I was immediately impressed by how unique GitLab is compared to any organization I have seen. Their culture and methodical processes were clearly evident during my brief summer internship. Sure, it’s all-remote, but that alone is not what makes it so unique. GitLab is also nimble, collaborative, and ambitious as employees communicate nearly seamlessly across the world. Like many growing organizations, it needs to refine some of its fundamental principles.
Exciting Aspects of GitLab’s Culture
GitLab states their mission is everyone can contribute. By “everyone,” they mean it. Even outsiders can access GitLab’s website, propose changes to their content, and see those changes work their way through the approval process. This is a truly novel concept and affords the company input from a wider array of contributors than more traditional companies. This transparency is even mentioned in the introduction paragraph of their easily accessible handbook, which is also available to everyone.
GitLab boasts incredibly high levels of asynchronous communication, which requires and reinforces transparency. Asynchronous communication enables them to accomplish large tasks through a continuous process over time, updating their products with small chunks, or “minimum viable changes.” Meetings and meeting preparation are also unique signals to their asynchronous culture. Participants are granted access to a shared Google doc before, during, and after meetings to promote asynchronous work and collaboratively effectively. This is an easy tactic many organizations can adopt to increase meeting productivity. Shared documents are also a fantastic method to record meeting notes and assign action items.
When I started my first day as an intern, I was sent a few links, told to initiate onboarding, and was given time and space to work on my own. I started working through the 401 onboarding tasks for new hires, and although many weren’t applicable to my internship, I spent much of my time on many tangential topics. While doing so, I quickly noticed that GitLab employees wield significant autonomy and are rewarded for their initiative.
I have seen many organizations suffer from retaining the authority to enact change at senior levels while junior employees possess little ability to make small changes. GitLab deviates from this convention. A few days into my onboarding I noticed a few minor errors in the handbook and was able to submit a merge request to correct them. While the changes were minor spelling errors, this process cemented their culture in my mind. Take action, make the change.
I was especially curious about the culture that has enabled GitLab’s recent success, especially as an all-remote company. All of GitLab’s work is documented, so I began to peruse what other people had written about their culture and strategy. I read the handbook, scheduled a coffee chat with Head of Remote, Darren Murph, to discuss culture, and stumbled upon a helpful blog that introduced me to a technique on how to increase productivity using the “E-factor.” I also found an article on how to sensibly prioritize and accomplish tasks using the Ivy Lee Method linked from someone’s README. I wrote this very blog post that you’re reading with the help of a video posted on GitLab’s website about drafting and submitting a blog post MR. All of this was made possible because of GitLab’s ambitious and transparent culture. This was all very impressive.
Forging Proper Values
GitLab’s values and their effect on culture were of particular interest to me as someone with more management experience than technical expertise. After reading through their values page, it was apparent that GitLab may have significant conflicts with some of their values.
To value something does not necessarily mean it should be adopted as a company value. A high-performance thermos is of great value on a cold day, especially when it’s filled with piping hot coffee, but it is not something that should be espoused. Integrity, selflessness, and courage are also of great value, but unlike a thermos, they should also be espoused. These attributes will ensure greater success in an organization than more specific, metric-driven values like efficiency or iteration.
GitLab’s values are designed to ensure a positive work environment and deliver world class results to their customers. The values are explicitly stated as Collaboration, Results, Efficiency, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (three values in one), Iteration, and Transparency (CREDIT).
I argue that these are not ideal values. These are things in which GitLab can place value, but they are not fundamental values to which the company should anchor their behavior. GitLab seems to have adopted values that are means, tactics, or metrics but not tenets which ought to govern their operations.
Ideal Values Are Fixed
The idea of continuous improvement is good in many applications, but bad when it comes to organizational values. GitLab adjusts their values over time to more clearly define their ideal culture. However, proper values should not need improvement over time. Organizational values must be resolute and foundational attributes espoused by all employees. They should be guiding, not malleable. They define the culture, and in turn, employees must adopt them to maintain the culture. Once established, these values must be adhered to throughout the organization, applied in new, unforeseen situations, and serve as screening criteria to ensure new hires properly assimilate into GitLab. Continuously shifting values will place GitLab at a significant disadvantage as the company expands and hires new employees based on their values fit.
Proper Values Do Not Conflict
Here’s a hypothetical example of how GitLab’s values may conflict. A potential new hire would clearly contribute to GitLab’s diversity, a tightly held company value. However, the potential new hire is less qualified than another potential hire who would clearly contribute to achieving results in the best interest of the company, which is required under GitLab’s permission to play. Does GitLab hire the less-qualified individual and hope their contributions to diversity somehow outweigh their lack of positive results? Should GitLab directly pursue a diverse workforce? What about diverse opinions that are not congruent with GitLab’s values? Diversity should not be pursued for the sake of diversity, especially when it does not improve the company's results. This is only one of a myriad of conflicts that arise when values are developed from good intentions rather than ethics.
Let’s take a look at values that are derived from ethics, such as duty and respect. These values are tightly related and mutually supportive. It often becomes a duty to respect others, and respect is often shown through dutiful work. A pharmacist demonstrates a duty to customers by thoroughly researching medicinal ingredients and their side effects. They also show respect to patients by reviewing potential side effects with the patient before they are prescribed the drug.
In contrast, GitLab’s values of results and efficiency can conflict quite easily. GitLab might achieve better results with a less efficient process, or vice versa. Here’s the main problem: results are not inherently good or bad. There can be good results from bad actions, and bad results from good actions. The simple pursuit of results is not enough, GitLab must pursue the correct results. But what are good results for GitLab? This question should be answered through a well-defined business strategy and internal metrics. Ethically-derived values such as duty, respect, and integrity must lay the foundation for GitLab’s business strategy.
How does GitLab address value conflicts? Through their value hierarchy. As the company expands, this hierarchy exposes GitLab to potential damage as employees pursue results above all other values. GitLab can avoid this dilemma by guiding their pursuit of results with ethical values instead of metrics.
The Way Ahead
GitLab's processes should be continuously refined but their core values should not change. Their value statement should be simple, with clear and foundational values to unite their remote workforce. I propose GitLab adopt the values of Respect, Service, and Integrity. These are a start, and leadership may want to include one or two more values than the three I propose, but all current values are encompassed by these three proposed values as seen in the table below:
|Current Values||Proposed Values|
Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging
Furthermore, these new values provide GitLab the flexibility to adjust their methods if, say, innovation becomes more important than iteration. Without changing their entire value structure and their culture, they can remain committed to Respect, Service, and Integrity while they shift their processes to reinforce innovation more effectively. Hiring employees who respect others, serve selflessly, and conduct themselves with integrity will pay great dividends for GitLab’s culture, leadership, and reputation in an uncertain future.
Cover image by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash