ALEXIS MONVILLE is a member of the Engineering Leadership Team at Red Hat and the author of Changing Your Team From The Inside. 60% of Red Hat’s engineering team work remotely. In this interview, Alexis discusses what they struggle with, how they communicate, what it takes to lead a remote team, and how to deal with conflict.
His tips for managing remote teams:
- If you work with teams with widely different time zones, consider having two meetings per day with 1 or 2 people on the team overlapping in both meetings to help keep the connection.
- When working remotely, use great equipment. Your equipment is how you interact with your colleagues. Make it as comfortable and problem free as you can.
- Hire the best people wherever they are and pay them well.
- Each team is unique. Find what works for your team and then do that.
- Define how you are going to communicate together in your team agreements.
- Make your work visible to your team mates and stakeholders so everyone understands what’s going on.
- Hire managers who are good at managing distributed teams.
- As a manager, create clear expectations, check in with your team regularly (as a team, and one-on-one) and ensure that your message is getting across correctly.
- Encourage teams to know their personality profiles and help each other create awareness within the team. Understanding each other’s perspectives is key to building trust and camaraderie.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Welcome to the Collaboration Superpowers Podcast. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people in companies doing great things remotely. Hello everybody and welcome to episode number two hundred and twelve today I’m going to be interviewing Alexis Monville who is a member of the engineering leadership team at Red Hat and the author of Changing Your Team From The Inside but before we get into that interview I want to give you guys this week’s one minute tip. As usual this week’s tip comes straight from the interview and it’s actually one that I’ve never heard before it’s about dealing with time zones which a lot of people ask about. So on Alexis’s team there are people who work really far apart like eight to twelve hours apart and the way that they’ve solved that on their team is by having two meetings per day with some overlap and people in each meeting. So for example part of the team will meet in the morning and then one or two people who are in the meeting in the morning will also meet in the afternoon with the other team in the other time zone just to make sure that the information gets across and then they can take that back to the other team in the morning. Now it may sound like a lot of work but it works for their team so I thought I’d bring it up on the podcast as a tip for other teams just one of the many things that we can do to ease the pain of being far apart in different time zones. If you want to hear more tips about working in different time zones go back to episode number one hundred and sixteen lots of great stuff there. Okay let’s get on with the interview like I said before I’m speaking with Alexis Monville who is a member of the engineering leadership team at Red Hat. For those who don’t know who Red Hat is there an American multinational software company that provides open source software products to the enterprise community. In any case sixty percent of the engineering team at Red Hat works remotely and so I interviewed Alexis to talk about what they’re struggling with and how they solve those challenges. In this interview we talk about why it’s important to have great equipment, why it’s important to pay for the best people he of course give some time zone tips, we dive deeply into management and how to resolve conflict on a virtual team. So grab a drink sit back, relax and listen to all the great tips from Alexis Monville. Let’s get to the first question which is what does your virtual office look like what do you need to get your work done?
Alexis: Alright it’s, it’s already a good question and each time I, I discus remote work with people that’s this question how can you get it done and I really think that you need a really great environment to work when you are working online. Today I’m working at the office that’s not my home it’s a real office with a [Inaudible 03:03] um that yeah from regularly during the week we will work remote and of course I have, as I worked remotely for, for at least five or six years before joining Red Hat um my commute is something that I care about so I need five minutes away from the office that’s another thing so on one day I can start working remotely and then I will work at the office and then I will go back working remotely okay, and that’s something I really appreciate because I can adjust to my own schedule my own life ah when I’m working. So flexibility in the schedule, um proximity of the office and then you need a, you need to perfect desk I have a nice desk that is able to change to be a sitting desk or standing desk, I have nice speakers, I have a nice screen, I have a nice keyboard a nice [Inaudible 03:59] to work not with my laptop present a nice environment and all of this is perfectly set and perfectly replicated at my office so I have exactly the same setup so I’m not bust I know exactly how it works. So this is another thing when you have the chance, or the constraints to have two offices, that I really enjoy to have two offices sometimes so that’s-
Lisette: Especially when the commute is only five minutes that’s pretty nice, I mean then you can just go back and forth you can work at home in the morning come into the office in the afternoon go back at home come back whatever I mean five minutes is great. So you say nice equipment and I can’t help but start with talking about that because I also find that not having nice equipment is really important but why is it important for you?
