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Distributed, with Matt Mullenweg
43 minutes | 2 months ago
Episode 25: Davit Baghdasaryan on the Science of Sound in a Distributed Work World.
Subscribe to Distributed at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen. Trying to sound your best as you work away from an office more than ever before? As audio and video conferencing surge worldwide, Matt talks about the science of sound with Davit Baghdasaryan, the CEO of Krisp, a fast-growing company offering an AI-powered noise cancellation app for removing background noise on any conferencing platform. Krisp’s technology, including its proprietary deep neural network krispNet DNN, processes audio securely on the user’s computer. Find out how Krisp started, why Davit foresees his company returning to a hybrid work model, and what it means to Work from Forest. With employees in the United States and Armenia that shifted to working from home in 2020, Krisp surged this challenging year, announcing a $5M Series A round in August and growing to 600 Enterprise customers despite continuing to focus on consumer users. Check out this demo of how Krisp works in meeting room.) A native of Armenia, Davit spends time in both countries leading Krisp. Prior to co-founding Krisp, Davit was a Security Product Lead at Twilio in San Francisco, among other security-focused technology leadership roles. The full episode transcript is below. *** (Intro Music) MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy everybody. Today we are going to talk to the Co-founder and CEO of a company whose technology makes it easier for those of us working from home to hear each other, even with all of life’s noisy distractions going on in the background behind us. At Automattic we say, “Communication is oxygen.” We are advocates of anything that makes communication easier and more effective. And one of the tools I find myself recommending over and over again is Krisp, which is an app that uses machine learning to mute background noise in just about any communication apps you use. For Krisp’s Davit Baghdasaryan, there is even more to the story. He is leading a young and fast-growing company through the challenges and opportunities of this year, balancing his own company’s transition to a remote workforce and a surge in demand for Krisp. He is a native of Armenia and also a global citizen and experienced technology leader at great companies Twilio and he has made his own adjustments to working and leading from a distributed point of view. So today we are going to chat. And thank you so much for being here. DAVIT BAGHDASARYAN: Thank you, Matt. Thanks for the intro. Hi, everyone. I’m Davit, CEO and Cofounder at Krisp, as Matt mentioned. I’m so happy to join this podcast. MATT: Was there any key biographical detail that was missed that you’d love to share, things that people usually don’t know? DAVIT: Absolutely. I think that was a great introduction. I was born in Armenia, I’ve lived in ten years in the U.S. Right now I’m back in Armenia. I’m sure we will go deeper on my background and biography. I’m happy to share as much as needed. MATT: In 2018, when you started Krisp, what was the thing that you were seeing? Because people weren’t on calls or Zoom nearly as much back then. What was the need you were seeing? DAVIT: Yes, absolutely. Well the story behind Krisp is very personal. I was actually working at Twilio, which is a big communication platform, and actually at Squadcast. I just figured that Squadcast is powered by Twilio. But because my family and my friends were in Armenia, I was traveling a lot to Armenia at every chance, I guess. And because of the time difference, almost 12 hours of difference, when I was connecting to meetings, it was evening time here. And in the evenings you want to go out with friends and family but that was the time that I needed to join meetings, like my daily meetings. I was heading the Product Security at Twilio so that means I have many meetings with different teams. And I always wished there was a button I clicked and get some privacy, like people don’t know where I am, [laughs] they don’t know that I’m joining from bars. Not necessarily bars of course, but still. MATT: So almost like a virtual Zoom background but for audio. DAVIT: Exactly. So I had the need but I had no idea how to build the technology. And I knew it must be done with machine learning. I knew about voice but not machine learning. But I mean that’s where I met my cofounder and that’s how things have started. MATT: I think I first came across Krisp actually on the NVIDIA machine learning blog. It was very early on, it felt like the company was.. I think it was all still free at that time. DAVIT: Yes. Well actually Krisp wasn’t released at that time yet, or maybe just launched. And then that blog post was very important for us. We worked on it for a very long time and that was the first exposure that our company received. And the blog post got actually a lot of visibility. So it was at some point I believe the most shared and visited blog post on NVIDIA developer AI section. So yeah, it brought us a lot of visibility. MATT: I actually made a mistake early on when I was advocating for Krisp. I told people it was from NVIDIA, or spun out of NVIDIA, I was so.. Because the post had seemed so great I couldn’t imagine that it was a guest post. DAVIT: Yeah. Well there is a fun story actually behind that. When we did that post and it was successful, we thought that we needed to put that post on Hacker News. And we put a title which sort of implied that it was from NVIDIA so that people open it more. It was a small hack from us and it worked out because Krisp, that blog post was in the top five of Hacker News that day. Yeah, exciting times. MATT: That might’ve been where I saw it too. [laughter] I don’t recall exactly but that would certainly be plausible. So I imagine you’re able to kind of turn Krisp on and off on your set up right now. Can you demonstrate how it works? DAVIT: Yes, absolutely. So Krisp is on right now. I’m going to clap. I’m clapping right now. And when I do this with video it’s much more impressive. And now I’m going to go, it’s a single button, when I turn it off and then I clap [clapping] you hear the clap. Right? MATT: Yeah. DAVIT: Yeah, that’s the easiest way to demonstrate it. But Krisp is.. with Covid and with everything that happened lately, people moving to home, Krisp was very handy with kids at home, with dogs barking at home. So it does a great job at removing noise. And I’m happy to actually dig more into how that works and where Krisp is going. MATT: It reminds me of the Zen Koan, what’s the sound of one hand clapping. I guess it’s like Krisp. [laughter] Oh, one reason I have been advocating for it a lot is that for a good meeting you don’t need video, you could turn video off its not working, we’re not using any video now obviously, but if audio doesn’t work, the meeting stops. A meeting with video.. unless I guess you’re really good at American Sign Language or something, you really do need great audio. And I find it so distracting when folks have just a ton going on in the background. But I also feel for them because we are all home, we have kids working from home, all sorts of things. What sort of Covid boost have you all seen? DAVIT: Yes, absolutely. Well voice is, we believe that voice is going to continue being a key means of communication and it’s going to grow, actually, way bigger than it is now. With Covid we saw a very large boost in increased downloads and usage. I believe it’s now like.. It’s been 7X growth for Krisp. MATT: Wow. DAVIT: Because – yeah – there was no technology like this in the world. And when we were just starting, people didn’t really.. Every person that was seeing the download, they could relate so much to the app, to the problem. But they didn’t really know that the problem existed because we are so used to what we have. So it took us a while to market this. And early on, we were having a lot of struggles to explain that there is actually a pain here. But with Covid things have changed because all of a sudden this has become a big problem because everyone is home and their kids are crying and there is just a lot of noise coming from the kitchen and everything. So yeah, people have gradually started spreading the word and most of the growth has been done by word of mouth. So yeah, from a business perspective there was a lot of growth during this time. MATT: Let’s dive a little bit into how Krisp works. It uses machine learning and what sort of a learning technique does it use? DAVIT: Let me do a short intro into noise cancellation in general, the state of the art before machine learning. People usually use multiple microphones to try to remove or cancel noise. Our phones have multiple microphones on them. One of the microphones is close to your mouth, the way you hold the phone, and the other microphones are very far from that microphone, from your mouth. MATT: Like there’s one on the back of most phones, right? DAVIT: Which ones? MATT: There is usually a microphone on the back, like where the camera is. DAVIT: Yes, exactly, exactly. It must be as far as possible so that you can.. by subtracting the two audios from each other, I’m just simplifying it, you can isolate the human voice. And this technology is deployed on every phone out there, I guess, like more or less expensive phone. And that technology also exists on our laptops but it just doesn’t work because your mouth, the person is very far from the laptop. So it has two problems. One problem is that it requires multipole microphones, so it requires specific hardware. And the second is it has limitations on how much noise it can remove. Usually it’s great with removing stationary noise, like static noise, but when the noise comes and goes, like clapping, barking, it’s just not possible to adopt to these sort of noises. And then in the last five years, as machine learning has started to grow, people have started, like in academia they started machine learning for noise cancelation. And we were very early on in this problem. So when I met my to be co-founder and we started talking about this, we knew that we needed to solve this with machine learning just by intuition, right? And we started looking at this, what’s out there. As a technology company, we were the first to actually design and implement such technology which purely uses machine learning for this problem. So the way it works is we have a very large data set of background noises, which we had to find from somewhere. It was tough to do that. [laughter] But we were clever I think with that. We tried some interesting.. we found the right sources for that. And these are very different types of noises, like 10,000+ type of noises. And then we also have collected a lot of clean studio recordings where there is no noise at all, so we have a lot of such data. And when we mix them together with different sound to noise ratios, we get pretty much an infinite data set of noisy speech for which we have the clean speech because we used that data set. And then what we do, we have designed this special neural net for which during the training we say well this is a noisy space, this is a clean space, noisy space, clean space, noisy space, clean and we do it for all these artificially generated noises page. And then it starts to learn what is human speech, what’s clean speech, what’s noise. And then doing the inference, like when you start using it, even if it sees noise types that it never saw before, it is able to recognize them and separate them from each other. So this is a very simplified explanation of how it works. Obviously there is a lot of IP. Audio is very difficult, it turned out. If we knew what.. I mean we were not audio experts. Our team is very strong at math but we didn’t have any experience in audio. And I would say, I always say, if we knew how difficult audio is we would be just scared of it and we wouldn’t start this. And yeah, we were lucky that we didn’t know that because many teams who have prior audio experience, they are still struggling with this. MATT: What do you think it was about not knowing audio that allowed you to take a different approach or succeed where others haven’t been able to yet? DAVIT: This is sort of the classical approach to the audio problems, like to digital signal processing problems. Like, DSP, digital signal processing, the theory and like everything is there for three years or three or four years, it has been out there. And if you are a DSP engineer or audio engineer, building microphones and speakers, you are trained to think from those constrained perspectives, from this classical theory perspective, from this classical algorithm perspective. If you need to solve something, that’s where your brain goes by default. And from our team perspective, like when we started the company we were seven people and six of them have PhDs in math and physics, I am the only one who doesn’t hold that. So we have a lot of experience in math. We understand the math required for dealing with audio and machine learning, but we didn’t know the existing theories. So that was easier for us to start doing new things, which was required because when you do.. with a machine learning approach, you don’t necessarily need to use a lot of the old stuff that has been developed for four years. And I think that was a key difference. MATT: It sounds like you’re compressing the audio a bit and maybe doing some low pass filter? DAVIT: We are not. What we do in Krisp is.. Well, even today, yes, Krisp is only working with wide band audio, up to wide band audio, which means like 16 kilohertz of sampling. Great. That’s great for.. Well, I am currently using a Bluetooth headset. MATT: And Bluetooth compresses a ton, right? DAVIT: Yes, exactly. So it does it by default. But even if I use a full band microphone, Krisp today would down sample to wide band before doing the processing. And the reason for that is we have spent a lot of time on optimizing our technology for CPUs. There is no such technology running on CPUs. People can (run those algorithms?) on GPUs easily but for CPU it’s very hard to squeeze that. So we have spent a lot of time on doing this. That’s one of the reasons why we decided to stick with wide band. At the same time though we are in a week – MATT: Stick with wide band as opposed to what? DAVIT: To full band. So, down sample to wide band. In a week’s time frame we are going to.. I believe it’s in a week.. we are shipping a new version of Krisp that is going to support full band as well. That has been a very long effort for us to squeeze these neural nets to understand the higher frequencies of voice as well and then but at the same time be able to run on CPU. MATT: Do you use a GPU if it’s available? DAVIT: No, we only support CPUs. MATT: Why is that? DAVIT: Well, two reasons. We could support in video GPUs and they are very powerful, it’s very easy to run neural nets for instance on these GPUs. And when you do that, the CPU is off loaded, that’s great. But Krisp is used in enterprise by a lot of professional users who don’t have GPUs. So most of our population of users, they have just CPUs. And the GPUs they have, like the [00:17:22.06] GPUs I have on my Mac, is just not capable of running this neural net. It’s just too small for that. So we decided to spend this extra effort, a lot of effort actually to support everything out there rather than just focus on one type of hardware deployment. MATT: And to also be clear when you’re talking about squeezing the neural nets, Krisp all runs locally on your computer, right? DAVIT: Yes, absolutely. MATT: Which is awesome so there’s not the latency of going to the network and the audio data is not being sent anywhere else, it’s all happening locally. What does it mean to squeeze it down? Are you worried about download size or the runtime or how much GPU it’s going to use…? DAVIT: Privacy has been very important for us and we are very, very happy that we were able to actually run this locally. We don’t think the audio should through a server, especially in this world, privacy is very important. So to explain what it means, this quiz for the CPU, like as Krisp is a virtual microphone, it sits between the actual microphone and the app. In this case, it’s the browser app running Squadcast. So Krisp is between them. And it needs to run its neural net on every other frame in real time and without introducing too much latency, so that means that it keeps receiving these frames and it needs to not only not look too much forward in the audio so that it doesn’t introduce this artificial latency but also not spend too much CPU power so that it can keep up with our speech. So that is very constraining from an engineering perspective. And that means that you need to squeeze and make your neural net smaller and more efficient and use, I don’t know, the right library that fits best for this kind of mathematical problem so that it runs properly on the target CPU. Does that make sense? MATT: Yes. And it’s only about 70 megabytes now. When it has this new full band neural network will the download get larger? DAVIT: Yes, it will get a bit larger. Even in the 70 megabytes we have multiple neural nets. So we have neural nets that work for like the eight kilohertz sampling grade, we have neural net that supports larger. And then you know that with Krisp, Krisp works directionally, so if I have Krisp, I can remove the noise coming from you and that has a different neural net. So there’s a lot of engineering actually in this simple app. I believe we have like there or four models, like neural net model shipped today and with this new version we are going to have, like, six or seven models shipped. So a lot of… yeah. MATT: Wow, that’s actually a fun feature