Here There Be Popsicles

Too many software start-ups attempt to develop a so-called "corporate culture" based on frat house living. Beer bashes, video games, foos-ball tables, pickup basketball teams, free soda, fantasy sport leagues, mandatory scavenger hunts and team-building nonsense (inevitably on the weekend), etc. Oh yeah, did we mention the beer? FREE BEER! Now THAT'S a WICKED AWESOME COMPANY CULTURE!
From the Cranky Product Manager's female (and older) vantage point, this all seems so stunted and sad. Like a geeky 11-year-old boy's idea of paradise. She knows that many women don't fit into such "cultures" (they were never meant to, after all) and never quite feel at home in them. The Cranky Product Manager knows she never really did, although she played along.

- "Biz of Software 2010, Women in Software & Frat House 'Culture'," October 13, 2010.

While a post last week (excerpted above) has been fueling the most recent, somewhat predictable debates about women feeling welcome in tech, shifting attention to the frat culture posturing in job ads and conference panels about startups is relevant for the tech industry as a whole.

In the summer of 2000, I was temping at marchFIRST on a college summer break. I arrived as many were leaving, and the large army of Aeron chairs in the building's basement storage unit waited silently to be pressed again into service. The company was, of course, hiccuping in an unhappy merger that would later that year nosedive stock prices and eventually dissolve the behemoth into small offices acquired by others.

I didn't know any of that at the time. There were big ads in newspapers that summer much talked about internally, announcing the new company's branding, and slick graphics kept cycling through the home page of this "new company for a new economy," but the contents of the break room refrigerators delivered the most substantial sweetness, as far as staff was concerned.

PopsicleTo hear startup founders talk about fratty company culture of the pizza/beer/foosball variety you would think this has always been the norm, but the games in the break rooms at marchFIRST felt more suited for Chuck E. Cheese than beer pong. Near the mini-basketball hoop in one break room, the refrigerators were stocked with great ice cream—and by great ice cream, I mean nostalgia bars, cones, and sandwiches, not artisanal gelato. Damn, did we ever love the free ice cream. Especially the creative floor.

Stepping swiftly around corners to avoid a talented rollerblader who skated to meetings, I would deliver packages and mail to this favorite department, navigating around landmark desks with mammoth collections of Pez dispensers and collectible art toys. These desks I was saddest to see empty, as those responsible for an important part of the internal culture fell away, taking new positions and relocating.

When I think about the startups most exciting to work for now, I think of the happy energy of Kickstarter, of the enthused group at Photojojo. Like the primary colors of the conference rooms in Web 1.0 (that, to be sure, sported cutesy names), there is a playful, fun style these groups cultivate, and it persists across their internal and external presence. If they have pizza and beer activities, it's more likely to be part of a movie night they host for their community. And the movies they screen? The ones we loved when we were younger.

Three weeks ago, I launched a startup and someday, we might actually have an office. I want that office to have excellent treats (we'll likely chase a cupcake truck together), and, more importantly, be a place where we are all under the table and dreaming.

Kristen Taylor is the founder and CEO of Galvanize. Follow her on Twitter.

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