Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Presentations Microcultures and Finding Your Place

Microcultures and Finding Your Place



Mike McGarr explores the essence of organizational culture and how it impacts our work. He talks about the microcultures that can exist within an organization that provide layers of influence in our lives and job satisfaction.


Mike McGarr currently leads Slack’s Front-end Infrastructure team, focused on building a great JavaScript client. Prior to Slack, he lead Netflix’s Developer Productivity team, who was focused on building tools and services to make engineers at Netflix productive.

About the conference

Software is changing the world. QCon empowers software development by facilitating the spread of knowledge and innovation in the developer community. A practitioner-driven conference, QCon is designed for technical team leads, architects, engineering directors, and project managers who influence innovation in their teams.


McGarr: I'm going to start off with a bit of a history lesson. In the United States, 1776 is a famous date. This is the date where the Declaration of Independence was signed; the Declaration of Independence was ratified by the representatives from 13 different colonies in the United States. This is a picture of the Mitchell Map which represents roughly what the United States looked like at the time. Comically, I think it's interesting to see North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia's borders extend all the way to the West Coast, very optimistic of them, but it took another 136 years to add the next 35 states to the United States after the revolution, and then a further 47 years to add the final 2. What resulted is what we know and love today, the United States, a union of 50 separate states. The United States is one entity in and of itself, but it's also comprised of 50 states.

Myself, I was born in Northern Virginia, specifically Northern Virginia, because Northern Virginia is very different than Virginia if anyone's ever been there. I spent a lot of time in Massachusetts, my dad grew up in New England. He lives on Cape Cod right now, and then we now, currently, my family and I, live in California. If you ever traveled around the country, you know that every single state, every single part of the country is different, both geography, climate, but in particular, people. If I go to Texas and meet someone from Texas, they're wonderful people and they're different than someone from New York, and so forth and so on.

This is something we all know, different regions have different people, and they all behave slightly differently. In his book "American Nations," Colin Woodard takes a historical look back at the United States, and his perspective is that the United States, and North America at large, isn't comprised of 50 states, or actually 48 continental states and Canada and Mexico, but he basically says it's comprised of 11 different separate nations. He's applying the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement as the central thesis for the book in laying out this claim of these separate nations. What the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement says is that the first people who have effectively established a settlement in a region have an outsized influence on the culture of that region in perpetuity, or at least for a long time.

In this book, he lays out these 11 nations, which are pictured here, and the origins of the people, particularly coming from Europe in most of these cases, and how they have settled and migrated west, and how those cultural beliefs that they brought with them from Europe still have an impact today in the elections and the cultures of these regions. I found this a fascinating perspective, but it also struck me that we, as people that work in organizations and employees in companies, are also affected by the same thing.

That's what I want to talk a bit about today. I want to talk about cultures, I want to talk about microcultures, and how we all find our way within this world of cultures and microcultures.

Why Care?

Before we begin, I want to make sure that you all understand why culture is a very important thing to talk about, and there's a couple of roles or positions you can think of for talking about culture. First, if you're a leader - and when I talk about leaders, I'm not just talking about someone like an executive in an organization, I'm talking about each of us. If you're at QCon, I assume that you are a leader or want to be a leader. You want to make a change in your organization and have an influence. Leaders should care about culture.

How many people have heard the term "culture eats strategy for breakfast?" There's a term I like even better or phrase from Edgar Schein that says, "Culture determines and limits strategy." As a leader, as you're trying to implement strategic initiative in your organization, you have to understand the impact that culture will have on your strategic initiative. Being a visual person, I like pictures, and so I think of culture as a prism, where strategy comes in one way, and then culture is going to shape and warp and break apart that, and the results come out the other. If you're implementing strategy without considering the cultural impacts to your strategy, you're probably not going to get the results you want.

Leadership care about culture, employees should also care about culture. Being a "Star Wars" nut, and really I purposely have not started watching "The Mandalorian" yet, but I will tonight, I think of the Force is very similar to how I think about culture. I think about this Obi-Wan Kenobi quote, which is, "It surrounds us, it penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together." We can coop this quote and change it a little bit for our purposes, "Culture surrounds us, it penetrates us, and it binds the organization together." As employees in an organization, you can't avoid culture. It's something that affects every single thing you do every single day. The tools you use, the processes you use, everything around, everyone in your company is representing and is impacted by culture. It is something you cannot avoid. It's just something you should be paying attention to if you're not already.

