Earlier this week, I had the distinct privilege of being invited to be on a panel at UCBerkeley’s “New Manager Bootcamp“.
This was my first time participating on an “expert panel” like this, so I really wast sure what I was getting myself into.
The auditorium was packed with ~90 people, all seasoned professionals from a range of different companies and different industries. They’d spent a bunch of time in workshops, listening and learning in an intensive crash-course. Now the tables were turned – they got to set the pace, and ask all the questions. After intros, and one “warm up” question from the organizer, the free-flow open questions started. From all corners of the room. Non-stop. For 75mins.
The trust and honesty in the room was great, and it was quickly evident that everyone was down-to-earth, asking brutally honest questions simply because they wanted to do right with their new roles and responsibilities.
The first few questions were “easy” black-and-white type questions. Things quickly got interesting with tricky gray-zone questions for the rest of the session. Each panelist responded super-honestly on how we’d each handled those tricky situations. Given that we all came from different backgrounds, different cultures, different careers, it was no surprise that we had different perspectives and attitudes for these gray-zone questions. We even had panelists asking each other questions, live on stage!?! As individual panelists, we didnt always agree on the mechanics of what we did, but we all agreed on the motivations of *why* we did what we did: taking care of people’s lives, and careers, individually, as part of the group, and as part of the company.
I found this educational, and I hope it was useful for the people asking the questions! Afterwards, I spent time in a nearby coffee shop quietly thinking about the questions, and reliving the different experiences behind the answers I shared on stage.
Unexpectedly, I was also asked to come back the next day, to talk about “we are all remoties“. Turns out that geo-distributed groups was a popular topic of discussion throughout the bootcamp, but I was still surprised at the level of interest when Homa asked for a quick show of “who would be willing to skip lunch for an extra session on remoties” and almost everyone jumped up! The “remoties” presentation was rushed, because of the tight time grabbing food-to-go, making sure not to delay the other scheduled sessions, and the flood of questions. Yet, people were fully engaged, sitting on the floor with food, asking great questions, and really excited by what was possible for distributed groups when the mechanics were debugged.
Distributed work groups are obviously a big issue, not just in open source software projects, but also in a lot of other companies in the bay area.
Big thanks to Homa and Kim for putting it all together. The timing of this was fortuitous, and I found myself thinking about possible ideas for Mozilla’s ManagerHacking series that morgamic revived recently and will be coming up again in a few weeks.
Last weekend, I was super-honored to be a guest speaker at the Haas Berkeley MBA program. My session was part of their “Global Teams” module, where they cover the theory and practice of effective teamwork, managing in global companies, and managing in fluid/rapidly changing environments.
My host, Homa Bahrami, invited me to show how Mozilla’s Release Engineering group has pushed the envelope, and had developed a well-tested concrete set of tips+tricks which allow a geo-distributed group to work highly effectively.
People’s attention was caught right at the start by my summary and graphic showing just how distributed Mozilla’s RelEng group actually is:
* 16 people
* 15 locations
* 4 non-adjacent timezones
* 0 in “headquarters”
By comparison, most people think of remoties as either:
The fact that any group could work together this effectively while being so geo-distributed was startling to them. Add to that, the fact that this group has been able to create strategic-level improvements to Mozilla’s software development abilities, hence increasing Mozilla’s options in the marketplace, generated even more interest.
Overall, the entire session was lively and interactive, with great questions, and discussions back-forth across the room. Everyone was fully engaged all the way… even after the lunch food arrived, we continued the discussions in the corridor outside the room.
I was delighted by the insightful questions, and very interested to hear the different perspectives that everyone brought from their varied backgrounds outside the MBA program.
For me, personally, I found it re-affirming to hear that the tips+tricks that we’ve built up within RelEng over the years are applicable to other groups, and other organizations.
It was a thoroughly wonderful experience. Big thanks to Homa for the invite, and to everyone for their full-on engagement.
[For a PDF copy of the entire presentation, click here or on the smiley faces! For the sake of my poor blogsite, the much, much, larger keynote files are available on request.]
