We’re talking about all things all-remote with Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab. Darren is tasked with putting intentional thought and action into place to lead the largest all-remote company in the world. Yes, GitLab is 100% all-remote, as in, no offices…and they employee more than 1,200 people across 67 countries. They’ve been iterating and documenting how to work remotely for years. We cover Darren’s personal story on remote work while he served as managing editor at Engadget, his thoughts on how “work” is evolving and ways to reframe and rethink about when you work, this idea of work life harmony, and the backstory and details of the playbook GitLab released free of charge to the world.
Linode – Our cloud of choice and the home of Changelog.com. Deploy a fast, efficient, native SSD cloud server for only $5/month. Get 4 months free using the code
changelog2020. To learn more and get started head to linode.com/changelog.
Tidelift – If you use open source to develop applications as part of your day job…our friends at Tidelift would like you to share your thoughts in their annual open source survey. Take the survey — it takes around 10 minutes on average.
Fastly – Our bandwidth partner. Fastly powers fast, secure, and scalable digital experiences. Move beyond your content delivery network to their powerful edge cloud platform. Learn more at fastly.com.
Play the audio to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
You came highly recommended as a guest on our show to talk about Remote, because I think you might know a thing or two. What do you think?
I appreciate that. I was born into this remote life…
Well, I caught a rural pocket of North Carolina home, and I love it. I’ve been to all 50 states, more than 50 countries, but this is still home… And you’ve gotta fight hard to stay here, because there’s a lot of farm animals, and farms… And pretty good internet, believe it or not.
It’s a must-have.
But there’s not a lot of infrastructure and employment outside of agriculture. So if you wanna do something in technology, it’s remote or nothing here. I’ve had to fight hard for it to keep this place home, and it’s worked out well. Now, I think the global embrace of remote has accelerated beyond my wildest dreams, and so I’m a little bit less of an outlier.
Yeah, it certainly has. Kind of good timing, to some degree, for some of the things you’ve been doing… You’ve been preparing for a lot of stuff, from what I understand, behind the scenes… And you know, good bad timing, of course; it’s not good that it’s happening, but it’s good timing in terms of you being prepared to have the information out there, ready, all that good stuff. So maybe give some background to your history. What were you involved in, what’s some of your history with remote work?
[03:59] Yeah, so I fell into remote work pretty serendipitously. One of my first major roles was managing editor at a consumer technology publication called Engadget. And newsrooms are really ideally suited for remote work, because stories can be filed from anywhere, especially if you’re a digital publisher… And then the stories that can’t be filed from anywhere, you need to travel.
So I would travel all over the world to trade shows, I would travel to Cupertino whenever Apple would launch a new iPhone… I was just flying from one event to the next, doing trade shows, conferences, interviews… And because of that, I was working remotely, I would be filing stories in the back of a cab en route to the airport, I’d be filing stories from 30,000 feet, flying from San Francisco back to North Carolina… It just came naturally, this is just how we worked… And I kind of fell into it, and also fell in love with it, because I realized that when I wasn’t chained to a commute or chained to an office, it enabled me to travel and explore and do things in life that most people frankly have to wait until retirement to do. And I was weaving them between work responsibilities… And I thought “This is the only way to work. This is life’s greatest cheat code, when you don’t have that commute and you’re able to work wherever you are.”
But it’s wild, because when I started working remotely - this was before the advent of 3G networks, and laptop batteries lasted about 47 minutes tops… So you really had to want it. Back in the day, as I say, it was a lot harder to work remotely. We have it made now; we have ubiquitous LTE, 5G just around the corner, we have tools like Slack and Zoom that make our lives so easy… So although a lot of people are transitioning into remote for the first time and they’re kind of struggling with the cultural side of it, I think we’ve come a long way from the tooling side.
It’s interesting to hear you saying that you were writing things in the back of a cab… That doesn’t seem like the ideal place to work to me personally, but I can appreciate what it takes to get used to that, to embrace it, so to speak. So working pretty much anywhere you are means work/life blending. Would you agree with that?
I completely agree with that. The term work/life balance has been thrown around for many years, but at GitLab we prefer work/life harmony. There’s some subtle nuances to the terminology there, but it’s healthier to find a harmonic balance between work and life than it is to strive for balance. Because frankly, balance is a utopia that you may never reach, and if you’re striving for that, you may just spend years in frustration, wondering why you don’t spend exactly this amount of hours working and exactly this amount of hours sleeping. You’re kind of missing the point.
There were some times during the Engadget days when it was trade show season, for example, where some of the weeks were just completely manic… But I’d be flying all over the world, going from on trade show to another, and in between those I would be able to fly to places and explore new hotels, new national parks… You just can’t get that in a typical office job, where you’re chained to one city and you’re bound by the commute.
Here’s the thing that centers it all for me - if you were to take tally marks and go on the front and back of one sheet of paper, you would be able to catalog every single weekend in the average human life, on one sheet of paper. So what I mean by that is if you’re just living for the weekend, if your weeks are completely nuked because of the commute, that’s kind of not ideal. If you’re just living for the weekend and you can fit them all on one sheet of paper, there’s not a lot there. And remote allows you to live so much move in between the tent poles of Saturday and Sunday.
Let’s do some math there - 52 weeks a year; that’s 52 weekends a year, right?
Yeah, which ain’t that many.
What’s the average life these days? 70? 75? 80? I don’t know.
Call it 70…
So you’ve got like roughly 4,000 weekends, maybe. How many weekends have you wasted? Terrible…
But if you stretch that across the five days of the week, plus the two you get in the weekend…
[08:02] Yeah, I wrote a book on this after I left Engadget. I actually earned a Guinness world record there in publishing, and a lot of people asked “How in the world did you accomplish that?” I’m the world’s most prolific professional blogger. And while I was there, I averaged an article published every two hours, 24/7, for four straight years when the record was granted.
It was about six million words at the time, 17,000 posts. I think it’s up closer to 30,000 and ten million now… But I still have the record, which is fascinating.
How did you do that?
But part of the answer to that was I worked remotely. That actually was part of the answer of how I was able to achieve that world record… Because during the years that I was there, while most everyone else was wasting one to three or even more hours per day commuting, I was able to do something different with that time. On some days I would pour that into my work, so I would become more productive and accomplish more, and get closer to the goal, and on other days I would live what I refer to as a non-linear lifestyle, or an off-peak lifestyle, which means I can fly somewhere on a Tuesday, save a lot of money because I’m not flying with every other business traveler in the world, and increase my chances of getting upgraded.
These are the kinds of things you can do - you can weave in and out of the week when you’re remote and you aren’t beholden to that commute.
Tell us those numbers again… Four years – you’re blowing my mind over here.
[laughs] It was an article published every two hours, 24/7, 365, for four consecutive years… And that’s when the record was bestowed. So I kept writing after the record was bestowed.
So you weren’t on that cadence though. That’s just if you averaged out how many you wrote, it would be that much, right?
That’s right. But it was close to that cadence. Obviously, there were some days when I wrote zero, but you’ve gotta think - what does that mean for other days if that were the average?
You have to make it up, yeah.
There were like 20 of them.
