The “we are all remoties” book!?!

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I’ve been working in distributed teams, as well as talking, presenting, coaching and blogging about “remoties”‚ in one form or another for 8?9? years now. So, I’m excited to announce that I recently signed a contract with O’Reilly to write a book about how to successfully work in, and manage in, a geo-distributed world. Yes, I’m writing a “we are all remoties” book. If you’ve been in one of my ever-evolving “we are all remoties” sessions, you have an idea of what will be included.

If you’ve ever talked with me about the pros (and cons!) of working as a remote employee or of working in a distributed team, you already know how passionate I am about this topic. I care deeply about people being able to work well together, and having meaningful careers, while being physically or somehow otherwise remote from each other. Done incorrectly, this situation can be frustrating and risky to your career, as well as risky to employers. Done correctly, however, this could be a global change for good, raising the financial, technical and economic standards across all sorts of far flung places around the globe. Heady game-changing stuff indeed.

There are many “advocacy books” out there, explaining why working remote is a good / reasonable thing to do – typically written from the perspective of the solo person who is already remote. There are also many different tools becoming available to help people working in distributed teams – exciting to see. However, I found very few books, or blogposts, talking about the practical mechanics of *how* to use a combination of these tools and some human habits to allow humans to work together effectively in distributed teams, especially at any scale or over a sustained amount of time. Hence, my presentations, and now, this upcoming book.

Meanwhile,

  • if you are physically geo-distributed from the people you work with, I’d like to hear what does or doesn’t work for you. If you know someone who is in this situation, please share this post with them.
  • If you have experience working in distributed teams, is there something that you wish was already explained in a book? Something that you had to learn the hard way, but which you wish was clearly signposted to make it easier for others following to start working in distributed teams? Do you have any ideas that did / didn’t work for you?
  • If you have published something on the internet about remoties, please be tolerant of any questions I might ask. If you saw any of my “we are all remoties” presentations, is there anything that you would like to see covered in more/less detail? Anything that you wish was written up in a book to help make the “remote” path easier for those following behind?

…you can reach me on twitter (“@joduinn”) or on email (john at my-domain-name – and be sure to include “remoties” in the subject, to get past spam filters.)

Now, time to brew some coffee and get back to typing.

John.
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(updated 31jul2015 to add twitter + email address.)

“Hot Seat: The CEO Guidebook” by Dan Shapiro

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This book just came out and I loved it. If you are starting a company, or thinking of it, you need to read this book. Period.

Dan covered a whole range of topics very succinctly, and in easy-to-follow language. When and how to raise funds. What all those terms mean. Who should (and should not!) be on your board, and why. How to allocate shares and ownership between co-founders. Where to incorporate your company (Dan has strong opinions on this!). How to create (and then also maintain) company culture. A great section on decision making. A section on “Hiring” in the context of the Manhattan project vs the moon shot Apollo project that I think every engineering hiring manager should read before building a team. Several true stories about startups where co-founders mismatches caused company threatening problems (trivia: 6 of 10 startups lose a co-founder in early days). And some good (and bad!) stories of how important trust was.

Some great quotes that resonated with me:

“You have limited resources of time and money. When they run out, you go bankrupt. The important thing is not cost/benefit: it’s opportunity cost.”

(in the context of how much travel was needed for all the in-person meetings with investors when raising funding) “…Alaska Airlines gave me MVP status for my efforts. In January.”

“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to the resources currently controlled”. Prof Stevenson, Harvard.

In a variation of the “fail fast” mantra in developer circles, Dan notes that “…while it might seem like cold comfort now, the sooner you fail, the sooner you can try again.” Oh, and he’s not just saying it – that was the ending of a chapter where he detailed the failure of one of his startups.

His tolerance for large volumes of coffee and pointer to suggested reading “Coffee, CYP1A2 Genotype, and Risk of Myocardial Infarction” was a great and unexpected tangent for me personally. (More info here Journal of American Medical Association)

“Startups don’t out think their competitors; they out-execute them.”

“If leadership is the forest, then management is the trees. Day to day, it’s what consumes your time, and its imperative that you get it right.”

It takes skill and seasoned-experience-in-the-field to have one person cover all these different topics. Even more skill to do so clearly, and concisely. Putting them all together in a way that makes sense was great. Just great. If you are starting a company, or thinking of it, you need to read this book. Period.

