Jeremy Stanton has been developing software since 1996, and working remotely since 2000 when the company he was working for decided to move to another city. Jeremy and his colleagues had worked together long enough to know that working remotely wouldn’t be an issue.
His tips for working remotely:
- Building culture is not a magical thing.
- Companies need to be deliberate about creating the culture they want to have.
- Having a well-planned onboarding process is crucial.
- The process should be visible and transparent to everyone.
- It shouldn’t be hard for people to talk to each other and to know what each other are doing.
- Communication should be easy, often, and light-weight.
- Have your expectations very clearly defined so you know what success looks like and what failure looks like.
- Use whatever tools make it easy for your company to stay on top of what you should be doing.
- Have both structured and unstructured time.
- Try things in little chunks so that there’s limited risk and an opportunity to change things quickly if it doesn’t work.
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Be deliberate about your hiring process and culture
A lot of building software is hiring the right people. A lot of people think that culture is some kind of magical thing. It’s not. You have to be deliberate about having a specific culture rather than hoping you’ll end up with one you want. Hope isn’t going to get you where you want to be. Write down what your priorities are. What kind of people do you want to have? What characteristics do they need to have?
You need this first, especially when you’re starting a company. And then that gives you a template against which you can hire. I think it’s dangerous, or at least very risky, to hire without having a very clear view of what your culture should be like. I’d rather have the right kind of person than the right kind of resume. You want people that don’t need to be lead: self starters and accountable. You hope to surface this kind of stuff during interviews by asking for specific questions with anecdotal answers.
Be deliberate about your on-boarding process
When hiring, you want to eliminate as much risk and uncertainty as you can. And that continues after the hiring process. Just like with the hiring process, you have to be just as deliberate about the on-boarding process. On-boarding is where a lot of companies drop the ball. You’ve got to fail people as fast as possible, because the longer they stay at your company, without being the right kind of fit, that’s just money being flushed down the drain. In addition, it slows everyone else down because everybody has to deal with (at least, mentally) the fact that this person is not a fit.
Having a good process in place is clearly more important for remotes simply because it’s easier to hide shenanigans when you’re remote. Have your expectations very clearly defined so you know what success looks like and what failure looks like. Schedule regular opportunities for both parties to face those expectations.
Challenges of remote working
The biggest challenge is making sure people are talking. But then, this is all stuff that should be happening whether you’re working remotely or not. It’s just that with remotes, you can’t ignore this stuff. You’ve got to be communicating regularly. You’ve got to be communicating as clearly as possible and as much as possible in the least amount of time. This kind of thing can get out from under you if you’re not deliberate about communicating.
I’m not a fan of meetings. I prefer flow. But I like to make sure we’re having the meetings we need to have. So with remote working, the daily stand-up happens during the first hour where it’s at least 0800 for everybody. The idea being, that every day, everybody gets a taste of the pulse of where we are.
Like I said, all of these things are the same challenges that you deal with in the office – but you can’t ignore them when the person is remote.
Some people say that remote working is hard, so they’re not going to do it. I tend to lean into my pain and do it more, until it doesn’t hurt anymore. If you lean away from these problems, you’re only hiding them. I’m not saying that everyone has to have remotes. But if you physically recoil from the idea of having remotes, because something about it freaks you out, it’s probably because you’ve got some kind of underlying problem at your organization that you haven’t addressed yet. You’re feeling it in your gut, but your brain just hasn’t realized it.
Benefits of remote working
I’ve been able to live somewhere with a very low cost of living while enjoying a metropolitan income. But, the bigger part of this, is the opportunity to work on really interesting technology and with people doing interesting things. And that’s what I’ve really gotten the most out of without having to move.
I’m not opposed to moving. If there was a situation where the company could clearly demonstrate why my being in the office would radically change for the good the nature of the work being done, then I would say ‘yes, I’ll move in a heartbeat’. But to date, no one’s been able to demonstrate that.
With working remotely, there’s a lot more room to ramp into the company. You can get great people at a reduced rate, without it feeling like a reduced rate to them. They’re getting a premium salary for their location and they don’t have to move.
The one exception I can imagine is where you’re a co-founder responsible as the product owner where you have to marinate in ideas constantly, then I could see value in being co-located.
Companies that can support remote working will outperform companies that don’t. Companies don’t have to have remotes. But if they have communication processes that make it easy for a remote to work with them, then they’re going to be better off. All the things that make it possible for a remote to work, and work well, are things that you’d want anyway. People pay lip service to those things, but they don’t necessarily execute on all of them.
If you’re trying to allow for remotes, or make existing remotes more functional, the focus should be whatever makes communication more efficient with the least friction possible. It shouldn’t be hard for the team to communicate. It shouldn’t be hard for them to know what they are supposed to be doing right now. It shouldn’t be hard for them to know what success looks like, to be doing their job right and know they’re meeting expectations. Every company pays lip service to this stuff but only the ones that could be successful with remotes can be certain they’re achieving those things.
Remote collaboration tools
Use whatever makes it easy for your company to stay on top of what you should be doing. I’ve had a lot of success with Atlassian’s Greenhopper, now Jira Agile.
We used Skype but switched to Hangouts because it was more reliable and screen-sharing was better. At a previous company, we were big fans of flow and we tried to make as much communication as asynchronous as possible. We considered video very disruptive, so we would only do it for things where we absolutely had to be in the same place. We had a rule that if you were going to interrupt someone with video, you couldn’t just do it spontaneously. You had to ask with a chat message first.
For documentation, I tend to like wikis. For small teams, a doc in Google drive will work. You’re going to want to have your culture documented. You’re going to want to have your on-boarding process documented. Not just so you can keep track of it, but also so that your teams can help you collaboratively maintain this stuff. There shouldn’t be just one person owning this.
Structured vs unstructured time
Agile offers cadence and enforced conversations. You’ve got stand-ups. You’ve got retrospectives, and things of that nature, where there’s a very specific agenda. And with a known agenda, you want to get in and out as fast as possible.