a lot of people don’t know about Krisp is that if someone is annoying you with bad audio, you can actually filter them as well so it sounds good and you would never even know that they have a dog barking in the background or something. DAVIT: Yes. MATT: Was that in the original version or did that come up when you were talking to people who weren’t using Krisp yet? DAVIT: No, that was in the original version. And in the very original version, one of the challenges we had, we didn’t know how to structure Krisp. We didn’t know whether they will be using more of this inbound noise cancellation or outbound. Like, what is more important for people? And that was such an interesting question. Like, do you worry more about your noise or do you.. are you willing to pay for canceling your noise or are you just.. you don’t care about that and you are willing to pay for other’s noise. So when we shipped in the very original version, inbound was entirely free and then the outbound was a pro feature. [laughter] But then we changed. Now it’s a freemium product. Krisp comes with two hours free every week and then if you go to pro it becomes unlimited. And the pro is going to get some more very cool things very soon. MATT: It is such a good deal. What is the latest pricing on it? DAVIT: Right now the pricing is $40 a year. That’s going to change soon because this was a Covid pricing. When Covid started we started a program with which all the students (in universities work?), universities, garment workers, hospital workers, would get Krisp for free for six months. And we also dropped the price by 20 percent, 30 percent. Actually we went with that for like seven months now and we are bringing back the price, it’s going to be $60 per year. MATT: Even at $60, when you look at how much money I’ve had to spend to make the room quieter.. you’re basically getting a full studio and a really great microphone and everything. DAVIT: Yeah, absolutely. We plan to keep that price but we are going to add some very cool things in the near future around virtual backgrounds and more even greater noise cancellation. So yeah, we are working hard on this. MATT: Cool. I can’t wait. I will be a top customer. How much latency does that introduce right now? DAVIT: On the algorithmic side the latency is between 20 and 30 milliseconds. On the app side, the application introduces an additional 20 to 30 milliseconds. So overall it’s around 60 milliseconds. MATT: I did do a video where I posted.. I think I recorded just using QuickTime video and used Krisp to take out some background noise and people could tell that my mouth was just a little bit off. So if you had a way to also introduce the delay to the video so it synched up, I think that would be pretty nice. DAVIT: I’m not sure that was Krisp. Usually with Krisp you wouldn’t notice the difference. Video is doing a lot of things which might contribute to that. Like, we are using Krisp everyday with video, obviously, with Zoom, we have never noticed that. There are a lot of reasons why you might have latency but I.. I mean, everything adds up, obviously, and this 50 to 60 milliseconds might contribute at the end if there is enough latency but that is just not enough to be noticeable. MATT: Yeah, on Zoom I’ve never noticed it, it was only when I was recording this video. So you’re right, there might have been something else maybe in the HTMI conversion or something where it just felt a little bit out of synch. DAVIT: Yes. MATT: I actually didn’t notice it at all and then I started getting some comments about it and I was like, ohh I kind of see it. Kind of like when you use a sound bar with a TV, sometimes it can be just a little bit off. DAVIT: Yeah, yeah, it’s interesting. We won’t see that, like our eyes usually are.. get adopted. But for example, when you use a virtual background in Zoom or Microsoft, you start noticing it. It’s there. You start seeing that. And even when you move there is latency, yeah. MATT: What’s the latest going on with hardware? So for example, I know that old MacBooks had a terrible, terrible built in microphone and the latest 16 actually sounds pretty good. I think John Gruber on Daring Fireball posted an audio file just straight off the Mac 16 microphone and it sounds like they’re doing something that’s better. So what are they changing and what do you think about it? DAVIT: You mean from an audio perspective? MATT: Yes. DAVIT: Oh, I’m not really sure. I think Mac is a high end, like usually using a high end microphone and speaker, although we are not.. I don’t think people are very happy with what that high end means. So yeah, I’m actually using it.. I mean, I don’t do podcasts, obviously, that’s a more important question when you do podcasts, but yeah, for everyday communication what they have works great. But I’m not really following what’s happening on the platform. MATT: Check it out, I’m kind of curious. And I’m also curious more broadly how much do you think some of this gets built in by the phone makers, the laptop makers versus [00:26:52.07] software? DAVIT: Yeah, I have no doubt that this kind of technology is going to be there in every device in the next three to four years. Typically phone venders, they don’t like to make changes like these kind of changes, they are a bit slow on that. Because as you can imagine, they already know how to build these multi-microphone systems on the phone and they have everything, like the lines set up for that, they know what the yield is and everything. So any change there is going to take time. But I have no doubt it’s going to happen. So but it also depends what is that that’s going to happen. Like noise cancellation, even today, Krisp is not perfect. So we are spending a lot of time on improving what’s out there and we.. In the next year, hopefully in the next six months, we are going to shift something inside Krisp that is going to be just revolutionary in terms of noise cancellation because it’s just going to take this to the next level. And I don’t think something like that is going to come to hardware soon enough. It’s going to take some more time. But in terms of when these devices will have noise cancelation, I have no doubt that in the next two or three years everyone is going to have some version of noise.. like ML based, machine learning based, noise cancellation, no doubt. MATT: And how do beam forming mics work? I know some of the new headphones, like the Bose and also the Facebook Portal and or the Alexa devices have these mics that seem to be able to pick you up from all the way across the room. DAVIT: Yeah, the way they work, they have multiple microphones on the device. And when you turn on the device and you start talking to the device, it starts to calibrate and it starts to sort of.. given that these microphones are far from each other, they start to understand where the direction is coming from, where the voice direction is coming from, and they start to focus only on that direction. And again, like using the same technique that I explained, they are trying to ignore anything else that is not coming from that direction. That’s beam forming. The problem with that is when you keep moving around, it needs to recalibrate again and again and I’m not sure that it’s.. the technology is able to fix this problem just by its own. It might be very useful for far field, like for Portal or Alexa, which is in a big room and they need to fix the noise problem, but I’m not sure how efficient it is. We are not dealing with this problem. Actually we are not dealing with far field as well, that is a very, very different problem. Although it might be similar but in audio every problem is so unique and we are not dealing with that. MATT: That’s interesting. And one more technical question. You had mentioned full band and wide band, how should people think about their Bluetooth headset versus a USB headset versus other things and what type of audio is being captured by the computer that Krisp is receiving? DAVIT: Yeah.. By the way, I am not an audio expert, I should.. [laughs] I should say that. MATT: Oh, sorry. DAVIT: We have a lot of audio experts in the company. But I know as much as I know. In terms of Krsip, Krisp doesn’t really matter where the audio is coming from and that’s one of the beauties of these machine learning based algorithms. You can even, what we have, you can even run it in the cloud because it really has no hardware dependency. Let me give the example of inbound. So imagine I have Krisp here, you talk and I can cancel the noise coming from your audio. So when you talk there is so much transformation happening to your voice starting from the microphone, that the microphone has its own transformations, including noise cancellation and then the browser gets it and sends it over webRTC with all the codec and everything. And then it receives here on [00:32:09.24] and gives to Krisp and then Krisp runs its technology on it. So pretty much it doesn’t matter where you run. You could easily run it in the cloud. So from that perspective it doesn’t matter whether it’s a USB microphone or a Bluetooth microphone or just a wired microphone, the (ordinary?) microphones. It doesn’t matter. Obviously we have to add the support for all of these but from an audio perspective it doesn’t matter. Usually Bluetooth audio has more latency, it’s just there with the Bluetooth transport. You might notice that with Air Pods. If you have Air Pods usually the.. I don’t know why but something doesn’t work very well with them when it comes to latency. Sometimes it’s just too much latency with Air Pods and without Krisp. MATT: Maybe because they have to connect to each other as well as.. as far as [00:33:17.27]. DAVIT: Yeah, I mean, the connection is one time. You connect and then there is a connection. But sometimes the latency adds up. I don’t know what they did wrong there but I hope they will fix it. But with USB, it’s usually more powerful, less convenient. But yeah, I mean, in general that’s the.. Krisp doesn’t care really where the audio is coming from. There is one more thing, when you use a Bluetooth headset, if you just listen to music, it’s using its highest frequency, like it uses all the frequencies possible – MATT: Yes, a higher codec, right? DAVIT: Exactly, yes. But when you turn on, when you start a call, when you start using the microphone off your headset, it brings everything down to wide band typically. Like some – MATT: Wide band is 16 kilohertz? DAVIT: Yes, like 16 kilohertz, exactly. And the prior version of these Bluetooth headsets, they would bring your voice to eight kilohertz. You know, that’s not great. But – MATT: And it’s kind of like using fewer colors to paint a picture, right? DAVIT: Yeah, yeah, exactly. MATT: So it doesn’t build sound as full or as natural. DAVIT: Yeah, yeah. Every time we use a telephone, when you call a phone number, most of the world is still using eight kilohertz codec because they just.. to transmit less data. So that’s, we are used to that. Bu t when you hear full band and then narrow band, which is eight kilohertz, you will see the difference. It’s a big difference. But so if you are using a Bluetooth headset, there is a big, big chance that it will down sample it to wide band in the calls. And this is because they need to use.. from an energy perspective, from a processing power perspective, they need to keep it efficient. MATT: It’s actually amazing. I recommend folks.. If you have an iPhone, try calling a friend who also has an iPhone using FaceTime audio versus just a normal phone call. It is astounding how much better you can hear them and understand them. It actually makes phone calls pleasant again. DAVIT: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Obviously it’s using VoIP and like the best codecs out there. I mean telephony still wins I think because of the network, like the service providers, like the AT&Ts of the world, they dedicate the bandwidth to voice channels, like telephony voice channel, and then the rest is used by everyone else, like the data channels. So your VoIP is going to impact it if the signal is not strong enough but the telephony voice will still be there. So I guess that’s more important than the higher frequencies of the voice because you can at least hear each other. But that’s going to fix, it will be fixed with 5G. So once 5G is deployed, I’m sure those problems will go away. And everyone will switch to VoIP. MATT: Cool. Actually I think even now they use voice over LTE by default for a lot of.. by default on the new iPhones. DAVIT: Do they? I don’t know if that technology is even live. I don’t know if there has been any VoLTE deployment. Maybe I’m wrong but I thought… MATT: It definitely is on like AT&T and Verizon here in the U.S. but probably not internationally. DAVIT: Oh, okay. MATT: It does sound a lot better if both sides are on it. But well I feel like cell phone calls drop so much anyway… DAVIT: Yes. MATT: It’s funny, when I was a kid, I remember spending lots of time, hours on the phone. And then your parents would pick up the phone and you’re like, Mom, I’m on the phone. But now I feel like people don’t do phone calls as much anymore partially because the quality is so bad, it’s very frustrating. DAVIT: Yes, I think it depends on which part of the world you are in. As I know, like in Japan and South Korea, like, I guess nobody is using telephony anymore. Everyone is on VoIP. And it also depends on the network connection. That’s why like if 5G is there, if there is enough bandwidth, why would people use the telephony. There is one use case though that I really believe is going to still thrive is phone numbers. Phone numbers are such a cool concept. We don’t appreciate them that much but they are the most deployed, known, understood, like handles that we have. And everyone can reach out to you, although it’s spam of course with the promo, spam. But I think that technology is not going to go away. I thought about that a very long time. And I think it’s going to stay around. I think there’s a lot of things that you can build on top of phone numbers and it’s going to thrive. MATT: I can tell some of your Twilio days coming through. DAVIT: I know, I know it’s definitely coming from there. [laughs] Yes. MATT: I really love that we’re able to do a deep dive into Krisp. I can’t wait to see what you’re launching in a week or two. I’m looking forward to the update. I’m going to do a ton of audio tests and record things with different mics and try it all out. So thank you so much. You are also running a company. And I know that you all were mostly in person I think in Armenia before. How have you adapted and how has it been and what are you planning to do once we can be safely in offices again? DAVIT: So our company is distributed between the U.S. and Armenia and we have a team member in Germany as well. So we are distributed. We have a big presence in Armenia. I spend a lot of time in Armenia and my co-founder as well. So before Covid, we were spending a lot of time in the Armenia office, although everyone else was remote. And after Covid obviously we are working remotely. And right after I think Covid started, I guess two weeks in, we decided that Krisp must become a remote-first company. And it’s not because of Covid, we always had that idea because it just makes so much sense especially for us because we are focused on building a tool that helps remote folks. So we always had that idea but Covid catalyzed that. And yeah so I think at the end we are going to become a hybrid company because we have the office and a lot of people actually enjoy being in the office a couple days a week. They might not have the right set up in the house, they might have kids. And so just like I personally like to come sometimes to the office because that’s how my brain works, it needs that environment. But at the end of the day, 80-85 percent of our workforce today just doesn’t come to the office because they enjoy working from home. And actually one fun fact – we also have a program called Work From Forest. So every week [laughing] we have 10-15 people taken to some nice place outside, you know, countryside, and they have internet, power, and they do hikes. And they actually work as well and it’s very efficient and productive work happening. MATT: That’s so cool. DAVIT: Yes, I’m in love with this program. So yeah, so like – MATT: So this is happening right now? You just are able to do it in a distanced fashion, Work From Forest? DAVIT: Yeah, yeah, yeah. MATT: Well that’s a new one for us, I haven’t heard that one before. I think it’s a great idea. DAVIT: Yeah, I highly recommend that. It’s quite popular now in our office. And I think it’s going to evolve. One problem with that is the weather, if the weather is good or not. But I think we will find a solution for that as well. It’s a great way for people to still gather together and see.. when you see each other in person, and that’s a very important part of building a culture and relationships, but they don’t have to come and sit in the office for that. And yeah, we are determined to continue growing as a remote force, global company. So we are very excited about that. MATT: Awesome. Well I can’t wait to see what’s next. Davit, thank you so much for coming on. If you’re listening, please get Krisp.ai as soon as possible so your calls sound better. If you get in soon, you can get their $40 pricing but it’s a good deal even at $60. And yeah, as you go distributed, make sure to check out the other episodes of the Distributed Podcast, there might be some good tips for you or your managers there. So thank you again for coming on. DAVIT: Thanks a lot, Matt. MATT: All right, you have been listening to Distributed with Matt Mullenweg. Please subscribe or tell your friends or rate it and we’ll keep doing this. See you next time. Bye-bye.
