Mar 20, 2019

Zymergen Technology Team Values

We’re proud of our team’s culture. As we grew, we found we wanted to write down the values that have created that culture. In this post we introduce the Zymergen Tech Team values, share the method we used to develop them, and provide additional commentary which we hope captures our thoughts and intentions behind each value.

The Process

One day about two years ago, a few of us — Tessa, Kiyan, and Roxane — had a hallway conversation in which we lamented that the entire Technology Team could no longer have sprint planning in one room. With that small size, it also meant that we had all interviewed each other, we all knew each other, and we all knew what each person was working on. We had built our culture by adding each person thoughtfully, as a group.

That conversation led to an important question: how could we maintain the culture that we joined Zymergen to be a part of, now that we were so much bigger and still growing?

Maintaining our culture as we grew was a primary motivation for developing our team values.

We decided that together we could come up with what we thought our core values were, and when we were done we would present them to the Technology leadership team. We felt that writing these values down would help us codify the culture we had built.

We began by having each of us write down three values we thought the team embodied and that were important to preserve. We found there was a lot of overlap between the values we each came up with, evidence that the group culture we sought to preserve indeed existed. We distilled these results into the six final values. We created the descriptions for the values through collaborative editing: one of us would come to each session with a draft description of a value, and together we would edit until we were satisfied that the description conveyed the core of what we were trying to capture.

We were nervous when sharing our final draft with the department, but the response we received was overwhelmingly positive. While there were some minor suggestions for edits, everyone agreed that we had captured concretely the culture we all felt existed. Two years later, each new member of the Technology Team gets a copy of the values, and the values help us have the conversations that keep our culture on track.

Below we list each of the values with its description. We’ve also included a “director’s commentary” in italics which we hope captures our thoughts and intentions behind the value.

The Values

These are the Zymergen Technology Team values:

  • We assume goodwill.
  • We are humble about what we know.
  • We are brave by being honest about what we fear.
  • We lead and support to solve challenges together.
  • We enable a sense of ownership and agency.
  • We practice a diverse culture of acceptance and inclusion.
Zymergen team values: assume goodwill

We assume goodwill.

We’re in this together. We don’t always agree on how to succeed. We don’t always understand our team’s decisions. We are at times baffled, frustrated, or daunted by our work and our colleagues. We can overcome such uncertainties because we have faith in each other. We’re all working toward common goals and together debating the best way to reach them.

The quality of our communication determines the quality of what we build. The first solution we think of is hardly ever the one we deploy; our debates grow and shape our products. When we disagree, we cultivate curiosity and resist judgement. If we feel the tug of contempt nudging our debates into destructive fights, we push against it with mutual respect. We communicate in a way that is both straightforward and kind.

In short, we trust each other. We assume goodwill.

This was an implicit company value from as far back as any of us could remember. “Assume goodwill” was often referenced by our founders and was woven into the company culture. The phrase was usually taken to mean something like: don’t assume the other person is trying to harm you by their words or actions.

It’s true that goodwill alone is not enough  good intentions do not necessarily imply good impacts. Indeed, when people are hurt, asking them to “assume goodwill” could make them feel dismissed. This is part of why, in our internal introduction to the values, we say “don’t hold these values over your teammates; instead, use them to steer towards difficult conversations.” In those difficult conversations, we think that assuming goodwill can be a productive way to begin engaging with impacts; it’s not an excuse to avoid them.

Zymergen team values: humility about what we know

We are humble about what we know.

Each of us is wrong about something right now. Not because we aren’t clever, but because we can’t know everything. Accepting this, we face our disagreements with curiosity and humility. We satisfy our curiosity by listening to each other. We have strong opinions that are loosely held: we stand by our viewpoints but allow them to change as we listen and learn. Humility is not thinking less of yourself or making yourself smaller; it is confidence properly placed.

We practice intellectual humility together. We encourage everyone to be honest about what they don’t know. No question is ever stupid; we respect how exposing our ignorance creates space for learning. We don’t try to hire encyclopedias; we expect that there’s a lot we have to learn together. What makes us successful is not what we know, but how we deal with what we don’t know.

Zymergen is an interdisciplinary company. Every day we work with experts in biology, robotics, software, mathematics, and many other fields. It would be impossible to be an expert in everything we do. We realized that one of the things we love about our team is how we deal with that. We’re not afraid to admit what we don’t know, and we avoid chastising (even subtly) when someone else doesn’t know something. A lot of this manifests in simple gestures present in all our work conversations, but it’s these simple gestures that keep ailments like imposter syndrome at bay.

Zymergen team values: bravery

We are brave by being honest about what we fear.

We accept our fears. When we avoid disagreements for fear of conflict, we strain our relationships. When we censor our ideas for fear of criticism, we kill innovation. Instead, we recognize that fear is useful and relish opportunities to be brave.

We work hard to create a workplace with psychological safety at its core — where fear can be recognized, shared, learned from, faced, and overcome. Innovation is achieved by taking risks, so we make it safe to fail.

Fear provides useful information and motivation, but in the modern world we’re encouraged to swallow our fears. In so many workplaces, people have conversations where they’re not really talking about what’s in the room. They waste effort maneuvering around each other instead of facing the fear in the room. On the Technology Team, we believe that bravery is acting in the face of fear and that we work better when it’s easier for everyone to face their fears together.

Fear, of course, makes this value hard to practice. That’s why we felt it was especially important to write down and discuss.

Zymergen team values: lead and support to solve challenges together

We lead and support to solve challenges together.

We are leaders when we propose solutions and connect groups of supporters to build them. We are supporters when we help shape and build a leader’s idea. By taking on both roles, we naturally form groups to solve Zymergen’s problems.

Leader and supporter are fluid and complementary roles. We are considerate and intentional about which role we take on in a situation. We pass the baton to those with the right skills and passions as we move from challenge to challenge. No one needs permission to lead. Supporters are just as important as leaders. We avoid exclusively identifying with either role. Our strength does not come from our individual abilities, but instead our ability to collaborate on ideas.

In an interdisciplinary company where people have varied expertise, it’s only natural that someone might be better suited to lead in one situation and support in another. We wanted to capture this fluidity in one of our values. Society often casts the leadership role as more valuable; we wanted to capture the idea that both roles are equally important, and that there’s no need to prove your worth by trying to seize a leadership role.

Zymergen team values: enable a sense of ownership and agency

We enable a sense of ownership and agency.

We all own a part of Zymergen’s success. Ownership is not passive — we each have the power to affect the company and its direction, starting with our individual projects. Each of us is entrusted to make decisions to get work done. We own our decisions, successful or not, and create an environment where it is safe for everyone to do so.

Zymergen is the sum of its parts. We are building this together, and we strive to ensure we all have meaningful work that connects to our team goals and company vision. We resist the idea that there is a lane we’re supposed to stay in. If you see a problem, you are empowered to contribute to a solution. When you have a viewpoint, you can advocate for it with anyone. You do not need permission to shape and nurture what we all own together.

Each person can improve the whole of Zymergen through ownership, personal accountability, and empowerment. While literal ownership is true, this is also about a sense of ownership. Personal responsibility and a sense of empowerment help foster an environment of trust, initiative, and the knowledge that what one person does affects the whole. We wanted to emphasize that taking action to improve Zymergen does not require permission.

Zymergen team values: practice a diverse culture of acceptance and inclusion

We practice a diverse culture of acceptance and inclusion.

Diversity is not about checking groups off a list. Diversity is about feeling accepted, included, and valued as people. When people feel safe as they are, their unique viewpoints give our teams a bigger collection of tools to execute ideas and build better solutions.

We foster an environment at Zymergen where open conversations on diversity are safe and commonplace. We recruit, welcome, and accept teammates with a myriad of backgrounds. We affirm the value of our different experiences and styles by adhering to the principles of equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal advancement.

For many of us, Zymergen is the most diverse company at which we’ve ever worked. That said, we’re not done. In all of our conversations about values this was one that came up again and again. We strongly believe that embracing diversity is a key element in making teams successful. And it’s not just us saying it — studies have shown that diverse teams perform better.

We want to both recognize the differences between people and respect that this diversity is a valuable asset. We consider many traits in our diversity efforts, including but not limited to: gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, disability, socio-economic background, and age.

We understand that rejecting homogeneity can entail some extra work. That’s why we work hard to recruit candidates through non-traditional means; we actively adapt our interview process to take into account candidates’ needs; and we pursue difficult conversations about diversity.

Wrapping Up: Values are a Practice

It’s easy to write down values that sounds inspiring, but values don’t become culture unless they are practiced. As you might expect, the practice is hard. Living these values is in turns frightening, frustrating, freeing, and fulfilling. It requires self-reflection and empathizing with others.

We’re proud of our team culture and proud to do the work of maintaining it. Culture is something we create through words and actions. Whether you’re writing your own team’s values or thinking you might want to try out these ones (apply here!), we hope these words will inspire you.

Tessa Alexanian is a Software Engineer on the Automation Design & Development team.

Kiyan Ahmadizadeh is a Staff Software Engineer on the Constellation Manufacturing Execution System team.

Roxane Ambrose was a Senior Software Engineer on the Computational Biology team. After three years, Roxane has recently left Zymergen to be closer to family in Denver.