What that doesn’t allow for is room for intuition, for issues surfacing organically, or room for empathy related stuff, where if somebody’s got “the feels”, there’s not really an opportunity to express that. So I borrowed an idea from Google and had office hours… with two separate team meetings for “tech talk” and “process talk”. They were essentially our process for improving our process.
The last piece we had was one-on-one discussions where we had some time blocked off each week so we could just talk to each other…. it’s a stand in for the water cooler. It’s an opportunity to have a very unstructured time to discuss what’s on your mind. Again, when your entire team is remote, you have to be deliberate about these things.
The only thing I couldn’t find a replacement for was Happy Hour… and the team building that happens with everybody just hanging out over a big pile of nachos. How do you do that when everybody is remote? I’m still working that one.
Why do businesses resist remote working?
Because nobody got fired for saying no to remotes. It’s easy to say no because there’s no risk. But I would challenge anybody who has a knee-jerk ‘no’ reaction to remote working, to really dig into why they’re saying no. And they can still say no, but they should do their homework. If your first reaction is to say no without really thinking about it, there’s a good chance there’s something wrong with your organization.
If you create a culture that’s exciting to be in, and you’re working on stuff that’s worth working on, people get excited about it and want to be working. They don’t have to be in the same room with you for that to be the case.
Advice for companies just starting
For businesses who are just starting out, try going a week and experiment with what works… tweak the knobs. I would suggest that for anything new that you’re trying, whether that’s a business process, remotes, a new product, whatever. You want to give yourself an opportunity to try things in little chunks so that there’s limited risk and an opportunity to change things quickly if they don’t work.
Lisette: There’s the next ping. So welcome everybody to this Hangout On Air. My name is Lisette Sutherland and I’m researching people and businesses who collaborate remotely. And today, I’m interviewing Jeremy Stanton, a software architect and team builder who has been working remotely for about 13 years. So welcome, Jeremy, and thank you for joining me.
Jeremy: Thank you for having me.
Lisette: So first, I’d like to start by having you give a little bit of background about who you are and the kinds of projects that you work on.
Jeremy: Let’s see here. So I’ve been developing software I guess ever since I got out of college or was effectively out of college. Around ’96 and started working remotely around 2000-2001. I was working with some very good friends of mine locally and their company was taking off and so they all ended up moving to the New York area, New York City and I continued to work with them remotely because I already established a relationship with them and I knew that I can do the work and that they can count on me despite me not being in the office. I’ve been fortunate enough that even though that that particular work relationship wrapped up that I have been able to continue working remotely through other folks that I’ve met through that network of business contacts and everybody’s been satisfied with the work so it’s never really been an issue. They’ve needed me to come in so depending on the organization, the people, the culture, and sort of the phase that they were in, there were varying amounts of me needing to be there. But me needing to be there in a fulltime capacity physically was never a requirement.
Lisette: And has this been consistent over the last 13 years of doing this kind of work where it’s been mostly remote and then coming in as needed or have there been times when you’ve actually come in and done a fulltime position of being in the office in between these times?
Jeremy: Well they’ve all been fulltime positions but maybe I don’t understand the question. I think the most that I was coming in at one point was initially with that company so I started working with them as a contractor part time in 2000 and then came on as a fulltime contractor kind of a quasi-employee thing in 2001 or 2002 at the end of that year. And they were having me come up for a week, a month.
Lisette: I see.
Jeremy: But even so, and that was the most. And then once my firstborn was born, we dialed that back down to like 2 or 3 days once a month.
Lisette: Okay. And in your LinkedIn profile, it says you’re a software architect and team builder. And I’m curious about that because those are two skills that don’t usually go well together. And so is that something that you actively worked on to be good at or is that something that came natural or maybe, I’d love to hear the explanation behind software architect and team builder.
Jeremy: Well I’ve always been very gregarious. I’m not sure how to answer that question. I mean I like people and a lot of getting software built is having the right people so even before, I’ve always been kind of like recruiting-minded and so even before I was a senior developer, a good example is looking at my time with Pipe9. They’re at the time called Construction Net. I think I ended up recruiting like 10 people to come work there which is the bulk of the development staff. And that just happened [inaudible 4:27]. I was excited about working there and I knew the kind of people that I wanted to work with so I was panning the pavement getting friends of mine that I knew were talented to come work there without there even being a referral. There was no kickback just because I knew the kind of people I wanted to work with. I knew that if I could get the people that I knew that I wanted to work with there that I’d have what I wanted. So I started calling people sometimes physically into the office to make them come in and get a taste of what we had going on. And in one case, I remember badgering a friend of mine over and over. He was like “HR didn’t get back to me.” And I said, “Well, that’s no excuse. Badger these people until they return your phone calls. You need to be working here.” So that’s just I’ve naturally been the kind of person building teams and I get very excited about building teams the right way or at least right ways, the processes, and just the thought process that goes into making sure that everybody’s working well together, the communication is happening efficiently and so forth. Yeah, I mean that’s something that I’ve always really enjoyed even before it was something that was technically one of my responsibilities.
Lisette: And what processes do you use for that for team to ensure that there’s a good culture and a good feeling amongst the team when you’re working with them? Is there anything in particular?
Jeremy: Well I think one of the main things is that a lot of people think that culture is some kind of magical thing that it’s great when you’ve got. But how do you get it? But I think that one of the main things is that you just have to be deliberate about it rather than hoping that it’s something that you have and that it’s something that you want and you hope to hire people that end up liking each other. Hope isn’t going to get you where you want to be. You need to be very deliberate about having a culture. You need to write down what your priorities are, what kind of people you want to have, what characteristics do they need to have. I kind of lean whenever I’m trying to answer this question or if I’m trying to write one of these things out, I call it like a culture deck like you’d have a sales pitch. Those folks have a sales deck that they go to. It’s some slides of Powerpoint touch stuff where they go through and say “This is what our product is. This is what we’re trying to sell.” In a sense, your culture is that kind of product you’re trying to get people to buy into this idea of what you want them to be when you get them all together. And so you have to be just as deliberate and put just as much thought into it. So a fellow that I’ve worked with before a couple of times, Chad Little, he really gave me a lot of the ideas that I have now about the importance of that kind of thing. And so I usually go back to his culture decks whenever I’m trying to put stuff together or make suggestions to people about how they should be doing it. So I feel like you have to have that first especially if you’re starting a company. You need that first and then that gives you a template against which you can hire because I think it’s dangerous or at least very risky to hire without having a bearing of what your culture should be like, it’s how do you know what you should be hiring unless you’ve got it.
