My aim is to help demystify company culture and for the past two years, I have been interviewing culture-driven business leaders about how they have created, developed and scaled the cultures of the organizations they work in. I interviewed Melanie Tantingco, the VP of People Operations at Periscope Data after meeting her at the SaaStr Annual conference in San Jose California earlier this year. Periscope Data was founded in 2012 by Harry Glaser and Tom O’Neill and the company builds a analytics platform for anyone looking to answer complex questions with data. Periscope Data helps data analysts make the most of machine learning and AI data, enabling them to go from reporting what happened to predicting what will happen. The company also lets every business decision maker run their own data analyses, create and share dashboards and deliver deep insights that drive the business forward, all without learning proprietary data modeling languages or waiting weeks or months for data access. Melanie joined the company in 2016 and has helped scale the team to 150 while refining and embedding the culture of Periscope Data.
Each interview I conduct with culture-conscious business leaders demonstrates the pivotal role paying attention to culture can have on the entire way a business functions – and this conversation with Melanie was no different. In the interview, Melanie and I discuss:
- Why eight core values might simultaneously be too many and the perfect number
- Why the HR team doesn’t write any of the job descriptions in the company
- How the company eliminates emotional red tape during the onboarding process
- Why Melanie and her team don’t take back door or any other external references on the people they employ
- Why diversity doesn’t come before inclusion
Bretton Putter: What is Periscope Data’s mission?
Melanie Tantingco: Our mission is to turn data teams into superheroes – to evangelize the role that’s often known as Chief Data Officer (CDO). Nowadays, every company says they want to be more data driven, but CDOs and their teams of data scientists and analysts are often not included in the decision-making process. They’re treated simply as order takers and report generators. At Periscope Data we recognize that they are looking at the data all the time and have incredible insight into that data. We aim to create a space where the people who are trained to look at, analyze and interpret data are also given the tools they need to actually communicate what the data is saying. Our platform empowers analysts to do this by allowing them to raise their hand when they see a blip in the data and explain what is happening; this can save or make a company millions of dollars. That’s what we mean by turning them into superheroes. We also want to ensure our platform is flexible enough to meet the demands of every part of a business, so we’ve made sure our interface is intuitive and simple to use so non-technical business professionals can explore data and answer complex questions on their own.
Putter: How have you helped shape the role that values play in the business?
Tantingco: I think in many ways the creation of my role amplified the culture that already existed, partly by the fact that I report directly into our CEO and sit on the leadership team. I’m often seen as the voice of the employees, which is something that can be overlooked at the decision-making table. When Harry [the company’s CEO] and I did the values definition work about a year and a half ago, it was essential for us to make sure we had the input of our employees rather than define the values in an ivory tower. We want everyone to be engaged and continue to contribute to the development of the culture and we believe that the entire team is responsible for the culture that we have here. It’s my job just to make sure that we don’t go off the rails too far one way or the other.
Putter: Eight is quite a long list of values. Have you ever thought of reducing them?
Tantingco: I agree; eight values is a lot. The reality, however, is that having eight values allows us to cast the widest net in terms of the types of people we hire. To work here, you don’t need to align perfectly with all eight, but you do need to feel strongly about most of them. I’ve also had push back every time I’ve tried to eliminate one of the values because people have such strong feelings one way or the other about which ones we should keep. We are very purposeful around the first three values: kindness, positivity and inclusion. Those are far and away the most important values.
Putter: Could you give me an example of how the values are promoted or embedded across the organization?
Tantingco: Each week at our All Hands meeting an employee will give a short talk about some of the values that resonated with them over the last week or two. For example, an engineer who recently joined us talked about how quickly he was hired, referencing our value of being fast. Another example is that we embed transparency by being transparent in our actions. We do board deck reviews with our employees every six weeks because every employee has a stake in the company, just like our investors do. It used to be a straightforward presentation of precisely what we presented to the board, and in the last four or five months, we’ve iterated the process based on the employee feedback we’ve received to make it much more about why that information is relevant to them as employees. What VCs are looking for in a board meeting is often very different to what employees care about, so connecting the dots and translating the deck for what’s essential for the employees to understand that has been a fun challenge. Some people send questions in advance of the deck reviews, which might be technical, or about the company financials or how we’re approaching the culture. We answer these and other questions during the review as well.
Putter: Inclusion is a company value. What does being an inclusive company mean to you?
Tantingco: I think that creating an inclusive environment allows for more diversity. I see many companies getting it wrong when they put diversity before inclusion; I like to look at it as building an inclusive company first and knowing that diversity will happen as a result.