36 minutes | 3 months ago
Episode 24: Reena Merchant on User Experience and Trusting Ourselves
Subscribe to Distributed at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen. How does creative collaboration happen in a remote workplace, and how do we learn to listen to ourselves, in our careers and our lives? Reena Merchant is on the User Experience leadership team at Google. She is also the Founder and CEO of OurVoice, a community benefit organization and podcast dedicated to strengthening our self esteem and authentic presence. Previously, she was Senior User Experience Manager at Sony PlayStation and Senior Customer Experience Manager at Citrix, leading design of the flagship product, GoToMeeting. To learn more about Merchant’s work, go to reenamerchant.com. Related Links Guided Meditation with Reena Merchant (OurVoice) Trusting Ourselves During Turbulent Times The full episode transcript is below. *** (Intro Music) MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy, howdy everyone. Today I’m thrilled to be speaking with Reena Merchant, who is on the User Experience Leadership Team at Google. She is also the Founder and CEO of OurVoice, which is a community benefit organization for strengthening our self-esteem and authentic presence. Prior to that, she was a senior user experience manager at Sony PlayStation and was also at Citrix, which made GoToMeeting back in the day. You are listening to Distributed with Matt Mullenweg. Reena, we are so happy to have you here today. REENA MERCHANT: I am so thrilled to be here, thank you for having me, Matt. MATT: I mean, going from gaming to Google, what took you there? REENA: That’s a great question. Yeah, I have kind of bounced back and forth between the consumer and enterprise space in my career journey. It’s interesting, it wasn’t quite planned that way. I don’t think I set out on the journey intentionally planning for that to happen but life just brought me to these wonderful companies. And so I would do some enterprise work, some consumer work, being in the gaming space was really fascinating. But yes, what brought me to Google was just.. I was really excited at the opportunity of working at a company like Google, which has such a fantastic culture, fantastic product, that we try to work on things that can bring better experiences and better meaning to humans and just the scale of impact too. And so when the opportunity came up, I was really grateful and that’s kind of how I came to Google. MATT: Google is pretty big. Can you say some of the things you’ve been involved with there? REENA: Yes. So I have been primarily involved with the YouTube ads team ever since I joined Google three years ago. I have loved my time with the team. So what we do is we focus on designing the consumer facing experience of YouTube ads. And that’s what my team does. And what the means is when we use the free version of YouTube, all the ads that we see in whatever platform we’re using YouTube on, it could be on mobile, on desktop, what is the experience around those ads? How do they appear, how do we interact with them? And our mission is to create a helpful, supportive, assistive, meaningful ad experience for users. And that’s what we do every day. MATT: How does user testing work for that? I imagine you might get some mixed feedback because some people might just not want to see the ads. REENA: Yes, I think that that is absolutely true, Matt. And that is one of the reasons we want to do user testing and research frequently, I think we want to hear from our users and we want to hear that honest, transparent feedback. And we want to learn from the reasons, you know, what makes the ad experience annoying? What makes it frustrating? And on the other hand, when people have experienced a good ad experience, what has made that good and what can make things better for people, for humans? So user testing is so important and we really want to hear that honest feedback. And when we are designing new experiences, new solutions, being able to get that feedback from users really helps us fine tune and hone in on how to make things good for the user. So it is such a key part of our design process. MATT: And because this is the Distributed Podcast, pre-pandemic how would you normally work? Would you go into an office in Mountain View? What was your normal approach on this team? REENA: Yeah so normally, I would go to our San Bruno office. So, our San Bruno office where YouTube is headquartered as a team. And I live in San Francisco so it wasn’t very far. It was kind of a 20-minute commute. And that’s where we would go every single day. Our team has always been distributed so though a large number of us are in San Bruno we also have team members in our Mountain View offices and a presence in our Los Angeles office. So it’s interesting because we were distributed in that way but each of us would go to our physical offices most of the time, even though sometimes we’d work remotely. But yes, as you mentioned, with the pandemic all of that has of course changed. MATT: How was that in contrast to some of your previous career experience? REENA: It has kind of been a different culture at each one as it pertains to distributed work. So I think one thing that has been a common thread is just being at tech companies in general there is always some element of and ease of distributed working. So whether I was at Sony PlayStation, or at Citrix — or I used to live in Canada, I worked for Blackberry and some companies there — there was always that ability to work remotely and we always did to some extent. But I did find that some companies, some environments, it was just easier or we had more tools or there was more of a culture around it. So I’ll give you one prior example. When I worked at Citrix, as you mentioned, I used to work on the GoToMeeting product, that was what my team did. And as we know, GoToMeeting is a product that enables remote communication and remote collaboration. [laughter] So that was inherently – MATT: It’s like the OG one, it was the original, right? REENA: Yes, it was the original, yeah. It’s funny, I used to work in the Santa Barbara office, which is where that GoToMeeting product originated from too. So because that was inherently what we did and what we created and that was the design problem, the human problem we were trying to solve — how do we help others communicate and work remotely — all the research we did, all the design we did was around that. So it was just so deeply embedded in our culture that we would work remotely all the time and we would seamlessly shift between working in the office, working remotely. We would look at different models where what happens when everyone on a call is remote, how does the dynamic change when one person is remote but everyone else is in person? So this was just one extreme end of the spectrum where it was just so natural to us. And then at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve worked at companies like Sony PlayStation where it was also something that we did but we had distributed teams, we had team members in Tokyo. And so distributed working was very important but there were some interesting, different challenges, how do we work across times zones and things like that. MATT: Having worked on tools in this space for so long and now using them as a consumer, is there anything that you really wish that the tools supported? One thing I’ve seen some do is they keep track of how much time different people are talking, which I imagine helps you make sure that you get input from everyone in the meeting. And I was like oh that’d be cool if more things had that. REENA: One thing that I have always.. thoughts that always come to mind as I use these products is there’s kind of the human element of things that come to play in face to face interactions or meetings — how do you read body language — there’s things that you pick up in person that just because of the nature of technology it’s hard to pick up on those nuances. Or you mentioned the time people tend to speak in meetings, that’s really important too because I think, for example, when you’re in person, you can sense someone’s body language, you can tell when someone wants to jump in and say something and some of that is lost online. And so that theme of things I think has always.. it always comes up in my mind, how do we bring more of that to these tools and technologies, bringing that human element in and enabling those interactions or those connections that sometimes are easier, face to face. MATT: Design is one of those things that people seem to think needs to happen around a whiteboard or in a room and of course that’s not possible. REENA: Yes. MATT: I imagine you did some of that in the room in San Bruno before but what has it been like adjusting for you and your team? REENA: You’re right. It’s such a core part of the design process to be able to problem solve, to white board, to brain storm in person. It’s such an interesting culture at Google because on one hand we have this ability, the tools and the culture to work remotely as needed, we all do it, but we also, the culture is also very collaboration and relationship driven. And so, so much of what we did was also face to face. We did do a lot of that in-person collaboration. Sometimes we’d have workshops or design sprints or things like that and we would say hey, we really think it’s important to be face to face for this. And we would be there. And if there was something happening in the L.A. office, we would fly down to be there in person because we said it’s really important. And as you said, of course, we lost the ability to do that overnight. So I think it has been an adjustment. I think initially we just did wha
38 minutes | 4 months ago
Episode 23: Lara Hogan on the Secret to Being a Successful Manager
Subscribe to Distributed at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen. Are companies setting up their managers for success? What are BICEPS? How do you assemble your colleagues like a management Voltron? Lara Hogan is the founder of Wherewithall, a firm that specializes in management and leadership training — a company that Automattic has worked with in the past. She’s the author of Resilient Management, a must-read for anyone who is a manager, wants to become one, or generally just wants to learn how to be a better teammate. Lara spent a decade growing emerging leaders as the VP of Engineering at Kickstarter and an Engineering Director at Etsy. Related links: Management Voltron Bingo Card Core Needs: BICEPS (Paloma Medina) @Lara_Hogan on Twitter Full episode transcript is below. MATT MULLENWEG: Hello everybody, this is Matt Mullenweg with the Distributed Podcast. I cannot think of another time in my entire work career when we’ve been so faced with so much dramatic change in so little time. How we come together, how we listen to each other, and even how we understand ourselves can define the future of our companies right now in this pivotal time. What does it mean to be a good manager or leader in this moment? Today we’re going to chat with Lara Hogan, she is the founder of Wherewithall, a firm which specializes in management and leadership training and that Automattic has worked with in the past. She is also the author of a book called Resilient Management, which is a must-read for anyone who is a manager, wants to become one or generally just wants to learn how to be a better teammate. She spent a decade growing emerging leaders as the VP of engineering at Kickstarter and an engineering director at Etsy, both companies known for their excellent engineering and execution. So thank you so much for being here. LARA HOGAN: Thank you so much, what a lovely introduction. MATT: We’ll make it easy with a one-sentence question. What’s the secret to being a good manager? LARA: [laughs] Oh, this is going to be such an annoying answer of mine, but it’s listening. It’s so obvious to me how this all boils down to how we as humans are not really trained to listen. We are trained to share our knowledge, we are trained often to teach, we are trained to set direction, but we are so rarely trained to listen and that seems to be the crux of most things. MATT: How did you learn that? LARA: I’m going to say the hard way by… [laughs] by not listening. I think that especially in engineering land so much of the value is placed on the information that we can provide to others, what we can build, what we can create, again what we can teach. And the act of listening is not really I’m going to say valued in an obvious way. So for me, when I became a leader or a manager, I just kind of assumed that everybody was functioning the same way that I was, needed the same things, valued the same things, liked the same kind of feedback or recognition. And I’m going to say I learned the hard way that that is not the case. We are all pretty unique and special. MATT: How would you describe how you like feedback and communication and everything? LARA: I have started to hone how I ask for feedback in terms of after I give a workshop or a talk. I much prefer for people to read it first and digest it before I talk about it. I was a public speaker before I was a coach or a trainer, just giving talks. And I found especially at lots of tech conferences I was receiving a lot of unsolicited feedback, a lot of which was gendered, and it was really hard to be able to distinguish the stuff that was really valuable from the stuff that was this one person’s opinion and perspective and not actually valuable to me getting better as a public speaker. And I started to realize if I could read it first and digest it first I wouldn’t get so amygdala-hijacked, my fight-or-flight mode wouldn’t kick in. So now these days I always try to ask for feedback written first, that way I can digest it and then talk about it afterwards. Because still, digesting it with somebody is also equally important. But for me I need my prefrontal cortex, the rational, logical part of my brain to be online before I can really have a healthy conversation about feedback. MATT: One of my favorite things about distributed work is how the asynchronous nature allows for you to catch that amygdala hijack. LARA: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny though, a lot of people think that when you’re distributed you can’t notice it as much in the other person. You can’t notice when someone is amygdala hijacked. And I don’t think that’s true at all. MATT: You don’t even notice it. LARA: You don’t notice it if you’re not listening, I guess I’ll put it that way. But if you’re watching for it, if you’re sensitive to this other person’s body language or voice, if you’re on over video, or obviously if they’re on the phone with you, if you can only hear their voice, you can still tell if someone is not themselves. And via text, when someone’s text-based communication changes from their normal pattern, either more long-winded if they are more terse usually or more terse if they are long-winded usually, these are all… If you’re looking for it, if you’re paying attention to it, it’s so easy to tell, I think. I don’t know. How has it been in your experience? MATT: That’s very interesting that you mention people becoming more long-winded. In my experience you can pick up clues for sure in how people are showing up or their responsiveness or the timing. There is lots of metadata in how we communicate that and we can have clues, but I don’t know if it’s a perfect signal the same way that reading someone’s face might be. LARA: Totally. MATT: Not that that’s a perfect signal but maybe it feels better. LARA: Yes it feels like we can get more data usually when we have the extra sensory experience, absolutely. MATT: And we’re wired to pick up on lots of those things, even if subconsciously around physical presence that we might not get from text. LARA: Totally. MATT: That’s why, yes, text is definitely I think one of the superpowers but also one of the weaknesses of distributed organizations, or at least ours. You mentioned listening, do you mean that for listening to others or listening to yourself and what is the relationship there? LARA: When you asked the question, I was talking about listening to others but I think when it comes to the feedback question I needed to get to know myself first before I could be able to direct others and how I would much prefer to receive feedback. One thing that I’ve learned is that I’m really bad at listening to my own body. I have a chronic illness and it flares up whenever I’m stressed out, which I learned when I was in my early twenties was a thing, and until then I just didn’t pay attention at all to what my body was telling me. MATT: Wow. LARA: You know? So it’s one of those things that once you start to realize that you need to pay attention to those extra signals, you start to pick it up elsewhere in the world too. Like about the long-winded thing, I can tell when someone is over explaining when they’re normally pretty succinct, I’m like, oh, something is going on for this person. There’s these five common forms of resistance in humans that — again it’s not a perfect system but it’s a nice framework to think about. If we notice one of these and it’s unusual in the person that we’re talking to, one of these five forms of resistance, it’s pretty likely that their amygdala has been hijacked. Again, that lizard brain, that fight-or-flight response has kicked in and they are all about fighting, verbally fighting, questioning, or doubting, like playing devil’s advocate, avoidance behavior, just being really checked out, looking for an escape route, trying to leave the team or leave the project, leave the company. Or, my personal favorite, which is bonding, which is when you go and try to talk to other people to either process, verbally process what you’re feeling, or just try to find comrades who might agree with you on it. But once you start to pick up on these five common forms of resistance you start to see it everywhere. MATT: Is there a fun acronym for remembering those? LARA: I wish, I really wish. This is the longest one it took me to memorize just because I haven’t found a good acronym yet. [laughs] MATT: You have a book called Resilient Management, which is a fantastic guide to understanding management as a practice. LARA: Thank you. MATT: So many people get promoted into management as a next step in their career or whatever feels like an upgrade, but they are not always given a playbook. LARA: No. MATT: Maybe there isn’t even a playbook for how to do that. What should organizations do when they promote people to set them up for success? LARA: Even that word promotion is so unique to organizations. Some organizations do view it and treat it like a promotion, like you’ve now got this new level of responsibility and power and title and then that’s true. Some organizations say that but then there actually isn’t that much of a change in power, responsibility and title. And others treat it more like it’s a role change, which is actually my preferred way of thinking about it just because these skills don’t come naturally to most folks, just like any discipline. So for me I think a lot about it as this is a new rule with a new set of skills, a new set of responsibilities, often more power, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a level up from what you were doing before. It just means that there is a new heaviness than what you were doing before. So I like to think about it in terms of okay, what are the skills that someone might need to be successful at this new kind of role that they haven’t really done before. MATT: Yes, we’ve tried to decouple some of that by when someone starts managing people they don’t get a compensation change. LARA: Yes. MATT: And vice versa if they ever want to stop that wouldn’t be a downgrade. But yes, I did use the word promotion. [laughter] So you mentioned that there’s skills needed. LARA: Yes. MATT: In your book you had something