Lisette: Right besides the skills. It’s always harder to hire for personality, I would assume.
Jeremy: Yeah, and skills, I mean I’d rather have the right kind of person than the right kind of résumé so I’ll take people that aren’t a fit skill-wise because I know that they fit the culture and that they’re going to attack whatever the problem is so yeah, culture figures very prominently underneath all the other decisions that I make.
Lisette: And when you’re interviewing somebody, is there a particular kind of interview process that you go through? I mean when I’m interviewing people, I meat people maybe once or twice or I know a lot of companies that meet people once or twice and then they hire them. And I think that’s really a big relationship to be hiring somebody for and meeting somebody once or twice when then you’re going to spend the next x years working together, maybe not remotely, maybe remotely. It’s a big commitment to make after having met somebody once or twice. Do you just know? What is your process?
Jeremy: Well yeah, you want to eliminate as much risk and uncertainty when you’re hiring somebody as you can and that continues on after the hiring process. So that just gets them in the door. The approach that we’ve taken in the teams that I’ve managed is—and that’s another thing, in the same way that you don’t want to hope that you’re going to have the right culture that people will train themselves up that they’ll stand up somehow magically—you have to be just as deliberate about your onboarding process and have it documented so you know what it is and so you can see when it’s not working. So basically, you want to make sure that you put enough time in that you got a very well thought out process to bring people up speed and that includes making sure that there’s some kind of pairing at the beginning so that people can see what other people [inaudible 9:55]. Let’s say they’re programming parenting program so one can see what the other one’s doing so he has an idea of how work generally gets done, the kinds of expectations that are had. Hopefully, you had that documented as well but that way, they can see all of these happening and can talk with someone while they’re getting up speed. Yeah, so onboarding, I can walk you through what I like about the kinds of onboarding process that I prefer but I don’t know if we’re getting too far field.
Lisette: Right. It’s maybe tangential to the topic of remote working but there is one question which is “How can you tell if somebody’s going to be good at remote working when you’re hiring or is there something in particular that you’re looking for if you’re going to be working with somebody remotely?”
Jeremy: Well you want people that don’t need to be led meaning what I mean by that is that you want people that are self starters. You want people that are accountable. And this kind of stuff, you hope to surface that stuff during interviews by way of asking specific like you can ask general questions and people are always going to say, “Yes, I’m good. I’m a good worker. I mean well. I’m going to try hard.” But within the interview, you hope to find the stuff by asking for specific anecdotes. Let’s say, think about a very specific situation. What time of day was it? What did the flowers smell like? You want to really get that person to explore events that have occurred that helped shape the way they behave and are proof that in certain situations that they can actually perform and have the same sort of mental makeup that you do. You want one thing and this is just specific to me but I can imagine others taking some values in this is that I tend to be optimistic so if I interview somebody in a vacuum, it’s just me, I almost always come away thinking, “That boy, that person, they’re going to work out great.” So what I’ve tried to do is to make sure that anytime we interview anybody, we always make sure that at least, two other people interview them so you got 3 people interviewing and that I won’t let the conversation and when we discuss post mortem after the separate interviews that they were separate, making sure that I’ve got at least 3 things that were potential red flags for me.
Lisette: Oh, that’s a great technique.
Jeremy: Yeah, I talk until I have 3 things that could be problems for myself and then we talk through all the showstoppers.
Lisette: Interesting. I love it because I’m also optimistic and I find that when I first meet people and talk to them I always like them.
Jeremy: Aren’t they great and then you get pretty much into it and like “Why did I ever hire this person? They’re the laziest person on Earth.”
Jeremy: Or they take any kind of direction and they make suggestions and they always veer off road. So yeah, I don’t let that conversation stop until I personally got at least 3 things and everybody kind of makes sure that each person giving feedback on a particular person they interviewed that they got things they like, things they didn’t like and make sure everybody reports things they didn’t like because if they don’t have things they don’t like, then they haven’t talked to that person long enough. And then we basically go through each person’s don’t’s and then we each do a score and then we average the score and there’s usually some kind of predetermined like they’ve got to be better than something. [Inaudible 13:47] that organization so it could be a 6 or 7 or whatever or an 8 depending on what the power of senior the position is.
Jeremy: So that’s the process. So if we’re talking about onboarding, I think that’s the thing where a lot of companies drop the ball. They figure “Well, we did the best we could. We interviewed and now, boy, we really hope this person works out.” And then there’s no follow up. So you get 6 months, a year into a position and then this person is wasting all kinds of time and everybody wishes that they could give them the boot but there’s no rigorous process to get them out. And I think you got to fail people as fast as possible, find out that they’re not going to work out as soon as possible because the longer they stay there without being the right kind of fit, that’s just money being flushed down the drain because you’re going to have to find somebody else and this person isn’t working out and they’re probably slowing everybody else down because everybody else has got to deal mentally with the fact that this person isn’t a fit. So having a really well-planned onboarding process is essential to that. So for us, it’s—and I didn’t get notes for this so I’m just sort of off the top of my head here—something along the lines of multiple points at the beginning sort of logarithmic scales so there’s like a week, maybe 2 weeks, then 4, and then 8, and then maybe it’s like 6 months, so you want to have things that you’re looking for each of these stages where you want everybody to sign off that “Yes, this person is working out.” And it’s not just you looking at them. You want to make this process very visible to them so that there’s no surprises so that they know if they’re failing or not because oftentimes, if that process is made completely transparent, they’ll know it’s not a fit before you do. And sometimes, they’ll quit before you have to tell them to leave because they’ll feel very uncomfortable if it’s not working out.
Jeremy: And they should know that. And if your process isn’t providing that level of clarity on both sides, there’s something wrong with it. And if you don’t have a process for doing that, then that’s a huge mistake.