At some point in our careers, we will decide that we want to move from the current job into a new job. If you're looking for a job, if you're a job seeker, if you're currently on the market or you're thinking about going to market, you should definitely be thinking about culture. This is something that impacted me recently. As Wes [Reisz] stated, I was at Netflix, and I decided that I was ready for a new challenge. I started looking around for a new job and settled on Slack, and a big part of my decision was interviewing Slack from the perspective of culture. I wanted to understand what their culture was like and how I could fit and integrate into this culture.

There's a fourth type of person or role that all of us will often play that is important for understanding culture, and that is a change agent, someone who's going to implement a change in an organization. This is a meaty topic, this is a huge topic. I'm not going to dive deep into the topic of change, but I want to make sure that you know that if you're making a change in the organization, the organizational culture is going to resist to any change you try to make. I like to think about culture as having an immune system, the cultural immune system. It's going to fight back very hard against change. If you're implementing change, you should definitely think about it. This is a different topic, we won't have time to get into it, but it's definitely something that's important to know.

What is Culture?

We all believe culture is important. What is culture? For me, to understand culture, it helps to start understanding where culture begins, and culture begins with a problem. There's a problem that exists in the world. This problem is something that, at some point, some person comes across this problem and she says, "I want to solve this problem, I have a solution to this problem, and I'm going to dedicate a big portion of my life to solving this problem." We refer to these people often as founders. Here in Silicon Valley, we hold up founders, but anyone is a founder if you create any organization. I've founded two meetups, and I wanted to solve a problem of, no one's talking about these topics in this area. Any of us can be founders, and at some point, these founders, in solving this problem and working on the solution, will say, "I can't do this alone." They will recruit people. They're recruiting peers or somebody to help solve this problem. This founder and these people will work together to try to solve this problem, and over time, hopefully, they will find some measure of success in their solutions.

This success is actually important to the beginning to understand how culture forms, because when I work hard on something and I'm successful, and I reflect back on how I was successful, it's the work that I did to get there that I will often say, "That's why I'm successful." As a group, this group will start to reflect on why they're successful, and they will start to have these set of shared beliefs of why they were successful. This is how culture starts to form within an organization - these behaviors and the actions they took become this set of shared beliefs within the people in the organization. We will often refer to these shared beliefs as values. You've heard of core values, most companies, at some point, will say, "We had these sets of core values."

These shared beliefs are key to the formation of a culture, I don't think they're the most important thing we should talk about. Values are important, but I think behavior is even more important. The reason I think behavior is important is because behavior is derived from values. My actions, the reason I'll do something is because I believe I should do something, or I should believe I should act in a certain way. It's not that behaviors are more important than values, but they're more visible, and they're easy for us to observe, and they're reflective of the culture.

Organizations, over time, with these set of shared beliefs, will start to think about the behaviors they want to have as part of their organization and the behaviors that they don't want. These behaviors, both good and bad, that the organization wants will fall in a spectrum. We think, on the spectrum, behaviors on the right will be good, behaviors on the left will be bad. Whenever we join an organization, a new company, a new team, we will often seek out the set of expected behaviors, "What are the things that's expected from me?" You'll look to your boss and you'll say, "What do you want me to do? What do you expect me to be successful?" If you do these things, you will be a successful member of the team. In addition to that, there's a set of rewarded behaviors, "What are the things that I can do to get ahead, promotion, get increased pay, get kudos?" We're always seeking these out, these rewarded behaviors. Every culture has a slightly different definition of what's expected and rewarded.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have punishable behaviors, "What will get me punished if I do these behaviors," and these can be anything from getting on a PIP, performance improvement plan, to getting me fired. Then, there's a fourth category, a category of behaviors that we often don't talk about, and it's a part of culture, and it's arguably one of the most important parts of culture because it's very nefarious. It can be very influential, and this is the tolerated or accepted behaviors. These are the behaviors that maybe no one is aware of, they don't talk about it, and it's not something positive, but you don't want it to be part of your company. We've all been in a conversation in a group where someone said an off-colored joke, and then you look around and everyone's awkwardly laughing, and no one says anything. This is an example of tolerated behaviors. This can be part of the organizational culture.

