As Dharmesh Shah recently presented at SXSW, the interest paid on culture debt can often be higher than the interest on technical debt (Full Blog Post).  From Dharmesh’s post:

“I’m going to posit that the effective interest rate on the culture debt you take on is often higher than that of technology debt.  That is, when it comes time to pay off the debt — a lot of damage is done.  There are a couple of reasons for this:  

1) When you incur technology debt (like not adding sharding to your database), you generally will start feeling pain at some point, and you’ll then decide to pay off that debt.  It’s a known problem and when you solve it, you’ll sort of know you did. That’s not the case with cultural debt.  Culture debt is insidious.  It creeps in slowly.  It’s hard to measure.  

2) Technology debt is often “forgiven”.  This happens when a short-cut you took ends up not being a bad thing anyways.  An example might be that you hacked together an MVF (minimum viable feature) for something in the app.  The code is crap.  You’re not proud of it.  Then later, you decide to abandon that particular feature.  Guess what, your tech debt on that feature was just forgiven.  That almost never happens in cultural debt.  If you bring on people that aren’t a fit, they’ll infect other parts of the organization, and will be really hard to get back to where you want to be.”

While the interest rate is higher on culture debt, I’d add that the dividends are also higher with culture than with technical dividends. At my company, Dimagi, we pride ourselves on our culture; attracting the right type of people—whether they join our international field staff, developer, management, or operational teams—continues to strengthen that culture.  Strong cultures (both good and bad) become self-reinforcing, causing the culture to become more and more deeply ingrained.

When you strike down a good idea because it doesn’t fit into an existing process and you’re just too tired or busy to explain politely why those processes exist in the first place, that person is less apt to bring something up in the future.  When you are having a bad day and take it out on co-workers for no reason, they remember that too.  However, when you have a strong culture, people call you out on these things, your communication is such that you explain and/or apologize, and then you do the right thing.  The result? The culture is even stronger at the end of the day.  Oh, and I’m not being hypothetical here, that’s me I’m talking about. Luckily my co-workers quite enjoy calling me out when I err, I mean act human.

And now I get to brag: at Dimagi, we’re very open to new ideas, very rigid about wasting time, and passionate about what we do.  I was walking out of a meeting last Friday with a four-day old hire called Rosa who joined us from an Algerian humanitarian camp. Rosa commented on how nicely surprised she was that we were so driven and yet so open at the same time; since she joined we’ve already been kicking around two different humanitarian assistance applications of our technology.  And this is coming from a person whom we just on-boarded in Boston before she’ll be heading to Johannesburg with instructions from our South Africa office to “just come to Jo’burg and from there we’ll figure out where you head”. I’m confident that when we send someone to be trained under Rosa, our culture is going to get even better.