Dagger Co-Founder and Docker’s former VP of Engineering, Sam Alba, joins us for a retrospective on company culture and how early-stage teams should develop it as their companies evolve. As Dagger grows from a founding team of three to ten and so forth, Sam, Jason, and Eiso, share their views on building companies, leading by example, and the importance of embracing culture in a genuine way.
I realized at some point that the culture of the team and the company was the foundation of a company. And that was the most important thing to get right early on.
From 2000 to 2020 most of Silicon Valley said, "Oh, we have a good culture because we pay for lunch and we've got foosball tables." But culture is not that. Those are creature comforts. Culture is what you do and how you do it. So if you're going to have low expectations, and a very comfortable environment. That is your culture. But if you're going to have high expectations but you're going to treat each other with empathy, that ends up being your culture.
And it's not what's written on paper. It's what happens in the meetings or in the PRs, or who gets promoted or who gets highlighted as making a contribution. And this is hard work because it's not just once it's every day. It's every minute.
Leaders should apply to themselves before asking someone to do the same thing. They should first embrace their culture, demonstrate every day that this is an example of embracing their culture from what they do, and also spotting issues or anything they can address with individuals every week.
"If you want the pie to be coming out of the oven and to just sit down at dinner and eat it. We're not there just yet. But if you're okay baking the pie with us, we're looking for people like you to join." I lost some candidates because they wanted the pie to be ready to eat. But I got some amazing people to join, knowing that where we were going would be interesting and they would get to build it too.
Sometimes you can fetishize culture and it can become a weapon as well. Interestingly I've seen that happen, where people will say, "No, no, that's just not our way." But they won't fully understand it. Or maybe they don't want to live the values. But they want to use it as a weapon. And that's just as dangerous.
In my view, when it comes to culture, you obviously need people who are otherworldly at what they do. They're just highly impactful people. Somehow you've got to find the ones who are in that category, who genuinely live those values. Not parrot them, not ape them, not kind of, sort of, quasi-know that this is a social construct, that if I do this well, I can game the system. They should actually live them because there's a genuineness that needs to come through. If it isn’t genuine, everyone knows, and people will eye-roll it and look the other way.
Everyone should be included in discussions about the product, the roadmap, the company goals, and defining the culture. That's inclusion to me, it's including really literally everyone. Obviously, it has a limit, it cannot be done until a certain point, but I think inclusion can still be implemented even with a bigger company. It's just about communication. Well, not “just”, it’s actually a key aspect of the company.
Jason coined the term “highly initiated individuals” when talking about finding the right people for leadership positions - a theme that has been explored in a couple of episodes already.
A highly initiated individual is someone who spots a problem, shouts it out, and tries to solve it, even if it’s out of their scope. Their vocabulary is made up of “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out” and “I’ll try to solve this” and “I think we have a problem in this area so I’ll see what I can find out about it” and so on.
If there’s an egg rolling out of a table, a highly initiated individual will catch it before it hits the ground, and try to figure out who’s egg it is, and why this was happening. While a not-so-highly-initiated person might just watch the egg drop, crack open, and then ask whose egg it was.
Highly initiated individuals are a key component of company culture. Having a can-do attitude is an integral trait of every team member in a successful company, but even more so in the early days of a business. So watch out for this type of individual when putting together a team!
The founding employees, or the founding team, are your first ~ten employees, and they shape your company and culture from the early days. Sam brings this notion to the episode, talking about how the founders are not the only ones making important decisions that build a company. The founding employees play an influential role as well.
This mindset stresses the importance of finding the right talent for your company (see Highly Initiated Individuals). Even more so, making sure these individuals are deeply involved in discussions about the product, the roadmap, the company goals, and defining the culture.
Speaking of company culture often leads to a key factor of day-to-day work: Communication. Jason brings the concept of “net positive vs net negative interactions” as his way to participate in meetings, emails, reviews, conversations, and essentially every interaction, in a more intentional and goal-oriented way.
Here's Jason's take on this:
“Too many people are waiting for the meeting to be over or waiting to get through the email and just reply, but they're not looking at it as a way to make the company better. So every interaction, I think, I've tried to binary it. Every interaction I have with a company or a person or a meeting or whatever it should be and can be a net positive or net negative. There's no neutral, you've got to remove it from your lexicon. And so my job is to make it positive. And my job is to make it so that we're making the company better.”
[00:00:00] Eiso: Welcome to Developing Leadership, the podcast where, I Eiso Kant and my cohost Jason Warner share lessons on engineering leadership throughout the years. Today we have Sam Alba on the podcast.
[00:00:12] Sam was employee number one at Docker, where he grew an engineering team of five to 100. In 2018, he co-founded Dagger with the mission to help software teams develop powerful CICD pipelines that can run anywhere.
