“Distributed” presentation at Cultivate NYC

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I recently presented about distributed teams and remoties at Cultivate, NYC. The conference was held in the Javits center, in Manhattan, in the midst of the Strata/Hadoop NYC conference and was quite a crowd. The place is so large there were multiple pigeons flying around *inside* the building all week long!

After blogging and presenting about “remoties” and distributed teams for years, this was very different to anything I’ve presented before. I covered a lot of remotie / distributed team topics, including some new research I’m writing in my book.

The slides are here (or click the thumbnail image). I’ll post a copy of the recording once I have it.

Liza Daly, CTO at Safari already posted a great writeup about her presentation, and also on points in my presentation about meetings, so no need for me to repeat those here. Instead, you should read her post. I was encouraged to see that she and I are both tackling some of the same problems, in similar ways.

I’ll touch on three other points that got a lot of followup questions and discussions afterwards:

1) Remote/distributed teams are not a new phenomenon.

I believe humans have been able to work in distributed teams since we learned how to communicate. However, documentation *that* old is hard to find. Examples I *could* find were:

Almost 500 years ago (1519-1522), Magellan’s expedition sailed around the world. This project (“expedition to find spices”) started with “the boss” (The King of Spain) delegated full management authority to Magellan – empowering Magellan to execute staff if he saw fit (He did!) and even start wars on behalf of the King without first checking back to the King asking for approval (He did, which is how he died in battle in the Philippines). The King was being practical, not reckless. After all, it took them 3 years to sail around the world, discovering a new route as they went – so it was simply not practical to stop and wait while a message went back to HQ asking for the King’s permission to do something. To replace dead employees, Magellan “recruited” locals found on the way, training them on the job. Only a handful of the original 270 staff made it back home alive. Only 1 of the 5 original ships made it back home. By contrast, today’s navies are in constant contact with HQ, can request new supplies and trained staff to be quickly delivered anywhere in the world – and they need to ask permission from the boss before starting a war. This change in how they work is because of how they can communicate. Modern day submarines operate under different rules, again because of how they communicate.

Exactly 200 years ago was the Battle of Waterloo. On one day, 18 June 1815, the armies of France, England and Prussia converged for battle. These 191,000 men fought, and in one 24hour day, there were 65,000 dead/wounded/MIA. Using the best communication technologies available at the time, the generals would stand on hilltops overlooking the flat-ish battlefield, and send orders to soldiers across the battlefield by sending foot-messengers, waving flags and playing prearranged coded sequences of notes on their bugles. This scaled better than having all soldiers standing within earshot of the generals, but still had lots of limitations, not least of which was needing soldiers to hold battles in daytime, and difficulty coordinating work out of sight of each other. By contrast, modern soldiers have night vision equipment, as well as personal encrypted radios so they can communicate quickly and safely with coworkers, even if they are out of sight from each other, as well as “back to HQ” for supplies and reinforcements.

In each of these examples, the use of new communication tools radically changed how these organizations operate.

“Changing how we communicate lets us change how we work”(click to tweet)

Similarly, we have new communication tools in business. The ability to talk with people far away (telephone), the ability to write on a portable device (portable typewriter), and the ability to create moving pictures (reel-to-reel movie cameras) have gone from “expensive new technologies” to routinely included for free in each laptop and cellphone. Given the possibilities these new technologies allow, and their widespread availability, why do so many companies still arrange their organizations like this when their customers are global and look like this?

2) Hiring:

Literally everyone attending Cultivate NYC was hiring. Not one exception. And everyone was having a hard time hiring in today’s super-competitive environment. Yet, as best as I could see in the large hall, very few said “remote welcome” on the job description.

This is important because recent changes to society are also impacting how companies should recruit.

There are no more “hired for life” jobs, which makes people less willing to relocate for each job as they progress through their career. This year (2015) in the USA, there is a generational change, where the biggest segment of the workforce is now Millennials – people who grew up thinking streaming video on cellphones is “normal”! There is widespread broadband availability, making it possible to afford internet connectivity at home as-good-as-or-better than your connectivity at the office. Forrester estimated that in 2009, there were ~34million work-from-home people, and that by next year (2016), it will be ~63million people working from home… with the rate continuing to rise as broadband rollout continues.

To make matters worse for hiring managers, some qualified people who have the right skills won’t even apply for the job, simply because they know that if they got the job, they cannot accept it. That’s worth repeating. They have the skills, but they won’t even give you the chance to interview them, simply because if they got the job, they cannot reliably get to/from the office… so they don’t even apply. So, if you are a hiring manager, ask yourself:

Are you “Hiring the best person for the job”? Or are you “Hiring the best person for the job who is willing to relocate”?

If you want to “hire the best person for the job (regardless of where they live)”, then explicitly put “remote welcome” in your job description. This will let you hire better candidates, hire faster and give you a business advantage over your all-in-one-location competitors.

3) Disaster Planning

The week before Cultivate NYC, the Pope visited NYC. This caused NYPD to plan widespread street shutdowns for security during various site visits, prompting NYC Mayor de Blasio to encourage people to work from home for the week.

“If someone has the option to stay home, work from home, that’s a great choice…”. de Blasio, Mayor, NYC.

Similarly, while Hurricane Sandy in NYC caused death and destruction, many people were fine, simply stuck at home, unable to get to the office because subways was flooded. Their home was fine. Their office was fine. They just could not *get* to the office. And because their work habits assumed being in the office, they were unable to work effectively from home.

It’s one thing to work-from-home, on a part-time basis, choosing to specifically only do solo-work / focus-work. Instead, I asked people could they do their “normal job” (meetings, conference calls, pair-programming, escalations, interacting with co-workers, etc) while working from home? Most people actually cannot do this – because they are self-trained to go to office to do this in person. By contrast, experienced remote / distributed teams do this just fine – they are using cheap, familiar tools and crisp human processes which they practice daily.

I left everyone with a one day experiment: If you left this conference today, and went home with just the contents of your bag, could you do your normal job tomorrow (for just one day) if the office was unexpectedly closed tomorrow? If not, don’t worry – its just a one day experiment. Learn why, come into the office the next day, fix it, and try again the following week.

“We build fault tolerant systems. We need fault tolerant companies.”(click to tweet)

There were lots of note-taking throughout, and it was very exciting to see the wide-spread interest – at the conference as well as in the followup back-to-back meetings throughout the rest of the week.

John.
ps: I also want to give a shout out of thanks to Jason and Laurel for the thousand-and-one logistical details they worked through, literally all the time. Amazing to see.

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