Inclusivity in action is about understanding that you might not have the same opinion as the person across the table from you, but you’re still operating from a place where you at least want to find common ground, or you respect each other enough to agree to disagree. If I have a different opinion to you, I’m not just going to shut down and discount yours. Meeting halfway is just as important.
One of my engineers here has this phrase, “You have unlimited questions remaining.” That goes back to our value of being helpful. Translated into behavior, that means filling in the unknown blanks for your colleagues is the right and kind thing to do. Giving context as to why your opinion might be different is valuable and educational. It’s crucial if we are to create an environment where we’re pushing each other to be better.
Putter: What in your opinion is the impact of well-defined and strong company culture on the people who work in it?
Tantingco: What stands out to me is the opposite, that if you have a toxic culture, employees wake up every single morning thinking about why they don’t want to come to work. That’s my worst fear. If there is ever a moment where my employees are in that space, we have conversations about it, to unearth what motivates them and what kind of culture they are looking for.
I’m also totally open to the idea that cultures evolves, and maybe the current culture is not the right fit for the stage you’re at in your life, or what you're looking for in a culture doesn't match ours. We can have an honest conversation about that. I aim, as an HR leader, to operate from the view that it is okay to lose people who don’t align with our culture, as long as I do it in a kind way, by exiting them and helping them find something better aligned with what they’re looking for at that time.
Putter: What is your approach to hiring and what do you do differently at Periscope?
Tantingco: We do quite a few things differently to other companies.
Embodying the value of fast – no references required: I try to infuse our values into how we operate as a company and recruiting is no different. One of our values is that we are fast – and we use that speed to our advantage. For example, I hired the first person for my team before I had even joined the organization. I also don’t find much value in candidate provided references, so we don’t do them. That speeds up our recruitment process because I don’t have an extra step in the process and I’m not at the mercy of these people answering the telephone for a junior reference check.
I don’t do back door references because I am very wary of going out to people outside of the company and asking for references as I don’t know what that person’s alliances might be. In my role I’ve had to terminate people, and if you were to reach out to one or two of them on a whim, they may have a very negative opinion of my work because doing my job could have impacted them personally in a negative way. With this type of reference, you do not have context. I’m very hesitant to work in that way; I know lots of other companies do that, but it’s just not my style.
My preference is to vet candidates via someone who knows the culture of our organization. So, if for example you were applying for a job at Periscope and you knew someone who worked here, I would rather rely on that employee to understand our culture and give me their opinion of your fit with our culture - whether they want to work with you again, and how they think you could contribute to our culture.
Embodying the value of fast – the interview: The interview process consists of a screen with my recruiter and then a hiring manager screen. The successful candidate then spends one day with us onsite – they will have four meetings with relevant people from different departments and we also set up lunch with a couple of additional Periscope employees to give the candidate a sense of who their future co-workers are. It takes approximately four and a half hours and the successful candidates will receive an offer as quickly as possible after that.
Our job ads are different: Firstly, the hiring manager owns the hire and the fire. I think no one has more to lose when making a hiring decision than the hiring manager, so I place a lot of accountability on the manager. Many HR people make the mistake of writing the job description for the manager. Why would I ever do that? I’m not the one managing them! I don’t know what their outputs are and that’s what I care about. If you take a look at our careers page, there’s nothing on there about a minimum number of years’ experience, because I don’t care how long someone’s been doing the job, it’s all about the output. We demonstrate the importance we place on output by having the hiring manager write a 30, 60 and 90-day achievement plan for any new role, and this gets included in the job ad and the job description. We will not open a recruitment process until the 30/60/90 day plan is done. Each of our job ads specifies, ‘By day 30 you will have accomplished this. By day 60 you will have done this, by day 90, this.’ We get tons of positive feedback from our candidates about how they appreciate that we’re already thinking about what the person will be doing one, two and three months from now, even before the person shows up for their first day.
There are a lot of really amazing people who work here and we highlight who they are by putting a section in our job ads about our team members they could be working with and what they’ve achieved. Insider information is hard to find out as a candidate, discovered in the interview process – and sometimes not even then, so we figured that we could call it out in the job ad. If you were looking to join an operations team, for example, it would be interesting to know, “Our COO previously spent seven years running global operations at Box and established the company's international hub out of London. He has an enviable track record of achievement and Periscope Data is his ninth startup.” That’s someone that anyone can learn from. No one that I’ve seen in the research I’ve done across job ads has ever taken this approach.
Putter: What does your onboarding process look like?
Tantingco: We have an onboarding program where new starters rotate through spending time with different leaders in the company. They learn about what a sales engineer does, what our market strategy is, why the organization is set up the way it is, and so on.