Culture is people sharing beliefs and defining the behaviors that they want, but there's more to it. There are two more things I want to talk about that are part of culture. Something we're all familiar with is process. How many people here love process? As my friend Roy Rappaport says, "How many people like getting paid?" There's a process for getting paid. Process isn't a bad thing, but we often resist it. There's a level of necessary process. Processes, you can think about them as organizational behaviors that you want to be repeated over and over again, or you want them to be consistent. We like getting paid, so hopefully, there's a process somewhere that defines how to get paid.

Processes end up being part of a culture, and the processes that are maybe onerous or you want to be very consistent and repeatable, we further indoctrinate into the culture using tools. We either build these tools or buy these tools, but the tools become part of the culture. Our evolving and growing definition of culture is, people have values, values dictate behaviors, organizations are founded by people, organizations hire people, organizations develop values, organizations reward and punish behaviors, organizations lean on processes for these behaviors, and then they simplify these processes with tools. This is not a very easy definition to remember. Like I said earlier, I think I'm a simple human. I don't understand this, but I can understand this.

This is my personal view of what culture is, and these are the same components of culture stacked up together. We'll come back to this picture again for reference. I think all these components are important, but if I were to tab one takeaway from this talk, it is that culture is really best encapsulated with behavior. All these things in this previous slide are either behavior can reflect or are a reflection of behavior in the organization.

Finding Your Way

We have a shared definition of culture. We only need to find now our way through cultures. We need to find a culture we like or understand the culture we're in. The first thing each of us needs to do, which I'm just going to encourage you to do and not tell you how to do, is you need to figure out what kind of culture you really like. What are the behaviors in the current organization you're in or previous organizations that you're in that you thought were great and you wish more people in your current organization or people in your future organization would instill or act like? This is something that is very different for each of us, and each of us needs to go through this journey and this personal conversation.

Once you understand that, then you can come back to this definition of culture, and you can start looking for these components, the tools, and processes, behaviors, and values. Especially if you're interviewing, especially when you're not part of the organization, there's a problem. Some of these things are invisible to us. My values are invisible to everyone in this room. My behaviors are slightly visible. You see I'm up here pacing slowly - maybe awkwardly, I don't know how you feel about this - but I can talk about maybe the process and tools, and I'm person, so you can see me, I'm tangible. Organizations, understanding culture, it's very challenging because there are parts that are invisible.

To get a better handle on culture, we need to lean on something else, which are artifacts. Cultures all have artifacts, just like archaeology. An archaeologist can look at a dig site in Ancient Greece and find a bowl, and they can use that artifact to understand that culture, or at least a bit about that culture. Artifacts are tangible representations of a culture, but the problem with artifacts is they're only hints. You can't depend on that bowl from Ancient Greece to give a complete comprehensive story about what happened in that day or how people behaved in Ancient Greece. When we start talking about artifacts and cultural artifacts, we need to think about them as something that will give us hints and give us a piece of this larger picture about the culture. There's lots of artifacts we could talk about. There are three artifacts I want to talk about today, language, leaders, and tools.

Let's start off with language. We go back to our example of the United States. The United States has a language. In fact, it has a document with this language written down, and this document is the U.S. Constitution. After its formation, we wrote the Constitution, and we had representatives agree and sign and ratify, some signatures were larger than others. This document is essential to the operation of our government, and it helps us define those state lines that are invisible and intangible. We all agree that those lines exist. This Constitution is a great example of a document or language for the organization of the United States. What about your organizations?

Organizations have their own language. I want to give you a quiz, and I think, for QCon, this first question is going to be very easy. I'm going to throw up there a phrase that's used by a company, and you can tell me which company uses this phrase. The first one's going to be easy. "Freedom and responsibility."

Participant 1: Netflix.

