Economic development on The Canary Islands with “Distributed Teams”

Last month (November2019), I spoke at Nomad City about “distributed teams” as a new approach to economic development.

This was the fourth Nomad City conference hosted in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. There were sessions on building careers while traveling, personal brand building, the challenges/advantages of building a remote business and other topics important to freelancers, “remote” workers and companies willing to tap into remote work. This year also featured a panel session, as well as a longer more in-depth think tank session, on economic development. I was invited to speak at both.

Why a conference about remote work – in the Canary Islands? For background, the Canary Islands are Spanish islands in the Atlantic, physically off the coast of Morocco. In Europe, these islands are most known for tourism – a “recent” focus of the local government. They started encouraging tourism in the 1970s, which required them to spend a lot of time and effort shifting the public perception of beaches from “sunny beaches with families of children making sandcastles” to “adults playing in the surf, sun and all night parties”. It has been wildly successful for decades and has encouraged other nearby sun/beach locations to do the same. At this point, approx ~14 million tourists visit the Canary Islands each year. For comparison, the total population of the Canary Islands is 2 million. At this point, direct tourism and tourism related revenue accounts for 35% of the GDP of the Canary Islands (or 55% of GDP depending on how you count tourism-related construction) and accounts for over 40% of the total employment. The rest of the economy depends on agriculture (~20%) and a diversity of industries. I was personally surprised to find that because of the natural deep ocean water so close to land creating sheltered ports, there is a long history of repair/maintenance of deep ocean going ships – from Columbus and Magellan through to modern fleets of oil exploration ships.

The local economy has been quietly and consistently growing pretty well for a while now, but there are concerns. Having an economy dependent on a single revenue stream is always a concern. After all, a diversified portfolio is more stable than having all eggs in one basket. In this case, their economy’s reliance on tourism has some additional concerns:

  1. Tourism is seasonal, so it is hard to predict accurately. This means that most of the economy literally depends on predicting the weather on the islands, as well as where tourists usually come from. This can cause surprise fluctuations to flights, hotel bookings and local major events at short notice.
  2. Climate change brings concerns about rising waters to these islands, like all other coastal locations around the globe. It also brings risk to their tourism industry. Many tourists come to the Canaries to escape the cold/dark of winter in northern Europe. As those winters become less severe because of climate change, would people decide to stay home or vacation somewhere nearby instead? This is further complicated by the recent closure of a major budget airline and tour operator in Europe, making travel to these islands more expensive. An additional factor is a rising “flight shaming” movement to counter the impact of airplane flights on the environment. The combination of all these raises the question: What happens if these tourists start choosing to stay home or vacation somewhere closer to home instead?
  3. Approximately 50% of citizens under the age of 25 are unemployed. Another 30% are underemployed, meaning they are overqualified for the work they hired for (while here, I heard in-person anecdotes of people with PhDs working as bartenders pouring drinks for tourists!).

To address these issues, local government officials and industry leaders have been looking for ways to diversify the income economy of these islands for a while now. Some impressive steps so far include:

  1. High speed internet: Residential internet connections of 600 Mbs are guaranteed and affordable. For specific business districts, internet connections of 1GBs are considered normal. These numbers were confirmed by my (non-scientific) sampling of internet speeds in various locations while I was there.
  2. Tax incentives: These islands are part of Spain and within the European Union (EU). This means that any company based here can operate across the entire EU. These islands are part of a special EU tax incentive zone to encourage companies to be created and grown here. I am not a tax accountant, and there are small-print-conditions to consider, but companies in the Canaries meeting those criteria have corporate tax rates significantly lower than others in the EU. Also, humans living here pay a lower consumer sales tax of 6.5% compared to an average 21% in the rest of the EU. 
  3. Bike rentals: There are well organized, affordable, bike shares widely available across Las Palmas and a growing network of dedicated bike-only lanes. This makes getting around easier then figuring out car ownership and parking – and cheaper than taxis.
  4. Conservation policies: Because of the geographic terrain, there are protected deep ocean scuba diving areas just off the downtown beaches, walking distances from offices. And preventing light/radio pollution in the high mountain tops has allowed the creation of two space observatories as well as a deep space communication center for the European Space Agency. These unique assets only exist today because of previous forethought creating policies to protect these unique locations.

