This week's Question of the Day host is Donte Parks, VP of Culture at Seattle digital development and design firm Substantial. In addition to his role at Substantial, Donte is a DJ and erstwhile music writer with an unmistakable sense of personal style—which he enthusiastically extends to his dog Jefferson.
We asked Donte some questions about tech culture, fashion, and his firmly held conviction that West Side Story is the best musical of all time. Enjoy!
You're the VP of Culture at Substantial. What is a VP of Culture, and why is it something a company should have?
The competition for good people in tech is very real. Employees know they could work anywhere they want and (smart) employers realize that too. So what do you do? You try to make your company the sort of place where the people you want want to work. And that's what I do as VP of Culture; I work to make Substantial the best environment it can be for the people we have working for us. That means I engage with all parts of the company, working on everything from marketing to recruiting & retention to architecture & interior design. I also manage many of our relationships with outside organizations, whom we support in various ways with sponsorships, event hosting, speaking engagements and however else we can.
While not every company specifically needs a VP of Culture, every company needs someone that's concerned with company culture matters at a high level. Culture is the only thing a company can compete with that is truly unique. Perks can be copied, salaries can be matched, creating software is creating software (to an extent), so what's left is that glue that makes people want to work somewhere - company culture, that combination of values and how those are demonstrated. It helps you get the people you want and to keep them once you have them.
Recruiting people is expensive. Turnover and onboarding is expensive. Unmotivated employees are expensive. Focusing on culture helps to save money in the long run. On top of that having a team full of aligned individuals makes the workplace operate better as a whole.
That said, I'm actually fine with companies ignoring culture. It makes it that much easier to convince their employees they want to come to Substantial!
So, there's a stereotype that young people in tech jobs—particularly young men—don't always have the most inspired taste in clothing, music, food, and so on. Why do you think that is? What's your advice for guys who would like to start cultivating a sense of personal style?
This is actually a tricky question to answer, at least with any brevity. I also don't think I have any right to judge someone else's interests. If they're more inspired by things that aren't music, food, fashion, etc., more power to them. Just do you.
Now to actually answer the question.
I think the stereotype is self-reinforcing, with some "tech geeks" embracing the "tech geek" identity wholesale and never looking beyond that. That was certainly true in college, where many of my engineering school classmates mocked the liberal arts students for learning culture and not definitive skills. That sort of breadth isn't necessarily valued when doing a problem set, so why cultivate it? I think some people don't get beyond approaching the world in those utilitarian terms, since tech jobs can be equally quantitative or binary (it works or it doesn't). And thus some folks end up with food as simply sustenance, clothes as an alternative to nudity, music as an alternative to silence, etc.
And I think that's the real issue. I think in keeping a narrow world view some don't take the time to find out what really inspires them. The world is huge and full of things! Go explore and find those things you like and go deep once you find them. You have to eat anyway - try something different. Like video games? What is it about games that grabs you? Is it the music? The artwork? The strategy? What's the inspiration behind your favorite games? Find out. The key is realizing that there's a huge world to explore - be open to it. As you do that you'll figure out what works for you. Discovering personal taste is a journey of self-discovery. Enjoy the ride.
As that relates to clothes/fashion, the same openness applies. Try something new. You don't even have to go far from where you are. The key is intentionality. Want to wear t-shirts? That's fine, but what is the "next and better" version of that? Vintage? Specific designers? Better fabrics? Different colors? Adjusting fit? It's not about money, it's about figuring out what you really like and finding how to achieve that. Over time apply that same process to the rest of what you wear from your shoes to your winter hat. You don't have to become a fashionista, you just have to care enough to make what you wear an actual choice, not an act of utility.
"Discovering personal taste is a journey of self-discovery. Enjoy the ride." [Tweet this]
What are the qualities you find most attractive in other people?
There's a point at the intersection of smart, funny, and geeky trivia that gets me, usually in presenting some nugget of information in an interesting way (doesn't even matter on what topic). It's usually some benign moment that reveals how someone's brain works and what's in there beyond the usual trying to impress someone new.
For example, I can tell you the exact moment when my girlfriend really caught my interest. We were texting after the party where we met (and danced) and she said "you've got that oogum boogum." She asked if I knew the song that was referring to, and I didn't (Brenton Wood's "The Oogum Boogum Song," a soul hit from 1967). I'm a music geek, so the combination of knowing this song I didn't know, referring to it in casual conversation, and the fact that we'd had a great time dancing just brought it all together. Not to mention she looked great in her pencil skirt.
What single piece of clothing that you own best captures your personality, and why?
I have a gray wool cardigan from J Crew that I've owned for a decade or so now. There's nothing particularly fancy about it, it's a little abrasive, and it's starting to show its age. Having said that it's probably my favorite piece of clothing on account of its versatility, something I can wear over a button down and look like a professional or wear over a t-shirt to lounge around. It adapts to the situation and I like to think I do the same, switching context from Doing Business Things to walking the dog without much fuss. It's also ridiculously comfortable, getting softer with age. I wouldn't describe myself as cozy, but I do think I've gotten easier to be around over the years.
"I wouldn't describe myself as cozy, but I do think I've gotten easier to be around over the years." [Tweet this]
Why do you think West Side Story is the best musical of all time?
West Side Story completely commits. So many other musicals exist with a wink and a nod, in on the joke about how silly and campy the entire production is, but from the opening Jets v. Sharks number West Side Story goes all in. It is completely earnest in its amplified reality and that sets it apart from the rest. Add in Rita Moreno being absolutely amazing and c'mon, there's just no competition (although I'm willing to hear the arguments for some of Gene Kelly's oeuvre).
What would most surprise the five year-old you about the person you have become?
I can eat any breakfast cereal I want at any time of day, and most days I opt for oatmeal or yogurt. Five year-old me would be so disappointed.