Lisette: And I assume that this goes for both remote working as well as working together in a team. The processes would be maybe slightly different but you would do them for both, of course.
Jeremy: Absolutely. And it’s clearly more important for remote because it’s easy to hide shenanigans when you’re remote. As far as not working if there’s not a process like this, there’s no way to be checking on how a person’s doing, then the person could be racking up all kinds of hours with nobody looking over their shoulder ever. Then people wonder why that person’s not working up, “Golly. We can’t just work with anybody remote.” The problem is that you don’t have good processes in place to deal with the people that you have that are in-house but it’s easier for you to overlook that because they’re right there in front of you.
Lisette: I kind of want to start with the benefits of remote working but it sounds like this is a good segue into some of the challenges of working remotely with a team which is what happens when you have somebody who’s not doing the work that they said that they were going to do or on time or somebody’s slacking. How do you know and what do you do about it with remote working?
Jeremy: Yeah, that’s why having expectations clearly defined so you know what success looks like and you know what failure looks like and regularly having opportunities for both parties to review that or to sort of have to face that to sort of look at themselves in the mirror go, “Hey, am I fit for this?” or “Is this person fit for this?”
Lisette: And it says in your LinkedIn profile that you use Agile Methodologies and I’m assuming that Agile here on a remote team is going to be particularly important because you’re meeting on a very regular basis, you’re doing retrospectives, you’re doing sprint planning, is that what you mean with Agile Methodologies?
Jeremy: Yeah. I haven’t done this with Kanban but I spent a lot of time doing this with Scrum with a few tweaks and the thing that I think is the most important as far as what that offers is [inaudible 18:17] and sort of enforced conversations so that—I’m not a fan of meetings. I like flows. I like to have as few meetings as possible but I also like to make sure we’re having the meetings we need to have—on a daily basis, meeting for standups in the morning as soon as everybody’s in. So if you’re geographically distributed, it’s the first hour of the day where it’s 8 o’clock for everybody or at least it’s at least 8 o’clock for everybody. So for us, we’re on the East Coast for me rather, I guess a couple other guys for this last gig, we had East Coast time and they were on Pacific time and so we’d do it like at 7 o’clock, I guess 11 o’clock or 10 sort of depending if it was 2 or 3 hours off because they’re right there in Phoenix I’m thinking back. So probably at the time they’re on Pacific Time, the rest of the time they were on.
Lisette: Alright. Phoenix has a strange, right.
Jeremy: Right. So it’s Mountain Time part of the year and it’s Pacific Time the rest of the time. So, yeah, we would do it the first hour were it was all at least 8 o’clock for everybody. And we get that over with as soon as possible but the idea being that every day, everybody gets a taste of the pulse of where things are. [Inaudible 19:37] we get them dealt with. Unless you had something like that, I’m not sure how Kanban would work for you. I’m also a big fan of using what works so I’m not saying you couldn’t do Kanban with this way. You could as long as you had some way of on a daily basis making sure that everybody was on the same page.
Lisette: And what are some of the other challenges that you’ve run into either personally or with the teams that you’ve worked on when working remotely. What are some of the things that keep coming up?
Jeremy: Making sure that people are talking. The thing that I find about all this stuff is that it’s all stuff that people should be doing whether they have remotes or not, it’s just that with remotes, you can’t ignore this stuff so you got to be communicating regularly, you’ve got to be communicating as clearly as possible in the least amount of time. This kind of stuff can get from under you if you don’t have a very efficient way to communicate, if you’re not deliberate about communicating. So if you’re the kind of manager or leader that likes to keep things to themselves, this probably isn’t going to work out very well for you or you’re going to have situations where coming back to the idea of no surprises, we’re not having all that stuff be completely transparent. And this is the worst kind of scenario where it’s not working out for you but the other person thinks everything’s completely fine because you haven’t been communicating. They don’t know what success looks like and they think they’ve been knocking at a park when in fact, it’s been a complete failure. But they don’t know.
Jeremy: And again, all this stuff comes back to the idea that all these challenges are the same challenges you deal with people that are in the office but you can’t ignore them when the person’s remote.
Lisette: It does seem to come up in every interview that I’ve done that the topic is if you have a communication problem and the office when people work together, it will only be amplified when people work remotely so if there’s bad communication, it just gets amplified with remote working.
Jeremy: Yeah, and the way that I look at it, it’s like I have the same reaction to that response as I do with people that say, “Well agile is hard or some variation of agile’s hard so I’m not going to do whatever the thing was.” So if you read a book or a blog post and it says, “Yeah, shorter sprint as possible. Try to have one week sprints.” And if your reaction is “Oh, that sounds hard. I’m not going to do it.” And I’ve all these reasons why that’s hard, well, I tend to lean into my pain. I’ve read this a million times and we’ve lived it which is if it hurts, do it more until it doesn’t hurt anymore because if you lean away from these problems, you’re only hiding the problem. You’ve convinced yourself that you got some special reason why your situation doesn’t apply and you don’t have to do that. So in that way, I think embracing agile methodologies or which everyone happens to enjoy is very similar to being where you could support remote. I’m not saying everybody has to have remote. But I’m saying if you recoil physically from the idea of having remotes because something about it freaks you out, it’s probably because you’ve some kind of underlying problem in the organization that you haven’t addressed yet but feel in your gut even though your brain hasn’t recognized it yet.
Lisette: Right. And whose responsibility then is it on a team? Is it usually the manager’s responsibility to come in and to create sort of this atmosphere lf communication or when does it become the team member’s responsibility or how does it work out? How do you get people communicating? Who does that?
Jeremy: Well if your organization is very hierarchical, then it has to come from the top but I’m a big fan of flat structure which is kind of no-structure. Well I shouldn’t say non but sort of non-traditional.
Lisette: Self-organizing maybe.