Yeah. So the craziest day of my Engadget career was a day at the consumer electronics show… I think it was 2008. At CES, if you’ve never been to CES, it’s just a manic amount of news in the consumer electronics space, and we had a fairly small team. I was kind of in the war room, just cranking out news… And I got up past 30 posts in the day. One of my colleagues said “Darren, I think you might be on a pace to write more than anyone’s ever written in one day”, and that’s all the motivation I needed to just go full bore. So I stayed up for an entire 24-hour cycle, just to see how many I could do… And it was either 52 or 58 (I need to go back and check), but it was over 50 in that one day.
I crashed pretty hard the next day, but it makes for a good story, so I’m glad I did it.
Any stats on spelling mistakes, or grammar mistakes? I mean, do you go back and even edit that stuff, or do you just plow through?
[laughs] No, mistakes were–
Collateral damage. [laughs]
What I’m trying to say is there weren’t that many mistakes, and I wanna say it in a way that you understand the context. So Ryan Block and Peter Rojas I consider the godfathers of blogging. They were my mentors; they were at Engadget when I joined, they taught me everything I knew about writing an editorial… And they were sharp, and their bar was very high. They taught everyone early on that if you publish something and it’s under your by-line - this is your name, this is your reputation, and it needs to be great. So we were hardwired early on to self-edit in real-time.
If you ever meet anyone who’s written for Engadget or within the network of Engadget, they have a supernatural ability to self-edit, kind of read and digest back in real-time. I don’t even know how to articulate what the skill is, but I’ve never seen it outside of that kind of workspace.
[12:04] In our day, timing was everything. If you got a story out five seconds before a competitor, it could transform how the month was gonna go for you. So it was hardwired in to self-edit, and I’m pretty happy with the results. I think I could go back and find a few of the posts, but it might take a while to read everything from that day.
Such a perverse incentive, just to be first… It seems like it’s produced a lot of long-term issues. But I remember the days when Apple would announce, and there would be – people still do this work, but I think it’s less exciting or less interesting; maybe I’ve just moved on in my own interests, but… I remember Engadget, the livestreams, The Verge… I guess The Verge came later, but Engadget and Gizmodo - the battles for who was gonna get the headline.
It was a crazy time.
It was, it was. What we prouded ourselves on was we tried to do both. We tried to be first and fastest, but also the most thorough and the most detailed. We didn’t wanna sacrifice one for the other, so we just tried to figure out a way to do both.
So you’re living this – what do you call it, non-linear lifestyle?
Yeah, the non-linear lifestyle, that’s right… Where things don’t have to happen in sequence.
Which was afforded to you because of your remote work circumstance.
Even when it wasn’t ideal back then, but you were doing it… So before I talk big-picture, like leading road teams and all that, you’re part of the largest all-remote company in the world, at GitLab… Is that what I’ve read?
Yeah, that’s right. GitLab is the world’s largest all-remote company. We have over 1,200 team members spread over more than 65 countries. Throughout my career, I’ve worked across a spectrum of remote. I’ve worked in collocated spaces, where you kind of have to fight for work-from-home days, wherever you could get them; I’ve worked in proper hybrid remote settings, where a subset of the company goes into an office, and then a subset is permanently remote, and they co-exist and work together.
Now at GitLab we’re all remote, and I really do think this is the future of remote. It creates a level playing field by default. You never have to optimize for people that are in the office, or outside of the office. Everyone is on the same playing field. That creates a ton of transparency and liberation. I really think it’s the future. The amount of flexibility it affords is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
So at a tactical work/life harmony level, what are your top tips for folks doing it? Like “Do these five things and your life is better” types of small things that you have learned or experienced through your time doing this?
The first one is gonna sound really philosophical, but I promise it’s not… It’s “Unlock your imagination.” What I mean by that is for people that have worked in collocated spaces for so long, their entire lives have been dictated by “You must commute in at this time, and you must commute out at this time. You can only consider what your life could look like between this hour and this hour. And over time, you sort of become numb to what would be possible if that were not true.
So people end up minimizing their lives, and they look back and they think “What did I do the last ten years?” Not a whole lot, because you didn’t have a lot of time outside of the commute and the rigid hours that you worked. So for a lot of people, their imagination has been dulled just because as self-preservation takes over, you just kind of forget how to use it, so you don’t really think about the fact that you’re wasting weeks of your life every year in a vehicle, commuting to a job that could probably be done from anywhere.
So the first step is unlocking your imagination, and this goes into the non-linear workday. “What could a day look like if you could get up early, work a few hours, but then break and go do something in the middle of the day, and then come back and work later into the evening (for example)?”
So step one is just writing down what do you wanna do? What would be possible if you didn’t have to do things exactly the same what that you’ve already done them?
[16:02] The second thing is you have to be really intentional about separating world and life. When you work and sleep in the same building, it is far too easy for those lines to blur, and you can just get into this cycle of “I wake up, I work, I go to sleep. I wake up, I work, I go to sleep.” What I recommend to people that are just breaking into this for the first time is if you’re used to having a commute, plan that time into your calendar. Actually make a calendar invite during the time that you used to spend commuting, and put anything in there, whether it’s meditating, exercising, cooking, spending time with your family… Anything. It will help you ramp into your day and ramp out of your day, and you’ll see that calendar reminder pop up in the morning, and in the evening, and it will remind you to do something else with your life, other than work… Because the last thing you wanna do is recoup the commute only to just give it back to more work. That doesn’t lead to a long-lasting fulfillment.
And I think that third thing is think about the second and third-order effects of going remote. What I mean by that is you have people in Silicon Valley, for example, who are there only because of work… And they’re paying an extremely high amount of money to live in a fairly small home… And if you don’t have to be there to accomplish your job, you could ask yourself questions like “Well, where could we move where the air quality is better? Where there’s a better selection of schools for our children? Maybe we want to go back home, wherever home is, and reinvest in that community that we left a long time ago.
So when you decouple geography and work, it allows you to think about how you could structure your life very differently.
On the time front I struggle, because there’s one side where you say “Compartmentalize.” So while I don’t work in an office, I work remotely, I work from my own home, same as Jerod - we’re all-remote as well, distributed team - you know, we have kids, I have kids, so I find that if I can structure my day… And I can kind of see what you’re saying about the calendar thing, but the compartmentalization of 9-to-5 to me brain-wise makes sense, but I can see based on what you’re saying here how it is limiting… So I do buffer in those “Go and do other things”, but yours is a bit more fluid than I think my current structure is.
Yeah, and everyone has different levels of amenability to this. Some people thrive on the 9-to-5. They want that rigid block, because they want all the time after 5 to be free to do whatever they want. I’m a little bit different, because my peak productivity hours are not 9-to-5, and I’ve done this long enough to know that. I actually function better later into the evening. So although I work and live in Eastern Time, what I tell people is I’m always in an aloha state of mind…
[laughs] That’s awesome.
…because I functionally work best as if I were on a Hawaii time. And I don’t know if this is just because I went to Hawaii in my honeymoon and never left, I don’t know… But in any case, everyone should ask themselves “What are my peak productivity hours?”, because it is not necessarily 9-to-5, and it might not necessarily be in a row.