[00:00:24] Sam joined us to talk about building companies. So we focused our chat on the one thing you need to get right: Company culture. From identifying highly initiated individuals, to figuring out the right timing to put company cultura on paper. We share our views on the main pillars of culture and navigate it's growing pains, from the early stage and beyond.
[00:00:42] As always, this episode comes with accompanying show notes, featuring our favorite moments from the chat and a deep dive into today's topics. Find them at developingleadership.co or linked in the description.
[00:00:56] We have a very special guest with us today, Sam Alba, who was the first employee at Docker had been there for over eight years, from a five person engineering team, all the way to a 450 person engineering team. And actually ran the engineering org at various different sizes along the way. And today is the co-founder of a really exciting new startup called Dagger. And so Sam, I'll let you introduce a little bit what you're working on today and we can go from there.
[00:01:22] Sam: Yeah, of course, thank you, and just one small clarification, the total size of the company was 450. My, my team was at the peak about a hundred people at Docker. Small detail. On my side, so to answer the question I was, and thanks for inviting me, first of all. Yeah. After spending eight years at Docker I started Dagger Inc in late 2018. So I'm working with, Solomon Hikes and Andrea Luzzardi, and we are building a modern CICD framework. So we are helping teams to deploy their applications to the cloud and to various services.
[00:01:59] Eiso: So you and I had a chat a little bit ahead of this podcast, and one of the things that we thought could be a lot of fun to do today, and, I think the three of us will have a lot of fun in doing is to, to do a bit of a retrospective on the engineering culture at Docker, and some of the things that you've learned along the way. So maybe we go back to the very early days. What was it like in the early days? And how did you see it evolve over time?
[00:02:23] Sam: Yeah, sounds good, so a bit of history. So I joined Docker, that was called Dotcloud initially late 2010. I started to work from France and I arrived in California in February 2011. So back then when I joined, you know, it was just a small group of people, we were five total, including me. And we were just bootstrapping a platform as a service, something that was very similar to Heroku back then. And the main differentiator was that we were using containers. Back then nobody knew about containers. We thought that it was the future of computing, and it was really the, at the core of the the pass. But it was also allowing us to provide, a pass for any language and be agnostic to any framework. Back then Heroku was just for Rails applications.
[00:03:12] Yeah I was, I joined as a software engineer. My role was not particularly be a software engineer. It was, you know, building a company and a product. So I would say that all of us were feeling like it was our thing and we wanted to get it out and have, you know, grow the number of users and later customers. And so in March 2011 we closed the Series A, $10 million.
[00:03:39] Back then it was a pretty big Series A. It was a different time and we, we started to scale the team. And so we started to hire people, build a team, started to put around some, you know, organization, some process, just to organize everyone for still a small team, 10 people. And my job started to shift in 2011 because we, we needed a manager in the company. I didn't have a strong experience in management, I actually had none. And that was the first thing I started to contribute, outside of writing code, I mean, and developing the product, was to set up the team and organize how everyone was working together.
[00:04:26] And so I scaled up this team to about 30 people. Then we switched to Docker. We really quickly on that, on that transition, at some point we realized that the past was not really working well. The growth was kind of linear, you know, we didn't, we were not expecting the hockey stick that investors expect usually. And so we, we took the core of the platform, which was using containers and we, we developed an opensource product. Project, actually, I should say it was not really looking like a product back then. And we call that Docker and we released it out there.
[00:05:01] And it started to get a lot of, a lot of attraction, a lot of eyes and a lot more than what we were expecting, to be honest. And so, so we started to reorganize the company in 2013 around Docker. We renamed the company, we actually were looking for another CEO at that time. Solomon wanted to do something else, he wanted to spend more time focused on the product and less on managing the whole company.
[00:05:29] And along with all of those changes, a lot of things happen. We, we hired an SVP of Engineering that I was reporting to. At some point I took ownership of a smaller team. Then my team scaled back a few years later. So I, I basically took the core, the Docker core team from seven people, scaled it up to 60, something like that. Then my team scaled up to a hundred. While I was involved also in the enterprise product.
[00:05:58] And so along the way, I learned a lot of things. I was driving some, some acquisition, since that, you know, when you acquire a company, it can be two people or 15 people and you have to include them. To the rest of the organization, that was, you know, you mentioned the cultural aspect that that's definitely a lot of shaking for the culture of the team. Both actually on both sides on the side of the company getting acquired and on the side of our team.
[00:06:27] And, and honestly, the culture was never really a topic before that. Before we faced those problems. And that ended up being a problem, I would say, because it was hard to explain for people coming. When you hire someone, you can, you can explain the culture somehow, it's actually hard even when it's not defined and formalized. But when you acquire a company it's even harder to formalize that and they have their own culture also. I realized at some point that the culture of the team and the company was the foundation of a company. And that was the most important thing to get right early on.
[00:07:10] Eiso: So Sam, you say its the most important thing to get right early on, and I think Jason and I are shaking our heads in agreement here. It was also something you said wasn't really explicit, even until the point when you started acquiring companies, and I can imagine at that point, you already had quite a few engineers and quite a few people in the company. What happened? Why do you think it was never an explicit topic all the way until that moment? And how did the implicit culture look like at Docker? And how did it grow?
[00:07:37] Jason: I would love to add too, when did you, when did you start to feel something was wrong or something was different too? Because culture isn't one of those fuzzy ones. Right. And so how did you know?
[00:07:53] Sam: Yeah. So you know, a lot of things come to mind, but I would say. I will start with, with that actually. The point where when I started to realize that not defining the culture was a problem was even before we started to do some acquisitions, it was directly linked to the growth of the team of the company.
[00:08:12] So we tripled the size of the company in 2017. If I remember correctly, yeah. So, so you can imagine that in 12 months the company changes so much that if the culture is not, you know, is not designed to grow and expand. So the culture can change, right, but it's ideally if it can change from one point to another, like it's a vector, it's a direction that you want to take. It's not really a shift where at some point it could you don't recognize the company anymore.
[00:08:41] And so this is kind of what happened at some point, I, in 2017 actually, I think I took a week off at some point I don't remember why. When I came back from that week, I actually met someone from the sales team and he said, "oh, who are you? I'm new. I arrived last week. You know, who are you?" And so on. And so I didn't know who he was, you know? And so, and I think we reached at that point 120 people or 150 people. And at that point I realized that I had to change the way I was working, the way I was talking to people, and it was normal to not know everyone at that point.
[00:09:19] It was kind of weird to be honest. But I started to realize that the company was changing really quickly. So to answer the question, it was directly linked to the growth, and I think one of the mistakes we did at Docker was to grow too quickly, without paying attention to the foundation of the team, which goes down to the culture in my opinion. So what you, what you asked also Eiso was what the culture looked like in the early days, because you always have a culture, even if you don't don't pay attention to it. You, you have one. Right?
[00:09:49] And so, it was interesting in the early days when we were like around 10 people, I would say that everyone was feeling like you're the owner of the company. You know, every time you were seeing something wrong or you had an idea, you could jump on it and fix it and write something new, propose a new idea. So it was really, a culture of, you know, people would do things, instead of just raising a problem. We actually put that in the culture down the road. And, well, one problem of defining the culture too late is that you write something down that you believe is true, but you realize that it's not embraced by the majority of people internally. So we can talk about that later because that's also, I'm trying to do things differently today in a, at Dagger.
[00:10:33] Yeah, so the culture was really looking like, a lot of doers, people who will not thinking about their career, they were just, they wanted the product to succeed. They were ready to, to step out of their role. Actually, the roles were not really defined. People were jumping on things. And even though we had titles and things like that, you know, people were not limiting their job, their day to day job to the title. That's something that changed down the road, which is also normal for a company that grows. But I think the culture can also define and ensure that certain things are allowed.
[00:11:09] Cause sometimes, you know, in a bigger company you have certain people who see a problem, they mention it and they say, "well, I won't do anything about it. I will just mention it to the person who's supposed to do something about it." Because also, one part of the responsibility is on them. But another part of the responsibility is on the organization. You know, for not defining that it is allowed, and it is encouraged in some companies, to go out of your, of your job and and your title and your role.
[00:11:38] I think that that was really the culture in the early days that we lost along the way. Yeah. And then there are many things about, you know, it was, there are many things more about that culture, but that, I think that I would say that was the main thing.
[00:11:52] Jason: You hit upon a couple of different topics that I feel like we could do episodes on each one of these things. The one that I'll mention right away, in your culture, you have a culture, no matter what, you always do. And you said that. And I think what the difference is that, it's whether it's explicit or implicit. But you always end up with a culture.
[00:12:14] The other is there's a change that happens with growth. The zero to 10 phase, the 10 to 25 phase, the 25 to 75 phase, various stages that you go through will matter and how people will approach them. But the one I want to key in on here was one that I talk about all the time, having people inside a startup in the types that I encourage founders to look for, which are what I call highly initiated individuals.
[00:12:41] The example I will give is that if there is a, an egg sitting on a countertop and it's about to roll off two types of people. One will catch the egg, put it back on the counter and say, "Hey, who's egg is this?" And the other will let the egg completely hit the ground and say, "Hey, somebody's egg fell and broke." And you never want the second one in a startup. And particularly in the early days. Maybe there's places for those people to do the, "not my job, this is what I do" as you scale and grow. But if you're as successful as Microsoft, sure. But in the early-stage company, you want people who will always catch that egg from falling and breaking.
