Culture Smells in Software Teams - Part 1

Everybody experiences a certain period of adaptation in a new work environment. This is not just about learning about rules and internal resources. This is also about figuring out the collective mindset and values specific to that organization, or learning the culture.

I decided to split this post in to two parts. This part focuses on main characteristics of a culture and the second part contains the list of foul smells that you should be aware of.

So, what is culture ?

Culture is the total of non-written reactions, behaviours, mind set shared by the majority of the members of an organization.

As usual, Scott Adams has funniest remarks about culture [here]( in Dilbert.

Here is my own list of characteristics of an organizational culture:

Culture assimilates you

When new people join, they often feel compelled to go along with the governing mind set. When everybody eats outside, the new hire who prefers eating small sandwich at his desk will have difficulties socially connecting with peers.

Engineers coming from different development cultures will find themselves adapting to the new environment, even when they do not actually approve it. This applies to every single aspect of work. How meetings happen, what people talk about during lunch. The culture wants you to become like the others.

At this point, the culture can positively improve a newcomer and allow achieving ever higher level, or bury it down to bowels of hell.

It is important to be able to sniff the governing culture and foresee where it will take you.

Culture is not written

You can not find the elements that make the culture in a wiki page or in the hiring contract. It is not on post-its, or motivational posters. A poster telling people to be honest, does not change any dishonest people.

You can get clues about the culture during interviews if you are careful and ask correct questions. You can dig in to the internet to find opinions of ex-employees. Finally, you can see it yourself when you are in.

Things that happen due to laws and regulations are not culture

Every country has its own set of laws that directly shape the work environments. Something given as a perk in a country can easily be a basic legal obligation in another one. When it is already enforced by law, we can not say it is part of the culture anymore.

For example, if overtime is strictly regulated in favor of employees, a company that does not require frequent overtimes can not be automatically said to have a positive work-life balance in their culture. It is enforced, not by choice.

Once formed, it is difficult to change the culture

Culture is often seeded by the founders of companies. They typically don’t do it by mandating but by being an example. If founders are still in charge, you can be pretty sure that the culture is actually established by them consciously.

For older companies, or the one’s whose founders are not around anymore, it is the result of slow evolutionary changes happened over decades when employees stay longer in it and executives carry the flag forward. Once it becomes like a DNA, it requires strong leadership and hard work to change it drastically.

Be aware, do not fall victim to PR fuss you see on the internet about how much an organization changed in last x years. Serious culture changes often start from the top, replacing people are incompatible to the target mindset, with the ones who already live in that way.

Culture is a bully

It is indeed like a mafia whose boss is never seen but has aggressive loyal members actively working as enforcers.

Exact same sentence in exact same situation can cause completely opposite reactions in opposing cultures.

For example, trying to find and solve the root cause of a problem will be welcome in an organization that focuses on putting an end to problems one by one, whereas it will cause wild fires in another organization where witch hunting, shaming, blaming is the norm.

Challenging a cultural element always hits some resistance. Especially if the founders are still in the management, it is almost futile to try changing the culture unless you convince them.

Culture is not tangible

Well it is obvious, right ? Furthermore it does not show up in excel reports. It does not pay any bill. It does not increase shareholder value. It is impossible to materialize but it is also so important that it can push an organization upwards or sink to the bottom.

Without exception, every single organization has its culture.

The main question is: Do you feel happy with it ?

If you can not fit in, the work place can become torturous. Do not do this to yourself. It never ends good and it is almost always better to cut it off as soon as possible.

Just, do not expect to change the culture of a company you are hired, unless it is very small and young or unless you are a board member who is allowed (and expected) to take bold decisions.

Note that, this is neither your nor the organization’s fault. You are just not fit for each other. Accept this and move on. It is ok.

But how do you identify a culture as bad ?

You need to look out for culture smells here