Do you like the culture in your workplace? In this SydStart workshop by Pivotal Labs, Lawrence Crowther (Sydney Director) and Catherine McGarvey (New York Director) talked about the importance of creating a culture where people want to work.

Find out the culture they have at Pivotal Labs and how it changed the way they build software.

Pivotal Labs: The Company

Pivotal Labs, which focuses on agile software development, is a division of the Pivotal software company. Its mission statement is to transform how the world builds software. One of the things they do to achieve this is they invite customers into the office to show them how they work. Then they come back to their own offices and become agile after the engagement. Find out what other things they do to achieve their mission as you go along this recap.

Pivotal Labs Background

The company started in 1998, and since then, they’ve been practicing the extreme programming style of agile development. Lean startup is another part of the service they offer when they do engagement together.

For a long time, they were just in the startup space, looking and working with different startups, many of which are now successful today. Now they’re doing both startups and enterprises, and they’re looking at big companies, because often, they’re the hardest ones to change.

Where People Want to Work

Catherine shared that thinking about the culture where people want to work is important for them because they do a lot of teaching and training on the job and they really want to keep employees engaged. They regularly ask people: “Why do you like working for us?” or “What’s the most exciting thing about our company?”.

The number one response: the people.

It’s the people there that make other people love working in their company. It’s the culture of who and why they hire, and that empowerment, which attracts people.

“You can have grand mission statements, but if no one wants to work with you in building them, you don’t really have that other part of the equation,” said Catherine.

The Culture of Pivotal Labs

Lawrence enumerated the six core principles that build the culture of Pivotal Labs.

Empathy is the number one ability that they look for when they hire people because at Pivotal Labs, they have a highly open and transparent environment. People really need to feel for others.

Communication is another key principle in their environment. Open communication fosters trust and trustworthiness around the group.

In the Pivotal Labs office, collaboration transpires through what they call “pair programming”. Two people sit and write code together. They do this across all the other disciplines — product design and product management — where they put two brains together to solve a problem. “When you have that collective ownership and shared knowledge, you can drive to an outcome much quicker,” Lawrence explained.

With abstract thinking,they always put their customers and users first. Having the user-centric point of view is very important so they can build the right thing at the end of the day for their customers.

Emotional intelligence is something where they need people to adapt. In this kind of fast-paced, agile environment, the customer requirements are changing almost daily and Pivotal Labs need people that can handle the constant change. They should be able to adapt and control their emotions in any given situation.

Cultural fit is the embodiment of all these core principles combined.

Lawrence summed up these principles into three actions:

  1. Do the right thing.
  2. Do what makes sense.
  3. Most importantly, be kind.

Interview Styles

When you look at the interview style of companies when they hire people, you often hear about interesting questions — but are they all effective? You should tailor your interviews and the process around the key traits or behaviors that you try to look for or avoid for that matter.

Pivotal Labs has a two-step hiring process. For example, when engineers arrive at Pivotal Labs, they’ll be doing pair programming. Lawrence shared that they give them a simple pair programming exercise to test their skills (core principles). Their process is very simple, and they can turn around candidates very quickly because they know exactly what they’re looking for.

They put these candidates to work on a real project with a customer for two reasons:

  1. To engage their technical and non-technical skills
  2. For the candidates to see if they want to be in that situation

“It’s really important that you hire empathetic people. Someone that can put themselves into someone else’s shoes and understand where they’re coming from. This skill is really important regardless of your role. You want to enjoy working with people that you work with each day,” Catherine said.

Sustainability Matters

“Sustainability does matter, because at the end of the day, happy staff produce their best work. Having a disciplined, structured approach to the way we do work leads to better outcomes,” shared Lawrence.

For Pivotal Labs, sustainability means 40 working hours a week. They do the standard 9am to 6pm work schedule everyday. Catherine noted that you can do more than 40 hours if that’s sustainable for you. What’s important is doing that consistently that lets you predict how long things are going to take and how that’s going for you.

“When you do a spike or you spend a lot of hours after work, you’re not really getting that balance back, and you end up paying for that maybe in the next day or for a couple [of days].” Catherine said. She also explained that it could take a while to recover from that and to be as efficient as you can be.

The image above shows an unexciting workplace. It’s like you’re better off working from home than be in the office, confined in a cubicle. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have quiet space, but this model focuses on you working independently and doesn’t really foster collaboration.

What you can see above is one of their standups at Pivotal Labs. They do it everyday at 9:05. The whole office gets together and they talk for five minutes. This lets them collaborate and get that cross-communication happen really quickly.

A Day in Pivotal Labs

Catherine talked about how they can manage work with the typical 9-6 schedule. Wondering how a day goes in Pivotal Labs? It may not seem like it for you but here’s what a grueling day in their office looks like.

People at Pivotal Labs have breakfast together to create a community outside of work. They talk about anything interesting that’s not related to work to foster the social aspect of the employees.

Their standup is a great avenue for sharing ideas and collaborating better. This is one of the short, sharp, and meaningful meetings.

After standup, they get down to work. Two developers (product designers or product managers) sit next to each other where the screens are mirrored. Then there’s two of everything: monitor, mouse, keyboard, but one machine. The purpose of this is to solve the problem together. Often, they verbalize their solutions and ideas out loud before they touch the keyboard.

They also do test-driven development. They take the requirements from the user point of view. They write a test first before the code to make sure they deliver the feature that the user wants. The pairs will bounce tasks between each other — test driving, running the code, and doing the flip-flop (technique for quick brainstorming), so everyone has a shared context of the system.

They continue pairing through the day and get exercise to step away from a problem and to come back with a fresh mind.

At the end of the day, they replenish. It’s another chance for them to socialize or do a mini-retrospective of the day’s activities.


The other thing that’s important in hiring and engaging people is to think about their motivation. To motivate employees, Catherine shared three unhealthy mentalities that they want to get rid of.

The first is to think of software engineers as superheroes. Catherine said they want to change the culture where employers only get excited about one person and instead be excited about the whole team who worked together to get anything out.

Next is the slave to the machine mentality. They want to discard the idea that people have to be in the office too early and stay for extra hours at work to be the best and most effective in the team.

Last is the millionaire outlook where employers feel the need to pay an employee 40x greater than the others just to keep that employee in the company.

As to what people should look for in every job, Catherine cited bestselling author Dan Pink and his three elements of the motivation formula — autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy – being able to own your own work

Mastery –  having the opportunities to learn, improve, and grow

Purpose – being connected to the company’s mission, brand, and impact

If you talk about going massive, make sure your team’s on board with that and they understand what it takes to get there. You have to constantly check what has changed. Is your mission still the same? If you need to change that, change your vision as well, and involve your whole team.

As a recap, these are the things employers must keep in mind to motivate their employees:

  1. Empowering your team to work and to trust them to work that way
  2. Giving them that opportunity to grow and grow on the job
  3. Connecting them to your purpose and your vision is really important to keep them engaged and also help them feel they’re part of what you’re building

Watch the full Pivotal Labs workshop by getting a digital pass.