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Datavant Way: The DNA of Our Distinctive Culture

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Holly May
May 4, 2021

The greatest companies have distinctive cultures — cultures that attract great people and define how an organization works together to pursue a mission and build a huge business.

Some of the greatest companies have written down their cultural playbooks: the Netflix Culture deck (from 2009) and the HP Way (from 1980) were cultural manifestos that shaped Silicon Valley.

The “Datavant Way” is the DNA of our distinctive culture and the team we are aspiring to build. We’ve grown from 0 to 85 team members over the last 3.5 years, on pace to double again this year (and have built one of the fastest-growing businesses in healthcare).

As we scale to 1,000 people, these are the guiding principles for what makes our culture distinctive:

  • Pillar 1: Lean, high performing team of people who are “Smart, Nice, and Get things done”
  • Pillar 2: Growth, not comfort (learning over mastery)
  • Pillar 3: Self-management is fundamental
Datavanters enjoy a socially-distanced park gathering during COVID times

Pillar 1: Lean, high-performing team of people who are “Smart, Nice, and Get things Done”

We are building a lean, high-performing team of people who are “Smart, Nice, and Get things done” — these are the non-negotiable traits of a Datavanter. We are more like a professional sports team than a family: goal-oriented, assembled by choice, with a specific mission and changing members.

We pursue this because:

  • A team of 50 exceptional-achievers can out-perform a team of 50,000 average-achievers
  • Excellence spreads slowly, mediocrity spreads quickly

In practice, this looks like:

1. Exceptional colleagues, only:

  • We work with exceptional colleagues who will challenge, teach and support us.
  • We hold our colleagues to high standards and trust that they hold us to those same standards.
  • We hire for strong strengths rather than the lack of weakness. Anybody in the hiring process can veto a candidate, but a strong champion is also needed to move forward with a candidate

2. No brilliant jerks:

  • We only hire people who we believe are exceptional in three dimensions: smart, nice, and get things done.
  • We evaluate these three traits (in a structured way) across all teams and roles and only hire candidates who shine in all 3 categories.
  • We hold ourselves and our peers to high standards, yet we balance that productive tension with being nice, humble, collaborative and supportive. This balance is rare.

3. Hire to up-level the team:

  • We increase talent density with every hire we make.
  • We only hire people who we believe will be 10’xers to the organization.
  • This means we do not hire for convenience (e.g., to fill an urgent role), and we worry much less about false negatives (failing to hire a potentially exceptional Datavanter) than false positives (hiring someone who does not up-level the team).
  • Controlling for “smart, nice, and gets things done,” diversity on all other attributes uplifts the team.

4. Use same criteria for hiring and performance management:

  • Managers are regularly responsible for asking themselves, “knowing what I know now, would I champion this person in the hiring process?”. If the answer is no, the manager is accountable for providing prompt performance coaching and, without improvement, exiting that Datavanter from the organization.
  • We acknowledge that Datavant is not the right team for all people at all times. We should treat people fairly and with dignity (no shame), while maintaining a high standard and parting ways when there’s not the right match.

5. Build an environment where anyone who is “Smart, Nice, and Get things Done” can thrive:

  • We aspire to build an inclusive environment for all people who are exceptional on all three of those dimensions
  • We try to build an environment where people can play to their strengths (rather than overcome their weaknesses). For instance, our CEO’s “achilles heel” is that he does not enjoy public speaking. Rather than “fix it” by getting a speech coach or joining Toastmasters, we spotlight other leaders who enjoy the opportunity to step up, he frequently provides written communication, and he is able to play to his other strengths.

6. Reward performance and impact:

  • We are all owners and hold equity in Datavant: when Datavant does well, we all do well.
  • Like a competitive sports team — we pay for performance and impact and, as such, large raises are given in real-time to reflect increases in impact.
  • We are committed to compensation that is externally competitive (San Francisco wages nationwide) and internally fair, supported with benchmarks, best practices, and compensation bands. We ask ourselves, “if our compensation were public, would we feel comfortable justifying it internally?”
  • We do not limit raises by tying them to a “raise budget by department” or once-a-year compensation review period — but rather follow the principles above
Cupcake baking event brought two Datavant teams together over Zoom

Pillar 2: Growth, not comfort

We have an ambitious mission — to connect the world’s health data. This mission bets on growth: the growth of ourselves, our teammates, our ecosystem, and our company. We optimize for growth, not stability or comfort.

We pursue this because:

  • Continuous growth of opportunities unlocks the potential of all Datavanters
  • Achieving our ambitious mission necessitates always taking on the next challenge
  • Prioritizing growth over stability in one’s role maintains agility

In practice, this looks like:

1. Large charters and stretch roles:

  • We strive to be the best place in the world for personal growth and do this by betting on potential and embracing a growth mindset (we are not limited by what we’ve done before).
  • We believe personal growth happens by being on the steep part of the learning curve and rising to the challenge of large charters and stretch roles.
  • We embrace roles that feel a bit “too big.” Successful Datavanters enjoy being thrown into the deep end (with floaties within reach) as opposed to slowly progressing from kiddie pool, too shallow end, to deep end.

