We at Ziksana Consulting, a creative consulting firm that makes work productive through the science of play, connected with Mark Hurlburt, the current President of Prime Academy and former Chief Strategy Officer of The Nerdery, to hear more about how the unique culture at The Nerdery fuels productivity.
Picture this as your office:
“The company’s cubicles and workspaces are covered in Star Wars figurines, Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia and classic Nintendo game posters. When they’re not transforming clients’ grand ideas into ‘interactive marketing masterworks’ (that’s social media tools, mobile platform development, and e-commerce solutions—among other projects), employees play chess tournaments and wage Magic: The Gathering battles in the cafeteria. Conference rooms are plastered with wall-to-wall Marvel comic books and original Lego art; a couple rooms are even painstakingly decorated to replicate the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and the living room from The Simpsons (complete with crooked sailboat painting above the couch). Yes, The Nerdery headquarters feels less like an office than it does an awkward adolescent’s dream clubhouse.” Read more here
The Nerdery office in Chicago
Ziksana: What is The Nerdery? What do you do and what are examples of projects you’ve done?
Mark Hurlburt: The Nerdery is a custom software design and development company based just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. This group of digital orchestrators bring together stakeholders and specialists on digital strategy to deeply understand hard to solve business challenges of their clients and provide solutions that are designed to give results for these problems, often ones that don’t have easy solutions.
Some examples of their work include building a mobile app that opens garages to making a web app to help an HR department manage finding the right people and promoting within.
Ziksana: How would you describe the culture at The Nerdery?
Mark Hurlburt: It is a company run by nerds, for nerds. Here everyone can embrace their inner nerd: check out my former company bio photo, where I sported a Nintendo Power Glove.
One of the company’s goals: To be the best place in the world for web nerds to work.
The culture at The Nerdery is focused on embracing people’s passions. A Nerd is defined as “people who have an obsessive interest”, whether it be cool new tech, games, knitting, etc. The Nerdery is all about finding people to work there that are excited about other things in their lives. The company gives encouragement to bring those passions and talents into the workplace by granting workspace to start company clubs and organize events around what employees love. Examples include band practices culminating in a show (Rocktoberfest was a huge hit), internal development challenges like “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” that has choose your own adventure format, and events organized to give back, such as Extra Life, a 24-hour video game tournament to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
By celebrating the various interests and encouraging the sharing of passions with the people around them to build culture that way. Helping people to be excited about stuff together is a way to share in the leadership of the culture.
Ziksana: Was the culture at The Nerdery created organically or by design?
Mark Hurlburt: In between. The intentional piece to shape the culture from the top down is about staying true to core values established in the beginning. From the perspective of the management team, the executive leaders did not see themselves as creating or curating the culture but instead valuing culture as a way to shine a spotlight to bring attention to the existing passions within The Nerdery community.
The Nerdery Olympics a great example. Mark Seemann was a Nerdery developer who, after winning the first chess tournament, wondered if the title of ultimate nerd might have more facets than chess strategy. Seemann envisioned a week-long test of nerd abilities, with one event each day at lunch, culminating in the title for the best Nerd in the land.
Seemann pitched his vision, and the leaders embraced the idea fully. The Nerdery gave him a budget to lead Pentathanerd, a biannual event that includes such nerdy games as blindfolded pairs-based Rubik’s cube solving, building a toothpick structure that can be thrown off the roof and stay intact, chess, Iron Chef, video game challenges, and Pinewood Lego Monkeyball, to name a few. Even though he left the company, he has recently returned to be a guest judge for the legacy event he created.
The key is that the design of culture at The Nerdery is more about selectively expanding what already exists more than creating new activities. Rather than a ‘blue jeans Friday’ or mandatory fun activities that try to keep the company cool, The Nerdery finds interesting existing side passions among employees to magnify and catalyze those efforts.
Ziksana: In what ways is the culture at the Nerdery playful? Experimental?
Mark Hurlburt: The culture at The Nerdery is playful because the company is so much about encouraging play at work. Dogs are welcome at work – canines populate the premises every day- giving a “working from home” vibe to build a sense of friendliness where employees can talk about feeling at home.
The culture at The Nerdery is experimental in that there is a lot of learning from successes and failures because employees are positioned to explore technological innovation to build solutions for clients built around feedback loops and iterative approaches.
The culture is also great at sharing power: systematically, leaders encourage conversations across the hierarchy to build trust and distribute leadership throughout the organization. For example, Mindmeld is a bimonthly meeting that joined virtually where the executive team demonstrates transparency by sharing numbers with staff. Just after Mindmeld is Hungry Minds, a town hall-style forum where employees can ask questions directly to upper management. Both take place in the Luke J. Bucklin “Nerditorium” Hall, a venue that also hosts a happy hour-style social event called BottleCap every Friday afternoon. During BottleCap, free beer flows from kegerators while development teams share a bit about their current projects.
Ziksana: What is the relationship between play and productivity at The Nerdery? Is there ever an imbalance?
Mark Hurlburt: The relationship between play and productivity is a dynamic dance toward balance, a moving target. There is latitude given to individuals who are treated as adults when given liberty to decide how to spend time between client time, internal projects, and administrative tasks. In any given week there are people who are working late or even overnights. There can be bonding that happens during these intense work times, but if you’re not careful you can drive people away.
The trick is focusing the people managers on the care, wellbeing, and mental sanctity of employees so that nobody is in crunch time indefinitely – so that there is always sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.
The business of consulting consists of selling time and committing to intense an obligation, which is balanced with a culture that encourages employees to blow off steam in playful ways that make sense for each individual. Fun becomes the release valve against pressure so that fun and work are two sides of the same coin.
Ziksana: How can other companies learn and use principles about the relationship between play and productivity?
Mark Hurlburt: The main thing is that the company doesn’t get to decide what play is.
As a leader, instead of mandating fun, be willing to listen to your audience and all stakeholders to build in a release valve to offset the intense workload.
Ziksana: What does your culture result in for its people, and your clients?
Mark Hurlburt: The Nerdery has this great way of making people feel found- like they discovered the secret and found a path to someplace they belong. This feeling of contentedness affects how long they stick around and how happy they are. A piece of a person’s identity forms based on how he feels about his employer that is impossible to buy, difficult to create.
We have a radically transparent culture where—we truly believe the company is great because of the people who work here, and that it’ll remain so only if we continue to listen to them.
Photos courtesy of The Nerdery