Avoiding the Culture Trap

Last week, I was sharing some thoughts with a colleague about building diverse teams. I figured I should spend some time trying to better articulate my ideas.

Throughout my engineering career, I've been part of hundreds of interviews ranging from software engineers to engineering managers and directors. One feedback that I often see from interviewers that I try to push folks away from is: "this candidate is a culture fit" or "this candidate is not a culture fit".  Let me explain why.

First of all, the term culture fit is overloaded. No one really knows what it means when an interviewer gives that feedback after an interview. Are they referring to team fit or company fit? Are they referring to a specific behavioural trait? Are they referring to someone's background? Are they referring to the programming languages that the candidate knows? Are they referring to a candidate's accent?

Culture can mean a lot of different things. When an interviewer uses culture fit as part of the candidate's interview feedback, it does not provide any meaningful signal to the hiring manager.

Second of all, if we want to build diverse teams (shouldn't we all?), then we should be looking for candidates that do not necessarily fit our current culture. We should not be looking for culture fits but rather for culture additions. More concretely, instead of asking yourself if the candidate is a good fit with our current culture, you should ask yourself if the candidate can add to our culture.

This is especially important as part of a company's DI&B efforts. If you have a team of graduates from Stanford, what does a culture fit look like in this scenario? Is it another graduate from Stanford or an Ivy League school? That's not necessarily great for diversity! A culture add would be someone from a different background and that brings a different professional outlook. A culture add is someone that can bring in a different point of view, represent more users, and level-up the team's overall culture.

Hiring for culture fit is another way of signaling that we have a fixed mindset as opposed to a growth mindset. Said another way, we prefer to prioritize our comfort zone and familiarity over challenging our beliefs by bringing in diverse people.

A team should be greater than the sum of its parts. I aim to hire based on a team's gaps: diversity, technical, seniority, etc. Every new hire should add to a team's culture and technical expertise. And with every addition, the team will be better for it.

Wissam Abirached

Wissam Abirached