As we approach the end of the calendar year, many of us in the information technology field use this time to reflect on the prior year and may even use that reflection period to consider whether it’s the right time for a change. The marketing machine, known as human resources, of many companies is in full swing and ready to try to sell you on how working for them is the best thing since sliced bread. However, I want you to be weary of misuses of terminology that many get caught up in. These misuses end up selling you on something that either doesn’t exist or just isn’t up to the descriptions so elegantly laid out in Glassdoor or LinkedIn job postings.
Culture: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
One of the main points that now seems to be prevalent throughout job descriptions (or company descriptions) is the term of culture. Now, what ends up happening is a twisting on this term to highlight certain perks of the company. The last I checked, perks != (that’s DOES NOT EQUAL for some of our programming illiterate friends) culture. No doubt you’ll be bombarded by pictures of fancy break rooms, stocked full of all sorts of beverages and snacks (not to mention the term FREE). You might even see pictures of a game room, complete with a ping pong table (and if you are lucky, an arcade machine or two). Excellent! Fantastic! However, what this has to do with culture is beyond me.
The last I checked, most businesses aren’t in business to field professional ping pong teams or compete in E-sports. So, why is it that we see, too often, these sorts of things associated with culture? Personally, I get the fact that we need avenues to blow off some steam from a hard bit of project work or in the trenches support work. Some of these perks give a great impression of reward to the people putting in the hours to accomplish said business goals. I’m just wondering why THIS tends to be the definition of an organization’s culture? What happened with actually describing how human interactions are going to occur from an intra team level to inter team levels?
Maybe this harkens back to some of our lacking in asking really good questions during the interview process. Personally, I’ve only had to participate in less than a handful of interviews. I know most of my time was spent trying to show someone my technical acumen, as if that was the only thing that mattered to the individual across the table from me. Too often, when it comes time for the interviewee to ask a question, blanks are drawn.
To arm yourself, especially to understand the culture of the organization you are trying to get into, maybe it’s time to start asking some hard questions that don’t go back to human resources marketing material. “How are mistakes handled within the organization?” “How are teams typically structured (as in, do you have senior members who make all the decisions and juniors are expected to fall in rank and not question anything)?” “How receptive is the organization to a diversity of opinion?” “Is there a clear path of career growth within the organization?” “Does the organization have any respect for personal time to be used to better one’s self through education opportunities?”
To balance this out, I know I’ve also been on the opposite end of the spectrum with being the one asking the interviewee questions. I try to keep an open mind to the person in question and try to bring up some of these topics. Many times, the interviewee is surprised that I would be asking any sort of question about how they like to be heard or advance through an organization. I also know, that as the interviewer, I need to drop any sort of bias that would make me start to ask questions about things that I feel don’t really matter to the role. I get we like to ask others to answer questions to see if they are a “fit” in our teams, but at what point are we asking questions for the sake of finding a great teammate instead of asking questions to find a drinking buddy?
So, I think it’s on us to start challenging the interview process and start asking questions about culture that matter. We aren’t ever going to find out how human interaction is expected if we don’t open our mouths. I know the Glassdoor pictures of the new offices and fancy drink machines are nice, but in the end, you want to fit in and you want to do it on your terms. You need to take the initiative, asking the right questions before it becomes too late. I bet those free drinks and food are going to taste a whole lot better when you find the right culture to exist (and thrive) in, instead of immediately realizing you made a mistake and are looking for a new position when you haven’t even hit triple digits in the number of days employed. Do yourself a favor; ask good, hard culture questions during your interview process.