Encouraging non-tourism companies to relocate to these rugged, beautiful islands would help diversify the local economy. The local civic leaders are well aware of the importance of this, so no surprise that it is something they’ve been trying for a while now, with mixed success.

However, if there was a way for humans on the islands to have meaningful work with employers that are not on these islands, that would be a game-changer. My “incentives for humans not corporations” mantra was eagerly agreed with – and some were even already working towards this. There are several co-working spaces on the islands – each with their own slightly different focus. Some cater to tourists or surfers looking for an impromptu place for some professional video calls/meetings before returning to fun in the sunshine. Some cater to digital nomads who will be daily users for a few weeks/months, until they leave to explore somewhere else. (Many of these also include “coliving” – with small apartments or shared accommodations.) Some cater to locals or expats who are now residents of the Canary Islands, usually running their own companies – and need a reliable office-as-a-service to work from outside of their home. Ignacio “Nacho” Rodriguez created a coworking space in 2014 which has been a big success. His mantra of “We work from places we love” is obviously popular.

All this explains why Ignacio wanted me to talk about this new approach to economic development at the Nomad City conference and also at some workshops before/after. Attendees were a mix of digital nomads, company founders, academics and civic/government leaders. This mix of different perspectives made for some very interesting discussions, on and off stage. These discussions have continued gathering momentum even after the official conference ended. It’ll be exciting to see what we end up creating and if more people can start working from places they love!

John.

A “Distributed Teams” workshop, distributed across eastern Australia

Earlier this year, while in Sydney, I gave a presentation on distributed teams at Fishburners in Sydney Startup Hub. As I blogged about before, the Sydney Startup Hub is huge – a government supported initiative bringing together multiple co-working spaces under one roof to create a critical mass of entrepreneurs and literally revitalize the entire neighborhood. The event was packed. The attendance was even more impressive when you keep in mind that this was a holiday week in Australia, so all those attending interrupted their vacations to come to a work event! The event was so successful that afterwards, I was asked if I would do another session.

The twist was that this next session would be with co-working members who were not able to make the journey to Sydney in person.

It turns out that many of those attending my session traveled hours to be there. Because Australia is so large, Fishburners has a special “virtual membership” for people who are not in Sydney, yet need the features of a great co-working community, professional support, business networking and the occasional professional desk space with wifi when visiting Sydney for meetings. Catherine “Cat” Kitney is Head of Virtual at Fishburners and felt this session would be particularly helpful to those “virtual” members – if it could be done.

Holding a session on how to work well while physically distributed to a group of people who are themselves already physically distributed is tricky. The idea of explaining video etiquette to strangers who might not have working video or stable internet was concerning. Also, my workshops tend to have quite a lot of interactive Q+A as topics come up. I enjoy the questions and lively real world anecdotes but was worried that this back-and-forth might be too unstructured for a large, very distributed video call where strangers without shared cultural norms might talk over each other and keep tripping over internet and microphone glitches. Overall, it felt like a bootstrap problem and I was concerned by the very real risk these mechanical risks could turn the session into a bad waste of everyone’s time.

Fortunately, this group of people had already been trying to wrestle with the various mechanical barriers for a while now, and Cat was willing to support me as “remote moderator” during the session, so we agreed to try this experiment – a large workshop on a video call about distributed teams, with distributed strangers I’d never met before.

Those attending were scattered along the eastern coast of Australia. The bigger towns represented were Brisbane, Coffs Harbor, Wollongong, Sydney and Byron Bay, with some people joining from countryside between those towns. I was the only person in a different timezone – now back home in San Francisco.