For me, I’m a creator. I find a lot of value in carving out large uninterrupted chunks of creative time. Sometimes that’s between 10 PM and 2 AM, when it feels like the rest of the world is asleep. I can get so much done, I can get into a state of flow… And this is gonna differ if you’re an executive, where you don’t do a lot of creating and instead you do a lot of reviewing proposals. Your day is gonna be structured a little bit differently, because you might not need as much white space.
The point is remote can benefit everyone individually. That’s the beauty of it. You may work remotely and still stick to 9-to-5, but hey, you still recoup that commute time. You may work remotely and you have a non-linear day where you start, you stop, you start again… Remote is this amazingly democratizing perk, because everyone can use it, although they may use it differently.
[20:07] Yesterday we made pork chops – so there’s a point to the story. And I was stuck on a problem at work. Right at the end of my day I couldn’t solve it, the last hour of my day. I couldn’t think through this creative problem. And here I am, carving off the fatty parts of my pork chops to prepare them, season them, all that good stuff, and the problem was solved. Because I was able to step away. I was able to have that non-linear effect; this sort of “Step away to get unstuck” kind of moment for me.
People often get in this mindset, almost programmed, that you have to sit at a desk, or [unintelligible 00:20:48.05] to solve the problem. And what you’re advocating for, this remote lifestyle, this non-linear remote process, this work process is disrupting, in many ways, the way people think and view work.
I completely agree.
Isn’t that the idea of a smoke break, or a water cooler – I mean, the proverbial smoke break, or take a walk… People in collocated offices can get away from their desks, just like we can.
That’s true, but I do love that example, because it points out that a coffee break or a quick walk around the building - it does disconnect you from staring directly at the problem, but you still aren’t fully disconnected from it. You’re still tethered to the office in some way. And you don’t have to look far to hear stories of people that will say something like “Hey, I took a week vacation. We went hiking in some mountain range, and just randomly on a Wednesday, I’m 3,000 feet up, the thing that I’ve been trying to solve for six months - it just came to me. The solution just came to me. I didn’t have a mobile connection, I was panting heavily, trying to make my way up the mountain, and it just came to me.” And I don’t have a neurological explanation of why that happens, but I’m telling you it’s happened a lot for me, it’s happened for a lot of other creative people I know, where if you distance yourself from some of the work challenges, you end up solving work things.
There’s this great talk “Why work doesn’t happen at work.” Google it if you haven’t seen it. It starts to break down a lot of the truths that for many years we just haven’t let ourselves believe, because people don’t wanna be seen as “Yeah, I’m stepping away from work, because it’ll help me work.” Well, we’re actually starting to see that now, with this great remote migration.
So Darren, tell us about your role. What exactly does the head of Remote do?
It’s a good question. Someone actually pointed out to me the other day that it’s worth articulating, because it’s a role that doesn’t exist very many places right now, but I think it will be much more popular in the next year or two; definitely in 5-10 years I think it will be a staple… But it’s worth pointing out, for people that have never worked remotely, or have never worked in an organization that put any intentional thought around remote work. This is kind of a black hole… Like “What does someone like that do?” Because I don’t understand what an organization would look like or feel like if remote was an intentional part of their life.
And it actually kind of harkens back to the last point on top tips for working remotely… You’ve gotta have leadership that’s bought in. So if you’re a leader, you’ve gotta get bought in. If you’re an individual contributor and you don’t control the power in the company, it is worth bringing this up to leadership, because it absolutely has to start from the top. There’s only so much you can do as an individual contributor to make your life awesome as a remote worker without the support of your organization. You can only get so far, and then a gate will either open or close, depending on how bought in leadership is. And honestly, that’s why I recommend for companies that wanna do this right - get your executive team out of the office for a full quarter. Not just a week or two where you can band-aid things, but a full quarter, where you will see “These are the processes and protocols that we need in place, these are the tools that we need in place.”
If it works for the executive team, it’s gonna work for everyone else, and it serves as a really awesome forcing function in figuring out what you need at your organization, because there’s no silver bullet for every organization.
So is that a thing that happened at GitLab, or was the executive team already remote from the beginning? I remember Sid was always remote from the beginning.
Yup, so we were remote from the beginning. The first three employees at GitLab were in three different countries, so they had to be remote from the beginning. And they were also quite fond of documentation, and I think that combination was very fortuitous, because they built a company in Hamburg early on, they wrote things down early on, and now we have over 1,000 people, and people that have joined eight years later are now able to take advantage of that documentation… Which actually kind of segues into what I do as the head of Remote.
So GitLab was an all-remote company from the very beginning, but they waited seven or so years before they hired someone that focused on remote. So essentially we hit a point of scale where there’s so many new people coming in that we had to have someone here that did a couple of things. One - told our remote story to the world. It’s really important. We wanna make sure that people know about this, so that we can be the template for other companies doing this… And two, it’s to help people that have joined the company acclimate to all-remote.
So I’m in charge of the all-remote handbook, and we can dive into what the Remote Playbook is here in just a minute… Part of what I’m here to do is create documentation and create education for our own internal GitLab team members to understand what it’s like to work remotely, to understand what it means to truly embrace asynchronous workflows. To understand what it means to adopt GitLab’s meeting hygiene. But also, we wanna write that and share that in a way that acts as a template for any other company that wants to embrace this… And obviously now due to Covid that has become particularly germane for a lot of companies.
So we have people joining our company that have decades of experience working collocated. They may have never worked remotely before. And coming into this all-remote space is really jarring, really disorienting. Honestly, there’s as much to unlearn as there is to learn, and a lot of things that we do at GitLab, a lot of our best practices would get you black-balled or terminated at another organization.
So if you’ve had a long career, you’ve developed a lot of habits, even if it’s subconscious, where there’s this pavlovian response to some things where you’re just not gonna do certain things, because it has gotten you in trouble, or down a dark path at a prior organization.
[27:57] A great example of this, if you look at GitLab’s sub-values, we have a few that when people look at them, they kind of rub their chins, like “Hm, interesting…” and what they’re thinking is “This would never work at this organization that I just left.” There’s one that’s called “No ego”, there’s one that’s called “Blameless problem-solving”, there’s one called “Short toes.” And I love the “Short toes” one, which is we have to all operate as if no toes can be stepped on. Because if you’re just always afraid of stepping on someone’s toes, you’re probably holding back some really awesome information or a great idea. We should just be able to put that out there and take it into consideration. GitLab’s mission is “Anyone can contribute”, and we wanna create an atmosphere where everyone truly feels like they can contribute.
So it’s a long-winded way of saying that the head of Remote helps people acclimate to doing remote. And it’s doing things like this - sharing our story with the world, and proving that “Hey, remote work can work, and we have a template for how to do it”, but also, we’re still learning, and we’re writing this in real-time. Our handbook is public, it’s being iterated on every day… So it’s not something that’s just one-and-done. It’s not a binary switch that you flip, it’s very much a journey and a process of iteration.