[UPDATE: a newer version of this presentation is here. joduinn 25feb2013]
In November, I was asked to present “we are all remoties” at MozCamp Singapore. In the end, I ended up presenting twice! The second time was on the main stage, in the largest room, where the keynote was held.
Giving a presentation in a room that big is always daunting, but during the presentation, it was encouraging to see the people that had been hovering at the back near the coffee machines + snacks gradually move to the remaining empty seats near the front and start taking notes. After the talk, I spent the rest of the day answering lots of questions and getting encouraging feedback.
Interesting that most of the people who came looking to attend “the remoties talk” had either heard an early version of it at Mozilla Summit in 2010, or heard about it from someone who was there. The people who heard it before thought it a good refresher; the people who were hearing it for the first time found it immediately useful to their day-to-day working lives! All self-confessed that this was a talk they never thought they’d find interesting so they almost skipped… but now thought it was essential, and wanted to know if I would I give the same presentation with their group?!?
Humbling. And encouraging. All at the same time.
Every time I get to talk about “remoties”, whether in a formal setting like MozCamp, or in discussions with people in other companies, I have two strong feelings:
- Passionate: I feel more and more convinced this topic is super important to the Mozilla community. In the changing face of the software industry, I feel this is becoming important to an increasing proportion of workplaces outside of Mozilla. Given Mozilla’s origins, we have a long standing reputation for successfully working with people in different physical locations. As we grow, we need to learn how to scale this part of our DNA. I feel if any organization can do this right, and show the way for other organizations to do it right, Mozilla can. The impact on the industry cannot be overstated.
- Embarrassed: In preparation for each talk, I pour over the slides, fix typos, rehearse and generally try to make it better. Every time, I fix lots of errors. And literally every time on stage, I find even more errors. Feedback and questions afterwards make me tweak the presentation every time. After my recent presentation at Netflix, I completely rewrote most of the presentation. Each time I do this, I feel better about the revised version, and embarrassed by the earlier versions.
Therefore, I’ve posted a PDF of the slides here.
Please do ask questions and/or give feedback/corrections/suggestions – either in comments below, or by emailing me (“joduinn” at mozilla dot com). I’ll do my best to work them all into a revised presentation before the next talk which is already scheduled for outside Mozilla (more news soon!).
[UPDATE: a newer version of this presentation is here. joduinn 25feb2013]
Netflix asked me to present about how Mozilla handles distributed work groups – “we are all remoties” – in October. This invitation came about because Netflix RelEng team were impressed by the scale and efficiency of Mozilla’s RelEng group – and then totally impressed when they found out that Mozilla’s RelEng group was physically all remoties. Unheard of in Netflix.
Exciting, and a little daunting, all at the same time. Oh, and by the way, could it be recorded as part of their Netflix University training series?
To set context, its worth noting that Netflix has an explicit zero-remoties hiring policy, so this presentation generated quite some debate beforehand and during the Q+A sessions and afterwards.
Big thanks to everyone from Netflix who attended – the genuine curiosity and very direct, honest questions, with me and with each other, were great. After 5.75 years (and counting) in Mozilla’s very-distributed RelEng, I still forget that what feels “normal” for me is atypical for a lot of other companies. All the discussions helped me identify a bunch of assumptions that need to be called out in the presentation. Every time I have a chance to talk about remoties like this, I end up restructuring the presentation yet again to highlight missed assumptions. Thanks to all the Q+A here, the “remoties” presentation at MozCamp Singapore a month later was quite different and I hope much better (separate blog post coming).
Its still surprising to me how much I care about group organization. Done badly, its a big impediment to people getting their work done. Done well, it helps people be more effective. And, as noted by several people at Netflix, many aspects of our we-are-all-remoties group organization practices help even zero-remotie groups be more effective.
Many thanks to Curt Patrick, Gareth Bowles, Carl Quinn and Adrian Cockroft for helping make this happen, as well as for all the lively discussions before and since.
tl;dr: If you are a remotie…or if you work with someone who is a remotie… I’d love to hear from you.