If you’ve never been to Australia, its easy to lose sight of the sheer scale of the place. Driving from Brisbane to Wollongong would take ~12hours – not including any stops for breaks. For context, driving from Ashland, Oregon to Los Angeles, California is shorter. Also shorter is Boston, Massachusetts to Raleigh, NorthCarolina. And Berlin to Paris. Australia is big. Very big.

The session was a great success.

There was lots of Q+A throughout, and Cat did a great job moderating to make sure all questions were answered and the flow of discussions felt naturally inclusive. Most people who joined were the only attendee at their physical location, with only a few people who gathered physically in one meeting room together. Everyone’s internet connections was solid and high speed throughout. We never hit any of the camera/microphone problems I had been worried about. It all just worked, flawlessly. There were even impromptu side discussions between different participants across the different locations. Everyone was very eager and motivated to learn how to work better together while physically apart. After all, this was the reality of their daily lives!

Several discussions have continued since then, with some interesting further developments being worked on. More on those later. For now, I just wanted to note that the idea, and the entire event, was a great success.

Thank you, Cat for suggesting the idea and also to Fishburners for putting so much practical attention into their “virtual membership” as a way to help encourage entrepreneurs across all of Australia. Very very cool to see and I admire them for it.

“Distributed Teams”​ book now in SFO bookstores

My book “Distributed Teams” is now available at all Compass Books stores in San Francisco airport!

This photo still gives me goosebumps.

“Distributed Teams” book on display in Compass Bookstores, San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

Even more exciting – the first in-store sale was just hours after the books were first put on display on the shelves that morning!?!?

Many thanks to Chris, Andrew and the rest of the staff at Compass Books for being willing to help me through the process as well as for being willing to carry this first-time author on their precious shelf space! If you are passing through SFO, and don’t already have a copy of my book, please do consider buying it here. You’ll be supporting good independent bookstores and the short actionable chapters will be good reading for your flight.

Book sales at 6 months

My “Distributed Teams” book was published six months ago, so this felt like a good time to review some metrics.

While writing my book, I had multiple people telling me that print books were dead, Amazon/kindle was the only way to go. Some literally lived on the road, with no home, so their opinion was understandable. After all, books can be heavy to carry. Maybe it was true for the specific subject matter of their books? Maybe they only used kindle, and thought others should do the same? My own reading style was different. I have a few books on my tablet, but vast majority of my books are physical books. Was I the only luddite who still skimmed over packed, curated bookshelves at home, re-reading specific helpful passages when the situation arose?

Despite all the kindle-only suggestions, I decided to create my book in multiple formats: Physical paperback, Amazon/kindle and Apple/epub. This decision delayed the release of the book, as it added significant complexity to the book creation process. But it felt like the right decision, so I did it.

Instead of writing words in the book, I found myself working on the mechanics of the book publishing process dealing with a flurry of time-consuming questions like: paperback-vs-hardback? book height and width, font size, margin size – all of which in turn change the total number of pages? How do paragraphs wrap on page boundaries? Where to put footnotes and page numbers? etc, etc, etc. I also decided that I was going to ship the book in all these formats at the same time, not one-after-another. Doing sim-ship like this is obviously harder to do, but my experience in shipping software taught me that the organizational rigor this requires has two very important side effects. 1) This avoided any perception of one format being more important or better than another. 2) This makes it easier later to track, coordinate and ship any fixes/edits to the book over the lifespan of the book. Something I’ve been thankful for with each small book update I’ve shipped since August 2018.

Six months after launch, here’s what I discovered: 72% people bought physical paperback while 28% bought kindle.

Book sales: Aug2018 – Feb2019

It is worth noting for the record that these numbers does not include physical copies of the book handed out in workshops I run on distributed team or as copies to people I’ve worked with. If I’d included those numbers too, it would have skewed the sales numbers even more towards paperback. I find it oddly great to watching people who don’t know me casually flipping open the book, politely skim a little and then stopping to lean in and start intently reading. Just like I enjoy watching people highlight passages and inserting post-it notes during workshops. My opinion, without evidence, is that this is less likely to happen with electronic versions.

I am now convinced that, as a writer, the right answer is to make your content available in whatever format(s) your readers use.

