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Executive roundtable

For tech firms, culture is king

Clockwise from top left: Raj Aggarwal of Localytics, Jim Gemmell of Akamai, Leslie Brunner of athenahealth, and James Kizielewicz of Kronos.
Clockwise from top left: Raj Aggarwal of Localytics, Jim Gemmell of Akamai, Leslie Brunner of athenahealth, and James Kizielewicz of Kronos.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Tech companies are constantly talking culture. Whether it’s keeping a keg of microbrewed beer at the ready or raising organic vegetables in rooftop gardens, an engaging environmentis a key factor in recruitment. In this year’s Top Places to Work survey, a thriving workplace culture propelled many companies to the head of the list. Four local tech executives — Raj Aggarwal, chief executive of Boston mobile marketing start-up Localytics; Jim Kizielewicz, chief marketing officer at Chelmsford’s Kronos, a maker of workforce management software; Leslie Brunner, senior vice president of people and process at Watertown’s health care software firm athenahealth; and Jim Gemmell, chief human resources officer for Akamai Technologies, an Internet infrastructure company in Kendall Square — recently gathered at the Cambridge Innovation Center’s Venture Cafe to talk culture and recruitment in Boston with Globe reporter Michael Farrell.

GLOBE: How do you define your workplace culture?


BRUNNER: The culture we had when we were nine people started from our cofounders, Jonathan Bush and Todd Park. They said we care about being transparent, being flexible, and being part of a team. We have held on to that. We want you to bring your whole self to work — your damaged self, your excited self, your inspired self. There’s no work-life balance. You have one life and you’ve just got to figure out how to get it done.

KIZIELEWICZ: The CEO generally sets the tone. We want to create one where people want to come to work. And I think that’s just about being transparent and having clear goals.

GLOBE: Do any of you offer unlimited vacation time?

BRUNNER: We used to offer that, and then we hired a CFO. Last year I rolled out a sabbatical program. So, after eight years at athenahealth, every person gets a [one-time] six extra weeks of vacation — and you can do whatever you want. But you have to come back and tell people what you did. If you sat on the couch and watched talk shows, that’s fine, but you have to tell it to the entire leadership group.


KIZIELEWICZ: We don’t have a program like that, but there’s a lot of flexibility as far as work hours. It’s an adult environment where we say, “Sure, go home early, do what you’ve got to do.”

GLOBE: How important are these perks when it comes to competing for talent?

GEMMELL: Perks are one element, but they’re not the thing people are going to join or leave a company for. People like to be on a winning team. They want to have a good career opportunity. And they want to work with good, smart people.

AGGARWAL: I don’t even think things like the unlimited vacation policies and flexible work hours are perks — it shouldn’t be any other way. It’s just part of the culture. If you’re smart and responsible, you’ll work all night if you need to — and you’ll take the next day off and no one is going to judge you. Things like beer in the fridge all the time, that’s just being responsible adults. We know our people aren’t going to sit there getting drunk in the afternoon.

GLOBE: But you have an advantage because of the small size of Localytics.

AGGARWAL: There are other software companies in the Silicon Valley and here that, as they have grown, they’ve been able to maintain that flexibility. We’re going to try to figure out how to make that happen.


Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

GLOBE: So, what’s your favorite perk that other companies don’t offer?

BRUNNER: We have a lot of free stuff: food, beer, swag. People love it. Everybody loves stuff, and we have a lot of it. It makes people smile.

KIZIELEWICZ: We have a real focus on improving the health of the employees. We had these crappy basketball nets outside in the parking lot. Guys would go out there and play, and they said, “These things stink.” So, boom, now we have NBA-quality glass backboards. We’ve tripled the number of people who play basketball out there.

GEMMELL: We do some fun things locally. Right out in the middle of Kendall, we’ll have a barbecue. It’s just a great way for people to come together.

AGGARWAL: A real focus on great craft beers. There’s a rotating supply, they go pretty quickly, but we’ve got a few really passionate beer guys in the company. They’re selecting, they’re doing polls, and everyone is looking forward to what it will be. We’ve got two taps, and so there’s always something a little lighter and something a little darker.

GLOBE: What is the toughest type of person to find right now?

KIZIELEWICZ: It’s in the engineering disciplines. We have a big push on transforming the user experience of [Kronos] products — so finding people who can really do that well. You have to be a little bit of an artist and a little of a technologist.


AGGARWAL: Where we have some more challenges is sales and marketing — that’s an area that we hadn’t really focused on.

GLOBE: How important is location for recruitment? Is it harder now to recruit in Chelmsford, where Kronos is, or in Downtown Boston?

KIZIELEWICZ: We’re not downtown, so we can’t pitch that. We’ve built out a new tech center in Chelmsford on the campus; it looks very similar to something you would see [in Kendall Square].

BRUNNER: For the past year, [athenahealth] has looked at where our future Boston-based campus was going to be. We looked at Kendall, we looked at Fort Point Channel, we looked at Somerville. We decided we like the feeling of Watertown. It’s being revitalized. It’s not in the city, but it’s close.

AGGARWAL: [Localytics is] next to Park Street Station. We leverage location. It’s an asset. Food options are amazing. Bar options are amazing. We are hiring more senior developers who live out in the suburbs, but compared to Cambridge, Downtown Boston is actually easier to get to off the Pike.

GEMMELL: For Akamai, Kendall and MIT are part of the fabric of who we are. There’s a lot of high-tech, as well as biotech, that is here and coming into Kendall. It’s hot, and it seems to be getting hotter. We’ve seen Google, Microsoft, and Twitter come into this area.

GLOBE: Is the arrival of West Coast companies such as Twitter and Amazon putting pressure on your companies?


GEMMELL: It puts pressure on, but I think it’s actually healthy. It’s good to have competition. It’s great for the local area because it just says there’s a significant investment going on.

KIZIELEWICZ: They draw talent into the area. Work will flow to where the jobs are, and the fact that those companies are here, they’re creating more positions and more people are applying.

GLOBE: How do your companies try to increase diversity in your workplaces?

BRUNNER: There are some colleges and universities with really impressive community groups, and we are targeting those. [Recruiters are] finding the women in engineering clubs or the African-Americans in engineering clubs that are on campuses. It takes a while. Athena isn’t diverse, and it’s embarrassing.

GEMMELL: I came from the West Coast, and the West Coast is still more diverse than Boston. It’s changed, but it’s still not to the same degree that you’re going to find in some other high-tech areas.

GLOBE: Why are California companies more diverse?

GEMMELL: There’s been a lot of investment in H-1B visas, and early on [Silicon Valley] saw the benefit of bringing [in] worldwide talent. We’re all starting to do that over here, so it’s more of a catch-up game.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.