This is a question I think I know the answer to, but I wanna see if we look at it the same way… Which is - remote is becoming more required, more interesting, and right now perhaps temporarily everybody’s remote compulsory… You’ve been doing it a long time, you’ve been 100% remote the whole time, you’ve learned a bunch of things… This seems like an extreme competitive advantage in a marketplace.
I completely agree.
Why give everybody a template? “We’ve learned these, we’ve been to the school of hard knocks, we’re really good at it now, maybe our competitors aren’t… And business is tough, and we’ve gotta keep an edge.” This could be an edge for GitLab. Why share it with the world?
It’s awesome that you bring that up. First of all, I think that we’re only gonna call that remote work for a few more years before it just becomes work. Work is just naturally flexible. It’s actually gonna seem really odd that you would withhold work until you could get to a specific physical space to do it. That’s gonna seem very bizarre. It almost already does seem bizarre.
The competitive advantage thing - you’re right, I actually think remote is the last remaining great competitive advantage from a talent acquisition and retention standpoint… Think about this - if you have two competing offers, you can compete on salary, job title, and potentially the prestige of the company. But if one of the companies offers you the ability to live and work wherever you want…
…and the other one is completely inflexible, it’s a complete game-changer. You would have to add a lot of zeroes to the salary for it to start to compensate for people where this matters. But to your point about “This is a great competitive advantage for GitLab”, it’s true. And if you look at our vision page on All Remote. We actually have a vision for this being a diminishing competitive advantage. And here’s what I mean by this. We are gonna see our legacy and judge our own legacy by how fast we can help influence this competitive advantage going away. So if we can help influence the proliferation of remote-first and all-remote companies, that is a part of our legacy that we want to leave, because we believe that the rising tide is gonna lift all boats. If there are more remote-friendly and remote-fluent companies in the world, then there’s gonna be more teams that need to collaborate remotely. GitLab just happens to make a tool that is amazing for collaborating amongst engineers, as well as non-engineers and project management.
So if we help them out, and we help them with a template on how to do things like meetings and asynchronous [unintelligible 00:31:50.10] inevitably a lot of them are gonna come back around. But even if they don’t, this is just a better society to live in. Fundamentally, the economics of the society where work can happen in more places - that’s going to be good for GDP. That’s going to be good for society.
[32:10] So it’s a longer-term vision, but it’s not something we want to keep to ourselves, because flexibility helps us as well. And we’ve even seen it on the investor community. If you look at the early investments in GitLab, there were some VCs that said “Look, we love everything about you, but this remote thing - I just don’t know if it’s gonna work for all of your functions.” And now a lot of those are advocates for remote. They’re actively seeking out new startups that are either all-remote or they’re developing tools and processes that will serve a remote community.
You’ve gotta imagine that the competitive advantage is two sides, too. Competitive advantage in the case where if you kept it to yourselves, you keep the advantage. But if you also give it away, you have an advantage by shortening the ramp of on-ramp. People come into GitLab as interested employees, understand your values and the company culture prior to even stepping in the door in many cases, because it’s so open… So in many cases HR and hiring just have a leg up, because it gets – not so much easier, but there’s certainly less friction in the process.
You nailed it. We actually had one of the purest recruiting pipelines I’ve ever seen, because we publish our strategy, we publish our roadmap, we publish our vision. One of the first things that I did when I came to GitLab is I made a merge request to add to our Jobs FAQ a section that’s entitled “What’s it like to work at GitHub?” It’s about three paragraphs and four links, and I’m convinced that if you read those three paragraphs and those four links, you have a really good idea of what it’s like to work here.
So before you even bother stepping through the first interview, you know what you’re getting into. No one accidentally ends up at GitLab. People very much opt into what we’re building here… And this should be a blueprint for every other company. Why would you withhold strategy and culture until you get someone in the door? Why would you spend six months recruiting them, getting them through the process, and then only on week one do you give them any indication of what it’s gonna be like to work there.
This is not great for hiring and retention, not great for long-term viability… Just be open and honest with people. Not every workplace is gonna be ideal for everyone. You want to be as open about who you are as possible, so that the people that come there do so willingly and opt into whatever it is that you’ve created.
The hard part though is being who you say you are.
This is true. And being self-aware enough.
Right. I’m not saying you should masquerade incorrectly; the point is that you can say one thing in documentation and think you’re one way, but then find out that it’s not true on the inside.
Well, the way to solve for that is to allow everyone to contribute… And this is what I mean by that. The GitLab handbook is over 5,000 pages if you were to print it out. But it’s not written just by our executive team. Everyone at GitLab can create a merge request and submit a proposal to make a proposal to make our handbook better… And this includes our Values page. Beyond the six core values that we have, there are thousands of words, sub-values on how these values are exemplified and lived in a remote setting. We’re iterating on those and adding to those every single day. And if you write something down and then it’s not held up, and you give everyone the ability to contribute, you’ll find out real quick.
People can create a merge a merge request, people can create an issue and they’ll say “Hey, this is what’s written down, and here’s an example of it not being lived out, so we need to reconcile this. Either we’ve evolved as a company and this doesn’t mean what it used to mean, or we have some sort of systemic issue where what’s written down isn’t matching reality and we need to figure it out. That is the power of empowering everyone to contribute.
[36:05] I just had Sid on Founders Talk recently, so there’s an episode of that on the feed… Those listening - you should check it out… On there he mentioned how he had an idea for a change – I can’t recall the exact thing, so listen to the episode, because he talks about it clearly… But he had an idea and put it out there in the handbook, someone else in the organization (not CEO, obviously) disagreed, and he pulled back his suggestion and said “Please help me alter the suggestion”, to weave the two together, essentially.
So it’s not just the Darrens of the world in GitLab that can do it, it’s also Sid, who will put in a suggestion out there… Sid Sijbrandij being the CEO of GitLab… Putting a suggestion out there and someone disagreeing with it, and having the opportunity to fine-tune that to match what the company really is… Not just Sid’s idea.
For sure. And this includes the outside community, people outside of the GitLab organization. We actually had somebody a couple of weeks ago, completely outside of the GitLab org, that went top to bottom on our values page and changed some of the things from passive voice to active voice, so it would be more empowering. This is just an amazing change from the outside community, If you kept your community handbook private, you would never get the benefits of things like that.
A lot of companies will see this and they’ll hear it as something that’s just utopian, that’s far-fetched, that they could never accomplish… But really all it is is articulating and writing down what you already believe to be true, and then being transparent about it, making it public, giving as many people as possible access to it, because that enables accountability. And what more would you want in a company than accountability? Especially for a public company, predictability and accountability are key to everything. So if you structure your company in a way where accountability is unavoidable, it’s a net benefit. People want to work in a place that’s disciplined, they want to work with other colleagues that keep them accountable, that are also held accountable… It creates a more humanized, empathetic workplace when accountability is at the heart of it.
A part of getting that right though is having a culture of written communication. The handbook is words. It’s not spoken word – I mean, I suppose you could probably dictate it, potentially, right?
There’s an idea - a dramatic reading of the GitLab Playbook [unintelligible 00:38:26.19]
It would be super-cool, honestly. It’d be a fun GitLab Unfiltered.