that did have a cool acronym called the BICEPS model? LARA: Yes, I love talking about this, thank you so much for bringing it up. MATT: Let’s dive in. LARA: It’s funny, I also… Right now we’re in quaran-times and I talk about the BICEPS model more now than I ever have done before. So this acronym, BICEPS, was coined by Paloma Medina. And she helped us come up with this handy acronym so that we could easily remember what are the six core needs that humans have at work. And I think that managers are not the only ones that need to pay attention to these things because all humans have these six core needs in different amounts. So I’ll really quickly run through the acronym. The B stands for belonging. So it’s how do we belong to a group? Any time we feel othered or left behind this core need is going to feel threatened. And just like all of the six core needs, this comes from evolution. We needed to belong to a group in order to survive, so any time we feel like oh, everybody’s going out to lunch without me, that’s your amygdala trying to keep you safe. So just keep that in mind, even though a lot of these might feel very like non-events, our amygdala… they are not trivial to our amygdala. The I is for improvement and progress. We need to feel some kind of forward motion in our work or in our careers, in our life. We need to see change and improvement in the things that matter to us. Any time things feel stagnant or it doesn’t feel like we’re learning, those core needs might feel threatened. The C stands for choice, which is effectively autonomy. This is a funny one where we all have a different amount of choice that feels comfortable. Paloma, who coined this acronym, she needs like 98 percent choice in her work-life but that would stress me out so much. I need a solid 80 percent. We are all different. And we need just the right amount, not too much or not too little. E stands for equality and fairness. We are seeing this so much right now come up not just with the pandemic and how members of minority groups are more heavily impacted by COVID, but also with the Black Lives Matter movement. When humans perceive a lack of fairness we will take to the streets, we will riot, and this is equally true in the workplace. Any time there is a perception of a lack of fairness, organization psychologists see teams ripped apart, companies destroyed, usership decline. MATT: I have actually seen research as well that shows that it occurs in primates as well, the perception of unfairness. It seems like very, very deep inside us. LARA: Oh yes. All of this.. There is that great video of the two monkeys.. [laughter] MATT: Yes. LARA: All of these things, we see all of these things in animals because, again, this is how we evolved. Our amygdala really… This is not pseudoscience, this is neurology of our limbic system. So the P stands for predictability. We all want to have some sense of certainty and understanding what’s going to happen in the future. Just like choices, we need a balance, too much predictability and things will get really stagnant and we’ll get demotivated and de-energized and totally bored. But too much unpredictability and we will also freak out a bunch. And the last one is significance, which is effectively status. We want to know where we sit in the informal or formal hierarchical structures and how we relate to the power around us. So yes, BICEPS. If I think about this over time, significance used to be the one that would come up most often for me. My amygdala, if it felt like my status was threatened, my amygdala would lose it a little bit. But honestly, since April 2020 predictability is the number one thing I need. Just the volume of change. And everybody is so different. So when we think about mask-wearing, we can actually track back why someone might not wear a face mask to any of these six core needs because they show up super differently in all of us and the same stimulus can threaten any of them. MATT: Could you do that for me just so I understand? Would that be choice? LARA: Absolutely. Yes, choice is absolutely one of them. I want to have autonomy over my body. I want to have autonomy and control. Don’t tell me what to do. So you can see how choice might come up. Fairness, it’s unfair that I have to do this, it’s unfair that in order for everybody… I need to get mine. We could do belonging, we don’t want to feel like the uncool kids, we don’t want to feel like we are… we want to feel like part of the in-crowd and who we are surrounded by. I mean, I know this is true where I live. Like the more and more I see people not wearing masks I’m like, oh, if everybody else is not doing it, what am I doing? Now obviously my core need is going to be different there — predictability, I need to have… And choice for me too. I want to have control over my own health and I want to have some semblance of what the future will hold so I’m going to choose to wear it. But yes, you can see how the same stimulus can threaten… Which my normal thing I like to talk about is desk moves. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked for a company where desks were assigned or where people were told to move where they sat every day, but it absolutely caused the most emotional reactions in folks. I talk about it with re-orgs too. Every time there’s a re-org it could threaten any of the six BICEPS core needs. MATT: Acquisition? LARA: Oh, absolutely, right. Precisely. Literally anything. It’s so relevant. MATT: The desk move resonates a lot for me because when I moved to San Francisco I worked at a company called CNET Networks. And I started with this really cool corner office and then a VP saw it and I got moved into an interior office. And then there was a re-org and I got moved to the basement and I felt like… oh gosh, who’s that guy from Office Space with the stapler? LARA: Yes, absolutely. [laughs] MATT: That character. Don’t take my red stapler. And then I started Automattic. I thought, oh, okay. I probably overcompensated for the lack of office moves. LARA: I’m curious, if you think about those six core needs in that example, which ones stood out for you? MATT: Definitely choice, definitely fairness, definitely status. LARA: Corner office, right. MATT: I was literally being moved down. LARA: Yes. [laughs] Yes, it can absolutely threaten multiple, which is why this stuff is so hard because you can’t guess, you really have to think about it and process it. And we are really bad at guessing other people’s… Like when you were telling that story and you mentioned the corner office, I was like it’s going to be significance for Matt. But you didn’t start with significance. You listed it eventually in your list but it was choice first. We are really good at projecting our own onto other people but again, coming back to the listening thing, we’ve got to start asking lots of genuinely curious open questions and listening to people’s answers and preparing to be surprised by what we hear and not just assuming. MATT: One of the other ones that stands out is fairness. Again, at this moment in time we’re at where there is so much going on is people’s perception of fairness to a third party might be unfair. So there’s almost a point of view to fairness. LARA: Absolutely. And we all are our first person — MATT: How do we navigate that? What did you say, we’re all our own..? LARA: Our own first person. We are all the protagonist of our own story, things are happening to us. And so any perception of fairness from where I’m sitting is going to be very different from where you’re sitting. Which is why as managers I think it is so important to develop some of those empathy muscles, but mostly just to do this act of reflecting back what you’re hearing the other person say to make sure you have it right. Like, okay, what I’m hearing you say is blah and then just asking “is that right? Do I have that wrong?” and waiting for them to respond is so powerful. And triple-checking that again you’re not just projecting or assuming, that you don’t have it wrong. MATT: And by these being amygdala lizard brain reactions, is it also fair to say they are not always rational? LARA: Yes, they’re almost never… MATT: Like your rational mind might disagree with it? LARA: Well it’s funny, so your amygdala, its whole job is to be looking out into your environment for threats, threats and rewards, that is the only thing it’s categorizing. And if it gets a sense that a threat is headed your way, if the threat feels significant enough it actually tells your prefrontal cortex, the rational, logical part of you, to go on standby. Because your amygdala is a lot faster than your PFC and your amygdala can actually make sure it can keep you safe. It can tell you to run and jump and duck and hide to avoid danger. If split-second decisions were left up to your prefrontal cortex we would never have survived the many wooly-mammoth attacks that got us to where we are today. So when we are amygdala-hijacked our rational, logical brain is nowhere to be found. And on average it takes about 30 minutes after you have removed the threat from your environment for your PFC to come back online, and that’s if you’re not still stewing on it. If you’re still stewing on it, your brain is still releasing these chemicals into your body from your amygdala, it’s just like nope, still in threat mode. So it can take a long time for your rational, logical brain to come back online. MATT: Do we just live in an era of these always being activated? LARA: With the pandemic I am seeing it all around me. And our PFC is a finite resource anyway. Usually by 3 or 4PM in our workday it’s shot. No more decisions should be made. The eight-hour workday is an absolute lie when it comes to this. So it is already a finite resource and the fact that our amygdalas are just constantly on overdrive, every single thing right now is a threat, physically, emotionally. I think about all the parents who are struggling also with figuring out… everybody in their household, all their amygdalas and their core needs, it’s just… Our poor prefrontal cortexes are overloaded at the moment. MATT: Well knowing this how do we not become victims in this story? LARA: The number one thing I recommend to folks is to figure out what’s your number one core need right now. Like I said, it’s usually significance for me and then after about a month of not figuring out what I needed, like, really having a hard time, I started to think about okay, what’s mine? If it’s not significance right now, what’s mine? Feeling this bad right now is a clue to me that I’ve got to do some more thinking and research. So once I put my finger on the fact that it was predictability, I put a little sticky note on my laptop, I still have it here actually with a little star next to it that just says ‘predictability,’ as a reminder to myself the I need to optimize everything in my life for creating this. Because I can’t get it in the outside world. I don’t know when a vaccine is going to hit, I don’t understand what the next few months are going to look like, so I need to take every opportunity I can to create more predictability. In my case, I had… the vast majority of my income for Q2 and Q3 were coming from in-person workshops, so me talking to a room of 40 managers. Obviously those could no longer happen. So how do I take this complete lack of predictability — and obviously compounded with other things, lack of choice, lack of fairness, yada yada yada — but really try to say okay what is one thing I can do today to create more predictability? And again, predictability might not be your core need right now but it’s really important for everybody to take a look at this list of six core needs and say, okay, what is my number one and how can I make sure I’m reminded every single day to get one new thing to happen to nourish this core need? Or, if I have to choose between two things, as yourself which one is going to get me more of that core need right now? Use it as a north star to help you out of this season that we’re in. MATT: I want to dive into knowing this for others. But first, a quick sidebar since again a lot of the people listening to this work at distributed companies. Have you developed any thoughts yet on virtual or non-in-person versions of what you do and what could be effective? LARA: Yes. So I almost exclusively now do this virtually. I’ve been able to, thank goodness, within about three weeks of everything changing, create a bunch of new workshops that are more ad hoc so people can sign up for the individual workshops, one-on-one, or, it’s so easy, I’ve always brought them into distributed companies anyway, I’ve just made it much more of a clear offering. Just last month I had this opportunity to do this leadership program for a distributed company’s employee resource group for marginalized genders. So it was a four-week global program all over video and it has just been… who knew that a pandemic could really bring to the surface some really important business decisions for me going forward. MATT: Wow. LARA: Yes. MATT: And also for anyone listening, they can get in touch with your website, right, Wherewithall? LARA: Yes, Wherewithall.com, two Ls. Thanks, Matt. MATT: Perfect. Well no, I think obviously we’ve been a customer in the past and hope to be one again in the future. So we’ve talked a lot about the self-awareness version of the BICEPS and asking the questions. You refer to some of these questions for asking others. So if I’m a manager and it feels like someone I work with is really having a reaction that doesn’t seem rational or that’s not moving things forward, what should be my first thing to do? Because normally telling someone to calm down or something would be counterproductive. LARA: Yes. Any time someone has told me to calm down I think it has had the opposite… MATT: Right? [laughter] LARA: My amygdala is like, oh yeah? See this? MATT: Just relax. LARA: Yes. [laughter] So when I’m a manager my choice here will be dependent upon my relationship with this person. Either we have worked together a bunch in which case they are familiar with the BICEPS core needs list or they are someone who I think would be cool talking this through. I find that handing them this list, showing them the website, or showing them a handy link, it actually does this beautiful job of bringing someone’s prefrontal cortex back on line because what you’re doing is asking them for a second to do a little bit of a problem-solving exercise, like it’s a puzzle. Like, okay, which of these six things is it? It’s a beautiful practice in getting your prefrontal cortex back online. So if they are already familiar, if I think they’re going to be interested in the brain science stuff, I will describe these core needs and just have a very frank conversation. I will say let’s read through these together and as we do this start to think about which one or maybe multiple of these might feel really true for you right now? But let’s say I don’t know them that well or it doesn’t feel like this is a time to go into the brain science part or to walk through this acronym together because sometimes that can feel a little cheesy, like here’s this management framework. So in the other case I’m just going to ask them one of these really short, open ended questions that starts with the word ‘what.’ Okay, let’s just take a step back. What feels really motivating to you right now? Or, cool, I just want to at a high level start to think about what’s the number one most important thing on your list? What’s your north star right now? What are you optimizing for? I will pick maybe max two of these questions and ask them after giving them lots and lots of space to unload and process out loud. Usually from that I will start to then reflect back what I’m hearing, like, okay, so it sounds like if you had had more choice here or if you could have made this decision yourself, that would have felt better. Do I have that right? And then they’ll say yes or no and we’ll go from there. That’s me pinpointing what this might be. And hopefully down the road we can actually have a more fun chat about BICEPS core needs but even if we never get there at least I can figure out okay, let’s creatively address this core need for this person. Because they can’t get it.. In the corner office example, you were moving into the basement eventually. You couldn’t have controlled that. But as your manager I might have said, okay, where can we get you some more choice here, or where can we create some more significance for you here? MATT: It seems like the interrupt there is almost like that pause and question and reflection. LARA: Mhm, yes. It’s pretty magical. One of the things that I learned in coach training that I would have never realized was happening until I saw it firsthand was the act of giving someone space to share what they are thinking and not responding with what it means to you, not responding with ‘oh yes, and also this.’ And not coming up with the next thing you want to say while they’re still speaking but actively listening, actively hearing them, and then reflecting back what you just heard them say is this really bizarre, beautiful thing that happens. It is just so rare that we have someone actually listen to what we are saying and then triple check that they have it right. Yes. I can’t describe how powerful it is. MATT: I feel like I can do the more often than not if I’m in real time with the person having a conversation. But often with asynchronous work, I arrive at the scene hours or maybe even days later. What would be a way to apply that in an asynchronous manner? LARA: That is a great question. I think that a lot of this too is going to be dependent upon what you’re optimizing for, what your core need is. If my amygdala is hijacked there is no amount of intention I can put into it to be a good active listener. So I think from a distributed community perspective, checking in with yourself and making sure that your prefrontal cortex is active as you’re reading through messages or as you’re getting ready for whatever your next thing is, triple-checking that your amygdala isn’t super active and online but rather you’re feeling pretty chilled out can help to be a centering moment before your start to read these messages. Now it is a super natural thing to read a message and say okay, how does this relate to me? Okay, how does this impact the thing that I want to do? Or, what are they trying to ask of me right now? Those are all very ‘me’ focused, which is by the way normal. That is a normal human thing that I think is appropriate. It’s just about what is the impact that you want to have. If the impact that you want to have is to move a project forward then it’s totally okay to have your own perspective and to be thinking about how it relates to you and the project. If your intention is to make this person feel really supported or really help them grow, that’s when it’s really important to have that reflecting back, make sure that you’re actively hearing what they are saying and not thinking about how it relates to you. MATT: Is there a version of this that could improve Twitter? LARA: [laughter] I can’t imagine. Because Twitter is all about the one-to-many voice. It’s not about active listening. I find that with Twitter the thing that helps me a lot is tweeting questions instead of statements. I found this especially when I try to enact some change. Because then it’s like I’m trying to communicate a statement via a question, not a leading one, not saying what if we tried blah, blah, blah. But rather saying okay, in this moment… Let’s pretend what I’m trying to do is get everybody to start to think about their BICEPS core needs. Instead of saying, hey, here is this really cool framework, here is how it has worked for me, you should all check it out, I might say, hey, what is most motivating to you right now? Just a rhetorical question. Just take two minutes and think what is most motivating to you right now or what