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Jason Thane on Building a Values Based Culture

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Jason Thane of GenUI about building a company on a values-based culture, how software development is fundamentally about communication and collaboration and advice on interviewing for values fit.

Key Takeaways

  • Values are a key element to guide how to interview, how to hire, who to hire, as well as how to communicate within the organization
  • Values are optimizations that enable us to identify which aspects matter more than others
  • Software development is fundamentally an act of communication and collaboration
  • Leadership demonstrates the values the company will exhibit
  • The best way to determine that somebody shares a value in an interview is to see them exhibit that value in the interview somehow



Introductions [00:17]

Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down across the miles with Jason Thane from GenUI. Jason, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Jason Thane: Thank you, Shane. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Shane Hastie: Probably a good starting point is who are you, and who's GenUI?

Jason Thane: By nature, I am a software product engineer, product manager, and that was the beginning of my career. 11 years ago, I started a consulting firm called GenUI right around the start of the iPhone App Store, it was called back then, to build mobile apps. And GenUI is a consulting firm that accelerates product roadmaps for our customers. So we work with organizations across the globe who are engaged in innovation and need to innovate faster. And really, we sort of think this applies to every organization out there. The way Marc Andreessen says it is software is eating the world. And if you're not a software company, you might be wrong.

Shane Hastie: We're at the beginning of December 2020, as we're recording this, looking back over the massive changes and the disruption that we've seen over the last eight to 12 months. So yeah, it's the software industry that has survived, thrived, and in many ways helped us stay connected.

Jason Thane: Suddenly our digital transformation has accelerated and it has to. And that is a bit of a silver lining in this difficult phase at the moment.

Shane Hastie: We were put in touch, because you've been talking about the concept of building a values-based organization culture. So why, and what do you mean by values?

Values as Optimizations [01:54]

Jason Thane: A values-based organization is fundamental to my view of how we built our company and how we align and support our leadership team and leadership at every level of the organization. And this really came out of a struggle that I personally experienced in making the difficult transition from being an engineer and a product nerd to being a leader of people and one who builds, supports and organizes a team. And values have turned out to me to be one of the most effective tools for up levelling the organization, both for identifying who to bring into the organization, so how to interview, how to hire, who to hire, as well as how to communicate within the organization. If we align our communication on our values, you just see them cropping up over and over again the same way they become the patterns. And the reason they do that is that values are necessarily or should be optimizations. And to any software engineer, and any engineer will tell you that everything's an optimization. You're training off of this for that always. And we do this in business at all times.

Jason Thane: And if you get two people together that are interested in optimizing in different directions, for example, one person wants quality, the other person wants speed, those two people might not get along very well. And so that's one of the key issues that growing organizations will face if they haven't established the clear value system. So a value system serves to give the organization a charter as to in general, this is the optimization we prefer. One of our values for example is sustainable software development. So we are interested in building systems that last and that can be iterated on over time. There are others who develop software to be disposable. Okay, we're going to throw it away after three months or after a year, after two years, and start over. And we don't optimize them that way. So that's one of the things that unites all of our efforts and keeps us aligned.

Shane Hastie: How does one prevent these values just being posters on a wall that nobody actually cares about?

Avoiding Lip-service Values Posters [04:00]

Jason Thane: That's the most common pitfall, I think. Organization will say, "Hey, we need to clarify our values. That sounds great. Let's all align on the values." And then typically somebody will sit in a room and write down what they think they are and make a poster, and then nobody ever pays any attention to it. And the reason is that those values were not really the values that make the organization work. Those were just what was in somebody's head. Maybe they were aspirational. Maybe they weren't real. Maybe they weren't shared. And they certainly weren't communicated in the right way to everybody. So the process of actually building a values-based culture is very inclusive, and it's more work than it sounds like it should be. And really what you have to do is you have to sell and enrol, build consensus around the values that already exist in the organization.

Jason Thane: So rather than being speculative about what they are aspirational, about what they should be, it's best to be forensic. Look inside the organization. Figure out what makes you impactful, what creates value, what drives this forward. And then bring that into the conversation with everybody to recognize that, to standardize them, to form almost like memes around them, so that people can refer to them all the time. And our values today are working in that way.

Shane Hastie: Let's get concrete. How do you do that forensics? Because if you ask people, "What do you value?" it's going to be like motherhood and apple pie. It's everything is warm and fuzzy and fluffy. And I'm reminded of a quote from Johanna Rothman where the actual culture of an organization is the lowest common denominator of the behavior that management allows to continue.

Identifying the Values in an Organization [05:41]

Jason Thane: And if you say that you value success, for example, well, everybody does, it's a meaningless statement. It's not controversial at all. A value should be an optimization. We choose this over that. But the trick that we came across that worked really well for us in establishing what the values are really have power in the organization was to sit down as a leadership team and think about as a group the people who really lead the organization forward, who really create business value and would make us successful. These are the people who, if you could clone them or clone part of them and that certain thing they do, you would just take over the environment, right? So when we think about those people, we then write down the aspect of what they do.

