“Does working at a bad company damage one’s career?”

A view down a long concrete staircase. A person walks by at the end of it.
Unrelated image from to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

Another blog post inspired by a question on The Workplace, specifically: does working at a bad company damage one’s career?

Yes, but not the way the questioner seems to think. The bad company in this case is very disorganized, which I’m sad to say isn’t exactly unheard of. That company does sound like an especially bad example, but if you get a few developers together you’ll hear plenty of very similar horror stories. However, I don’t think a company like that will necessarily hurt your career, especially if you’re a junior like the questioner. No reasonable human being would blame a junior dev for not being able to completely change the culture of a company.

However, I do believe there are other kinds of bad companies that can hurt your career: companies with extremely low standards, and companies with such extreme culture problems that only terrible people succeed.

Companies with extremely low standards can really hurt your career if you stay there too long. If you stick around too long at a company or other organization that has a reputation for low standards, then people start wondering if you haven’t left because you can’t do better. The longer you stay there, the more it looks like you know you can’t get a better job and the harder it becomes to find another job. It doesn’t even have to be true that your company has low standards – if it used to be true or if it’s that one department giving the place a bad name or if people just believe it’s true for whatever reason, your resume is still going in the nope pile whether that’s actually justified or not. You don’t need to panic immediately if your new job turned out to be easier than you were expecting, but I strongly recommend leaving before too long. Of course, it can also make you look unreliable if you have a lot of very short stints at different jobs on your resume, but that’s a separate blog post :)

Companies where terrible people succeed (I’m looking at you, Uber) make people wonder if you’re terrible too. That’s very bad for your career in a field where you basically have to change jobs to get a meaningful raise or title bump. To be fair, Uber is a large company and it would be surprising if every last manager/executive/team lead/other influential person was a complete trashfire of a human being, but if I interviewed a dev from a questionable company I would have a lot of pointed questions. In particular, I would want to know how well they did in terms of promotions and other recognition, and what they think makes someone a good developer and a good team member. Getting regular promotions at a terrible company might be innocent, it could mean you worked with one of the few decent managers, but it probably means that you got along well with a terrible manager. You know who gets along well with terrible people? Other terrible people. I’d also be very worried that someone from a terrible company thinks it’s okay to be a total jerk as long as you write a lot of code. Not only is that terrible for team productivity, but it’s also just wrong to make your teammates spend eight hours a day with a jerk.

On the upside, as long as you don’t work for a company that’s known for never firing anyone or for being gross and awful, your career is going to be fine. Over the long term a disorganized company can do some damage – it’s not going to look good if you end up with five years of development experience and no idea how to use version control, for example – but that takes quite a while and you can mitigate it with side projects.

In short, it’s very hard for any one company to wreck your career. Ten years from now nobody is going to care who you worked for in 2017.

What should you ask in an interview: culture edition

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Last time I talked about what technical questions you should ask in an interview, which is important but culture fit is at least as important. We’ve all heard of The No Asshole Rule, right? I firmly believe there is no such thing as an asshole so brilliant they’re worth working with, so for me culture fit trumps technical skill as long as all the candidates are halfway competent.

So what should you ask in interview to gauge culture fit?

First of all, the way many people talk about culture fit is completely and utterly wrong. Culture fit is not even slightly about figuring out if someone is cool enough to work with you. It is NOT about looking for a brogrammer who will play foosball and drink heavily with your team. It’s also not about finding someone who enjoys the same nerdy TV shows, books, games (video, card, or board), comics, etc as you do.

To quote Donna Choi’s Medium post about how they make hiring decisions at stackoverflow:

Be careful with “Cultural Fit”. This is often a catch-all for a vague sense of “would not fit in”, which can come to mean “is like me”. If you feel someone is a good or bad cultural fit, you must explain what you mean.
Valid “Cultural Fit” things: self-motivated, passionate, gets stuff done, cares about open source / giving back to the community, likes “default open”, hates office politics / meetings, pragmatic attitude towards tools / best practices, etc.
Invalid “Cultural Fit” things: obvious stuff like race, gender, sexual orientation, religion but also softer things like age, personality or hobbies (does not have to like Magic the Gathering to be a good dev). Assume that your bias is to hire people you “like” and be very careful of that.”

