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SW engineering, engineering management and the business of software



2018 07 07

Two Kinds of Culture

One of the more common conversations I have is around the nature of what happens when things go wrong in an organization. In all businesses, things go wrong. In startups, it can feel like things go wrong more often than people post selfies on facebook.

Things going somewhat off-kilter or things going off the rails is a frequent enough occurrence that the way a company responds is quite meaningful. I’ve observed organizational reactions along a spectrum that I call Type Us/Type You.

Type You organizations

You can think of a Type You organization as one that points fingers when things go Titanic on iceberg.

There’s probably screaming. There may be crying. There’s definitely swearing.

Effing Product never anticipated this. Why the hell did sales sell something we don’t do. Eng can’t deliver. These designs are late/unrealistic/unimplementable. Useless marketing doesn’t bring in enough leads.

Beyond swearing what you really have is resentment, mistrust and a clear lack of communication. This is a recipe for a stagnant, dysfunctional company.

Type Us organizations

When faced with the aftermath of a steaming crater, Type Us orgs may have screaming, but they are usually followed by apologies. A well functional Type Us is mostly a big sigh. Possibly a group hug is the company is into that. Following these necessary but short moments of shared grief and pity, the focus is on the problem, resolution and how to prevent a similar outcome in the future.

If there is blame identified, it’s for the purpose of support and helping. “The root cause involved X commincating to the customer Y. How can we be more proactive or engineering around this? What can we do for X?” “The release system worked as designed, but human error led to the early release of Y. What kind of guards can we engineer in place to prevent another incident?”

In a Team Us, the basic thought process is problem, resolution, future prevention and growth. If you get good a this, your team should never see the same problem twice. You are compounding improvements over time.

And so?

If it’s not obvious by now, you want to work in a Type Us environment. Type Us is easier to maintain in a smaller group (team of say 5 or so) than in a larger org. Geographical differences make this even more challenging.

If you are stuck in a Type You environment, it’s important to note that moving the team toward Type Us is possible, but challenging. If you are not in a leadership position, the difficulty is even greater.

If you are looking at a new role, ask your interviewers to describe what happens when something goes wrong and followup with who was at fault primarily. You want to hear things like shared blame or something like “while the initial spark as from X, Y or Z could have done better to prevent it.”

The kind of organization you join will make a big difference in your overall satisfaction and career longevity.



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2018 03 07 〜 Focus or What I Learned About Maximizing Serial Throughput from Civilization

2018 01 31 〜 Lessons from interviewing CTO Candidates

2017 02 01 〜 Empathy as a Core Engineering Requirement




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