Jeremy: Yeah. I mean we can do a whole other interview on just that but I think the healthiest way is for it to be mostly flat as flat as you can get it. And then everybody is saying that guy’s not working or let’s change these things so that this person can be better integrated into the team. There shouldn’t only be one person to say the house is on fire. There’s a problem, right? Everybody should be screaming and running around with their hands in the air. Then it’s a problem that everybody can work towards and we all get in line and we start helping each other throw water on this fire. If there’s only one person, if they can’t get the message out to everybody or they don’t do it the right way, then they’re the only one who leaves the house and the thing burns down. I think we’re getting out of hand there with the metaphor but you get the idea. It’s that we all need to be working together to get these things done whatever the things are.
Lisette: Do you find that there are people who just are not interested in helping or people that are “Just let me code. I don’t care about the software side.”?
Jeremy: I don’t want to work with those people because we’re all in this together and I don’t need everybody to wear a leader hat. I don’t expect that but everybody should care that we’re doing the right thing whether that’s having the best process we can have so that we’re creating software efficiently or having the best methods of communication so that we’re all being clear about what needs to get done. Everybody’s got to be onboard. So if you want to just sit over in the corner and code, that’s great as long as you care even if you’re constantly talking about it, you need to think those things are important because that’s part of the culture that we’re hiring you into and that’s one of the bullets on a culture deck where I put one together myself that will be hiring people for. So they can see that when they come on board so if it doesn’t work out for that reason, again, they’re not surprised. We told them when they came onboard exactly what we expected of them.
Lisette: Right. So what is it about remote working that excites you? This is something clearly that has worked for you and 13 years, that’s a long time to be working remotely so clearly it works for you. And what about it works for you?
Jeremy: Well, I’ve worked primarily with companies that were on the coast so it’s been great in that I’ve been able to live somewhere where there is a very low cost of living while enjoying a metropolitan income. And whether or not you’re taking advantage of that, even if you’re just looking—I shouldn’t say even because the bigger part of this is the opportunity to work on really interesting technology and people doing interesting things and that’s what I’ve really gotten the most out of without having to move. Like I was telling you before we started the broadcast, I’m not opposed to moving. I’m not dogmatic about it. If there was a situation where whoever they are, they could clearly demonstrate why me being in office would radically change for the good the nature of the work being and if it was the job I wanted, then I would say “Yes, I’ll move in a heartbeat” but to date, no one’s been able to demonstrate that. Now, one thing that I can say is that if I were a cofounder of something as opposed to just being leave this or that, where I was helping develop the product, where we’ve got to kind of marinate those ideas constantly, then I could see some value in that but that’s never been the conversation. It’s usually, you coming in as a lead for something or the product is already established or if the product’s being developed, I’m on product. So for example, at FetchBack, I had a lot of input peripherally into the product but I wasn’t the product donor so even though I was the CTO, I didn’t own the product so that’s why that was able to work. So I can see in situations where there’s a lot of that going on and you’re fundamentally involved in it that that would be a reason why you want to be colocated but so far, that hasn’t been the case.
Lisette: So then you’re saying being able to have a good pay while living in an area that has a low cost of living is a benefit and then also working on interesting projects that are not location based is the real reason.
Jeremy: Exactly. So, yes, those are the two sides of it. So there’s me, if I’m starting a company, I like to hire people that are the right people that don’t necessarily have to be where I am and almost every case, you can get those people at a discount if you’re willing to hire outside of major metropolitan areas because the cost of living is radically lower in some cases. And it’s a win for them because they don’t particularly want to move and if you could hire them where they’re standing, they’re going to be a lot more excited about the job because there’s a lot of risk taking a job and having to uproot your family, move someplace because what if it doesn’t work out? You get 6 months in and it doesn’t work out and you just moved your family and that’s an awful conversation having with your spouse.
Jeremy: So with working remotely, even if they end up needing you to be where they are, there’s a lot more room to kind of ramp into the company and everybody gets a chance to see if it works out. And then if you feel like you still need to have them there, then they can move. We did that in at least one case at FetchBack where we hired somebody from halfway across the US and after they were onboard for several months, we moved him out to Phoenix.
Lisette: After they knew that this was going to work out.
Jeremy: Everybody was very comfortable with the whole thing then there was no risk involved. Okay, so I was saying from a hiring perspective, it’s very appealing because you can get great people at reduced rate without it feeling like a reduced rate to them. They’re getting a premium salary for them because they don’t have to move. So it’s a win for you and it’s a win for them.
Lisette: Plus I assume the ability to work from home gives you lots of flexibility so that’s a benefit in and of itself in addition to a good salary.
Jeremy: Yeah, because if you’re working from home, you’re always at work. As long as you manage that well, that can really be to your advantage. So if you’ve got, let’s say you had something that you really need somebody to work on for like an hour, most people are amenable to that as long as it’s not every single night all the time. You call somebody up, you’re like “Hey, Buddy, we need this thing done tomorrow. Do you mind going to your home office or opening up your laptop and knocking this thing out right now?” “Sure. No problem.” Whereas if it’s like some friends of mine in New York City, it’s like “Do you mind coming back to the office?” “Oh, my commute is an hour and a half.”
Lisette: I can’t come back into the office.
Jeremy: And it’s three hours round trip before I do anything. So sorry, I can’t do that.
Jeremy: There’s a lot of benefit both ways.
Lisette: Was it difficult for you to start working from home to sort of separate the work-life balance? Was there any challenge there?
Jeremy: Yes, particularly because at the time, I didn’t have kids. Kids are a great excuse to stop. So before that, my wife would always say, “You’re working too much. I can’t believe how much you work” because I was working probably 80, 90 hours a week. And it was funny because a lot of my friends who had kids because we were at the age where everybody’s starting to have kids so everybody else had kids before us and they were all saying, “Oh, you know, when you have kids, it’s all going to change. Your life’s going to change and you’re going to have all these stuff you’re going to have to deal with. It’s going to be a bit of a burden but it’s going to be great, but it’s going to be all this work.”
Lisette: It’s a good kind of burden.
Jeremy: Yeah. But what happened with me was that I was working so much for so long. It was like 2 years just 60, 70, 80, 90 hour usually closer to 80 and 90 that when we had our first, it was like a vacation because they would say, “You’ve got to work” and I’m like “Child.” And so I had that excuse for like 6 months so I was working in like normal 40-hour weeks for 6 months so it was a huge…
Lisette: A relaxed 40-hour week.
