MARC HUGHES is cofounder at ScrumDo, a tool that supports online Scrum and Scrumban (a combination of Agile and Lean Kanban on top of Scrum). They use ScrumDo to keep everyone aligned with company priorities and tasks. (https://www.scrumdo.com)
His tips for working remotely:
- Work with the best people you can find.
- Make your work visible to your team.
- Know when you work best and schedule your most important work during your most productive times.
- Keep your team small and Agile.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: And I think we’re live! So welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And I’m super excited today because I have Marc Hughes. And Marc, you’re the founder of Rogue Software and the cofounder of Scrumdo which is how I heard about you through David Horowitz of Retrium. So that’s exciting. And I looked on your website and it says you love software development, you’re constantly exploring new tech, and you’re building interesting things. So welcome. I’m really excited to talk to you today.
Marc: Well great! Great! Thanks for having me.
Lisette: And let’s start with the first question which I always start with is “What does your virtual office look like? What do you need to get your work done?”
Marc: Yeah, sure. Well, I mean there’s two main people in Scrumdo right now, me and the other cofounder, Ajay. We work pretty differently from each other. He does a lot of the training and customer interaction and stuff. I do a lot of the tech side. So we don’t even work necessarily at the same time much. We kind of have our workflow that we work through and we track our work in our own product, Scrumdo. And that’s how we kind of communicate is through the work where I’m very much a tech space guy. I’m all IM and Skype chat and that sort of thing. And he’s very much a voice guy so depending on kind of who starts the conversation, depends on how we kind of work together for that day.
Lisette: Oh interesting. Do you guys have an agreement about that? I mean did you have to sit down and say, “Okay, look you’re a phone guy and I’m not so much a phone guy”?
Marc: No, it just kind of evolved overtime. And I think it’s almost kind of like I tried to start the conversation so that I can do it in techs and he tries to get, but no, I mean we’re both comfortable doing it the other way. I really like having that kind of written blog of what we talked about so that three months from now when I don’t remember anything about it, I can go back and look through it that sort of thing.
Lisette: It’s an interesting motivator for proactive communication. I’ve never thought of that before.
Marc: Oh sure, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Lisette: So sorry I interrupted as you were describing your virtual office and what you need.
Marc: Yeah, so like I mentioned, we use Scrumdo for all our work tracking, and that gives us a pretty good log of the work that each of us are doing. Past month or so, I’ve been doing a lot of marketing work and he’s been doing a lot of training work at a client site. So it kind of lets us know what’s going on in the company. And then also our accounts person keeps track of all of the recurrent accounts and the projects that we can see when they old accounts are coming up and that sort of thing. We use Github for all of our source controls, so that’s how he kind of keeps in touch with the technical happenings because he can see all of the changes that me or the other developers make. Speaking of other developers, we have some contractors that we work with that are overseas. And they’re generally mostly email based communication with them.
Marc: We’re using Github again with them to track the work they do and using Scrumdo to assign work to them and that sort of thing.
Lisette: Where in other places are the contractors? What is overseas?
Marc: Yeah, right now we’re working with a guy in India. We’ve worked with people in the Philippines and we’ve most recently worked with the design firm out in the West Coast of the US.
Marc: It’s varied a bit, yeah.
Lisette: And how many people do you think in total are working for Scrumdo at any one time? Does it vary a lot based on the project?
Marc: Yeah, we really kind of scale up and scale down with contractors. Right now it’s me and Ajay. We have an accounts person, Diana, and then we have one contractor we’re working with right now in India. For larger projects, we’ll scale up a bit like in that design firm, there was five or six people we were working with over there.
Lisette: Right. I like the idea of businesses being able to scale up and down based on the project work that’s needed. I find that to be, a lot of people say with remote working that is flexibility for worker but I also have seen it’s flexibility for the companies too.
Marc: Oh yeah, yeah absolutely. Yeah, I mean it’s really helped us.
Lisette: Did Scrumdo start remote right from the start?