Whenever “remoties” come up in discussion, I continue to be surprised by the level of interest people have about this.
Its not just a polite “oh, that’s interesting”. Its a suddenly intense outpouring of personal war stories – “oh really? Let me tell you about the time when…”. Some of those stories were told as validation (“yes, we did what you do, and we’re happy it worked for us also” or “we didn’t do what you do, and it ended badly“). Some of these stories were told in denial (“we tried that once, it didn’t work out, which proves it is not ever possible“). Some of these stories were told in despair (“…so now my company wont hire any remoties“). But all of these stories were told with intense personal fervor, sometimes years after the fact!
This shouldn’t have surprised me. As Homa Bahrami pointed out when I met her in Mozilla Summit 2011, and again in meetings this summer, working with remoties is a hard people-organizational problem, not a software-organization problem. Homa also pointed out the intense, long term impact this can have on someone’s personal life and entire career, which explained some of the passionate responses I’ve received so far.
Stepping back, I realized that while most of the people I’ve talked with so far are in the computer business, I’ve also heard similar stories from university lecturers, book publishers, public relations people, medical doctors and traveling sales reps.
This got me thinking about how to contact even more people who work remotely… hence this blog post.
If you are a remotie…or if you work with someone who is a remotie… I’d be really interested to hear from you.
- Do you have examples of things that did (or did not!) work for you?
- Do you have ideas of things you haven’t tried, but which you think might help?
As usual, you can post comments below. I do also understand this is a personal thing, especially if you are still working in the situation. Therefore, if you want to email me privately instead, please email me at “joduinn -at- mozilla -dot- com”, and put “remoties” somewhere in the subject. I will, of course, honor any requests to keep feedback anonymous, all I ask that you give me any working email address in case something is unclear, and I want to contact you with any followup questions.
Meanwhile, here’s a collection of useful links I’ve found about working remotely. If you know of others, please let me know.
(UPDATED: added another link, joduinn 02oct2012)
Mozilla, Remoties, Soapbox
[UPDATE: a newer version of this presentation is here. joduinn 25feb2013]
At the Mozilla Summit in sept2011, we ran a session on working remotely at Mozilla.
I was surprised/stunned/honored by needing to run this session *twice* because of popular demand, the sheer volume of interaction in each session and the ongoing interest since the summit.
Writing these slides, I realize how much I care about this topic… and how many careful subtle habits we’ve developed within RelEng over the last ~5 years.
During the summit, and again last week in Toronto, I had a chance to meet with Homa Bahrami (Senior Lecturer, Haas Management of Organizations Group, Haas School of Business, Berkeley). Apart from being a great person to talk with, she has lots of organizational and behavioral science background to help explain why the things that we felt were helping, were in fact, something she would expect to help!
(click image for PDF of slides; keynote available on request, but its large!)
As I said at the start of each session, at first it felt odd for a Release Engineer to be talking about work habits of distributed groups… until you think about how physically distributed Mozilla’s Release Engineering group is. I note, for the record, that *none* of RelEng are “in headquarters”. While there are occasional miscommunications, RelEng is fairly well plugged into whats going on… after all, we *need* to be in order to do our job of shipping software quickly, reliably and accurately.
To me, this feels like it actually is about working together in clearly understood ways. The suggestions here have helped “remote” RelEng people in clear and obvious ways, but they *also* help “local” RelEng people work together better.
Please let me know what you think. And of course, if you have ideas or suggestions that I missed, I’d love to hear them.
(Apologies to those who’ve been pestering me to post these over the last few months. Last week’s “remoties” day reminded me how important this is to post – even in its rough state. I’ve fixed the most egregious errors/typos, and merged in some feedback I got in the Q&A sessions. However, these slides still need further work. If you spot anything to fix, please let me know!)
