Duo’s Recipe for Great Culture
After years of immersion, here’s what I believe is Duo’s recipe for great culture. It’s based on my interviews and observations of about 200 people in Duo’s R&D team of designers, engineers, and product managers—all of whom were 100% remote during the height of COVID-19. My hope is that if I put these ingredients under a magnifying glass, then you’ll be able to more easily recognize the signs of a good workplace and, by joining one, discover more fulfillment in work and life.
As I toured Duo’s office at 123 N Ashley after a long day of interviews, what struck me most wasn’t the security startup’s craft beer or floor-to-ceiling murals: it was the people. They seemed so…engaged. In this quiet, pure, humble way. I pass by a desk (“hey, Josh!”) and a guy gives the biggest smile. He shows what he’s working on (reviewing UIs). Asks if I got free pizza during my last job designing for Domino’s. Offers to grab lunch tomorrow. I talk to someone else. Same deal.
I left the building confused. Was everyone nice just because I was the “new hire” on tour? But after checking Glassdoor (employee rating of 4.6), and Google (5.0), I started to believe it was real.
“Out of my 150 clients, literally, it’s only the Duo employees who are happy,” said my fiancé, Desert. He’s a realtor in Ann Arbor, and has personally sold homes for three couples at the company.
It wasn’t just the reviews that got my attention — Duo had results, too. Since its founders Dug and Jon spun up the software business in 2009, the company steadily and then explosively grew to support 30,000 customers and 30 million users. This is typically only seen by startups in hubs like San Francisco or New York. But here it was, right in our home of the Midwest. And customers loved the product: when I joined Duo in late 2019, polls showed that nearly 80% of customers were so satisfied by the product that they’d recommend it to their friends.
It’s rare these days to see an undoubtedly happy and successful company. I wanted to see what made Duo’s culture tick.
A safe environment
Duo is a psychologically safe place to work. The company allows for all the slips, mistakes and failures that are necessary for innovation, progress and growth. As is the case with many destinations, the road to where Duo wants to go is never perfectly straight. It’s filled with bends and detours. Having an all-terrain vehicle on that road is like being surrounded by a safe environment at work — you’re well-protected during the journey.
What makes Duo safe:
Normalizing failure: People at all levels of the company try to normalize failure. Project managers host “stop/start/continue” retros after projects. Engineers bring summaries of outages up to the team to discuss what went wrong. The underlying tone is: you don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to learn. Only by learning and continuously improving can we use these short-term problems to enable long-term success.
Growth mindset: People share a deep appreciation of learning. Duo’s core value of Learn Together is invoked strongly and often which — over time — creates a shared reality where anything can be seen as a learning opportunity for the group.
Candid and loving feedback: People take seriously the art of giving feedback. There’s feedback that unnecessarily hurts and demoralizes; we’ve all felt it before. But there’s also feedback that critiques yet uplifts, tears-apart yet pushes-forward. The key is positive intent. This type of constructive criticism is taught at workshops, critiques, and lunches. It helps you feel ok asking for feedback, even on messy drafts.
Sharing vulnerability: People openly talk about weakness. It’s common for a leader to mention a personal shortcoming during a meeting, even in front of hundreds of people. When the pandemic hit, the oft repeated saying was, “You’re not working at home during a pandemic; you’re in a pandemic at home trying to work”. Being open about weakness makes it easier to ask for and give support.
Norm of asking for help: People understand that asking for help can feel pit-of-stomach scary. Maybe you’re worried about looking incompetent. But only by helping and supporting one another can the whole team move forward confidently. Duo managers lead by example here, often posting on Teams an ask for help, and sending a sincere thank-you to the people who show up to support.
Separating growth from performance reviews: Managers focus on nurturing growth on a regular basis, normally as a result of giving and receiving critical feedback (which is very encouraged, to the point above). This is kept away from performance reviews — where work output, bonuses, and promotions are discussed — so that people have a safe space to try, fail, and learn from their mistakes.
Taking no chances: People understand that proactive effort, not luck, is what creates a truly safe environment. Leaders manage towards this by hiring the right people. It’s common to have workshops, training, and knowledge sharing (like this article!) focused on psychological safety. People want this type of culture, so they put in the effort to build it.
From the moment I walked into Duo’s R&D headquarters, I could feel a sense of safety. There were lots of small cues, like the humble attitude of the people at their desks and the “learn together” artwork on the walls. I didn’t have words to describe it at the time, but now I can label the ingredients: failure, feedback, vulnerability, and support, to name a few. Together they form the first pillar of Duo’s culture.
A sense of belonging
As humans we want, deep down, to belong. Whether it’s to a group, a mission, or a country, we love the feeling of being part of something greater. Just as 100 grains of rice eventually make a bowl, Duo’s many individual practices add up to create a visceral sense of belonging.
Duo creates it with:
Collision-rich spaces: People who designed Duo’s space in 123 North Ashley St drilled in natural gathering spots. The kitchen, for instance, is stocked with brewing kits and barstools. This makes it easy to meet people who ritualistically make coffee every morning. If you’re working from home, there’s space at the beginning of every meeting to socialize. People often meet all-online to include everyone regardless of location.
Connection sparks: People have low-friction ways to meet one another. There’s a wall-basket full of free Roos Roast gift cards to use, for example, when you take a colleague out for coffee. If you can’t find anyone nearly, then join the #donut social channel and get matched to a coffee date automatically. My first match was Jon Oberheide, Duo’s co-founder. You can meet anyone.
