Corporate culture is the context framing any conversation about recruitment and retention, productivity and profitability. In time, a culture of one sort or another will come to characterize your company or department. As an executive, you have the management prerogative to establish practices and set goals, but how can you lead employees to share attitudes and values? And can you really expect a gaggle of intelligent, creative and at times antisocial IT employees to become a cadre animated by high performance?
One company that has met this challenge is Athene Software, a Boulder, Colo.-based developer of CRM software for communications service providers, ISP's and other e-businesses. Privately held, venture capital financed Athene employs 85 people, 60 percent of them engineers. Since its founding in 1997, the company has lost just four people, all nontechnical - despite being located in Boulder, one of the hotter technology markets in the United States. Software projects regularly come in on or ahead of schedule. The company's technical support group is so idle that it's known internally as the Maytag department. Observers in and outside Athene credit this remarkable success to the deliberate construction of a distinctly engineer-friendly culture that nurtures loyalty and excellence.
Much of the inspiration for Athene's corporate culture is drawn from PeopleWare, written by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister, a landmark 1987 book on software development that was reissued in 1999 by Dorset House Publishing. PeopleWare's thesis is that success in an IT environment is much more a function of sociology than technology. Software is all about smart people joyfully working together in teams. Although it's a truism that organizational models inherited from the industrial revolution don't fit the needs of today's "intellect workers," many companies unconsciously fall into old cultural patterns, demonstrating by their actions that they value capital more than labor. Consistent creation of good software requires that people be treated with the same respect that the instruments of production were in an earlier era, say DeMarco and Lister.
Recruit to Retain
Potential employees encounter Athene's culture long before their first day at work. President and CEO Eric Johnson has crafted a vetting regimen worthy of the U.S. space program. "We ask ourselves what makes a good engineer, from an engineer's point of view," he says. "If you want to be the best, you have to get the best people. You just can't get there with the adequate or the ordinary."
Athene's recruitment process features a series of intensive interviews with key managers, including Johnson, as well as potential peers. The company's Technical Advisory Board, a group of six PhD-level mathematicians and statisticians from universities and institutes around the world, often screens résumés and conducts phone interviews with prospects. Employment, academic and criminal background checks are conducted on everyone. Finally, candidates who successfully pass through the earlier stages of the vetting process are required to "audition" before a voluntary assembly of company employees.
"We ask the candidate to demonstrate something we should know about them to show us how they'll fit in," says Johnson. Most prospective hires embrace the opportunity. "We've had people write poems and do martial arts demonstrations. We've had racecar drivers and firefighters. Of course, sometimes people just stand and read their résumés, and that tells us something about them too."
The auditions, which run an hour or more, have given Athene a reputation as the measuring rod for engineers in the Boulder market, Johnson says; if you can make it there, you're good enough to make it anywhere. But auditions serve a second, equally important purpose, says Vice President of Engineering Richard Wolniewicz: They help retain the employees already there. "The thing that IT professionals appreciate is working with really smart coworkers," he notes. Athene employees take the auditions seriously. About 25 people, on average, show up at each audition, and some employees rarely miss any. Auditions by PhD-level candidates resemble doctoral defenses, drawing many more people and tending to run much longer than an hour.
A Balanced Approach
Once on board, new engineers find that things at Athene are, well, different. The company has no secretaries and no HR department. An office manager handles 401(k) administration. There are no cubicle cities - engineers work in private offices or small team rooms-and the company invests heavily in quality control. Instead of building the typical corporate infrastructure, Athene has put its energies into nurturing an environment that adapts to people's needs, rather than expecting the inverse.
"A big part of our culture is the idea of balance," explains Johnson. "Everyone has a hierarchy of things that are important to them. For some, it's family or religion. For others, it's rock climbing. Others, it's their health." Johnson believes it's good business to help his employees find and live out their own balance. "We don't want you to sacrifice your life outside of work for Athene. We want to support you as a whole person," he says.
Such support is important to newlywed Tate Moore, a platform project leader who's been with Athene for two years. "Here, it is not assumed that you will work long hours," he says. "It does happen, but when it does there is very quick follow-up to recognize and honor the extra effort." That recognition takes the form of monetary bonuses and public thanks as well as added time off that must be taken.
Tooling and Training
Access to leading edge technology and a commitment to ongoing training are other attributes of Athene's engineer-friendly culture. "We specifically chose the kinds of technology platforms top IT people are looking for," says Wolniewicz. These include a multitiered, Web-based architecture for Athene's applications, the widespread use of Java Beans and XML, and opportunities to experiment with Extreme Programming.
Athene ensures that its in-house equipment inventory is state of the art. "We don't skimp on tools for engineers," says Wolniewicz. "We probably spend around US$10,000 per engineer for software and hardware. Our people never complain that they don't have the tools to do the job." The right tools mean less frustration and better career development, leading to greater job satisfaction and higher retention rates.
The company's training program is similarly aggressive. In-house classes are held every Wednesday and include such business-oriented topics as competitors' offerings and product improvements. "Lifelong learning is a strong part of our culture," says Moore. "It's another facet of being balanced. If you have an interest in an area, Athene wants you to go after the information, and they'll support you along the way."
Money Can't Buy You Love
Athene doesn't skimp on salary and benefits, but neither do these take center stage.
"Do your employees want to be a part of building something, or do they just want to draft off others, hoping for an IPO in nine months? You've got to weed those people out." -ATHENE PRESIDENT AND CEO ERIC JOHNSON The company continually monitors compensation levels in Boulder and throughout the industry, making adjustments as necessary. Still, "money alone doesn't make people stay," says Johnson. "You've got to understand what motivates them. Do they want to be a part of building something, or do they just want to draft off others, hoping for an IPO in nine months? You've got to weed those people out."
Pete Dignan, president of ProtoTest, a Denver-based company that specializes in software quality assurance services, has found it easy to recruit for Athene. "People are looking for interesting technology," he says. "Quality people especially want a place that has some process discipline - something that's been lacking in the dotcom craze. They want managers who have a plan and are sticking to it."
CIOs running more traditional IT departments can learn something from Athene's success, Dignan says. "The same challenges face every IT manager. How do you differentiate your organization from others? Why would an IT professional want to join? Why should she stay?"
Wolniewicz has a ready answer: "The things that attract engineers are largely independent of a company's end-business," he says. "The principles we've implemented apply across the board: technology opportunities, a caring work environment and top-quality coworkers."
Roger Herman, a management consultant and CEO of Greensboro, N.C.-based Her-man Group and the author of Keeping Good People (Oakhill Press, 1999), underscores the importance of a caring corporate culture. "People today have lost the support systems they once had," he says. "As a result, they're kind of floating unattached, especially in IT where everyone is so young. When employers provide that support system, engineers are likely to say, 'Hey, I just found a home. These people care about me.'" Talk about caring can seem saccharine, but such a culture has a solid business rationale. "I've been told that I should consider myself lucky just to have people coming through the door," says Johnson. "To me, that's hogwash. A technology business is all about people. It is suicide not to treat people with compassion and integrity."
The clearest indication of a strong corporate culture is that employees are aware of it. Moore says Johnson's vision is what attracted him to Athene in the first place. "It was clear that Johnson wanted a culture and wasn't just going to let one develop," he says. In turn, Moore has developed loyalty: "I'm sure something could entice me away, but I can't imagine what it might be."
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