Alexis: It’s, it’s important because it will be the only way of interacting, interacting with a lot of people. So you need to be compatible with that it’s like um if you spend your whole week in meetings with people you will probably try to have great meeting rooms. Meeting rooms in which you can work so you can it’s easier to explain this to physical space you probably want to have a nice chair or a nice table or a nice whiteboard so you can draw things or sticky balls or pens to label on so all those things that you can imagine that you need if you should meet with people. If you work with your computer and it’s the only way you love to interact with people you want to have the same things and that’s the thing that is a struggle for a lot of people because it’s difficult to choose those tools and choose those, and to define the standard out when you are a large company for example.
Lisette: Right and there’s a lot of large companies out there still using the old spider phone sitting on the conference room tables you know where you have to lean over and hey Bob its Lisette and yeah but I so that’s why I’ve focused on this like having nice equipment because I love your answer because you’re communicating with people with this equipment all day long yeah that’s really important to be able to communicate with people. So let’s talk a little bit about Red Hat for anybody that, I can’t imagine people don’t know who Red Hat is but let’s you know well you never know who’s listening in the audience tell us a little bit about the company and then we’ll dive into the remote working scenario that you guys have there.
Alexis: Yeah one important thing about, about Red Hat is, Red Hat is an open source company, it means everything we are doing is open source, [Inaudible 06:33] tell me that maybe setting open source software any software that you can find for free is a weird business but it’s all business it’s what we are doing. In fact we are already innovation enablers meaning we are a platform for a lot of software companies to run their software on top or us wherever they want. That could be on their own infrastructure that could be on the public cloud and all software are based on Linux are based on Kubernetes um that’s to [inaudible 07:02] a large open source project ensuring that those software are already working for customers and we are improving those software ah within the default open source communities, we are also [Inaudible 07:16] for [Inaudible 07:17] that are under the authority systems so.
Lisette: Okay so it’s a bunch of geeks over there so it’s a bunch of tech guys that’s what I’m hearing.
Alexis: Oh yeah definitely. That means that my explanation was not clear enough it was already-
Lisette: No, no it was totally clear it’s just I’m the average Joe that’s ah no I totally get it but it is an interesting business model to be open source that’s unusual especially if everything is open source. What do you know that decision behind doing that I mean and many people have not done that so?
Alexis: Yeah it’s really an old company now it’s a company that is twenty five years old so the movement at the beginning that was the look that yeah you to remember the different the Unix vendors they were already trying to lock in their customer into their platform and they were improving the Unix, Unix was supposed to be a standard and they were changing this standard, improving the standard to [Inaudible 08:15] features to their customers and then when they were locked in using those features they were locked in and so Linux came as a solution that was that would prevent those kind of fluky, and so the fact that it was open source everybody could contribute and improve the system but nobody could take it and make it private so that was that was the origin of things. If we look at how the industry the IT industry evolves there is always some people that try to lock in their customers and the only way that we can keep our customers is by being good at what we are doing and that’s a challenge a day to day challenge.
Lisette: Right is to stay, stay excellent at what you’re doing when there are so many options out there. Now you said sixty percent of the people at Red Hat work remotely, is it are they working nearby is it all over the world what does the workforce looks like?
Alexis: So that sixty percent of engineering in fact though [Inaudible 09:15] function I don’t know the numbers but for engineering it takes more than that, six thousand people it’s already a lot of people um but the company is twenty thousand people so it’s pretty large. Those people are remote because you know when we work with open source communities those communities are made with people from several different companies are individuals that are contributing to the, to code. So they are distributed all over the world. Well we do try to hire people to work in those open source communities you try to hire the best people wherever they are, so it causes different challenges of course but that’s why we have those people distributed all over the world. So we have people in offices [Inaudible 10:00] them forty percent of them, those offices are also distributed all over the world and we have people that are working from home or from co-working space often you find that but they [Inaudible 10:12] um so that’s, that’s how, how it is.
Lisette: Okay and that’s um actually kind of a tough business model or not a business model but it’s a tough working model because when you have everybody working remote that’s one way of working when you have everybody co-located it’s also one way of working and both of those are easier than having these sort of hybrid some remote some at the office and then you have the added complication of having additional offices on top of that so you have multiple offices and people everywhere how do you guys do it?
Alexis: There are several aspects of it and you will you will find that raises several of our question but it is a struggle it is really difficult so it’s something we need to pay to have the best people working with us and we don’t want to tell them okay if you want to work with us you need to move to that particular office. So it’s difficult and some teams are doing it, are doing it really better than others and it is difficult to know why, so we have teams that are working with people in two different offices with six different, six hours of difference in time zone and with people all over the world from the West Coast to Australia and that are already working perfectly well and when you look at how they work you’re really surprised because how do you call that a team the people I’m not even awake at the same time and this team find a way to have daily meetings for example this one team might, has two daily meetings a day because to accommodate different time zones and those people that are doing the two, two to keep the connection between all those people and they are doing a lot of things asynchronously also to give the opportunity for, to people that are sleeping at that time to have their say and it’s working really well. But we have teams that happen to not being able to work with more than six hours of difference in time zone that was not working for them at all. It was absolutely impossible so there is, there is probably a personality aspect around that.
