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Why I love working at Chef

March 10, 2014

Chef LogoI started my job at Opscode Chef a little over a year ago, on March 4, 2013. I admit that job-wise, I have a short attention span. Usually by this point in a technology job, I’m getting antsy and bored, but not at Chef. I love working here and I routinely describe it as the best job I’ve ever had in IT, which probably shocks anyone who’s ever known me. On my one-year anniversary, I thought I’d take a little bit of time to unpack why I keep saying that.

It’s Not Magic

First of all, I am not going to write one of those clickbait articles that explains how Chef is a magical company where it’s all sunshine and unicorns, we sing Kumbaya at our company meetings, and hug each other all the time. (Ok, the last part is maybe slightly true.) I really hate pieces that have a heading like “five reasons why XYZ company is the best place on earth, OMG!”

While I do have a list of things that I think Chef is doing right, these are not revolutionary things. They are just common sense:

  • Having a culture of directness, candidness and honesty.
  • Playing the long game.
  • Being a company where trust is given, not earned.
  • Respecting and embracing the fact that employees have lives outside work.
  • Hiring for awesomeness.

A Culture of Directness, Candidness, and Honesty

I’m an avid reader of many books on management, and a number of writers, from ex-GE CEO Jack Welch to Patrick Lencioni, advocate that you struggle, every day, to establish and maintain a culture where employees can be candid & direct with one another. Directness doesn’t mean rudeness. It just means calling things as you see them and not hesitating to tell your co-workers when you feel like they’re not living up to their potential. Again, I don’t want to pretend this is magic. It’s incredibly hard to do, because traditional corporate culture — and our society, in fact — reinforces the opposite behavior: keep your head down, nod & smile, and you’ll get promoted. But when people aren’t direct & candid with one another, that’s when “politics” arise. “Politics” in the workplace really just means people are not being honest with one another.

We want this culture to extend to how we interact with our customers, too. Sometimes our customers aren’t expecting such a direct approach from us, and perhaps that’s due to their past dealings with traditional IT software vendors who spend more time buttering them up, taking them golfing, and then selling them some half-baked software on the basis of this “relationship”. But we’re direct with our customers because we care about them and want them to succeed not only with Chef, but as coded businesses. Sometimes you can’t get over a hump without calling shenanigans. I’m sure we’ve lost an account or two because of this, but I would rather continue this approach and have our customers know that we’ll never bullshit them.

Finally, it should be normal in the course of doing business to have confrontations as long as they are constructive & respectful. (Steve Jobs tantrum-throwing has no place in our organization.) Confrontation is painful & difficult, but that’s how the best ideas get surfaced.

Playing the Long Game

I hope that we never become a company where quarter-on-quarter sales growth matters more than our customers’ well-being. I fundamentally don’t believe that you have to grow forever in order to be “successful”, nor does any physical system in nature behave that way. (Even the public markets have to abide by the laws of thermodynamics, and maybe that’s why we have periodic recessions, but that’s for another blog post.)

Chef’s foundation as an open-source company play into this big-time. While we would love to take your money, if Open Source Chef Server meets your needs, by all means keep using it. We are not going to be That IT Software Company ™ whose reps call you every week and badger you into buying more licenses just because that rep has a quarterly quota to make. Rather, if we can demonstrate value for you & give you compelling reasons to buy, we trust that you will become our customer when you’re ready.

Trust is Given, Not Earned

Because we hire for awesomeness (it trumps all other requirements), Chef is a company where trust is given, not earned, as Elaine Wherry said in her great talk at Cultivate 2013. Yes, the soft underbelly to that philosophy is that as you grow, your company inevitably moves from being the former to the latter, but we’re over 100 people now and I hope we can maintain this cultural feature for a while yet.

I’ll give you a concrete example. As you might imagine, employees knew about the company name change and Series D round well in advance of the public announcement. Obviously, it was critical that this not leak anywhere. The senior leadership team trusted us (over a hundred people) enough to give us this information, expected us to behave as adults and keep our mouths shut, and that trust was not violated.

Respecting and Embracing Employees’ Lives Outside Work

When you think “startup”, you often picture The Social Network or scenes like it: twenty-something men (usually men) who have no other interests or passions besides hacking on code 18-20 hours a day. (I should mention that this culture doesn’t seem to have changed a hell of a lot since 2001, when the documentary Startup.com showed exactly the same kind of mindless insanity that just burns people out.)

We are not that kind of a company, period. Employees have families, kids, and a variety of other interests outside of work, and folks work reasonable hours. I can’t emphasize how much that matters. This is the least magical part of running a technology company. Creative people need time off to relax, and great technology isn’t built by driving a bunch of engineers into the ground.

Hiring for Awesomeness

Let’s confront the elephant in the room. IT has plenty of folks who are whip-smart but are assholes. We don’t want them.

Of course, there is a broad spectrum between “awesome” and “asshole”, and there are technical skills to be taken into account as well. But for an illustration of the type of person we look for, let me tell you a story involving our founder and CTO, Adam Jacob. Adam probably doesn’t even remember this, because it was such a fleeting moment, but here goes.

A group of us from Chef went to a series of conferences in Belgium, earlier this year. It was a windy day as we were walking back to our hotel, and just as we passed a restaurant with a sandwich board out front, a big gust of wind blew the sandwich board over. Most people would have just walked by — honestly, maybe even yours truly, as a grumpy New Yorker — but Adam stopped, picked up the sandwich board, and set it right. He didn’t have to do this. In fact, it was probably going to get blown over again in the next ten minutes. But just the fact that he’s a nice guy and does good things, even small things, for other people, is indicative of the type of person we want to have here at Chef.

Conclusion

This article is not a hiring pitch. It’s just my take on my job at one of what I consider to be a very progressive, innovative software company that’s making great products, and, I hope, developing meaningful relationships with our customers.

Obviously, though, I would be remiss without saying that if you think you’d be a great fit working here, please feel free to get in touch. I’m always up for having a phone call, coffee, lunch, beer (especially beer) to talk about Chef — the software or the company.