For example, one of our colleagues, Don, just has this incredible business acumen. He's just got the backbone of the business. He's always thinking of the business model and can interpret any conditions that we encounter or experience in terms of what the business needs. And that is just awesome. That's a value. I call it reality check. And thinking about how he is powerful within the organization and creates value, we were able to distil that reality check and value out and say, "This is actually something that we use to succeed all the time." But go round robin. Think about everybody in the business that's got a trait that we can love and that the business really values. Write all of those down. And then as a group, you can look at that list and say, "Our values are in there. Let's just go through the process of winning out to the cruft and really refining those to the core of what we are."

Shane Hastie: So again, get some examples here. You've mentioned, for yourselves, you've got sustainability, and you've mentioned reality check. What are some of the other values that GenUI has?

Values are Interrelated [07:34]

Jason Thane: Probably the most important one, and what's really interesting is the more you work with values, the more you realize that they have formed one another and they're interrelated. We've found that one of them is like the root of the tree trunk. And this one we say is, don't go it alone, or even more fundamentally, our belief is the future will be built together. So the challenges of innovation must be met as a team. And this comes out in all ways. We use it through all of the other values. For example, I mentioned reality check. Reality check is a way of creating togetherness, because once you're really open, honest, and you've created the safety, you can really collaborate in a very deep way. Don't go it alone. And this is really a response to the idea that in our industry, in technical disciplines, in a lot of disciplines, there's a tendency sometimes to go into the cave, to go and hide out in a cave. And I'm going to go take care of X, Y, Z. I'll come back in a week and it's going to be amazing. Everybody wait and see.

Software Development is an Act of Communication and Collaboration [08:34]

Jason Thane: And then typically when somebody does that, either you never hear from them again, or when they come out, they've created something that's completely disconnected from the rest of the world. It's not really what anybody wants or needs. It's exactly the same thing, as we mentioned, somebody might go outside and write down what they think the values are. The problem with that is that they're not working in the real world. They're not working in connection and relationship to the outside environment. And I think that software development is actually an act of communication. It's actually an act of connecting and immigrating all of the moving parts in business and in the user experience and in life. So you can't do it alone. You have to do it together. You have to get many perspectives and combine those into a solution as a team. The other way just doesn't scale. It will fall down eventually.

Shane Hastie: There's the myth of the heroic lone developer who builds this wonderful thing that saves the company.

Jason Thane: As in the song Grandma's Boy, if you've seen that. There's a game studio and there's a game developer. And he's got his cave. It really is a cave. And he's in there, and he's going to write the game that's going to save the whole company. Yeah, maybe in the old days, it kind of works that way, right? In the old days of the lone hacker in his mom's basement. But I think that now, we're in an industrial setting. And this is the real world today. And to really be effective, you have to work as a team.

Jason Thane: Just one really practical problem with the lone hacker, right, is that you really have the problem that they can leave. We call it a tower of knowledge. If you've got somebody with a lot of the knowledge in their head, if they leave the company suddenly, maybe they... people say get hit by a bus, but I think that's terrible. Let's say they win the lottery, and they're not interested anymore. Then you've lost all of that knowledge. And so the only way to create sustainable product development is to share, it's to collaborate deeply. It's to copy that tower of knowledge into two minds. And you find something else happens when the knowledge is in two minds is that you can really process it better and solve problems more effectively by talking about them. I think human beings are hard wired to solve problems by talking, when we’re parents, when we run the business. That's just the way people can work pretty effectively, particularly between two people. I think pairing is a really effective approach in both business and in engineering.

Shane Hastie: What do you do if the values that you're seeing are not the values that you aspire to? How do you make that shift?

Exploring Values Mismatch [10:54]

Jason Thane: If you go through this exercise and you evidence the fact that there are values within the organization that are not what you want as a leader, then you have to ask the question, well, why did they come up? And probably what it points to is that you are not really recognizing or operating in the sense of reality with what the business is really doing, because you only would have said, "Gosh, this person or these people share this quality that we aspire to, because it leads the business forward." But if you, as a leader thinking, "Well, that's not what I wanted to do. That's not what I think leads the business forward," then maybe you have a difference of vision, and that's a significant issue. I think the important thing is that now that you realize that, you can go through the process of fleshing it out and figuring out why there's a difference of alignment. And that's a healthy thing for the organization. That's actually the hard work of leadership. You've got to do it. And if you don't do it, you're going to be held back.

Shane Hastie: So let's explore this leadership thing. You mentioned you come from the product technologist, product management background, and you've founded the company. What were the hard transitions that you had to make in there?

