Saturday 21 July 2018

Adrian Weckler: When your tech company's 'revolution' sounds cliched

‘Walk into any web-centric multinational or start-up around Dublin and you’ll probably see motivational slogans plastered, printed, floating or chalked on the edifices around you...’
‘Walk into any web-centric multinational or start-up around Dublin and you’ll probably see motivational slogans plastered, printed, floating or chalked on the edifices around you...’
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

What happens when your major Irish jobs announcement gets lost in a global story about your company being a cliche?

Ask global email marketing firm HubSpot. What should have been a triumphant week for them in Ireland turned into something different.

If you missed it, the Boston-based multinational announced last week an expansion of its Dublin base with an extra 320 jobs on the way here.

But all anyone was talking about was the highly unflattering expose of the firm written by veteran tech journalist Dan Lyons. Lyons, a former Newsweek journalist, was hired by the company in 2013 and spent a year at its Boston headquarters. He has now written a book about it called Disrupted.

His experience reads like a beginner's guide in how to cram every shallow cliche into a tech start-up. It ranges from cult-like employment terminology to foosball tables and 'candy walls'.

"Everyone works in vast, open spaces, crammed next to one another like seamstresses in Bangladeshi shirt factories," he wrote. "Only instead of being hunched over sewing machines, people are hunched over laptops. Nerf-gun battles rage, with people firing weapons from behind giant flat-panel monitors, ducking and rolling under desks. Teams go on outings to play trampoline dodgeball and race go-karts and play laser tag."

And there is much more, from dogs roaming HubSpot's hallways to "bros" meeting for communal push-up sessions. Everyone, he says, is told that they are part of a "revolution" and are "changing the world".

Lyons' experience may be towards the more exuberant end of start-up culture. And, for the record, I have found HubSpot's co-founder Brian Halligan to be a thoughtful, clear-headed person when I have interviewed him.

But much of what Lyons is relaying - particularly in the quasi-religious sermons that managers give workers - rings true for hundreds of tech companies located here.

Walk into any web-centric multinational or start-up around Dublin and you'll likely see motivational slogans plastered, printed, floating or chalked on the edifices around you.

Facebook, for example, has a series of giant posters hanging in the reception area of its Dublin office that say things like 'what would you do if you weren't afraid?' and 'proceed and be bold'.

Indigenous start-ups have become equally zealous on such sloganeering, with Powerpoint slide decks about corporate culture treated as holy artefacts. Mantras about 'missions' are repeatedly drilled into new recruits.

And then there are the names. It has become de rigeur to for many tech companies to add an 's', 'ers' or similar suffix to their trading name to describe the collective of people who work for them. This mean that you're a HubSpotter, a Googler or a Whateverer.

(At the opening of Yahoo's Dublin office, I asked Taoiseach Enda Kenny about what he thought of being surrounded by so many Yahoos, which is that company's authorised employee denominator. He refrained from making the obvious joke after tentatively looking at the wide-eyed, eager company executives around him.)

For many young staff, all of this becomes gospel, an identity that is embraced like a religious affiliation. At Google, a number of recruits walk around with corporate badges, pins and T-shirts. I once asked one of these younger staff members whether all of the corporate metal pins he was wearing was weighing his T-shirt down. "No," came the straight-faced response. "I like these. They're part of who I am."

Is this real passion, manipulation or something in between? How inseparable is it with the positive side of start-ups - encouraging productive risk, enterprise and wealth creation?

I recently asked Eoghan McCabe, co-founder of Intercom, about this. Intercom is one of the most successful Irish tech companies in some time. Last week, it closed a €44m funding round (bringing its total to €102m). It is about to go on another hiring spree, with a doubling of its workforce to 500.

On the surface, it has a few of the usual tech affectations: minor motivational decorations, branded fleeces and the word 'Intercomrades' for staff members. On the other hand, it is a genuinely respected company with a serious product that is highly sought after.

"All companies have rituals and traits," he told me. "Some are conventional, some aren't. You can totally criticise it, you can poke holes in it. But these rituals are the things that bind people together. They help maintain solidarity between thick and thin. Frankly, they also make it a little bit more fun."

McCabe says that some of the top-down cultural commands in the tech world amounts to "bullshit". But some of it is genuinely uncynical, he says.

Perhaps the moral of the HubSpot story is as a message of things to come for the rest of us. The HR techniques of tech companies usually spread to other industrial sectors. So don't be surprised if logo'd T-shirts and 'company culture' placards start landing at an office near you soon.

Sunday Indo Business

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