My World Tour: Part One
Every company has a distinct culture. Sometimes this culture is deliberately created, but more often than not it just sort of happens. When I decided to join Quadrotech, one of the things I was most curious about was its culture, given that we have offices in Slovakia, the UK, Switzerland, and the US. I just came back from my first visit to our UK and Slovakia offices and wanted to write a short report.
Before the trip
I had never been to central Europe before, so I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. Mike Weaver, one of our product owners, wrote a helpful internal guide to working in the Slovakia offices that he sent me. I also read Slovakia – Culture Smart, a $5 book from Amazon that paid for itself many, many times over in increased knowledge. (For example: Slovakia isn’t part of eastern Europe, so referring to it thusly is gauche, and their language, descended from but not identical to Czech, is known as “Slovak” and not “Slovakian.”) Armed with a little knowledge, I flew from Huntsville to Vienna, met up with Alan Byrne and Greg Jones, and drove from Vienna to Žilina, a distance of about 160 miles.
It’s only a short distance from Vienna to Bratislava, and much of that distance is taken up with a series of enormous wind turbines, which were fun to watch (sadly, I don’t have any good pictures). At Alan’s instigation, when we stopped for gas I bought a bottle of Kofola, a Communist-era cola drink that is still popular in Slovakia. For the record, it tastes sort of like RC Cola—not bad but definitely an acquired taste.Žilina and Námestovo
We actually have two offices in Slovakia: Žilina and Námestovo. My first official day at work started with a short walk from the hotel to the Žilina office, where I found that most of the team was already well into their workday when we arrived at 8am—our Slovak teams start early. This is a good example of a cultural distinction that evolved on its own; there’s no policy telling people when they have to be at work, but those offices have self-organized a schedule that works for them. It’s an open-plan office, which seems to work well with this crew; there’s are two huddle rooms (one with a dartboard and ping-pong and foosball tables) for side meetings. The small kitchen gets a lot of action, too, thanks to the fancy bean-to-cup espresso machine. I wouldn’t say that our Slovak team drinks more coffee per capita than the typical American development team, but it’s certainly not any less.
Another difference: the Slovak government requires employers to provide hot lunches for their workers. This can be done through an onsite cafeteria, but many companies are too small for that and so provide lunch vouchers instead.Each day, most of the team assembles to go out for lunch; there is a nice assortment of restaurants within walking distance. Lunches tend to be heavy on meat and potatoes, which is certainly fine with me, and most restaurants have a selection of soups, stews, and other bulk foods so that wait times are minimized. I never had a bad meal during the time I was there, which represents a nice change from some of my prior dining adventures in Silicon Valley.
On Wednesday, several of us bundled up for the drive to Námestovo. This was a bit of an adventure because the Slovak government has been busy building new roads and repairing old ones along this route, so we were forced to take a detour when we came to an intersection that was being steamrollered. Along the way, we encountered a flock of sheep in the road, leading to the marvelous facial expression on our CEO’s face shown below.Námestovo is a lovely small lakeside town; here our office is actually split between two offices in a shared space; this causes hallway traffic as people go back and forth for information (and coffee). As with Žilina, the Námestovo crew starts early, works hard, and often lunches as a group.Both of the offices share some interesting cultural differences compared to most US tech company offices. For one, there weren’t any vending machines or markets in either of the buildings. Many commercial landlords in the US will offer some kind of food and drink for sale in their buildings but that’s much less common in Slovakia. Another is that it is considered rude to wear your street shoes around the office—so everyone walks around the offices in house shoes or slippers. (Luckily I was forewarned and brought a pair of slippers with me!) Apart from these minor differences, and the obvious language differences, if you were suddenly teleported into either of our offices you’d find it familiar: lots of monitors showing Visual Studio, scribbles on whiteboards, and focused people working hard on interesting problems. I loved the teams’ energy and focus and am already looking forward to my next visit to Slovakia.
Next stop, Bratislava, then the UK.