plus plus

The Karma Revelation

How Palantir's Director of Production Services Scott DiPerna came to know what ++ means.

My first encounter with ++ came when I was working at Barnard College as the Director of Electronic Communications. We hired Palantir to redevelop the Barnard website in Drupal, and my team at Barnard worked very closely with Colleen Carroll and Amy O’Malley (now Docimo) at Palantir. Somewhere far along in the course of the project, I think I apologized for being a pain because I had to ask them to do something I was pretty sure they felt was unnecessary.

They reassured me I was not being a pain, telling me, as if I knew about it already, that I had built up a ton of karma in IRC. I said, “Huh? What is that?” They laughed, and went on to explain that in their chat tool, they give each other “karma” with a “++” as a way of saying thanks or good job or, “You’re awesome!” They then informed me that my team and I had gotten many of these commendations, unbeknownst to us, from the Palantir team for being a good partner and a pleasure to work with. In other words, they were keeping a tally of how they valued our team at Barnard, recording a ++ every time we did or said something that they really appreciated.

I have to admit, I felt very flattered that they were tracking and acknowledging their appreciation of us. For one, it was completely unknown to us at Barnard, which meant that they weren’t just doing it to make us feel good. We never saw or heard about the ++’s we were receiving because we weren’t in Palantir’s IRC channel with them. In other words, it wasn’t flattery — the Palantir team was acknowledging and celebrating among themselves how much they appreciated their client. That made the appreciation feel genuine to me, since my team and I were clearly not an audience or consumers of that praise.

Secondly, when the topic of Barnard’s karma did come up, it was stated pretty much as an afterthought. It was mentioned in passing, as if it wasn’t a big deal, as if we all knew that Barnard had built up a lot of good will with Palantir, and asking for an annoying favor was fine. This reinforced for me that the whole karma system and all the ++s weren’t aimed at demonstrating to me how much they appreciate us as a client. It was their own internal recognition system — it wasn’t for show. That made their appreciation seem all the more authentic.

This experience was really a very minor event in the long process of building a website together. It was mentioned once on a phone call, and maybe never discussed again, but it had a very profound impact on me as a client and as an individual, and it stayed with me for a very long time. In some ways, that moment on the phone call when Amy and Colleen first casually mentioned karma, it seemed to unintentionally reveal a secret that they truly cared about Barnard as a client, that they felt positively enough about us as a client to tell all their colleagues that we were great partners. I’ve worked long enough in this industry to know that people perform at far higher levels when they appreciate and value you as a partner. It showed me a lot about Palantir’s culture that this was something they did, and gave me belief that they would work very hard for Barnard.

It also confirmed for me that the Palantir team with whom we were paired were really good people. In this business, I know how easy it is to get frustrated with a client’s decisions, and I suspected we were no less frustrating at times. The karma revelation unveiled something about the true character of the Palantiri on our team — they were honest and sincere, what they said in private matched how they treated us in public, they valued us as clients and people, and they weren’t even trying to brag about how much they appreciated us.

Several years passed between the time I left Barnard College and the time I joined Palantir as a Project Manager. In those intervening years, I had the opportunity to work at very large and very small agencies, and I learned a lot about how our industry generally relates to its clients. In my observations, the relationship between client and service-provider is often strained. Building websites, and more generally writing custom software are difficult endeavors because they are complex and uncertain. These circumstances add stress and strain to even the best partnerships.

After working at a few different agencies, I think the thing that was most striking to me was the difference in Palantir’s attitude towards their clients compared to other agencies. Palantir seemed to approach clients with a presumption of trust, respect, and enthusiasm; rather than the distrust, cynicism, and oppositional stances I saw elsewhere. Where others often viewed clients as a problem to be managed, Palantir seemed to approach clients like equal partners with whom they genuinely enjoyed collaborating. That attitude of respect, trust, and honesty was what drew me to Palantir, and what convinced me to work for Palantir when an opportunity arose.

Now, as the Director of Production Services at Palantir, I oversee and monitor all of the projects our teams are working on for our varied clients. The views and attitudes of the teams working on our projects now are no different from when I was on the other side as a Palantir client. Every client on every project is still secretly accumulating karma from our teams (though now it is in Slack instead of IRC). Sometimes the entire client organization receives a ++ for being generally awesome. More often, the people with whom we are collaborating most closely from the client organization are receiving the praise.

The karma is still being given largely outside the view of our clients, which is maybe unfortunate that our clients don’t hear the praise they receive internally at Palantir. But now that I see how it operates internally, I better understand why it is important to Palantir as an organization. Our internal celebration of our clients is part of what creates the culture of client appreciation at Palantir. People who come to work at Palantir learn very quickly how much we care about the success of our clients and their projects, how much we care about our clients as people, and how much we value the partnership we have with our clients to do great work together.

The internal value of ++ is that it teaches us and reminds us of the values and principles that make Palantir special — that we care about and support one another, that we are constantly striving towards positive change and improvement in ourselves and others, and that we appreciate others who hold to those same ideals.

Giving karma to another person is more than simply saying, "good job!" The ++ is a symbol of what Palantir is at its core: treating people with kindness and respect, making things better, collaboration and teamwork, incremental improvement, being positive and constructive in all we do, and encouraging and appreciating the hard work of others.

As in any job, there can be tough days here, too — times when we are stressed or frustrated with our work. Even on my worst days, without fail there is a moment in our general Slack channel were a team is sending out karma to everyone involved in a project for a great presentation or a great demo or finishing a project or seeing a client’s website launch or just saying something funny in a meeting. That’s when it seems like the skies open up and ++s come raining down in a torrent of chat posts — not just from the people working on the project, but from everyone in the company.

It’s times like these when you just can’t hold back a smile and appreciate the inherent positivity of our team. That is Palantir in a nutshell: we bring an attitude of ++ to everything we do.