A while ago, someone asked me what I considered a good company culture, and I cited BBN. I don’t really have an interest in working there again, simply because it’s not the type of business I want to work in — contract R&D, mostly for the government. I left back at the beginning of the dot com boom to get into something more consumer oriented, and that’s what I still prefer.
But my stint at BBN was the longest salaried tenure of my career, and it was comfortable enough I could have stayed indefinitely. And I only have fond memories of that place as a great place to be a programmer.
What was so great about it? Well, it’s mostly stuff you appreciate when you leave. It had an intellectual culture. One of my coworkers got into an animated discussion of wavelets, which was one of the cool new things back then, and a passerby stopped and said, “wavelets? wavelets?” It may not contribute to the bottom line like discussions on monetization, but it sure is more interesting and less mind-deadening.
Programmers, and really all the tech staff, were respected. We all had our own offices. This didn’t inhibit interaction. On the contrary, it facilitated spontaneous gatherings to discuss the issue of the moment or collaborate on some code, instead of people mashing around a cubicle while innocent bystanders (cubesitters) try to shut out the distraction with headphones. It’s kind of hilarious that one such spontaneous meeting with my whole group appeared in my office just as I got a job offer over the phone (the one I ended up accepting). Awkward.
There was an atmosphere of trust. You could check out books from the well-stocked library just by writing the book title and your office number in a box of index cards. Self serve honor system. Despite being a defense contractor, we didn’t have preemployment or random drug tests, like most of the other defense contractors I talked to.
Office politics were minimal. The person who asked me about culture scoffed when I said this, but it’s true, from where I sat, I really didn’t see any politics, and I’ve seen plenty at other places (at my first job, working for Texas Instruments, I was pretty depressed thinking that this would be the rest of my career). The most workplace friction I saw was my boss wondering if my coworker could maybe show up for work before three in the afternoon. He was pretty cool. We had kind of a funny exchange when I told him I was leaving for another job — he offered to give me a raise to stay, I said I wouldn’t feel right about changing my mind and staying just for more money, and he said he liked that and that’s the only reason he was willing to offer more, but of course, then I would have really felt like a jerk if I took it.
There was no executive elitism as far as I could tell. No executive cafeteria (which I was kind of startled to find that Sun had one). When I left, the VP of my division gave me an informal exit interview — it was his standard practice to ask everyone leaving about any issues they could address. In fact, when I had an on-campus interview with BBN, I didn’t realize the interviewer was also a VP — he merely chuckled and said, “yeah, they make me do a little of everything” when I mentioned I’d seen him at the company open house. (slap myself on the forehead)
Quality of life wasn’t short-shrifted. The company held training sessions on CPR and rollerblading. I participated on the company soccer team (we got wasted by Digital) and played pickup basketball at lunch with a combination of programmers and accountants. By the way, when you have coworkers who cheerfully recount their days in Cambodian labor camps when they were allowed to forage for fresh fruit, you feel like an idiot complaining about the morning’s ethernet outage.