Everett Katigbak is a designer at Stripe, drives a bright red vintage car, plays in a cosmic soul-pop band called the Young Elders, loves a 70s-style collared shirt, and has ‘Lone Wolf’ tattooed on his knuckles. He is a father, a husband, and has a gentler disposition than you might expect for a rockstar and self-proclaimed provocateur.
Everett started his career as an exhibition designer at The Getty Museum in Los Angeles and eventually transitioned into tech where he became the mastermind and catalyst behind Facebook’s controversial-turned-iconic posters and Analog research lab and print studio. He is currently Stripe focused on making films that tell stories of entrepreneurship.
Nearly everyone I’ve asked to describe Everett mentions how thoughtful he is— “he’s measured in his approach to even the biggest, newest, and most challenging ideas,” one of his colleagues described. “It’s very disarming. Everett helps you warm up to big ideas and then blows your mind right in front of you.” Everett and I talked about his journey in tech contemplating and creating culture through a healthy dose of questioning norms, unpacking mantras, and creating physical artifacts that both capture company culture and drive its evolution.
Culture is a verb
When I asked Everett how he would define company culture, it was clear that it was something he has thought about a lot. He answered as anthropologist would, observing from the outside rather than an employee experiencing it from the inside. “Culture is everything from the interactions people have, to how they conduct themselves in meetings or on calls, to what they do when they pass each other in the office, to how they choose to spend time together, to what the office looks like.” This idea that culture is shared by everybody and permeates everything, to me, seemed simultaneously extremely obvious and deeply profound. It is well-accepted that there are certain people that define and model the culture- this often is company founders and leaders- but it is also true that everyone at the company, at every moment and in every interaction, is actively participating in and driving the culture.
“People think and talk about company culture as a clearly defined and structured thing. They don’t realize that it’s okay that culture evolves.”
“People think and talk about company culture as a clearly defined and structured thing. They don’t realize that it’s okay that culture evolves.” Because everyone at the company plays an active role in upholding and evolving company culture, it requires intentionality to move things in the right direction. Each person plays an active role in upholding what they love, shedding what no longer serves, and ushering in the new culture that will. In this way, culture is a verb, not a noun- it’s a collective set of actions and behaviors, an active choice of everyone at the company, not a passive thing that happens to employees. It’s a myth that company culture can be preserved as companies live and grow and bring on new people, new customers, and new strategic priorities.
Everett traced the origin of this thesis back to the early days in his career. At Everett’s first job at The Getty designing exhibitions, he described coming into to work in ripped jeans and t-shirts. His manager would tell him to “dress to impress,” which Everett interpreted to mean “dress like the patrons of The Getty would dress.” Ever the provocateur, Everett kept wearing his ripped jeans anyway- he believed a dress code was irrelevant to his ability to do his work. While Everett externally ignored his manager’s request, it did ignite his thinking about the role rules and norms play in the workplace and its impact on the employees.
After two years at the museum, Everett moved to Silicon Valley with his screen-printer friend to become very early members of Facebook’s design team. Facebook was under 1,000 people at the time. “We were in a sea of engineers,” Everett described with the slightest twinkle of irreverence in his eyes. “I knew I didn’t want to stop working with my hands when I transitioned to tech.” So, he didn’t- Everett and his colleague began making hand-crafted painted signs and placing them all around the office. The signs stood out from the rest of the environment filled with silver Mac laptops and monitors displaying white lines of code on a black background. Unsurprisingly, the signs became a source of curiosity around the office amongst the more technically-focused Facebook employees. “The engineers wanted to talk to us how things were made, and we wanted to talk to them about how software was developed.” Most importantly, it helped start a mutual conversation about how people could create and add value in the workplace.
“I knew I didn’t want to stop working with my hands when I transitioned to tech.”
Hearing Everett recount his early days in tech and knowing what I know about the impact he has had on the companies he has worked at, I can’t help but see this as a groundbreaking moment for Everett as a creator and a culture maker. With the provocateur's spirit and the skills he had developed installing others’ work in the museum, now Everett was the artist building a platform for his own voice that pushed for an evolution of culture. But, where, and how, to push?
Unpacking company mantras
“Whenever I hear mantras repeated, I try to unpack them and determine whether they were true.”
“When I first got to Facebook, ‘move fast and break things’ was the opposite of the way I thought about design.”
As soon as I heard the term ‘mantra,’ I asked Everett about perhaps the most well-known mantra in tech- Facebook’s “move-fast and break things.” Everett chuckled a bit. “When I first got to Facebook, ‘move fast and break things’ was the opposite of the way I thought about design,” Everett explained. “We don’t want to put anything out that isn’t 100% polished.” But the more Everett observed this mantra in action and the resulting speed of execution and progress, the more Everett questioned his own methodology as a designer. “At a certain point, I realized we were making too big a trade-off in time by sweating over details to get something perfect.” He learned that “it can be more effective to just put something out there.”
I saw this as a beautiful example of the give-and-take nature that drives the evolution of company culture; sometimes the culture changes its constituents and sometimes the constituents change the culture. I’m was also impressed with how a culture-makers-and-shaker like Everett was so open to be not only energized by questioning aspects of the culture, but also to adopting aspects of it.