is terrifying for you right now? Then compare and contrast to this link and see what you think. It’s actively asking a question that prompts an introspective response that I think can be real valuable. But yeah, I don’t think that Twitter is usually the medium for enacting huge amounts of change. That’s my opinion. MATT: What’s interesting is our internal blogging system, or email, often has elements which are public, it might be public to a smaller audience, but… I find that people can… When you have that amygdala reaction and that becomes memorialized in a written thing there starts to be an identity that you end up defending it a bit more or being attached to it than you might if it were just part of a conversation. LARA: Absolutely. And the creators of the character The Hulk really tapped into this. Bruce Banner and The Hulk are the same person but we know more about The Hulk. We can associate The Hulk, we think about that character so much more I think than most of us think about Bruce Banner. So if all that’s documented is your Hulk version… And by the way, The Hulk is just literally Bruce Banner’s amygdala growing three sizes. When we get amygdala-hijacked we turn into different versions of ourselves, versions that we’re not proud of. So if what’s documented about us is our Hulk version that’s what we’re going to be known for. And honestly, any time that stuff is memorialized, you’re totally right, I’ve got amygdala triggers, I know what they are. If anybody brings up the hills that I’m going to die on, my Hulk version of myself is going to be right near the surface. MATT: Hmm, I definitely have got to think about that. I have heard myself in recent months, in conversations, where I was trying to be open and vulnerable but the person on the other side of the tweet screen I felt like was the opposite. LARA: Yes. MATT: And that can be challenging. And probably the best thing then is just to walk away, or at least what I’ve tried to do. LARA: Yes. A lot of my workshops and coaching sessions that are focused on these things are all about developing a back-pocket script for yourself. To end a conversation with a promise to return to it once everybody’s amygdalas are chilled out but to end it in a way that doesn’t escalate it, to actually end it in a way that feels safe and can help everybody chill out. I like to have something really short that feels natural to say and then a really quick, like, here’s the next time we can check in about this. Mine, because I work with so many people who I talk about this stuff with, mine is literally I’m so sorry, my amygdala is really hijacked right now, can we talk about this at our next one-on-one, would that be okay? And for people who know me those are real, natural words that I would say. And so it’s easy for me to pull that out of my back pocket and it’s a signal to everybody, like, oh, one or both of our amygdalas is on fire right now, you’re right, let’s chill out for a bit. MATT: You have a great moment in the book where you talk about tapping into the best qualities of your colleagues like a management Voltron. LARA: Yes, yes. MATT: I’m liking a little bit of a comic book theme here. LARA: [laughter] Yes. It harkens back to the 1980s television show, Voltron, where you have a group of super heroes that come together and form a giant super robot, à la Captain Planet or any number of television shows. MATT: Power Rangers? LARA: Yes, Power Rangers, exactly, they come together and form a giant thing. So the idea here is we as individuals, we often rely on our manager for their support and their coaching and their mentorship to learn and grow but that manager is just one person. We all are just one person that has a particular set of skills and experiences and ways that we can help each other. So your manager can’t be your everything. I think to the managers of my past and how each of them always had some things I could learn from but not all the things that I needed. [laughs] So the Voltron idea is that you shouldn’t just lean on this one person to support you as you grow but you should amass a Voltron of different kinds of people each of whom have a different set of experiences and perspectives and skillsets who can come together and be your ideal manager. And that’s going to be custom to the individual. Like what I need from my manager is probably very different than what you would need from a manager. So it’s important to think about what are the things that I need in order to grow or based on where I am in my career or the kind of company that I worked for. When I left Kickstarter and started doing more consulting work, I got to experience so many other kinds of companies that were not primarily public benefit corporations or mission-driven organizations but totally different kinds, different ages, different sizes. And so to have a perspective from someone else who understands those kinds of organizations, who can share with me their ways of operating or their opinions or their frameworks, has been invaluable. And that list of people needs continue to grow as you grow. MATT: How do you walk the line between realizing when other people’s amygdalas might be hijacked and trying to deescalate or come back to the conversation with something like a tone policing, or something you would normally encourage people not to do? LARA: Absolutely. I think it is really important to state your goal. Because without stating a goal, people might perceive your action as shutting them down. So saying something like… Like, in the feedback example, now when someone comes up to me after I give a talk, if it’s in person, which who knows when that will happen again… [laughter] But in the past if someone came up to me after a talk I gave and was like, “Hey, great presentation, can I give you some feedback?” I have learned to say, “I would really love to hear your feedback, I just know I can’t right now, do you mind sending me an email?” Which is my way of stating the goal — I am interested in hearing this feedback or I am interested in continuing this conversation, I can’t. You don’t have to say my amygdala is hijacked. And you don’t have to say that the other person’s amygdala is hijacked. You can just say hey, I really deeply care about us coming to a good solution here, or I really want to make sure both of our needs are met in this one.. It feels like now is not the right time for our brains. It’s so important to me though, when can we chat about this next, maybe when we have had some time to chew on it? MATT: And how has that gone? LARA: Oh, so well. Who is going to be like, no? [laugther] MATT: I need it to be written. Well, probably not someone who you want to hear from. LARA: Right. It’s actually been really funny because I had this one person come up to me after a presentation and ask me that question, I said… I didn’t actually say even you can talk to me later, in this case I just said “no thanks,” because there was something about the situation that just didn’t feel right, didn’t smell right. And he took a step back and he was like, “whoa, I was always taught to say that but I’ve never actually had someone say no before.” And I was like, “cool. What else do you want to talk about?” And so we started talking about something else and then maybe five minutes later he was like, “oh, whoa, I see why you said no.” As in like, “we needed to chat first.” It was almost like the act of me saying no opened up this whole new world of possibilities for him about the way that these conversations could go. [laughs] It was really cool. MATT: Really beautiful. I’m glad that went that way. LARA: Yes. But contrast that… I was playing a video game the other night with a group of people and two people got really amygdala-hijacked and one person tried to wrap it up, tried to be like, okay, let’s reconvene, let’s do this raid later, we shouldn’t be doing this right now. And they were both in such an amygdala-hijacked state that neither of them could hear it. And so I think in those situations, no matter how polite you are, how clear you are, how whatever you are, sometimes our Hulk moments will continue to play out. In that case, I tell people to take the space that you need, do what you need to be safe, to keep your brain and your body safe. Exit that situation. MATT: It seems like video games are also where you’re going to be riled up. LARA: Always. It’s amazing to me. MATT: That’s kind of the purpose in some of them. LARA: Yes. Well, there’s a lot of studies about it. And coming back to the core needs at work, there’s this brilliant study about belonging where they ran this experiment where some people weren’t chosen as players in a video game and the same parts of their brains lit up as if they were experiencing physical pain. Again, belonging. All of these core needs are core to how we have evolved. Like any time we feel left out… So yes, video games are absolutely… Just all of these things can totally threaten our amygdala. MATT: What video game should all managers play? LARA: I think every manager should get practice leading a raid group or leading a guild of some sort and trying to corral a group of six people around a section of a video game. It teaches people so many management skills, it’s amazing to me. [laughter] MATT: That’s cool. LARA: Yes. MATT: Which ones do you like? I’m not as into… or current on video games. What do you recommend? LARA: I can’t say that I can safely recommend them but the ones that I am currently playing, the one in particular is called Destiny. It’s just lots of aliens… keeping the solar system safe from some aliens. It’s nice to be able to be vegetable-mode after my amygdala and prefrontal cortex have had a long day, to just check out. Video games have definitely been a safe place for me to recuperate. MATT: That sounds like a lot of fun and I will take that as some homework as well and try to make some time for that. LARA: Amazing. MATT: Thank you so much for this conversation. I learned a lot and I really appreciated that you’re taking the time to share your experience and your learnings with a wider audience. LARA: Thank you so much for having me. It has been a pleasure. MATT: All righty. This has been Distributed with Matt Mullenweg. And Lara, where can people find out more about you, Twitter, websites, etcetera? LARA: People can come find me at @Lara_Hogan on Twitter or on Wherewithall.com. MATT: That sounds good. I encourage everyone to do so. We will also include links to these questions that you mentioned and more in the show notes. So check that out at Distributed.blog.
50 minutes | 5 months ago
Episode 22: Raj Choudhury Sees a Future Where You Don’t Have to Move Your Family for a Job
Subscribe to Distributed at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen. “We have introduced so many frictions to people’s lives by forcing them to move.” Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, the Lumry Family Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, studies the future of work — specifically the changing geography of work. What happens to cities, to immigration policies, and to issues around gender equity when more companies let people work from anywhere? Choudhury earned his doctorate from Harvard, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology, and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management. Prior to academia, he worked at McKinsey & Company, Microsoft, and IBM. For more on Choudhury, go to HBS.edu or follow him on Twitter (@prithwic). The full episode transcript is below. *** (Intro Music) MATT MULLENWEG: So here we are. It’s been more than three months into this global transition to remote work. And let’s be honest, a lot of this has been difficult and exhausting and even for folks at Automattic, who have been doing distributed work for 15 years, it’s quite different when there is a global pandemic and economic uncertainty everywhere. But there have been a ton of positives too. I’ve heard from many friends who are working in knowledge-worker roles and they’re saying “I never want to go back into a full time office,” particularly with the restrictions that these physical offices are probably going to have. So they’re seeing benefits in their productivity, their lifestyle, and their connection with their families and their life. So there is uncertainty but there is also opportunity. Today I am excited to speak with Raj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School, who is focused on questions around the geography of work and the outcomes of mobility on productivity. He has studied this question very closely and I was excited to find out what he has learned. So welcome, Raj. RAJ CHOUDURY: Hi Matt, thanks for having me. MATT: Oh it’s a real pleasure. What brought you to study all this? RAJ: So I’ve been studying essentially the future of work, but the topic I have been studying for a long time is geographic mobility. So that includes studying both cross-border migration but also what happens to productivity when people move within the same country. And as I was doing that research for the past eight, nine years, I discovered that there are lots of reasons why people do not move. So yes, there’s productivity benefits when they move but there are tons of reasons we have immobility. So the obvious reason would be immigration, but dual careers, even the cost of living, which might be super expensive in a place like Silicon Valley, might constrain geographic moves. So as I was doing that research, I was thinking of solutions to that problem. And then I stumbled upon that U.S. Patent Office experiment with letting people work from anywhere, which would presumably solve this problem of trying to move people to Alexandria, Virginia. So that’s how I arrived at this topic. MATT: And people moving for work in the U.S., I have heard it’s gone down actually over the past 20 years or so. RAJ: That is correct. So we are in this era of not only people moving less within the country but also internationally. We just have all these constraints on immigration not only in the U.S. but it’s tightening in many parts of the world. So the other great example would be what’s happening with Brexit and what it means for the talent coming from continental Europe. Yes, so I think we are in this phase of immobility on the rise. MATT: So here’s where I say something random I’ve heard and you can tell me whether it’s correct or not. I’ve heard part of the, one of the hypotheses for why in the U.S. mobility was going down was double-income houses. So it was harder to find two new jobs in one city versus one new job. RAJ: That’s true. And there is also research done by other colleagues, not me, which has shown that in those dual-career situations, Matt, it’s typically the wife who is the trailing spouse. So women have made disproportionately greater sacrifices in dual-career situations. And that’s among many of the reasons why I am super excited about working from anywhere. MATT: Because even if one spouse can get that flexibility, they can maintain. If one spouse has it and one spouse doesn’t, they can still move, because one of the jobs is not geographically constrained. RAJ: That’s true. And one of the subpopulations that I’ve been working closely with for whom this is a huge deal is military spouses, because they just have to constantly be on the move. And now they don’t have to experience a break in their careers. So I think that group and many other groups have been tremendously benefited with work from anywhere. MATT: That’s awesome to hear. Because if we get this right it benefits so many people’s lives. RAJ: Correct, yes. MATT: These past three months I don’t think any of us would have predicted, but it must be a boon for your data collection and research. So what has happened that you found surprising or unusual or heterodox? RAJ: Actually I would argue that these three months are such an anomaly. This is not normal work in any way. Even under normal, remote work, you are not having to homeschool kids, you’re not prohibited from going to the gym, you’re not stressed out because of people being sick in your family. So I feel that this will be less relevant for research in terms of driving generalizable findings. So what I’ve been doing is I’ve been studying work from anywhere years before the pandemic and I feel once we come back to a more, quote/unquote, “normal” situation it will be, again, fun to see what happens with which companies and which workers stick with remote work. I think that is something I’m super excited to study going ahead. MATT: Yes, there have been a ton of announcements already — Stripe, Shopify, Facebook, Square, Twitter. Is there anything coming out of that? Are we seeing more mobility from their employees or any early indications? I know it’s too early to see big data but… RAJ: Yes. I think there’s been tons of very exciting announcements. And I can tell you about one project which I am personally working on very closely and that relates to TCS, which as you would know is the largest IT service company headquartered in India. I hesitate to call them an Indian company because they are truly global. They have 500,000 employees, they have three campuses in China, they have campuses in the U.S., they have a campus in Hungary and of course tons of campuses in India. And what they did in the past six weeks was the CEO made an announcement saying that 75 percent of their workforce would become remote in three years. So that is one situation I am working closely with because this… It’s probably four to five times of Facebook and they have built all these campuses and for them now to go 75 percent remote, I thought that was super interesting in terms of the challenges they have to overcome and the change in the processes and the culture and whatnot. MATT: One thing I heard from other companies when they worked with partners in India that had offices, it was harder for people to work from home because they might not have the home setup which is as productive as the office, meaning literally internet, power, etcetera. Have you come across anything like that? RAJ: So I feel that’s still true in parts of not only India but parts of emerging markets. But I feel with now better fiberoptic connectivity and all the transitions… In the case of India, just this one single Reliance Jio sort of proliferation has increased internet penetration and speeds tremendously. So I feel that is less of a concern now. And just given the tradeoffs. So I was speaking to a group of TCS employees and many of them said they will now leave large cities, like Chennai, and move back to their native villages because that’s where their family lives, that’s where they really want to live, given a choice. MATT: We ran into this in South Africa. We bought a company based there and a lot of people would want to go into the office, it was just much harder to get fast internet at home, like it was maxed out at DSL. I even had a colleague outside of Austin that ended up having to put a tower on his property because he’s a little more in the country and there wasn’t a good wired service. So he had to move to some point to point wireless. When you think of the hierarchy of distributed work, internet is probably the base. It’s like the oxygen in the room for getting that. RAJ: Sure. MATT: I’m curious if wireless will be able to support mass people doing high bandwidth things at the same time. It’s definitely scaled far beyond what I would have imagined. But we shall see. RAJ: Yes, you’re right. But the way I think about this, Matt, is not only internet and wireless but it’s also the host of other services that remote workers would need, including schooling, good quality schools, healthcare. But I feel it’s a chicken and egg. So my conjecture, my belief at least is if large numbers of people experience a reverse brain drain and move back to middle America or move back to smaller towns in emerging markets, those services will follow. So the other project I’m working on right now is with Tulsa Remote. So Tulsa Remote, as you might know, has been — MATT: Yes, I just blogged about that. RAJ: Yes, so I’ve been working with them and it’s been a super interesting si