Marc: Yeah, we started remote but me and Ajay had worked together in an office at a different company so we knew each other and we knew how each other worked. For a little while, we had kind of a co-working office that was kind of in between our two homes so we would meet there occasionally but that actually got sold so we don’t have anywhere to meet right now.
Marc: And actually Ajay moved so we can’t even meet anymore.
Lisette: Okay, so then the idea is what forced you to go completely remote.
Marc: Yeah, exactly.
Lisette: What does your product do? Tell us a little bit about Scrumdo.
Marc: Yeah. So Scrum is a methodology, it’s an agile methodology mostly for software developers. It’s kind of where it originated, although a lot of other industries have been getting into it like recently, we had a marketing, and we even got a couple legal companies that are tracking their cases that way. But it kind of prescribes a way of working so that it’s got a certain way of creating work items and then tracking work items through the process. And then most recently we’ve been investing more in this thing called Scrumban which is kind of layering Kanban practices on top of Scrum. So things like Scrum really prescribes a fixed iteration to working so you have like two weeks to do a batch of work and then another two weeks to do another batch of work; whereas Kanban does more like a continuous flow of work coming in and getting processed, moving out, and there are different ways of tracking statistics on work depending on how you’re working with it. So we’ve been looking at being able to do both sorts of things like that.
Lisette: Cool. So it’s based on whatever methodology works best for your team. You can decide how then you want to use Scrumdo to move your team through the process of getting the work done.
Marc: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And we try to be real flexible because I mean every company out there does adds a little bit differently than everyone else.
Lisette: Yeah, to the chagrin of maybe of many Agile coaches, I’m sure.
Marc: Yeah, I’m sure.
Lisette: Yes it is, yeah.
Lisette: And so what about the idea now Scrumdo is a completely virtual tool, right? It’s meant for virtual teams using the Scrum methodology. And I hear a lot in the Agile world that Agile can’t be remote, that it’s really based on—clearly you don’t believe this because you have built a product that works.
Marc: Yeah. I certainly don’t believe that at all. I mean before we started Scrumdo, I was working with remote teams that were doing Scrum and it’s just fine. You just need to find the right amount of communication between the team. You need to find a lot of benefits of Scrum come from just visualizing the work. So if you have a tool that you can visualize the work that’s going on, it’s pretty easy. A lot of people who prefer the all colocated within the same place like that big giant board on the wall with the sticky notes and everything. And that’s great if you’re all there. But as soon as you have one person that’s not in the office every day, you need some kind of virtual tool that everyone can be able to see and manipulate.
Lisette: And why did you guys go overseas for the contracting? I mean is it that you can’t find the talent locally or ..?
Marc: So I mean we’ve worked with a couple domestic developers as well. I mean it’s not that we were focused on someone overseas or domestic. It’s just we want to work with the best people and we found this great developer named Lakesh at South India. He’s a little bit cheaper too which is great.
Lisette: [Inaudible —00:08:17]
Marc: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But it’s really about working with the best people that we can find. And it doesn’t matter where they are.
Lisette: And how do you find people?
Marc: Ajay’s found all of our contractors so far. I haven’t been on that site so I don’t know.
Lisette: Oh interesting.
Marc: Yeah, yeah. I mean he’ll show up with this guy, he’ll be like “This guy’s great,” and I’ll talk with them and either I’ll agree and we’ll go with him or I’ll disagree and we’ll either have a text or voice chat, and from there, we’ll figure out what to do. Yeah.
Lisette: Interesting. So let’s talk about how you guys work together then. And we’ve kind of started to talk about some of the benefits of how you’re working together but what really are the benefits of how you guys are working together? You’re already working with the best people that you can find so that’s huge but are there others I should ask?
Marc: Well I mean if you mean just kind of benefits to working remotely, I mean for me personally, not having a commute is the biggest thing.
Marc: I live about an hour west of Boston and depending on the day, it might be two or three hours to get in. Ajay is really taking the ability to move. He’s bought two different houses since we’ve been doing Scrumdo and moved. So kind of that flexibility has been really great for us.
