Water Cooler Culture

A while ago, I got to visit a software company experiencing post-startup phase. The moment in which the business is no longer small enough for everybody to know each other, yet it’s still too small to have the usual inclinations towards corporate mindset. This time is very special, as it defines and clarifies it’s culture for the next period of time.

There are places where you can spot culture at a glance, in an unusual way.

At one point, I went to their social space, just to grab a glass of water. It turned out to be a bit more complicated than I expected. The water cooler, one of the tall ones, was standing on top of a cupboard. As I struggled to figure out how much water I’ve put in, the inevitable happened. I overfilled it, spilling water all around, including the stool standing by.

Intrigued and irritated, I started asking around. Why would anyone put the thing that high? The answer was kind of a surprise.

They had a small, compact water cooler, standing on the top of the cupboard. One day, in whatever way, it met it’s destiny and left this vale of tears to the heaven (or hell) of recycling center. Clearly, it had to be replaced – fast. It’s hard (and quite often illegal) to run a business without providing drinkable water to the employees. Urged by pressure on short lead time – that is, people making Saharan remarks – they bought and installed the first one they could lay their hands on.

Sadly, it was almost thrice the height of its predecessor.

Now, as it was about to be installed, it turned out that the water pipe is short. Replacing it would take several precious hours, filled with everything but water. The water cooler was then installed exactly where the old one was. That is, on top of a cupboard.

Which is where it remains to this day. And it actually works! Well, when I say “works”…

Almost nobody can see how much water they get, until they keep iterating and estimating the amount necessary, requiring extra works. On top of that, some people can’t even reach the dispenser buttons. A workaround was applied to this – a stool for people to stand on.

Just think of a culture that could do that. Imagine they create some software solution.

It works for a few years, until the moment some parts of it become outdated and market pushes for replacement. The new solution is much more complex, which leaves you with two options. You can either refactor the old part (extending time to market), or just build it on top of the old one. Being market-driven, you do the latter one. Soon enough, you notice that new parts are somewhat hard to use, as old architecture is unfit for them. Which is when you simply apply a workaround and leave it the way it is. For months.

Or years.

People keep complaining about more structured and aligned approaches to development process, company structure, business as a whole, favoring dynamic and straight to the point startup mindset. They prefer just adopting as they go, so that they never overdo it, never create waste, deliver only what’s necessary and mercilessly following market requests. And this thinking gets them to having their tall water cooler installed one meter above the floor, with stool nearby.

Really, think of your growth before you grow.

As soon as you get your idea validated by market, prepare it to scale with new features, new possibilities, and robust performance. You might have to heavily redesign it, or even throw everything away. What do you think happens to all the prototypes you see on crowdfunding campaigns?

The later you make the decision, the more expensive and time consuming it will be.

Opinions are my own and not the views of my employers, customers, or clients.

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