Last time I explored some of the reasons why we as IT folk tend to stick together. I also talked a bit about how culture can both allow you to thrive with your own kind, but also fail to see some of the obvious problems around you because of the cultural blinders effect. In this segment, I’ll talk a bit about why this is actually pretty important to be aware of, and how they can manifest.

Jeffrey Stanton's very scary 1984 rewrite

If you look at the occupational grouping, IT the club has a whole lot of cultural characteristics. In a 2004 study, Jeffrey Stanton of Syracuse University surveyed the overall culture when looking at how IT initiatives may fail in organizations because of IT subculture issues.

His team found that IT people in 80 companies used common modes of communication symbolism. This stressed the unwillingness of computer users to learn certain things, and a common belief in the cluelessness of end users and the  “set apart status” of IT.

They also displayed ethnocentric attitudes: these implied that their group was both important and different from others, that they possessed esoteric knowledge, that they perceived themselves as having extreme working conditions, and having many complaints about other groups.

So we, as a whole, are a smart, fairly obnoxious group of folk who hang out together.

I am at least 5 of those...

But this is not unusual; even though IT folk seem to have a stronger, more distinct cultural identity, most segmentations show signs of this. EVERYONE thinks they’re the most important piece of the puzzle. If you’ve ever worked at a newspaper you know how the journalists all say, “We are the newspaper; we create the product,” and the graphic folk say, “We actually make the newspaper, put it together, and get it done,” and the sales people say, “We are the newspaper; if we didn’t sell ads none of you people would have jobs” – The truth, however, is that a newspaper could not exist unless all the divisions were doing their job; they just can’t see it.

Annoying at times, but… why should anyone care?

Why should you care?

Whenever two cultures or sub-cultures have different sets of assumptions and world-views, and these ground rather than object, a train-wreck is going to happen (big or small, but it’ll involve you somehow). There will be costs, frustration, stress, and worse relationships with the kind of useful people who provide the resources and environment, which make work worthwhile.

Can't I play cricket and drink good beer?

The problem might be called lack of collaboration, poor communication, bad scoping, scope creep, revision work, IT arrogance, loose cannons in IT, etc., but somewhere it will come down to culture clash.

Let’s examine an occupational culture: While we are generally blind to the big differences of culture, we are often sensitive to the small differences of subcultures (a Tampa resident can often tell you the exact differences between New Tampa and South Tampa culture).

Aren't Org Charts FUN?

At the top of our IT pyramid, we have the suits – business types who manage IT processes and liaise a lot with the admin, accounting, marketing, C-suite, engineering, etc., types from the rest of the business world.  Below them, we have people who do the work. (Suits don’t do the work?).  The Suit subculture is more hierarchical and rule-bound than Those Who Do the Work.

Leaving the Suits, let’s look at the sub-culture of the Doers, Nerds, Geeks, etc.

Let’s also borrow some terms from the thinking toolbox of Anthropoly (here’s the app – CultureGPS). It’s always easier to have a name for something, because it creates a thinking tool. This culture is more:

  • particularist (we will not live by regulations and we don’t like bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all rules)
  • polychonic: (time flows: multitasking is normal and 8:30 – 5pm doesn’t exist)
  • low power distance: (equality is the norm, people with power do not assert it, and others in the culture do not tolerate power-posturing)
  • diffuse: life is less compartmentalized: both work and relationships flow through the roles and space that Those-Who-Do-The-Work inhabit.

You can drill down further. Those-Who-Do-The-Work have small sub-cultures. Are you a software or a hardware specialist? One sub-culture (software) tolerates more emotion and has a greater emphasis on humor than the other.

Sub-Cultured

Within the software group, you can drill down further. At the top of the “ain’t-it-cool” guys we have  games developers. If software culture is elitist, creative, individualist, what about games development? The development culture is already insular, because only another developer truly understands the beauty of your underappreciated algorithm, but within gaming you find an intense version of this.

The massive skills of the unappreciated genius, whose mathematical and physics skills translate into the perfection of a blood splatter or a exact buoyancy of a semi-sinking object…

Extreme Cases

Now surface… back up, up, to the developer and suit, opposite the intimidated or bewildered client, discussing the application.

Those small sub-cultural differences are now magnified enormously, yet they are now almost invisible.  And they have the (easy) potential to screw up your project, or the user adoption of your system, changes, etc.

Next post, I’ll try and look at solving this problem of IT culture and maybe even one or two ways we can think about playing nice with others… or I might just go get a beer.

This is Part 2 of a three part series, and you can find the others here in Part 1 and Part 3.

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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Keeping Culture Alive During Covidland

It’s been almost a year now since we closed our office and sent everyone home. The first few months were filled with uncertainty, change, and a fair dose of anxiety, but we got through it. It made us a stronger and a closer group of people in many ways. But working together is not just about doing the day-to-day tasks and surviving the occasional pandemic challenge. There are a million little things that we miss when we are not physically in the same space.

One of the most interesting lessons from the past year has been learning what we take for granted when working in an office. I personally miss lunches with a table full of smart, funny, interesting people. I miss the group dynamics around a physical whiteboard where the ideas are coming faster than we can write them down. But what I miss most are those tiny interactions; the conversations in hallways, doorways, and around the fish tank (we don’t really have a water cooler).

