The valuable intangibles

We had a company-wide meeting at work today to go over the company’s half year status. Usually the meetings are largely business updates where there’s a presentation about our financial performance, forecasting for a few years down the line and reassurance that we’re strong despite an adverse global economy.

We’re doing great; the roadmap and forecasts are very strong and we are doing brilliantly in terms of the figures, in my opinion anyway, despite a dire financial situation worldwide. So it was a breath of fresh air to hear the CEO focus on the company culture, not our balance sheet, for the majority of the meeting.

In terms of headcount, the company is more than twice the size it was when I joined a few years ago, and we’re now into that corporate size where the headcount and structure is starting to resemble a big company rather than a small one.

That’s make or break for most organisations in terms of their culture and how everyone works together in the business. We have new offices all around the world, so combined with quick employee growth there’s a fight to stop the culture eroding or changing so much that we lose what built the company in the first place. That doesn’t have to be disastrous by any means, as companies get bigger, but it can change how quick a company can and wants to react to changes in its situation.

Small companies are lean, mean and keen, and they change direction quickly. Big ones find that hard. These days that means your company’s star can fade as quickly as it shined. You don’t have to look far to find huge companies with past success struggling to innovate and produce great products quickly, especially in the consumer electronics space.

Anyway, I digress. What I really wanted to talk about are the things that define a company’s culture, and more specifically Imagination’s. While the CEO was discussing it in his terms, I tried to think about it in mine. It’s hard to define since culture is largely things you can’t see, touch or easily measure. Despite being hard to measure, they hold incredible worth.

I turned down more than twice the salary, a drastically better climate in a new and interesting country, and other measurable benefits to bet on those things that are hard to put in to words, to work for Imagination. What made me say yes was the feeling that I could make a big difference at a small company, rather than get swallowed up inside a large engineering team at an even larger graphics hardware company. That’s paid off for me in a big way.

I don’t get paid anywhere near as much as I’m worth and I still live in the UK, but I (mostly!) don’t care. The thing that offsets the financial and sunshine ‘losses’, if you can put them that way, is the company culture.

The best way to describe it is I’m not held back from being awesome and doing awesome things, and I’m encouraged to do and be more awesome all the time. If I think the company — the entire company in its myriad lines of business — is making a strategic mistake, I drop by and see the CEO or my VP. They listen, explain their thinking and take my concerns on board.

If I need more people on my team, I just say so and I get new open hires in the next hiring window. I wanted to control the group I worked for and manage it myself. So they let me and now I do. If I need to spend money, I’m trusted that it’s for a good reason and I get what I need for me and my team to do our jobs. No big questions, just devil’s advocate oversight and trust I’m asking because I need it. Doesn’t matter if it’s $100 or $10,000.

There are no shackles. If I want to work closely with another team on something new and prototypical, I walk over and say hi and start working on it. I don’t need anyone’s permission. The freedom and trust to go be awesome is worth more than those hundreds of thousands of dollars and those hours of unending sunshine.

The best thing is I get to pass it down the chain. If my team want to explore something new or engineer something in a certain way, I trust that they’re in it all for the same reasons I am. It might be off piste in terms of the usual way of doing things, but it gets explored and tried out, and it tends to pay dividends in terms of enthusiasm and morale. So we end up doing even more in our part to help make and deliver awesome things.

That means we have a great time in the office. It’s fun because there’s little red tape or politiking. We just work hard to engineer awesome things. I’m under pressure all the time — hell, we all are — but I look forward to going in to work every day, knowing I have the support, trust and freedom to help us make awesome things.

That’s the best way I have to describe our culture, and I guess the best way I have to explain why I work for Imagination, and it’s what the company is figuring out how to foster as we get bigger. We’ll highly likely succeed.

I can’t think of a better way to describe what defines what a company’s culture is, other than the valuable intangible things that can’t be measured, unspoken guidelines for how everyone works together towards the common goals. Good culture in that respect — in any respect, in life or otherwise — is that unwritten freedom to be awesome.