How Serverless Defined Its Team Values

Aug 24, 2017

As a solo founder with a lot on his plate, it would have been so easy for our CEO, Austen Collins, to let values and culture take a back seat. But he didn’t.

Austen knew that having a strong mission was the key to attracting top talent, and from day one he was determined to have a clearly-defined culture that resonated with people.

It isn't as straightforward as you'd think to define such a lofty thing as culture, though. It took us a few tries to get it right.

Here’s how the serverless team worked to bring it all together.

Dive below the iceberg

Fun fact: when you see icebergs floating in the water, you’re really only seeing the top 10%. The other 90% is hidden beneath the surface of the water.

This cultural iceberg metaphor is one we use a lot when discussing values amongst our team. Organizational culture represents itself with language, artifacts and traditions (the visible piece of the iceberg)—but those things are only a manifestation of the core values that team members intuitively feel under the surface.

When you clearly define what lies under the surface of your team, it means that everyone can swiftly move towards the same end goal. Recruiting gets easier, as prospective team members easily get a sense of whether they will flourish in your environment. Existing team members have a much easier time prioritizing projects and feeling confident enough to initiate new projects that will propel the company forward.

For a practical example of how having a strongly-defined team culture has already helped us day-to-day, one of the lessons we’ve learned at Serverless is that team collaboration is a core value for us. When candidates do their onsite interviews, we make sure that their project includes collaborating with other team members.

In a nutshell? It makes it easier to get what your organization needs when you know exactly what your organization needs.

Bottom-up approach: round 1

Defining culture at Serverless has been an ongoing, participative journey.

Our first attempt was at our January 2017 team retreat, where we tried a bottom-up approach. Each team member got a set of sticky notes, where they wrote out first their own personal values, and then their aspirational company values.

We posted each note on whiteboards and clustered them into groups as a team.

At the end of the exercise, our list looked like this:

  • Camaraderie
  • Collaboration
  • Results-oriented
  • Accountability
  • Bold & Ambitious
  • Open Source
  • Keep It Simple

It seemed great! the time. We quickly realized there were weaknesses with the initial list.

Bottom-up approach: round 2

When we were back at the office trying to synthesize everything after the retreat, we found it challenging to make our values fit into neat, actionable boxes. We didn’t know how to apply them to the actual behaviors we wanted to see.

So we iterated. We took our fuzzy list and teased it into a series of condensed points.

What emerged were the final value statements that we all felt we would be empowered to follow:

Serverless is a group project

It takes the whole team working together to meet Serverless’ bold and ambitious goals. We help each other and strive to remove any roadblocks that slow our teammates down.

We hold each other accountable and communicate expectations clearly through asynchronous communication (Slack, Github, Email) and ask for help when we need it.

Keep our eyes on the prize

It’s easy to get distracted when pioneering technology in a new space. We keep the team successful by setting clear goals that start at the company level and work their way down to each individual team member. We focus on results and celebrate success as a team.

Blaze the trail

As the first mover in the serverless space, our team is bold and ambitious. We are always looking for ways to embrace new technology of all stripes and make it accessible to our community.

Open source forever

The open source community is an integral strategy to our success. We will never forget where we came from and we pledge to always give back.

Simplicity is king

It’s easy to overly complicate language, code, and projects. We strive to create the most simple and elegant solutions. When communicating we ask, “How can I say this in five words instead of ten?”

Work with freedom and responsibility

Be a good teammate, honor your commitments, and strive to exceed all expectations. However you manage to do that is up to you.

On to round 3

Spoiler alert: the v2 of our bottom-up approach still wasn’t quite what we needed.

Our goal was to make our values tell a story that would be digestible—both on our website and to existing team members. In practice, they kind of fell flat.

They didn’t give prospective team members a realistic understanding of what it was like to work at Serverless, or provide clear guidance about company expectations to existing team members. We received feedback from our team that these condensed values were difficult to relate to.

We also went through some painful hiring experiences. We brought on really talented individuals who, in theory were going to be rock stars, but in practice our culture just was not a good fit for them and they struggled before leaving after a few months.

Trying a top-down approach

We decided to take a different approach during our July 2017 team retreat. This time we abandoned our bottom-up approach and went top-down. (Don’t worry, tons of sticky notes were still involved.)

Each team member wrote 3-4 things (respectively) that they: love about Serverless, hate about Serverless, and wish we did differently.

We found that several core values fell out in the process.

Where we are today

We’ve found ourselves with another list. This time, a list of goals.

We are actively working to weave these values more tightly into our day-to-day:

  • Empathy
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Grit
  • Learning culture
  • Constructive feedback

We are putting them into our our culture handbook and creating tests for each of these in our interview process.

This is certainly our best system so far, but we don’t doubt that we’ll soon be humbled.

Where we’re headed

Our culture process, much like our software, is open to the community. We put our culture handbook in GitHub; it is a living document that, as you can see from this post, is constantly improving.

Feel free to follow along as we continue to flesh it out.

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