Aside: Having this on my kindle app, on my trusty nexus5 phone was quite a good reading experience. The book was written in short, digestible chapters, which I could quickly complete standing a store line, or in the back of a taxi between meetings. It also encouraged me to think more about the chapter I just finished in the time before I got to stop and read some more. A nice way to digest the many lessons in here. I’m still experimenting with what books I find do work best on phone+kindle vs ink-on-paper, but at least for this book, reading on kindle worked for me.

(Disclaimer: I bought this book because I’m starting my own company, and that is the basis of the above review. As this book is published by O’Reilly Press, it feels important to disclose that I am also currently doing some work with O’Reilly… which did not influence anything I wrote here.)

“We are ALL Remoties” (Jun2015 edition)

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Since my last post on “remoties”, I’ve done several more presentations, some more consulting work for private companies, and even started writing this down more explicitly (exciting news coming here soon!). While I am always refining these slides, this latest version is the first major “refactor” of this presentation in a long time. I think this restructuring makes the slides even easier to follow – there’s a lot of material to cover here, so this is always high on my mind.

Without further ado – you can get the latest version of these slides, in handout PDF format, by clicking on the thumbnail image.

Certainly, the great responses and enthusiastic discussions every time I go through this encourages me to keep working on this. As always, if you have any questions, suggestions or good/bad stories about working remotely or as part of a geo-distributed teams, please let me know (either by email or in the comments below) – I’d love to hear them.

Thanks
John.

Mozilla’s Release Engineering now on Dr Dobbs!

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book coverLong time readers of this blog will remember when The Architecture of Open Source Applications (vol2) was published, containing a chapter describing the tools and mindsets used when re-building Mozilla’s Release Engineering infrastructure. (More details about the book, about the kindle and nook versions, and about the Russian version(!).

Dr Dobbs recently posted an article here which is an edited version of the Mozilla Release Engineering chapter. As a long time fan of Dr Dobbs, seeing this was quite an honor, even with the sad news here.

Obviously, Mozilla’s release automation continues to evolve, as new product requirements arise, or new tools help further streamline things. There is still lots of interesting work being done here – for me, top of mind is Task Cluster, and ScriptHarness (v0.1.0 and v0.2.0). Release Engineering at scale is both complex, and yet very interesting – so you should keep watching these sites for more details, and consider if they would also help in your current environment. As they are all open source, you can of course join in and help!

For today, I just re-read the Dr. Dobbs article with a fresh cup of coffee, and remembered the various different struggles we went through as we scaled Mozilla’s infrastructure up so we could quickly grow the company, and the community. And then in the middle of it all, found time with armenzg, catlee and lsblakk to write about it all. While some of the technical tools have changed since the chapter was written, and some will doubtless change again in the future, the needs of the business, the company and the community still resonate.

For anyone doing Release Engineering at scale, the article is well worth a quiet read.

The canary in the coal mine

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After my recent “We are ALL Remoties” presentation at Wikimedia, I had some really great followup conversations with Arthur Richards at WikiMedia Foundation. Arthur has been paying a lot of attention to scrum and agile methodologies – both in the wider industry and also specifically in the context of his work at Wikimedia Foundation, which has people in different locations. As you can imagine, we had some great fun conversations – about remoties, about creating culture change, and about all-things-scrum – especially the rituals and mechanics of doing daily standups with a distributed team.

Next time you see a group of people standing together looking at a wall, and moving postit notes around, ask yourself: “how do remote people stay involved and contribute?” Taking photographs of the wall of postit notes, or putting the remote person on a computer-with-camera-on-wheeled-cart feels like a duct-tape workaround; a MacGyver fix done quickly, with the best of intentions, genuinely wanting to help the remote person be involved, but still not-a-great experience for remoties.

There has to be a better way.

We both strongly agree that having people in different locations is just a way to uncover the internal communication problems you didn’t know you already have… the remote person is the canary in the coal mine. Having a “we are all remoties” mindset helps everyone become more organized in their communications, which helps remote people *and* also the people sitting near each other in the office.

Arthur talked about this idea in his recent (and lively and very well attended!) presentation at the Annual Scrum Alliance “Global Scrum Gathering” event in Phoenix, Arizona. His slides are now visible here and here.

If you work in an agile / scrum style environment, especially with a geo-distributed team of humans, it’s well worth your time to read Arthur’s presentation! Thought provoking stuff, and nice slides too!

A new focus

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I’ve just added two new categories (“Release Engineering” and “Startup”) to my blog. This reflects the new reality of my life.

Obviously, many of my existing posts are already about Release Engineering, an area I care deeply about, yet somehow I just never flagged them correctly – I’ll fix that. The bigger news is about “Startup”. A few months ago, I decided to take the plunge and actually do what I’ve been talking about for years – start my own startup.