Mozilla, Remoties, Soapbox
Its easy to skip a blog post about how to run meetings – yawn – and skip on to the
more exciting posts about some new shiny tech topic. Don’t make the same
mistake I did. This is a quick read and will change your working
Deb did a blogpost a while ago about how to run a more efficient 1×1
meeting. To be honest, I saw the post and skipped over it “Dont have
time to read that, and anyway, I’ve done lots of 1x1s – each unique to
needs of each individual, and they go just fine, thanks anyway”.
Then Coop, in his own polite understated way, told me we were going to
try this format. It worked great for Coop’s 1×1 with Armen, and he
thought it might improve Coop’s 1×1 with me. Our first meeting took
longer then usual, but that was each of us getting used to the
changeover. The second meeting, and all meetings since then, have been
much shorter than usual, and far more productive for both people!
Maybe its just something unique to coop and myself?
But it felt worth trying with a few other people, which I did over the
next couple of weeks. At that point, I was totally convinced. We now use
this for all my 1x1s in RelEng.
Why does it work so so well?
- Set the agenda a day in advance
- too many 1x1s are impromptu, unprepared and therefore inefficient.
- making sure the agenda is *not* set by the manager is important; this
means people can make sure what they need is covered, and the meeting is
productive to them.
- Sorted by time
- the past: Talking about what you just accomplished helps set context,
and helps even the most modest person discuss recent successes.
- the present: Whats on your mind right now, typically blockers.
- the near future: plans for the upcoming week help ensure both people
agree priorities are right
- the “far” future: Keeping the current work in context of a person’s
career path, and in context of a group’s quarterly goals is tricky. Its
easy for this to get pushed to the side in the day-to-day rush of work,
but this format helps keep everyone aware of.
- Require video
- its easy to get distracted in our constant-interrupt environment, and
the video helps keep people focused on the person they are talking with.
This in turn helps the meeting run much quicker.
- some “remoties” resisted using video at first – “too intrusive” was a
common reaction. However, it only takes a couple of meetings this way
before everyone sees how 1x1s with video run more smoothly than
phone-call-only. Facial cues and body language visual cues are super
important – just ask anyone who’s got into a misunderstanding on irc or
- this 1×1 can be the most direct human contact “remoties” with the
rest of Mozilla all week. Video is a great reminder that the voice on
the line is a real human, and some of the saved time at the end can turn
into seemingly-unimportant-but-actually-vital non-work chitchat. The
kitchencams are popular for a similar reason.
The brilliance of Deb’s approach is that it is super low-tech and super
easy to use. As engineers, we’re always tempted to look for technical
solution to any problem, but the few attempts I’ve seen so far have all
added complexity and got in the way. By contrast, Deb stepped back and
revisited the essence of the original problem from a completely different
perspective and I love what she came up with.
Try her suggestion. If it doesnt work for you, go back to what you did
before, no harm done. But maybe, just maybe, you will love it, and find
yourself giving a silent “Thank you, Deb.” after every 1×1, just like I do.
[UPDATE: Ben Horowitz just blogged about this also. joduinn 04-sep-2012]
The flight disruptions in Europe complicated the RelEng gathering in Toronto last week. Rail’s flights were canceled, and it took a while to find alternate flights that worked – he finally made it to Toronto, and it was great for everyone to meet in person. All united at last.
The week together was awesome. The advance planning is a bit of a headache, but the time spent together and the brainstorming of knotty problems make it all well worthwhile. With so many “remoties”, we’re used to being very a distributed group, yet there were a bunch of problems that we worked though in just the few days we were together. As always, I find myself leaving these group gatherings feeling excited by the things we’ve done, the major projects we’re working on next, and proud of the wide range of smart unique people in the group.
(from L->R; standing: coop, bhearsum, rail, joduinn, catlee, bear, lsblakk, jhford, nthomas, aki; sitting: armenzg, alice. Photo thanks to Aki!)
ps: Rail’s going to stay in Toronto for next week also, to work with catlee and bhearsum, so if you see him in the Mozilla office, please do take a moment to say hi!