King for a Day – My Visit to Zappos (Part 1)

Late last summer a group of friends were planning a trip to Las Vegas and invited me to come along. I struggled to rationalize the trip until finally settling on the excuse. While in Las Vegas, I promised myself that I would perform research by visiting the headquarters of Zappos, the successful online retailer known for its incredible corporate culture. The goal was to witness first-hand a company that has mastered the art of creating a fun yet productive culture while also serving to motivate me in my own career. I apologize if I spoil the surprise, but it worked!

Planning

I am a bit of a veteran when it comes to Vegas trips. I know what I like and therefore I optimize for those things. However, I was a bit nervous about setting up the tour with Zappos because being productive and talking business does not normally fit into the schedule of planned events when I am on the strip. Fortunately, during planning my nervousness soon turned into excitement.

I reached out to Zappos customer service by finding an e-mail address on their website. Shortly thereafter, I received an informative and encouraging e-mail from someone at Zappos.

Hello,

In an effort to share our culture with visitors we open our doors and offer an experience of the Zappos Environment first hand through a tour. I would love to help facilitate a visit to our office, to include a tour.

Tours are offered Monday through Thursday; and the tour duration is 75 minutes. Tours typically start at 9:00am and the last tour starts at 3:00pm.

Please provide a date and an arrival time, and I’ll coordinate a schedule. One of our wonderful tour guides will WOW you with our history of service.

Zappos.com extends a complimentary shuttle service to all of our guests. If you are interested in the shuttle, please provide the pickup and drop off location(s) as well as a cell phone number.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best Regards.

It may seem like a simple e-mail but I was downright surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, given Zappos’ reputation. The e-mail simultaneously answered nearly every question I had and reinforced my impression that the visit would be worthwhile. I immediately began looking forward to the tour. Looking back, throughout all my interactions with Zappos employees on the visit, I was received with similar tones of courtesy and relevant information.

The Tour

The tour of the Zappos campus was quite fun. Our tour guide, although fairly new to the company, was well trained and a good conversationalist. He delivered enormous amounts of functional knowledge about the company and each department in a very short time. I found the professionalism of every employee to be quite impressive but clearly information is not what made the tour fun.

Although I came to the tour alone, I was included in a group with 13 other people who all worked together at a Zappos supplier. This made things a bit awkward at first, but the tour included multiple tactics to get us out of our comfort zone. Some visitors walked around with Zappos flags, others were asked to ring a bell and yell something that nobody would know about them, and still others got to engage in a hula hoop competition with a random employee (who happened to be walking by at the wrong time). Because doing these things felt completely acceptable, nay expected, it did a great job of loosening up our moods. Additionally, only volunteers did these things. No one was forced to be embarrassed by the zany antics.

Zappos’ culture was very welcoming toward visitors. Almost every department we passed did something to acknowledge us and to make us “feel like Kings.” Many of them shook noisemakers, jingled bells, or played funky music on their computers. Some had funny stories or poems prepared for us. From a visitor’s perspective, I felt special to be welcomed in this way as opposed to feeling like a nuisance to people in the building. From an employee’s perspective, I could not imagine being happy about the distraction of a sizable group of people strolling through my office regularly, and me being expected to make noise and interact with them, but there will be more about that opinion in part 2 of this blog post.

The folks at Zappos wanted to make absolutely sure I left the building with a positive impression. In addition to all the free information, popcorn, and smiles I received, they gave me SWAG! I could barely carry it all (a backpack, Zappos Monopoly, culture books, and more). They let me and the other visitors choose a hard back book from their 2 large book cases in the lobby. I took home The 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss. Given that I was on a mid-week Vegas trip I had traveled to Nevada with just a carry-on. There was no way that I could pack all my new stuff and take it home. While I was leaving the Zappos headquarters, I briefly had the thought to ask them if they would ship my stuff home for me. I honestly got the feeling that I would have, but I did not ask.

Conclusion

Visiting Zappos and taking the tour accomplished everything I had hoped. It taught me a great deal about how a unique culture can have brilliant effects, it was fun, and it inspired me to better myself so that I may be more desirable to future employers that have a similar environment. I absolutely recommend that you take a tour yourself. As long as you are interested in business, web development, shoes, or fun, it will be worth your while.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post, in which I analyze the productivity benefits and drawbacks of Zappos’ environment.

Great Questions to ask at an Interview


Photo by TheoGeo

Throughout my experience, I have found a wide variation in the quality of work environments of my employers. Speaking as a software developer, some have been healthy & productive, while others have been bureaucratic and restrictive. Therefore, it became a goal of mine to compile a list of questions that I could ask an interviewer of a prospective employer to determine if it would be a place I would like to work. I didn’t get far.

Then recently I stumbled upon a great StackOverflow question. It is essentially an attempt to do what I had always wanted to do: collect a list of indicators about a company that should be viewed as warning signs.

With this content as inspiration I give you my small list of original questions as well as a summary of my favorite entries from Stack Overflow.  My questions cannot uncover all issues.  However, the questions are meant to be questions you can actually ask your interviewer and not be viewed as nosey.

What is the potential for Developers to have to do support? Is Developer support necessary during non-business hours?

Unless working for an EXTREMELY small company, you do not want to be responsible for first-level support. This is bad for several reasons: it limits your productivity, is not an efficient use of your skills, and can be unnecessarily stressful.

What access do other departments (e.g. Sales, QA, Technical Support) have with Developers?

This is simply another question to determine how often other departments may interrupt your productivity. If the person doing Technical Support asks you to fix every issue without troubleshooting first, then you are essentially doing first-level support.

What does the team typically do for lunch (e.g. going out, eating together vs eating at desks)?

The response you want to hear should be based on personal preference but I like to see that the team eats together a couple days a week and the other days work at their desks.

What is the make-up of the team (e.g. experiences, roles)?

I want to hear that the team is diverse. Most important, to me, is that there are at least some people who are more advanced than me. Secondly, I like to see different cultures & perspectives represented, such as males/females, different nationalities & attributes.

How are developers measured?

Lines of Code, although popular, is an extremely flawed metric.

Favorites from the responses on StackOverflow

  • Is the primary development language an in-house only product?
  • Was it too easy for you to get an offer from the company? (Are there no programming questions when interviewing a new developer?)
  • Is the work environment noisy making it difficult to concentrate?
  • Is the work schedule an inflexible 8-5?
  • What is your refactoring strategy?
  • Is access to the internet blocked at work?
  • Do the developers work on multiple projects in parallel?
  • What are developer workstations like? Single-Monitor?
  • What is the tester to developer ratio?

Remember, an interview is a rare opportunity for you to try and determine where you want to work. So ask these questions and good luck!