These small moments are what elevate work relationships into friendships. They are where we humanize our coworkers, build empathy, and learn that they are full 3D people with 3D lives and 3D dreams. You walk out of a conference room with someone talking about their kids. You don’t just hang up your Zoom call with them and go back to your email.

I think that these moments, as small as they may seem, are extremely important in a workplace. My work is not just a job, and my coworkers are not just some random group of people with whom I accomplish tasks. To me, work is about creating shared meaning and sharing a mission. While you can work cooperatively with a group of strangers to achieve a goal, it will not be as fulfilling as working with a group of friends to completely blow a goal out of the water. I wake up every day partly for the work, but mainly for the people.

So if these small moments in-between “work” are so important in strengthening the bonds between colleagues, how do we make sure they are not entirely lost during long periods of remote work?

The truth is that I don’t really know, but I can tell you what we have tried. I think that Sourcetoad has one of the best company cultures I’ve ever seen, and so it’s worth sharing some of the successful changes we’ve made.

Weekly All-Hands

The first change that we implemented was moving to a weekly all-hands meeting. In the before times, Sourcetoad had a monthly “Sandwich Day,” which was an hour and a half, fully-catered company extravaganza with animated slides, company updates, silly jokes, educational segments, and trivia games with prizes.

We still hold these longer form all-hands meetings once a month, but we discovered that we needed something shorter between Sandwich Days to stay in touch with each other. I actually started out with a weekly company-wide email, but it was too impersonal and never really worked.

We now have a weekly, 30-minute meeting with a few quick updates and a little extra silliness. We try and dedicate about a third of the time to an open Q&A session and address any questions raised in a dedicated Slack channel throughout the week.

Fika

Many American workplaces have adopted the Swedish idea of fika — a simple daily (or twice daily) coffee or tea break with the purpose of slowing down and taking a real intermission from work, even if just for a few minutes. At Sourcetoad, we have started two different fikas (or is it fiki?).

  1. A weekly, optional fika for anyone in the company to drop in on and chat.
  2. A rotating fika for new hires to slowly work their way through the entire organization. These are small fika groups where new team members meet with groups of two or three employees to have a 20 minutes coffee break and get to know each other.

Work From Home Challenges

One of our most successful initiatives has been our #WFH-challenge Slack channel. Many companies have been doing these, but we took to it like a fish to water. The challenges were almost daily at first: take a photo of your work area, list your top ten favorite movies, show us something in your house with green thread, etc. They kept everyone engaged but also allowed us a view into each other’s personal spaces and lives.

The number of challenges per week we are doing has decreased as time has gone on. We have gotten more and more used to working remotely. Sometimes we’ve even missed weeks. But they are one of my favorite additions to our work culture. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Guess who is in these childhood photos.
  • Post the oldest photo or selfie you have on your phone.
  • Tell us what has been the most surprising distraction while working from home?
  • Wear a crazy hat competition.
  • Draw your own island using this tool.
  • Post your favorite COVID meme.
  • Find something within arms reach, take a photo, and tell us something about it (why you have it, where you got it, etc.)
  • Post a link to a website, blog, or subreddit that you’ve spent a lot of time on during quarantine. (Safe for work only!)
  • Wear formal clothes to the all-hands.
  • Describe the show you’re binge-watching in the most boring way possible.
  • Post a photo of your favorite spot to take a walk.
  • Change your Zoom background in our all-hands meeting to your ideal fantasy world.
  • Tell us what is your favorite play/musical, and why? Bonus points if you sing/act out the play.
  • Post your favorite recipe that you’ve discovered during lock-down.
  • Caption this photo competitions, the most popular being:

Movie Night

Sourcetoad has always hosted movie nights, so moving them online was important to keep our culture alive. Our team went through dozens of solutions for everyone to watch movies together. From home-built Plex servers to experimental chat systems, they tried it all. In the end, we settled on two solutions:

  1. Youtube movies and the Youtube Party browser extension.
  2. Netflix movies and the Teleparty browser extension.

Combine these with headphones and an open Zoom call, and you have something approximating an in-person movie night!

Game Night and Happy Hour

Game Night and Happy Hour used to be another Sourcetoad ritual. Every Friday night, as developers started logging, product managers sent their last status report, and the marketing team finished doing whatever it is they do — we would kick off an informal party. Generally, this involved opening a beer and one of the drawers in the office that holds one of thirty classic game consoles. We would then argue about IPAs over lager and Atari over NES.

Thus, the sacred tradition of Game Night had to also move online. However, our team has adapted extremely well (as us nerds could be expected to). The most popular method has been to connect a Jackbox account as a Zoom participant and have everyone join via their phones.

The other games that have gone down the best have been:

  • Codenames – A game where you try and get your team to guess the right words.
  • Skribbl.io – An online Pictionary-style free-for-all.
  • JigsawPuzzle.io – As the name implies, online group jigsaw puzzles.
  • Jackbox – I’ll add it again here because it’s so good!

Conclusion

Hopefully, this list of ideas and thoughts gives you some hope for the future of work and some ideas to implement today in the remote world. I’m personally looking forward to those small interactions in the hallways between meetings again. Still, at least for now, I’m able to enjoy a cocktail and a terrible Nicolas Cage movie with some of my favorite people online.