The Neo4j Breakfast Club: A Tale About Company Culture in a Mind-Boggling Pandemic

I can still remember the winter months of 2020, clear as day. Neo4j was on a fantastic trajectory already, and growing like crazy. We were organizing our “GraphTour” events throughout Europe, we were launching the long-awaited 4.0 version of Neo4j’s core database product, and we were having a true old blast altogether. It was fantastic.

Neo4j Breakfast Club

What is the Breakfast Club?

Then these talks about “the virus from Wuhan” started. Mmm. It really didn’t hit us until the end of February/early March that we were in for a bizarre ride. Our GraphTour stops in Stockholm and London in early March 2020 were very poorly attended, as people started to be more careful and talks of a “lockdown” heated in our European media.

On Friday the 13th (!!!) of March 2020, many European countries closed everything and went into a bizarre, totally unknown, and even more unimaginable state of “lockdown.” Shops closed. Bars and restaurants closed. Theaters closed. Social and physical distancing were enforced. The world was a different place – and so was our company.

It’s hard to put your finger on it – but essentially it was just a call. Every day at 8.30 a.m., we had people (mostly) from the EMEA region of our organization join for a quick chat. People from different countries, different time zones, different functions and positions in the organization would just hop in. Sometimes for a few minutes – sometimes a bit longer.

But by 9 a.m., we would leave and get on with our day. The call had no topics. No agenda. No leader. It was more like a gathering of shipmates sailing through the weirdest storm ever – the COVID-19 pandemic. It started as a “People” initiative, but it very quickly became its own little microcosm.

Neo4j Breakfast Club

What did we talk about?

As James Bond would say, “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.” We touched on so many things – some professional stuff sometimes crept in (after all, we were all colleagues first of all), but most of the time it was a genuine, heartfelt, personal conversation between like-minded people. Now, almost two years later, the call still happens. Not every day, and not always with the same number of participants. But it’s still there – and I find myself still flocking to it most days if I can.

What’s also super cool about the call is that for some reason, I started to keep some notes. Some very sketchy, incomplete, and poorly spell-checked notes about the topics that we discussed. I had a feeling that I would someday want to revisit it – and thanks to this blog post, that turned out to be absolutely true. Scrolling through the 121 pages of notes (!!!), I relived those crazy, fun, happy, sad, weird, and totally fantastic times again.

KitlerIt’s impossible to talk about all the topics – although I just can’t resist the temptation of mentioning the multiple occasions that we laughed and laughed while scrolling through pages full of “Kitlers.” (Look it up – the internet is full of “Cats that look like Hitler.”)

What did the Breakfast Club bring us?

So many things. During the worst times of the pandemic lockdowns, when our kids were stuck at home bored out of their minds, when homeschooling was in full effect, when we were all mesmerized by 10+ virtual meetings per day, when we couldn’t see our family or friends – the Breakfast Club was a bright light in our days, literally.

I don’t want to sound too cheesy, but it really was a positive, on-time, rhythmic sign that we were all in this together, and that we were determined to get through it together. Like clockwork, every day, we had something to look forward to. When the conversation stalled, we just asked each other “What’s the most exciting thing that you’re doing today?” or “What are you looking forward to today?” – and most of the time we immediately felt a positive jolt of energy.

The Breakfast Club also gradually felt deeper than that. Real friendships were formed among the most regular attendees – some of them I have not yet met in person. And in more than one way, it exhibited our culture and our values as a company. We value relationships. No pandemic is going to change that – and we are always going to live by that.

I guess that is truly the one big lesson I draw from this Breakfast Club experience: when the going gets tough – and it truly did get tough for many people less fortunate than myself, in one way or another – the best possible thing you can do is to CONNECT. As our fearless leader, Emil, always says: “Don’t be a lonely document!” and reach out to one another for support.

All it takes is a simple call – a few words – and you will spark a connection that will support you. Especially in this company. And because of that, I feel like the Breakfast Club is a fantastic example of our culture – but it also reinforced and strengthened it. More than ever am I a happy node in this wonderful graph of ours.

For the Breakfast Club,

Rik Van Bruggen

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