How to Build an Internal Culture

2021-09-09 -

What makes a great internal culture at a tech company? Mark Porter is now the CTO of MongoDB - yet over the past 40 years, he has worked at companies like Oracle, Amazon Web Services, NASA, and Grab.  In this article, you will learn insights that Mark has gained over the past 30+ years working at a variety of companies about creating a great internal work culture -  from hierarchies and diversity initiatives to metrics and mentorships.

Decide what Internal Culture your company needs

Mark has worked at a variety of companies over the past 40 years and each of them had a very different internal culture. However Mark notes that something that he learned during his family’s 3-year sojourn in Italy is true in the workplace itself: The things that initially struck them as strange or different or unsettling, are actually internally self-consistent in that culture. And when you pair that over to work cultures, you'll find the same thing.

Mark looks at the various companies he worked at and how that was reflected in their product.

  • Oracle: Oracle had a top-down culture but they also had a culture of absolute engineering excellence which meant that they'll just wait as long as it takes to get that release perfect. So you know what you’re going to get with Oracle - you just have to be patient to get it! And, sometimes, what the world needed has passed Oracle by the time they release it.
  • AWS: AWS had a culture that was agile - relentlessly driven by customers. They wanted to ship things to customers as quickly as possible. Even if it meant that most of the time they didn’t even try to release the perfect product. AWS really focuses on quick iteration, doesn’t mind duplication of effort, and then cleans things up later. While this can (and has) had amazing results, it makes it very hard to be an engineer there - you never get the chance to actually finish things.
  • Grab: Grab had a culture that was open, authentic and accepting. This was necessary as they operated in eight incredibly different countries which caused a lot of interesting cultural dynamics. And Grab also believed in very small, independent teams - again, like AWS, not minding duplication as long as it created velocity and innovation. Grab, however, paid more upfront attention to technical quality and architecture, creating systems that were often better than those at the bigger companies.
  • MongoDB: MongoDB’s roots in the open-source community influence the internal culture in more ways than one:
    • Bottom-Up Planning: At MongoDB, the team might say, “this is the work we need to do for this part of the product. And here are the goals it tags to” rather than the company at the top saying “these are the goals we need to address this year. You all need to come up with some tech that addresses this goal.”
    • Communication: In fact, there are a couple of phrases we use where we actually focus on how people talk to each other. Do we talk to each other with respect? Do we feign surprise when someone says something that isn't true, do we ask for approvals at more levels of management above us than we think we should? I have been surprised by how focusing on the basics of communication centers the company and makes conversations so much easier to have..
    • Empowerment: Of course, every company needs to make sure that its internal culture is what it needs to succeed. “I have been at companies where the culture that was needed to succeed was not the culture the company wanted, and those were hard places to be. And if you find yourself in one of those, you should make a decision pretty quickly of whether it's going to get healthy. And if not go find someplace else” says Mark. Think about whether every team has the context they need to make decisions, the empowerment to make them, and the safety to be wrong sometimes.

How to Promote Diversity in Tech Teams

“Make sure that you don't have too many people confirming your opinion around you,” says Mark. “I believe that we should have a diversity of thought, opinion, and background because that creates such healthy conversations and it prevents us from becoming clones of each other. Now, one of the things that's cool is that it's actually great to get a diversity of thought, opinion, and all that through the diversity of race, gender, and background that we care about.” This isn’t news to CTOs. Yet Mark shares with us some of the methods he uses to increase diversity at MongoDB. ”

Provide extra support to DEI employees

DEI initiatives should not stop at the hiring funnel.

“It's not just about increasing the diversity in our hiring funnel, by gender, by race or by background or by tenure. It's actually about increasing diversity all the way through your organization. How do you onboard people? How do you measure people? How do you promote people? If you're not tracking what percentage of diversity you have of people who've been at your company five years, just as much as one year, you're actually falling down on your job because where diversity fails in a lot of companies is we fail to nurture and support the diverse populations we already hired.” - Mark Porter, CTO MongoDB

Provide Internships

“At MongoDB and with our internship program, we're trying to find people early in their college career and nurture them through internships so that the candidates coming into the company are actually .. representative of the populations that is available rather than the population that might be stereotypically already within our company.”

Enhancing Diversity with Small Teams

The benefits of diversity also play out better in small close-knit teams, as opposed to hierarchical monoliths. For example, a team lead can increase the diversity in a small team by mixing the seniority of engineers so everyone can learn from each other. In general, people work better in smaller teams as they feel their contributions matter and as small teams imply that the project is broken into small chunks - it's faster for developers to see their code in action. Which is what developers like.

Speak less. Listen More.

Mark has found that he can better utilize the diverse opinions around him best when he is silent and allows others in the room to fill the silence with their opinion.

Measuring Success: Simplifying Goals

Mark believes that goals are most empowering when they are used in a lightweight way. Having too many goals can stifle bravery and innovation. At many companies, these goals are called “OKRs”, or “Objectives and Key Results”.

“Let's say a team has five OKRs,” says Mark, “the team achieves OKR 1 - wow, that was great. And they move on to OKR 2, 3. etc. The team is rewarded more for completing all five OKRs at an OK level than they would be if they knock it out of the park on some amazing innovation feat…” This is why they don’t use OKRs in any kind of structural way at MongoDB. Mark says “we actually give people guidance on what outcomes we would like and then every team's project leader has to say, ‘what goal is this driving towards?’. By goal, it should be one of the tactical/strategic goals and business goals set by the company executives. Once the team has mapped their project to an executive-level goal, they are free to work undisturbed.”

Embrace Experimentation

Instead of saying ‘embrace failure’ which might imply that managers should be out there encouraging people to fail, we should absolutely embrace experimentation.

Mark does that with his own family. “I was amused one day when my son came to me and he said, ‘Dad, I have this really big problem. ‘I said,’ what?’And he goes, ‘I spent $250 on AWS. I left some servers spun up. He thought he was in trouble but I was delighted that he'd been using AWS and had spent all that money innovating.”

Many of the companies MongoDB is working with right now are seeking experimentation and innovation - whether it's moving from on-premises to the cloud, or just modernizing their on-premises infrastructure.

Provide Mentorship Programs for Every Career Stage

MongoDB’s mentorship program spans the entire career - from those early in their career to those more senior. Even after 30+ years of experience, Mark still has a network of mentors he speaks to regularly. "All of us need to recognize that we're on journeys every day. In fact, one of my best mentors says, ‘the instant you think you have your job licked… is the instant you start failing because none of us have our jobs licked’". At MongoDB, they work to give every employee a growth path and don’t assume that anybody is done getting better.

Every Employee needs a Different Management Style

Everyone is different which requires different management styles and relationships. Just like there is no perfect ‘father recipe’ (Mark is the father of 5), there is no perfect ‘leader recipe’. “Every one of my directs needs a different Mark. And every one of my children needs a different Dad. “ After Mark told us how hard this has been for him to learn, we asked him how he achieves it. He uses this mantra:

“In order to be who that person needs, whoever it is, whether it be a colleague or family at home, I will do whatever it takes as long as it's not illegal, immoral, or unethical. And as long as it's authentic to me to be what that person needs me to be in order to be the person that they're trying to grow into, then I’m fine with that. We all need to show up in every situation being both authentic to ourselves and simultaneously what the other party needs.” - Mark Porter, CTO of MongoDB

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