Jeremy: Right, so to your question, it can be very challenging if you don’t have anything else going on at home. So if you aren’t a parent or if you’re single for example, it could just consume you if you let it, if you’re the type of person that enjoys what they do. But yeah, with kids, it’s always a little bit of a challenge because there’s always one more thing I want to try to get in at the end of the day and you kind of have to weigh that against tugging on your shirt “Daddy, we got to do the thing. Let’s go play ball,” bike, whatever it is so you’re going to have to make sure that you manage that well.
Jeremy: But to a certain extent, there’s that. Anyways, it’s just you being in an office as opposed to being home.
Lisette: Okay. So now, we spoke a little bit before we started broadcasting about companies who support remote workers versus companies that don’t and you have a very interesting comment on that which was that companies that can support remote working will outperform companies that don’t. I’d love to talk about that.
Jeremy: I don’t have my statistics to back that up but that’s certainly my feel.
Lisette: Well you have 13 years of experience so that’s…
Jeremy: Hope that accounts for something. Yeah, it seems that, and this is even companies that don’t necessarily, as I was saying, they don’t have to have remotes but if they have communication processes and so forth that would make it easy for a remote to work with them, then they’re going to be better off because all the things that make it possible for remote to work and work well are things that you want anyway and people pay lip service to these things but they don’t necessarily execute on all of them.
Lisette: What are some of the most important things that come to mind to just give them a little bit more specific about what this is.
Jeremy: Okay, so yeah, if you’re trying to allow for remotes or to make existing remotes more functional, the focus should be on whatever makes communication more efficient with the least friction possible. It shouldn’t be hard for the team to communicate. It shouldn’t be hard for them to know what they’re supposed to be doing right now. It shouldn’t be hard for them to know what success looks like to know if they’re doing their job right and are meeting expectations. Like we’re saying, every company pays lip service to this stuff but only the ones that could be successful with remotes can be certain they’re achieving those things.
Lisette: Are there specific tools that you use for this?
Jeremy: There’s nothing specific to this. I think some kind of collaborative text writing tool is helpful and I’ve had a lot of success using Atlassian’s JIRA.
Jeremy: Well actually, [inaudible 36:47-49], we used Greenhopper which is a plug-in for that that we really liked a lot because it feels very similar to just sticky notes. It feels very similar to either an Excel spreadsheet or Sticky Notes which I like about that. But you don’t have to use that particular tool, just whatever makes it easy for your company to stay on top of what you should be doing right that second and what the sort of in your term picture is when all that’s stuff’s taken in aggregate.
Lisette: And for communication, is it mostly Skype or Hangouts, or what is it that you use mostly? IM? I’m assuming all of these things.
Jeremy: Right, yeah. So let’s see here. We were trying to kind of get a little bit more formal about what modes of communications to use in which context add adhesive and what we were settling on was we were using Skype for video chat but we started to switch to Hangouts because Skype was getting way too unravel. Hangouts seems to be a lot better with down sampling so if the bandwidth gets a little bottlenecked, it seems to be able to stay up a lot better than Skype was.
Lisette: I think also, sorry to interrupt; it seems to also handle groups of people better than Skype does.
Jeremy: Yes and especially when you’re screen sharing. And if we’re screen sharing in a group on Skype, it will die pretty much guaranteed. So if we ever did group screen sharing for our retrospectives and for our, we call it turning in our homework, where we were submitting all the work for the week to the PO or Pos, we would use Hangouts because we can get 6, 7 people all with video, everybody’s screen sharing for example. And it’s free whereas you have to pay for group sharing on Skype. So as far as when to use it, we were big fans of Flow and we tried to make as much communication asynchronous as possible so we considered video very disruptive so we would only do it for things where we absolutely had to be in the same place and you kind of had to ask, we’re in a rule that if you have to interrupt somebody with video, you couldn’t just do it spontaneously. You had to say with a chat message, “Do you have a second?” and that way, they could just ignore you if they were in the middle of something unless it was previously agreed upon, there was some times. So that’s something else I had a couple notes on was as far as mostly communication and whole stuff on communication, let’s see what I have here: Right, the importance of structured time versus unstructured time. With adhesive, the entire team was remote so I’m here with another guy that was near me but not certainly—this is my home office so he didn’t come here. He was in his own home office. And then we had two guys in Phoenix but they mostly worked from home. So we had a lot of time to think about the right way to handle remote stuff like this. So one of the things that surfaced after a while was the importance of having structured and unstructured time so you got let’s say standups, you got retrospectives, you’ve got things of that nature where there’s a very specific agenda. And with a known agenda, you want to get in and out as fast as possible. You want to get in, say your piece, everybody says what they’ve got to say, if there’s anything that needs to be discussed that comes out of whatever you’ve all individually discussed, the point is you want to wrap that up as fast as possible and get out of there as soon as you can but what that doesn’t allow you to do is there is no room for intuition, there’s no room for issue surfacing organically, and there’s no room for empathy related stuff where if somebody’s the feels and “I feel this way about something,” there’s not really an opportunity for that. So one thing that we found that was really important was an idea that we borrowed from somebody, I can’t remember who’s talking about this. It was some blog post out there but it’s not just one person. There are several people who are into this. The idea of office hours, might have been Google, but where you set aside some time each week, well, for us it was each week. It was twice a week actually where we had tech talk and process talk so we had Mondays for tech talk where the time was allocated but we didn’t necessarily had to use it where we’d either be talking about stuff we wanted to change in the code, new libraries that somebody wanted to showcase so it was kind of like show and tell where it was either we were showcasing something that needed to be refactored in our existing code or showcasing new technology that we want to incorporate to what we already had because we were also big believers of [inaudible 42:13] so always trying to improve everything so that was tech talk. In some days, we didn’t have it but the idea is that you’ve got this time set aside so if somebody just happens to think of something, even if we all decided “Let’s not have this meeting,” the time we set aside so if someone thought of something during that hour, they could call everybody into the meeting “Okay, you know what? We weren’t going to have it but I had this thing that I just realized I wanted to talk about. Let’s get everybody and talk about it.” And then tech talk was on Tuesdays. It was kind of a metaprocess which is we had an existing process but let’s improve it so what do we like? What do we not like? What didn’t work last week? So it’s sort of quasi-retrospective meets complaint inbox kind of thing. And then the last piece that we would have and this is a little bit more organic, was one on ones. We started reintroducing that idea where we would have 15 minutes a week or something blocked off so that we could just stare at each other and go, “You know what? How do I feel about what’s going on? It’s not process specific. It’s not tech specific. Am I happy right not?”
