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We shape our software; thereafter it shapes us

24 April 2018

Can software nudge us to be more creative, inclusive, and fair at work?

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

This article was originally published in Quartz at Work on December 1, 2017.

In 1967 Mel Conway proposed that organizations inevitably produce systems that are reflections of their communication structures. A company like Google, which historically had a very open and organic culture, will produce open but somewhat inconsistent systems. A company like Apple, which is more uniform and controlling, will produce more neatly integrated, but restricted systems. Differences that are exemplified in the Android and iOS ecosystems.

This phenomenon is now gospel and companies are starting to organize themselves with user needs and software interfaces in mind.

I propose a corollary to Conway’s Law:

Organizations are shaped by the software they use.

An organization’s culture is defined by how people interact with each other and is governed through processes, social norms, and reward systems. More and more of these interactions are facilitated by software. And if we want to ensure our culture evolves in a direction we like, leaders, managers, and workers need to intentionally consider how we’re using software.

We need to look at not only the functional aspects of software, but at how it is shaping our behavior.

Pathetic dots

When the web was young, Laurence Lessig wrote a book titled Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. In it, he proposed the idea that computer code could regulate behavior in much the same way legal code does. More generally he claimed that we humans — who he called “the pathetic dots” — are regulated by four forces: Law, Norms, Markets, and Architecture.

Take speeding as an example. It is illegal to drive too fast (Law); if you are caught you are fined. Yet people still regularly exceed the speed limit. We can apply extra forces to help shift people’s speeding behavior by adding speed bumps, chicanes, or removing lane markings (Architecture), or by making speeding socially unacceptable (Norms).

In organizations, software systems provide a form of architecture and they have already inspired multiple shifts in work behavior: uncapped email inboxes, threaded emails, collaborative document editing, and realtime chat, to name just a few. Slack has been a huge success partly because it shapes behavior in a way that helps people feel better about their work environments. It introduces a level of levity and whimsy that encourages people to bring their whole selves to work, something absent in otherwise sterile enterprise tools. And it provides a sense of empowerment and agency through seemingly simple design choices, such as allowing anyone to create a channel.

In the same way mass transit can unlock the economy in a suburb, tools can unlock new processes, new ways of interacting, and potentially even new levels of cognition.

But much of the progress to date has been emergent and reactionary. If we know architecture can influence culture and behavior, and we know software in certain contexts acts as architecture, can we design a new generation of enterprise tools that helps solve the perennial issues of bias, inclusion, and creativity at scale?

There’s an app for that

There’s a rising skepticism of the earnest hubris that emanates from Silicon Valley: The idea that code is king and tech can solve all the world’s problems. And rightly so. Tech news in recent years is rife with stories of naiveté, insularism, and misplaced good intentions.

But, we don’t question the impact technology has in other spheres: that Twitter’s harassment problems are baked into its design, that online ads change the nature of content production, or that Facebook’s filter bubble can affect elections and your emotions. So why is it so hard to believe that software can make our workplaces better, help reduce bias, encourage people to treat each other better, or can create space for deep cognitive work?

The reason people find it hard to believe that technology can play a role in shaping work culture for the better is, of course, that software can’t solve all problems. But also, it’s that the type of problems we’re seeing in contemporary organizations requires diverse teams to solve, and there’s a growing distrust in Silicon Valley’s ability to look beyond its own boarders to society at large.

Trying to positively shape work culture won’t work unless we listen to people outside of tech, and draw on the wealth of research from fields such as organizational design, relational psychology, and cognitive theory.

Tip of the iceberg

The concept of shaping behavior through technology is already being explored in the field of cognitive behavioral therapy. A project called WoeBot, for instance, provides users with a “choose your own adventure self-help book.” Its bot checks in on you via Facebook Messenger and provides a form of talk therapy. Another, from a company called Big Health, provides a “virtual professor” that promises to solve your insomnia. In a clinical study, their app helped alleviate depression/anxiety in 68% of patients.

You can imagine similar tools oriented towards solving organizational issues or democratizing the type of coaching usually only reserved for executives. These tools don’t need to work as well as human therapists or coaches, because they are ever-present, and the effects of small nudges compound over time.

Early examples of these tools already exist. One called Crystal Knows guides users through a personality assessment, offering insights about their communication and work styles. Based on those insights, its plugins for Gmail, Calendar, and Salesforce coach you to adjust your communication style to better fit the recipient. If you were to email me, for example, it would suggest you keep emails to three sentences or less, and to get to the point quickly…

ATS systems such as Greenhouse and Lever provide ways of setting up structured feedback for interviewers. Simply moving from free-form text boxes to focused prompts has been shown to help reduce implicit biases from affecting hiring decisions.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” — Churchill

Amazon is a company known for ruthless efficiency, and its culture has a reputation for being harsh and unforgiving. After bad press in 2015 and following internal pressure to change, the company started to look for ways to have the best of both worlds: How can they continue to push hard and be successful, but without leaving a trail of collateral damage?

