Want to build great software? Get your culture right first.

I love the Automattic Creed that all their employees have to sign before they join the company:

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know ther’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

(h/t to @SwimGeek for the link)

This is going to sound like such a lame “management guru” thing to say, but it’s true: the cultural fit of the people you hire is more important than their past experience or absolute skill level. I’ve seen this time and time again. If I have a choice between hiring someone who is highly skilled in their work but doesn’t display humility and a genuine drive to learn more, and someone who knows enough to know that there is much to learn and they’re hungry to get there, I’ll choose the latter every time.

We recently went through an exercise to define our team values, and in many ways it’s similar to Automattic’s creed. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here are the main points. This is how we want other people to describe our team:

  • We are zealots about quality
  • We have autonomy to do what’s best for the product, its users, and our business
  • We have a high fix:complain ratio
  • We have a healthy work/life perspective
  • We are empathetic to the core

The relationship between a healthy culture and doing great work is causal, not simply correlation. Good culture is the prerequisite for great work to happen, and actually causes it. Alan Cooper recently address this issue in a great article called The pipeline to your corporate soul:

If you want to improve the quality of your website, app, or software, you need to also improve the quality of your organization. You need to ferret out the people who play politics but don’t get things done. You need to squash bureaucracy that stops innovation with doubt and red tape. You need to eliminate the energy drains, systemic distortions, and toxic people that force others to act like corporate drones instead of like entrepreneurs with a vested interest in success.

If you put a bunch of talented, energetic, ambitious people together and make it easy for them to collaborate and do great things, they will. I haven’t seen a single example of great work preceding a clearly defined and healthy culture – even if it’s just an unspoken understanding between two startup founders. Spending time on getting your culture right is worth the effort.