Lisette: It’s informal, an informal discussion with your colleagues like you would have at the water cooler at the office.
Jeremy: Exactly. I actually had in my notes here. I had it. This is a stand-in for the water cooler.
Jeremy: We want an opportunity to have these very unstructured opportunities to discuss whatever’s on your mind. And if you’re colocated, this happens without you planning on them but when the entire team is remote, you have to be deliberate about it. That’s kind of what I liked about the experience for the last couple of years is really trying to, rather than just letting these things happen and sort of following the template for how to run the company best if you’re colocated, really trying to dig deep into what would work really, really well for remotes that there aren’t books on because I went looking and I couldn’t find anything that really spoke for this issue. So Adhesive was a great Petri dish in which for us to experiment on these various approaches to find something that really, really covered everything. What I liked about it was at the end of the day or at the end of that stint rather, I felt like we’ve covered everything that happens accidentally at the office but there’s benefit to it. We found ways, like we’re saying with these tech talk, process talk, and the one on ones, covered all of that. The only thing that I was still trying to find a replacement for was Happy Hour.
Jeremy: Like how do you do remote because a lot of interesting stuff happens there. there’s the team building that happens when everybody’s just getting together and hanging out over a big pot of nachos. But how do you do that when everybody’s remote? And that’s something that I’ve seriously considered like trying to figure out how to make a business around that because I think if you can figure out a way to replicate that for remotes, you have a really interesting business.
Lisette: Right. I’m smiling because what I did with my colleagues, I live in the Netherlands and I worked with two colleagues in California for several years. And what we did was we had virtual lunches together. So once every two weeks, we would schedule a time. It would be 9 PM for me and it would be noon for them in California and we would actually just, I would have my evening cognac when they would have their salads and their sandwiches for lunch and we would just have lunch together and everybody would just eat while we are online and we would just eat together and just have an informal discussion. And we would show each other what we have for lunch you know like “This is my salad for today.”
Jeremy: I tried that at PitchBack and maybe it was just me but I felt really self-conscious. I found myself while I was eating like looking at myself eat.
Jeremy: And I just spent the whole time like I’m looking at myself that’s like eating in front of a mirror. I was so self-conscious the whole time. I didn’t help it. I was trying to do this with the team where then it was my big mug on a pull down. If they put on just a regular laptop, it probably wouldn’t be so bad but I knew that I was on a screen that was 6 feet box.
Lisette: You’re on a big screen.
Jeremy: So I’m like the giant talking head in this room and over time, it started getting more and more like standup because they, “Oh, it’s the big head. Be funny big head. You make us laugh.”
Jeremy: So I ended up putting the kibosh on that because it was like this is not productive time.
Jeremy: Like I feel like I need to eat before I have lunch with them.
Jeremy: And then when I’m up there, I feel like I got to be funny or something.
Lisette: I can imagine if I had been projected on a wall, that would change things but it was essentially just the three of us having lunch together on Skype.
Jeremy: That sounds nice.
Lisette: Yeah, on Skype revamp so that the video of yourself is very small, so small that you can’t really see it so then it became less distracting also to watch yourself.
Lisette: Okay, so I know we’re starting to near the time of the end here, so then what then do you see are some of the common reasons that businesses resist remote working that you’ve seen?
Jeremy: Because nobody got fired for saying no to remote. And I think what it probably comes back to is the same reason that I’ve heard this before like ages ago which is nobody got fired for buying IBM back when IBM mainframe was the reason why so many kept buying was that because it’s what everybody did. So it’s easy to say no because there’s no risk but I would challenge anybody who has a major no come out of their mouth to explore, to really dig into why they’re saying no and they can still say no to it but I think that they should do their homework because you can almost look at it as a smell test. If your first reaction is to say no without thinking about it, there’s a good chance there’s something wrong with the organization, that there are issues that again you feel in your gut but haven’t reached your head yet so you’re not very good at communication so the idea of having somebody remote sounds scary to you because “How do I know what they’re doing? How do they know what they’re supposed to be working on?” all of the fear.
Lisette: The fear of that. And actually, I had a friend of mine tell me, he’s an entrepreneur, he owns his own business and he doesn’t allow people to work remotely simply because he doesn’t trust that they will do their jobs and I said, “Well, look. You know me very well and you can see that I’m working remotely and doing a very good job at what I do.” And he thinks that I’m a special use case and I’m sort of out to prove him wrong that I’m not just a special use case, that most people are able to do this. But what’s your experience? Are most people capable of it or is it a special breed of people that can do this kind of work?
Jeremy: Every single person that I’ve hired and kept is somebody I feel comfortable having to work remotely. And that’s since I’ve been in software because I like working with people who get things done. And generally, I find this is the case if you create a culture that’s exciting to be in and you’re working on stuff that’s worth working on, people get excited about it and want to be working. And they don’t have to be in the same room with you for that to be the case. Does that make sense?
Lisette: Yeah, absolutely. And what advice would you give to a company who’s just starting to work remotely? Would you say try at just one day a week? Is there anything that you would say to somebody who’s starting out?
Jeremy: Well if you’ve got everybody colocated, then you don’t really risk anything by having those people work from home periodically. And then that gives you an opportunity to start tweaking your improving your communication and processes and so forth to accommodate for somebody not being in the same room without any risk to you because if it doesn’t feel right, you can make changes, you can be exploring how to change it while that person is still working in the office, right? So let’s say you give somebody a week out. They’re working from home the whole time and you take that week as an experiment, trying to get this just right, put the knobs until you’re comfortable with it. And if you feel like you don’t feel like you got it right yet, you have him come back in, everybody thinks of it some more, and then you try it again. And I would suggest that for anything that you’re trying whether it was the business process, remotes, new product, whatever, you want to give yourself an opportunity to try things in little chunks so that there’s limited risk and an opportunity to change things quickly if it doesn’t work.
