I’m Raph, our head of engineering since the beginning of March. Even within my relatively short time at Lob, things have moved fast. Five engineers have joined our team, we’ve just announced our Series B funding alongside Address Verification, our second flagship API, and next month, we’re moving to a new space triple the size of our current office. In short, we’re at the beginning of a massive growth spurt.
Rapid growth can compromise culture. Unless you’re careful about codifying your values, your best employees will wake up a year from today and realize the reasons they used to be excited to come to work have vanished.
We’ve been as deliberate about designing our culture as we are about designing our product. This means we’ve explicitly named and defined the behaviors that make our company culture special. We give them weight by using them to make decisions about hiring and career progression. We also use them as a framework for giving each other props every week at our all-hands meeting; calling out and publicly appreciating when people exemplify our values keeps them relevant every day.
Our Core Values
The entire company got together for a massive brainstorm in late 2016 to try and capture what the best version of Lob looks like. A handful of themes emerged, and they became our current set of core values. What follows is a new hire’s-eye-view of our core values, and what they look like in practice.
Everyone who interacts with Lob should feel like they had a great experience and were treated with respect. This value is why we look for exemplary communication skills in prospective hires. We practice active listening, a communication technique used in counseling, coaching, and conflict resolution, to make sure we understand where people are coming from before taking action. On the flip side, we seek to share information in a way that is consumable and useful to the audience in front of us. Speaking as a new engineering leader, several non-technical employees have told me that they’ve never worked with engineers who communicate so clearly.
Curating experiences also means that when we give feedback, we do so candidly, kindly, and directly. Feedback isn’t useful unless it’s timely, actionable, and specific. We keep the emphasis on what happened instead of making it about the person.
Building our experience-curating muscles internally informs how we treat customers, partners, and prospective hires. Because mail has so many applications, we help clients address their specific problems and opportunities, which differ from company to company.
Anyone who interviews with us should come away feeling respected and like they got something out of the process, whether or not they get the offer. Our engineering process in particular focuses on real-world problems similar to the ones we’re working on today, which most people seem to find more engaging, educational, and intellectually stimulating than the algorithmic questions they get when interviewing at larger companies.
Finally, we strive to be as candid, open, and available as we can during the interview process. This made a big impression on me when I was interviewing. Everyone I talked to wanted me to come into the job with a realistic understanding of the opportunities and challenges I’d be facing.
Think Like a Scientist
We’re all about making sure we’re solving the right problems.
We are disrupting a sleepy industry, so there isn’t an established playbook we can borrow from. That means we spend a significant amount of time doing original research, both in the business domain and technologically.
The language we use to make most of our decisions is borrowed from the scientific method: we set hypotheses, then figure out ways to test them as accurately and rapidly as possible.
Building a scientific culture means investing in our tools and processes. We spend a significant amount of time building out accurate instrumentation and data capture to make sure our measurements are accurate. Every team, not just product and engineering, is finding ways to capture data and generate insights faster.
At other companies I’ve worked at, I’ve heard (mostly affectionate) rancor between "quals"—user researchers and designers—and "quants"—data analysts and scientists. This has always felt like a false distinction to me, so I was gratified to find that Lob is building up the capacity to conduct both qualitative and quantitative research, since you need different tools for different kinds of problems.
One of the reasons that working at a startup is fun is that great ideas can come from anybody. The only way to keep that spirit alive at scale is to hold leaders accountable for making decisions with evidence, not from their intuitions. If we successfully build a culture of thinking like scientists, we’ll be able to move innovative ideas forward no matter where they come from.
Get (Sh)it Done
As a Series B startup, our job is to grow as quickly as possible with the resources we have. So we have to move as quickly as we can without compromising quality or culture. Our most profane value speaks to that culture of agility and ownership.
Joe Zadeh, Airbnb’s VP of Product and my ex-colleague, has a metaphor for getting (sh)it done that has always stuck with me. He used to call it "being the Kool-Aid Man"—you should be able to burst through any wall and shout "OH YEEEAAAHHH" to help people get stuff done. This happens all the time at Lob. In general, we think of our teams as areas of shared ownership, not walled gardens.
Moving fast doesn’t mean taking shortcuts. To the contrary, we put in the time today to build the infrastructure needed to move fast later. Engineering, for instance, has had 100% backend unit test coverage since the early days of Lob. Taking the extra time upfront to write tests and conduct thorough code reviews helps us move fast without breaking things, since well-tested code is easier and less scary to change.
Find Strength in the Collective
My personal framework for changing collective behavior distinguishes between culture, tools, and process. Culture tells you how to behave and what to expect from others in the absence of everything else. Tools make it easy to do the right thing by default and hard to mess up. Process brings consistency to high-frequency workflows.
Every interaction at Lob is an input into our shared culture. Our core values are an attempt to name the things that are important to us. Culture helps us make decisions quickly and autonomously. Culture, for me, is the most important (and most fragile) attribute of a company, which is why I spend so much time waxing rhapsodic about it.
You can also make a disproportionate impact by building tools. As a technology company, engineers are central to our company culture, and I’m incredibly proud of the example our team sets for everybody else. We’ve built continuous integration and delivery into our software development lifecycle, which means that as soon as you write code it goes through automated testing and is packaged up for deployment when you’re ready. We would move orders of magnitude more slowly without automation like this.