As we delved further into Everett’s work unpacking mantras, he shared his thoughts on another, internally-focused, mantra at Facebook that he found himself wrestling with more. “Something that Mark would always say, is ‘Facebook is a technology company.’ And people would always repeat it.” Everett came across the phrase used in meetings, on calls, and in company documentation. But this particular mantra wasn’t resonating with Everett. “When I looked at product and thought about what it was doing for the people that were using it, it didn’t feel to me like Facebook was only a technology company. It felt like there was a version of Facebook that was about people.” I could tell by the energy in Everett’s voice that this idea was visceral. The idea of Facebook’s focus on the human elements is well-accepted today (largely as a result of Everett’s work), but at the time the concept stood in opposition to the narrative that ‘Facebook is a technology company’ that was infused into the company culture and proliferated by the founder himself.
“When I looked at (Facebook's) product and thought about what it was doing for the people that were using it, it didn’t feel to me like Facebook was only a technology company. It felt like there was a version of Facebook that was about people.”
So, Everett began to dig deeper on the mantra- was it true or not true that Facebook is a technology company? “When I try to answer these kinds of questions on my own, I almost always fail. So, instead, I posed it as a question for other people to think about and hopefully talk about.” Everett and his colleague began thinking about ways to start this particular conversation and they wanted to find a medium that was both highly visual and easy to propagate- they settled on posters, an iconic form of propaganda. Everett fondly described working late into the evening screen-printing signs, painting over walls, and covering them with their posters. They designed them to have just text- big bold red letters with sharp corners- with the question ‘is Facebook a technology company?’
“People would be walking to meetings and where there used to be a white wall, there was now a big red typographic poster... It stopped people in their tracks."
“People would be walking to meetings and where there used to be a white wall, there was now a big red typographic poster. It was very arresting. It stopped people in their tracks.” Creating a physical artifact, a tangible representation of culture, helped people have something to quite literally point to as they began to contemplate and discuss the question the culture. “It was amazing to see how these posters became the vessel for a new idea, a new story, about the company.”
This was, in many ways, the start of a much larger conversation at the company- a conversation that Mark himself embraced- that impacted how Facebook represented itself internally and subsequently externally with an emphasis on how people are using the platform to make extraordinary connections with others. With the signs and posters as a catalyst for conversation and change at Facebook, Everett continued exploring ways for physical artifacts to play a role in company culture in the other companies he has been a part of like Pintrest and Stripe.
Making symbols out of spaces
“Many aspects of culture can’t be tangibly expressed, but the office is a place where people can express culture extrinsically.“ Tech offices, specifically, are well-known for reflecting their culture in their office design- open floor-plans, community meal-spaces, vibrant colors, soft seating alongside desks. While there are often teams of people responsible for making decisions about how to decorate the space, Everett sees the office decor as a two-way street. “I don’t think of space as a finished and delivered thing and I don’t think it’s as fun or meaningful when a company moves into a space and it’s considered finished.” Instead, “the office space should be an organic piece of the culture, a dialogue between the company and the inhabitants of the space.” The Security Team at Stripe, for example, keeps a set of locks and instructions for picking them on the table next to their desks.
"The office is a place where people can express culture extrinsically.“
And, the space should evolve as the culture does. “Just because you hung something somewhere, doesn’t mean it has to stay there. Just because you painted a wall a color, doesn’t mean that that’s now it’s color- as perspectives and messages change, the space can change to reflect that.”
"Just because you painted a wall a color, doesn’t mean that that’s now it’s color."
Over the years, Everett has turned many spaces (tangible and intangible) into an opportunity to explore or express culture. In one of my favorite examples of Everett’s work along these lines, when Facebook was launching video calling, Everett identified the waiting music as a place to inject a hint of Facebook’s personality. He started experimenting with some different sounds that could fill what would otherwise be a quiet moment on the video call and realized that F, A, C, E (the first four letters of ‘Facebook’) were the notes that fell on the spaces of the music staff. So, the wait music became a repetition of those notes and the team excitedly latched onto and told others the story behind the music on the team. At Pintrest, when the team was thinking through travel plans to get to South by Southwest, Everett suggested that instead of flying, the team could make the trip in an RV and delivery small community-focused Pintrest-sponsored experiences along the way. (The RV was affectionately named The Pinnebego). At Stripe, to help employees feel closer to the users, Everett created posters highlighting the entrepreneurs that were using the Stripe platform in particularly interesting, innovative, and meaningful ways and hung them throughout the space. To this day, any Stripe employee can submit a bit of information about a user they love and have a poster printed out and displayed in the office.
"Ritual is a way to really make something stick."
“Ritual is another way to deliberately create moments of shared company culture. It’s a way to really make something stick.” Many companies have ceremonies around shipping a new product. At Facebook, the team who worked on the product would get together with Mark and hit a gong that rang out through the office. At Pinterest, teams would print out a piece of paper with the name of the product and everyone who worked on it and tack it to the wall in a ‘push-it’ ceremony. (The company was even surprised once with Salt N’ Peppa performing their #1 hit song, Push It, for the entire company). Over time, the Pintrest wall was covered in paper and became a testament, shine, and relic of the progress that had been made in the product over time. “Rituals often turn into traditions and create a shared experience for everyone at the company.” They are ways to build culture and make sure to preserve the things you want to ensure.
In all of his work, Everett has forged an implicit mantra of his own to support the evolution of company culture- where there is space, fill it. Where you don’t see space, make it. If a space appears filled, re-think it.
It’s the perfect manifestation of Everett, a unique balance of maker and thinker, collaborator and individualist, deliberator and provocateur.
How lucky are you?
“There are times when luck has served me well, but the majority of times I’ve had to push to find the luck. I work really hard to make opportunities, and I don’t know what they are, but I know I have to be here to find them”