Lisette: That’s super interesting so there are some teams that are rocking it with the time zones of being far apart and other teams that are really struggling with it and deciding hey it’s not for us, um and no discernible reason why the same equipment I’m assuming same resources same everything it’s just personality types you know that having to meetings per day as a way of solving time zone issues where they’re passing on what you know, a couple of people are in both, both meetings but some are just in one meeting that’s a really interesting solution a really good one actually. I mean it takes a little bit of extra work but that’s one that I’ve not heard before so.
Alexis: Yeah I was so happy with that solution that I tried to force that solution on other teams and they rejected it absolutely so it could not work for them and they even tried it and it was not working and when I was looking at the community for the other people yeah there was people that were there to connect the community to be the bridge and they were willing to do that and it was not overloading them, it was okay for them to be the bridge an in all the teams there was no people like that.
Lisette: Right, right so it just goes to show that there is no one right way to work remotely each team needs to find what works for them and then do that and some things will work for one team and some things will not work for one team and that’s also been the finding of my research when interviewing teams is that there’s just no one right way I wish there was a formula I could make a lot of money from that formula but just not the way it is, so how do you guys communicate with each other what are some of the tools that you use?
Alexis: Oh yeah its, yeah we have, of course, we have we standardized on ones or video conferencing system that is available on our laptops on conference room and so on so that we standardized on that so we have a good audio, video conferencing system.
Lisette: Can you see which one it is or-
Alexis: I can it’s an advertisement it’s a blue jeans so-
Alexis: One of those that is good enough for us. The other aspect of course we are using email and we are using mailing list because in the open source world there is a lot of project that are run around emails and mailing lists its historical that was the only tools available and we are using instant messaging the old version of its which is IS, IRC was is there forever and is used in a lot of different open source projects. Of course nowadays there is also tools that are used and some teams are using those for example there is open source project that are using Slack and Twitter and of course the teams that are working on those projects are using Slack and Twitter which creates a good kind of interesting difficulties for some people because then it will be on ISE on Slack on [Inaudible 15:23] and on and so. So it’s, it’s a bit of a challenge because it’s difficult to standardize on something and we cannot standardize for the rest of the world we cannot say okay please let’s all use something, we were all using ISE at some point and now there is all those new tools that are coming and we cannot force our choice on the other people, so that’s one of the challenge that we have that’s kind of [Inaudible 15:49].
Lisette: Yes some companies do force the, the tools because they need to standardize it just causes too much confusion but so on the teams I’m sure that teams have to talk to each other and some teams that are using IRC and some teams are doing are doing Slack do they then just learn how which teams use what and communicate in a way?
Alexis: Those tools are relatively accessible unfortunately a lot of them are not open source so it’s important for a lot of us but we always find a way and unfortunately sometimes we are going down our levels so we are using quite simple emails instead of using instant messaging even if instant messaging would be better because we are unable to find which system those people are using so I fear that’s a, that’s the detention at the beginning of a collaboration between large teams for example, that’s that could happen but it will be solved, it will be resolved ah really fast. Our problem is many we could standardize internally even if it’s difficult but we cannot standardize for the other the open source community which we are working but that’s the, that’s the challenge.
Lisette: Right so you have a special challenge because you’re in the open source community and a lot of the tools are sort of these I won’t say old fashioned but mailing lists and IRC they’re sort of old school let’s say they’re old school tools and have been around and that’s so it’s nice to see the development actually that IRC is still being used, the evolution I should say of how these tools started to creep in but a lot of companies are also struggling with too many tools there’s just too many tools so yeah it’s interesting to see it’s true I can imagine the teams solve it relatively quickly because you need to be able to communicate with each other.
Alexis: Yeah and it’s both of the team agreements that’s how we communicate and that’s all those things that you need to define at some point, actually you need to refine over time so you are sure that we are on the same page.
Lisette: So I was going to mention team agreements but I wasn’t sure if you had them so how do you guys create your team agreements it’s I mean it’s per team, how do you share it with each other?
Alexis: It’s more per team based ah and if you take we have teams for example working on open stack ah open stack is a let’s say it’s a cloud software, it’s an open source software to give you in-house capability that you could find on other [Inaudible 18:13] for example um to manage your infrastructure um those teams take large that big project its more than one thousand contributors, so internally we have probably two hundred ah maybe three hundred people that are working on that project they are structured into small teams. The team agreements will be defined by teams ah but they will be shared with the larger group, in fact they are publicly shared ah they are shared internally so they are visible by everybody but the people that are not interacting with those teams have no interest at looking at them presently.
