Tuesday, 28 April 2015

A Cultural Fit

Ealier this month I attended the third MEWT (Midlands Exploratory Workshop in Testing) Organised by Richard @FriendlyTester Bradshaw, Bill Matthews (@bill_matthews), Simon Knight (@sjpknight) and Facilitated by Vernon @TesterFromLeic Richards - the day brought together 16 testers of various backgrounds and experience working across the Midlands to share talks and discuss ideas in an open environment of trust. As anyone who has read The Facebook Effect will know that I place a huge value on groups such as this where we can share ideas without fear of exposing our faults for public scrutiny. The day did not disappoint - the group dynamic was fantastic. The theme of the day was communication and we discussed a range of subjects all with the common thread of communication, sometimes to a very deep and personal level.

One of the topics that came up during Daniel @TheTestDoctor Billing's hearfelt talk on geeks and personality types, was hiring. It was mentioned that many folks, Rob Lambert at New Voice Media and myself included, have a strong focus on cultural fit when we are hiring. Anna Baik (@testerab) made an salient point speaking from her perspective of being a woman in tech, that we need to be clear when hiring for cultural fit that we're not simply hiring to match a stereotype and using cultural fit as an excuse. Common interests in beer and football do not constitute 'cultural fit'.

I tweeted this sentiment

but as James Bach (@jamesmarcusbach) rightly pointed out - the tweet lacked the group context, and Anne-Marie Charrett (@Charrett) suggested is important enough to expand upon so I'll attempt to do so here.

I am happy to say that I place a strong emphasis on cultural fit when I am hiring, When I say this I have absolute clarity on what I mean, and what I don't mean. Anna's comments provided an excellent reminder that others may interpret this in a completely different light such that one person's cultural fit may be another's excuse to restrict their hiring to favour certain individuals, men, or people in a certain age bracket, for example. Let me make it as clear as I can.

What cultural fit is

When I say that I place a strong emphasis on cultural fit when hiring - I mean that I look for people who, in joining my company will not undermine the work culture that we have worked to establish. Our cultural principles are the cornerstone of our successful ongoing product development and we work very hard to ensure that new team members will contribute to and build on them. Some of the characteristics that I will look for that I think are key to this are

  • A desire to collaborate and a focus on the importance of team working
  • Tactful appreciation of the importance of a focussed working environment without too many distractions
  • A willingness to take on a variety of tasks if necessary to achieve the teams goals
  • A focus on personal skill and expertise over adherence to standards or certification
  • A focus on delivering working software over delivery of a successful process
  • An appreciation of the individuals filling the range of roles required to produce software as having an equal contribution to that overall effort
  • A focus on solving problems over apportioning blame under the guise of establishing root cause

Some of these are rooted in our agile approach, some are more distinct to our own style of working. Not all of these things would necessarily form the cultural basis of all sucessful teams. Each team is different, but in general our office tends to be quiet with high levels of focussed working - other offices may rely more on camaraderie and a 'buzz' of activity to maintain their team dynamic. I once attended an excellent talk by Tom Howlett describing how he achieved great success with a completely virtual team formed of highly focussed individuals all working from home. I would expect the dynamic of that team and the resulting recruitment focus could be very different to mine and still deliver great success.

What I do believe is that, for whatever team dynamic we are aiming for, it is possible to recruit a high variety of people in terms of personal interests, gender, age and background whilst still focusing on preserving your cultural ideals.

What cultural fit is not

Years ago, when I was working for a different company, I was helping my manager in recruiting. At the end of an interview we were discussing the candidate - he asked me whether I thought that the candidate might not be 'a good fit'. Without him saying it, or even possibly admitting it to himself, I knew what he was implying. We had a team of white men and he was worried about how the fact that the candidate was a woman of Indian origin would affect the existing team. Our team was a comfortable enclave of white maleness who discussed football on Monday mornings and went to the pub on Friday lunchtimes. My response was clear - we would not consider the candidates gender or ethnicity as a basis for their suitability for the role, because

  1. As far as I was aware it was illegal and
  2. I was not prepared to work for a company that did so and would have to leave

The manager's comments demonstrate how easy it is to confuse cultural fit with hiring to stereotype. The implication was that someone from a background that was a closer match to the existing team would constitute a 'better fit' with the team. As it happened on that occasion I did not feel that the lady was the best candidate, mainly due to what I saw as our inability to support and train her at a very early stage in her career. I stated my belief that we would be letting her down by hiring her, as we would have been for anyone at a similar stage in their career, as our culture was simply not supportive enough at the time. ( It goes without saying that the manager was totally wrong in their concern as, after taking responsibility for hiring, I went on to build out the team with a mix of genders and backgrounds and the team dynamic only grew in strength as a result. )

Our team habits and common interests are nothing to with our work culture as I mean it when I target 'cultural fit'. Our culture was that we were a competent, collaborative and highly professional small team who used daily face to face communication to self organise. If hiring a new candidate meant that we had to adapt our team or personal habits slightly to welcome and accommodate them as a member of that team and that culture, then that was our responsibility to do so.

Hiring for cultural fit is not about finding people who conform to a stereotype that matches the people that already work in your organisation to improve the likelihood of them 'fitting in'. It is about finding people who want to work in a style that is consistent with the values of your team, however those values should not be such that they exclude capable candidates based on their gender, age or background.

It is hard

Hiring with a focus on a good cultural fit is difficult. One reason for this that I've encountered is that it is much harder for recruiters to understand a set of cultural ideals than it is a set of technical skills and certifications. Even the good recruiters that I work with will naturally focus on technical skills that allow easy CV searching over finding someone with the personality to integrate well with our team. I can picture the frustration on the other end of the email or phone when a candidate that looks great in terms of technical fit is rejected because I think that they will disrupt our team dynamic.

You could argue that I and others like me are being too fussy in focusing so much on the 'softer' skills. After all at the end of the day as long as someone can get the job done then surely that is enough. For some organisations that may be the case, however I have seen the effects that bringing someone who is a poor fit into a team can have. I have seen a team which once enjoyed open and professional discussion withdraw into themselves because of the new recruit who takes a slightly too aggressive approach on getting their point across. I've seen the previously confident tester grimacing as they have to deal with the new programmer who, despite the false asertions to the contrary, doesn't really respect the testing role and treats testers as second class citizens.

You could also argue that perhaps our team culture is such that it naturally excludes individuals from certain backgrounds. This is a difficult one as certainly the values in some organisations will run contrary to those that we operate on. Given that many organisations operate across regional and national borders I think this is more an issue of experience and history rather than background. I take the approach of clearly explaining in the interview process what makes us tick as a team, and how that may be frustrating if accustomed to a different way of working. If a candidate is happy to accept these differences, can appreciate the potential benefits and engross themselves in a new environment then I'm more than happy to have them on board.

On discussing the subject with Rob Lambert he made a great observation that perhaps it is the use of the phrase 'cultural fit' that could be overloaded.

"We've started saying "team values" now - as the word cultural tends to mean "ethnicity" or "gender" to many people - and this is not what we mean."

I think this is a great point and I'll probably try to use 'values' rather than 'culture' from now on to avoid potential for misinterpretation. For me, and I'm sure many others, hiring consistently with our team values is a critical element in maintaining the team dynamics that allow us to deliver great work in a supportive environment. What it is not is an excuse to target our hiring around a stereotypical norm at the exclusion of the wealth of individuals from a variety of backgrounds who would augment and enrich our culture if they are simply given the opportunity.

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