Typically, on their first day, the new joiner does all the paperwork that’s required and we walk them through our version of an intranet, which is our employee handbook, to give them a better sense of the culture, what we’re doing and how we approach work. I kept the handbook accessible and straightforward: the dress code policy I set, for example, is that I should never know the color of your undergarments. It’s straightforward rather than a thesaurus of all the ways your employment can be ended.
Then they have lunch with a couple of the team. What happens for the rest of the week depends on everyone’s availability. Ideally, we don’t want to cram everything into the first week, so we spread people’s sessions out. The overall aim is to give everyone as rounded a view of the company as possible.
Once a month we also have the founders’ breakfast for new joiners where they can connect with the CEO and CTO and ask any questions they want.
The co-founders usually start breakfast with the founding story and the company’s ‘why’ and mission. Employees are then able to ask whatever questions are top of mind for them. It breaks down the barriers and the sense of trepidation that people often feel before they come into the company. People tend to be either afraid of the executives or afraid of HR. They fill in the blanks for themselves in the worst possible way, so we try to eliminate a lot of that emotional red tape within the first month.
Putter: How does the company reward and recognize its people?
Tantingco: If you do something above and beyond your regular responsibilities, a peer can nominate you, sharing what you have done and why you deserve the reward and recognition. If the nomination is accepted, you are recognized in front of the entire company at the company All-Hands meeting on Fridays. Those nominated can choose from a range of prizes, for example, you can pick lunch, or select a theme for a team party, or you get $100, or you get a Bluetooth speaker.
I did a peer nomination last week. It was to do with preparing for a talk and I was asked at the last minute if there was any way we could display how People Operations uses Periscope to track our culture. All I had at the time was an ugly version of that data, which was not ready for presentation. So, I went up to one of our pre-sales engineers and said, “I know that you’re going to hate me right now, but I think this is a great opportunity to showcase what Periscope can do in the HR world.” He was enthusiastic and generated something ad hoc within a couple of hours, putting his other work to one side. I stood up at the All-Hands and told everyone how the engineer had dropped everything to try and help me evangelize the product. He got to choose the team lunch for the following week.
There’s no limit as to how many people can be nominated at any one time, but you have to talk to either our Chief of Staff or me beforehand and explain why what the person did is above and beyond their regular role.
Putter: How do you approach promotions?
Tantingco: At my first job out of college I was in a unionized environment and got into trouble for working too fast. I want to create the opposite environment to that at Periscope. One of our engineers demonstrated through her output that she was strong enough to be promoted three or four times. I’m happy to celebrate those kinds of things. I want to pay you for the job we’re asking you to do and for the output that you’re putting forward, not how long you’ve been doing it. I encourage leapfrogging within the organization; as long as you are living the values, it pushes us all to be better.
Putter: Does the company have a specific approach to letting people go?
Tantingco: We’re all measured on the same yardstick, but people’s lives are often messy. I am not going to terminate someone who has just had a grave personal loss and has seen their productivity dip, for example. I recognize that life happens outside of these walls and I think it’s important to take a humanistic approach. At the same time, I am very mindful of the fact that I’m paying you to do something and if you’re not executing against it, we need to understand why. If it’s because life has happened, we will ask what the company can do to help get you out of that rut within a period of time, so we can help you get back on track. If there is no real reason for your productivity dip, we will have a candid conversation about what productivity looks like at Periscope Data and what's expected of you.
Putter: How else is culture designed into the organization?
Tantingco: From my perspective culture is considered in everything we do at Periscope. Something as seemingly simple as expanding to an office outside of San Francisco, for example, generates a lot of questions, which we spend time discussing and thinking through: how could that impact this office, or how will it change the way we approach our customers, who is the right leader to put there? Is that person a cultural ambassador inside the company already? How are they going to scale out the culture? How are they going to embody the values in the organization? What type of office do we get? Do we get a Regis office or a WeWork, go into an office park or do we try and bootstrap ourselves in a small office that we can grow out of eventually? How will each of these decisons affect the performance, output and culture we are trying to build? We use our culture as the lens to think through multiple viewpoints on every decision we take.
Putter: How do you evaluate the state of the culture at Periscope?
Tantingco: Every six months we pulse check our employees via an engagement survey. We also evaluate the culture by reflecting on the exit interviews of people leaving the company, which is an indication whether we’re building this company in the right way.
