I want to tell you about my current employer (a Berlin-based company) and why it’s very unusual as well as being an excellent place to work.
I’ve been there for around 1.5 years. These opinions are my own and provided of my own volition: I’m not being paid to write this, I was not told to write this, nor is there a gun pointing at my head. Also, I’m writing from the perspective of someone who’s spent their career in the (Berlin) startup world.
Self-organisation and Holacracy
The company is well on the way to becoming self-organised. This means that it has moved away from the classical hierarchical management structure: its business units do not have managers. Instead, management roles are spread out over individuals in the team. Examples of self-organised systems abound in nature, but there are also famous examples closer to home, e.g town markets, the development of the Linux kernel, or file-sharing software like Napster. Self-organised systems have the potential of being extremely disruptive and are very well suited to complex environments. The market that the company is in is very complex indeed. More on that later.
Self-organisation is a huge topic that has a large and developing literature. You may have heard of the book “Reinventing Organisations” by Frederic Laloux which is a great place to start. It’s also worth mentioning that my employer is implementing a flavor of self-organisation called Holacracy.
All I’ll say here is that working in a self-organised company is chaotic, extremely motivating, and absolutely feels like the future!
What does the company do?
The company is a fintech, but it was founded years before the word was first coined. Its main product is a B2B platform for mortgages and other financial products. It may sound dry and boring but it’s anything but:
- Billions of EUR pass through the platform every month.
- Tens of thousands of users rely on the platform for their daily work
- It’s actually a marketplace in which the supply side (banks) and the demand side rely on the platform to enable their business models
- Consumers rely on the platform to buy or build their homes and provide them with loans
- Many of our institutional customers are looking to the platform to lead the way to the promised land known as “Digitalisation”.
What all of this means is that mind-boggling complexity spanning several interlocking fields must be navigated and tamed. It means that you have to learn continuously.
Let’s talk about learning.
Are you still learning?
People say that startups have a steep learning curve, that you can learn a lot. This is true if you’re the founder, executive or if you’re a junior employee. If you’re not, the learning curve flattens off pretty quickly (of course, your mileage may vary).
New employees at my company have a mountain to climb when it comes to acquiring new knowledge. The trick is to find that sweet spot between too much, too fast (result: anxiety or stress) and too little, too slow (result: boredom). In my experience I was in that spot because:
- There is a culture that allows mistakes and is forgiving
- There is a culture of self-improvement
- There are employees with deep domain knowledge that are willing to teach (these people are often missing in a startup)
- There is easy access to courses, training, and conferences.
- There is a culture of trust
I began learning on day 1 and am sure I’ll still be learning 5 years from now. Are you still learning?
It’s a grown up business
The company has found its business model and is doing pretty well. What this means is that:
- It’s not a startup poking around in the fog trying to monetize its services.
- It’s not funded by venture capital. There will never be an all-hands meeting announcing that the next funding round has failed and that 80% of the workforce will have to go.
- It has a (mostly) clear vision of where it wants to go. In contrast, many startups are still finding their vision – which is fine, because that’s what being a young company is about. However, too many course-changes can be a pain in the backside and demotivating. They can also be fatal.
The great thing about working for a “grown-up” company is that the pay is grown up too. No more startup wages. No more extremely opaque equity deals (if you are even lucky enough get an equity deal).
By the way: the parent company is public and bonuses are handed out as shares. In the last five years, the share price has increased by over 1000%. It’s also in the Unicorn club.
Must we talk about work-life balance?
Yes, we must because it’s important.
You should only work overtime at any company if
- You’re getting very decent compensation.
- if you own a large amount of equity in the company.
- That’s it.
Startups tend to ignore this too often. Recently a developer told me that during an interview at a well-known Berlin fintech they were told: “You’ll be paid for 40 hours work a week, but we expect you to work 60 hours”. He did not go and work for them.
At my company people work 8 hrs a day and then go home to their family. Most employees have kids. There is never a problem if you have to change your schedule on account of family issues, planned or unplanned. Parental leave is welcomed.
What about tech? Processes? Tools?
The company has some ancient tech and some very fancy tech, with everything in between. Most business units have continuous delivery – that may not be so special these days, but it’s the first time I’ve experienced it.
The company claims to be agile and I’m still not sure exactly what that means. If you google the term you’ll be confronted with things like:
- Shared purpose and vision
- Flexible resource allocation
- Clear accountable roles
- Hands-on governance
- Continuous learning
- Evolving tech architecture
These are all things which exist at the company, so I guess it’s true. It also means doing a lot of work with white-boards and Post-Its. It’s a way of working that once you’ve experienced it you never want to go back. We mostly don’t do scrum.
How are the people?
The people are friendly, very helpful, easy going, and smart. If anyone has an out-sized ego, they hide it very well.
Many of the employees have been there for 5, 10 or more years. I always wondered if this speaks against a company, but I now know it doesn’t. Many of the old hand have switched roles and teams multiple times.
Are there perks?
Yes, there are perks but you don’t care about those. You care about having a job that stimulates you, that allows mastery, autonomy and purpose.
Are there any downsides?
Yes. Everything is in german. All the way from the top to the bottom, from the job descriptions, to the meetings, to the method names in the code.
If that doesn’t scare you and you want to find out more, then click here.