That’s probably an untapped Guinness world record waiting to happen, actually…
There you go. You need to hop on that, man…
That sounds easy, right? Just writing things down. It sounds kind of easy. But how do you cultivate that kind of culture to focus on written communication? It’s easy just to call a meeting and speak, and connect like that, is what I mean. You almost have to be very purposeful with writing first, speaking second, which is kind of weird, in a way…
It’s so funny that you said “It’s easy to call a meeting”, because at GitLab it’s actually not… And we want it that way.
We actually place a very high burden on meetings, and we do it intentionally, so that meetings are not the default. And if you create a culture where meetings are hard to have and it’s not the default, then sure enough, the next path of least resistance will become the thing that people go to, which in our case is documentation.
So how so - GitLab meeting hygiene… No meeting at GitLab can happen without a Google Doc agenda attached to the invite… Outside of a informal coffee chat, where people can just talk about anything outside of work.
So if you’re thinking about having a meeting, the second thought you’re gonna have is “Okay, I’ve gotta go create an agenda doc. Now I’ve gotta attach this agenda doc to the invite. I’ve gotta make sure I send this invite out in advance of the meeting”, so that people who are in different timezones or can’t make it for whatever reason are able to contribute to this meeting in advance asynchronously… And then during the meeting I have to either do it myself or assign a scribe to document what’s happening in the meeting and contextualize what’s happening in the meeting, so for people that can’t be there, they’re able to understand what’s going on. We wanna make sure meetings are very inclusive.
[40:18] And then after the meeting you have to look at the takeaways in the Google Doc, which is just a temporal home, and you have to say “Alright, if anything in this meeting matters to more than just me, I have to go find the right place(s) in the handbook and make a merge request to actually add this to the handbook”, because the handbook is the ultimate single source of truth, where all of the company would go to to find the latest and greatest information on whatever the topic is. So what I’m saying is that’s a lot of work in a meeting…
Yeah. A lot of friction.
A lot of friction in that. So what would be easier is if you just spun up a GitLab issue, you articulated your first thought of why you were gonna have this meeting, and then you tag the relevant people to provide feedback. And then if they weren’t exactly the right people to provide feedback, they get to then tag other people, bring the right people in, and you have this amazing, beautiful, documented, time-stamped history of all this context around an idea, and you never have to interrupt anyone’s day, call a meeting, see if someone was awake, or home… There’s no meeting. It’s all documented from the start, because in our case, that is easier than having a meeting.
I’m an advocate for this, obviously…
Sure. Who wouldn’t be?
So the “but” is the key point… But it’s great to embrace async, and all the benefits of this. However, how do you bake in the connection? Because if I’m just writing to a doc and I’m just responding to comments, it’s still a non-human transaction. Sure, I can remind myself that’s Jerod over there commenting, not just Slack telling me it’s Jerod, like the avatar Jerod… You know, how do I keep the human connection?
You’ve gotta have a balance and you have to be very intentional about creating that balance. We are very intentional about informal communication. We orchestrate things like talent shows, show and tell sessions, virtual trivia, scavenger hunts… We do things that a lot of collocated companies wouldn’t do, to give our employees reason to belong and to be together and communicate as people. We would actually rather you spend synchronous time on informal communication, just getting to know each other, doing something that might be tangentially related to work, but not directly related to work, because that’s where better relationships are built.
So if you’re gonna spend the time to do something synchronously, something like a show and tell session or a talent show is a much more enriching way to spend that time than a work-related meeting.
That said, we do have plenty of work-related meetings. Sometimes they’re unavoidable. We generally say if you’re gonna go back and forth on the exact same topic more than three times, consider doing something synchronously. The way to avoid that being literally everything is to embrace the spirit of iteration and break things down to as small as possible a component.
An example here is if we’re trying to hammer out the FY22 marketing budget, obviously we’re gonna go back and forth on that more than three times. But you’re asking the wrong question. There’s probably 20 or 30 individual questions that need to be asked to get to the FY22 marketing budget. So start by breaking it down into those small components and see if those small questions can be answered asynchronously. And then, later on down the road, once you have answers to those, you get together and hammer out what the final plan is gonna be.
So if I wanted to call a meeting to riff, just something to riff, how does that work? How can I write an agenda for that? “Hey, I wanna riff.” Is that enough?
No. No riffing meetings.
On an idea. Because sometimes you wanna play at work, too.
[44:03] As long as the idea is there, yeah. The idea could be one sentence. It could be one sentence. So you could totally call a meeting to do that, but you’re gonna need to document what you talked about, because those takeaways eventually have to end up written down, so you wanna start that as soon as possible, to prevent the knowledge leaks.
The key then is the takeaways.
Anybody can define loosely or tightly an agenda, very tactfully or very loosely, but it’s about the takeaways that come out. So it’s the artifacts that come from those, and then publishing in the right places, whether it’s a handbook or somewhere else, to communicate to other teams that “Hey, this is what happened. Do you have any feedback on this process, these ideas, these new conclusions?”
Absolutely. And the reason we’re so adamant about this is because it’s actually the more efficient way to work. When people hear this for the first time, they think “Man, that’s so inefficient. You’re taking all this time to write something down… It’s just faster to not write something down.” But that’s not the case. It’s because your concept of time is in the here and now, maybe one day. But think about a month or two out - how many ad-hoc meetings are you gonna have to call to be reminded of something, or to “loop someone into something”, that you could have avoided if you just wrote it down the first time?
So this whole process of writing something down might take you 15% to 20% more time the day it happens, but then for months and years down the road you’re gaining efficiency. There are GitLab issues on how we decided on certain product features to include or not include, from five years ago, that I can go look in a time-stamped way and see how the logic was determined, how we made that decision one way or the other. And now when we’re thinking about things in the here and now, having that to be able to reference back is amazing. Some of these people don’t even work at GitLab anymore, and we’re able to have this knowledge capture.
You don’t have to tap anybody on the shoulder, you don’t have to interrupt anyone’s day, you don’t have to wonder if anybody’s awake… Look, googling the internet would be a lot less effective if everything that was on it was verbalized. You’re really happy when something’s written down and you can search for it and find what you need… And in a micro way, that’s how the handbook is approached, as well.
So it’s become clear to me that the routine of work has become sort of a bad habit, in a way… You go to work, you come home from work, you’ve got potentially a commute, but everyone’s sort of on the same routine; there’s traffic because everyone’s on the highways at the same time, and routine is sort of baked into (I suppose) life, right? 9-to-5, work; weekends, have fun. This is how humans do.
It’s just universally understood. Look, routines are easier to comprehend, but that doesn’t mean routines are better. And this is why traditions happen, because no one stops to do anything differently. It’s just easier to hit Copy and Paste than it is to wonder how could things look if we did it differently.
The other reality is that there’s a lot of inertia, there’s a lot of momentum and motion when it comes to work and how people expect work to happen… And if you’re trying to tackle the change of that by yourself, it’s very difficult, and I think that’s one of the silver linings to come out of Covid - it has enabled millions of people to at the same time experience what work could look like if you paused or broke tradition and broke routine… And now everyone can converse about it with some baseline understanding, instead of just the small contingent of people that have worked remotely, trying to explain to someone how remote work works when they have no fundamental baseline of what it’s like.
