Building a Hard Tech Culture

Team Lytro

Two weeks ago, our CEO, Jason, wrote about the challenges of running a hard tech startup, which he defined as a company where you are working on things so revolutionary that it’s not a given your core technology will work at all. To succeed, you need to think about and do things differently.  His article spurred me to think about the concept of a hard tech culture.  Every company’s success starts with its people, and culture defines how people work together as a full organization. At Lytro, while we work hard to build a diverse workforce, we have found that our hard tech employees have a number of common traits across the organization regardless of role, level, function, or other demographics:

  • Hard tech employees view their roles as something bigger than just a job. Most of our employees are on a journey – to invent and accelerate immersive VR and to revolutionize cinema. They are motivated by impossibly hard challenges and seek deeper meaning from their work.
  • Hard tech employees place a huge premium on career development and knowledge acquisition, and value it as much as, or even more than any of the other rewards associated with a start-up experience. They thrive in a collaborative environment where they can learn from their co-workers and mentors.
  • Hard tech employees set a super high bar for quality.  They are passionate about building things that are great, put their heart and soul into their work, and are their own toughest critics.   

So how do we consider the above traits in the way we build and nurture our culture?

We are unapologetically futuristic.  At Lytro, and at any hard tech start-up, our technological innovation has the potential to turn what used to seem like science fiction into today’s reality.  We bring a futuristic mindset to our work, and we take enormous pride in the complexity and magnitude of what we are trying to accomplish. One of the pivotal ways this gets translated into our culture is that the word “impossible” simply isn’t part of the Lytro vocabulary. We tackle the hardest challenges (e.g. data rates, resolution, calibration, compression) head-on, with passion and resilience.  If our work were easy to do, other people would be doing it and investors wouldn’t be funding it.  We break huge issues into digestible parts and work relentlessly until we figure out a viable path forward. When prioritizing our work, we choose to pursue opportunities that result in the most giant leaps in innovation and unlock the future of imaging. This has led us to the creation of previously unimaginable solutions, like the world’s first and highest resolution Light Field cinema camera, and the most amazing crane that enables on-set mobility of our cinema solution.

Recently, a job applicant asked me if we provide something akin to Google’s much-imitated 20% time perk, where one can do more exploratory, R&D work. I grinned as I explained the bleeding edge nature of the other 80% of “day-to-day” work in her equation. At Lytro, everybody’s job is to accelerate the definition and adoption of the VR and cinematic Light Field markets, which requires daily R&D.  Hard tech employees join companies hungry to do groundbreaking work all of the time.

We are passionate about our work, our team and our careers.  We know career development is a primary driver of our employee engagement – we have data that proves it year over year.  So we are actively investing in a development culture. Our bi-annual goal setting process asks employees to always commit to at least one professional development objective. As part of company policy, every employee is encouraged to pursue training, certification and conference attendance to further their growth, with approved budget support.

We always look first to promote from within, and there are so many examples of employees who came into Lytro in one role and who have expanded or shifted scope based on their unique skills and interests. Some of the people in the most pivotal roles shaping product, engineering and business operations came into the organization as entry-level or mid-level contributors, with limited experience but all the potential. We encourage our managers to have 1:1 meetings that focus on development and mentoring versus just general check-ins. Hard-tech companies create cultures where developing their people is as important as developing their products, and the former actually fuels the latter.

We strive to create state-of-the-art quality and to make our clients “superheroes.”  In the world of cinema and VR, quality is paramount, and as we go to market, we want to give our clients the tools, technology and support to enable their “powers” to tap their potential and amaze their audiences. What this means culturally is that we need to deeply understand our clients and evaluate the quality of our work through their critical eyes. It drives us to relentlessly root cause and fix issues at their core, and treat our internal quality bar as ruling principal.  When we work with our clients on productions, we share their triumphs and frustrations, and take them on as our own. When we develop our products, we do so with the clients in mind, and success is measured by our ability to deliver solutions that reveal a whole new dimension of the viewing experience. We want to make our clients proud and differentiate them from their competition.

During the Lytro Cinema production of “Life” and the Lytro Immerge VR test production of “Moon,” I was struck by our culture in action. It’s an “all-hands-on-deck” environment, where employees across all departments volunteered to help where they can, doing whatever it took to get the production quality where it needed to be. This singular level of focus, commitment, and team unity is the foundation of hard tech cultures that creates success and builds adoption in nascent industries a real possibility.  While it’s not a given your core technology will work in a hard tech company, the right people bound by the right culture will embrace the opportunity and put their hearts and minds to the task of finding a way to succeed, regardless of how impossibly hard the challenge is.

About Omer Cohen 3 Articles
Chief Operating Officer at Lytro, drummer, and family man trying to compete with younger, faster soccer players on Sundays.

1 Comment

  1. I find that culture is often mistakenly correlated with perks so kudos for articulating the *values* on which Lytro’s culture is built. A team bound by a common goal, individual sense of purpose and the avid pursuit of self-improvement is destined to achieve great things. Fight on!

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