Lisette: Okay. And what about in specific to your team, what are some of the things that are hard about the way that you’re working together or things that you struggle with?
Marc: Yeah. So that’s a tough one because I guess maybe keeping on the same page all the time because we’re so focused on kind of different areas of the business, making sure that we stay aligned for the common goal and keep moving in the same common direction. It’s been a little bit of a challenge for us. We’ve had a lot of times we’ll disagree on small details because I’m looking at the details of say the card edit window for three days straight while he’s working with one specific customer for two weeks straight.
Marc: Our focus is split like that. And occasionally, disagreements about minor things will come up.
Lisette: Sure. That seems like a healthy normal team also.
Marc: Yeah, I would think so, sure.
Lisette: Yeah and also alignment is something that I think every team struggles with whether you’re colocated or on a remote team. So yeah, I can understand. I definitely hear that. And what are some of the techniques that you guys have put in place? So you used your tool to build the tool and I find that very cool. I mean it seems critical, right? You have a great tool for task management. And what are some of the things that you guys use to keep communication flowing?
Marc: Yeah. One thing that we started doing maybe just four, five months ago is we created a project just for tracking the super high level of things that we want to accomplish in the future like I mentioned that I’ve been working on the marketing stuff for the past month or so. So that’s one card on there. And it helps us prioritize those big high level things that are coming up like I can look at that board and know that after we finish our current batch projects, we’re probably going to work on some larger company enterprise type features. And Ajay’s in agreement with that. We don’t know what those features are yet but we know that that’s the area we want the company to focus on next.
Lisette: So you know the direction that you’re heading in?
Lisette: The details after it sounds like it can be sorted out.
Marc: Yeah. And actually another project that we just recently created is kind of a reading list. So a lot of times, Ajay’s doing research on Agile methodologies and the newest, latest, greatest things. So he’ll create a list of cards on that board of things that I should read, and I’ll create a list of cards about technical things that we should be doing that he should read. And we can kind of track what the other person has knowledge on already because we know what they’ve already read because they move the card across the board and that sort of thing.
Lisette: Wow! Interesting. That’s a great way to do it. What about all those recommendations you do get from people and where do you put those?
Marc: Oh yeah, yeah. For a long time, it was just emails and they would give it to me in email and be like “Here. Go read this article. It’s great.” I would either read it or I’d forget about it and wouldn’t read it.
Marc: So it can be really helpful, yeah.
Lisette: And what kinds of tools do you guys use to communicate? You said there was instant messaging and the phone. Is there anything else? Is there Skype or a different..?
Marc: Yeah we don’t really use the phone. It’s all Skype so if I say call, it’s really what I mean.
Marc: We do instant messaging. And it’s funny. It’s either in the Skype client or it’s in Google doc or Hangouts, whatever they call it now, and it kind of swaps back and forth so I’m always trying to find where that conversation is. We’ve tried some team communication things like Slack and River but it just never stuck. I think if we had a larger team, we probably would have to have something like that. We both do customer support and we have this great tool called Intercom, and when a customer makes a request, it’s kind of like a team inbox, and it comes up and we can tell if the other person is already starting to answer that question.
Lisette: Oh wow!
Marc: Get that process in, we can write notes to each other, we can like send notifications to each other, and that works for both email for the customer or it works like on the webpage in the app. So a box will pop up and it’s kind of like a two-way chat thing. So it’s been really cool.
Lisette: Great. So it sounds like you have a lot of visibility on to each other’s work and what you’re actually doing at the same time.
Marc: Yeah. And I think that’s key because sometimes we’d actually go like a week without talking with each other. Maybe that’s a little extreme but we’ll often go through three or four days. So knowing what everyone’s working on is certainly important.
Lisette: Right. And then you’re in touch based on the task or the IM but the calling on the phone is necessary. Interesting. And how often do you actually see each other in person if at all anymore?
