On Building Company Culture

Thoughts on how early company culture shapes the future of it.

October 26, 2021 | Frederic Branczyk

Two weeks ago we announced our seed investment, our open positions and with it, our working at Polar Signals page. We put a lot of thought into our culture at Polar Signals, so we were ecstatic when it was so well received on Twitter. There were lots of thoughts, comments, and suggestions and we would like to take this blog post to try and explain some of our thoughts that went into our culture.

We will try to address a few themes of conversations that there was a lot of engagement around. Before diving into it, a general statement: our culture has and always will continue to evolve as we conduct experiments, learn and maybe change our minds about aspects of it. Even throughout the relatively short lifetime of Polar Signals it has already evolved and changed several times.

Take this blog post as a snapshot at the time of writing, at the time you may read this the company culture may have already changed, as we continue to incorporate feedback and evolve.

Scaling culture

One of the most active threads was about scaling our culture, in particular, our current rule of one day a week of meetings is one that caught a lot of attention. Aside from the somewhat typical answer of the "Startups should do things that don't scale" mantra, we had some further thoughts.

One of the things we defined early on in our culture handbook was that we wanted Polar Signals to create an environment where creativity has plenty of space to thrive and have any one individual have the freedom to live out what that means to them. We felt that a lot of continuous, uninterrupted time for engineers was the key to achieving this. This is where the current rule originates.

The thought that this will not scale forever has not escaped us, the point of having this rule right now is that 1) at our current size we can do this, and it is allowing us to be incredibly productive and 2) scaling it with the identical execution is not the point, the point is that it is supposed to shape a culture where uninterrupted, concentrated and creative time is a respected principle of the company, and even if one day a week meetings won’t exist anymore, then hopefully at least that people are mindful about each other’s time or implement it at a team level, or something we haven’t even thought of yet.

It is not about whether it scales, it is about creating the culture early so early employees scale the culture as the company scales.

Remote & Document driven

Polar Signals was founded during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving little choice but to implement a remote culture, to begin with, but it is what we would choose regardless. We believe it is a great equalizer, just like the internet has become an equalizer in terms of knowledge and education. Remote work does bring challenges with it though, especially when combined with being geographically distributed. Asynchronous communication is key, and we have developed a strong document-driven culture, where any major undertaking at Polar Signals starts with a Request For Comment (RFC). An RFC is a Google Doc that describes the goals, non-goals, description and alternatives of an undertaking.

RFCs can, but do not have to be technical. For example, our mission statement and culture handbook are RFCs, but so are our monorepo code organization, various continuous profiling experiments such as the eBPF profiler, and storage explorations and designs. We have a motto of "when in doubt, write it out". It often happens that we begin an RFC and as we start writing our thoughts start to crystallize and it becomes a 1-2 page document, without much decisions needed as the answer becomes apparent.

This combined with a high trust environment and an understanding that we all try our best and decisions can change as we gather new experiences, allows us to move quickly in this setting.

Globally equal, open salaries

Let’s first define what we mean by this. It means that every employee has access to our compensation framework table, and can compare the salary and equity that they should be receiving at their respective level. We allow some flexibility where base salary and equity can be traded of (e.g. higher base salary means lower equity; lower base salary means higher equity). The possibilities to trade-off are also documented to further ensure equality. One more defining factor, we specify the dollar amount in this compensation table primarily to make budget planning a little easier.

Being a fully remote company we believe that everyone should have the freedom to geographically live wherever they want. We do try to limit the time zones to a span that we feel comfortable with, there is no strict definition. While not identical in execution we were inspired by Oxide Computer’s Compensation as a reflection of values. We felt our values had to mean globally equal salaries. It does mean that because we treat everyone equally we pay, what we think, very competitive salaries in most of the world, except major metropolitan areas in the US like San Francisco and New York City. An adjustment to Oxide’s model that we made was that we did introduce levels early on since we wanted to hire people on various stages of their careers and experience. As Camille Fournier elaborates in her book The Manager’s Path (highly recommended read) each organization needs to find out what is right for their situation, size, and circumstances for their career ladder and associated compensation framework.

A side note on why we do not publish salaries publicly on our website. First, we do not want to decide on behalf of our employees to publish their salaries, they are free to talk about their salary, but we do not feel it is our place to make that decision for them. Second, at the size and stage of our company, it is no surprise that salaries make up a good portion of our spending. Because of this relationship publishing them would be disclosing a significant portion of our company financials publicly. Anyone who applies for a job at Polar Signals will receive the compensation framework latest after the first phone screen.

Unlimited sick leave and 25 days of PTO

Let’s start by differentiating sick leave and paid time off (PTO). By sick leave, we mean that you are not in the condition to work, because you are sick, in pain, or need a day off to recharge mentally. These are unplanned. We use PTO synonymous with vacation, is meant for planned time off. We believe that vacation has the best effect when not taken sporadically but taking at least 1 week away from a computer and away from day-to-day problems at work. We feel that unlimited PTO policies often have the opposite effect, one feels guilty for taking longer periods off and so it ends up primarily sporadic long weeks, or worse, not at all. A defined number helps us ensure that employees take that number.

Regulations worldwide can be very different and we are certainly still learning in this area, but aside from abiding by regulations (where we are currently active), we wanted to ensure our employees get the chance to have much-needed time to rest. Building a company is a marathon, not one long never-ending sprint. Sure, there may be an occasional sprint, but then you take a rest as well.

Menstrual leave

We do want to call menstrual leave out explicitly because it is often not considered sick leave by menstruators. Really to us, it is quite obvious, when you are in pain, rest, do not work. Whether to share with the team or just let the team know that you are taking a sick day is up to the individual, we are not forcing anyone to do anything, but we want to create a culture where everyone feels safe to make their individual decision. It is possible that for insurance reasons we may still need to declare a sick day. Though not identical, this policy was inspired by "I have cramps.".

Closing Thoughts

There were a few questions on our company handbook, and whether we could publish it. We do intend to do so, but we also want to take the appropriate care and time to do this justice. Currently, it is a set of Google Docs, created with our RFC process. Another suggested item was to add parental leave and to be entirely honest, we just forgot to add it, because, in Europe, where the majority of the Polar Signals is currently based, it is the law, so we didn't even think about it. We did add it now!

We hope that this blog post clarifies some of our thoughts, and we hope it will create even more suggestions, so we can continue to evolve and improve! As time goes on we are sure that there will be modifications or additions based on new experiences.

Further readings that have certainly shaped the way we think about creating company culture are:

Sign up for the latest Polar Signals news