A Culture Where I Can Be Myself
I had a conversation recently where someone asked me what factors I considered when I decided to work for Box. I’ve been asked this in many interviews and elsewhere, so I started with my standard response. I have three main things I want in a company. I want to be somewhere that’s building something to improve or bring joy into people’s lives. Second, I want to be somewhere where I have enough technical knowledge to make an impact, but where I will still be challenged and will learn something new. Finally, I want to be somewhere with great people. Now in my experience, the first two are fairly common but the third thing is harder to find and that’s really what I felt made Box special. And really, this is the main thing that still keeps me at Box.
This person then challenged me, but what specifically, do I look for in the people? What do I mean by great people or a great culture? When it comes down to it, the most concise way to put it into words is that I look for a place where I feel like the people will allow me to be myself. He pressed me to explain this further, which got me thinking a lot more about the topic than I had before. What do I mean by feeling like I can be myself? What features in a culture allow me to feel that way and what signals do I look for when interviewing or getting to know a company that will tell me if those things are present?
I look for diversity.
I feel like everyone is talking about this right now, so what exactly do I mean by diversity? I don’t just mean that I look for a woman on my interview panel or that I look for someone like me (although these certainly aren’t bad things). I look for people on the team who have different personalities. I look for people with a variety interests in their free time. I look for people of differing ages and backgrounds. I look for people with different socioeconomic upbringings. I look for people who are good at different things. And yes, I look for gender and racial diversity. Most importantly, I look for group dynamics between the people who are different. I look to see if they celebrate each other’s differences and strengths. Some of these things are obvious in an interview, while some of these I may not be able to figure out, so I look for as much as I can see. While it is nice to have at least person on my interview panel with whom I can closely relate, I don’t actually want my entire panel to be people who are exactly like me.
Why is diversity important to me? My parents always stressed the importance of diversity and even sent me to schools that were less good because those schools had a greater diversity of kids — both socioeconomic and racial. Trying new and different foods was always exciting and an adventure that my family would travel hours for. My parents instilled in me an excitement to learn about people with different traditions and backgrounds. Diversity makes life more interesting and makes me a more well rounded person. I might learn something new at a lunchtime conversation and different people cause me to challenge my views and look at something from a different perspective. Diversity also makes the team stronger and allows us to balance out each others’ weaknesses.
The other reason I look for diversity is because it is an indicator that there isn’t pressure to conform. Everyone isn’t expected to act exactly the same way and they’ve learned to work together and appreciate each others’ differences anyway. While there’s always an aspect of learning the culture of a new workplace and drinking the corporate kool-aid, I don’t want to have to change who I am in order to work somewhere. I don’t want to have to hide who I am to complete my job.
I look for negativity.
What? Yes. Two of my standard questions as an interview candidate are some variation on ‘What is your favorite thing about working here?’ and ‘What do you not like about working here?’ I actually think the second question is much more interesting. I don’t have an exact great answer, but essentially I’m looking for honesty and thoughtfulness. I don’t want to work somewhere where everything is super negative or there are a lot of problems (obviously). At the same time, however, I also don’t want to work somewhere where if I am unhappy about something or where if something isn’t perfect, I’m expected to try to hide that or sweep it under the rug. Problems are an opportunity to improve and learn and facing them head on — even to strangers and interview candidates is an opportunity to get a different perspective. Despite what anyone might like to think, every workplace has problems and no place is going to be perfect. I want to know what some of those landmines might be and I want to know that the company is willing to own up to them and be honest.
How does this fit into being myself? I’m often a straight forward person. While I do typically give the ‘fine’ response when someone asks how I’m doing, I also don’t buy into lying or hiding if I’m unhappy about something. I want to be able to have that candid conversation with my boss without worrying about repercussions. I want to be somewhere where I can point out problems and give feedback in constructive ways without getting blow-back. I want to be somewhere where if I’m having a really bad day or week, I can tell my co-workers about it and they’ll do something nice for me, not somewhere where I have to completely hide my feelings. I’m a really terrible liar and honestly that’s not a skill I want to improve.
I look for empowerment.
This is largely related to the last point. I want to be somewhere where if I see something I want to change, I’m empowered to do something about it. It might be improving the gendered language in the company’s job postings or starting an official women in tech group or even solving a hard technical problem that’s been plaguing a team. If I identify a problem, I don’t expect the company to automatically give me guidance or even additional help. That’s fine. It’s even fine if I’m expected to still contribute at a full level to my main job. I just don’t want to be somewhere where if I see a problem or opportunity, I have to raise the concern through 3 layers of management or cut miles of red tape before I can do something. I want to be somewhere where if I have a good idea and I’m willing to put in some effort, I can convince other people to get on board. Having a workplace with a culture of empowerment means that I don’t have to already have people who care about the same things that I do. As long as people are willing to listen and are open to my efforts, I have the opportunity to convince them to care. Since no place is perfect, I want to be at a workplace that is always striving to make itself better and is open to those efforts by each and every employee.
I look for a sense of humor.
While I want to be somewhere that strives to be great, I also want to have fun while I’m at work every day. I want to be somewhere that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I want to be somewhere where I can laugh at my own mistakes and people will laugh with me, not at me. I want to be somewhere where we can play a prank on another co-worker or a manager or even our CEO and there won’t be fallout (assuming, of course, that no one is hurt emotionally or physically and no property is damaged). I want to look forward to the fact that something quirky or unexpected might happen at work.
I look for compassion.
All of these things I’ve mentioned so far are great, but without compassion, all of these things are useless. Working someplace where people point out problems without thinking about solutions or how to do so in a constructive way will only hurt feelings. While working with people with differing approaches and viewpoints can provide better results, it can also be frustrating. If my coworkers can’t exercise empathy and patience when they run into conflict, the working environment will be tense to say the least. Diversity, candid and honest evaluations, empowerment and humor are all important, but most important is if they are each paired with compassion.
In the end, different people thrive in different environments, which is why defining a clear culture and values can be important for an organization. Others may not agree, but these are the corporate values that matter most to me. These are the things I look for when evaluating a company’s culture. These are the things that tell me if I can be myself at that company.