For any company, sliding from “innovative” to “mediocre” is a concern. This descent can be easy when cost becomes the primary focus.
While it is important to pay attention to the bottom line, it can also jeopardize so much more: like employee turnover, money, and even the company’s brand.
On an episode of IT Visionaries, we were fortunate enough to have Arvind KC – Chief Information Officer of Palantir – share his thoughts on fighting mediocrity, ensuring quality culture, and what it means to ‘taste the soup’.
Fostering Culture in IT
Culture is essential in any growing organization. Without it, employees will look elsewhere, and talent will be a challenge for any company’s hiring efforts. Especially when it comes to IT and the technology you’re providing – culture is of the utmost importance. KC mentions that technology has to be high quality no matter what.
“I strongly believe that most CIOs think about IT only in the lens of productivity and security. There’s a third dimension to it. If you think about a day in the life of any employee, almost everything that they do is through some aspect of technology. Technology is the interface for them to do work. And the moment you keep technology mediocre, then you’re sending a message that mediocrity is fine. The moment you keep technology as opaque, then you’re sending a message that transparency is not valued. If you keep it as anything less than world class, then you’re saying that we don’t value excellence over here. So IT has got this very frontal role in ensuring that through the experience of technology, the culture that is fostered in the company is what we want it to be.”
During KC’s time at Facebook, he learned a lot about quality and being connected to the mission of the company. KC shared with us the three things that Palantir does to make sure that their quality of work is always of the highest standard.
“At Palantir, we do three things to keep this top and center. The first is you got to be very deliberate in your hiring. The moment you are going to hire for quantity – by default – you’re compromising quality. We’re super thoughtful about who we hire, and why we hire. And we like small teams that have a significant impact, as opposed to like large armies of people. One of the things I often bring up in interviews is asking people for examples where they’ve had an enormous impact or success because that gives me a view into what excellence means for them.”
“The second thing we do is compare ourselves to we were the year before in addition to comparing ourselves to external data points. If we distinguish ourselves as an IT organization – how many blog posts are we writing, and how many are of really high quality? How many projects are we doing that can be open source and are open source? And how many people are following that repository, or using that code, or checking in? Those are all external metrics we use for building a reference arc.”
“The third thing we do is embrace self-reflection. We often pause and say ‘Where are we? What are we doing? Well, what are we not doing?’ As a real simple example, recently, we felt that –in the pursuit of crushing technical debt – we lost a little bit of sight of helping customers in some areas. And now we are re-focusing on putting the customer first. So, this combination of: hire for excellence, set a multiple reference arc, and reflection has helped us fight mediocrity.”
Tasting the Soup
This is a phrase KC heard from one of Palantir’s leaders, Shyam Sankar. KC promotes the idea of good leadership being the ability to do deep dives and have a firsthand experience of either what your customers are having with your product, and how your employees are experiencing their work.
“Tasting the soup is a phrase used by one of our leaders, Shyam Sankar. And the idea is that to be a good leader, you need to have the ability to go deep. Every once in a while, taste the soup so the experience that you have is firsthand. There are a couple of aspects of leadership: The one aspect of leadership that’s talked a lot about it is we need to enable people who are in the trenches and ensure that they are successful. Tasting the soup embodies the idea that says: we need to be in the trenches. That’s like very much relevant to our DNA at Palantir. That is what causes us to learn from first principles – and it’s the firsthand experience we pull from when we make changes.”
You can check out the full episodes and show notes from KC’s interview right here.