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Real Joy, an Interview at Menlo Innovations

By Daniel Schorin - Guest Blogger, April 13, 2019

Culture is among the hottest topics in corporate buzz as of late. Large companies are engaging in bidding wars of epic proportions, constructing elaborate lounges, stocked fridges, and even go-kart stadiums to attract talented college graduates. Searching Amazon Books for the term ‘culture’ returns over 90,000 results; many of these books are near guaranteed sellers containing recycled content advocating for black box solutions that are ultimately devoid of prescriptive benefit. Rich Sheridan’s Joy, Inc., on the other hand, is different; it’s an honest approach to the culture concept that outlines the foundational changes that make Menlo Innovations so different, and so effective, with its workforce. Still, I was apprehensive about Sheridan’s techniques. Many of Menlo’s practices, such as open office spaces and pair programming, can be unpopular with modern employees. Some studies have demonstrated the inefficacy of these practices. While I concluded that these studies fail to incorporate important contextual and cultural factors that lead to the success or failure of these environments, I wondered what Sheridan built that truly differentiated Menlo Innovations from other, failed implementations. How did Menlo develop a culture that convinced typically introverted software employees to work all day in pairs, in a noisy open environment that directly contrasts the private, isolated workflow of the prototypical programmer? I had to see for myself.

How did Menlo develop a culture that convinced typically introverts software employees to work all day in pairs?"

This semester I’m enrolled in “Positively Leading People and Organizations,” a business class that requires a research project into organizational practices. My student group decided to center our project around team-based businesses and compare them to hierarchy-based organizations. I thought Menlo Innovations would not only be a pertinent field study for our team, but also an opportunity to see the culture at Menlo myself. I emailed Rich Sheridan, and within a few days, our team was scheduled for a meeting.

Prior to our visit, we were asked to bring a pizza to ‘convince Menlonians to talk to us.’ This at first seemed very bizarre, but the methodology soon became apparent. We were matched with two software developers who were not only ecstatic about the lunch we provided but just as happy to talk to our group and answer the many questions we had. Instead of forcing employees to talk to a group of random students, the meeting was structured to directly encourage employee participation. This positive incentivization encapsulates the driving force of cultural saliency that allows Menlo to achieve success in the organizational structures they employ.

Culture is tricky because the employees need to buy in. The more structured the organization’s practices are, the more important this buy-in becomes. Companies employ various approaches to encourage this buy-in. When I interned at a technology company, the organization mandated an 8-hour propaganda extravaganza, painted as a culture review, which consisted of the inebriated CEO regale us for hours about the company’s origins. This wasn’t effective, to me at least. After speaking with the two Menlonians (Kevin and Dan), I was introduced to multiple factors that facilitated this buy-in at Menlo. One of these factors is their hiring process. Instead of hosting phone interviews or behaviorals, Menlo’s job applicants are placed into challenges that directly simulate the workday of an employee. Applicants are paired with each other on paper-based tasks similar to the work they will do on the job. If they do well at supporting their pair what they’re getting themselves into. They’ve already ‘bought-in’.

Employees are effectively plug-n-play components that can work across the organization wherever they're needed."

Kevin and Dan describe Menlo’s work environment as a type of kindergarten. “We hammer in on the same social skills that are taught in kindergarten: treat people how you want to be treated.” Menlonians are kind to each other, and they have fun together. When I asked the developers what they thought about pair programming, they asked me how long I thought they’d been friends. Their bond was evident, and I guessed a number of years. I was wrong; ​they had just gotten to know each other that week. “It’s one of the best parts of the company, of pair programming . . . we have fun together.” Menlo doesn’t have to pretend to be fun, either. There are no foosball tables or bouncy houses in its office space. There aren’t even windows. But the employees don’t complain—​they’re too busy working together and enjoying it.

Menlo has built a culture around transparency and acceptance. “Admitting help, admitting where you are” is a “huge Menlo thing.” A lack of hierarchy results in a lack of competition among their employees. There are no specialists, which means there are no ‘towers of knowledge.’ Employees are effectively plug-n-play components that can work across the organization wherever they’re needed. Menlo’s employees are valued and feel valued, and that directly contributes to the company’s efficiency and positive culture.

Feedback is imperative to individual growth and organizational performance. Without clear avenues of communication between employees, opportunities to cultivate positive change are few and far between. Menlo’s environment, however, is naturally social. Teams are small but intra-team communication is common. It only took minutes into our interview to witness a double-team code review. The lack of hierarchy at Menlo appears to allow their workforce to be honest and constructive during feedback sessions, without the political threat of hamstringing upward mobility.

Building a culture that works is an incredibly nuanced, difficult task. When done well, it pervades palpable excitement. In my short time at Menlo, I witnessed joy.

In my short time at Menlo, I witnessed joy.