John

ps: While creating my book, I also created an epub version. However, I stopped part-way through the legal paperwork with apple, and then in the middle of everything else, I simply forgot to revisit. Earlier this week, a reader reminded me of this, so I’m now working on it again. The next six month report should include numbers for epub sales also. I’ve also had a few requests for audio-books, which I know nothing about but am starting to research.

Work From Home – in Vermont!

Starting 01January, 2019, an important new law came into force.

The State of Vermont will pay you to move to Vermont. Of course, there is a catch. You need to “work from home” (or from a co-working space) for an employer who is not based in Vermont. And the money has to help cover your costs of relocating to Vermont and/or of working “remote”. Put another way, Vermont wants to encourage people who “work from home” to move to Vermont.

You can read the entire law here. As a non-lawyer, I found it surprisingly short and easy to read. There is also additional coverage in The New York Times, National Public Radio, RouteFifty, SevenDaysVT – including interviews with some of the people who used this incentive to help move to Vermont.

Of course, if you prefer to work in an office, there are also employers in Vermont who are looking to hire. Everything from large corporations to scrappy startups, across a range of industries. But the incentives in this law are specifically focused on people who “work from home” (or a co-working space) as part of a distributed team, working for an employer that is physically located outside of Vermont.

This is the first US state law I know of providing job incentives to humans – not companies – and is a very exciting change in the social contract.

(Disclaimer: I do not work for the State of Vermont, but I did provide testimony, advice and helped review early drafts of this bill as it worked through the various committee meetings and became law over the last year or so. My work was unpaid but I did this because I am passionate about distributed teams and their impact in society… which readers of my blog and my book already know!)

If you could live anywhere and still have a meaningful job/career, where would you choose to live? There are many factors in deciding where to live. Everyone has different interests in their life. People who are enthusiastic surfers are unlikely to consider moving to Vermont. However, the skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking and hiking in Vermont are world-class. So too is the leaf-peeping. Housing is plentiful and great value. Crime is low. Schools are good and it has the highest number of universities per capita in the US. Overall, quality of life is good. Really good. Of the 50 states nationwide ranked by wallethub.com, Vermont ranked 4th best for raising a family and 5th best for quality of public schools. Oh, and if you do need an occasional trip to a big city office (say for client meetings or group gatherings or conferences), you are within 3-5 hours drive/bus/train of Boston, Connecticut, Manhattan(NYC) and Montreal. Too far for a daily commute, but otherwise very reasonable.

Before you decide to relocate to Vermont, I recommend you first visit and explore. Not just as a tourist, but as someone thinking of moving there – as a potential new resident who cares about the reality of day-to-day life. To help with relocating decisions, Vermont has online sites which give details about the state. Vermont is also running free “Stay-to-Stay” events, where you visit Vermont for a long weekend to meet with locals who will help answer any/all of your relocation questions. They’ll help make sure you find your way around, introduce you to other local professionals and realtors, invite you to business networking events, arrange school/college tours, etc. The idea is to help answer any questions about housing, schools, healthcare and the other details of life that people care about when relocating.

Once you know you want to move to Vermont, click here to read the rules and to apply. It is all intentionally quite straightforward and if you have any remaining questions, you can contact the organizers at remoteworker@vermont.gov.

When running my own “distributed teams” manager bootcamps, I describe how vacant job postings are filled faster, simply by adding the words “remote welcome” in the job description. I’m excited to see Vermont saying “remote welcome” at a whole new level.

It will be exciting to watch how this turns out. Last but not least: if you are reading this and do decide to relocate to Vermont, I’d love to hear from you.

ps: Another interesting part of the new law is about co-working spaces and maker spaces. Vermont already has a bunch – see a partial list here – but this new bill provides funding to encourage creating even more maker spaces and co-working spaces with high speed internet. More on this in another post.

“Distributed Teams as a Competitive Advantage” in Sydney!

