Programmers, web developers, and software engineers often assume that technical skills land jobs and lead to career success, but in today's startup landscape, company culture is king.
Pop quiz: It’s the night before your interview for a programming job with a hot new Silicon Valley tech startup. What would be the best use of your waning prep time? Quickly brushing up on Ruby in case you’re faced with a surprise technical interview? Or looking up your prospective boss on Facebook to try to see what his or her hobbies are?
The latter might seem like a waste of time -- and a little creepy to any employers reading this -- but it could very well be the step that pays off more in the long run.
I would never suggest that technical skills are overrated. At our coding boot camp, Coding Dojo, we have a rigorous curriculum designed to ensure that our students’ technical skills are up to snuff to secure employment as web professionals. We teach three full stacks in 12 weeks, more than any other program. We know that, without the requisite skills, no one is going to hire you, no matter how charming, handsome, and clever you are -- that only happens to movie stars and politicians.
However, too many applicants make the mistake of thinking that technical skills are all that matter. “If my skills are strong enough,” the thinking goes, “I’ll get the job and climb the ladder to the top.” But there are two fundamental problems with this mindset, especially as it pertains to today’s thriving tech startup environment.
The first problem is underestimating the importance of company culture to employers.
More and more, tech startups tend to be younger, smaller, and flatter, leading these employers to care even more about a cultural fit with their workers. Your boss is less likely to be a 50-year-old in a distant corner office who only has to interact with you two or three hours a day; instead, he might sit directly across from you for 10 hours a day. Younger companies also value lifestyle more: The team goes out for drinks, employees invite each other to birthday parties, and colleagues play in weekend soccer leagues. In a more intimate and inclusive environment, employers want to hire people who share the same values and interests.
Startups also want someone with similar expectations about the job. Larger firms can more easily absorb the discord of one employee who checks out every day at 5:00 p.m. and whose work needs to be carefully monitored. But at smaller and younger firms, misaligned expectations can have a much bigger impact. If one of three programmers isn’t pulling his weight, a third of the work is compromised. Employers are therefore that much more determined to ensure there is a match when it comes to working styles and bigger-picture career expectations.
A.J. Agrawal, a Coding Dojo alumnus and the founder and CEO of Alumnify.co, says he has come to view cultural fit as one of the most important considerations when his team is looking to hire new employees.
“We put a lot more emphasis on the hiring process now than we did at first,” says Agrawal. “We’re a quirky group. We like to have fun. And we’ve built this company up through not micromanaging people. We believe that people create beauty through their work when they’re free to innovate and experiment. But that means that we want people who are entrepreneurial at heart -- people who thrive without us looking over their shoulders.”
Agrawal adds that he and his co-founders used to have a list of questions they asked prospective employees. Now, however, interviews are more like open-ended discussions.
“We ask ourselves if this is someone we want to get a beer with, someone we could be trapped in an airport with for five hours if our flight is delayed.” With a laugh, he adds, “I know all too well -- it happens.”
Naturally, there are people who have secured a job despite a loose (or even nonexistent) cultural fit. But this is when the second problem arises: Getting the job does not mean succeeding at it, and if you don’t fit into a company’s culture, you’re probably not going to be happy or last long.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re a serious gamer, a social media addict, and want nothing more than a job where you can roll in (literally, on a skateboard) at 10:30 a.m. and play ping pong on lunch breaks. If you got a job as a programmer at Zynga (the makers of Farmville), you might think you’d struck gold. You’d be wrong. Zynga has a notoriously cutthroat culture -- one that is highly data-driven and (according to some disgruntled ex-employees) does not encourage creativity. Other firms are run like fraternities for nerds, the kind of place that would give a married programmer with Christian values a serious case of shingles within a week.
While these examples are outliers, firms do have diverse cultures, just as people have diverse tastes, temperaments, and professional ambitions. If you wind up somewhere that doesn’t align with your needs, no one is going to be happy, and you’re likely going to find yourself involved in another lengthy job search.
So, once you’re resigned to the fact that culture matters, should you go scoping out your prospective boss on Facebook? Truth be told, it’s not a terrible idea. I know at least one person in the media industry who did exactly that, discovered that her boss played drums, and broached the topic of music, which led to an invitation to a concert that night -- followed by a job offer at the concert venue.
But similar hobbies, like conversations about favorite restaurants, will only get you so far. A better tactic is to read the company’s blog and Twitter feed, where you’ll be sure to get a good sense of the company culture.
Personal blogs by current employees often turn up good info as well. And, naturally, check LinkedIn to see if you have any second- or third-degree connections with current or past employees, and then reach out for the inside scoop. And, if all else fails, there’s a method that, while antiquated and very anti-tech in nature, often turns up good info: Simply ask, “What is your company culture like?” You’d be amazed what this question can turn up.
— Justin Marshall is a contributor for Coding Dojo.