The next most important document ever to come out of Silicon Valley

February 25, 2013

Like many, my attention was caught a few weeks ago by something described as “the most important document ever to come out of (Silicon) Valley”.

From the hype I was expecting a cross between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the US Constitution.

In fact it was Netflix’s “Culture Deck” – a description of its culture and hiring philosophy.

I liked some of the ideas in the deck, particularly the notion of not logging employees holiday time, on the grounds that the extra time that employees spend working at weekends or outside office hours is not logged.

But some of it seemed to be based on a naive assumption: that the company could keeping growing forever and never become bureaucratic or too big by a simple policy of only hiring “ever more high performance people” (“stars”) and getting rid of people who were underperforming.

Putting aside the fact that the notion of what “high performance” is somewhat undefined in the deck (“high performers make very few errors” the deck asserts on slide 62), it’s rare for a business to get bigger and bigger forever. This is particuarly true in digital (remember My Space). And companies of any size always need structure (another word for bureaucracy).

For a more candid, brutal but much more useful look at cultures (in startups but could be applied to any organisation), you should read “What Your Culture Really Says” by @Shanley. (Once again I’d never heard of @Shanley until a link to her blog tweeted by someone else).

Quote:

Toxic lies about culture are afoot in Silicon Valley. They spread too fast as we take our bubble money and designer Powerpoints to drinkups, conferences and meetups all over the world, flying premium economy, ad nauseam. Well-intentioned darlings south of Market wax poetic on distributed teams, office perks, work/life balance, passion, “shipping”, “iteration,” “freedom”. A world of startup privilege hides blithely unexamined underneath an insipid, self-reinforcing banner of meritocracy and funding.

There’s no direct reference to the Netflix document in @Shanley’s analysis. But they can be read side by side – one a vision statement for a particular kind of warrior capitalism, the other a hard headed critique of it.

The start up scene and the FOSS Open Source movement share the same kind of ideological roots. As Joseph Reagel shows (“Free as in sexist?” Free culture and the gender gap”), a feminist look at these ideas reveals how limiting they can be for women. @Shanley makes a similar point:

What your culture might actually be saying is… Our employees must be treated as spoiled, coddled children that cannot perform their own administrative functions. We have a team of primarily women supporting the eating, drinking, management and social functions of a primarily male workforce whose output is considered more valuable. We struggle to hire women in non-administrative positions and most gender diversity in our company is centralized in social and admin work. Because our office has more amenities than home life, our employees work much longer hours and we are able to extract more value from them for the same paycheck. The environment reinforces the cultural belief that work is a pleasant dream and can help us distract or bribe from deeper issues in the organization.

After all, how many of these “high performers” are likely to be women? And isn’t “star” just code for “some bloke who thinks like me”?

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