On Thursday, 10jan2019, I’ll be leading a presentation and Q+A about distributed teams at Fishburners / SydneyStartupHub in Sydney, Australia. Doors open at 6pm, with formal event starting at 6.30pm and ending ~8.30pm. Click here to reserve your spot. (All proceeds from tickets go to charity.)

“Distributed Teams” in the Blue Mountains, Sydney, Australia

This presentation will build on a focus of my “Distributed Teams” book – the competitive advantages and wider economic impact of this trend to distributed teams (or “remote work” or “virtual teams” or…). Over the last ~20 years, we’ve moved from jokes about “working at home in bunny slippers” to viewing distributed teams as a competitive advantage. How did this happen? What are the cold, hard, business advantages to this trend that can help you and your organisation be more competitive and more successful? How can this trend help your organisation hire better, hire faster and improve retention? Can your organisation save money while also addressing important social, diversity, urban planning and environmental issues? How can your team or organisation work well together even when physically apart? Can you have a meaningful, well-paid career without a daily commute to a physical office?

This is usually a very interactive topic, so we’ve scheduled extra time for Q+A discussions as well as some time for networking before/after.

It is also worth noting that this will be the first presentation of 2019 in the large, newly renovated, event space at Fishburners, in SydneyStartupHub. I heard a lot about this venue earlier this year while working in Singularity University with Molly Pyle and Brian Lim, so when I arrived on holidays in Sydney and Melbourne, I had to check it out for myself.

Yes, SydneyStartupHub is a co-working space. But its like none I’ve ever seen before. This one location has ~183,000 sqft / 17,000sqm of office space across 11 floors. There’s a fantastic 110 seat theatre. There’s a large public speaking event space that can hold a few hundred people. Serious professional-grade kitchens, coffee machines and social spaces. Rock-solid internet connection. Many many many meeting rooms. Phone-booths for video-calls. Glass-walled offices and open-plan co-working desks arranged for different size startups. After a while, I just stopped counting. All renovated and stylish – yet mixed with the carefully preserved original heritage details. If you’ve never visited, you need to see it yourself to grasp the scale and great attention to detail throughout. Its mind-boggling! Oh, and the location in downtown Sydney means that it is easy to get to/from here on many different forms of public transport.

If you are now (or will be) part of a distributed team, please stop by – I hope this event will help your organization be more effective and I’d love to hear what did/didnt work for you. If you’ve never seen Fishburners or SydneyStartupHub, please use this event as an excuse to stop by and check it out. It is short notice, but I hope you can make it. 

(Note: This would not have happened without a lot of help from: Molly Pyle, Brian Lim, Fishburners, JobsForNSW, Margaret Petty @ UTS, Pandora Shelley, Georgia Marshall and Justin O’Hare. Thank you all for making this happen.)

The “Distributed Teams” book – created by a distributed team!

Here’s a little trivia about the book “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart“. This book *about* distributed teams was created *by* a distributed team.

Catherine, Linda and I live in three different states (California, New York and Utah), in three different timezones and never once met in person during the creation of this book. Instead, we “walked the talk” – following the practices from the book while writing the book.

We held video calls instead of audio-only conference calls. We used pre-agreed Single Source of Truth to track each person’s work as well as the state of the overall project. We had crisply organized communications. Depending on the phase of the project, sometimes we co-worked on multi-hour video calls multiple days in a row and sometimes we didn’t talk all week. But we always knew the latest status of what the others were working on. These, and many other tactics, came from the “How” section of the book and were essential for helping this team work well together while physically apart.

I note for the record: Catherine and I had never worked together before. Linda and I had worked together once before, years ago, on a completely unrelated project. This team went from “forming” to “performing” (bypassing the “storming” part!) while never once meeting in person. It was a great team to be a part of and one of the highlights of the whole book writing process. We’ll be working together again, I know it!

John.

“Distributed Teams” interview on InfoQ.com

Long time readers of InfoQ.com know they cover many different aspects of working in software development: the tools, the technologies, workplace cultural aspects, conferences and yes even books.

