Building a great culture in your tech team

What is culture, then?

A culture is a set of acceptable behaviours that is formed by every action of each individual in a group. Cultures are wildly complicated, and yet we have a complete subconscious understanding about what is acceptable and what is not in every culture we belong to.

It’s normally a slow process

The best time to build a great culture is from day 1. We’re excellent at picking up social cues, forming patterns and sticking to them; that’s why change can be hard. In the weeks after a new recruit joins a company, they’re most susceptible to picking up cultural norms; a few years in, they may be too invested to want to change.

A Step-by-Step Guide

Here are five steps towards purposefully building a great culture.

Step 1: Discuss where your team is at and where you want it to be

Although this discussion is often lead by management, there’s no reason why everyone who has an interest shouldn’t be in on it. However there are many people who simply aren’t interested; please don’t force them through the process.

  • What are we here to do? Deliver software? Deliver business value? Change the world? Please our clients/customers? Support our local community? Have fun?
  • How will we support employees in their personal lives? What if they want to take three months off to travel? What if they want to take a year off to start a family? What if they need to take a month off for their mental health? Can we pay them for that time? What if they want to cut their hours to part-time? What if they want to work some days from home? What if they want to come in late to work, and work late?
  • What is our approach to deadlines? How many hours do we expect people to work at crunch time? How will we compensate them, if at all? How much will we push back against our clients’ timing expectations?
  • What does diversity mean to us? How important is it for us? How do we want to be seen by the tech community in who we choose to hire?
  • How much time will we give employees for their personal development, if any? What restrictions will we put on this time? What happens at crunch time; will this time be taken away?
  • How much do we value code quality over delivery? Will we hold up delivery to make sure our code is good enough? What does “good enough” mean to us?
  • How many hours a day do we realistically expect people to work on billable work? What are appropriate activities they can be doing on non-billable time?

Step 2: Distill the values

As the discussion progresses, you’ll start to find some common elements that explain what it means to be a member of your team. Phrase these elements as a statement that you’d like the majority of the people in your team to be able to say about themselves.

  • Learning and improving myself is a critical part of my job.
  • I can be myself and my peers will respect me.
  • Work is just one of the things I do with my life.
  • I rate seniority based on how much people can teach and help others with their work.
  • I support others when they fail.
  • My ideas are listened to.
  • I am honest and respectful when I talk with others.

Step 3: Hire people who are compatible with these core values

If you have a voice in hiring people, you’re in a position to influence the culture of your team. Your values are the source of the majority of your questions for the candidate when you’re trying to determine team fit.

Step 4: Lead by example; be consistent

Sticking a list of values up on the wall or calling an all-hands meeting will probably be received poorly. I wouldn’t recommend it. People are skeptical, and rightly so: culture is what you do, not what you say.

Step 5: Review frequently

Culture is not static. It is forever changing as people join and leave your teams. As your organisation matures, your values will also shift, and your culture will need to come along for the ride.

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Leading technology teams

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