52 minutes | 5 months ago
Episode 21: Morra Aarons-Mele on Introversion and Anxiety in Remote Work
Subscribe to Distributed at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen. Is working from home a breakthrough for introverts? The answer, of course, is not so simple. Matt Mullenweg’s latest Distributed conversation is with Morra Aarons-Mele, host of The Anxious Achiever podcast for HBR Presents from Harvard Business Review, and founder of award-winning social impact agency Women Online and its database of women influencers, The Mission List. She’s also the author of Hiding in the Bathroom: How to Get Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home). To learn more about Aarons-Mele’s work, go to womenandwork.org. The full episode transcript is below. (Intro Music) MATT MULLENWEG: You are listening to Distributed with me, Matt Mullenweg. Today’s guest is Morra Aarons-Mele. Morra is the founder of Women Online, an award-winning social impact agency, and she is also the author of “Hiding In the Bathroom: How to Get Out There When You’d Rather Stay At Home.” A title I love. [laughs] It’s a book that rethinks introversion in the workplace. Interested to hear about her experiences so I can learn more about how Automattic can better serve the many introverts on distributed teams and talk about the theory that maybe distributed is better for introverts. So, welcome, Morra. MORRA AARONS-MELE: Hi, Matt. How are you? MATT: Thank you so much for joining. And where are you joining from today just out of curiosity? MORRA: Right outside Boston. MATT: Cool. I’m in Houston, Texas. MORRA: All right. MATT: I celebrated 100 days here yesterday which is my longest I’ve been here in a long time. MORRA: Oh my gosh. [laughter] MATT: So we had a very brief introduction there but what brought you to this topic? MORRA: Uh, life. [laughter] I didn’t know that I was an introvert with social anxiety, I think that’s an important piece of it, which we can talk about as well, until I was about 35 years old. I would never have wanted to be an introvert when I was younger because I didn’t really know what being an introvert meant. I was really ambitious and I worked in sales and marketing and I talk a lot, I’m not shy. And so I remember even taking a Myers-Briggs once in graduate school and sort of gaming it so that I could be as extroverted as possible because I felt like I should be extroverted, you know? MATT: How did you game it? What answers did you change? MORRA: All the answers that are about… This is 16 years ago so I’m… but you know, the answers that are leading you to the E about your interaction style and do you like to be in big groups and all that. Anyway, so it never occurred to me. But what did happen to me was I was just often really, really unhappy at all my jobs. And I had a lot of jobs. I quit a lot of jobs. I hated office politics. I would get really good jobs but because I was sort of preferring to not be in the ring I would get layered over real quick. And then I finally quit my last job for good and started freelancing. And it’s like this lightbulb went off when I was sitting at my kitchen table doing the same work I had always done but by myself on my own time, in my own lighting. I was like, “ohhh this is for me.” And as I spent more time working for myself and learning about work styles and workplace flexibility, I began to read up and realized I am really introverted and I have really intense social anxiety and I have been working in an entirely wrong way for many years. MATT: If it’s worth it, do you mind defining what an introvert is for people and maybe what social anxiety is just so we’re working from the same set of assumptions? MORRA: Yes. The thing about being an introvert is there is no blood test. So you could probably talk to a bunch of different people and they would say different things. And it’s funny because over the years I’ve had people email me and say you’re not an introvert, you’re a highly sensitive person. You’re not an introvert, you have ADHD. This all may be true but the thing about being an introvert is it’s actually not about whether you are shy, whether you’re quiet, whether you are… some people think you’re socially awkward if you’re an introvert. It’s really about how you manage your energy and what kind of situations fill you with energy versus drain you. So this is… I think a lot of people know being… engaging with a lot of people, giving a lot of output all day, getting a lot of stimulus back can be really hard for introverts. It’s hard for most people frankly, but introverts just do not get energy from that constant being on with the people in collaboration. And we are also usually very sensitive to other kinds of stimuli, so lights, noise. If you walk into any modern hotel and it’s full of bright lights and a million different cable channels as well as music piped over the loudspeaker and you want to close your eyes and hide in a dark closet, you might be an introvert. MATT: The energy part has always been hard for me because I… Like, I love seeing people so much but sometimes I do feel really worn out at the end of the day, but I’m not sure if that’s because it was a great day or that was draining my energy. MORRA: I mean that’s the thing, right? I think that even extroverts probably at the end of a long day with a lot of people are drained but they would choose to go back the next day whereas most introverts probably wouldn’t. When we gear ourselves up for something like that it tends to be more performative, it’s something that we have to prepare for, something that we have to get ready for, something that we have to rehearse. And a lot of introverts are performers. Some of our most famous performers, like Oprah and Lady Gaga and people who get up and literally own a stadium are hugely introverted. And this means that when they’re out there, they are giving it their all, they love it, but it is very much about gathering the energy and performing. It may not be a natural switch. You’ll also talk to a lot of introverts and they’ll say, you know, I can go give a speech in front of 3,000 people, no problem, but if I have to mingle afterwards that’s it, I instantly feel drained. MATT: Did you just say that Oprah and Lady Gaga are introverts? MORRA: Mhm. MATT: Wow. MORRA: Yeah, yeah. MATT: Mind blown. Today I learned. [laughter] MORRA: Oprah actually likes to hide in the bathroom to get away from people. MATT: Wow. You mentioned social anxiety. Do you mind defining that for us? MORRA: Social anxiety is a learned trait. So introversion is something that we’re naturally born probably one way or the other, although I think it ebbs and flows given your life experience and your life stage. But people might naturally be introverted if they prefer quiet, if they like to be by themselves, if a great day for them involves being with fewer people versus being with more people. Society anxiety is a learned behavior and it is when you actually fear social interaction and that could be with one other person or it could be a group. It is that experience of walking into a room and feeling like you don’t belong there, everyone hates you, you’re going to make a fool of yourself, it’s really about shame. Ellen Hendrickson, who is one of my favorite psychologists on this subject, calls it the fear of the reveal. So if you’re listening and you think about a time when you walked into — back when we had networking events — a networking event and you felt like you were a total fraud and that you were scared to open your mouth and talk to people because you definitely did not belong in that room, that’s social anxiety. It can come from being ashamed when you’re a kid, it can come from being criticized if you are a quiet introvert for not talking enough. There’s a lot of reasons why we become socially anxious but it’s really about shame. MATT: I didn’t realize that one was learned and one you were kind of born with. MORRA: I mean, I’m not a scientist, but most of the literature would say that introversion is more of a character trait. And the same way that some people really love music and love to work to music and some people need quiet, I think of it like that. You know? It’s just who you are. Whereas social anxiety… Of course there are some people who are more genetically anxious, etcetera, it could be epigenetic, but it tends to stem from learned behavior over time. MATT: What would you say is the prevalence in society, do we know a percentage for introversion or social anxiety? MORRA: You’ll hear it all over the map. Anxiety is very, very prevalent. Up to about a third of adults have some sort of anxiety disorder at some point. Introversion, I’ve heard 40% of the population, I’ve heard 30%. Again, it’s on a continuum. So I would think it’s probably between 30% and 40%. But of course a lot of people convince themselves they’re not introverts so they would never admit or they wouldn’t even know they were. MATT: And that was you at some point, right? MORRA: Mhm. MATT: So if 30% of the population — let’s just go with the lowest — is introverted, why are offices designed like they are? MORRA: Where do we start? [laughter] I think work sucks, the way that most knowledge work places… Actually, the way that most workplaces are set up… Even I see my kids in school, there is such an emphasis on team and collaboration and performance from an early age, it’s really, really ingrained. I think it’s a very western thing. It’s very American. We have a very old-fashioned view of
57 minutes | 7 months ago
Episode 20: Adam Gazzaley on the Distracted Mind During a Crisis
Subscribe to Distributed at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen. Matt Mullenweg speaks with neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley, co-author of the 2016 book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, about how our brains work, particularly during times like the current pandemic. How does the brain handle internal and external stimuli, and what do we know about the effect of practices like meditation, exercise, nutrition, and sleep? Gazzaley obtained an M.D. and Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, completed Neurology residency at the University of Pennsylvania, and postdoctoral training in cognitive neuroscience at University of California, Berkeley. He is currently the David Dolby Distinguished Professor of Neurology, Physiology and Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, and the Founder & Executive Director of Neuroscape, a translational neuroscience center at UCSF. Gazzaley co-authored The Distracted Mind with Larry D. Rosen, and he’s a scientist who enjoys seeing his work solve real-world problems. He’s also founded startups, including Akili Interactive and Sensync, to build technology products that enhance learning, mindfulness, and well-being. More can be found at his website, gazzaley.com. A full transcript of the episode is below. *** (Intro Music) MATT MULLENWEG: Hello everybody and welcome back to the Distributed Podcast. We’ve all had to make so many adjustments in recent weeks and some of them quite radical. I hope that wherever you are and wherever you might be tuning in from this process has been going smoothly for you, or at least as painlessly as one might hope under these circumstances. In conversations with my colleagues at Automattic and with people at many other companies, both distributed and not, one common thread I keep seeing is how difficult it has been to stay focused in recent weeks. I have been struggling with this as well. We’ve been dealing with non-stop bad news. Many of us have either been directly affected by Covid 19 or know people who have, either health-wise, financially, or socially. Even more of us have had to learn how to work from a new or dramatically changed environment. So for this episode, I wanted to talk to someone who knows a lot about focus, distraction, and changing our work habits. I couldn’t think of any person more fitting than neuroscientist — and my friend — Adam Gazzaley. [music] MATT: Welcome, Adam. ADAM GAZZALEY: Thank you, great to be here, Matt. MATT: Just to set the stage a little bit for listeners who might not be familiar with your work, you have written.. is it over 130 academic papers? ADAM: Yes, yes. Peer reviewed, more scientific-style papers, correct. MATT: Even some on the cover of Nature, which is like Sports Illustrated for scientists. ADAM: [laugher] Yes. My musician friends would say it’s my Rolling Stone cover. But yes, that was several years ago, but it was an exciting one. MATT: How would you describe the area of your passion that you’ve devoted your life’s work to? ADAM: It has migrated, maybe evolved, as I like to think of it, over the last 30 years, but yes, it’s been pretty much exactly… I would say 2020 is 30 years since I’ve been in the neuroscience world. I started grad school in 1990 in New York City at Mt. Sinai. I was trained as both a neuroscientist and a neurologist, so both the clinical and the scientific side. And my research has always had some common elements, a focus on plasticity of the brain, or the ability of our brain to remodel and optimize its function in response to the environment. I focused on neural networks, which is the phenomena that our brain doesn’t work as just these isolated islands but really as an interconnected network of communication that’s constantly and dynamically changing all the time. And aging has been a main aspect of my research. And I preserved those focus areas through the last 30 years although I’ve moved from animal research, looking under a microscope at the beginning days, all the way to today where I focus on human research using functional brain imaging and tools to understand how the human brain interacts with the environment around us. MATT: Was there any particular personal experience that brought you to attention and focus? ADAM: My research focus when I was a graduate student was more on memory systems and how they change with aging. After I finished my residency in neurology and moved to San Francisco to work at Berkeley and study human neuroscience, I became very interested in what I can do as a scientist that was most relevant to people, not just what was relevant to other neuroscientists or was following an iterative path across the field, but what did people actually care about in their lives. So this was like mid-2000s, like say 2003-2004, when I was moving my research into cognitive neuroscience, using tools such as functional brain imaging, non-invasive brain stimulation. And I became very fascinated by how people interacted with their environment in ways that were positive for their performance and their mental health and ways that were negative. And at that time there wasn’t a lot of understanding about the impact of interference in our performance, things like distraction and multitasking weren’t really in the zeitgeist yet of how they may impair our abilities. At that time it was considered a badge of honor if you were a good multitasker, whatever that may mean. And so I was really fascinated by the idea of doing research on a topic that spoke to people so directly about things that were relevant to their lives. And so around 2005, I really turned my own sites full time into studying attention in the brain, specifically how we manage interference successfully and unsuccessfully. MATT: At a physical level what happens when we pay attention to something? ADAM: Well attention is such a fascinating concept and one that is worthy of an hour just to unpack it. But just to not go off on an incredibly long tangent as I try to answer that question, I’ll be very specific by what I mean by attention because attention has many, many different aspects to it. What I assume you meant by that is what we call top-down attention, goal-directed attention. We also have this amazing ability to pay attention to things that are not in our goals. We call that bottom-up attention. It’s how we survived is that you could pick up a very subtle trace, even if you didn’t intend to, of a threat or food or a mate in the environment. This is largely what drives other animals’ attentional processing. MATT: Do those signals make it all the way to the frontal lobe or are they handled some place lower? ADAM: A lot of those signals are just handled even at the brainstem, some of them even in the spinal cord. You could prick your finger and withdraw without it even going into your brain, a lot of that can happen very local, very reflexive, input-output circuits. The frontal lobe, which you mentioned, is the most evolved part of the human brain and it is really the seat of the top-down attention. And other animals have it to some degree but most of what we might look at an animal as goal-directed behavior, many of it is not, it’s really this complex but very reflexive response to environmental stimuli. But the top-down attention, that very human-based attention, is the one where we decided based upon our goals and decisions that we make about what we pay attention to and what we ignore. And when we do that, you’re right, it is a process that is driven by neural networks that really involve the prefrontal cortex. And when we look at it inside an MRI scanner with EEG — and this is what I’ve been doing for almost 15 years now, 15 years actually just this year — is that we see that there is communication between brain areas that involve the prefrontal cortex and whatever other areas are involved in the operation. So, for example, if your attentional focus is a visual one, or maybe a visual and auditory one, then we see a network that involves the prefrontal cortex, which allows you to maintain that focus with visual cortical areas and auditory cortical areas. But it may also involve connections with the hippocampus if it involves memory, which it almost certainly does, or the amygdala if it has emotional content. And so that’s how we pay attention is that we activate these networks that have all the different component systems associated with whatever you’re engaged in. And what we find is that that network is maintained unless you are distracted or you multitask. But that is essentially what happens physically or neurally, which is a chemical and physical and physiological process in your brain. MATT: This is a place where I was saying that you have a whole book on this called The Distracted Mind. And one of the things I found fascinating in the book was not just that your prefrontal lobe can activate different parts of your brain that might be associated with what you’re paying attention to, but it quiets the other parts. Can you talk about that? ADAM: Yeah so we… It is impossible for us to take in all of the elaborate and extensive and diverse inputs that are available around us, even within one sensory modality, even visually you couldn’t, never less the fact that we have olfactory scent information and auditory information. And so we need to selectively process information that’s relevant to us. In this case we’re talking relevant to us based on our goals. And so in order to accomplish that, our brain doesn’t just focus our limited resources on whatever you consider relevant but it actually actively s
105 minutes | 8 months ago
Matt Mullenweg with Sam Harris on Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy
Distributed host Matt Mullenweg recently appeared on Sam Harris’s excellent podcast, Making Sense, sharing the “five levels of autonomy” when it comes to distributed work. Listen to their wide-ranging conversation on how companies transition to remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We love Sam’s podcast, Making Sense, so for more go to samharris.org/podcast/ and you can also subscribe to get his premium content, which is totally worth it.
