Should I stay or should I go? - Culture is king. The king is dead.

Culture ... that hard to define, difficult thing to pin down. Yet it plays a critical part in any job at any company. So what do you do when you find yourself in a culture that doesn't work for you?

Should I stay or should I go? - Culture is king. The king is dead.
Photo by Hello I'm Nik / Unsplash

This is what happened to me, and this is my honest account. Unlike usual, this article will be more based on my experience and opinion than on offering concrete advice. So for those who read my work purely for its educational value, this one might not be for you.

Setting the Scene

Let me set the scene. I have been through redundancy and have spent a long time looking for the next right role. I've cut a substantial amount off my wage (over £30K), and I've already dropped my expectations in keeping the same levels of seniority (I'm a senior technology leader). I've widened my bucket as far as I can afford to. And I'm getting desperate. My run-way of savings is at an end. Things are bleak ... then tada 🎉 A company I had applied to at the start of my redundancy (3 months ago) finally got back to me. Everything is looking up again. They moved quickly; they kept the interviews short, 2 of them 1.5 hours in total. They made an offer the same evening after the final interview and sent the contract through at 22:00.

Did you see it?

Now, there were already a few warning flags that I completely ignored because of my situation. Did you spot them? It took this company 3 months to respond! There are clearly some issues happening within this company if a 3-month lead time is an acceptable thing. Then the sheer pace of it all, only 1.5 hours, all done, meeting just 3 people for a senior leadership position? That's not very thorough; they were as desperate as me I think. I had mentioned that I wanted to move quickly as I was in the final stages of another company, but still, that's obscenely fast. If that wasn't enough of a flag, getting the contract sent out at 22:00! That's not normal, not a bad thing just on it's own, but given the rest of it, its a flag they're desperate for a bum on that seat. This role was sold to me as one with autonomy in a company that values technology, values people, and has a clear mission. I, also in a hurry (I'm not an innocent party here), didn't ask thorough questions, took what they said at face value, and even flatly ignored some negative Glassdoor reviews about the things they were claiming to be the opposite. Doh! Rookie move.

Once on the inside

Once I had accepted and started - which wasn't a smooth, easy thing, but moaning about onboarding is a different topic to this - what was it like?

No prizes for guessing here. It was chaotic, not quite world on fire, but not far off. This should have been obvious given the warning flags I ignored during the hiring process. So I was thrown in with no clear direction, no product ownership anywhere in sight, no data to speak of to make decisions, and a new set of priorities every week. Now ... this company was/is still young, so the idea of many people wearing many hats and shifting priorities is to be expected. After all, that is the nature of a start-up. However, the difference here, in my experience, is normally a start-up has a clear vision of where it wants to go and what it wants to achieve. It has some measurements to determine what aspect of its product is working and what isn't. That is what drives the changes in priority and direction, data. All of that was absent. This was all guns blazing doing things prioritised by who can shout the loudest. No body really knew why they were doing what they were doing. If any of you have read the Phoenix Project ... you get the idea (and if you haven't, you should). It's not quite as bad as it was at Parts Unlimited, but there was a clear familiarity.

Now the naive part of me thought, "Great! Chaos! No product ownership. I can have a huge impact here and start to right this ship. Product, process and people are my thing!" ... Wrong! The company can't or won't allow the fast adoption and trial of tools (budgets, regulation, politics? Not sure I never worked that out). So that's my plan scuppered already. I have no data, and I can't get access to the tools needed to gather that data.

The ol' bait and switch

The next trap I had seemingly fallen into was the old bait and switch. I had been brought in with the promise of one thing and had it replaced with something else before my feet had even touched the ground. It wasn't all bad news; my manager* was very wary of the same problems and the fact everyone was running around like a headless chicken. They arranged an "offsite" to talk over priorities. So at least, we should be able to start to see what needs to be done now. In the interim, I stepped into a new role as backlog administrator and project planner (Interim Product Owner) of sorts for some the established teams. After all this, we identified a key problem, recognised it as a priority, and tied it back into the business. Onwards and upwards?

* Credit where credit is due. My manager was and is badass at what they do.

Yeah, but no, but

We have a priority; we have an agreed direction. We started to create a backlog of work; we created a hiring plan. We needed an SRE team. I wasn't hired to lead SRE; I have no experience with SRE hands-on. But you know what, I don't mind a challenge. Then it's casually dropped in; we can't call them that, and we can't position it to the business as that. Ahh, politics, how we love you. So I set about resourcing, reaching out to my network and so on. We even start to interview for the roles. Does anyone want to guess what happened next?