An Amazon employee recently told me that the company had added a section to its company directory that is titled “What do you like to do outside of work?” Bezos and a vanguard of VPs led the way, sharing one or two sentences about their personal life, modeling the vulnerability and transparency they hoped would help correct aspects of their culture that were becoming toxic. And crazily, it seems to be working.

The Amazon employee I spoke with told me that meetings have become more congenial and emails less fraught. “I think this simple change has had a humanizing effect similar to a team happy hour, at scale,” he said. “It’s easier to remember that an eight-character company login number is a person with interests and feelings, beyond their job responsibilities.”

If that’s the power of a well-placed text box, imagine the possibilities if we apply a humane lens to all of our corporate tools. This is software as architecture; changing our behavior.

As software becomes more and more intertwined into our work lives, it is inevitable that it will continue to influence the way we work. Company leaders need to start paying attention to how software is shaping culture, in the same way they look at benefits, office layouts, and reporting structures.

But more importantly, software developers need to acknowledge the power they have, and start using it more responsibly.

Our team at Range is obsessed with figuring out ways to help teams work better together. If you’d like to know more about what we’re working on, read more at www.range.co.


We shape our software; thereafter it shapes us was originally published in Range Labs on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

What we look for

4 March 2018

A look inside Range’s hiring criteria

We don’t believe it serves anyone to keep our hiring criteria secret. Interviews are stressful at the best of times, so we want to do everything we can to eliminate some of that stress and make sure people feel they are able to be their best selves.

To that end we want to be open about what we are looking for when we are adding people to our team.

These attributes will evolve as our company and team grows, but for now we look at alignment across four areas: values, team, stage, and skill.

Values

We’re a purpose driven company. Given our size it is important that our mission resonates with you and that you feel aligned with the goals we have for both our company and product.

Mission Resonates — Sees that workplaces need to change and understands the effect workplace culture has on employees. Demonstrates a desire for organizational change, or has pushed for change in the past.

Humanist — Believes that the individual experience at work can and should be improved. Views the roles of managers as coaches who serve the team. Understands that a balanced life is necessary.

Inclusive — Understands that diversity and inclusion are both moral and business imperatives.

Service — Sees their role as contributing to the service of our customers. As a teammate, sees that we are here to serve each other.

Team

We’re hiring a team, not individuals. There are a number of traits that we think will help our team work together well.

Perspective — Adds psychological diversity or a different point-of-view.

Communication — Able to effectively communicate and understand concrete and abstract ideas.

Awareness & Empathy — Is self-aware and aware of others. Able to reflect on their own motives and emotions as well as those of others. Views others’ opinions with respect, see Ontological humility.

Growth Mindset — Recognizes their own agency in solving problems and resolving conflict. Takes critical feedback as an opportunity to change and grow; doesn’t give up. Has grit and resoluteness.

System Thinking — Understands that organizations and products are composed of systems, while being part of larger systems. Sees that the interactions and relations between components are often as important as the components themselves.

Humility — Comfortable doing all kinds of work; no work “is beneath them”: taking out trash, picking up the mail, etc. Can objectively look at their strengths and weaknesses.

Stage

We’re an early stage company which has implications for work style and preferences. This will change as we progress.

Autonomy — Able to self-direct and plan their own work streams. Unblocks themselves by asking for help or making decisions.

Comfort with uncertainty — Comfortable working and executing with high degrees of uncertainty about the company, the product, and the week’s work. Able to shift gears quickly.

Resilience — Understands the journey and the commitment we’re making to one another and the company. Is able to work in an unstable environment, handling the ups and downs of early startup life.

Skills

Skills are obviously role dependent, but we are committed to finding ways that allow you to best demonstrate your skills as best as possible. We will work with you to structure the interview process.

We look for people who are self starters and have a proven high-rate of change (though we know this may not manifest through job titles). We don’t look for experience at specific schools, education level, or companies.

Think this sounds like you? Find out about open positions or email careers@range.co.


What we look for was originally published in Range Labs on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Hello World

22 February 2018

A range of possibility

Photo by Daniel Leone on Unsplash

In 2012 I left Google to join The Obvious Corporation, a small company with the mission of building systems that help people work together to make the world better.

One of the things that attracted me to Obvious was how much Ev and Biz were thinking about the company they wanted to build, not just the product. They were asking why companies got worse as they got bigger: why do people become less engaged, teams become less productive, and bureaucracy ends off feeling like a force of nature? Shouldn’t work be better?

“Why do network effects make internet products better but make internet companies worse?”

As I took over leadership of the engineering team and helped grow the company’s operations, working on how we work became a personal mission of my own.