Lisette: Right. So it’s really just a matter of the team communicating well, being agile, being willing to change, being willing to improve, all in small steps and documenting that.
Jeremy: Yup. And documenting it is an important part of this because it’s really [inaudible 51:47] track of what right is and what wrong is and what you’ve tried and what you haven’t tried if you don’t write the stuff down.
Lisette: What do you use for this documentation? Is there a Wiki? Is there just a Word document that sits somewhere? How do you document this?
Jeremy: It would depend on the team. I tend to like Wikis because I like connecting documents. I you were a really small team, then you could just throw out a shared document on Google drive. But as the team grows, you’re going to want to be able to link these documents together and having all this information in one page [inaudible 52:26]. So I’m a really big fan of using Wikis to keep track of all this stuff. And again, like I said, you’re going to want to have your culture documented. You’re going to want to have your onboarding process documented. You’re going to want to have all these things documented not just for yourself so you can keep track of it but also so your people can be collaboratively helping you maintain this stuff. There shouldn’t be just one person knowing this.
Lisette: It seems like the transparency of these processes is really part of the key.
Lisette: And speaking on transparency then, I suppose with remote working there is a need to be transparent more so than I would say in an office because in the office, you’re naturally more transparent. So is there anything in particular that you do to enhance transparency, not just communication? Is it your processes being open? Is there anything in particular that you do?
Jeremy: Again, it comes back to those meetings and being willing to talk about things that are happening in them. So if you tend to be insular like say if your personality is kind of insular, then it may not work for you because you need people forced on you at the office in order for you to interact with them. But if you’re not like that, then it shouldn’t be a problem because again, as long as you have structured and unstructured time where you’re getting together with people to kind of go over what’s going on and how things should be changed to make them better. And this is a continuous process. When we put those things in place adhesive, I was thinking that it was probably a case where we tried it for a while, things were changing rapidly at the beginning gut then things at some point would sort of taper off and maybe we wouldn’t need these meetings anymore. And we found that over time, we needed them more and more; not more frequently but just the need for them, the value they gave us was more and more apparent as time went on.
Lisette: Oh, that’s interesting. I would have expected also the need to drop off over time.
Jeremy: Because we started getting more and more particular about our process so as we found that we could get more out of our process if we put more into it, more thought, more care, that things that before we wouldn’t have cared about. You know, we’re a year into it and we’re like, “Oh, if we just take this one meeting or looking at all the time we’re accumulating meeting-wise, if we just aim for 10 minutes less per meeting per every single person we talk to during the week, we can get two more hours per activity. And we were giving ourselves let’s just say arbitrarily, one of the breaks was at 2 and a half day so that if we’re having trouble fitting 2 and a half day tasks into a given sprint, that extra 2 or 3 hours actually make a huge difference in being able to deliver on that week versus not. So really, really granular stuff like this starts to surface later. And if you continue to put care into creating that [inaudible 55:35] product but a great process to create the product, you start caring about things that you didn’t care about before. And finding value, turning over stones that you wouldn’t have thought were important to turn over before and finding interesting things that are things that you can continue to improve. So that was definitely a non-intuitive result from having these meetings in this way.
Lisette: I can imagine that you start to really refine the details and you start to really get into things and that’s part of the meat, that’s part of the interesting part.
Jeremy: Yeah, it was incredibly exciting. I mean I knew that this was where we’re going to get some value but I had no idea the degree to which it would happen or the speed at which we would get there. So for example, we knew that we wanted to eventually be running in a continuous deployment kind of fashion and we knew that we didn’t want to start there because really being able to do that, you need to have a lot of tests in place and at the beginning, with a lot of the stuff in flux, it didn’t make sense to have testing everywhere. First, we wanted to have sort of an established [inaudible 56:45] circle cut if you will in which testing happens here but not outside. And then as the code in that organization matured, that circle would gradually grow and envelope everything. So we knew we didn’t start doing [inaudible 56:58] out of the gate but we knew it was something that we want to aim for. And we though it was going to take longer than it did but because you’re doing so much thought to have doing everything better, and how to improve how we were doing everything, we were two man weeks from being able to do a CD before I left. So that was less than a year. We thought it was going to be more like a year and a half to two years before it really got. That nailed down so that was an unexpected treat.
Lisette: Yeah. Impressive. So now, it seems like we’re at the top of the hour now. So I just want to give you a chance. Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to mention about your experiences with remote working?
Jeremy: You mentioned pants.
Lisette: Yes, I wanted to get to the pants. I’m glad you brought it up.
Jeremy: Yeah, so a friend of mine and I, my friend, Ben, who’s a QA guy who’s actually worked with your friend [inaudible 58:03] quite a bit, he likes to joke that whenever we would do these video meetings at the retrospectives and stuff, he would joke that he wasn’t wearing pants. And of course, no one ever wanted to test whether or not he was actually wearing pants or not but like an anchorman on the nightly news, “I don’t have to wear pants to do my job but it doesn’t hurt.”
Lisette: Right. Just in case you have to get up and get something.
Jeremy: Right. Worst is you’re not wearing pants and children come into the room and you have to chase them out and you’re not wearing pants. That’s never happened to me. I’m just saying it could happen.
Lisette: The benefit and downsides of remote working.
Jeremy: Oh, the commute’s great. It’s the stairs and I’m at work.
Lisette: Right. Okay, well thanks. I really enjoyed talking with you. And I might have some followup questions that I’ll attend to over emails. I’ll think about this a little bit more and if you have anything for me, feel free to email me as well. But I guess we’ll end this session here.
Jeremy: Sure. Thanks a lot. This was a treat.
Lisette: Okay, I’ll talk to you soon.
Jeremy: Alright, sounds good.
Lisette: Okay. Bye.