46 minutes | 8 months ago
Vanessa Van Edwards on Navigating the Virtual Workplace in Stressful Times
Subscribe to Distributed at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen. The world has dramatically changed in just a few weeks. As companies around the world shift to remote work, how do we navigate this crisis? Distributed host Matt Mullenweg talks to Vanessa Van Edwards, bestselling author, speaker, and founder of Science of People, about how we communicate with our friends, family, and coworkers during a time when Zoom and Slack are our primary tools for understanding each other. To learn more about Vanessa’s work, visit scienceofpeople.com. The full episode transcript is below. *** (Intro Music) MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy, everyone. Welcome back to the Distributed Podcast. This is our first episode since, well, everything has changed for our lives, for our family and friends and for the way we work. A lot of folks have been using Distributed.blog as a resource for remote work and best practices, so we wanted to do everything we can to help folks out in the weeks and months to come and look for lots of updates to the website that are already happening. Today we are going to speak with Vanessa Van Edwards, an expert on public speaking who had to change the way she thought about her own work. And she also has some great tips for how we present ourselves in remote work as well. So without further ado, here is my chat with Vanessa. Welcome, Vanessa Van Edwards. VANESSA VAN EDWARDS: Thank you so much for having me. MATT: I’m very excited. And also, thank you for.. you were one of our featured speakers at the Grand Meetup. VANESSA: [laughs] Yes. MATT: So just to give some background to the listeners, once a year, Automattic would bring everyone together and we invite very few awesome speakers and Vanessa was one of them last year. VANESSA: It was such a lovely audience, too. I remember they actually gave me a standing ovation, which made me cry on stage. MATT: Well, thank you very much. And it was I think one of the earlier talks we had in the week so it ended up being fairly influential. Just to give a little bit of background for you though.. Now my understanding is you actually started off doing more online teaching? VANESSA: Yeah, I did. I actually stumbled into the online course arena before I even realized that was a thing. I was also on YouTube back in 2007, if you can believe that, when people thought that YouTube was a joke and a fad. And then online courses, I started my first online course in 2011-2012, and thank goodness, because at the time I was teaching a lot of engineers, programmers, accountants people skills. As you know, Matt, I like to joke, I’m a recovering awkward person. And so I was teaching soft skills in a very science-backed way. And so there was a platform called Udemy, where a lot of engineers were taking courses on programming and software, and so I thought well, let me put my “Charisma for Engineers” course on there and see what happens. And little did I know it would totally explode and change my life. MATT: Wow. So YouTube at the time was I guess pictures of dogs on skateboards. What were you putting on there at the time? VANESSA: [laughs] Yes. You know what was really hot when I first got on there? Does anyone remember fingerboarding? Do you remember that craze? MATT: Ohh, miniature skateboards that you would do with your fingers? VANESSA: Yes! Yes, so I remember – MATT: Wow, I haven’t thought about that in a long time. VANESSA: Okay, so I remember I was competing with fingerboarding videos. That was a thing that I was competing against. And in the beginning I was just doing very casual, on-my-phone communication tips, conversation tricks. And the funny part is because it was so casual, YouTube in the beginning was very, very casual, I was doing them from my bedroom and in a weird way that actually endeared me to people and I think got me to really make long-time students. MATT: It probably felt a lot more authentic, which people now do on purpose. And you, I guess you grew through this and published a book in 2017 called Captivate. Can you just give us a quick rundown so people can check that out? VANESSA: Yes, for sure. So I always would walk into rooms in college and interviews and I always felt like everyone had this written rulebook of social interaction that I was just missing. And I quickly picked up every book I could find on social skills and relationships and friendships, Dale Carnegie and Cialdini, everything I could find. And one thing I figured out very early was that most social-skills books were written by extroverts. And I am an ambivert, so I am somewhere in between. I lean towards introversion and I also have a lot of social anxiety and awkwardness. And if you are trying to learn people skills from an extrovert who is naturally very good with people, they say very well-meaning things to you, like just be yourself, or be more authentic, or smile more, or be more outgoing. Telling an introvert or an awkward person to be more outgoing is like telling them to not be themselves. So I really wanted to — MATT: Hmm. It reminds me of that advice where sometimes people are freaking out and you’re like, “just relax,” which is probably the least helpful thing to say to someone. VANESSA: Amen. I’m also a high neurotic, I mean, I feel bad sharing all my dirty laundry already, it’s only the first five minutes, but never in the history of “calm down” has “calm down” ever calmed anyone down. It’s exactly the same thing with ambiverts and introverts. So I thought what if there was a way for me to study people like you study for chemistry or math with formulas and vocabulary words and maps of networking events and specific tips on what to do with your hands? And that is what Captivate ended up being. But I had no idea that this book would reach as many people as it did. It’s in 16 languages now, which is shocking, and I had no idea there were so many people who were also struggling with awkwardness. MATT: How did that turn into a speaking career? Did the speaking come first or did the book come first? VANESSA: The speaking came first actually. Speaking came even before online courses. I started doing group speaking. And in the beginning, because I was, in the beginning I had a niche. In a business they always say niche, niche, niche. And I had taken a weekend passive income course when I was 17 years old — thank you, Mom — my mom is a lawyer and she said, I never want you to be paid for your hours, I want you to create this thing, this magical thing, called passive income. So she sent me to a seminar in a big ballroom in Los Angeles and I learned about this concept called passive income. And one of the things on there was creating a website or a blog, writing books and then doing speaking. Now speaking is active income, but it, quote/unquote, “can sell books.” So in the beginning I was told to pick a niche and at the time I was 17, so I picked parenting and teens. And so I was speaking to — MATT: [laughs] VANESSA: I know, I know. It’s just funny how my business has grown out of that. But I was speaking to PTAs, I was speaking to student groups, I was speaking to some companies, parents, lunch-and-learns. And that is what got my feet wet in the corporate world, realizing “oh, you can reach a lot of people at the same time.” And so slowly I started to grow my corporate speaking and I have been doing that probably since 2008. MATT: And so just to set the stage a little bit, we’re recording this at the beginning of April, everyone is affected by this COVID-19 pandemic, where in the world are you located? VANESSA: I’m in Austin, Texas. MATT: And as a fellow Texan, I’m glad you’re here, but things… We’re probably a little bit behind other places but it will probably get bad here this month. VANESSA: Mhm. MATT: What have you found so far in your own work as you’ve had to shift in this self-isolation world? VANESSA: Yes. We saw massive shifts almost from day one. And I think on the personal side, this crisis is having everyone face their personal demons — people’s fear of being alone, people’s fear of being out of control, people’s fear of germs. And one of my fears, definitely, is being out of control. And so in our business we have grown very, very organically specifically on keywords. I bet you didn’t expect me to go to that answer with that question. [laughter] But let me try to explain how this goes. So I didn’t realize this literally until three or four weeks ago — so we have never had to buy traffic or buy ads or pay for traffic. Our first ad campaign was last May, so less than a year ago, everything has grown organically. And I live, our entire business feeds off of keywords. So even down to communication speaker, keynote speaker, conference speaker, Austin, and then all of our blog content. So we track… Every morning I would say I wake up and I look at my keywords, and they are quite predictable. And predictability, I didn’t notice until this pandemic, is incredibly important for my sense of calm, my well-being. And so the first day they announced social distancing in the U.S., I saw all of our keywords, which have been very predictable for the last ten years, immediately decline because our top keywords are things like conferences, networking events, keynote speaker, conversation starters, ice breakers, body language. MATT: Wow. VANESSA: It was like my business became immediately irrelevant. My life’s work became immediately irrelevant in a day. And that was — is — terrifying. N
33 minutes | a year ago
Episode 18: Jason Fried on Treating Workers Like Adults
Read more about Jason Fried in “Working Smaller, Slower, and Smarter.” For our first episode of the year, host Matt Mullenweg talks to Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp. Jason runs a semi-distributed company that’s been making project management software for 20 years. He’s accumulated a wealth of wisdom about how trusting employees and treating them with respect can yield long-term success. The full episode transcript is below. *** MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy, howdy, and welcome to the Distributed podcast. I am your host, Matt Mullenweg, and I’m here with our first episode of 2020. Today’s guest is Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, a semi-distributed company that’s been making project management tools for about 20 years now. Back in 2013, Jason wrote a book called Remote, which was an early manifesto for remote and distributed work models. I’m excited to catch up with him to hear about what he’s learned in the six years since that book came out and how Basecamp operates today. All righty. Let’s get started. MATT: Jason, I am so glad to connect today. JASON FRIED: Likewise. MATT: Basecamp, formerly known as 37signals, has been in so many ways an inspiration for Automattic over the years, and I’m sure countless other distributed companies, so thank you for that, first and foremost. JASON: Of course. And I would say likewise. I mean, you guys are even more distributed than us, so I feel like you’re the ideal situation where we’re getting there because we still have about 15 people in Chicago and we have an office that we’re maybe getting rid of, so we’re going to be following in your footsteps. MATT: Ah. So we had zero offices but then with the acquisition of Tumblr we’ve now got a space in New York again, so we’ve gone in the opposite direction. JASON: Ahh, right. That’s funny how we keep trading. Yeah. We’re not sure what we’re going to do but our lease ends in August so we’re thinking about moving on, as in moving on to nothing and then trying to do that for a while and see what happens. And if that works out, we’ll do that. If not, we can always go back to getting an office again. But we’ll see. MATT: Just for our listeners who might not be familiar with Basecamp, what do you publicly share about the scale of the company, customers, number of employees, that sort of thing? JASON: Well we have about 56 people who work at Basecamp and we have close to 100,000 paying customers all-in across all of our different products. Although, Basecamp is the primary product, but we have Basecamp, we have Highrise, we have a few others, but basically it’s Basecamp in all three generations. Some have Classic, Basecamp 2, and Basecamp 3. This is as specific as we’ll be, but we generate tens of millions in annual revenues and annual profits. And we’ve been around for 20 years. This is our 20th year in business, and we have been profitable since the start. That’s a big thing for us, is to always be profitable. So that’s the only KPI, we don’t really use those terms, but that’s the only one we have, which is, let’s make sure we make more money than we spend every year, and other than that, whatever happens, happens. MATT: How do you think about investing more or not? JASON: We don’t have an investment shortfall kind of thing. It’s not like if we only had an extra — I’m just making up rough numbers here — an extra million bucks, we would do X or Y. We have everything that we need to do and we don’t want more people because we want to keep the company as small as we possibly can. So we have, not a dilemma really but it kind of is, in a sense, because I feel like we’re doing everything we could do and having more wouldn’t help us. In fact, I think in some ways it would probably hurt us. We’d be a little bit slower, we’d be probably doing too much work at the same time, which I think can often dilute what you’re really trying to do. We might take on more stuff than we really want to. We might just find work, invent work, to keep people busy. There’s always of course more work to do, but we believe in doing it at a certain pace, and I think having more people, or fewer people, at this point would kind of mess up that pace. MATT: When you say as small as possible do you mean by customers or by colleagues and employees? JASON: I mean employees. I mean the number of people who work here. We have always wanted to stay at 50 or less but we’re about 56 right now and that feels like a really good place to be, so we’re very comfortable with that. The thing is that we could have considerably more people, but again, we’re just not really — maybe we’re just not good at it. I’ll just take the blame for that. I’m probably not good at running a much larger company than this and I don’t think David is either. I don’t think we want to. I think it also keeps you a bit more honest in terms of the experiments you’re willing to do, which — and in some places more and more and more experiments is a good thing. I think a few are a good thing but I think too many — people can get stuck doing things that never ship over and over and I think that can be a bit demoralizing. So we think we’ve got a good enough feeling here right now at least. But then again, we’re the largest we’ve ever been, and I’m sure when we were 30 people we said 30 is enough. So we’re here at 56, that feels like enough right now. A lot of it probably has to do with the success of this other product we’re going to launch next year. Because the one part of our company that does have to continue to grow is customer service. Product development doesn’t have to grow, we have enough people there, but as we have more and more customers, of course, we have to make sure we support them at the highest level. So that is one place where growth does continue to happen even if we don’t want it to. MATT: Yeah, for Automattic that’s been pretty large. It’s been at points that half of our company was customer service just because we wanted to maintain a certain level there. And as the customers went up, it just got — it goes linearly. JASON: Yeah. MATT: It’s one of those things that — of course you want to invest in making the product easier and documentation and self-help and everything like that, but at some level if you want a person talking to a person you need some more of them. JASON: Yeah. You know, you want to do documentation and make things easier and everything, but I’ve also come to change my mind a little bit on it. Earlier on, when we had fewer people, we were focused on the self-help side of things and making sure our documentation was really good and our answers were great online and people could find their own answers. And we want to make sure that that’s true too, but I also see customer service interactions as a competitive advantage. Most companies are pretty terrible at it and the larger the company is, it seems like the worse they get. Try to email Google and get help. It’s like — forget it. Or Amazon, sometimes, but not always that great, although quite good sometimes also. It’s one of these things where the larger you get, the more customers you have, the harder it is to maintain that level of standard. MATT: Have you tried out a live chat for customer support yet? JASON: Yeah we do that sometimes. And it depends on availability. And then we also use Twitter as well for that. Those things all work out really well. It just depends. We want to meet people essentially where they are, with the exception of we don’t have a published phone number, but if you want us to call you, we will. MATT: Yeah. Live chat was a big step function for us. Both in terms of agent and customer happiness, because you can resolve things on the spot. JASON: Yes. MATT: We do a support rotation where everyone at the company does customer service for at least one week a year. Mine is actually coming up in a couple of weeks. JASON: Your turn, you mean? MATT: Yes. So if you contact us in the third week of December, you might get me. JASON: Ha! We do the same thing, we call everyone on support one day every roughly six weeks or eight weeks… So we’ll each do support for a few days a year throughout the year. It’s great and I’m glad you guys do that too. I think it’s one of the most valuable things you can do for a variety of reasons — camaraderie, hearing from customers and understanding the language they’re using, sensing their frustrations or their happiness or whatever it might be. And then also just having a lot of respect for customer service as a job and as a career. In a lot of places, customer service is treated as almost a part-time job, a stepping stone to somewhere else. But I think it can be a wonderful career and it’s just really nice to see the people who’ve dedicated their time here — and this is my only experience of course — to working in customer service for five, six, seven, eight-plus years and really see the work that they do and see how important it is. It’s our front door, it’s our front line, it’s really important to experience that. MATT: What is your company breakdown now in terms of roles in the 50-ish? JASON: I’ll give you some rough numbers because some people are multiple things, so you can’t really… MATT: Sure. JASON: I’ll give you the counts, it just might not add up to 56. But so we have currently, I believe 16 people in customer support, and that also includes, I believe — this might make it 17 or still 16 — the team lead. So all of our managers or team leads are working managers in that they do the work too. So 16-ish on customer service. We have seven-ish on technical operations, all the server work and that kind of stuff, all the low-level infrastructure work. And then we have four people on what we call the SIP team, which is Security, Infrastructure, and Performance. We have about seven full-time designers, we have around 15 developers. Actually a few fewer than that because some of them are now on SIP, but around that number. We have two people who do our podcast work, we have one data analyst, we have an office manager/bookkeeper. We have a Head of People Ops. And then we have David, who is CTO, and me, I’m CEO. We have a Head of Strategy and a Head of Marketing. MATT: And did I hear