Pulsing our employees every six months allows me to identify blind spots. We don’t alter the survey questions, so we get to see a six-month comparison. When we look at the survey, we rank the issues and decide what actions need to be taken in the following six months. For example, in the last engagement survey, a bunch of people were questioning whether we were giving enough training to our managers. That indicates to me a few things (or maybe all of them!): either that the managers are not communicating that they’re going through training, or I’m not doing a good enough job of evangelizing the fact that we are doing manager training, or they simply need more training! I need to go and figure that out, and I can’t do that unless I have an engagement survey because I’ll assume it’s status quo and that everyone knows that when all the managers go into the boardroom, they’re going into management training. The survey also gives me the context that I might be missing on specific initiatives, which I might be too close to see the bigger picture on.
I do presentations to our board of directors on our engagement survey results and show them three different outcomes that I’m primarily looking for. One: are we a better employer than all the other companies that are in the same survey, especially tech companies of a similar size? Two: what do the comments tell us we are doing really well, and what are our opportunities to improve? And three: when I start slicing and dicing the data based on different demographics, are we unfairly treating any demographic? Does anything statistically significant stand out, like males versus females, or parents versus non-parents, or managers versus individual contributors versus executives?
Some of the most eye-opening slices of the data are when we do one on ones with each manager. If they have a big enough team and get enough responses, they can get their cut of data for their team. In these cases, we go through the demographic cuts with them so we can say something along the lines of, for example, “When you look at your heat map, it looks like the males on your team feel like they have more work-life balance than the females on your team. The difference is significant. Do you know why that might be? Could this be tied back to a comment that you’ve made, or something like that?” It’s helping to make the managers hyper-aware of their influence.
Putter: Can you tell me about the various employee communities you have at the company?
Tantingco: Our employee communities were sparked out of a lunch and learn session that I had a couple of years ago, which was called “Ask HR anything I can legally tell you.” The idea was to demystify HR, because everyone comes into this company with some history of engagement with an HR person and I can’t guarantee whether that is positive or negative, or whether they have been coached or have had more operational experience. Part of the reason I hosted that lunch and learn was that I wanted the employees to understand better what I do and to create a safe space where people could ask me anything. I recognize that going to the VP of HR and directly asking, “Why don’t we match 401k?” or “Why aren’t you at your desk all day?” might be daunting for some people. So I created a safe space where people could literally ask me anything.
One of the questions that day was, “Why don’t we have a women’s community group?” Women make up forty-four percent of the business across all different functions –individual contributors, managers and executives, but there was no designated women’s group. My response to the question was, “Because you haven’t created one.” I’m not going to sit here and say one type of group is more important than the other; that’s not my place. My place is to guide people. If something is important to you then it becomes important to me; if an employee thinks that creating a women’s group at the company will make us all better, for whatever reason, I can support and be the executive responsible for that, and I will allocate you budget.
I want to make sure that we’re investing our money wisely, however. One example of this is that people wanted to celebrate International Women’s Day and to get cupcakes. I said, “That’s fine, but can you please find a bakery that’s female-owned as opposed to just ordering from anywhere.”
Putter: What role does feedback play in the culture?
Tantingco: Feedback is encouraged at Periscope. It is given formally every six months based on the anniversary of your hire date, and micro-feedback is always encouraged and should be given as much as possible.
We started rolling out performance evaluations this year. They’re based on the career ladders that managers build for their team members, and they’re all outcome oriented. We evaluate against our values; employees have to give specific examples of how they’ve been kind, inclusive and helpful, etc. in the last six months, and their self-reflection is juxtaposed against the manager’s feedback of how the person has performed against those values.
One of the things I worked through with a lot of our management is that I’m not looking for a description of what a job is. I’m looking for output. That’s what the company pays our employees for. Showing up to work isn’t what matters. What you actually do at work is what’s exciting. All of the things we do are outcome-oriented. It helps that I work at a data company because you can’t have data without outcomes. Framing it in that way is super helpful for our employees but also for retraining our managers to think in that vein, around being data-driven.
Feedback is constant. If someone is giving a presentation to the executive team, I take notes and pull them aside afterward, and I ask them if they’d like feedback. I don’t volunteer it without their permission, although no one has ever said and I doubt will ever say, “No, I don’t want your feedback.”
Feedback is something that I focus on, but it’s also something that we do more than I’ve seen in other companies. I try to set the example and people see positive results and so adopt it themselves. I ground feedback in kindness: if I see you struggling to present in front of the executive staff, I want to help you. Letting you fail is not kind. I want you to be better the next time you present.
The team at Periscope Data are creating a strong and healthy culture where the values are embedded and continuously reinforced. Whether its building company communities, hiring based on values or building a feedback culture, it is clear that Melanie and the team recognize culture as a valuable asset, they treat it as such and are rewarded for that.