Since then, every day has been really busy, exciting, scary and fun – sometimes even all on the same day! Finding a bug in some AWS API documentation. Reading legal contracts with a highlighter and having to stop to Google some of the terms. Getting phone calls from a stranger that start with “you don’t know me, but I got your name from xxx and I hope you can help…”. Saying “what could possibly go wrong” multiple times a day. Joking about “pay no attention to the man behind the green curtain” while preparing a demo. Politely declining a job offer from a cold call recruiter, hanging up, taking a deep breath, calmly reminding myself that 9 out of 10 startup fail, and then jumping back into the fray. Oddly enough, I find I’m sleeping more, and feeling less stressed!? So far. Oh, and I’m drinking even more coffee then usual (yes, that is possible!).

Things are still under wraps, but as soon as there’s something worthwhile to show or talk about, I’ll post here on my blog.

In addition to the PRODUCT of the startup, I’ll also be blogging about the PROCESS of creating the startup. Technical, business, human aspects… warts and all. I’ve found it really helpful, and encouraging, to read posts from other founders and investors who’ve gone before me, on what they learned while building a startup – not just airbrushed niceties but also the genuine good/bad/funny/horror/irreverent/snafu stories that people have posted about life while building a startup. Some I’ve nodded along with, say “that was obvious”. Some I’ve re-read multiple times carefully and made mental notes. All are honest and helpful – to me and I’m sure many many others also. In that “pay it forward” spirit, I’ll make time to blog about this, and hopefully others starting their own entrepreneurial path will find these posts helpful – in a “oh, that is clever, I should make sure to do that” way… or “oh boy, I need to make sure to *never* do that” way… or somewhere in between!

I have to say I feel incredibly lucky with the support and encouragement of friends, family, former-co-workers and others I’ve bumped into over the years. Not just generic “don’t worry – it will be fine” support. Even with best of intentions, telling people what you think they want to hear, even when you think it may not be a good idea, is not good – it can set someone up to fail. Instead, I’ve been getting really helpful, informed, constructive support and advice like “maybe if you change it to…” or “have you asked xxx, she might have an insight…” or “that was good, don’t change that” or “… ok, that didn’t go well, so how will you do better next time?” Sometimes hard to hear, but always true from the heart and totally honest. This support is priceless, and means a great deal to me, so I find myself listening very carefully and humbly thanking people a LOT.

“RelEng as a Force Multiplier” at RelEng Conf 2015

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Last week, I was honored to give the closing talk at RelEng Conf 2015, here in Florence, Italy.

I’ve used this same title in previous presentations; the mindset it portrays still feels important to me. Every time I give this presentation, I am invigorated by the enthusiastic response, and work to improve further, so I re-write it again. This most recent presentation at RelEngConf2015 was almost a complete re-write; only a couple of slides remain from the original. Click on the thumbnail to get the slides null

The main focus of this talk was:
1) Release Engineers build pipelines, while developers build products. When done correctly, this pipeline makes the entire company more effective. By contrast, done incorrectly, broken pipelines will hamper a company – sometimes fatally. This different perspective and career focus is important to keep in mind when hiring to solve company infrastructure problems.

2) Release Engineers routinely talk and listen with developers and testers, typically about the current project-in-progress. Thats good – we obviously need to keep doing that. However, I believe that Release Engineers also need to spend time talking to and listening with people who have a very different perspective – people who care about the fate of the *company*, as opposed to a specific project, and have a very different longer-term perspective. Typically, these people have titles like Founder/CxO/VP but every company has different cultural leaders and uses slightly different titles, so some detective work is in order. The important point here is to talk with people who care about the fate of the company, as opposed to the fate of a specific project – and keep that perspective in mind when building a pipeline that helps *all* your customers.

3) To illustrate these points, I then went into detail on some technical, and culture change, projects to highlight their strategic importance.

As usual, it was a lively presentation with lots of active Q+A during the talk, as well as the following break-out session. Afterwards, 25 of us managed to find a great dinner (without a reservation!) in a nearby restaurant where the geek talk continued at full force for several more hours.

All in all, a wonderful day.

It was also great to meet up with catlee in person again. We both had lots to catch up on, in work and in life.

Bram Adams, Christian, Foutse, Kim and Stephany Bellomo all deserve ongoing credit for continuing to make this unusual and very educational conference come to life, as well as for curating the openness that is the hallmark of this event. As usual, I love the mix of academic researchers and industry practitioners, with talks alternating between industry and academic speakers all day long. The different perspectives, and the eagerness of everyone to have fully honest “what worked, what didnt work” conversations with others from very different backgrounds is truly refreshing… and was very informative for everyone. I’m already looking forward to the next RelEngConf!!

[updated to fix some typos. John 28may2015]

Interviews about “Work from home” policies at Facebook, Virgin and yes, Yahoo!

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When I talk about “remoties”, I frequently get asked my thoughts on Yahoo’s now (in)famous “no more work-from-home” policy.

Richard Branson (Virgin, link to first video) and the separate comments from Jackie Reses (Yahoo, 2.27 into the link to second video) confirm what I’d heard from multiple unofficial mutterings – that Yahoo’s now (in)famous “no more work from home” decree was actually intended as a way to jolt the company culture into action.

I also liked Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook) comments about how a successful remote workplace depends on having clear measures of successful results. Rather then valuing someone by how many hours they are seen working in the office, instead it is better to have a company culture where you measure people by results. This echoes comments I’ve seen from Jason Fried in his “Remote” book, comments I’ve made in my “we are all remoties” presentations and which I’ve heard again and again from various long-term remote workers.

These two interviews discuss these points really well. The entire article is well worth a read, and both videos are only a few minutes long, so worth the quick watch.

Encouraging!

“We are ALL Remoties” (Apr2015 edition)

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Last week, I had the great privilege of talking with people at Wikimedia Foundation about “we are all remoties”!

This was also the first presentation by a non-Wikimedia person in their brand new space, and was further complicated with local *and* remote attendees! Chip, Greg and Rachel did a great job of making sure everything went smoothly, quickly setting up a complex multi-display remote-and-local video configuation, debugging some initial audio issues, moderating questions from remote attendees, etc. We even had extra time to cover topics like “Disaster Recovery”, “interviewing tips for remoties” and “business remotie trends”. Overall, it was a long, very engaged, session but felt helpful, informative, great fun and seemed to be well received by everyone.

As usual, you can get the latest version of these slides, in handout PDF format, by clicking on the thumbnail image. I’ve changed the PDF format slightly as requested, so let me know if you think this format is better/worse.

As always, if you have any questions, suggestions or good/bad stories about working in a remote or geo-distributed teams, please let me know – I’d love to hear them.

Thanks
John.
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ps: Oh, and by the way, Wikimedia are hiring – see here for current job openings. They are smart, nice people, literally changing the world – and yes, remoties ARE welcome. :-)

“why work doesnt happen at work” by Jason Fried on TEDx

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While reading “Remote”, I accidentally found this TEDx talk by one of the authors, Jason Fried. Somehow I’d missed this when it first came out in 2010, so stopped to watch it. I’ve now watched this a few times in a row, found it just as relevant today as it was 4-5 years ago, so am writing this blogpost.

The main highlights for me were:

1) work, like sleep, needs solid uninterrupted time. However, most offices are designed to enable interrupts. Open plan layouts. Phones. Casual walk-by interrupts from managers asking for status. Unneeded meetings. They are not designed for uninterrupted focus time. No-one would intentionally plan to have frequently-interrupted-sleep every night and consider it “good”, so why set up our work environments like this?

2) Many people go into the office for the day, attempting to get a few hours uninterrupted work done, only to spend time reacting to interrupts all day, and then lament at the end of the day that “they didn’t get anything done”! Been there, lived through that. As a manager, he extols people to try things like “no-talking-Thursdays”, just to see if people can actually be more productive.

3) The “where do you go when you really want to get work done” part of his presentation nailed it for me. He’s been asking people this question for years, and the answers tend to fall into three categories:

  • place: “the kitchen”, “the spare room”, “the coffee shop”, …
  • moving object: plane, train, car… the commute
  • time: “somewhere really early or really late at night or on the weekend”

… and he noted that no-one said “the office during office hours”!! The common theme is that people use locations where they can focus, knowing they will not get interrupted. When I need to focus, I know this is true for me also.

All of which leads to his premise that organizing how people work together, with most communication done in a less interruptive way is really important for productivity. Anyone who has been at one of my remoties sessions knows I strongly believe this is true – especially for remoties! He also asked why businesses spend so much money on these counter-productive offices.

Aside: I found his “Facebook and twitter are the modern day smoke breaks” comment quite funny! Maybe thats just my sense of humor. Overall, its a short 15min talk, so instead of your next “facebook/twitter/smokebreak”, grab a coffee and watch this. You’ll be glad you did.

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