Five First Impressions of LabZero

I recently joined Lab Zero as a software developer. My friend Brien Wankel, one of their Principal Engineers, had been encouraging me to interview here for more than a year. I hesitated because, to put it bluntly: What’s so special about another boutique software development agency? There are hundreds—if not thousands—of them in the Bay Area. Plus, I was still trying to strike gold playing the startup equity game and I had already run my own boutique software development agency for a decade.

At long last I took the plunge, and I’m really glad I did. Ten weeks in, these are my first impressions of Lab Zero.

1. “We pay for every hour worked, no exceptions.” —The CEO

Lab Zero’s culture in three words: “Life, then Work.” Everyone here, myself included, is a W-2 hourly employee. To prevent people from worrying about using PTO when they’re sick (which eats into vacation time), we’ve done away with the concept altogether. We get paid for every hour we work—and we don’t get paid when we’re not working. That also has the side benefit of discouraging people from coming to work when they’re contagious. As a substitute for PTO, we accrue personal/family sick time, bereavement and jury duty time.

Employment here includes all the usual benefits, but without the attached expectation of working 60-80 hours/week (or more) and getting paid for 40. I surf every Wednesday morning (if the weather conditions cooperate) and I volunteer at my daughter’s school in the afternoon. I might only bill for 4-5 hours on a Wednesday. I might put in a few more hours after dinner—or not.

I haven’t put this to the test yet, but I may need to scale back my hours at Lab Zero by 50% or more to run tech for another political campaign or to get more involved in the farm-to-table movement or maybe to start a side business—or not.

2. “We follow software best practices.” —Everybody

So we put life first and work second. But does that mean that we don’t care about what we do? Hells no!

Lab Zero embraces a documented set of methodologies that make great software development possible, if not pleasurable. We have 100% or near-100% test coverage on all our projects; we write unit tests, functional tests, automated UI tests—to the tune of roughly ten lines of test code for every one line of “real” code. We practice continuous integration; we have a stringent pull-request review process and we reject pull requests for even the slightest blemish, e.g. a typo in a commit message.

This culture of doing things right at all costs may sound too onerous to be practical, but what I learned after a couple weeks here is that the effort we put into rigorous testing pays us back in spades, measured by the very small number of issues that slip through the cracks, eventually needing to be caught by QA or found in production. Plus, as long as I can keep the test suites passing, I can refactor without fear that I’m going to break something.

And if I do break something incidentally, it usually just means I need to write a better test, which in turn will help overall quality in a virtuous cycle.

3. “We do Agile really, really well.” —Our Customers

Agile prides itself on being agile, per se. (How deliciously meta is that?) Take what you want, leave the rest. As a result, there are infinitely many ways to do agile well—and an equally-indeterminate number of ways to do it badly.

Last week, I heard a senior executive at one of our customer sites tell us (in front of a room of twenty people) that we were the gold standard for agile projects at their organization. Enough said.

4. “We care about having a beautiful, functional workspace.” (And it shows.)

We have top-shelf coffee, great snacks and drinks, a loaded kegerator, automatic standup/sitdown desks (each with four presets), Apple Cinema Displays, an office sound system, massive TVs, stylin’ chairs and Fluid Stance boards. If you need anything, within reason, it just shows up at the door.

In addition to that, Nicole Andrijauskas just finished painting an amazing mural spanning the entire south wall of the office.

We have catered lunch-and-learn sessions every other Friday. On the alternating Fridays, we descend in a hungry mob to a local restaurant (like Barbacco, this past Friday) and Lab Zero picks up the tab. In addition to Fridays and the regular bevy of snacks and beverages, there are also bagel Wednesdays, eclairs one day, coffee cake another, etc.

As much as I love our office, I also love my half-time Wednesdays working from home (and/or the beach). Which is totally fine, of course. I’ve even been finding a leftover bagel or two on Thursday morning for me.

5. “Diversity is woven into the very fabric of our culture.” —Me

The notion of full-time employment does not preclude hiring people who rawk at things besides their profession, but employers don’t explicitly benefit from it either.

At Lab Zero, where life comes first—and turnover is near nil—we’ve built an eclectic mix of developers, designers, writers, agile product owners and bizdev folks who double as parents, recovering chemists, musicians, surfers, teachers, artists, marathoners, photographers, LGBTQ folks, future real estate moguls and one of the world’s leading experts on tiki.

There’s no better testament to Lab Zero’s people than this: I could do my job almost exclusively at home. I could also bill an extra two hours instead of commuting to downtown SF from the North Bay. But I actually want to come to the office.

Ten weeks in. Zero regrets. Can you say this about your job? If not, maybe you should join us for lunch.