Wooden Block Puzzles and Spotify

Adam Gordon Bell

Nov 2nd

Wooden Block Puzzles and Spotify

Hello, CoRecursive newsletter subscriber,

It’s November now, and I have a new episode out here:

It’s about Spotify, back in 2016-2018. Facing an IPO deadline, Pia Nilsson worked with 300 teams to transform how Spotify built software. She spearheaded a movement that led them from working in silos to a unified developer platform.

It’s about changes, both big and small, that transformed an engineering organization.

Culture Questions

Here is a puzzle: how do you cut a cake into eight equal-sized pieces with only three cuts? Don’t look it up. Think about it.

Someone asked me that back when I worked full-time in an office. Verbal puzzles are fun, but from that time, the thing I remember most of all is the wooden puzzles.

There were three of them. The kind that look like a solid structure made of smooth wood pieces, but then when you touch it the wrong way, it all falls apart. And then the challenge is to figure out how to put it back together.

I had got them for Christmas, and after playing with them a bit, I brought them into the office. They sat on my desk, and people would try to build them when they stopped by to talk to me.

The third, the largest puzzle, was hard, and I don’t think I ever got it together without the extremely terse instructions that came with it. But others did. Malcolm, seated near me and yet always in motion, could solve all of them quite quickly.

Eventually, the blocks became less exciting and stayed in a desk drawer. Someone else got a Rubix cube, and cubing algorithms were of interest for a while, between coffee runs and on lunch breaks.

In a podcast episode, I once said I didn’t think there was such a thing as office culture. Clearly, that’s not true. What I object to is talking about culture in abstract terms. Do you have a “culture fit”? That place has a problematic culture. People use the word culture as an umbrella term to hide behind when talking about the norms and communication styles of a workplace.

Culture is small and specific. Puzzles were big with Malcolm and me and our little group, but Don, who worked not far away, was part of a group that was big into World Of Warcraft. At that specific time, being up on WOW, being in a guild, and talking about the game was part of the social lubrication at the software company. It helped people find common ground and bond.

I think if we were more specific about what we meant by culture, it would seem less mysterious. Does “not a culture fit” mean that they are too quiet, and on your team, only loud people succeed? Does it mean you think they are arrogant and don’t want to work with them? When you leave a job because it’s not a culture-fit, maybe just say its because your boss was an asshole. Or because they were misogynistic or management didn’t value front-end developers or whatever it is.

Say the quiet parts aloud, and culture doesn’t seem so mysterious.

Today’s episode is about someone changing a large culture in a very real way, and one of her tricks was specifically understanding how people were interacting with each other and how it could be improved. When we are specific, we can make changes.

You should listen to it, and also, if you want eight equal-sized pieces of cake, you first use two cuts to cut the cake into four equal pieces and then stack the four pieces, one on top of the other, and cut through them all - top to bottom.


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