Your firm’s culture: What you do is who you are

Culture cannot be an afterthought for tech transformation. It has to be an essential part of it

Founding Fuel

[Image by Malachi Witt from Pixabay]

Dear friend,

In Social Network (2010), Mark Zuckerberg moving to the West Coast, California, is shown as one of the pivotal moments in Facebook’s history. Soon after the move, one of his team members breaks the chimney of the house while carabining into the swimming pool from the roof. Soon, Zuckerberg throws a couple of beer bottles for Sean Parker’s girlfriend to catch. It’s too fast. It breaks. We don’t know if these events actually took place. But, “move fast and break things” was the Facebook’s defining culture for many years. It still is, some say.  

Early on in his latest book, What You Do Is Who You Are, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz goes farther into the history of the tech industry to show how culture didn’t simply define the tech industry, but it created it. Bob Noyce, who co-invented the microchip, knew for the tech industry to work, it needs a culture of independence. That’s what he set out to create first at Fairchild Semiconductor, and then at Intel. The engineers who went out of these companies to become entrepreneurs created companies on the foundation of this culture. This atmosphere is extremely important for companies looking at innovation, because, as Horowitz writes, “1) innovative ideas fail far more than they succeed, and 2) innovative ideas are always controversial before they succeed.” These two conditions imply that culture cannot be an afterthought for tech transformation. It has to be an essential part of it.

But, culture itself is hard to define, and get right. In the book, Horowitz gives a list of simple, real-life decisions people make (five examples below) and asks how many of them can be resolved by referring to corporate goals or mission statement.  

  • When I negotiate this contract, what’s more important: the price or the partnership?
  • Should I point out what my peers do wrong, or what they do right?
  • Should I go home at 5 pm or 8 pm?
  • Should we discuss the colour of this new product for five minutes or 30 minutes?
  • Is winning more important than ethics?

The point is, none of them can. Yet, these decisions—and the actions that follow—define the culture of the company. Culture is what people do. What you do is what you are. 

Later, in the book, he tells a story from his LoudCloud days. He faced a dilemma that won’t be unfamiliar to those who are following the Infosys story in the past two weeks. The dilemma was this: is it okay for him to club guaranteed and unguaranteed contracts together to show a higher booking number? The company was doing fine on revenue, but not on bookings, which reflected guaranteed contracts. Missing the bookings numbers could get them bad press, which could mean customers trusting them less, which could mean less business, and maybe layoffs. And clubbing them together was not a lie or illegal. So why not? His general counsel said something that set him back on the right path. He said, “Yes, but we are proposing to tell the truth in such a way that what people hear is not true.” 

There is much discussion around strategy, implementation and ethics across the world these days. What You Do Is Who You Are (which I haven’t finished yet) is a timely reminder that it’s culture that binds them all. 

Have a great week!

NS Ramnath 

For Team Founding Fuel

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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