“Let’s build a company we’d love to work for.”
When my “brother-in-arms” Matias Woloski and I started Auth0, this was one of the first things we discussed. Seems simple, doesn’t it? Who would build a company you’d hate to work for?
In the beginning, it was just the two of us, then a few more. We were all together. (Although not physically together — we’re a globally-dispersed, remote company.) Communication was very, very high bandwidth. If I wrote a blog post, Matias would review it, then the other three developers would do the same. The entire company reviewed my blog post before it was published. And I, in turn, reviewed their code, and we would often all sit in calls with customers. This forged “our way of life” day after day.
An Auth0 jargon emerged in our chat that would be unintelligible to anyone from the outside. Customized emojis soon appeared. And a primitive system of checks and balances emerged as well:
- Is this UI experience good enough?
- Is this requirement really necessary?
- Does this fit our strategy?
Fast forward five years, and the company has grown dramatically.
Last year we doubled our revenue and customer base and today we are at 380 employees spread across 35+ countries! I cannot possibly review everything. Matias cannot possibly talk to all the customers. But part of what made this success possible is our way of doing things — our culture.
Whether you want it or not, “a” culture will emerge in an organization.
We find ourselves asking critical questions: - How can we scale this way of interacting? - Is it possible to factor out a company’s soul? - How can we codify it in a way that can be efficiently communicated, and — more importantly — lived every day?
What We Mean When We Say ‘Culture’
My favorite definition is probably the simplest: culture is “our way of life.” It is the collective of both large and small things like:
- What we build, what we ship, how we ship it.
- The messages we send internally and outside the company.
- The messages we don’t send. That that we chose to stay silent about.
- The reward systems we put in place.
- The behaviors we exhibit: those we accept, those we frown upon.
- The lines we draw that if crossed have consequences, escalations.
- The speed at which an important escalation reaches those in a position to act on them.
- The speed at which those consequences are acted upon.
- Our semiotics: the symbols we display, our dress code, the internal dialects we have developed.
- The rituals we put in place to celebrate and develop deeper relationships: our lunches, our AMAs sessions, BBQs, giving campaigns, our awards.
- What makes us proud and look forward to displaying something publicly, and what makes us feel ashamed and regretful.
- What upsets us, what fills us with joy and happiness.
- Our tolerance for things unusual to us, surprising, annoying.
- How comfortable we are with being uncomfortable.
- How we imagine ourselves in the future.
- The steps we take everyday to improve professionally and personally.
And many, many other things that happen in every given day as our lives touch anything “Auth0.”
Communication + Action = Values, which leads to Culture
Some of things that form our culture evolved from the fact that, as a remote and dispersed team, we had to communicate across time zones (Slack, Zoom, Gapps). Or our practice of yearly offsites in places like Cancun or Panama where we make the most of our time together.
Our early vision and values were easily transmitted to the whole company. This communication + what every employee (including leadership) does every day = our company values. But doing that for a company that doubled in size in less than a year required more thought and care.
Last summer, we’d grown too big to share our values only through direct action. So, our senior leadership team did a values exercise at our offsite, but as I mentioned culture and values are the sum of what leadership hopes these things might be and what every employee (including leadership) does. We also did a second exercise so that everybody in the company had a voice in what value to add, which to change, and which to remove. We took that feedback, modified our values to what we have now:
Obsessively deliver Customer Value
Trust and respect each other (NO BAP — more on that below)
Hold ourselves to incredibly High Standards.
Win through Collaboration.
Experiment, Learn and Innovate.
Some of these are self-explanatory. Other deserve a little bit more attention. Let’s start with: “No BAP”. No BAP stands for “No Bullshit, Assholes, Politics.”
No Bullshit means literally that: we are not fond of nonsense. If we hear a nonsense excuse for something, we just call it out!
No Assholes: We want people that can trust each other, that respect each other, that care. That can be vulnerable with each other. Those who can see beyond the surface of a misplaced word on Slack, or unintended action that hurt someone, and those who give others the benefit of the doubt. Insulting, offensive, discriminatory behavior has no place at Auth0. I don’t care how smart, brilliant, gifted you are. People who deliver excellent results, without caring how those results are delivered, have no place in Auth0.
No (Internal) Politics: This one refers strictly to “office intrigue.” “No Politics” in BAP means that we don’t tolerate those who would advance their own careers at the expense of damaging the company as a whole, or some team, or some other individual. It means no people that would “throw others under the bus.” Nor those who often would say “the end justifies the means.”
Number 5: Experiment, Learn and Innovate has some interesting side effects. One of them is that mistakes are encouraged at Auth0. Mistakes are signals. Input to improve. If you are not making mistakes, you are likely not trying hard enough. Or not challenging yourself enough. Innovation stems often from exposing yourself to serendipity and risk. Take them. At Auth0 we highly regard “skin in the game”.
Following Marcus Aurelius’s example: "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Failures, problems, challenges, obstacles we face every day are “gifts in disguise.” A negative tweet becomes an opportunity to engage with a customer and find a missing feature or a bug. A support ticket from an angry customer can become improved docs and a new troubleshooting tool.
Success is often a lousier teacher than failure.
Finally, a word on transparency. People often mistake this as a requirement for sharing everything with everyone. What’s missed with this is what I call the “burden of filter.” We live surrounded by a ton of information. When you share indiscriminately, it’s on the recipients of that information to figure out if it is relevant, important or not to them.
To us, transparency mostly means that no one will purposefully withhold information that they know would be important to someone else. And that if you ask, you will get a response. Pretty much on anything.
Values are useless unless you act on them
Many companies talk about their values. Or print them on nice frames that are scattered around their buildings. Or send emails to everyone as reminders. But, as we all know, talk (as ideas) is cheap. Words cost very little.
Values only have any meaning when you put them in action. Because in action lies skin in the game. As social creatures, we follow examples. Especially from our peers and leaders.
Any CEO will tell you that their words will be heard. But what they do, speaks much louder than their words. Especially when they do something that puts themselves at any level of risk (skin in the game). It shows that they actually mean what they say.
Culture is one of the accountabilities I have as CEO of Auth0. It’s in my Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), in my annual goals, and my bonus depends on it. But as CEO, my role also focuses on meeting customers and building our products — managing rapid growth while keeping our soul intact.
A board member asked me with some skepticism once: “Your values are nice...I especially like no-BAP. Have you fired anyone yet because of that?” The answer is yes. I have fired people for no-BAP violation (very, very few though).
Much more often, our values acted like a shield that prevents someone who might not be a good fit from joining us. And even more often yet, in every opportunity I have, I find our values meant that I can provide (and receive) feedback to (and from) everyone in the company.
To help us scale, we’ve hired people whose whole job is looking after our culture. Director of Culture Clayton Moulynox is helping us grow and scale a greater team by focusing on the large and small details of what makes us Auth0.
Tending to your culture is like gardening. Left on its own, your garden will grow into a shape you might not even recognize as your original intent. You have to constantly nurture it, remove weeds, add new species, replace soil, fix damages, water it to achieve the culture you desire and a company everyone would love to work for. Clayton is our gardener, but everybody contributes through their actions every day.