Lisette: Right there’s no reason for it it’s just a list tools or list of rules for working with each other, interesting. So then I can imagine as a software team it might be relative, this next question might be relatively easy to answer but it’s always the, the concern of managers which is how do I know what people are doing?
Alexis: Yeah I guess you could make a lot of money or so with that answer to that question to a lot of managers. I guess there is no, there is no there is no one answer because it will depend on how the teams are working ah one thing is the, the work we are doing is tracked is always tracked because we are working online so depending on the, with which community you are working you only use one tracker that is connected to that community. That tracker could be a really old one where [Inaudible 19:47] radio, a ticket tracker not, not really evolved or it could be a [Inaudible 19:53] like a [Inaudible 19:56] connected with [Inaudible 19:58] with nice feedback loop and so on and nice automation around it, it could be more modern. So internally we will try, we would tend to mimic what we have ah externally and that’s also something that is, it’s easier for people that are working, they are working with the same tools, internally and externally so its simpler. That’s something we are trying to evolve also to evolve our internal tools that also our customers are using um to, to go to raise a more modern solution um and yeah of course it takes time because that’s there is a lot of people a lot of different people working and a lot of different projects. That’s something we would like to, to ensure that we are able to make the work visible for the people in the team and also for the other stakeholders to find a way to visualize the flow of work.
Lisette: Right that’s sort of every, every teams challenge is to how do you, how do you visualize the work so that people understand what’s going on, it goes all the way back to you know the Microsoft Project Gantt charts and I mean that’s just always comes down to how do you visualize and I had a team once where we actually drew thermometers on paper and put them on the conference room walls and tracked the status of tasks every week by physically drawing the thermometer colors and you know that worked [Inaudible 21:25]. The Gantt chart department was not happy with me but yeah it was whatever worked for the team. So I want to focus a little bit on management because you’re part of the engineering leadership team and managing remote teams is sort of a, it’s different than managing co-located teams and I’m wondering what kind of insights you have on the difference in management styles what have you learned about that ah in managing these different teams?
Alexis: I think the one thing that I found really, really interesting is to find managers that are really, really good at managing a distributed team and trying to look at what we are doing and then I thought okay in fact they are just good managers, if they were working in an office with a co-located team I’m quite sure they would do exactly what they are doing today but the fact that they are remote they are doing that with consistency and they are doing that absolutely regularly that maybe sometimes manager who is [Inaudible 22:30] will not do because [Inaudible 22:33] and the fact that they are not able to see people will force on them that [Inaudible 22:38], I will give some example the try to be absolutely clear on what is expected and the clarity they will provide on their expectation is really important, though when you discus with people in their team they absolutely know what is the most important thing right now it’s absolutely clear for them and I try to understand how those managers were doing and in fact I see that they have weekly check ins all the people in their team and they are repeating exactly the same thing but they are not only telling things they are asking people to tell them what they understand. So they are constantly checking that the message is going through, so this is really important and I think that it’s, its good management that it’s even more important where when people are in to check on them.
Lisette: Interesting so is it checking in one on one or is it checking in with the whole team at once or maybe both or?
Alexis: Yeah it’s both ah it’s both but ah the one on one checking is also really important because when you are when you have your weekly meeting with your team and let’s say you are in a planning session and it’s a face to face meeting it’s quite easy it’s somewhat easy to see if people are not talking or if people have definitely a nonverbal communication that’s you can see they disagree but they are not speaking. When you are working, your doing the same thing with the remote team ah you are looking at your screen you are maybe drawing things or you’re maybe looking at task board and you are not necessarily able to pay attention to the number of people that are online and, and many sometimes they [Inaudible 24:25] I would, kept my camera because there’s been [Inaudible 24:28] and suddenly you are in the dark and [Inaudible 24:32] and you cannot know how people really, how the people feel about what, what is going on so you need those weekly check ins, I think you need them also when you are managing col-located teams buts that’s our problem.
Lisette: Right a lot of the things apply in both worlds is just for the remote world it’s necessary and for the co-located world it’s not I mean you see so much so you can let a few things slide like the weekly check ins because you kind of see so much. So how do you deal then with conflict, on a remote team or how does Red Hat deal with it?
Alexis: That it obviously depends I had a picture in mind of a really bad one I need to push that away.
Lisette: Yeah, yeah second worst one. No but it happens on every team I mean I work on a great team with people who I consider close friends and even then I get it you know everybody gets annoyed with each other every once in a while and we have to work it out.
