product. That's not a coincidence, and wasn’t contrived. It was a natural fit for our product because of who we are.

I’m thankful that, at Medium, our cultural integrity is intact and we are going to continue striving to be better people, which will create a better organization and a better product. I love that the product you are using right now is a reflection of the people that spend the majority of their waking hours working on it, and we look forward to sharing more of who we are soon!