The Aussie start-up with a culture you would kill for

The Aussie start-up with a culture you would kill for

Atlassian has a strong innovation DNA that other organisations should emulate

Members of the Atlassian team.

Image: Aundray Cheam

Members of the Atlassian team.

Image: Aundray Cheam

Walking into Atlassian’s Sydney headquarters feels like you are in Silicon Valley. The campus is perched above the end of Martin Place; its kitchen stocked with free food, drinks machines, pinball and beer on tap.

This is one of the success stories of Australian start-ups and is easy to see why. The culture just oozes from the walls and the people who work there. Under the Atlassian uniform of t-shirts and hoodies beats a culture that most corporates would kill for.

It’s an innovative organisation that has gained a foothold in Australia and spread internationally. It has an enviable list of more than 40,000 customers including the likes of Citigroup, eBay, Coca-Cola, BMW and NASA.

It is my belief that we need more companies like Atlassian. In fact, that’s what Australia has to be promoting: creating innovative companies that compete and win globally. We need 100 more with just the same DNA as Atlassian.

Upon entering the building, Atlassian’s five core values are difficult to miss – they are posted front and centre on the walls at reception in large, bold print.

They are:

1. Open company, no bullshit

Atlassian embraces transparency. All information, both internal and external, is public by default. In the company's own words “we are not afraid of being honest with ourselves, our staff, and our customers.”

The company referred me to many examples that were in the public domain, so secrecy doesn’t appear to be part of its culture. Here’s one example. And here’s another.

2. Build with heart and balance

They strive to build products that people lust after as their goal.To the team at Atlassian building with ‘heart’ means really caring about what they’re making – it’s a mission, not just a job. By building with balance they take into account how initiatives and decisions will affect all stakeholders (colleagues, customers, and stakeholders.)

3. Don’t #@!% the customer

Their decision-making is based on asking: "How will this affect our customers?" Thus Atlassian's catchcry is that “we want the customer to respect us in the morning.”That’s an admirable quality in this age of bottom line profitability.

4. Play as a team

We often hear of teamwork as a principle. Atlassians actually feel that they work with Atlassian, not for Atlassian. They think it’s important to have fun with your workmates while working and contributing to the team. Subtly different, my observation is that staff there look to be having fun as a collective group.

5. Be the change you seek

Gandhi had it right and I couldn’t agree more with this principle. You’ve got to love the values of this organisation. They are simple, and the staff can easily remember them. I hear my guide, head of product marketing for the company’s JIRA Service Desk business unit, say he was particularly attracted to this value.

Innovation process is all about customer demands

It’s very clear this is a customer driven company. Everywhere you venture, you see photos of the ‘customer persona’ that its products are being created for. It seems that every spare wall is used for agile stand-up meetings and past post-it sessions with cards representing this persona.

Clearly it is not about technology for tech sake, but to meet an identified customer need. As a visitor it is obvious that they’re living their values – it’s what you observe without trying too hard.

I've seen similar customer journey mapping in corporations which are soon forgotten when project teams are in delivery mode. But at Atlassian, it is front and centre and integrated into the agile development process.

‘Don’t #@!% the customer’ is a value that is practiced and built into their own way of doing things.

I’ve seen many examples of where, management teams inadvertently #@!% the customer, when they are chasing revenue targets or creating new policies on fees and charges. It is hard to always remember what matters when you are in the heat of battle.

Eating your own dog food

This is a saying that I’ve heard for many years, and it is indeed embedded in the Atlassian process. Any new product has to meet a customer need or an anticipated market opportunity. They ‘dogfood’ their products to ensure they're reliable, and that has contributed a lot to their popularity with customers.

One such example is JIRA Service Desk, which was developed internally because the external options evaluated just didn’t meet their mark.

The product was adapted and used internally and is now the fastest growing product in the company’s history.

By the way, I use the word ‘sold’ loosely as there are no sales people employed by Atlassian. It’s 100 per cent word of mouth. I just love the fact that there is no hard sell – again so consistent with their values.

Another product, Confluence is another example of eating their own dog food and this is used extensively within Atlassian.

Also I picked up that Atlassian cycle their developers through the support team, hence they understand the product and get to hear customers concerns. Now, that’s novel.

The ShipITNow hackathon

The organisation runs 24-hour hackathon events where they build and release new products. There is no monetary reward, but pride and a trophy, most importantly you get a ShipIt t-shirt, which is clearly a badge of honour.

You just have to love, the passion and commitment that ShipIt demonstrates. So popular is the event that it is now streamed with 300+ entries and the process is ongoing. Products such as JIRA Service Desk came from ShipIt.

These events are all about collaboration and innovation. What can be built in 24 hours and with which colleagues you work with is your choice. Thus you can build a new product, plugins, features, process, patterns or internal tools. There are no restrictions on scope or focus area.

It's not something put on that emulates innovation, but actually their ongoing process to design, build and develop new products or features. That number of 300 innovation entries is significant. Remember that this is an organisation of 1,000+ staff.

ShipIt is a source of continuous innovation that is built into the culture and company and not bolted onto the side of the enterprise as we see in many corporate examples.

An engaged, high performing team

Atlassian has been named as Australia’s best place to work by BRW and enjoys average attrition in the single digits.

My belief is this is due to the innovation culture Atlassian has built, and clearly it is just not that many alternative organisations that can offer such an attractive proposition in Australia. That’s part of the broader concern that this country has to address.

However, it is also is important to highlight that there is a severe shortage of digital talent in Australia, and right now just over 20 per cent of the staff at Atlassian are working here are on 457 visas and have been attracted to the company to fill gaps that can’t be sourced locally.

With such great products and reputation, my curiosity around what smarts are in place around testing at Atlassian. This was simple: there is an expectation that development teams deliver software that works. Each team finds their own bugs and don’t expect the QA team to do this.

In a similar vein, there is an agile organisation structure that supports this culture. When they say that they are agile, what they mean is that resources can be moved between tams to support product or business strategy. That whole fungible structure that in enterprises we always wanted.

Sustaining the innovation mojo

How does Atlassian maintain this momentum and agility? As it develops more products and grows across different countries, this question will be: how will cycle times be maintained and improved? The strategic question will be around improving from the average cycle times for new releases at Atlassian.

Right now new features can be deployed from ideation through to being released in a few weeks to a few months. It just depends on the complexity of the product and of the changes in the release. While that is not as swift as Atlassian wants to be, that’s fast compared to many of the competitors in their space.

What I see is that Atlassian tries different approaches and measures results every time. If it works they keep it, and if this fails they try something else. That’s why ShipIt has been able to double in size and number of locations over the last 18 months and continue to work.

Another great example is the 20 per cent explore and discovery time. This all started as one day per week, or 20 per cent of one’s work commitment. Some teams have changed this to allow larger more complex problems and instead have a week once a month to tackle these challenges.

Atlassian is a great example of a strong innovation DNA that we need to learn from and emulate.

David Gee is the former CIO of CUA where he recently completed a core banking transformation. He has more than 18 years' experience as a CIO, and was also previously director at KPMG Consulting. Connect with David on LinkedIn.

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