Is Silicon Valley Startup Cut Throat Culture Endangered?

There are a great number of myths of the silicon valley startups. One such myth revolves around a hard edged, take no prisoners, cut throat culture. It is believed to be a boys network where the best, most talented and most ruthless engineers survive. In this world there is little room for diversity, unless you are a 10X coder, and all that counts is how fast you can help to build that next unicorn.

In this telling of the SV company, engineers practically live in their companies, working 60 hours or more per week, managers code, founders code, everybody codes. In this world the office becomes the proxy home and your coworkers are your proxy family, as long as they can keep up with the pace. The most important thing is how comfy the bean bags are and how good the food is .

Companies have always given some amount of lip service to all the values of diversity, mentoring, and career building, but when the pressure was turned up, the reality is that delivering was the only thing that counted. In early 2000s, when I approached my manager and asked: “I’m interested in managing, what do you think?” , my manager looked at me sternly, and replied: “… I see, would you be able to fire someone if you had to?”. I thought for a second, nodded, then returned to my desk wondering what the that was about. The message was clear. This was not a softer type of management and there was not going to be any career building or mentoring for me.

I did not end up managing for that startup, but soon after in a larger company I did enter the dark side of management. At the time, I took various training seminars that tried to improve what I did as a manager. They focused on appropriate management techniques for getting the most out of your teams. Some training was oriented to career development, but this was not a strong focus. Mentoring was a thing, but not a key aspect of what you did as a manager. In this big company, there were two keys to success. One key was fitting into the complex industrial engineering processes of this large company. The other was technical leadership, that focused on internal innovation. All the soft management skills were relegated to third or fourth tier.

But since that time in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, somewhere along the way something has changed. As I was doing some research into companies in San Francisco I found some interesting trends. One such trend is the emergence of the mission driven, highly diverse, highly principled work place. This new startup puts an emphasis on the values of the company and where possible and highlights the work environment as inclusive, family oriented, and highly supportive.

I have always believed that I practiced a style of management that is focused on the growth and the happiness of my teams. Whenever I could, I tried to help my employees to move through their careers, which for engineers usually meant a technical track or an engineering track. My goal as a manager was helping the engineer choose between these tracks, then help them develop in their chosen track. For the technical track, helping engineers lead small teams as tech-leads, going to conferences, and doing technical presentations, and for management types leading scrums, doing scoping plans, and presenting project outcomes or proposals to managers. I did all these things naturally and intuitively, without much training or support from the companies that I worked for. I believed I was nurturing the careers of the people who worked for me, and I felt that was part of the job description, even though I was mainly being evaluated on whether the projects were finished on time and did what they were supposed to do.

I was therefore surprised and caught off guard when I was asked recently during an interview for a technical leadership position: “Tell me about a time when you mentored an engineer and explain to me what the result was.” I was really not ready for that question. It took me a while to think of a good answer. I thought that mentoring, teaching, guiding for a manager and a director of engineering is like breathing. If you don’t do it, you die. I don’t remember what I answered the first time this question came up. What I do remember is that my answer was not very satisfying to me or my colleague at the other side of the Zoom call.

This was my first indication, that something was changing around me, or that something had changed and it was my first time noticing it. At first I thought this was an outlier, but then I noticed that job posts, and company values pages included terms like “inclusive”, “nurturing” and “mentoring”. Clearly a priority was being set by the leadership to have a holistic approach to creating a work environment that is welcoming to people other than the traditional hard core geek. If our small startup companies are to be welcoming to under represented minorities whether this is gender, racial, socio-economic background, it is critical that leadership be ready to guide people through the land mines of the startup world. What is surprising to me is that the founders recognize this, and set it in stone early in the life of the startups.

It is easy to see what happens in small companies where the values are not set at the beginning of t startup’s life. When the company decides to finally create a diverse workforce, it finds itself facing a nearly unsurmountable barrier. Ultimately if the company does not succeed in jumping this barrier, it will not succeed in growing quickly and scale beyond its initial 20 or 30 engineers. Where managers do not help their engineers grow, you will struggle finding new managers to fill leadership roles, and architects to take the design roles. The founders and hot shots engineers of those first heady days will become bottlenecks and the company will stall. Engineers that feel stuck in the same roles they started in, in turn will leave for other places that give them opportunities for growth.

While there are still many teams out there where the focus is on productivity, or engineering technical prowess, there is an equally large number of engineering teams that are highlighting the soft skills of the engineering manager and talking about values with their small companies. I for one, welcome this trend. Without this type of focus, training and priority setting it is not going to be possible to attract under represented minorities to startup companies. In addition we will not see those same minorities in middle management, and in turn upper management positions in both small and large companies. I truly believe this is more than political correctness. Companies who have more diverse engineers are more creative, more productive and in the end are happier, and ultimately will scale better to hundreds of engineers on a global stage.

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