As a rule of thumb, many startups define processes as late as possible, when things are about to tip into chaos. I think this is generally a good idea because process is hard to take back once it’s in place. The right place to institute process early is for high-volume workflows that need to be done rigorously and consistently, such as hiring, onboarding, and incident postmortems. But in general Lobsters lean toward culture and tools to give strength to the collective.
Power in Diversity
It’s easy to say that we want to build a diverse company but hard to actualize. As a relatively new company, we have the benefit of learning from other companies, such as Google and Lever, that have been fostering a dialogue about diversity in tech. This is still a work in progress for Lob, but we’ve taken two concrete steps to get the ball rolling.
First, we conducted an internal, anonymous self-identification survey to accurately measure our employee demographics. We need to be able to measure progress to make progress. We’re also planning to join the public dialogue about diversity in tech by publishing our diversity statistics soon.
We also started up a cross-functional Diversity and Inclusion Working Group to explore concrete projects that teams at Lob could put into place. A colleague illustrated the difference between diversity and inclusion for me when I was leading the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group kickoff. I asked the room, "What does it look like to be diverse, but not inclusive?"
An employee raised her hand immediately. "It looked like my old team at [a major investment bank]. We looked like a United Colors of Benetton ad in photographs, but the culture was super bro-y and I had to deal with a lot of BS as a brown woman." Several people nodded.
"Can you be inclusive, but not diverse?" I asked.
She said, "Yeah, that’s our engineering team! For a team of mostly white dudes, they really go out of their way to make the rest of us feel included. I feel like I can be myself around them."
We have some work to do before we’re the diverse and inclusive company that we want to be, but everyone at Lob understands what we need to do to get there because of this value.
Draw the Blueprint
This one is about connecting our daily work to the big picture. "Draw the blueprint" is another way to say "set the context for people to autonomously make the right decisions."
If, like me, you’ve ever worked overtime on a new product feature that nobody ended up using, you have personally felt the pain of jumping ahead to the solution before the problem was understood. Time building the wrong thing is time wasted.
I feel especially strongly about this because engineering’s role in the product delivery lifecycle comes at the end. There’s nothing more demoralizing than being handed a design spec and being told “The deadline for this project is this Friday. Good luck.” Most companies task engineering with implementing the solution that another team designed.
We think this is backwards. Engineers can’t implement good solutions unless they have insight into the product strategy and have contributed to the prototyping process. In the language of the Double Diamond, engineers need visibility into the product strategy and ownership of executing on the solution. Without the larger context, it’s too easy to build the wrong thing. Nobody can make the right tactical decisions unless they understand how their work fits into the strategy.
Be an Investor
Every Lob employee holds equity and is literally an investor. So, we expect them to behave like joint owners of the company.
As a rule, we only spend on the things that are important for success and that will help the company. Gratuitous and lavish spending will never be a part of our public image. That said, we spend gladly on events that make Lob a better place to work (our happy hours, activity nights, retreats, and Lobaversary celebrations are pretty memorable without breaking the bank), as well as investments that train individual employees to grow and be more effective.
Being an investor doesn’t mean being miserly. It means that we find good ways to spend money now that will pay off later. On our engineering team, it means that we’re deliberate about trading off time, effort, and money. We won’t pinch pennies if buying a service saves us time or gets rid of a source of distractions. As a small but mighty team, we are always looking for tools that help us leverage our time more effectively.
Ultimately, our mission is to provide the building blocks for developers to automate the offline world. This is a lot bigger than sending mail. This value reminds us to think about our investments today on the order of years, not days. It emboldens us to place big bets.
Some Things Our Core Values Don't Really Capture
Our core values describe the kind of behavior we want to reinforce. They don’t tell the whole story about what it’s like to work here.
Some miscellaneous details I’ve noticed about Lob’s culture since joining:
We take work-life balance seriously. In general people are good at leaving work at work. I’ve only seen people work outside normal hours when they’re in the groove or putting out a fire. Weekend emails are rare. That said, the level of focus that I’ve observed employees bringing during the day is incredibly high, because…
Accountability for getting things done mostly comes from each other. The incentives to move fast, remediate problems, and meet deadlines largely come from your team. Our culture of peer accountability means putting each other in position to rise to the occasion when our teammates depend on us.
All else being equal, you should enjoy coming to work. Working at a startup can be intense, but we make time to smell the roses. Commonly observed: birthday cupcakes, happy hours, impromptu games of Super Smash Bros., gossiping about our favorite trainers at Barry’s Bootcamp, good doggos.
People feel like they can be themselves. I’ve heard this verbatim from several employees, and I feel this way myself. We tolerate and celebrate people for who they are through and through. Celebrating our differences prevents us from becoming a Dilbert office.
Many companies don’t share their core values publicly, on the assumption that this feeds interviewees the right lines to regurgitate. We think our questions are insightful enough to see through bullshit. For us, the pros of being open outweigh the risks. By talking about our values openly, we hope to help the right people self-select into our company.
If you could imagine yourself thriving in an environment like the one you read about today, take a look at our Careers page—we’d love to chat.
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