Transitioning into Leadership [12:04]

Originally the company was just me writing code, partnering with those who wanted to create apps. And as the heady days of the App Store is brand new, right? And so I was just finding the most interesting people with app ideas, and working with them to deliver. One of our first apps was like a cinematography app. It was for making storyboards for cinematographers and directors. And so I partnered with a cinematographer, and it was really his idea of how to transform this operation of making storyboards by just snapping photos to the iPhone. So that was fascinating. And that really served my prior background and career as an engineer in product. That's what I was doing. But it's about a year end that I called my partner that I founded the company with, who was just a passive partner for the first year. And I said, "We have so much to do. I need help. There's no way I can do this. I want to hire people and have payroll. And I just can't handle all this. So can you come help set this up?"

Jason Thane: And he surprised me three weeks later by moving his whole family to Seattle from Montana and joining the company and building these aspects. So suddenly, we had a leadership challenge on our hands. In particular, when you're a founder, you try to do everything yourself. There's actually a term for it. It's called founder's syndrome. One of my coaches calls it DIY-itis. And I had a very nasty case of that. DIY-itis is, especially for somebody from an engineering background, you just want to build it all, and you want to do it all. You want to run it all. But at some point, you have to let go. And until you let go and trust the right people, you're going to be held back. It's hard to do that in particular, because there are so many people who are not the right people who will sign up for the job. So you have to be very careful about who you hire.

Jason Thane: One of the best ways to hire the right people is to hire those who share your values. If you can get to that understanding of your values early on and hire people who are in alignment, that's one of the main things I tried to do on the job interview is flesh out somebody's values, not just what they say they are but what they actually are with actually what leads them forward. And so learning to delegate and trust. A lot of books on this topic, there's one called The E Myth. That's very famous, recommended reading for anybody who's entrepreneur or making this transition from being a problem solver to being a team leader. And that problem continues at scale when you start to develop and cultivate a larger leadership team, then you have that problem at a different scale. And then it becomes all about coordinating the efforts of a group of leaders in a way that they have clear functional boundaries. So we know who's doing what and who's accountable for what, and who's accountable for something else, and the shared value system and shared culture.

Shane Hastie: You mentioned the interview.

Jason Thane: Yes.

Shane Hastie: How do you find somebody's real values in an interview? Because there are going to be something they're putting on the veneer.

Discovering Values in Interviews [15:00]

Jason Thane: Yes. The guiding principle in interviews for me, it's actually something I borrowed from medicine, right of the practice of medicine, which is called subjective objective assessment protocol. And the subjective objective assessment protocol is that it's not enough to go see the doctor and just say, "I have a fever." The doctor will actually measure your fever. And then if the two things agree, the subjective information which is you saying you have a fever, and then the objective information which is the measurement of the fever, if those two things agree, that's the diagnosis. So if I'm trying to find some of these values, I look for subjective and objective evidence. If somebody says, "My values are this," then the thing to do is to try to flesh out some objective evidence that that happened. And it's a little bit harder since you're talking to somebody, and most of the information you have comes out of their mouth. But through their anecdotes, if they can tell a convincing narrative you can dig into to get a convincing narrative sometime when they express the value, that's evidence that they do share that value.

For example, if somebody says, "Oh yes, I value collaboration," well maybe they saw that on our website. They saw we do it together on our website and they come in to say that. And then if I can dig into a narrative of a past project or past work that they've done, and it sounds like they were that lone hacker working in the cave, delivering something without anybody's collaboration, then I would probably look sceptically on that claim. But if it's very clear that they have engaged in a shared sort of sense of how software is architected and how development happens, and they have a lot of pairing, they have a lot of code review, then I'd probably believe them.

Actually, I should say one more thing. The best way to conclude that somebody shares a value in an interview is to see them exhibit that value in the interview somehow, not just talking about it. And that's a skill I'm trying to master. Actually, Jess, one of my co-workers, is great at this. She's great at getting candidates to exhibit the behavior that she wants to see for the job in the interview. And that's a little bit of a higher level of expertise than I personally achieved.

Shane Hastie: So perhaps we can round off with some advice. People who are moving into a leadership role, either within an organization, a technologist like yourself, who's stepping up to a leadership role, looking after people, or for people who are starting their own organizations, what advice would you give them how to create a platform for success?

The Platform for Success is the Team [17:36]

Jason Thane: Yes, the platform for success is the team. The people are everything. The people you bring into your organization will define your future. So it's so tremendously important to find those who you believe in their abilities more than you believe in your own. The best thing as a leader and maybe the hardest thing as an engineer is to want to be the dumbest person in the room. But that is Nirvana. If you're surrounded with the best, you're surrounded with people who are so much more focused on their function and so much more talented, experienced and capable in their function than you are, then your job as a leader is done, and that's going to lead to success. I mean, it's not done. It's always going on. You've achieve a certain threshold of success for sure.

Shane Hastie: Jason, if people want to continue the conversation, where can they find you?

Jason Thane: People are certainly welcome to email me. Listeners of the podcast, my email address is Jason, J-A-S-O-N,, G-E-N-U-I .com. And I'd be happy to hear from  to explore these issues or make an introduction.

Shane Hastie: Thank you very much.

Jason Thane: Thank you, Shane. It's been a pleasure.



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