2. Invest in each others’ growth:

  • The #1 priority of people managers is enabling the growth and performance of their direct reports.
  • We are shapers of our own growth, identifying needs and pitching charters to go after, and we are supported in doing so.
  • We view feedback as a gift and proactively provide and pull feedback from others.
  • We offer our time — white-boarding, pair coding, mentoring — to support and accelerate the growth of our teammates and we shout-out and celebrate the contributions of our colleagues

3. Love for learning:

  • We ritualistically run retrospectives to identify what we’ve learned and how we can improve.
  • Optional “Lunch and Learns” on everything from earthquake safety to epidemiology are packed events.
  • We make time to intentionally learn about each other whether by coffee chats, sharing pets on slack, our storytelling series, or our team rituals.

4. Adaptive organizational structure:

  • We understand that growth necessitates change: organizational design is like seats on a school bus — moving people around is common, and we make decisions fast.
  • We adapt to the organizational structure that will best support our goals for the next 6 months.
  • It is not uncommon to see Datavanters taking “tours of duty” in different departments as needs change, and we proactively build a bench of strong generalists to power this organizational flexibility.

5. Opportunities over constraints:

  • When it comes to goal-setting — personal goals, team goals, and organizational goals — we start with a “blank piece of paper” or no-constraints mindset. We think in terms of “what if…” rather than “we can’t because…”
  • We ask ourselves how do we move bigger, faster, sooner (whether that’s launching the largest real world database on COVID-19 in 3 weeks or creating a new market category in clinical trial tokenization).
  • We set big, hairy, audacious goals and are happy getting 70% there, knowing we’ve grown much more than we would have if we limited ourselves with constraints.
Celebrating Halloween across Datavant

Pillar 3: Self-management is fundamental

We hire people who are smart, nice, and get things done and give them more responsibility and fewer rules from Day 1. We hire exceptional people, set them up to grow, trust their judgement, and get out of their way, creating the space for individuals to master self-management.

We pursue this because:

  • Velocity of decision-making and action is one of the most important features of great tech companies. Maintaining agility and flexibility requires rapid, decentralized decision making
  • High-achievers do their best work when they have the autonomy to drive their own charters and outcomes

In practice, this looks like:

1. More impact and decisions per capita:

  • We proactively root out “decision by committee” or “decision by CEO”. Many more decisions are made bottom up than top-down.
  • We encourage debate, clarify “decision rights,” and disagree and commit (often with the manager disagreeing and committing to a direct report’s strategy).
  • People should be in stretch roles where they might fail from day 1 — and failure/risks should be embraced. New grad engineers have brought down the production environment in their first week. We celebrate that, not because of the oops, but because they have the independence and trust to make a big impact.

2. Owning the gray:

  • We embrace a “no job is too big, no job is too small” mindset of humility: close a $250,000 deal, then take out the trash.
  • We raise our hand when there is no clear owner.
  • We are more comfortable with “overlap” (too many Datavanters bringing solutions) than “underlap” (too few Datavanters bringing solutions).

3. Openness:

  • We openly share almost everything internally — board meeting notes, monthly revenue by customer, the CEO’s 360 review — and we are responsible with this information.
  • We only draw the line to protect patient or employee privacy.

4. Time management:

  • We value results out (not time in) and manage our own time.
  • We work when, where, and how we are most effective. We also acknowledge that when we’re in hypergrowth mode as a company with an intentionally lean team, generating results sometimes requires long hours.
  • We set our own ambitious deadlines and move towards them swiftly.

5. First principles, not pointless rules:

  • We start with guiding principles: we lead with (and align on) the why, rather than the how.
  • We use our best judgement to position ourselves to have maximum impact on the team and on our mission.
  • We get to the root of issues and are non-judgmental about the truth (this means no finger-pointing).
  • We do not have the pointless rules needed in the absence of self-management — we do not have an expense policy or a PTO policy. This is different from NO rules. We are committed to protecting patient privacy and employee safety; this responsibility involves some critically important rules.

6. Sweat the small things:

  • We flag issues. Most things in a company break during hypergrowth — it’s usually okay for things to break, it’s bad for things to stay broken.
  • We are shapers and we are fixers. To the best of our abilities, we bring proposals and solutions rather than problems (“here is what I am going to do to improve our account transitions” > “our account transitions are broken”).

And that’s Datavant Way — the cultural DNA that has powered our unprecedented progress connecting the world’s health data to improve patient outcomes. We are a high-performing team that embraces self-management as the foundation and opts for growth over comfort.

Does this sound like you or someone you know? We’re hiring!

Special thanks to Annie Powers for significant input shaping this article


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