All to say, I should not have been too surprised when Ben Linders asked to interview me about my new “Distributed Teams” book. Ben has written several posts about different aspects of distributed teams and remote work over the years, so I was delighted to do this.

We covered lots of details from the book, as well as wider impact of this changing mindset in society. This was a very detailed, thought-provoking, interview and I enjoyed working with Ben on this. The article is now live here on InfoQ.com, so pour yourself a fresh cup of coffee and have a read. Hopefully you’ll like it – and if you *do* like it, please share/tweet about it.

Thank you, Ben, for making this happen.

(oh, and of course, Ben and I did the interview about distributed teams as a distributed team with ~9 hour timezone difference between us!)

“Distributed Teams” now available!

Very late Wednesday night (technically closer to pre-dawn Thursday), I uploaded the final version of the manuscript to Amazon. Then, after I rechecked all my various todo lists one-more-time and found everything was crossed out, I quietly paused with the cursor over the “publish” button.

Took a deep breath.

And clicked “Publish”.

As of last night, you can now buy paperback and kindle versions on Amazon.com. It’s been 3 years and ~2 months since I started this book and I still find it hard to believe that I’m writing this announcement.

This book is aimed towards people working in, joining, or starting a distributed team, with easy-to-read short chapters and practical takeaways on topics like:
* Why distributed teams are good for business, diversity, employee retention, society and the environment.
* How to run efficient video calls and meetings while dealing with lots of email and group chat.
* How to handle complex interpersonal topics such as hiring, firing, one-on-ones, reviews, trust and group culture.

I’m super proud and humbled by the help from many many people who came out of their way to help me make this idea into a reality. If you find this book helpful, please tweet/blog to help spread the word!

John.

“Distributed Teams” book: Now available for pre-order on Amazon.com!


UPDATE: My book is now available on Amazon! More info here or jump straight to buy the book on Amazon by clicking on the thumbnail.

John.


Original post follows.

My book “Distributed Teams” is now available for pre-order on Amazon! Click on the thumbnail to jump straight to the pre-order page!

That was a surreal sentence to write. And daunting to re-read while looking at the remaining ToDo list.

There is a bewildering 1,001 loose details that need to get figured out before the book officially “ships”. Buying ISBN numbers. Debate hardback vs paperback vs ebook. Page margins. Font size. Font. Resolution of images in the book. Book cover design. Create Author page on Amazon. Setup copyright – globally. Decide book pricing. Decide which countries to sell the book in. Fix bugs in the artwork. I’ve been jumping from one topic to another, learning each area as I went along. In this dizzy never-ending ToDo list, “Get book listed on Amazon” was just one more ToDo item. Several attempts failed with different error messages, sending me off debugging yet another problem, until one attempt seemed to complete without any errors?!? Huh – that’s strange. Now what? How do I know if it worked? Was there a dashboard to check status? Oh, wait. Duh. I started up a new browser, went to Amazon.com and searched for “Distributed Teams”, just like a regular user. There it was. Great. That worked. Search by my name. Yep, also there, great. Search by variations of the book title, all good. And then it hit me. Wait. There it was! My book. On Amazon!

There. Is. My. Book. On. Amazon.

Pause. Deep breath. Slowly exhale.

So here we are. At a major milestone.

It feels like I’ve reached the tipping point just like in every software release – while there are always more things being noticed that need to be fixed, the new incoming ToDos with each build are less severe and people start having more discussions about “is this serious enough to hold the release”. Quietly, morale starts improving as people change from wondering “IF it will ship” to wondering “WHEN it will ship”. After all this time headsdown and focused on research, on interviews, on writing and on editing, the nature of working on the book has changed. Instead of spending all my time on the words in the book, I’ve started spending more time on the book. Excitement about finally shipping starts mixing with anxiety about whether others will like it.

Exciting stuff.

John.
ps: For those keeping count, this latest draft is now ER#24. One great friend sent me a gift to help with the book. Nothing says “Hurry up and ship your book already!” like a delivery of ~5lbs of hand roasted, very tasty coffee beans !

Laptop with Coffee