Marc: He just moved up to Portland, Maine. So before that, we saw each other probably every two months for like a half day or day long strategy session, not sure exactly how it’s going to work now since we’re farther apart. It’ll be a couple hour drive for either of us.
Lisette: Interesting. And do you use video at all?
Marc: We don’t. I’m not sure why but we just don’t.
Lisette: Yeah, I think for people that have been working together for a long time, there’s really no need necessarily for video so I can imagine. I’m just always curious how many people use it and how many people don’t.
Lisette: Interesting. So what about productivity? So you’re using Scrumdo so clearly there is a velocity of tasks that are going through. But in terms of your own productivity and working from home, are there things that you struggle with or techniques that you use in order to keep yourself focused?
Marc: Yeah. And there are probably a few facets of that. The first thing is that knowing when I work best is really important like I know that early in the morning is my best most productive time. So I try to schedule the work that’s most important to be done to happen in that morning time from when I wake up to maybe 11 in the morning or so. And then after that is when I’ll do more either communication with other members of the team or that sort of thing. The other thing is I probably work too much so I work up until dinner and oftentimes I work after dinner, and trying to find a better balance probably would help a lot because I think a lot of the productivity goes down when you’re just working hours that go too long like that.
Lisette: It’s tough when you love your work.
Marc: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. And then I had the third one forgetting what it was now.
Marc: No, no, it’s okay.
Lisette: Chronic interrupter and I ruined the train of thought. If you think about it… So knowing when you work best and the working too much. It’s funny I hear that a lot with remote workers. And I think it’s interesting that managers always say “How will I know what people are doing and if they’re working and if they’re actually doing their job?” and what I hear from the remote workers is that “I can’t turn off like I’m always working. I always do…”
Marc: Yeah. I imagine a larger proportion of remote workers are also small business owners because I know that in small business owners, that’s definitely an affliction that they have is they just work too much.
Lisette: Right. And freelancers as well.
Marc: Oh yeah. Yes, certainly yeah.
Lisette: Because you’re just constantly on the hustle as a freelancer. So yeah, indeed, I hear that a lot that always on. And have there been personalities in the history that work or don’t work or people that—I don’t know if you’ve ever hired people that are working remotely for the first time—I know software developers, it’s less likely that they haven’t worked remotely because the whole open source movement and everything, but do you come across people who it just doesn’t work for them?
Marc: Yeah. We’ve been through a few contractors that just didn’t work. And the thing I think that we need to look for in future contractors is the ability to take a project, understand what we’re trying to do kind of end to end, they’ll own it from end to end. A lot of—or I’m not going to say a lot—but some software engineers really just look at that one smaller tech piece of what they need to do to make it work instead of looking at the bigger overall picture of everything that needs to be done to make a customer find value in the work that’s going to be done.
Lisette: Interesting. So bringing on contractors who can take that bigger picture view a little bigger or have interest enough to do that.
Marc: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, really well and above the end result.
Lisette: That’s probably very hard to find when you’re interviewing people.
Marc: It really is, yeah. I mean we went through one guy who we thought was going to be amazing and his technical work was just amazing but it just didn’t work out because we couldn’t get him to really think about that end customer goal.
Lisette: Right. And he travels with people working remotely or first timer or anybody you’ve brought onboard for that?
Marc: No. I mean we’re a tech company. We work with tech people so the technology’s never been a problem.
Marc: We’ve been mostly pretty happy with everything.
Lisette: It’s a lucky thing about the tech world is all the tech guys have all used it, they’re not afraid to use the tools, and they’ve been doing something in the open source world probably from some point in their careers. Interesting. So let’s see. I don’t want to skip too much because I want to dive in. So we’ve talked about communication and productivity, and personality. Any other tool, there was Github, and Skype, and Scrumdo.
Lisette: Anything that..?
Marc: IM, email, Intercom besides the once you’ve mentioned, we’ve talked about all those so, yeah, I can’t really think of any tools that we’ve used beyond that.
Lisette: Would you ever go back to working in an office again?