[00:13:19] Sam: I agree. I totally agree. And I think, also people not catching the egg, they think about possible consequences of catching an egg that you're not responsible for. Sometimes that's why someone says, "well, if the egg falls on the ground, at least it's not my fault." You know, I, some other people will think, "well, I should be very loud about that egg, about to fall off. And that will be actually much better than not saying anything." So I think the culture can actually address that as simple as a small text and explaining to people a lot of pedagogy.
[00:13:54] Also, explaining to people what they should do. And I agree with your term you used it's actually pretty nice. I'm taking notes for all the culture that we're working on. Highly initiative.
[00:14:05] Jason: Highly Initiated Individuals
[00:14:06] Sam: Innitiated, yep.
[00:14:07] Jason: And it goes back to as well, like when you said, like "you can tell people to do that." I definitely believe that, to end up with a culture that most people I think they will want is to be explicit, but they'll go, they'll take the stuff and they'll write stuff down, but the real culture is what you end up rewarding, highlighting, making visible, and correcting at some point too. So I've, I've often said, people like from 2000 to 2017, 18, 19, whenever 20, most of Silicon valley said, "oh, we have a good culture because we pay for lunch. We've got foosball tables. We have all that sort of stuff." But culture is not that. Those are creature comforts. Culture is what you do and how you do it. So if you're going to have low expectations, and a very comfortable environment. That is your culture. But you're going to have high expectations, a driven culture, but you're going to treat each other with empathy that ends up being your culture because of what happens is, is what you do and how you do it. And it's not, what's written on paper. It's what, what happens in the meetings or in the PRs, or who gets promoted or who gets highlighted as, as making a contribution in the emails. And this is the hard work because it's not just once it's every day. It's every minute.
[00:15:27] Sam: I agree. I agree. It's actually, we should find topics that we disagree on, so we can debate a bit. Eiso told me that actually.
[00:15:38] Yeah. We believe in the same thing and something I would add is, and I don't have the answer to be honest is how we can build a great culture in the company. So the first thing I think is if, if it's not done from the early days, I think it's very, very hard. Maybe even impossible to fix down the road. At least I tried to, to improve, you know, to fix the problem down the road. And it was, it was really, really hard, especially with the different management, both me even harder. But I would say that I don't have the total answer for, I don't have the recipe, the magic recipe to get it right this time.
[00:16:15] So there are a lot of things I don't, I do differently for sure, but I don't have, you know, I don't know if there is like a, a book that tells you, "oh yeah, this is, you know, this is the recipe to define a great culture." I don't think there is because, it's not just about writing the values and, and publishing them out there. It's also about the day-to-day, especially, especially with managers talking to their reports and what they say during their one-on-one. Can they lead by the example, which is something I strongly believe in, you know, leaders should, should apply to themselves before asking someone to do the same thing.
[00:16:53] And so leaders should be examples. And so they should first of all embrace this culture, demonstrate every day that this is an example of embracing this culture about what I do everyday and also spotting issues or anything that they can address with individuals every, every week. And so that that's very important.
[00:17:16] You know, at some point when my organization scaled up quickly and I was managing yeah, about a hundred people, I realized in my organization, cause I have two layers under me, I mean, not in every team, but in some teams that were more autonomous than others working on other time zones. At some point I realized that managers were not doing one on ones. I was like, oh, I thought it was basic enough, so we didn't have to talk about that. And so when there is a lack of communication between managers . And reports, how can you develop and protect the culture of the team? It's impossible.
[00:17:53] Jason: This is again, another topic, I think given my experiences at GitHub, talking about changing culture at scale is something that we can go into depth on too. But what I will say is, think of it as physics. Inertia. And it's easier if something has stopped, how much more energy do you have to put into it to get it started to get it going. And then once it's moving even a little bit, how much less energy do you have to push to keep it moving. But then you have to accelerate it. More energy is needed. It's simple physics, but it's physics that's required constantly.
[00:18:28] And there's, there's something else that I've, I've said too, a scale it's It's 10 times harder maybe a hundred times harder to do it at scale. Because it can't always be you, even though it almost always has to be you. You have to actually do it through other people. So you have to project out, you have to set expectations, hold people accountable, but then you have to train the trainers who train the trainers, who train the trainers, who do it. And it's unbelievably hard, unbelievably hard and tiring to do it. That's why one of the things again I recommend you spend so much time on this in the early days because of, how hard is it to do it at 10? Imagine how hard is to do it a hundred, imagine how hard it is to do a thousand.
[00:19:10] Sam: Yeah. Yeah. I agree. And, and also, I guess it's really hard to, you know, to empower people early employees to, to feel that they should protect that culture, and they should explain it to the new hires.
