Customers, Culture, and Relationships
Over the downtime that happens around the holidays, and after fixing computer problems for relatives, I took the opportunity to relax and catch up on some reading. One of my guilty pleasures is reading Psychology Today, and I found that an odd confluence of articles and experiences over the past year set my mind musing about what I enjoy about working at Cirrascale.
The first Psychology Today article was about building lasting relationships. The focus was on romantic ones (heck, the article is entitled Love and Power!), but the overall message was that successful long-term relationships occur when two things are present: both parties feel empowered to make decisions, and both parties retain their individual identities, rather than having them lost in the relationship. Another article in that same issue summarized a study which found that attractiveness, especially in women, was beneficial career-wise as an individual contributor but a hindrance when in leadership roles. Most notably, transactional leadership using punishments and rewards is not well received, but collaborative leadership often is. The article, which doesn’t look to be available online yet (and the source data is behind a paywall), uses Marissa Mayer (the current whipping boy…err..whipping girl of attractive women leaders) and her time at Yahoo as the example of transactional and collaborative leadership differences, but I found that George Ambler did pretty good job describing the collaborative elements in his 11 Practices of Collaborative Leaders post back in September.
The Psychology Today articles resonated with me because a topic that repeatedly comes up at our monthly SME Connect CTO Roundtable meetings is how to effectively lead technical teams to a successful product or technology outcome. There is almost always also discussion about attracting and maintaining strong technical talent, and for one of our discussions in November we had a few of technical recruiters join us and share their experiences. A key takeaway of mine from that event was that good technical contributors go to, and stay at, companies with a good culture – in fact, a good work culture was the top way to attract and retain talent. Forget salary and tangible benefits (well, don’t totally forget them…people still need to eat!), having a work environment that is inclusive and constructive was repeatedly given as a key to team success. For contributors which may be feeling stagnation in their career, having the ability to work on projects which are personally interesting is something the roundtable discussions often raise as a way to keep the employees engaged and productive. Thinking about those articles, the discussions at the CTO Roundtable, and what I had read in George Ambler’s blog – especially Passionate Purpose and Vision, Build a Foundation of Trust, and Share Information Broadly – made me appreciate how Cirrascale operates.
Here at Cirrascale, we have built a culture which encourages teamwork and collaboration, and also lets people contribute in areas that interest them. Despite being a company with a small number of employees, we continually work as teams for brainstorming, documenting, and executing tasks. The beautiful part is that the teams and tasks are largely self organizing, because everyone feels they are an integral part of the larger community. There is little room for an “Us vs Them” or “Mine vs Yours” mentality, so our very nature is to help each other on projects. There are some obvious downsides to this of course, since being a small company means there are more projects than we can handle, and having flexibility to help make others successful means that less interesting projects tend to run over schedule. Given the choice between the boring project and an interesting one you see somebody else struggling with, it’s much more fun to go help out on the interesting project! The upside to that downside (upside-down?) is that there are many different things to work on. Something I appreciate about the company is that the variety of things to get done is never ending. If you’re not in the mood to sit and write documentation, there’s always some hands-on hardware stuff to get done in the lab. Not feeling like building and debugging systems? Don’t worry, there’s software integration jobs to be done! Lab too cold (or hot) today? Plenty of customer proposals to architect in the office! And it’s not just things on your own task list to choose from. Because everyone knows we’re all in this together, finding somebody who is working on something you find interesting and offering assistance (even if it’s just being a sounding board) is easy and commonplace – whatever you do, you’re doing it with other competent employees that have the same values and goals.
While I feel lucky that our culture at Cirrascale is one of shared success and teamwork, we’ve been pretty good about surrounding our company with fellow travelers sharing that mentality. Since Cirrascale primarily builds high capability hardware, but sells integrated solutions, we need to find partners who can be part of that overall solution. Fortunately, there are a number of companies with complementary components which have the same cultural traits. For example, one of our partners who develops storage software has spent their time and money reviewing and executing portions of our test plan, even those parts that didn’t pertain directly to their software. In reciprocation, Cirrascale has done some functional testing of their software according to their test plan, acting as added test capacity for their engineering team. It’s not about making us successful, it’s about making both of us successful.
Because Cirrascale builds products to meet needs not satisfied easily by bigger players, we also find ourselves frequently working with customers who are willing to work as part of an extended team. A good example of this is with a customer of ours in the financial industry who is making use of GPU compute to do the heavy lifting in their calculations. While Cirrascale did our usual good job of creating some extremely dense, high-power, GPU compute blades tailored for their particular application, the customer experienced issues where on certain occasions the computational results didn’t match their expectations. With some customers, this might be a way to gouge us for more money, or to call it all off and go back to non-GPU methods for doing the calculations. Instead, this customer spent their resources to create specific test software which could reliably demonstrate the errors to us, which in turn enabled us to locate and correct the problems. This allowed Cirrascale to not only deliver a high-capability product to that customer, but the customer has worked with us to incorporate that software into our existing test suites, and has even made modifications which make it more conducive to our test environments – used not just for their solutions, but for all customers. This was done not because they had to (as I said before, there were other opportunities for them to call the relationship off), but because like Cirrascale, they realized that if we worked together, we would both be successful.
Over the course of my career, I’ve found there are many places at which you can have a job. What makes me enjoy coming into work is the culture of teamwork combined with the bountiful selection of different types of work that needs to get done. Fortunately, that culture also extends beyond just Cirrascale employees, and to many of our partners and customers, meaning most of the people I interact with on a regular basis are supportive and heading in the same direction. If I believe the articles I read over the holiday break, and the input of the other technical leaders I interact with, then that direction is up.