On Culture and Unspoken Rules

A few years ago, I purchased my first Jeep Wrangler. It is a 1999, manual transmission, hard top, 4.0L Inline-6…back before Jeep went astray and stopped using that amazing engine. No automatic locks, no power windows…I swear the most advanced feature in this thing is the intermittent wipers. I love it.

Interesting side note: the gentleman I bought it from ended up being from Microsoft, working as a purchasing decision maker for the hardware infrastructure for Azure. I ended up “test driving” for over an hour as we talked about the move to NVM-E SSDs.

After driving the Jeep for a few days, I quickly discovered a culture I never knew existed. I’m not sure if I’m allowed by the Jeep Code to write about this, but I’ll take my chances! You see, Jeep Wrangler owners wave to each other as they pass, but there is a etiquette to it. There is a hierarchy of respect involved here. Yuppie Jeeps are at the bottom of the totem pole. Their street tires have never left pavement. No one waves to them. Stock Jeeps are next up the stack. It is hit or miss whether you’re going to get a wave. But do something as simple as run some aggressive all-terrain tires, or mud tires, and now you’re good to go…able to confidently send out waves and get them back in return.

The key rule here is that you can only initiate waves to those close to your Jeep Class. If you own a stock Jeep, you do NOT wave to the Jeep with the lift kit and mud tires. THEY wave to YOU…only then can you wave back. You can initiate waves to those downward on the totem pole, but not upward. It is a stab right to the heart if you smile and wave to a tricked out Jeep, and they don’t wave back. You didn’t make the cut. It hurts.

As silly as this is, I actually find it very really interesting how consistent the experience is. Who is in charge of this Jeep Code? Who decides who gets to wave, and how is The Code so consistent without any training or orientation? I never studied sociology, but I find it fascinating.

Believe it or not, I’m going to tie this into Puget Systems now!

At Puget Systems, we’re growing like wildfire. We’re used to annual growth around the 20% range, and we’ve had that consistently through our history. But today, we’re growing faster than that. In addition, we’ve had some long-standing employees go back to school, or move away from Seattle to be with family and start families of their own. As a result of both of those things, we’ve had more hiring in the last 2 years than we’ve ever had before. How do we maintain our identity amidst such growth?

We are an experience company here. It isn’t enough for us to just sling boxes. At the top of our mission statement is:

"We believe that computers should be a pleasure to purchase and own. They should get your work done, and not be a hindrance."

To accomplish this mission, I feel very strongly that we need to keep decision making in the hands of our front lines as much as possible. Hire good people, and give them freedom to make decisions. Their job is to create great experiences. And yet, it is also important that we create consistent experiences. I don’t want a customer calling in and getting one experience one day, and a different experience the next.

How do we reconcile those two things? I believe it is the same way that the Jeep Code works. The key is to focus on a community within the organization, and to be fanatical about teaching the WHY behind what we do. If we hire people who agree with our mission, and we teach them our history and how we got to where we are, then we will all be rowing in the same direction here. It is the mission of your seasoned staff to teach this culture to the newer people. It is the responsibility of everyone to maintain a critical mass of knowledge within the organization about WHY you do what you do.

We haven’t been without our growing pains. Here are a few red flags I’ve learned to look out for recently. If you hear people saying these things around your company, you might have a problem.

“Hey everyone, remember to [insert specific action here].”

The biggest problem with this is that it is focusing on the action itself, and not the reason behind the action. The WHY is missing. If you are hearing people say to “remember” things over and over, you have 1 of 3 things going on:

  1. Your seasoned staff is not focusing on passing on the WHY to the newer staff. Focusing on the WHAT is surface level…it might solve the problem of the hour, but it will not advance the company culture. What should be taught is WHY you do things.
  2. You have a procedure problem. WHAT you do should be handled by policies and procedures, not employee memory.
  3. You hired the wrong people. If you need a policy or procedure for things beyond the WHAT level, then the people you hired might not actually align to your mission. “Remember to answer the phone!” or “Remember to not cut corners.” are signs of this problem.

“I wish people just used common sense around here.”

The further I get in life, the more I dislike the phrase “common sense.” I’ve been in this business for 17 years. I’ve done things every “wrong way” possible, and the pain and scars of my past mistakes have ingrained in me the “right way” to do things. How can someone new to the industry have that same wisdom unless I take the time to teach them of the path I have been down? In my opinion, the concept of “common sense” is a misguided attempt to have expectations of others while neglecting the responsibility YOU own to teach that next generation. Sometimes they have to experience the pain and consequences on their own to learn. Have high expectations, and offer high support.

It is a lot of work to do what we do. Running an experience company is not for the faint of heart. It takes strong commitment to the mission from everyone in the organization. It is difficult, and we’re having a blast. THANK YOU for your support — the growth we are seeing these last 3 years is amazing and humbling, and it is great to come to work each day to a company where we know we can succeed by doing the right thing.