[00:19:25] Jason: We'll sometimes you can fetishize culture and it can become a weapon as well. Interestingly I've seen that happen as well, where people will say, "no, no, that's just not our way." but they won't fully understand it. Or maybe they don't want to live the values either, but they want to use it as a weapon. And that's just as dangerous. In my view here, when it comes to culture is what you really want is, again, going back to what we do and how we do it. You obviously need to be people who are other worldly at what they do. They're just highly impactful people. Somehow you've got to find the ones who are in that category, who genuinely live those values, not parrot them, not ape them, not kind of, sort of, quasi-know that this is a social construct, that if I do this well, I can game the system. They can actually live them because there's a, there's a genuineness that needs to come through, and if there isn't a genuineness. Everyone knows it's, it's just BS made up and people will, will, eye roll it and look the other way.
[00:20:24] Sam: That's interesting actually. Question for you at GitHub, then, something that comes to mind. How were you enforcing the culture somehow or at least explaining it during the interview process?
[00:20:36] Jason: I've talked about aspirational culture because GitHub had micro cultures all over the place. And in some organizations they should have micro-cultures too. Like sales is going to look very different than engineering to a degree, but the leaders and they should embody a certain set of non-negotiable cultural elements. But there's going to be like tribal rituals that differ between them. But what I talked about is the aspirational ones for everybody.
[00:20:58] And there's, there's a set of non-negotiables and those are the ones I always talked about. So GitHub had acceptable non-performance for years, it was fine, you could be at GitHub, you could not release software. You had to say, "listen, that's just not who we are. We're here to make a dent in the universe." Just like cliché Silicon Valley things. So, you know, we, we have to perform, we have to do our jobs well. But we're not going to do it in a way that burns people out. But you know, you basically talk it through that way.
[00:21:26] I was very open, and I said, "but we're not there yet. This is something that is a work in progress and will be on our side at GitHub for a while because it was also not tended to for a period of time. So we have some work to do to dig out of debt before we can actually get to this point."
[00:21:44] "So if, if you want the pie to be coming out of the oven and you can just sit down at dinner and eat it. We're not there just yet. But if you're okay, baking the pie with us, we're looking for people like you to join." And I lost some candidates because they wanted the pie to be ready to go to eat. But I also got some amazing people to join, knowing that where we were going was going to be interesting and they get to see it and build it too.
[00:22:05] Sam: Yeah.
[00:22:07] Eiso: So, let me follow up there, Jason, from, you know, sitting essentially at the top of the org, how many of the hires that you were making you were explicitly making within mind, "hey, I need this person so I can shape the culture. And how big of a factor was that for you?
[00:22:26] Jason: It was, it was very large. Several of the key decisions I made early on were which promotions I ratified and said yes to. Internal ones. And then what first three or four hires I made from the outside. So couple those two together, and you get basically what everyone's going to look and say, "what is, what's this dude all about? Who is he? What is he going to reward? Who's he going to bring in?"
[00:22:52] And so they were incredibly, incredibly important decisions. And I remember an internal promotion, there was this, this dialogue about it. And there was two and they were very, very different. One was this person, everybody loves this person. Everybody thinks of them as great. They're like a cultural whisperer, but they hadn't shipped anything, anything. And they, they didn't view their job as to ship any more because they were like, "no, no, no, I just help everyone organize. I'm an engineer, but I do this. I do that, but I don't ship anymore." Nope. We can't do that. No matter how much everyone loves you. We can't do that because that's would be perpetuating one.
[00:23:30] On the other side, we have the exact opposite. Which is that toxic asshole personality that we've always talked about, which is ships more code than you can possibly imagine. No one wants to work with them. So I had to go sit both of them down and explain why they weren't going to get it, and what they had to do to get it.
[00:23:44] But I had to talk to the managers too. Because we said "these people can't be put up for promotion anymore, we cannot keep perpetuating either one of these things as an acceptable outcome or acceptable path."
[00:23:56] And on the hiring side, the first hire was the most important. You had to bring somebody in from the outside. If you're going to put them in a position. They had to spike so highly, so clearly, so quickly, on those two things. They were excellent at what they did and they shipped, and they were great representations of what our aspirational culture was gonna be.
[00:24:15] Eiso: And so Sam, today, as you're building Dagger, what are some of the things that you're really looking for? And particularly around this, what does the genuine person look like that you're bringing on? And, I can imagine by now you have quite a bunch of ideas about how you want to shape the culture. And what are some of the things that today you you've already really maybe put down on paper or explicitly been communicating with the team and as you grow?
[00:24:39] Sam: Yeah. So the, the first thing we started to do was to talk about it. To talk about the culture. That's the very first thing you that's easy to do, but sometimes you don't, you don't do it like most companies don't talk about what should be the values, what do you believe in? What, what kind of people you want to work with? What, what are you doing every day that you think will help shape a great culture in the company?
[00:25:03] We started to put that, down in paper, but its not, actually, I started to write and think about the values and explaining the culture from my point of view. But then I didn't want to write this down and share it with everyone and say, "this is the culture. What do you think?" You know, looking for . Feedback, the kind of feedback can be, "well, you know, some minor edits, but yeah it looks good." That's the kind of feedback I do not want. So that's why I didn't share my thinking yet. We still talk about it regularly. But something I want to do at some point is have some brainstorming sessions with the team.
[00:25:41] I think it's still doable right now, cause we, we are eight employees total. So it's still, still doable as a group. I know that once we reach 10 people in the company, it won't be possible at some point. It will be harder and harder to do. And so I think this is, this is when this is the perfect time for us to address the problem. It was too early before, because for two years we were only three founders working together and prototyping things. So we were talking about it, you know, from time to time, but it was not like a major, major thing to address. Now it's a major thing to address. And I expect to have something formulated in some ways, you know, in the next few months.
[00:26:20] So something important. Also something we decided to do was to not grow as quickly as we did in the past. So, you know, we didn't raise a ton of money to hire a lot of people and have like a 50 people team. That 's what we want to avoid right now, because we think we can do more with a smaller group. Perfect timing to do it. Also we, we have time to get it right. To be honest, as I said before, I don't have the exact same, the perfect recipe to fix it, but at least talking about it. Thinking about it as a group, writing it down, iterating through it. Like a product, actually like a roadmap, like, you know, anything serious that needs to be done in the company is done through iterations.
[00:27:03] So I don't think we get it right from day one, but yeah, I think in the next, I would say six months max, we should get it down and the culture should be clear for everyone. I expect also to put that in January we write some objectives for the first quarter and I want to put the culture down there, and say, by the end of the quarter, we need to get the culture formalized and kind of released. I should be able to explain by the end of, of January. I should be able to ask someone, anyone in the company "what's the culture for you in the company, what it looks like?" And include that in the hiring, hiring process as well. Not just for me, but also for everyone interviewing any candidates, to have the culture in mind.
[00:27:41] The same way they will push the priorities of the . Company. We have three priorities that we talk about every week. Every single time, when someone is thinking about what thing they should be working on, they think about the priority, and they are thinking about "the thing that I'm doing right now, how is it linked to the priority of the company?" You know, I think the culture is the same. When you talk to someone, you can have them think about how they can embrace the culture of the company.
[00:28:11] And to be honest, in, in order to, to define the culture of the company and the team. I think it looks a lot like the early days of DotCloud. Cause it's, it's really what I enjoy the most. We were very efficient. It was a group of friends and, and I think a lot of great stuff comes out of it.
[00:28:28] One thing that we didn't have in the, in the culture, at least we, we didn't pay attention enough to that, was diversity and inclusion. I know it has a lot of hype today, so I don't want to, you know, a lot of people say, yeah, diversity and inclusion for sure. Or, you know. But I think it's, it's actually very, very, very, very hard to put in the center of, of your culture, because you always tend to, that's probably a topic for later, but you always tend to talk to people and reach out to people who look like you. And I would like to, that's one of the major things I would like to change in this new company.
[00:29:04] Jason: There's a trick that I use. I talk about explicitness versus implicitness quite a bit, and I think too many people passively consume information, all that sort of stuff and passively go about their lives. So a good example of this is when I'm interacting with Twitter, I'm looking at engagement, I'm actively scrolling Twitter. Who is this person? What are they, how do they think? Should I be recruiting them? Should I be indexing on them and thinking about them as a possible recruit later? You get what I'm saying? I'm actively thinking about this.
[00:29:33] One of the ways that I think about inside organizations is, too many people are waiting for the meeting to be over or waiting to get through the email and just reply, but they're not looking at it as like a way to make the company better. So every interaction, I think, I've tried to binary it. Every interaction I have with a company or a person or a meeting or whatever it should be a-. It can be a net positive or net negative. There's no neutral, you've gotta like remove it from your, your lexicon. And so my job is to make it positive. And my job is to make it so that we're making the company better.
[00:30:02] So you're being asked questions in the all hands, and you get a little hair on the back of your neck standing up because like, "Hey, we're having a cultural drift or we're having some expectation drift over here." Use it. Use it as a moment to like reset the expectations or, or restate something or reaffirm something, but like never let the moment pass and just assume that you need to get to your next meeting or whatever. Those are missed opportunities for leaders.
[00:30:23] Sam: I agree. It's actually great to spot those events. I would say, at Docker, I didn't, I didn't hear a lot of, "oh wait, we have a cultural drift!" You know, it's as, because the culture was not really. It was not that bad, I mean, I don't want to shape like a very negative, but it's just that it was not, not defined. At some point we realized that it was an issue. We wrote down values and we we're like, "okay, all right, check. It's fixed!" And it was actually not, you know?
[00:30:51] And so, so I think it was more about embracing people. To understand and share the same values and, and be able to spot them I think people need the tools also to spot those kinds of things. But I agree that when you reach the point where you, you are able to, to seize those opportunities, it's, it's actually great because you can, now you can protect and keep developing the culture as a group.
[00:31:13] Jason: To be fair to everyone, we all grow, we all change. And I imagine Docker was your first real at that size scale scope.
[00:31:21] Sam: Yes.
[00:31:21] Jason: A lot of times people are just trying to survive. You know, trying to survive the company, trying to survive the initial growth or scale or whatever it is. And it's only with experience. And like, I know it's not in Vogue in the industry to say that experience matters, but it's only really with experience that you can start applying these things in the moment. A lot of times you can apply these things in retrospect, or after the company has already done a thing. But you need that, and I think that is the real opportunity that you have, and I'm excited for you in that way, this time is because you've had that experience, you can see it.
[00:31:53] Yeah. You'll make all new mistakes, but you can start to understand and see how the mechanics of this are all going to work and you can actually navigate it.
[00:32:01] Eiso: So Sam, I know you haven't, you haven't shared a document internally yet. So I also want to be cautious, to not make sure that your team is listening to this and is hearing its cultural values on
[00:32:11] Sam: Still refining
[00:32:12] Eiso: But are there some non-negotiable core elements of the culture that you believe are likely going to be really pillars of what you're building at Dagger today? What are some of the things you already feel and see right now that you think were, are, are potentially there?
[00:32:26] Sam: Yeah, I can talk about the values that I think will help as a foundation of the culture. I think values are just the beginning, but it's, it's sometimes the easier way to start. So it's a good tool. In terms of values, well we talked about empowering people to do things, you know, to catch the egg rolling down instead of just saying out loud, "oh, the egg is falling and look I'm smarter than others, cause I said that the egg is falling."
[00:32:52] And so I think, I think having some, some incentive, empowering people to, to catch the egg, I think being doers, instead of just raising a problem. Raising a problem is important, you know, you also don't want to do the opposite and, and have someone who sees a problem and doesn't say anything because the person doesn't have a solution for it. You know, so, so at least it's a starting point, but it should be understood that it's not, it's not the end. People should contribute to a solution. That's very important, a culture of doers, that's one thing.
[00:33:25] Another one is, we always talk about honesty with, with each other. I think that's, that's very important. Honesty to me means it's important to give a feedback about the product, about a behavior, about anything. Talk openly about what you see, what you feel with, with people. It doesn't have to be as a group, it can be in one-on-one. But it's very important to get out of your role and your day to day and in the task that you're working on and go talk to people and be honest with them. Be honest also about the product, about, you know, what people say about your product. So honesty is very important.
[00:34:04] It means you're not hiding things because you are afraid that people may use those things against you. And It's not just transparency. Cause there are, there are certain things. And we were talking about that with Solomon the other day, transparency is up in the value of companies and it's almost impossible to, to be fully transparent for a company. So I think, honesty is a bit different than transparency. It's also about raising things based on your feelings and, and feeling secure to do so that's very important.
[00:34:35] Another aspect is inclusion. Inclusion is important because, it's not just about hiring from different places and that's actually diversity. And sometimes they are mixed together, but inclusion also means, you know, avoiding silos. You have someone in the company, in the team and working on the project that doesn't want to include everyone because they feel that it will be a waste of time to explain everything, blah, blah, blah.
[00:35:03] I think right now we are less than 10 people. We are effectively one team. We are not several teams. We're working on several things. You could, you could actually talk about team A team B cause we're working on thing A and thing B. But we are one team working on A and B together. And so, so everyone should be included in discussions about the product, about the roadmap, about the company goals, about defining the culture. That's inclusion to me, it's including really literally everyone.
[00:35:36] Obviously it has a limit, it cannot be done until a certain point, but I think inclusion can still be implemented even with a bigger, bigger company. It's just about communication. I mean, just, it's actually a key aspect of the company. But I think a company that is transparent enough with everything that's going on in, you know, different groups and communicating clearly across different time zones. We already have actually three time zones right now in the team for a small team, so it's good because it makes the communication more challenging, which means that we have to, to be good at communicating right away, which is important. And yeah, and, and, and a great communication, I think, ensure the inclusion, even when the company when the company and the team and all projects get bigger.
[00:36:24] Eiso: I can see you're being incredibly thoughtful about this, Sam, and to your point earlier, Jason, right, it's about being genuine. And I think so much of this being genuine in the early days comes down to the personalities of the people that you're bringing in.
[00:36:37] From the early team that you're shaping right now, how do you look for those personality core values? And like you said, it's not always just about values. At the same time, still try to live up to what you're mentioning, is to not have everybody be clones of each other. And, what have you been doing so far and what are some of the things that you think you should be doing soon?
[00:37:00] Sam: One, I'd like to formalize those things, as I mentioned, cause once you know, the culture can be explained and formalized, the good thing is you can use it easily in a, you know, in an interview process, for instance. You can actually share that with candidates and say, "Hey, what do you think? You know, does it, does it speaks to you? Do you think there are certain things we should change?
[00:37:20] Right now, the things I am talking about during interviews, until we get something more, formal around the culture and the values is I'm spending a lot of time talking about what it means to be a founding person in a company. So there are the founders, and I think the first 10 employees are part of a founding team, which was really my role at Docker. cloud initially. And I think this is key because the founders are usually, they drive the strategy, they, they explain the vision of the company. They, they are the first management team inside the company. But a lot of things need to be done by the team by employees. And I don't think that can be done when the team is even 20 people. I think it's harder, but the first 10 I think can, can help being an extension of the founders.
[00:38:12] So for instance, we spent, as I mentioned, we spent the first two years, just the three of us, with no employees just working together and looking for the right prototype, the right product, the right plan. We actually talked about what kind of people we should be bringing in, not just perfect people, you know, not just, just thinking, "oh yeah, we'll take, you know, we only hire engineers who have 20 years experience and they'll know what to do and they won't make mistakes."
[00:38:40] No, actually I wanted a team, and that's the kind of team we're building now, a team of some junior people, some senior people, some people from different backgrounds. A team that looks diverse from, from the first day. It's actually very, very hard to do, because usually when you start something and your project looks cool. Some people that you worked with in the past, who are in your direct network just reach out. And so it's just easy to hire them.
[00:39:07] And, and I think we, we wanted to work with people who we didn't work with in the past before and so that's why we started to, to hire the kind of people we started to hire and spending a lot of time talking about this, this founding team. Saying, "Hey, you, what kind of opportunity are you looking? You know, if you're just looking for a nice product to work on and that's it, and you know, you don't want to spend too too much time, too long on your, on your work. It's it may not be the right fit because, for me, a company at this size takes a lot of space in your life."
[00:39:40] It doesn't necessarily mean a lot of hours. Cause we also have kids. Something we talk about also is the work-life balance. This is very important, especially for, you know, avoiding any burn out and being able to do that for a long time, without, without problems. So that's very important. We're very, we respect a lot the personal time, but that said, you, you always think, if you like what you do, you always think about the products and the users, and especially when, when the project is open source and you have an active community, you get questions and people reach out even during weekends.
[00:40:17] And so, so yeah, it's, it's kind of blended in your personal life somehow and you should, you should be empowered to, to do things, make decisions, even outside of the, of the scope of your projects. This is what it is to be a founding employee. Yeah, we spend a lot of time talking about that.
[00:40:37] Eiso: I love that, Sam. I think the definition of a founding employee is, is one that we're going to also have to make sure it gets, it gets written up and shared, because I think you really put it in, in the best words that I've heard so far.
[00:40:49] I think this is a great place to, to end today. Is there something you still want to add Jason? I saw you want to speak up.
[00:40:54] Jason: No, I think it's an awesome conversation. Sam it's been amazing to have you on in topics of culture and basically company building. I think of culture is a word that we've given, this, but this is company building stuff. And I think too often culture is thought of as a soft word to use. And if we reshaped it and framed it as company building a lot more people would be open to the idea of being explicit about these sorts of things. And I just wish we would have more of these open conversations. But it was amazing to have you on and to talk about this, probably end up having you back on and talk more as Dagger grows. See how things are going, what other lessons you've learned and keep going from there.
[00:41:35] Sam: Sounds good. Thanks a lot for the opportunity to share that. And if also people want to reach out to me and talk about that in more details, I'm reachable, firstname.lastname@example.org, they can always go to dagger.io and get an access to the community that we are building. Right now it's private access, so they'll have to ask for it and we accept them, but soon it will be publicly accessible. Yeah. And thanks a lot for the opportunity, it was a great conversation. I really enjoyed it.
[00:42:02] Eiso: No, thank you Sam. I know we both really appreciate it, but I also think it's, it's really great to have, you know, an episode out there that we can point a lot of early stage founders and teams to, like this one, the words of caution, but also the words on, how important this is to do next, because like Jason said earlier, just making this explicit and making this a conversation and one that's constantly being brought up. So maybe naming a company building and not just culture will get more people into it. And can hopefully create a lot more great organizations like the one that you're building.
[00:42:34] So thank you so much.
[00:42:35] Sam: Thank you.