In every minute of free time, I explored the nature of work and researched how the most progressive companies operate — from Netflix to Bridgewater, Patagonia to Spotify, Disney to Amazon — I started to see patterns and opportunities. Many perennial problems had been solved, but often within the confines of a single organization. Everyone seemed to be reinventing the wheel, and when best-practices did emerge, they seemed overdue.

To paraphrase Gibson, the future [of work] is here — it’s just not evenly distributed.

I realized that instead of solving these organizational challenges for the one company where I worked, there was an opportunity to build software that helps people solve these organizational challenges everywhere.

So, last April I partnered with Jennifer Dennard and Braden Kowitz to start a company — Range Labs Inc. — with the goal of helping people build healthier companies. To range is to explore — to search the world for what’s next. The world is changing and organizations need to adapt and evolve.

Jen’s career choices show she has a passion for helping people enjoy their work — and their lives — more. She’s worked with companies big and small to improve their workplace culture during times of pivoting and intense scaling. We met at Medium, where we collaborated on new people programs, and company wide org design efforts as we changed operating structures. She’s an advocate for a new approach to human resources that focuses more on the person and their needs.

Braden was an early designer at Google and has built products used daily by millions. He co-led design on Gmail for several years, where we worked together on Gmail Chat, pushing against the capabilities of the early web. Then at Google Ventures he advised dozens of startups, teaching them how to listen to customers, scale design teams, and build processes that support innovation. He is the co-author of the New York Times Bestseller, Sprint, and has spoken at design conferences around the world.

At Range, we believe that healthy companies aren’t simply better places to work, but do better work and will ultimately be more successful. We know that software can’t solve all problems, but the fact that so much of our work-life is mediated through software means that there is a huge opportunity to rethink how our tools affect how we work with each other.

Over the last few months I’ve joked that we’re not very good at being a “stealth startup.” We’re too excited about this space to keep our mouths shut.

We nerd out about meetings (not in meetings… about meetings), team structures, and work cadences. We love talking to people about people-centric leadership, learning organizations, and helping friends diagnose organizational issues. We believe in networks, in transparency, in individual empowerment, and in the need to bring more humanity to our work.

And we believe in working in the open and sharing knowledge, so follow this publication as we each share what we’re working on, what we’re excited about, and what we’re learning from folks we’re talking to.


Hello World was originally published in Range Labs on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Two things you can start doing to help build a more diverse team

1 August 2017

Over the last few years, awareness has risen about the problems that arise from a lack of diversity, but many companies are still struggling to make headway or don’t even know where to start.

I don’t have all the answers and I have a lot left to learn. But with the help of an awesome team, I was able to meaningfully affect the demographic make-up of an engineering team as it grew from 30 to 60 people.

What follows are two techniques that I think provide a solid foundation for a more extensive D&I strategy, while also shining a light on other factors that might be inhibiting your progress.

1. Measure what you want to change

In product and engineering we measure everything. We have dashboards for latency, error rates, sign-ups, time on site, etc. etc. If your team is working to increase the number of photos uploaded, you’re sure as hell going to be looking at that metric everyday. If your team is working on production stability, you’re going to be reporting on uptime and error rates. So why do so few teams track diversity metrics?

Build a spreadsheet; make some graphs. Track demographics, tenure, and experience of your team and your candidate pool. As the CEO, functional lead, or hiring manager, you — not recruiting or HR — should own this metric.

The first step in changing or managing any metric is simply to be aware of it.

2. Start at the top of the funnel

If network referrals, inbound​ resumes, and candidates sent by your investors are predominantly white-male, what do you think the composition of your team will be?

Fixing this means actively sourcing outside your immediate network. You can also increase the diversity of inbound candidates by choosing meet-ups, conferences, and communities that are themselves more diverse — though this is a longer-term strategy and has to be approached authentically.

The demographics of your funnel should map to the population you are trying to track. Put another way, if you were trying to increase the number of iOS developers on your team but only 1 in 10 of the people you interviewed knew ObjectiveC or Swift, you’d feel pretty dumb.

I’d suggest trying to match the demographics of the US population, but tracking tech demographics could be a good interim milestone for some companies. This does get harder as you get bigger, but for start-ups hiring a few people a week it should be reasonable.

If your funnel is diverse, but there is no change in team composition, you now know you have a problem with your interview process.

More resources

Too many companies I talk to are trying to start from first principles, expending valuable time and energy on work others have done. We need to learn from each other’s successes and failures if we want to see change on a reasonable timeframe.


Two things you can start doing to help build a more diverse team was originally published in Writing by Dan Pupius on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Thanks Tyler, the rabbit hole goes deep. Here’s a few books that gives a breadth of subject matter:

2 February 2017

Team of Teams — General McChrystal explains how the complexity of the modern world requires a new way of working, using his experiences on…

Change isn’t an event it’s a process

31 January 2017

Reflections on leaving Medium

2016 Highlights

1 January 2017

Goodnight SoHo

5 December 2016

Good morning SoHo

5 December 2016

Family photos

3 December 2016

Lyra Grace

1 December 2016

The one where baby-two gets a bath.

