Ben Straub

Culture Engineering

February 16, 2016

One of the biggest points I make in my talk about chat bots is that culture is hackable — you can change your team or company culture by writing code.

This isn’t a Great Insight™. Architecture is on some level the study of how buildings and spaces affect human behavior. Seemingly minor advances in weapons technology have completely changed the way war is waged, and a better way of putting words on paper changed the entire course of civilization. Life imitates technology.

This was definitely front-of-mind when I worked for GitHub, where the main product wasn’t just a place to put your code, but a particular workflow for which that tool was crafted. We knew, deep down, that the thing we were making was stimulating teams to have a certain kind of culture. The internal tools we made and used were often explicitly designed to affect culture in specific ways. We’re also thinking about this at my current job, as we build a communication tool for property managers, and we’ve hacked on our own culture, using tools like Slack and Hubot and high-fives.

The word “hacking” has been misused for many purposes over the years, but I usually take it to mean “getting the quickest possible result from a system, without much regard to long-term or side effects.” This is in contrast to engineering, which actually has a formal definition, but which I think of as “creating a system in a planned and controlled way, with thought given to long-term sustainability and side effects.” Neither of these approaches is right or wrong, they’re just appropriate for different projects. You wouldn’t hack together a passenger jet with trial and error, and you wouldn’t run risk analyses before you made a paper airplane.

I still like to think of myself as a culture hacker, and I still plan on looking for low-hanging fruit in the intersection of software and human societies. But I want to spend more time thinking about how we would build larger systems, with more intentionality. How do we engineer our culture?

Ben Straub lives and works in Portland building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter.