The SIMLab you didn’t see
7 minute read
Now that SIMLab is closing, I’ve started trying to find a new home. I always have a host of questions when walking into an interview, but there’s always one I save for last. To me, it’s the most important thing to ask.
So…tell me about the work culture.
When I ask this, almost every group I’ve ever interviewed with typically brings up things like benefits and work-life balance. They might say something about how the team treats each other, but more often than not, I hear obligatory buzz words like ‘respectful’ and ‘inclusive.’ Both of those are super important, but really, shouldn’t this be something I can take for granted? And then there’s the dreaded “we have a ping pong table,” at which point I have to pray it’s a phone interview, because it’s literally impossible for me to not roll my eyes. (I’m not knocking ping pong. I happen to be a beer pong champion. But I can’t tell you how many of the places that have space for ping pong tables don’t seem to have space for new mothers to pump, and I can’t see how that’s fostering an inclusive environment).
Closing SIMLab is truly a loss, for a lot of reasons. But one of the reasons most personal for me, and I imagine for those lucky enough to have worked on the inside, is that closing SIMLab means shuttering a company culture that’s incredibly rare. It’s the only time I’ve ever experienced it in the decade I’ve been doing this work, and I wonder and worry if it’s something I’ll find again.
So what is workplace culture, and how did SIMLab manage to nail it?
Culture is our organization’s character.
It’s how everyone in our organization does things - how we make decisions, how we treat each other, how we are driven. It’s an overarching integrity that’s reflected in everything we do. Culture is what everyone does when no one’s looking - not of guilt or obligation, but from desire and a dedication to shared purpose. SIMLab is special. Our culture is remarkably principled, marked by unparalleled talent and intelligence, and a level of drive that shines in the face of adversity. And we have, without a doubt, the most hilarious team I’ve ever encountered.
Culture is at least as important as your business strategy, company objectives, or compensation package. Not that all of these aren’t critical to success - something the SIMLab team knows all too well. But I’ve watched organizations execute on all of these brilliantly well while failing to build a great culture, and these organizations struggled in key areas where SIMLab flourished: attracting talent, driving engagement, and keeping a happier, more successful staff - one that sticks around when things get really tough.
Most organizations are starting to get wise to the reality that our fundamental assumptions about how, where, and when work is getting done have shifted. Workforce demographics have changed. The millennial workforce is thinking deeply about the meaning of work, and it’s having an impact on other generations. Salary/title/brand are less important than they used to be. The new imperative is meaning and purpose. What they do and how that manifests in the world matters.
There are a lot of things that affect culture, but there are a handful of things that SIMLab did especially well.
Work Environment. SIMLab is extremely open and collaborative. Everyone’s opinion is important, always, and there have been only a handful of occasions when the full team wasn’t consulted. The team works supportively, and when decisions are made, it’s done with total transparency. But beyond this, the team is just the most ridiculously fun group of people to work with I could ever imagine - and I work from a home office more than halfway across the country. I have never, ever, laughed as hard as I did this last year, and when you work as hard as this team does, that matters. The team could somehow manage to make tough decisions and send cat surfing gifs via Slack in the space of a minute and a half, because they take the work seriously, but never themselves.
Policies and Philosophies. SIMLab makes it clear that, while we take pride in our company and our work, we care about our team as people first, and that means that we not only value their lives outside of work, but we trust them. We offer unlimited sick leave and allow the team to take medical appointments at any time during work hours, because it’s a pain in the ass to schedule off-hours appointments, and because they would never abuse the policy. We allow the team to work from home and remotely as needed, because we believe our team will work more effectively when they have a voice in defining their work schedule. We make sure they know that, above all, they are valued as people much more than employees, and that we believe in them. The team works hard - much harder than any team I’ve ever seen - but it never feels like an obligation. I really believe everyone pushes so hard because they feel valued and needed. And they are.
People and Principles. Long before I came to SIMLab, the team worked hard to build principles and a body of work worth being very proud of, and a reputation the team was keen to protect. When you join something like that, it’s hard for anyone not to feel a part of something important, and it’s easy to work hard to continue that success. We’ve done incredible work in the last few years, and the team knows and believes in it. SIMLab does an excellent job of hiring brilliant, talented people that have integrity, and are driven by meaning and purpose.
Leadership. This is, to me, the most important, because without it there simply cannot be strong culture. The way your leaders communicate and interact with employees, what they celebrate and recognize, how they make decisions, they extent to which they trust their teams, and their general attitude and beliefs, are the core of culture. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of very capable leaders over the last decade - but none have come anywhere close to Laura, our CEO, who manages to combine strategic vision with authentic love for her team - something everyone felt. It makes every single person want to fight, hard, despite the odds. There is no better feeling than to go to a job where you believe that you personally make a difference, and Laura gave this to her team.
The SIMLab team is the hardest working, smartest, most wonderful group of people I could ever have dreamed of working with. We’ve been in an unfortunate position of paying brutally low salaries in one of the highest cost of living cities in the US, and unable to augment them in the several years of our existence. Over the last year, we had begun to evaluate whether we would be able to stay open - whether we had a sustainable business model - and all of this was no secret to the staff. Through all of this, and long after we had to delay and ultimately stop paying salaries, the staff kept showing up, day after day, producing the same exemplary work, and behaving with the same integrity and - amazingly - humor, as they always had. This is something that can’t be achieved with money or even mission, but only with culture. I’m forever grateful for the small period of time I got to be a part of it.
SIMLab is closing in early 2018. We’re behind on staff salaries, and some bills. If you liked what we did, or ever used our resources, please donate to help us close as gracefully as possible. Hire our team! And keep working with us until we close - we’re still consulting! Get in touch and find out how we can help make technology part of what you do.