McGarr: All right. This is a phrase from Netflix, this is part of Netflix's culture. I'm going to give you another one. "Have backbone, disagree and commit."

Participant 2: Amazon.

McGarr: Wow, even faster. This one's usually the one that people don't always get initially, but this is a phrase used at Amazon. Why I'm talking about these two phrases is, both "freedom and responsibility" and "have backbone, disagree and commit" are examples of behavioral heuristics, and I think behavioral heuristics are an important part of the organizational culture's language. These heuristics provide employees and individuals in this organization guidance on how to act in the absence of clear direction from a manager. In the example of "have backbone, disagree and commit," knowing that that short pithy statement is part of the culture, knowing that you're expected to do this, and that, in the absence of clear guidance, if you just act in that way, you'll be deemed successful by the peers in the organization, the leaders in the organization, is very powerful. I find these behavioral heuristics are a very powerful way for organizations to indoctrinate and instill their culture.

What I also love is that, in the examples of both Amazon and Netflix, and they're not the only ones who do this, they have been explicit enough to put these documents on their Careers page. The one on the left is the Netflix culture document, the one on the right Amazon's 12 leadership principles. This allows us, as potential employees to these organizations, to go to their website and self-select whether this is for me or not. I can look at Amazon's leadership principles and be, "Yep," or "Nope, not going there," and that's very powerful. In the case of Netflix, the only version of this document was the one that everyone else saw publicly, which is also, I think, very powerful. I think these two documents represent the explicit nature of a culture, so the culture is very explicit in its understanding of itself, and it enables consistency in how the culture is applied internally.

We can think about the strength of a culture in these two axes. If you'll bear with me, I'm toying with this idea of trying to represent strength on these two axes, whereas one axis, you can say how explicit or unknown, so an explicit culture versus unknown, and then how consistently it's applied. What I mean consistently is, if I go to someone in accounting and I go to someone in engineering, if I go somewhere in marketing, they all understand the culture and they all will say the same things. Potent cultures are able to have consistency throughout the organization with an explicitness applied to it. Explicit cultures that have a lot of variety I'm labeling anemic cultures. I haven't thought really about what kind of culture would be consistent yet no one knows what the culture is. I think it's an interesting thought exercise, but I definitely think parts of the internet are chaotic, and they would fall into that category of chaotic cultures. Language is an important part of enabling consistency, and I think companies that are able to be very explicit can help drive consistency in their culture, and so that has huge, tremendous benefits.

If I'm interviewing for culture, how do I go about interviewing? I took this picture when I was visiting the Twilio office, and they have their culture thrown up there on the poster, which is another example of explicit culture but also sharing it with employees so that everyone gets the same understanding. I want to show some questions that I've used to understand interview for culture. The first one is "Describe your culture," which sounds very simple, but if you do this, if you go back to your organization, and if your organization does not have explicit culture, and you ask 10 people, 20 people, describe the culture, and especially if you start going outside of your organization, you start talking to people outside of your team, you might be surprised at how inconsistent the answer is. Having done this a few times, it's a fascinating exercise, it's worth doing, and that will help gauge how consistent your culture is.

"How do employees know what to do?" This one sounds a little vague, but how do I know when I'm acting in meeting expectations with the organization, the people in my organization? Do I look at the career ladder? Do I look at some other document? Where do I go to understand when I'm doing a good job? Then, this one is a complement of my friend, Nora Jones. She was trying to teach me that the best way to understand a culture is when a culture's in crisis, so ask somebody to describe the last time your site went down and what happened and how the company acted. This is language.

Let's talk a bit about leaders. When I talk about leaders, I'm talking about people with influence, not necessarily just title. We talked a bit about people with influence, we've talked about founders. If you're to believe that the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement can be applied to your organizations, then founders have an outsized influence on the future culture of the organization. How many people have seen this org chart caricature, picture? This was a cartoon that stuck around the internet for probably 5, 10 years. I love this caricature, because not only does it talk about org charts of companies, but it's very reflective of the culture of the company through the org chart.

