Values and Bumper Stickers

Thoughts are my own, and do not necessarily represent my employer's perspective.

Often companies will publicize a set of 'values' that represent the way they work or aspire to work. I like the desire, but sometimes I look at a list of values and it reads more like 'stuff we think is nice' than 'stuff that shapes the way we work and hire.'

Drive, velocity, agility, diversity, inclusion, transparency, passion, responsibility, and the rest of the buzzwords you see in charters of values — no rational company is going to say that they don't care about these. It's the equivalent of changing your profile picture on Facebook or sticking a bumper sticker on your car: maybe you're making a marginal improvement in the world, but it's as much about you feeling like you're helping as anything else. Actual values specify what you will do at the cost of something else, what long-term goal you'll optimize for at the cost of a short-term win.

A company that prides itself on customer service might be willing to trade off occasional unjustified (or even fraudulent) returns or warranty claims, in the interest of guaranteeing satisfaction to their customers. REI, Patagonia, and Zappos all operate under this model.

If you value transparency, you must be willing to risk an employee revealing some company secret, and/or risk hiring slower because you need to spend extra effort vetting each employee's trustworthiness. You may believe (I do)that openness creates more long-term value than any of the short-term tradeoffs it brings, but they're still tradeoffs.

"Valuing" diversity is lovely, but it doesn't mean anything without corresponding action. Different actions you might take could be publicly sharing diversity numbers and committing to improve them, actively recruiting underrepresented groups of people, or engineering hiring loops to address unconscious biases. Without skin in the game— money, time, or both— it's not a value, but a bumper sticker.

A few additional examples:

From my perspective (thoughts here are my own), one of our biggest engineering values at PagerDuty is reliability. Like one of our engineers blogged recently, if you get a 200 from our API endpoint, you are getting paged, full stop. We've invested several years and millions of dollars in fulfilling and maintaining that promise, resources that could have been invested elsewhere. It comes from a deeply held value that even though it may require short-term tradeoffs, our brand of reliability is key to our long-term success.

That doesn't mean that everything we do has to be multi-master, 100% uptime, fine-if-AWS-goes-down, though that's what we strive for with our core alerting pipeline. What it does mean, though, is that we have to consider any actions we take in light of reliability, and make sure we're accurately communicating to customers about how they can expect a given system to work.

Candid kindness is another value at PagerDuty— we feel that honesty is necessary but cruelty never is. Some companies optimize for candor alone, valuing direct feedback and hard truth over all else. Amazon seems to work like this, and parts of Netflix's culture deck read similar to me. At PD, though, we feel like a little extra time and mindfulness spent understanding each others' perspectives helps us develop better solutions to problems. I think the tradeoff is worth it, especially because it catches the edge cases of somebody with useful meaning to contribute who feels intimidated from sharing it. But it is a tradeoff we consciously make, a cost we consciously incur.

I like public values because they let people select the companies they want to buy from or work for. If you're a risk-seeking person that values absolute economic efficiency, Patagonia might not be a great brand. Uniqlo has down jackets for a third as much money, and for 95% of people, they'll lose or get tired of either jacket before it needs warranty service. Likewise, if your personal utility function favors fast, hard economic decision-making over everything else, it might feel stifling or inefficient to work at a company that invests time in empathy and inclusivity. When you're making decisions based on incomplete data (ie all of startup life), it's really helpful for you and your coworkers to share some base assumptions about what's important in life.

People and companies alike, we're all making bets about which strategies and going to help us succeed. Values are the expression of these bets, but if you're not internally clear on what those bets are, if you have your bumper stickers mixed up with your actual values, your chances of winning are not good.