• Jonathan Cornelissen

DataCamp's culture

As a co-founder of DataCamp and its CEO for 6 years, a large part of my responsibility was to create and foster a healthy culture. The goal of this post is to help everyone understand the culture we strived to create at DataCamp. This post is far from exhaustive but I hope it can serve as a starting point for the current leadership to build on, while I'm currently on leave of absence.

 

While DataCamp’s culture aims to be inclusive, that certainly does not mean the culture is for everyone. You have to work in a culture that suits you. That’s fundamental to your happiness and your effectiveness. Even if our culture has not worked for everyone, it has worked very well for the vast majority of employees.

 

This post covers 3 fundamental aspects of DataCamp’s culture: (i) Transparency and truth, (ii) Fact and data driven decision making (iii) Embracing diversity of thought. While all three are core to DataCamp’s culture, most time is spent on the first one in this post.

 

The following references have influenced this post to varying degrees: (1) Principles (2) Powerful (3) Radical Candor (4) Netflix deck (5) Diversity at Etsy (6) Culture map.

 

Transparency and truth

Understanding what is true is essential for success, and being transparent about everything, including mistakes and weaknesses, helps create the understanding that leads to improvements.

 

Some specific examples of where DataCamp has done this well in the past:

  • Weekly leadership agenda and discussion topics are available to all employees. In the first two weeks of 2019, ~60% of employees had a look at that document.

  • In all-hands presentations, all financial metrics are shared and OKRs communicate both what’s going well and what’s not going well.

  • DataCamp’s main dashboard and knowledge base are a very valuable source of information with reports on a wide range of topics.

Examples of areas where DataCamp could improve its commitment to transparency:

  • With the exception of sensitive and confidential discussions, you want slack communication to happen as much as possible in public channels. As such, it makes document, questions, etc. visible and searchable to the entire company. However, consistently about 84% of slack communication has been in direct messages, which indicates that lots of non-confidential information is not available to the rest of the company. This is a huge loss for the company as a whole and extremely inefficient use of slack as a communication vehicle.

  • Salaries are currently not transparent at DataCamp. If I (ever) start another company, I would make all salaries transparent from day 1. Once salaries are not transparent, it’s tricky to change that situation and it could create real problems if not executed carefully.

To avoid misinterpretation: when referring to transparency, the goal is to convey that information should be findable or attainable with a reasonable amount of effort. This does not mean that there should be proactive communication about everything. Too much proactive communication is distracting for the team and reduces the actual information intake. As a consequence, employees may have to put in some effort to get certain information.

 

Finally, there are a few areas where DataCamp has not been transparent deliberately:

  • Equity grants are not transparent.

  • Incidents reported to HR are typically not transparently handled to protect the privacy and rights of the people involved. Furthermore, the company has to ensure that people feel comfortable coming forward with concerns and privacy can be an important element. That said, having clarity, trust and transparency in the process used by HR or the external partner is of vital importance.

 

Being transparent and truthful is hardest when it comes to people.

Nevertheless, this is what we have strived for:

  • Speak up and own it. Openness is a responsibility; you not only have the privilege to speak up and “fight for right” but are obliged to do so. This is particularly important when you disagree with things or believe major mistakes are being made. There’s an obligation to dissent in those scenarios.

  • Be extremely open. Discuss your issues until you are in sync with each other or until you understand each other’s positions and can determine what should be done.

  • Never say anything about someone that you wouldn’t say to them directly and don’t try people without accusing them to their faces. Do not bad-mouth people behind their backs. It is counterproductive and shows a serious lack of integrity, it doesn’t yield any beneficial change, and it subverts both the person being bad-mouthed and the environment as a whole. Next to being dishonest, it is the worst thing you can do.

  • Don’t let loyalty to people stand in the way of truth and the well-being. In some companies, employees hide their employer’s mistakes, and employers do the same in return. This is unhealthy and stands in the way of improvement because it prevents people from bringing their mistakes and weaknesses to the surface, encourages deception, and eliminates subordinates’ right of appeal.

It’s human nature that the above does not happen 100% of the time and everyone should strive to do better on this front and keep each other accountable.