Everyone’s forced now. There’s people who are forced to do remote, having to learn how to do this stuff, and thankfully, there’s handbooks like yours out there… Now, at least. It wasn’t there before, it was just sort of loosely in documentation. But no one really leading the charge on how. It makes a lot of sense in tech companies, though. In a GitLab scenario, a startup scenario, where distributed remote just totally makes sense by default, because it’s how it’s been by default… Embracing that has been a challenge though [unintelligible 00:50:12.00] so I’m not saying it’s been easy, but it’s a little easier for that kind of business, the business you are a part of.
Whereas if you’re a parts store, or a barber, for example - good luck trying to do it remote.
When you guys were talking about people commuting in traffic, I was thinking about “Why do people come together in big cities?” Well, you’re not gonna have a marketplace remotely. You’re not gonna have a comedy club remotely. We’ve seen some comedians try that during these times, and it’s not funny… They can’t time it out very well, and I pity them, because that’s tough to do on Zoom.
So there’s aspects of life where it’s not just – it’s not merely routine that’s bringing people in all of those same places. So we have to keep that in mind - there is a physical world that many occupations, many industries are part and parcel of.
But companies like GitLab, companies like Changelog, companies like a lot that we do see collocated in Silicon Valley, for instance, are the ones that this playbook is really gonna help.
Yeah. So I’ll preface that by saying if you’ve been listening this far, go to allremote.info. At the very top, you’ll see a link to download the GitLab Remote Playbook. I was the lead author on that. It encapsulates all of our best learnings on how to go remote and how to thrive as a remote worker and a remote team. So when we’re referencing the Remote Playbook, that’s where it’s at. Feel free to share it far and wide; totally free to download, like anything in our handbook.
To answer your point about people gathering for other reasons - it’s so true. Not every industry is ideal for remote. This is definitely not an A/B comparison where I just think every company in the world should go remote right away. If you’re in a high-touch industry, if you run a hospital, if you run an auto garage, these things can’t be done remotely and probably shouldn’t be attempted to be remote. But what I’m saying here is for anyone that can work remotely, if you just started doing that tomorrow, everything else in life that shouldn’t be done remotely just becomes easier to do.
[52:17] For example, the sporting event that you want to drive to - well, now there’s less traffic on the road, so getting to the sporting event is easier, and it’s a more enjoyable experience. The marketplace on Saturday morning, where you wanna go get some local produce - that’s easier to commute to, and when you see people there, you’re gonna relish that and savor that, because you haven’t been burnt out on having to see people all week, face-to-face, in an office. Now it’s a slightly different, more appreciated experience.
It’s interesting, I actually feel like this global isolation that we’re in is going to be a boon for community, coming out of it… Because it has made people realize “I’ve been taking relationships for granted. I can’t wait to just be able to hug people again. I can’t wait to engage with people in ways that I’ve been taking for granted. How much of my community have I been ignoring and deprioritizing?” I think coming out of this, we’re going to really reassess that, and kind of check our identities at the door. How much of our identity has been tied to this physical building that you’re walking into and out of every day, and is that really healthy? I think those are gonna be great conversations to have.
Does part of the GitLab Playbook have any sort of meet space deals? Do you guys get together, ever?
Oh, for sure. For sure. Actually, I think we’re one of the most intentional companies in the world about in-person interactions. We’re very intentional about getting people together. Every year we get the entire team together at an event called GitLab Contribute. We bring people together; it’s an opening keynote, a closing keynote, but pretty much everything in between is excursions that you can opt into, and you meet people in-person, for a lot of the times for the first time.
We also have user events obviously now. Due to Covid we’re doing our first virtual user conference, Commit, in August, and we’re psyched about that. Remote is in our DNA. We’re gonna be able to do remote meetings really well, and bring that energy to our remote space. But we wanna get people together, we wanna give them opportunities to be together. We have an incentive called the Visiting Grant, where we’ll partially subsidize travel for people to go travel around the world and visit other GitLabbers.
One of my favorite stories for that is we have someone who lives in North Dakota. She always wanted to get married in New York. A few years ago she got married on top of a skyscraper in New York. We had GitLab team members flying from all over the world and we partially subsidized that travel to have this global wedding of someone who lives in North Dakota, but on a skyscraper in New York… It doesn’t get much cooler than that
That is cool. That’s a great idea, when you have people who live all around the world and are already colleagues, assuming they get along and like each other - you can use that network to travel more cheaply and to get to know each other by staying at a little GitLab Airbnb service.
Exactly. And you’ve gotta understand - we’re going through a significant amount of change, and the world is gonna catch up to accommodate. There’s an awesome startup called “The Cowork Experience”, and they exist for remote teams to be able to get sub-teams (like a marketing department or an engineering department) together. And you work with leadership on “Look, what would a 1-2 week retreat look like? Let’s get our team from around the world together in a really cool space, do some teambuilding, some learning, but also just having fun.” This is something that’s gonna seem novel; it’s novel right now, but it’s gonna seem very common in just a few years.
And to your point earlier about – a lot of people move to Silicon Valley or San Francisco because they want those serendipitous coffee chats where they might run into a VC at just the right time, and their idea catches fire, and their life is changed… San Francisco wasn’t always that way. The world kind of adapted and evolved into that being a place where that happens… But imagine a situation where the in-person work shifts to remote. The world will catch up.
[56:11] You look at platforms like Remo and Hopin, where these are virtual gathering places and virtual communities where this stuff will just move to wherever the next logical place is. Obviously, San Francisco will always be a hotbed for that to some degree, at least in my life… But that’s not to say that a virtual version of that can’t be created. there are absolutely people working on that right now, because they see what’s happening and they know that the world is a lot bigger than Tel Aviv and Seattle and San Francisco, and we have to find a virtual version of that, to bring these people together, so that the innovation doesn’t stop.
Somewhat tangential, but I’m curious what your take is on the tech giants… Because they seem to be slowest-moving maybe, in this regard… The Apple, the Google, the Facebook, the ones that really want you to move there, or at least historically have….but it’s always been like “Here’s an opportunity Tuesday recruiter” and it’s like “Hard stop, you’ve gotta move here.” And that’s just always been where I’ve stopped; I’m not willing to move there. I’m very happy where I live, and that’s a hard stop for me.
So I’m wondering, do you think that’s gonna change with them as well? Because they have such – especially I think of Apple and Google, they have such a hive-mind desire; they want you to be part of the Borg, or on the inside of the clan, or whatever… And I’m curious if you think after this and moving forward they’re gonna change too, or is it just gonna be smaller companies?
Well, I think in general this has democratized the conversation around remote, and here’s what I mean… In prior years you really needed to be a senior-level employee, with a lot of experience and a strong portfolio to get deep in an interview process and then say “Listen, I’m good where I’m at. I know I can do this role. I wanna contribute, but I need to be able to stay where I’m at. Maybe I’ll fly into the office a week a month, or something like that. Let’s figure out some sort of arrangement.” That was very deep in the interview process.