Alexis: Same thing [Inaudible 25:33] are dealing with that um because they have a great practice of their retrospective as a team and they are able to share those kind of things in retrospect and to sort it out. That level of trust between two members is not necessarily arranged by our teams, maybe because they are newer with the, because they are composed of people that are they have just joined and that so you cannot achieve that level of trust and snap and so that takes some time a lot of time to for managers or catalyst in the team to, to be able to have people understand the perspective of other people. There is one thing we are trying to develop or so is to try to help people understand their, their personality profile the personality profile to have [Inaudible 26:29] so they understand that their civil types of personality profile that you can tilt over one or the other depending on the context and that if you prefer to have, that for example you would like to have a big vision, you have to have the high level goals and you know [Inaudible 26:50] by the small details other people can be really scared by the high level vision without all the details so you need to understand those different perspectives to adjust your behavior towards people in the team. So we are trying to develop that and trying to encourage the teams to work on that as a team to work on that profile and we are providing tool for that and to have them have that conversation as a team about their differences and it really adds to raise the awareness that we are different we all know that we are different. It raise the awareness to give some ideas of what you like and what you don’t like or what is the problem for you.
Lisette: Right sort of making it really clear making it tangible that we’re all different an introvert versus an extrovert a cat person versus a dog person I mean we all just have these different aspects and it’s true helping each other become self-aware helping ourselves and each other to become more self-aware and to understand that others are it’s different but it’s not worse.
Alexis: Exactly there’s no good one I was and exactly in the middle of being an introvert or being an extrovert and so for people that are really introverts I am definitely an extrovert if they are asked and for people that are extroverts they are going to say I’m and introvert that’s obvious for them but I’m in the middle so depending on the context if I know everybody in the room I would be extrovert of course that would be comforting if I know nobody I could spend my day without daring to talk to anybody so it’s always interesting to see that and to be aware of that and being aware is how people will need more time or you need more time to discuss a proposal so you need to share the document in advance if you want to have a meaningful conversation about that proposal with them, things like that and things that you are forced to learn when you are working with people that are remote and maybe that we don’t pay attention enough when you are, when we are working with people.
Lisette: Yeah personality really throws a wild card into the mix of things it’s like you can have rules and you can standardize how you do things a newcomer, you know just you get somebody with a wild personality and it just something changes and always curious always good to remember that that is that’s just something to pay attention to I think a lot of us we don’t pay enough attention to that. We are nearing the end of the time but have a couple more questions I just can’t help but ask, one is what do you personally like about being able to work remotely what’s in it for you?
Alexis: I think that’s the kits, it’s between the dream and the reality it’s being able to choose when I work and being able to tell myself okay that’s something I would already work out and we really want to finish that and yeah I will work from all my way start at six am and it’s okay maybe I will finish at twelve and it’s okay and I will be focused on that and maybe after I will drop by the office to meet with some people, I will choose my time and I will choose how I will organize my time. I’m not constrained by the limitation of standard somewhere, of course, it’s easier if you want to discuss with people that work in the US on the East Coast ah working nine to five it’s probably easier but it’s not how we work. So we are working, we are a global company we are working with these people all over the world so we need to adapt and adjust on that, it works both ways, it can adjust to your life also and it’s important.
Lisette: Right I think freedom is something because we can, people are taking the opportunity to use remote working as a way just for freedom of many different things of beauty, avoiding the commute, working where we are most productive, working with our energy levels, working with people we like and of course the whole open source community is not in Boston Massachusetts so you’ve got to you’ve got to go global on that respect, so pros and cons to everything is just super curious. So the very last question I have which I have many more but we will have to end here but the last question is if people want to find out more about you and about what you do what’s the best place to find you?
Alexis: I think the best place to start um its [Inaudible 31:13] that my website you will find the Twitter that’s [Inaudible 31:17] ah we can connect on LinkedIn I will be able to chat about that, that’s the easy place to find me. I’m on [Inaudible 31:25] instant messaging team the chats that’s probably I have [Inaudible 31:28] things that are not really necessary.
Lisette: You know well people really want to get to know you then you can give them the instant message handles or your, your [Inaudible 31:36] or something.
Alexis: I can probably try to find them where they are, that’s probably easier.
Lisette: Right, right so [Inaudible31:45] and I’ll put that in the show notes that people can easily find you. Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today and sharing how it works at Red Hat I think a lot of people are going to be really interested in how you guys do things and that sounds like you’re, you’re rocking it pretty well over there.
Alexis: Yeah, yeah thank you, thank you for your time that was very great.
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