25 November 2016

Post-sugar

24 November 2016

Leon Trotsky, 1934

24 November 2016

The fascists find their human material mainly in the petty bourgeoisie.

Issaquah Turkey Trot

24 November 2016

Theo and Lyra

23 November 2016

Cold, damp, but pretty.

23 November 2016

The important things are packed.

21 November 2016

While she naps

20 November 2016

Castle or car

20 November 2016

Breakfast

19 November 2016

Up

16 November 2016

16 November 2016

The 2016 Fellows

15 November 2016

When Medium hosted a writing workshop for Code2040, I took portraits of the fellows to accompany their stories. It was so much fun working…

Weekly food prep

14 November 2016

Intersubjectivity

14 November 2016

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari makes this clearer than I did. He refers to it as intersubjectivity: a shared agreement of meaning…

Learning to ride

13 November 2016

Serious about hats

12 November 2016

Neoplasticism deconstructed and extruded #ArtByLyra

11 November 2016

Morning Walk

11 November 2016

Autumn

5 November 2016

“He talks of San Francisco, he’s from Hunters Bar”

4 November 2016

Yet another crash

1 November 2016

Halloween on Belvedere

31 October 2016

Clouds

30 October 2016

Making the most of it

30 October 2016

Making the most of it

30 October 2016

Making the most of it

30 October 2016

Making the most of it

30 October 2016

Making the most of it

30 October 2016

Not everything is a snake

23 September 2016

Facing fears and avoiding risk blindness

The edges in a network need not be homogenous, and I’d argue it is better if they are not.

29 August 2016

Even though they have historically been arbitrarily homogenous and domineering (gender, race, etc.), hierarchies aren’t inherently bad…

Another good read is GCHQs Boiling Frogs paper.

27 August 2016

In particular it talks about different product development methodologies in the context of a commoditization scale.

Summer?

6 August 2016

Coordinated landing

3 August 2016

First light

3 August 2016

Taking the girls hiking…

1 August 2016

Morning

1 August 2016

Bolognachos : Mexican-Italian fusion #leftovers

31 July 2016

Skeptical about the emergency plan

27 July 2016

BFF?

24 July 2016

Scoot

23 July 2016

PSA: be careful at 4th & Brannan, especially on a bike. We hear too many accidents.

20 July 2016

View

19 July 2016

Water fun

17 July 2016

Wind

2 July 2016

Another micro stock windfall

1 July 2016

Darwin

30 June 2016

Entourage

26 June 2016

Five hundred days of Lyra

26 June 2016

Porterhouse (first fancy meal out since Lyra)

25 June 2016

Dogster at the doctor

23 June 2016

Fathers’ day

19 June 2016

Parallels

19 June 2016

Evening read

18 June 2016

Close Encounter

18 June 2016

Red skies

17 June 2016

These shoes are

17 June 2016

Peace

17 June 2016

Exploring

16 June 2016

What’s happening?

12 June 2016

You could make similar arguments about electricity or water.

12 June 2016

Components higher and higher up the value-chain get commoditized and become utilities.

Ta-Daaa

12 June 2016

Lyra and Etta

11 June 2016

Light bright.

10 June 2016

We can be better

9 June 2016

I’m male, white, and speak with a British accent. The odds are stacked in my favor. Yet even I have felt that running the gauntlet of…

She did this to herself.

7 June 2016

Sunday stroll

5 June 2016

3

4 June 2016

4 June 2016

Fin #fitzpek

28 May 2016

@bradfit & @eyeofkate #fitzpek

28 May 2016

Waves

28 May 2016

Buttercup

28 May 2016

Cousins

27 May 2016

Coordination unplanned.

27 May 2016

Swing

26 May 2016

Medium Format

25 May 2016

Damn.

25 May 2016

Screen time

24 May 2016

“Engineering Manager — Infrastructure” in Medium Engineering

22 May 2016

Until recently, most engineers have been deployed to product initiatives, with DevOps and Data Platform being the only permanently staffed…

Strawberry Girl

21 May 2016

B̶u̶r̶n̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶m̶a̶n̶ Google I/O

19 May 2016

I saw this for the first time yesterday, and it’s amazing.

18 May 2016

Enjoy 3mins of Bobby McFerrin and the pentatonic scale:

A brave new world

18 May 2016

AI offers multiple choice responses to IMs

Blue Lips

15 May 2016

In the brighter light she looked grey, her lips dark purple, and the skin on her legs was mottled.

Fatherhood

14 May 2016

Meanwhile

13 May 2016

Dropcam’d

13 May 2016

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” — Henry David Thoreau

13 May 2016