Deje Vu

Before that entire initiative ever gets too far, priorities shift again. And we are back to the original remit. You know what? It's been a massive waste of time, but at least I'm being told to focus on what I was initially hired to do. Great, time to crack on. By this point, I'm a bit fed up; I'm tired of a lack of direction in the business; I'm tired of the politics and how it seems to be grinding things to a halt, I'm starting to spot other red flags in senior leadership. And then something happened. Another recent hire, a senior leader, far more experienced than me and more familiar with the industry and regulated spaces, announces they're leaving because they're just going to clash heads with the people they need to work with. They'd been there for about 4 weeks. Now I'm starting to question what I'm doing. Should I stay? Or should I go? (Spoiler I should have gone).

The machine the cog and the hamster

Not long after this, I started to get a better understanding of who is who and how things are run. And this is where I start to see other issues. This company is supposed to be remote first. Yet every day or two, I need to remind people of this. Not just other engineers. I'm reminding HR, Marketing, and other Senior leaders. There is a clear bias toward office attendance, and there is a clear clique and "inner circle" of those who attend the office frequently and those that don't. There is also a problem with on-call, and the answer wasn't to hire a team (we did need that SRE team) whose role was to take on that responsibility as first-line. Nope, the answer was moan about a lack of "commitment", debate if to pay people more than the base amount already on offer for on call ... oh and to make it mandatory for everyone. Sod your work-life balance, make it mandatory and part of the career progression framework for engineers ... Hi Elon! Nice to meet you. That's just a slice of the pie, but enough to show a drive towards the much hated "hardcore bro culture" often associated with software engineering.

Hold yourself accountable!

Now, I'm not going to pretend that I'm innocent here. Ignoring the fact that I missed a lot of cultural red flags before starting. I also then continued to try and stick around "to add another string to my bow" whilst going against my instincts. Whilst in the role, subsequently, I didn't perform to my best. I couldn't get my head into it. I couldn't get behind the product. I couldn't get behind the leadership. I was not motivated. I was failing to do things I would expect of myself as a leader. I could have tried to win over hearts and minds, and be more proactive with my dissenting opinion. I could have gathered data, given presentations, driven my own initiatives. But I didn't. They're things I have done in the past. But I just didn't have the motivation. I wasn't bought in. I was trying to fake it till I made it. I just didn't fit in, and I knew it.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting I was lazy. I put a lot of effort in to the things I was doing. Into hiring, reaching out to my network. I put a lot of effort into considering and researching different methodologies, processes, and schools of thought in improving developer experience. Ultimately they needed me to show I was doing something by creating presentations on roadmaps (which I hate to do without data and a clear purpose), not just doing things behind the scenes, and they needed me to be more aligned/involved with the rest of the leadership team. But I just had no desire to become a part of that circle, it was an echo chamber that knew what and who it was, and was happy with that. There is disagree and commit, and then there is breaking your own values. I could have done some of these things they needed of me. I could maybe of tried harder to find a way to fit in without doing things I disagreed with. Maybe you could accuse me of being closed minded, and being closed to their view, after all, they have driven the company to profitability. But this the whole point of this article. Culture, or the perceived culture, changes everything. Being in the same situation in a company where I felt a part of it, where I felt aligned to where they wanted to go (even if they're not there yet), this would be a very different story. In fact it has been a different story in the past. I'm sure it will be again.

The lesson!

So the simple lesson here is. Please don't hang around. There is no shame in admitting when a culture isn't right for you. Don't work for or in a culture that doesn't align with your values. You can twist any company value to align with your own. The question is, what does that value mean in reality? Are they living it? Does it align with your version? If the answer is no, get out. I stayed, made myself stressed and unhappy, under-performed, and ultimately ended up agreeing to leave during probation. Nobody won in that scenario.

Following on

To add some additional information to this, and to show it's not a hit piece (why it's all name-less) or just a bitter man's opinion. I have spoken to multiple people at the company to get their take. Some of these people have been with the company for years, and some for less time than I was. Some of them plan to leave, others plan to stay. But here are some key takeaways from people who also probably don't fit the culture and how it feels to them;

  • Ignoring toxic behaviour and sweeping it under the carpet when an individual has a perceived high value.
  • A lack of feedback.
  • Using an individual’s weaknesses against them to prevent them from succeeding.
  • Setting individuals up to fail by providing no feedback and not setting objectives.
  • Recruiting without due diligence and firing people early into the job.
  • Not displaying their own company values.
  • Being a remote-first organisation but taking a leaf out of Elon Musks' book. (This wasn't my quote, I promise).

This shows lots of people are seemingly willing to work for companies where they don't fit the culture. I have no doubt some people will love it and thrive their, there are some very competent leaders in the business (my manager was one of them). But when you don't feel like the culture is right, that you feel out of place, and you think "Should I stay or should I go?", the answer is almost always universally, go! You only get to live your life once, and you spend a lot of your adult life working, so don't make yourself unhappy, ind somewhere where you feel at home and move on. There is no shame in it!