What's also interesting if you look very carefully, in most of these charts, it's also representing how the founders/leaders of these organizations fit into the culture and the org chart. It's easy to see how the founders of these organizations have had an outsized influence on the future culture of these organizations. I think founders are the first place you should look to understand how a culture can involve and does involve, especially in the case of those founders that I just showed, but people managers are also extremely important. In fact, when you're forming a new team and you're hiring a new leader for that team, that new leader for that team is effectively the founder of that team.

The same principles apply in that, when you hire somebody or a new leader comes in, and they're going to form a team, their own biases, their own beliefs are going to be applied to how that team is going to be built, how it's going to be hired, how you're going to let people go. These are the roles of people managers. They're going to hire and they're going to reward based on their own biases. They're going to fire people based on their own biases. In fact, there's a quote I love by Andy Dunn, the founder of Bonobos, which is, "The most important people to your culture are those that leave." I think this is extremely true; if you want to understand the culture, look at all the people that have left the culture and ask them, especially if they're either involuntarily or voluntarily, and you can understand some of the challenges that culture might be having.

I think one of the other important things that people managers end up doing for the culture is they model behavior. No matter what level you're in, the way a manager acts essentially giving approval to everybody else that this is how you should act, "this is what I expect of you." As a manager myself, I think about that a lot, my behavior will often be seen as this is what's accepted in the organization. I think it's extremely important for managers to take that lesson home, which is modeling behavior is one of the most important things you could do.

Within organizations, we can draw our own org charts. We saw some caricatures of org charts. This is an org chart I drew of a fictitious company. If there's any similarity to your org chart, it is purely accidental. If we look at an org chart, we can draw some conclusions based on just the org structure alone of an organization. You can look at the CEO, and they could see how he or she is aligned by six different C-levels. The names of the C-levels might be important, like the fact they chose a chief people officer versus some other title. Those are interesting, but what’s more interesting is the fact that each of these individual leaders will in turn, over time, drive cultural influences down within their org based on their own beliefs and effectively create their own subcultures. Each leader will have an outsized influence on the evolution of the culture of that org.


This is where we start talking about microcultures. This is the cultures that form within your organization that look and start feeling a little separate. Everyone has them, they all exist. They're not necessarily a problem, but you should be aware that they exist, especially when you start talking to different people in the organization. Be aware of where they're situated within the organization and what domain they're in, because that will have an influence on their perspective on how the business is run and how the organization is operating. What's interesting about microcultures is, often when you're in a microculture, you can feel like you're in a whole separate company. There have been teams that I'd been on where I've been sitting there, working very hard, because the directives and the guidance from my manager is, "We need to solve X problem. That's the most important thing for the company." Then, I meet somebody two orgs over, and their guidance from their managers is completely different, and it's almost like we're driving to different initiatives.

What kind of microculture will a leader create? It's an interesting question. We look at the leader, they're going to create and influence the culture of that organization, of that team. How do we understand how they're going to influence that, especially if you want to go work for in that org? I think one place to look is history. Where have they been, what have they done, and what have they said is a great way to understand, at least get a hint. It's another artifact as to how that leader will influence the org.

We can take me as an example. Wes [Reisz] gave a brief overview of my history, we talked about it a bit. I'm actually a history major, CS came later for me, and I did 11 years Federal contracting, and I have the scars to prove it. I then spent a year and a half doing DevOps at a company called Blackboard, and then I spent four and a half years of doing developer productivity at Netflix. Just yesterday was my one-year anniversary at Slack doing frontend infrastructure. A lot of you are already starting to draw conclusions about what type of manager I am based on this. I will say that my peers at Slack have had to tolerate me talking about Netflix way too much, and I've had to learn to stop. I think that's important, because spending enough time at Netflix with a very potent culture and leaving and going someplace else, I brought with me a whole set of biases that weren't just my own, but I was carrying with me this influence of this Netflix culture.

Now that I've had this reflection and look at how I've acted and where my biases are, I've started changing, "Ok, I'm not going to try to make Slack in this way," but actually trying to say, "What does Slack need to be, and what lessons can I take from my experiences to apply at Slack?" I'm also giving feedback to other leaders who come in from another company and try to recreate their organization. We've all worked with people who have come from a company, "At my previous company, I did this." Those are valuable, but not too much of it.