Shows of gratitude: People regularly give and receive sincere appreciation. If you’re thankful for someone, you can send Karma (@username++) in their #design or #engineering channel or make a virtual post-it note. Team meetings always open or close with live appreciations. There’s a virtuous cycle of sharing gratitude, receiving it, and feeling a sense of belonging, which inspires more gratitude…
Thoughtful gifts: People treat gifts as another expression of gratitude. Over the holidays, for example, it’s common for leaders to send a box filled with teas or hot chocolate to their team from a local store like Zingerman’s. Surprise parties and photoshop shrines often celebrate your 3rd or 5th year. The message is clear: we really appreciate you.
Campfire moments: People make space for intimate conversations. On design retreats, for example, there’s a journal activity about your proudest recollection of Duo. Everyone writes down a mini-story and shares them over a virtual campfire. Remember that one time when everyone showed solidarity to a colleague who had lost his partner. Or when we threw a virtual baby shower. By making space for campfire moments, people retain a sense of intimacy even while working remotely.
Personalized welcome: People get a personal introduction to Duo. Each group of newbies spends time with the founders, Dug and Jon, who walk you through a presentation about the company. You learn their purpose and plans for the future. You have lunch. Afterwards, there’s a role-tailored 30/60/90 day plan that spells out suggestions — people to meet, teams to shadow, things to read — that help you acclimate during your first months. A mentor gives you even more personalized tips.
Caring personally: Managers are relationship-focused and genuinely care about people on their teams. For example, one manager spent hours writing a 2-page email full of handpicked design resources to answer a question that someone had asked during the interview process. Another went to great lengths to seek out opportunities — guest speakers, projects, mentors, etc. — after I expressed an interest in creative writing. People still get drinks with their former managers, even years after leaving the company. As the saying goes, “We want Duo to be known as a great place to be from.” When you know that people care about you, not just your work, it makes a huge difference.
I first felt a sense of belonging at Duo during my interviews at the group’s R&D headquarters in Ann Arbor. I had talked to nine designers, engineers, and product managers that day. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I felt a sense of “They get me” and “It’d be great to work here someday.” Today I understand that many ingredients — from a personal touch to collision-rich spaces — come together to create belonging.
A shared identity
Successful groups have a strong sense of identity. Patagonia, for example, values using business to protect nature. They’re on a mission to save our home planet. City Year puts students first, and so on. Nurturing a common sense of self and attracting people with whom it most resonates is a huge enabler of impact.
How Duo does it:
Strong values: People have a well-practiced set of values. There are three to live by: be kinder than necessary, learn together, and engineer the business. They’re what Timothy Morton calls hyper-objects. You only see them in small patches, maybe part of a Duo livestream or deep in a Webex chat, but their presence is much larger and fully seeped into everyone’s behavior. There’s a huge emphasis on authenticity, walking-the-walk. It’s not uncommon when onboarding a new person for someone to say, “yep, kinder than necessary, it’s not just a saying — people are really like that”.
Sustained mission: People have long-supported Duo’s mission to democratize security, and make it easy and effective for everyone. The mission appears unaltered since the group began in 2009. This resoluteness brings a certain sense of stability, a “this is ok”, even during times of change. When COVID practically invaded the world back in 2020, for example, you could find solace in this ongoing purpose.
Symbols and artifacts: People take care to physically embody Duo’s values and mission. The words “kinder than necessary” are on wall-art, laptops, drinks, clothing. When Dug walks to a mic on stage, you know it’s only a matter of time until he pulls a “Duo values” reference into the conversation. These reinforcements are oxygen to a flame: they keep a shared identity alive.
Folk tales: Leaders pass on great stories. Once, for example, there was someone at Duo who recently lost a life partner. In a show of solidarity, people showed up to the next group gathering wearing shirts of classic rock, his partner’s favorite kind of music. Another time, a large company (not a Duo customer) was going through a particularly nasty data breach. Their engineers stayed up at night trying to fix the problem. So people at Duo delivered pizza. Stories like that, that shine a light on common humanity, are the ones that get passed down to new generations. Together they create an even stronger sense of shared identity.
There’s a big difference between saying you share values (read: many corporate websites) and actually living by them. I felt Duo’s authenticity from the moment I first spoke to someone there and realized wow, this lady is the human embodiment of “kinder than necessary.” And now I understand that strong values can flourish with the right symbols, artifacts, and stories to support them.
Culture’s true impact
Living in a healthy culture physiologically changes your state of being.
That’s the most significant thing I learned from a 2-year immersion — something that you simply can’t grasp from reading a book, watching a video, or taking a course.
Before Duo, I had a lot of paranoia and stress at work. My “fight or flight” response had kicked into high gear, due to a couple of traumatic experiences, so I was always on guard for potential threats. I developed a harsh self-critic that was never satisfied, it seemed, by anything. My Apple Watch logged above-average resting heart rates, sometimes accompanied by chest pain. The doctor said to keep an eye on it and tell her when I needed anti-anxiety medication.
But a few months into joining Duo, I noticed a change — I had walked into an environment that felt safe, surrounded by people who shared my values and purpose, and felt like I really belonged. My heart-rate slowed back down. The chest pain came in light bursts, then stopped altogether. I’m building up my new, more positive neural pathways (one way to overcome a harsh inner critic), and healing over time.
Once you discover the signs of a healthy culture, you can’t unsee it.
If you take one thing from this post, I hope it’s this: Don’t compromise on culture. If there’s anything that the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout and the Great Resignation have illuminated, it’s that you deserve a healthy place to work. You spend too many hours “at work” to not surround yourself with a great culture.
Companies with truly great cultures — like Duo, according to what I observed over the last two years — can seem like a rare breed nowadays, but they’re out there. Don’t compromise. It might just change your life.
Come Build With Us
At Duo, we protect our customers so they can pursue their passions. We’re looking for enthusiastic, proactive people who are driven to help others, make the world a better place through technology, and cultivate their career path along the way. If you get a kick out of collaborating with inspiring teammates, creating and supporting products that really make a difference, we want you.