Shaping Culture in Tech

Culture.

If it’s good, your company thrives.

If it’s not, it can be more than detrimental. It can lead to disaster.

When building a company, how do you simultaneously build a culture that will stand the test of time?

We had the opportunity to sit down with serial entrepreneur and CEO/Co-founder of data.world, Brett Hurt, to learn what processes he’s created to come out on the other side with a culture that you can be proud of.

Building it Right the First Time

How do you build the foundation of a right culture?

It starts simply by hiring good people.

As Brett said, “The raw materials are ultimately the people that you have in the company. It’s a combo of partnering with the right co-founders, if you have them, and finding the right people for your team.”

After forming several companies, Brett has come up with a few tools in his toolbox to help in building culture.

One unique tactic that he uses is to “pressure test” every candidate. Placing them through a tougher than average interview process does a variety of things, but mainly it allows them to test for passion.

Brett added, “We ask ourselves, is it really just about the money and the glamour of working for a tech company, or is the cause really just as important to them? He went on to say, “Money motivation is not going to take you through the tough times, but passion will.”

This is the single most important thing you can do to build a stand up culture.

Another thing that you can do to secure a good culture is to check references.

This is especially important when it comes to senior positions.

Many times, checking references is overlooked when a candidate has considerable career experience. As Brett explained, “It’s a natural mistake to make because you think, ‘how could they not be great?’ I’ve done myself a disservice many times by not checking up front.”


Founders really need to talk about this and be honest and diligent in vetting all candidates, not just the junior level ones.

How to Prioritize?

As a serial entrepreneur of several companies, Brett has a depth of experience in building culture and hiring people. We wanted to know if the same toolkit is used regardless of company size when it comes to prioritizing your people?

Short answer is yes.

No matter what the size of your company, it comes down to this:

  • It’s how you hire. Put them through the “pressure test” and make sure they have the passion.
  • It’s how you fire. If you don’t take action on the “brilliant jerk” and continue to keep him on the team, your values will eventually start to erode.
  • It’s how you promote. If you end up promoting someone who is not a good fit or or someone who is just not ready, you have to “pressure test” them to see if they are ready and willing to take on that responsibility.

Performance Reviews Matter

How you do performance reviews is key. Brett has developed a process called the “3-3-1.” It’s a simple but effective formula that his entire organization uses.

It’s the three things that you do really well.

The three things you think you could have done better.

And then the one thing that you’re going to take action on.

This formula provides a nice balance of positive praise, constructive criticism and taking action.

Look to HR for a Hint Into a Company’s Culture

Trying to figure out what a company’s culture is like? Brett said there is usually one giveaway: Look to where the head of HR reports.

“If HR is reporting to the CEO or COO chances are the company has good culture. On the other hand, if HR is buried in the reporting structure, then the resources given to them could be limited and the CEO probably does not directly engage and is not vocal in leading the charge for culture,” he explained.

Mistakes Made Along the Way

When asked what mistakes he’s made and what he could share with us, Brett was very transparent.

He mentioned introducing a process where all of the team members would rate management on whether they were living the core values of the company on a 1-5 scale. The whole process was anonymous which seemed to be a good idea in the beginning, but proved to be much more detrimental.

“The process was anonymous and what it led to was some of our directors breaking down wanting to know who gave the feedback so that they could talk with them. I wanted to be authentic in this process, but that’s not what it ended up being,” he told us.  

Ultimately, he changed the process to allow people the option of identifying themselves. As a result, 90% of people decided to name themselves. This made a world of difference, allowing full transparency and becoming a catalyst for change on so many levels.

This lesson and many others taught Brett to be diligent in the hiring processes.

For instance, he told us that he checked seven references on a single board member. And he’s known him for 17 years. Brett exclaimed, “Because I’ve taken the time to set these measures in place, I’ve been successful in creating the culture that is desired. No longer are assumptions made.”

Is it the case that when you have a hiring process that’s so intense, you test someone’s passion? When a candidate gets through the process, you have an immediate bond.

Brett agreed by saying, “I would have those that I hired tell me after they went through the process that they could feel the culture. Because of this, you get the best people, you grow and the opportunity cost is maximized.”

Want to hear more on Brett’s thoughts surrounding culture? Click here to find this episode anywhere you listen to podcasts.