Testing Web Apps, Testing Culture

As software businesses, we constantly think about the quality of our products–but how often do we consider the quality of our culture? 

As a delivery engineer, I believe not just in quality assuring (QAing) our web applications, but also in QAing our cultures. My company’s stated mission is to prevent burnout and unleash human potential to build world-changing products. To do so, we can’t just be committed to our product and business; we must also invest in our culture and people. 

If we care about QAing our cultures, how do we test it? Just as we test software apps for possible regressions, how do we develop a litmus test for regressions in our ability to live our values in the way that we work? 

The COVID-19 Culture Test

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the ultimate litmus test of our cultures because it has revealed who we are and what we truly value. Company values have taken on new meaning in pandemic times. People have lost their jobs, their family members, their security, and their health. Companies can’t tout their values without living them in a way that makes a true impact.

The pandemic is changing our company cultures in obvious ways: not only has remote work proliferated, but our mental health has also been significantly impacted. It’s simply not okay to assume that our humans will produce or perform at the same level as two months ago. Just as moving fast and breaking things with our businesses won’t work in the same way, the same cultural practices that worked months ago won’t work with our humans today. 

Things will continue to change. Planning for post-pandemic cultural change is just as important as planning for post-pandemic business change. We need to play the long game, focusing on our humans and meeting their needs now, rather than placing our activities on hold and assuming a return to pre-pandemic norms.

Cultural change isn’t just about reactively adjusting to a remote versus in-person mode of work, but proactively creating structures for how to work together and stay connected despite what the world looks like. At its core, culture is connectivity: real people caring about one another and staying connected. Building this foundation will be important no matter what era we’re in and what circumstances we face. 

Like code, culture needs structure 

Creating structures that drive proactive response and positive change is crucial to testing our cultures in both pandemic and non-pandemic times. Businesses need healthy structures to create healthy cultures, and structure is built over time. In the past, I’ve worked in start-ups that grew so fast that unfiltered cultural practices like gossipping and indirect conflict often leaked into our “master branch.” These “bugs” broke down not only relationships, but also morale and productivity. It was as if we were adding feature after feature to a web app and never asked: Do these things work together? Almost no structures existed to hold us accountable. 

No matter how difficult it is to interrogate our current cultural practices, we need to see where our culture is today to identify what is working, what is not, and adjust accordingly to grow. 

Case study: ProdPerfect 

Since ProdPerfect was remote-first before this pandemic, creating a “regression testing suite” for our culture started with building a united voice. That’s why I founded Culture Club, a rotating group of members from across our company who meet monthly to create proactive systems to build a healthy cultural ecosystem. We published a Culture Manifesto, a living document to guide and shape our core identity and values. We collected feedback on potential “bugs” in our culture through a company-wide survey to identify areas of improvement in executing our core values. This data kept us accountable and allowed us to implement “hotfixes” to ensure buggy practices didn’t make it into the production environments of our lives.

Work in the age of COVID-19 has been the biggest “regression test” of our company’s culture to-date. It has been a call to responsibility for each one of us, requiring us to effectively adapt not only to full-time remote work, but full-time remote life. Even though ProdPerfect had systems in place to support remote operations, we’ve realized how much larger the call is today to strengthen the systems we have to support our humans. 

A few best practices 

Below, I have included a few practices our Culture Club has implemented this year. I am proud to say they have strengthened us and made us more aligned, connected, and productive humans. I encourage you to adopt them whenever relevant:

  1. Create a statement of identity. What makes your company your company? What is your core mission and value system? If you have one already, revisit it. Are they still aligned in this season?
  2. Gather data from your most relevant source: your people. Define core discussion topics of interest. Survey your people on how well your company is doing on executing them in the day-to-day. What is working? What is not? What could be improved?
  3. Create company-wide structures for people to connect and ask questions. Schedule a regular forum for people to raise their voices and discuss key updates and initiatives. We call them “Town Halls,” and use them for anything from Q&As to sharing exciting new projects that other teams are working on. 
  4. Use this time to have an impact on your existing processes and systems. Right now, everything is slow and down. Let your meetings run more organically. Schedule regular time to exchange feedback, new ideas and initiatives with your team.
  5. Create Slack channels to share memes and daily wins. Shout out to your teammates for the good work they do. We created a channel called the #daily-awesome to celebrate every little small win in work and life to share news of positivity amidst chaos and negativity.
  6. Share weekly highs and lows, and then celebrate with virtual happy hour! We have a weekly Friday check-in where people can share their roses and thorns for the week. Then, we get together on Jackbox.TV and drink beers together.
  7. Put time in a coworker’s calendar. Take time to learn others’ side of the business and share insights. We’ve added the Donut app to Slack which sets up bi-weekly meetings between colleagues to connect on anything, from work to life to culture. 
  8. Take a break! We’ve created a daily Harry Potter-themed Google hangout room (“the Leaky Cauldron”) to hop in to take a break from work and have water cooler conversations in the middle of the day. 
  9. Create and document best practices for remote-work and work-life balance. As we all know, work at home should not mean all time at home is time at work. Here’s ours.
In the end, culture is worth building  

This pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our world. To a certain degree, we are all feeling the same thing. Every one of us has the responsibility to ask: what structures can we put in place to support each other? More than ever, we have to fight to build structures for connection in a very disconnected world. If we do the hard work of building these structures today, we automatically support our business now and in the future. 

We are not there yet. Regression testing culture is difficult, if not for the simple fact that code is predictable; humans are not. Developing all of our cultures is a long-term project. It requires failure. It requires experimentation. And it requires unrelenting honesty and openness. But it is worth building.