Now what you’re going to see is people en masse are gonna go to the screener call and they’re gonna say “Hey look, before we waste each other’s time, what’s your stance on flexibility? What’s your stance on workplace flexibility? Do you have the right tools in place? Do you have the right culture in place? Give me some examples of working parents or caregivers or military spouses that work for your company and you support them flexibly.” That would have been not something you asked two years ago, unless you were very confident in yourself. Now I think it’s gonna be a fairly common question, to the point where HR leaders will wonder “Well, they didn’t ask about that. Can we take that to assume that they like living here?” It’s gonna invert the conversation in a big way.
Now, for the big tech giants, I think you’re gonna see movement across the spectrum. I think with Apple secrecy has been a part of their DNA. It’s literally on-brand for them to have more people on campus and less people off-campus. So it would actually be counter to what their brand is to enable more remote work. And I think, honestly, people may lean ever harder into it. And if you’re the type of person that absolutely loves spending your life on a work campus, that’s the place you should go. No doubt about it, that’s the place you should go.
[59:46] But for other companies, I think you’re gonna see it impact them slightly differently. What I mean by that is - for some of their best talent, if they get to a different season of life where autonomy, freedom and flexibility starts to matter more than it did before, not granting that is going to mean losing great talent, because there will be plenty of other companies in different seasons that will happily take their talents and ingenuity and let them live wherever they want. So it will become yet another chess piece in the war for talent in those circles, and each company is gonna have to decide what their level of comfortability is with allowing it and supporting that flexibility.
Well, Twitter and Google, I believe – or maybe Twitter and Facebook, for the rest of the year…
Twitter went to work from home forever.
Twitter went forever, yeah.
Twitter is forever, so this is a really big deal. GitLab has actually been sharing advice and insights with our friends at Twitter for some time now, and they have been very progressive on their work from home front. Jack, their CEO, did this global tour last year, this one team campaign, and there’s a tweet from the fall of 2019 where he said “Twitter’s next office is remote”, and they put a stake in the ground long before this happened… So I think this just accelerated something that was gonna happen there inevitably. And it makes sense. If you look at what Twitter is - they’re a democratizing platform, they’re a global communications platform; it makes sense to let their workplace mirror what the product is. So it’s a total brand fit for them, and it works with the ethos of what they’re doing.
But I think it’s an important domino to fall, because every other company that’s putting together a return-to-work plan right now was waiting for someone else to do this. Now that Twitter has done this, they don’t have to be first. Everyone else can follow suit and everyone else can say “Alright, look, remote is a process of iteration, it’s a journey. It’s gonna be a little rocky until we figure it out. We built this company for a collocated infrastructure and now we’re doing something different very rapidly.” As long as your employees are on board, to go with the flow and roll with the changes, we’re gonna come out stronger and more flexible on the other side.
I applaud Twitter for doing this. It’s a massive move for a hybrid remote company. They have dozens of offices around the world. It’s more difficult to be a hybrid remote company and do this well than it is to be an all-remote company and do this well… But in my conversations with them - I’m confident that the leadership there knows what they’re doing; they’re looking at the right North Star and they’re going about it the right way, and I think they will be a model for hybrid remote companies on how to do this well.
I was thinking about the last 100 years, because I’ve found this interesting… My hometown where I grew up was a coal miner town. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania… And very common for the idea of a company house to be a thing. A coal mining plant would establish its routes, have its company there, they’d have a company store, they’d have a company house, the entire neighborhood essentially is owned by the company, and the employees get a house for free, or paid for by their wages/work…
Yeah, and this is still very common in Seoul, for example, at Samsung. They have entire complexes where work and life happens in the same vicinity.
Yeah. And their housing, and things – some things are subsidized, but in many ways you’re getting paid by the company, you’re buying things at the company store, or credits, or something like that, so it’s sort of this circle of life kind of thing… And I’m just wondering if now, in the world where you go remote, if at some point a brand or a business might want to own some of the housing that their employees kind of sit in, or subsidize it in some way, to upgrade their lives. It’s sort of a company house kind of thing, a weird Frankenstein might come to effect at some point.
No, it’s interesting. Conversations like this are what will continue to happen in this new world. I’m actually talking with a startup right now called [unintelligible 01:03:53.09] and they’re building this platform where people with homes who want to have other people work with them at their homes can do that. They essentially open up their home to be a co-working space for other like-minded individuals. They don’t even have to work at the same company, but in the same area.
[01:04:15.29] And then on the other side of that you’re gonna have people that now realize they can work from anywhere, but maybe they miss some of that camaraderie… But feel like a co-working space is not quite personalized enough. You’re gonna be able to actually meet people in the community, connect with people in a very genuine and real way, and work together in a regimented way - on a schedule, at a set place. This is what the new frontier can look like, and I think that’s a recipe for more genuine and authentic relationships, where people are coming together in the physical spaces that they live together, so they build strong community there. But it also helps them build stronger bonds with their remote workplace community, because they’re able to be at a place where they’re just more comfortable.
I think you’re gonna see some really complex and interesting interplay between building community where you want to be physically, and then choosing a work culture that you want to be, as well. And I don’t think we’ve ever really had the ability as a society to have both at the same time. You generally have to move somewhere for vocation out of necessity, and you just kind of take what you get on the in-person community front. Or you choose to walk away from the best possible opportunity in the workplace, to be in a physical community that matters more to you. So what I see in the future is the ability to do both. That is massively empowering at scale.
You mentioned before that we won’t call it remote work in a couple of years, we’ll just call it work… Which is kind of weird, I suppose. I mean, you have to still differentiate between the kind of work; is it in-house, is it out of house, is it on locations…? I don’t know.
Well, even weirder is that I guess that means my role is gonna be head of work, so I’ve gotta figure that out… [laughter]
Yeah. Let’s work on that.
That makes you the boss.
I guess I’m asking you to look far into the future, since you’ve looked at least two years in advance, and you got this idea, and you’re forward-thinking on this front… I guess, what are we gonna call it? Not just work, but how will things change? What’s gonna begin to happen in these businesses to make them embrace these ideas?
They’re gonna start getting articulate about what they want to achieve. It’s gonna all be around results. The facades of businesses are gonna start to fade away; the allure, this kind of aura around a business, the brand of a business is gonna change… Like, what a brand stands for and how it’s marketed is gonna change. It’s gonna have to be a lot more about the results, and it’s gonna be a lot more about the people that they choose to hire to get those results.
Right now, a company can build a brand based on the type of building that they stand up. But when buildings start to fade away, it’s gonna come back to the quality of the people; the culmination of the individual brands of all the people that work there will end up defining the actual soul and brand of the company. And this will force companies to hire better, and to be more specific about the type of people that they want working, and make sure there’s great alignment between what it is they offer as a workplace, and the culture elements they want to see in the employees that work there.
I’m curious how to short the commercial real estate market.
So I don’t worry about that at all. I’ve heard a lot of people say this, but look, it’s not difficult to convert an office building into an apartment building. And this would actually solve a ton of problems in big cities. Imagine right now if every skyscraper in San Francisco that’s an office building - everybody leaves, they’re able to work remotely. Overnight, start getting work done converting those to apartments. It helps solve the housing crisis. It’s not like those buildings are gonna go to waste, trust me. Real estate developers know what they’re doing… So I don’t worry about that at all. I think we already have a housing crisis that could very quickly be, if not solved, at least chipped away at by converting office space to apartment space.