Another way to put it is how Johanna Rothman describes culture:

It’s about what you can and cannot say in the organization, how people treat each other, and what we reward.

Culture fit is about values, not about hobbies. A workplace run by grownups does not care even slightly about how “cool” you are or whether you’d be fun to hang out with. They care that you all have compatible views of the world. For example, some companies are very cautious and have very rigid procedures for deploying to production. Others do their best but ultimately feel that rolling back a bad release is not the end of the world. Commitment to work/life balance is another example of culture fit: is the company standard that nobody works overtime unless production is on fire, or are occasional spikes in hours to be expected? Priorities are also part of cultural fit: does the feature need to be perfect or just good enough? Are you planning to grow the company quickly and then sell it off, or are you planning to work here for the next ten years?

Rand Fishkin from Moz has a great definition of what culture fit actually is:

  1. Shared beliefs – the things that you collectively hold to be true about the world (e.g. good people tend to have traits like X, the right way to treat others is Y, what’s appropriate/inappropriate at work is Z).
  2. Shared priorities – what matters in terms of big, overarching things like work/life balance, short vs. long term commitment, how decision are made, etc.
  3. Stylistic cohesion – some people don’t work well together, others find themselves able and inspired to do more when surrounded by a certain type. Cohesion isn’t about finding lots of people who are the same, but about making sure there’s no one on the team that detracts from others and that many get more enjoyment and progress from the diverse perspectives their co-workers bring.

Now that we know what culture fit actually is, how do we figure out whether a candidate will fit?

First of all you need to know what your company’s culture actually is. Without some sort of solid definition, you’re stuck stumbling around asking largely random questions and hiring someone you “have a good feeling about,” which usually comes from them being like you. This is how you end up with a total lack of diversity and bad hires because you don’t actually know what you’re looking for.

Once you know what your culture actually is, it becomes a lot simpler to ask questions about it. If part of your culture is that everybody gets their say when a decision is made, ask your candidate how they think decisions should be made. If part of your culture is that when things go wrong you fix it first, try to keep it from happening again second, and look for someone to blame never, then ask your candidate how they think problems should be handled. If it’s important that your people get enough downtime, ask a team lead/manager candidate how they make sure their team gets enough downtime and how they handle it if upper management suddenly drops a new requirement on them. If you often have to meet rigid deadlines, ask how much flexibility they need.

Like I said in my post about technical interviewing, you are allowed to straight up ask about culture! Just make sure you’re actually asking about culture and not about whether you’d enjoy hanging out with the candidate.

For more example questions, I recommend looking at lists of questions for candidates to ask their interviewers. There’s some good stuff in this list and there are plenty more of them out there. Not all of those questions still make sense if you turn them around to ask a candidate, but you can steal a good chunk of them :)

Sadly, that’s the simple part of interviewing for culture fit. Another really important part is asshole detection, which can be a lot harder. Good culture fit questions will definitely detect at least some assholes, but people can be jerks in very subtle ways. I mean, nobody is going to tell their interviewer that they don’t listen to new ideas, but there is no shortage of people who will do things their way and only their way. People can also quietly wreck your company’s reputation by being enough of a jerk outside of work, in case you weren’t already paranoid about making a bad hire.

Normally I don’t recommend trying to trick your candidate because I think it’s a dick move, but I’ve heard it can be really useful to take a candidate out to lunch or for an after work drink and see how they behave outside of work. You would think people would stay on their best behaviour when they haven’t even started the job yet, but something about being outside the office seems to help people forget they’re still being interviewed. To be fair, I wouldn’t want to work somewhere I couldn’t be myself, so as tricks go I don’t think that one is that bad.

Readers, do you have any tips on catching jerks who are smart enough not to be obvious about it?