Marc: Well I mean never say never but I don’t see any reason why I would at this point. If someone came and offered me a million dollars a year, sure, I might consider that.
Marc: But I don’t see myself doing that. There’s just too much freedom that you get from working at home. I have a three-year-old and being able to go downstairs and spend time with him whenever I want throughout the day is just great.
Lisette: Is it a struggle to balance that when you’re working from home, balancing the work and the life?
Marc: Yeah, yeah. I mean like I mentioned, I probably work too much. But I certainly get away from the desk and away from the office a few times every day during the day and I get to see my wife or my kid and do other things. I’m lucky enough that my office is kind of in a separate area of the house. It’s up a flight of stairs and it’s kind of off to the side of the house so I don’t get interruptions throughout the day when I don’t want the interruption. So that’s been really great.
Lisette: Alright. I can imagine having that really separate space that’s kind of harder to get to does make it a little bit like “No. Dad’s at work.”
Marc: Yeah, yeah. Exactly, yeah.
Lisette: You’re not like sitting at the kitchen table. That would be probably a bit harder.
Marc: Right. Yeah, it’s funny too because my three-year-old has a very skewed sense of what work is now because now I work here, my wife’s a professional photographer that works out of her home. So when we talk about going to work to him, he thinks it means sitting down at the computer or picking up your camera, and he’ll talk about his grandpa going to work when he was just sitting at the kitchen table using the computer or something and it’s kind of funny.
Lisette: Oh that’s funny. Dad’s at work. He’s up the stairs.
Marc: Yeah, exactly.
Lisette: That’s great. I love it. It’s a good skew to have in my opinion of course but I’m totally grossly on one side of course.
Marc: Fair. Yeah.
Lisette: So what about advice that you would give for people who are starting out, maybe Agile teams that are starting? Do you guys give advice to teams that are starting out when using your tool?
Marc: Yeah, we’ve done some coaching and some training with some teams. We’re actually trying to expand that part of the business. But for a remote team, I think the biggest piece of advice I could give is keep the team small and hire better people. Don’t try to build a huge team that has less than stellar people because it’s really important that everyone can get in, pull their own weight, get things done.
Lisette: Interesting. I worked on a team. We built an online product management tool about ten years ago, and there was maybe eight developers on the team but they were amazing, amazing guys, and was crazy what they could build. I mean unbelievable. And so sometimes, I would look at the bigger tools with all those hundreds of programmers and I thought “What are they doing?”
Marc: Oh yeah, yeah.
Lisette: So I can see where you’re coming from on that.
Marc: Yeah. We figure for each person that you add to the team, there’s a little bit of overhead because of the communication between people. So as you add more, more, and more people, you just get less, and less, and less productivity out of everyone.
Lisette: Right. So keeping it small and agile, really we’re talking about each other.
Marc: Of course.
Lisette: Okay. Any other advice you’d give?
Marc: Well they should definitely use Scrumdo.
Marc: Yeah. I mean hiring the best people. If you do that, everything falls in place. It really does.
Lisette: Right. So this has been lovely. Is there anything else that I’ve missed that you want to talk about in your remote working experience that I just sort of missed?
Marc: Yeah, nothing comes to mind. I’m sure I’ll think of like ten things after we finished this call but yeah.
Lisette: So if people want to learn more then about Scrumdo, it’s Scrumdo.com I assume?
Marc: Yes, it is.
Lisette: And what about getting in touch with you? What’s the best way to get in touch with you?
Marc: Email’s the best way. Marc.Hughes@Scrumdo.com. You’ll find that on the website if you look there. I always have my email on so I’m always responding.
Lisette: Yeah. Some people prefer Twitter so I was like…
Marc: Yup. Yeah, no, I mean Twitter’s fine too. I’m Mhughes on Twitter.
Lisette: Okay. Well great! Well thanks so much. I really appreciate talking with you today.
Marc: Yeah, it’s been great. Thank you.
Lisette: Until next time, everybody! Be powerful.