[01:08:18.01] Well said. Early on you were talking about some of the best practices that you’ve discovered over time at GitLab, and you said that it could get some people fired… [unintelligible 01:08:26.20] I know you talked about the best practices around meetings, and we talked a little bit about that - written communication, everybody collaborates, everybody can contribute… What are some other best practices you all have found that are controversial, or interesting, or maybe counter-intuitive to folks who work collocated today?
Solving problems in public. This is a big one. If you surface an issue publicly, at most companies, what generally happens is if that reflects poorly on the wrong person and they have power over you, life’s not gonna be good for you. Many times you’ll just internalize or swallow that problem, instead of actually surfacing it and making the whole company better.
But at GitLab if something isn’t working right - it could be something simple, like “Hey, my experience report was approved. It’s been 100 days, I still don’t have my money back.” Okay. You could just send an email to finance, which is what would happen at most companies, or at GitLab you could surface that in a public channel. And the benefit of doing that is if there’s an issue in our system, someone else could see that and say “Oh, actually, me too. I thought it was just me.” And then you’ll get another person, “Oh, me too. Me too.” Boom. Just like that we’ve discovered the problem. But if each of those people had emailed individually to different administrators, who knows if they connect the dots. This is just a small, small example.
When we talk about things openly, you get more eyes on it, you get more problem-solvers invested in solving it together, better things happen. But for whatever reason, this does not happen at most companies, and it can get you in major trouble at most companies, as well.
Does that require a flattening of a hierarchy, or a power structure?
That’s a great question. No. GitLab is organized by hierarchy. If you google “GitLab org chart”, you’ll very clearly see that we believe in managers, and you can see how many direct reports everyone has, and so on and so forth.
The challenge there is the cultural understanding that anything and everyone can be questioned if you assume positive intent and you come forth with a proposal to make something better. So don’t just question something with ego or an agenda to spite someone or to tear someone down. You do it to make something better, to improve the lives of everyone involved… And that’s all culture. That is something that has to be modeled from the very top.
When you were referencing that suggestion that Sid made, and then he opened it up to the company and he was persuaded to close it and not make that change because of the feedback that he received - this is a story that everyone at GitLab knows. And when you see that modeled from the very top, you’re more encouraged and comfortable modeling that yourself. And if you don’t see that model by leadership, you’re never gonna model it. So you need an executive team that is bought in from the top, and it has to be iron-clad. It really does. That’s one of those non-negotiable things. If your leadership team isn’t full-on with that, it’s never gonna work out.
[01:11:53.03] When people ask me about transparency, I like to say “If anything is a secret, everything is a secret.” And this is why everything at GitLab has to be aired in the public, with very few exceptions. Negative feedback and personal matters of underperformance we can’t talk about publicly, but other than that, we try to be public by default, and that’s modeled by leadership. But that’s hard. That’s hard for people to do; they just believe that bad things are gonna happen. And you’ll see new hires - they kind of dip their toe in the water, making something public for the first time, and then when it actually ends up working out well for them, “Phew! Okay, I had some preconceived notions about that, but I’m glad to see it happen.”
Does this elevate written communication as the number one skill for an employee or a colleague or a contributor at GitLab. Their ability to communicate in written prose, argue their reasoning, explain things in ways that are understandable or persuasive.
I’d say the number one skill is to be a confident manager of one. I think the written communication part of that falls under that… Because if you’re a manager of one, you’re self-aware enough to understand the situation. And if your point isn’t being delivered, or there’s miscommunication, you’re aware enough to know “Okay, I need to add more precision here to help another team or a person understand.”
The other thing I would say about communication is we actually hire great storytellers, not just great communicators… Because to work well remotely, you need to have a ton of context in explaining an issue or a thought. So if you just communicate, but you don’t have great precision or you can’t weave in a back-story, or you can’t think 2-3 steps ahead to write this down and tell it in the form of a story, a lot can get lost in translation.
So storytelling is a key component. Of course, you have to be a good communicator to be a great storyteller, but you will find some people that are great at writing things down really quickly, but aren’t so great at telling the story around it.
Well, Darren, I certainly appreciate what you represent, the work you did at Engadget, the world record you hold for writing so fastly…
I’m still impressed.
…and being an advocate for remote. We obviously believe in that. It’s hard for us to communicate exactly how we believe in it; talking through this with you makes it a little easier… Remind the audience of the URL for the Playbook, please.
Absolutely. That can be downloaded at allremote.info. That will take you into the GitLab handbook. Be sure to have a tall cup of coffee, because once you’re there, the rabbit hole is very deep. You can spend many days and hours reading, but we encourage you to read it, to share it, and if you’re a team leader, feel free to copy it and implement it. It’s an honor to have that implemented elsewhere.
There you go. Links in the show notes, check those out. Thanks, Darren.
Thanks so much for having me, all. I appreciate it. Godspeed.
Heads up, some off-color language coming up here in just a second. We don’t often do this; we avoid the Explicit tag for a reason, to reach the widest audience, but sometimes there’s some takes that you wanna include in the outro… And that’s what we’re doing here. So if you don’t wanna hear that, tune out in five… Four… Three… Two… One.
I’m curious if either of you have heard of the book “The No Asshole Rule”.
No… Do you have to read the book after you’ve heard the title? I think I get it…
Self-explanatory, but it kind of goes into detail. It’s a bit dated. I was trying to find the published date, but I was thinking thing no-ego thing kind of – it’s a pretty popular book in enterprises. Let’s see - it was published in 2007, so it’s sort of dated, to some degree… And obviously, no one wants to work with assholes.
But if you have this no-ego rule, or this value, it sort of says that in a polite way, and defines the inability to be that. Because if you have an ego and you pitch a change in the public, in an egotistical way - synonymous with asshole potentially - then there you go.
Yeah. So that’s the direct link to no ego. You’re welcome to link that in the show notes. Also, if you scroll up and down once you’re there, you’ll see a bunch of the other sub-values, like “Assume positive intent”, things like that.
The other benefit of no ego over something like asshole is that one is ambiguous and one is explicit. No ego - you know exactly what that means. It doesn’t mean anything different to anyone else. Ego can literally be read as a definition in Merriam-Webster. You know exactly what it is. Whereas the other is like “Well, just generally don’t be a jerk.” Well, people have different interpretations of that, so we try to make it as explicit as possible, so that it’s inclusive and easy to understand… And also easy to point out when it’s not happening.
Yeah… I’m digging it. It’s certainly good leadership on y’alls from to put this out there. You can probably expect some people will copy and paste, literally, but I think the idea of gleaning from what you represent to what values your company currently holds, and can evolve to, or desires to evolve to is a better implementation of this…
…sort of learned, and then reimplemented in your own language, in your own way of doing things.
For sure. And that’s how it works for most people, because you have to modify it some to fit what it is… But at least it gives people a starting point. It sure beats a blank sheet of paper with a blinking cursor.
Right… Staring at you. “Now what?”
Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