 

Examples on how to integrate in the recruiting process:

  • Assessing people’s history on openness and badmouthing When asking about people’s background—apart from asking about positive experiences, also subtly ask for things/people they didn’t enjoy/liked/.. then ask them how they dealt with those situations. What you’re really assessing is to what extent they openly and constructively addressed problems. If they didn’t openly or constructively address problems, you should assess to what extent they are self-aware of their behavior. Another way to get to this is asking people if they ever received “unfair” feedback or criticism and how they dealt with it. This will help you understand how they handle unfair feedback and if they take it up with the respective person or with somebody else.

  • For managers, ask about how they dealt with people who underperformed at some point, and how they dealt with these situations. Specifically, zoom in on people that they worked with for a while. Test self-awareness if you smell a situation where loyalty may have stood in the way of taking action or accepting the truth.

Fact and data driven decision making

DataCamp’s mission is to help companies and individuals to get more data fluent. This is exciting and has a positive influence on the world because it enables everyone to make better decisions. Repeat: Data and facts enable everyone to make better decisions. While this may seem obvious, as companies grow, subjective opinions, power dynamics, politics etc. gain more influence and at the same time the awareness about basics truths starts to decrease.

This is a threat to the company’s health and should be taken seriously. DataCamp can continue to invest in initiatives that will help it stay on the right path:

  • Investments in its data infrastructure and a commitment to make our data as accessible as possible to all employees

  • Require data fluency training for all teams

  • Continue to create accurate dashboards available to everyone with key information on every aspect of our business. It’s empowering if every department can easily create dashboards that are automatically visible to the entire organization.

  • Managers adopt the credo “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, we’ll use mine”. The point being: “bring data”, not: “let’s have a top-down decision making structure”.

Examples of what not to do:

  • Not use benchmark data to set the sales targets

  • Not being data driven about the recruiting process

  • Not collecting a lot of information on performance of people, skills, etc.

  • Launching product features without clear success metrics

 

Examples of how to integrate in the recruiting process:

  • Does the candidate use data/facts when answering general questions? (Note: most won’t. In that case: When prompted, can the candidate share basic data/facts to strengthen his/her points?)

  • Can the candidate reason with data? Can they do back-of-the-envelope calculations?

  • Integrate more tests into the recruiting process that increase objective comparability between candidates (standardized case-studies, coding tests, … ). Use the same methodology for internal candidates.

Embracing diversity of thought

Diverse teams are stronger, and inclusive cultures are more resilient. When you seek out different perspectives, you make better decisions and build better content and products.

 

DataCamp strives to create a work environment where everyone is required to challenge ideas and peers directly in an honest, direct, and truthful communication style. For this to work, the messenger needs to care personally & managers need to create an environment of trust.

 

To be specific:

  • The right to offend by challenging ideas and opinions is far more important than the right to not be offended.

  • The benefits of political correctness do not outweigh its cost on critical debate.

  • One should be able to distinguish the message from the messenger; one should not take criticism personally in the pursuit of a better product/process/outcome.

In summary, the freedom to criticize ideas is integral to continued success and growth. This has a cost that we chose to incur.

 

Examples of areas where DataCamp is doing relatively well:

  • Implemented training programs for the whole team to create awareness around differences between people: unconscious bias, cultural awareness, respect in the workplace, …

  • Cultural diversity: - Early 2019, DataCamp’s team was comprised of 23 different nationalities who speak over 19 different languages. - DataCamp has an exchange program that supports people to move between offices for a year. - DataCamp sponsors visas for candidates who want to relocate (depending on the role).

  • Gender diversity: - More than 40% of new hires since the start of 2018 identified as women or non-binary. - Early 2019, there were four incredible women on the leadership team.

Examples of where DataCamp can improve:

  • Not measuring and reporting well on the diversity of our recruiting pipeline.

  • In the US office, multiple employees flagged their discomfort in discussing their opinions on anything that’s somewhat politically charged due to risk of being demonized. This is particularly an issue for the US office. DataCamp can do a better job of ensuring that people are hired who are open and respectful to everyone’s opinion. Otherwise, the company will inevitably become an ideological echo chamber.

 

Final thoughts

Putting pen to paper on (a desired) company culture is hard, which is why I postponed it a long time (a mistake in hindsight). No culture description will ever fully grasp all the nuances but the sooner you start to put things in writing as an entrepreneur the better.

 

This post discussed 3 core aspects of DataCamp’s culture, but there’s more.. and I hope DataCamp's current leadership team communicates more about the culture in the future, as I do think DataCamp’s culture is both healthy and unique.

 

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