4 Apr, 2023 | 3 min read

WSO2: Beyond the Fun and Frivolity, is a Culture of Tough Love

  • Zaithoon Bin Ahamed
  • Director Corporate Communications - WSO2

A couple of weeks ago, my two nephews (aged 11 and 7) were passing by the WSO2 office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and dropped in to say hello. It was teatime, and the ground floor was abuzz with people taking a break to grab a snack and have a cuppa over chit-chat. At one end of the floor, a group of people were experimenting with the musical instruments set up for anyone to play and sing. The two kids (both budding musicians themselves - one learning to play drums, the other, piano) couldn’t have picked a better time to visit. With their heads turning from the melodious performance in one corner to the mouthwatering hotdogs and chocolate milk in the other, they both chorused, “Aunty Zai, when we grow up, we want to work at WSO2!”

This certainly is the first, heart-warming impression we display across many of our offices across the globe, at least where we have offices. But even where we don’t, the teams come together regularly in their respective locations to bond and enjoy a few laughs over drinks and nibbles. Food, music, and games certainly bring people together and, above all, help build solid relationships that have certainly supported in sustaining our fun, yet ‘tough love’ culture of open debates, constructive feedback, and discussions that challenge the status quo across all functions of the business. 

How did it all begin and what’s the secret ingredient?

WSO2’s founders, Sanjiva Weerawarana and Paul Fremantle, used their IBM and life experiences to create a culture of being open, fair, and simple - the kind of place that people could thrive in—when they set up the company back in 2005. With a long-term vision of being the No. 1 technology company in the world, the heart and soul still center around people - now just under 1,000 across 8 locations worldwide. 

The culture is powered by one simple value: treat people the way you want to be treated.

Our business strategy has progressed to more than being 100% open source. Today, we offer application development and IAM technologies (available as open source or SaaS) to create awesome digital experiences quickly, easily, and securely.And that journey has been shaped by our evolving culture of how we work and treat each other globally, helping us to do what we do. One thing has stood still though - there are no rules at WSO2 in terms of how we manage our daily work, our open and flexi-work culture has always been our way of life.

How has our culture evolved? 

In the early days, we had around 30 phrases (depicted in the image below) that guided us in how we worked, engaged, and treated each other in the office. Actually, they’re not just relevant to one’s professional life, but rather a self-development journey that in turn helps you to be more valuable to any organization and society. The one thing that’s stood out for me is the transparency and openness in terms of access to information. 

Now that we’re a larger team across multiple locations, can we relate to and remember these building blocks? As with anything, we believe that culture must evolve to be relevant and thereby make us stronger as an organization. While what we stand for still remains engraved in our culture, we took a stab at simplifying how we articulate this so it resonates with every person who walks through our doors, no matter where they are in the world. After all, we’re in the business of creating awesome digital experiences for our customers, so it all starts with memorable experiences and journeys as employees. 

So we summed up all of the above behaviors into one simple value, supported by four maxims.

What does this mean?

Simply put, this means we will treat everyone (leads, peers, customers, vendors, etc.) the way we want to be treated, in a fair, open, honest, and respectful manner. This relates to transparency in how we communicate internally and do business externally. To put these behaviors into perspective, we have four maxims that guide and remind us about our way of life.

Trust and openness

We enable the fluidity of information through openness. Yes, we have titles and levels, but they don't matter when it comes to contributing toward strategic and day-to-day conversations. We have open mail threads, and anyone can subscribe to them and contribute to ongoing conversations. 

We ask questions, give feedback, and trust but verify. We’re not afraid to ask questions and give (and also be open to receiving) constructive feedback because we believe that encouraging different perspectives will help us- make better, more effective, and more relevant decisions. 

We don’t micromanage; we believe everyone can manage themselves. We’ve always had a flexible work policy, so we focus on the work and not on the clock. This means you can organize your day’s work as you see fit, manage your time, and get work done. 

Courageous honesty

We have no hidden agendas; we’re honest with ourselves and each other, even if it’s outside of our comfort zone. It takes courage to be honest, especially if we’re standing in the face of opposition. We don’t have hidden agendas internally and no gimmicks when dealing with customers and vendors. 

If we see something, we say something. We don’t take things personally; we focus on getting things done. This means we all take responsibility to clean up, fix things, call out, or ask for help if required to ensure a positive environment. 

We’re honest about successes and failures and discuss them openly. This means we will be honest with ourselves and with each other, even if we make mistakes. We believe that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks, which is key to creativity and innovation.

Purpose and passion

We nurture a culture of meritocracy where performance and meaningful contribution are valued and rewarded. We’re passionate about our work, and we reward performance and acknowledge contributions irrespective of tenure and title. Basically, you have to do something meaningful to be recognized. 

We encourage employees to build their personal brand, both internally and externally. And there’s plenty of opportunity to do so within WSO2. There are no borders or boundaries, and everyone can get involved and contribute in multiple ways. Ultimately, it’s the passion and drive that help you succeed in personal brand building and become influential within and outside of the organization. 

We’re passionate and committed to our shared vision and do our part to make things happen. Every employee is important at WSO2, whether you’re building products, marketing or selling, supporting customers, or taking care of people and the offices across our locations. We all work in collaboration toward achieving a common goal. 

One team 

We embrace what each team member has to offer and work as one team to support the growth of the company. We don’t think there are dumb questions or stupid ideas. We hire people for their individual talent, and we believe with our collective mind power we can do great things - and we have!

We don’t have space for ‘jerks.’ We respect each other, even if we disagree or have different opinions. So, there is no tolerance for jerk-like behavior at WSO2. We believe in supporting each other rather than competing.

We don’t point fingers; we focus on solutions. People make mistakes, things break, and not everything goes according to plan sometimes. We don’t blame people; rather, we learn from the past and do better. There are no blame games at WSO2. Just the drive for continuous development as one team.

At WSO2, everybody contributes toward uplifting our culture and making this a fantastic place to work, whether it’s crafting strategy, building products, supporting people, or cleaning up. 

I didn’t explain all of these details to the kids, but I wanted to drive home an important point about our culture. So, once they had finished tucking in, I pointed to the droplets of hot dog sauce on the table and the empty glasses of chocolate milk in the recreation area of the office and said they needed to wash up and tidy the place because we always clean up after ourselves - it’s our individual responsibility that makes things happen at WSO2. 

They (I hope) got the message that we work with love and passion and also treat each other and our spaces with care and respect, which allows us to continue to learn, innovate, and celebrate. I think it worked, because they still want to work for WSO2!