We talked about language and leaders. The last thing I want to talk about is tools. Tools, I purposely put at the top of this pyramid, because tools are the most visible but also the weakest signal we can have towards culture. Tools are easy to find because you can go to any companies, GitHub repo, we can look at any of the talks that have happened at this conference and understand the tools that each company is using to be successful in their job. There's a lot of tools we can look at. I want to focus on one tool in particular that I find particularly interesting, which is programming languages.

Most of us here are programmers, and most of us have grown up on one language, and some of us have written code in multiple languages. We've learned - or some of us have learned - that over time, these programming languages have things we like and things we don't like. We can take, for example, a language that I've used a lot, Java and Ruby. Java is a language that was statically typed and has suffered from poor stewardship for a period there where it didn't evolve. Now, it's getting much better and it's catching up, which is great. I'm very excited about it. It's a fast scalable system that's enterprise-grade, and big systems are built on it. Ruby, on the other hand, is a dynamically-typed language. The culture around Ruby is one of developer happiness, which, as a Java developer, seemed very foreign to me. I say that with love for Java. It had a lot of C-bindings, which was a surprise when I started playing with Ruby. Synonymous with Rails - Rails was this huge product that propelled Ruby into the four, and a lot of TDD is part of their culture.

Both these languages are interesting because they were custom-built for a purpose, they're good at certain things, and they're not good at other things. As a result of these enablers and these constraints, these tools have evolved and have built communities around them. A Java developer often will look at a Ruby developer, and they're not just looking at the language themselves, but they're looking at the ecosystem of open-source tools, the philosophies that that language has built around it, and those culture around those communities. I think this is a very important perspective to keep, especially when we, in organizations, are choosing languages to use. If we go back to our org chart, how many believe have seen their company's language use look something like this, where you have different languages being used by all over the company?

This, by itself, is not necessarily a problem, but if you think about the perspective of, say, in this example here, the CTO is a Java developer and believes in Java and wants to push Java, and you have the beliefs of the Java ecosystem, the beliefs of the Java community are going to seep into his org. Whereas the CISO over is a Rubyist and believes in Ruby and believes in the cultures of that language community that are also going to be hired into your organization. Programming languages can have this interesting influence on the culture because they actually pull in their own culture into your organization. Go is a particularly interesting one because I have never worked in a mono-repo, but Go, the ecosystem of Go itself is very reflective of Google's mono-repo culture. You can see these tensions there. I've experienced examples where deployment strategies have been a source of contention between different language users, because one language has evolved separately their own deployment strategy and then another language is building a deployment tool that applies a different deployment strategy. You could see these programming languages can create tension within the organization.

Some companies will accommodate this through their structure. I don't know if anyone's ever seen Spotify's culture video, it's a very interesting look at how one company has decided to indoctrinate their culture. One thing I appreciate about their culture video is they talk about how it's not just complete, but it's aspirational. Here, you can see that they formalized these structures called Squads, which are the verticals, and these Squads are teams, and they're part of a Tribe, but they also have these horizontal structures called Chapters and Guilds that accommodate these different language and domain expertise. I think it's a valuable part of tools or a valuable part of the culture to accommodate this within their organizational structure.

The takeaway for me is, you can look at tools as this tool is good at one thing, it's not good in other, and it enables and constrains the behaviors of the people within that organization. You could start to see how it will influence behavior. I wasn't going to talk about change, but one of my favorite techniques for implementing change in organization is actually to replace one tool that works fine with another tool that works fine, and what people will do is say, "This new tool means I have to do something different," and you tell them, "You have to use a new process," and that enables new behavior and effectively can create new beliefs. It's a little hack you can implement.

Summing It Up

Let's sum it up. Culture - Mike's [McGarr] definition, you can believe it or not - is composed of these parts of values, people, behavior, process, tools. Culture can influence your strategy, so pay attention to it. It's very important, but the most important part of culture is behaviors, and these types of behaviors are an important part of your culture. You can look for these various types of microcultures that exist in your organization to understand how they influence and where you fit into these microcultures. If you want to understand something about an organizational culture, look to artifacts.


See more presentations with transcripts


Recorded at:

Dec 09, 2019