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Former Hubspot CIO Jim O’Neill on Building a Great Tech Culture

Posted February 5, 2018 By Andrew Littlefield

Jim O’Neill joined the team at Hubspot way back in 2007—long before the software company had the thousands of employees and $3B market cap it’s established today.

Those early days of a company are vital to building the culture that can define a company for years to come. O’Neill has served as both the Chief Information Officer and Chief People Officer at Hubspot, so he knows a thing or two about building a great tech culture. O’Neill recently sat down with us to talk about transparency, hiring, and why engineering hires are different than any other hire a company must make.

Editor’s note: this interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.


Andrew Littlefield: What do you think defines a great tech culture at a company?

Jim O’Neill: Hubspot looked at it in three ways:

  1. Being a crafts person of your skill—having deep knowledge of the trade that you’re in.
  2. Autonomy in the ability to make decisions and use your trade to build a better product, a better brand, or a better outcome for customers.
  3. Transparency, to know all the inputs you need to use and grow your career.

We made sure we backed that up with the operating system in how HubSpot worked, and we also aligned that with how we recruited people. We really strove for—from the first time someone talked to us, to the time they had an offer letter, to the time they joined—that they felt like they knew the world they were entering, for transparency purposes. They had leeway to make decisions and to take the chances. And they were growing their skills and becoming a master of their trade.


AL: I was just watching your 2015 Inbound talk about this actually, and I noticed how much you talk about transparency. Tell me why that’s so important to you.

JO: I’m going to start off by saying I think transparency is harder than people realize. If you truly want to be transparent, it takes work to communicate frequently and effectively—and not all of us are great at that, including me.

Building the whole culture around transparency takes a commitment that that is the most important thing, above and beyond everything else. We erred on the side of over-communicating (or attempting to over-communicate).

I’m sure there’s times we didn’t accomplish that, but it created much easier conversations when you didn’t have to think or posture on the conversation you were having because everything was known to everyone. The only guardrail we really had was data that wasn’t completely ours to share, i.e. maybe an acquisition or an investment, where there’s third parties involved, or personally not acceptable to share because it’s true HR data. But everything else was totally in the wheelhouse of transparency.


AL: At the risk of a loaded question, and maybe you’ll tell me there is no difference at all, but what do you think is different about tech hires from any other hire an organization has to make?

JO: There is a difference. I would say anyone in an engineering discipline—and engineering used broadly between software engineers or people who work in the technical disciplines like product management—are naturally trained to be skeptical and to use math and data to drive decisions in their life. So from a hiring standpoint, when we talk about transparency and why it’s important, it’s because they’ll figure out the truth. They are naturally curious of that stuff, and so I think it’s a wonderful marriage of producing data that can be used by people who are mathematically curious because that’s the way that their minds tend to naturally work.


AL: Something else I heard you talk about in that talk was just how culture grows as a company grows. How do you think a tech culture evolves at a company as they’re adding more headcount and more customers?

JO: I think there’s always the core tenants of what the company culture either is or aspires to be. I think you do end up with subcultures, where every team has their own kind of behaviors and personalities that influence the culture, and as long as it’s aligned with the overall company culture, that’s all great.

The HubSpot engineering team will go away on a weekend together skiing, and HubSpot will help sponsor that. Or they’ll do a learning exercise together where they’re all teaching everyone someone else’s skill on the team.

So as companies grow, these subcultures emerge, and it’s up to the company to celebrate and enhance those, and then only look for traits that may conflict with the overall company culture. But otherwise, allow teams to have their own voice that fits the team to help them build the brand that they want to then hire into that team.


AL: What’s something you know now that you wish you knew five years ago?

JO: There was a thesis that emerged at some point that culture would “trump” HR. And I don’t think it was obvious when that comment was first made how much impact that could have. That’s not to downplay HR—HR has changed in most tech companies, from a laws and compliance function to a growth function. And I wish five years ago—maybe even seven or eight years ago when HubSpot was just starting—I knew the leverage we would have gotten if we had embraced the culture side of HR and focused on growth, versus avoidance of potential rules and regulations as it relates to building a great environment.


AL: Last question: what was your very first job?

JO: I was a short order cook at an ice cream store.


AL: Any lessons learned from ice cream shop about writing code?

JO: No, but I did learn about how to work and manage people for sure.


Photo by Aaron Hockley, CC BY-SA 2.0


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