HR at Atlassian

by Iain Hopkins10 Sep 2013

Award-winning enterprise software company Atlassian has won countless plaudits for its innovative HR practices. From recruitment to performance management, the company is shaking up the tired and staid. Iain Hopkinstalks to VP of talent Joris Luijke

In 2013 it’s cool to be a nerd. Who would have ever thought it? They now have popular culture reporting on their every move, marketers pandering to their every need, and, more critically, employers lusting after their refined services.
Today it’s not the major players who burn the ‘most desirable’ employer flames; it’s the smaller tech start-ups that established themselves a decade ago with three or four employees and have since grown to hundreds. It’s those start-ups that invariably steal the ‘Best Employer’ citations and position themselves as, frankly, very attractive places to work.
Readers of HC will be familiar with the Atlassian  success story. Over the past 18 months the company has hit the headlines for all the right reasons, shaking up conventional thinking around HR stalwarts such as performance management and recruitment.
Joris Luijke, VP of talent, Atlassian, concedes that what the company does incredibly well is create an environment in which innovation thrives. “If you look at our innovative practices you might think, ‘It’s just software engineering’. But we’ve created this culture that permeates to all the other departments as well. Maybe if I was in another organisation these ideas would have remained in my head. But within this environment where thinking differently is a given, it’s allowed me to be more of a freethinker,” he says.
Luijke has spent over 12 years in HR. As the general manager of consulting at Chandler Macleod Technology, he led the team that helped organisations develop a high-performance culture, and assisted clients with the implementation and use of tailored psychometric assessment solutions for recruitment and career management. This broad experience has been fine-tuned in his time at Atlassian.
He’s been with the company for four and a half years, and he says a top priority is making dreams concrete. “We put together a painted picture of things we want to accomplish. For example, I can say I want to create a great working environment. That in itself does not provide a lot to latch on to. But I can say the dream is to have such a great work environment that we get invited to speak at TED [a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design]; suddenly there’s a goal and we can rally behind that goal. We do that across the business and repeat that every three years. So every three years we come up with a new painted picture and set those goals.”
Luijke says there’s often confusion about dreaming and executing and the order in which they should be done. “Execution will happen if you have a great idea or dream, but often people get into execution mode straight away, and if you look at yearly strategic plans it’s very executional-based – which is important, and we do that as well – but it’s often pretty tactical.”
In the HR space, Luijke is keen to “rethink how people practices should be run in organisations”. 
It’s no surprise to learn that the culture of Atlassian is at the heart of just about everything the company does. Yet in Luijke’s time at Atlassian, the company has grown from 130 people to almost 700 globally. In the last two years it has doubled in size.
Is this a problem? Will the core of what made the company special get lost in the mix? Luijke doesn’t believe so. He points to Google as a good example of how one company has escalated in size and influence far beyond what the creators ever dreamed was possible, yet has always succeeded in feeling manageable.
“As you skill up, some of the processes may change, but you need to stay true to your culture. Google does this well. They’re massive now, something like 50,000 people, but what they do well is feel smaller than their actual size – so when they were a 1,000-person company it felt like a 500-person company. At Atlassian we feel small as well, and one thing we do well is we give people enough freedom to explore new ideas, give them the autonomy to do things,” he says. 
On that front, the company’s ShipIt Days are a focused innovation project in which all employees drop what they’re doing and work on an innovative project of their  choice. Then at 12 noon the next day they present to the rest of the  organisation. The last competition was won by two graduates,  out-innovating everyone else in the company. 
“We’ve had hundreds of projects being shipped as a direct result of these innovations. From an organisational perspective it’s important to innovate our business; but, secondly, staff love doing it as well. They get the freedom to not just work on the stuff assigned to them but also look beyond that. That’s how we train our organisation to stay innovative.”
Atlassian also operates with a ‘loose-tight fit’ – in other words, they try not to tie everything down with policies and procedures. It’s not overly policed. “You don’t need to make everything a rule,” says Luijke. “We’ve tried to provide guidelines where people can make their own decisions within those guidelines.”
Sometimes even Luijke himself is astounded at the results. The response to their ‘Recruitment Roadshow’, for example, was phenomenal. Over 1,000 applications were received in a timeframe of four weeks. Seventeen were eventually hired (the goal was 15). “I couldn’t have dreamt of anything better than that,” Luijke says. “It was because we came in at the right time and with the right messaging. Europe is in a slump, the economy is down, and here’s this mid-sized Australian business you probably haven’t heard of, but we roll out the red carpet, show off the beautiful beaches and weather, and  we’re an awesome company with an awesome culture – come and join us. That message went viral. It featured in the Wall Street Journal, and most of the European media, even Spanish national TV. It meant we could cherry-pick the best of the best, which is what we were trying to do.”
The company will be investing $20m into new IT jobs in Sydney next year, equating to approximately 100 staff. To find those candidates Luijke says they’ll “need to get creative” as there simply aren’t 100 software engineers sitting waiting to work in Australia. A generous referral program will certainly help. If someone external refers a candidate to Atlassian and that person ends up being hired, as a referral bonus the referee is given free return flights to anywhere around the world that the company has an office (such as San Francisco or Amsterdam). If a referral is made by someone internally, that person is given a $10,000 referral bonus. “We’d rather give it to a staff member than a recruiter. We want our staff to be recruiters in their own way,” Luijke says simply. 
Despite the innovative HR framework and the funky office fitout, Luijke is certain of one thing: no one joins an organisation due to its perks alone. “It’s nice we have free food and a great working environment, but the real crux of building an engaged workforce is openness, transparency, providing freedom for people to work on new things, trusting people. They all have much bigger impact on engagement.”
Pausing for a moment, Luijke continues, his passion clear: “If you get an opportunity to make a difference and make a workplace a better place to be – a place where I would love to come to work myself – how good a job is that?”


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