Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Magic without Tricks - How to Shape a Workplace Culture that's Good for People (and Great for Business) [Matt Perez]

Last October 17, Matt Perez of Nearsoft discussed his insights on building a good culture in the high-tech engineering workplace: Magic without Tricks - How to Shape a Workplace Culture that's Good for People (and Great for Business)

Here is a report on that event.

If all you care about is money, then this talk is not for you. However, if you like growth, lower costs, and higher profits, then come right in. Those are all side-effects of what this talk is about: making a positive impact on the world, starting with your organization.

Very early in Nearsoft's history we made our overarching goal to help spread technology entrepreneurship anywhere we operated. The question for us was how to transform a boring and traditionally exploitive business into an out-of-the-ordinary workplace, with a healthy, nourishing culture that great talent would be attracted to.

WIIFM (What’s In It For Me)

You will learn about the characteristics of a positive workplace culture, specifics of how you could get there, and pointers to resources to help you do something similar in your organization.

Matt talked mainly about his experience at Nearsoft, which provide engineers teams based in Mexico on a contract basis to their clients.  Nearsoft has grown from 7 people working out of a rudimentary structure in Hermosillo, Mexico to some 120 people today, and is building a 3-story office building to house their operations.  So they are clearly doing something right.

Several books provided background, instruction and inspiration for Matt.  Two were by Ricardo Semler, Maverick and The Seven Day Weekend.  Maverick described his experience with Semco, the company he inherited from his father in 1988.  Their business was manufacturing industrial equipment.  When he first took over the company, he quickly realized it needed a complete makeover.  Effectively he had to start from scratch.  He established a democratic culture.  Its success was demonstrated by a five-fold growth in the size of the company.  The company’s products achieved such credibility he was able to sell industrial  equipment to the Germans!  The Seven Day Weekend was a follow up to Maverick that built on the lessons he had gained leading Semco.

Peak, by Chip Conley, described his success in the hospitality industry.  He ran a chain of hotels and managed to get his employees passionate about their work and their employer, overcoming the fact hotel workers are typically earn low wages, and experience high turnover.

With Nearsoft, Matt’s objective was creating a workplace culture that's good for people and good for business.  He had been through a lot of experiments in culture and wanted Nearsoft to leverage from that experience.   His foundation goal was shaping a workplace culture that's good for people and good for business There is a shortage of programming talent everywhere (not just in Silicon Valley!).  The world is finally figuring out that everything is run by software.  One cannot simply write some code and throw it out there.
Nearsoft’s goals at a more detailed level included an eagerness to experiment and a willingness, even an eagerness to fail.  Trust is required to run experiments.  The expected payoff was a lot of learning and a lot of bonding in the engineering teams.
Matt offered particularly striking observations regarding recruiting new engineers; doing this right was as important as anything else at Nearsoft.

Matt saw awards and recognition within the industry as key to measuring the success of Nearsoft in creating the work environment he envisioned.  He did not always find success here.  CMMI for example did not work well; it came across too much as fill-in-the-slots, the workplace equivalent of the undesired paradigm of teaching-to-the-test in primary and secondary education.  So Nearsoft moved on towards benchmarks.  They chose to get involved with the Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For.  Here they had success, entering in the top 20, and moving up each year.  This competition looked at credibility, respect, fairness, pride, camaraderie, commitment, cooperation, strategic alignment, cultural competency, leadership skills and trust.

One of the most striking aspects of Nearsoft is the important they put on recruiting.  The challenge is finding good people; Matt reports there is a shortage of talented and capable engineers everywhere.  The world increasingly is run by software.

For those who were almost good enough to hire, Nearsoft offered a unique opportunity: join as an intern and contribute to an open source project.  The interns were evaluated on the quality of their work and especially on how much of their work was accepted by the open source community in charge of the project.

At Nearsoft, Matt worked towards creating a democratic workplace, with the goal to get more people to do the things that make a company work.  He found too much of the decision making was falling on himself and his partner.  The paradigm was “father may I”, even though Matt was not more qualified to make the decisions.  It took him a while to realize other people did not have the information necessary to make decisions.  So they opened up everything for inspection – including salaries.  Employees were able to analyze compensation and identified aspects that were not equitable.  For example, women tended to be paid less.  So Nearsoft created a plan to address that.

Democratic practices include open books, a flat organization, minimal management and no titles.  A team can fire a member they find is not productive.  And people can work from home or work remotely.  In this regard, Nearsoft introduced the concept of remote teams, two or more engineers working remotely from the Hermosillo home office.  The intention was to improve focus by having multiple people working together.

Matt Perez

Matt has been an Engineering and Business Executive for over 30 years. Throughout his career he has worked in rapid growth environments.

Matt has been the Sr technology executive in six startups and helped raise close to $50M in VC in investments as a co-founder for three of them. He also worked at Sun Microsystems for nine (of the good) years, where he first got to deal with the issue of hyper-growth and the impact it has on culture.

Matt now leads Nearsoft, Inc, a very successful software development business, with operations in Mexico.

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