it right that you seem to have a two-to-one or a three-to-one developer to designer ratio? JASON: Yes. Close. Depending on — in some companies you’d consider ops programmers. It just depends on how you all add it up. But yeah, we have probably a two-to-one programmer to designer ratio. Or I should say product development programmers, because we have programmers who do other things. But on the product side of things, basically two-to-one. The way a typical team is structured here at Basecamp is there’s three people working on something — three or two — never more than three at a time and when there’s three it’s usually two programmers and one designer and when it’s two, it’s one programmer, one designer. And then of course sometimes there’s some things that a designer can do on their own and sometimes there’s some stuff that a programmer is going to do on their own. MATT: I’m going to toot your horn a little bit in that in your latest book, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work, there is an excellent chapter on the three-person teams. JASON: Oh yeah. MATT: I do think something that’s interesting. A lot of the listeners here get obsessed about the 1,000+ person distributed companies, and people sleep on Basecamp a little bit. But I think that would be incorrect, because you all are an amazing example because of your culture, your retention, everything, where you move really fast and do quite a bit for your size. And that’s where I think there’s a lot of learnings for companies of all sizes. JASON: Thanks, we try. I think one of the reasons we’re maybe able to do that is because we don’t do a lot of other things that most companies do. We don’t have a lot of meetings, we don’t share calendars. It seems like a simple thing but it has such a huge influence. When nobody can take anyone else’s time through a system, people end up with more time to themselves. When you have more time to yourself, you end up doing better work and more work. You can get a lot more stuff done in a given day than maybe you could in another organization that has six times as many people but 20 times as many meetings, 30 times less time during the day to yourself. So we try to avoid anything that breaks days into smaller and smaller chunks. So we are pretty anti-chat for work. We use chat internally in Basecamp for mostly social stuff. But any time there’s anything going on at work we write it up in longform and we post comments and we let people discuss it over a matter of days on dedicated pages inside Basecamp. So that’s the kind of stuff that we’re able to do, and it gives people a lot of their time back. MATT: What are your favorite meetings? What do you look forward to? What’s a meeting you love? JASON: Two or three people might get together in a room — typically it’s two — or on a Zoom call or something like that, to work something out, hash something out. That, I enjoy. I enjoy really working on a problem, like a design challenge or “God, how are we going to figure this out?” or “This seems complicated, how could we simplify this?” Or “What’s the best way to write this sentence? This headline just isn’t quite there.” That, those productive moments when we are actually making something versus talking about making something. I don’t like talking about making things, I like the making of things. So whenever I’m together with somebody and we’re working on something real, [I] love those all the time. And I’ll do that many times a week. But just to sit around a table and have people go around a table and talk about stuff that isn’t actually the work — I think it’s important to have those discussions, but I don’t think they need to be happening in person or via video. I think most of that stuff is better off written down. It allows people to really present themselves, a full idea. We call it “forcing the floor.” The idea being that if you’re standing up or sitting down, or whatever, in front of a bunch of people, and you’re talking for a while, there is a good chance someone is going to interrupt you and ask you a question or whatever. And there is nothing wrong with questions. And this is especially bad in chat rooms. You can’t possibly own a chat room for a while while you make a case. You just simply can’t. People will chime in and that’s a problem. Now, I’m not a big fan of chat, but there should be a pause button when you chat. You should be able to hit pause, which would prevent anyone else from saying anything while you’re talking. The reason that should exist is because you need to have the floor. You need to make your point. That allows you to work your thoughts out yourself, get your thoughts together and put them out there in the world as a single unit. And that allows other people to read that single unit uninterrupted and take their time to respond back to you. If you’ve taken three days to think about something and you say it in a meeting and people start just throwing stuff right back at you — in some ways you’re asking them to because you’re sitting at a table, what else are they going to do? But it seems unfair to them, in fact, for them to have to react to this thing that you have thought about for three days or three weeks or three months, for them to have 30 seconds to say something back seems unfair. By writing things down in longform and publishing them and giving people a chance to get back to you on their own schedule, I think you end up with much deeper and fairer discussions and better discussions. So that’s why we do have, quote, “meetings,” in a sense, but they’re not meetings in time, like around a room physically or even on video, they are written down and people respond over a number of days, on their own schedule, and those conversations are much richer. MATT: Well that emphasis on writing and the well-written word, how does that influence your hiring process? JASON: It plays a big role. Aside from somebody being able to do the job — obviously, the fundamental job — beyond that you’ve got to be a great writer. If you’re not a great writer, you will not get the job. The first thing we look at whenever someone applies for a job is the cover letter. We don’t look at the resume first, we look at the cover letter first. And the cover letter is the first filter. Can this person explain themselves well? Are they clear-minded? Are they clear writers? Are they clear thinkers? Do they want this job, or are they just applying for any job? Typically a resume is going to be sent to every job the same way, for the most part. You’d hope that cover letters are not. You’d hope that cover letters are customized for the job. MATT: You would hope. [laughs] JASON: You would hope. I can tell you’ve done a bunch of hiring yourself. Yeah. So most of them are not. And those are immediate no-gos for us. If you want to work here and if you want to work at any job, I would say you need to write down why you want to work here, not just why you want a job. And from that, you can derive a lot of things as a hiring manager, as someone who is involved in the process, you can really tell where someone’s head is. So writing is very important, and then we often give a lot of writing exercises through the job hiring process, depending on what it is, and continue to double down on that. And every time we’ve been hesitant about someone, their skills have been great but they weren’t great writers, it turned out that we probably shouldn’t have hired them. And the main reason why here is because most of our communication is written, almost. I’d say 95% of it is written. MATT: Let’s say I was a colleague of yours at Basecamp and you were going to coach me or give me pointers to resources or something to become a better writer, how would you do that? JASON: My favorite book on writing is a book called Revising Prose, and the cover — I think it’s in the fifth edition now — the fifth edition cover is horrible. It’s a CD-ROM. It’s a picture of a CD-ROM, it’s the strangest cover of a writing book. But Richard Lanham is the author of Revising Prose, fifth edition. It’s outstanding because it’s a book about writing sentences. It’s not about grammar really, it’s not about elements of style or rules, it’s about how to hone a sentence, how to get a sentence right, how to make a point. It’s a very, very good book. I’d recommend reading that first off and then I would write and write and write and write. And I would work with you to review your writing, your headlines, your sentences, whatever you’re going to do and talk about, like, “We could say it this way or maybe you could say it this way. And if you said it this way, it would feel like this. And if you said it this way, it would feel like that.” I like to talk about feeling when it comes down to writing, so how does this come across, what does it make the reader feel, what does it elicit in them — that kind of stuff. But it’s the process of whittling something down and not losing any detail as you go, maybe even picking up detail as you go, until of course you hit a certain point and then it’s more of an academic, fun exercise to whittle it down to one sentence and one word. MATT: Basecamp has a pretty unique structure. Do you look to any other tech companies or outside of tech or companies in general that have inspired you to the structure of how you do things there? JASON: I tend not to look at tech companies mostly because I think it’s healthier to look outside your own industry most of the time. We’re inspired by what you guys are doing at Automattic because you’re fully remote and you’ve been around for a long time. In broad strokes, I like to look at people who have been around for a long time because I feel like if you’ve been around for a long time, it’s not a fluke. MATT: I know you follow the watch world and I know you like… I think you like Cucinelli, actually. Are there any examples in that realm that you like? JASON: Yeah, Brunello Cucinelli, I don’t know him but I admire his ethos and how he runs his business. I consider him a mentor because of the way he runs his business and how he’s all about integrity and dignity. And there is a lot you can learn from that. You don’t need to talk to anybody to learn that from him. So I think there’s a lot of really wonderful examples. In the watch world, the mechanical watch world, which I am a bit too absorbed in these days, there’s a lot of old businesses. I mean some of them are hundreds of years old, many of them are family-owned and have been passed down through generations. I just find it fascinating. To see how different generations do different things is fascinating to me. And to see how something can last beyond a generation. I always often think, well we’ve been in business 20 years, I’m 45 now. If we’re going to last another 20 years — which I hope we can, I’d love to — I’d be 65, I probably shouldn’t be running a software company at 65, it’s probably not the right thing to do. So what’s going to happen? Who is going to take over? How are we going to do that? We haven’t really thought about succession planning but at some point you have to. It would be sort of a shame for a business to die with its founders just because they didn’t think about who else could do the work or anything like that. So it is interesting to think about how something can last beyond you, beyond your own generation, and also how it should change or shouldn’t change. For example, in the watch world — the watch world is a very traditional world with arts and crafts and science passed down through generations, and a lot of that is very traditional, it doesn’t change very much. But then you have these upstart independents, and they are the ones who actually change things for the most part. And sometimes it takes someone brand new to change something. Other times, you don’t want to change things. You’ve got to figure out “Can a software company not change?” Probably not. A restaurant probably could not change. MATT: I get super fascinated with companies or businesses that are able to do that multigenerational. JASON: Yes. MATT: So where there’s different leaders over time. Because that gets even harder, right? It’s one thing to have this passion yourself but to be able to pass that on and have it maintained or hopefully improve is really, really hard. All great companies I think are fractal. So how do I make a division at Automattic have what was great about Automattic when we were 30 or 40 people and that division can operate just like we were at that point. So that’s one way I think about scaling as well. The whole thing doesn’t have to be big because most people don’t have to keep the whole thing in their head, they just really work with their team or division or area. JASON: Yes, it’s so true. And the other thing that’s great about the fractal viewpoint is that you don’t have to change an entire organization to have an effect on it. You can change a corner of it, an edge of it, a branch of it, and then those other branches and those other corners and those other edges can look back at that change and go “Ohh, I want some of that too.” And that can carry through. It can sort of bleed into the rest of the business, which is great. MATT: And there was a point when we started to scale a little bit in terms of number of people, and also breadth and depth of what we were covering — that’s when I started to think about it a lot. It’s amazing how many companies will experiment and do a ton of A/B tests with their product or their customers but never really test internally how they work. JASON: Yeah. MATT: You know? Have two teams have the autonomy to work completely differently and then just judge it by the results. We even had a division which tried holacracy once. JASON: Oh yeah. MATT: Which was kind of the rage at the time. And I’d read about it and I’m like, “Hmm, I don’t know if I buy all this but I don’t know…”[laughs] JASON: Maybe, yeah. MATT: Let’s try it. They had to maintain their interface to the rest of the company, which is fine, because they were relatively self-contained, but internally they did a pretty substantial, maybe six or nine month experiment with holacracy, and it was actually really cool because coming out of it, they decided not to continue it, but they said “but this really worked well,” and “this is what we’re actually going to bring back,” kind of cherry-picking what they found to be the most effective part of it. JASON: What was that part? MATT: Part of it, that we’ve adopted pretty much throughout the organization, is this idea of a DRI, or a Directly Responsible Individual. Someone owns everything, but people wear different hats but those hats are clear. I think it can be tough when those hats are not clear, or when someone has too much, they’re not explicit about what they’re doing, they take on too much and then become a bottleneck. So when you can be more explicit and transparent about those things, you can generally avoid those problems. Not always but at least it’s apparent where it is. JASON: We’ve even struggled with that. For a long time, we didn’t have titles here. We thought titles were what you do at big companies, you had titles. And then for a while we allowed everyone to make their own title, which was stupid, but we thought it was cool. MATT: [laughs] We still do the own title thing. JASON: Okay. [laughs] Well, stupid maybe is unfair. But let me say the reason we discovered that titles matter is actually, people have careers after Basecamp, and it’s tough when you don’t have a title that matches up with the rest of the world, in a sense, when someone else can look at your title and go, “Oh, I know where they are and what they have done and what position they’re in and where they’ve come from and the whole thing.” So we decided to get extremely boring with titles. It’s like: junior programmer, programmer, lead programmer, senior programmer — boring titles. We also made sure everyone has one or had one. For a while people were like, “Oh I’m just a designer.” Well, no, you’re actually not. You’re a senior or principal designer. Other people should know where you are in the organization as well. MATT: Well it sounds like you’ve combined leveling with titles as well. JASON: We did. MATT: Did the leveling process always line up with where people thought they were? JASON: No. And that was the other thing is that when we ended up switching to standardized salaries across levels and across roles, we had to make a lot of things clear for everybody, so everyone knew where they stand and what salaries attach to each level and each role. So there’s no salary negotiations at Basecamp. If you’re a senior programmer, you get paid X. If you’re a lead designer, you get paid X. And that way you know that everyone else who’s a lead designer who does the exact same work you do — same skills, same experience — gets paid the exact same. MATT: And that’s regardless of geography? JASON: Regardless of geography. So we pay everybody 90th percentile San Francisco rates, even though we have nobody who lives in San Francisco. We basically want to pay the highest salaries in the industry. Of course 90% means there’s 10% that might be higher than you but that’s pretty high. So that way you never have to wonder, you never have to hear — because things leak — “Why does Bill get paid $172,000 when I get paid $164,000? I thought we were both senior designers.” That stuff happens, people talk, and that’s where discontent begins to foment and it gets dangerous because people then don’t want to talk about it, and they hold resentments. And also, the other thing is that there is no reason why you have to be a great negotiator to get what you’re worth. It’s hard enough to be good at your job, and then to also be an ace negotiator doesn’t seem fair. People don’t like to negotiate for their cars, for their houses. I mean some people love it but — MATT: And it’s asymmetric too because you know everyone’s salary and you do this all the time where they’re going to only do it once every time they change jobs or once a year or something. JASON: Bingo. MATT: Yeah. JASON: Yeah, and think about a manager who manages 12 direct reports. Well this manager gets to practice a lot of salary negotiations while each individual person barely ever does, once every couple years, whatever it might be? And they’re going to be nervous and you’re going into someone else’s office. It’s hard. We wanted to eliminate all that and with all that — this is kind of a bigger systemic change, which is unified salaries, leveling, and titles were all tied together — [we] just eliminated a whole bunch of questions and unease and — dis-ease, I should say. A few people didn’t like it because a few people thought they were worth more than the role or the level that they were at and I understand that. MATT: Did some people get adjusted down? JASON: No. So our policy was, nobody got adjusted down. What would happen was if anyone’s salary was above the level that they were placed in, their salary would be higher than everybody else’s, but they would never get a raise until everyone else caught up to them, basically. So it was like, here’s your number, here’s where you’re at, maybe you’re $6000 more than someone — I’m making up numbers here — but $6000 more than someone else. You’re at 156 and everyone else is at 150. Other people are going to get raises as the industry moves and as the standard of living increases. You will not until they catch up to you and then you’ll all move in unison again. If the industry moves down, we will not move anybody down, we have made that promise as well. So you might not get a raise for many years until the industry catches back up again but that’s how we’ve set that up. So no one ever loses salary. MATT: How do you deal with foreign exchange? Because you must have people outside of USD. JASON: It depends on the role and — I should say the country, not the role, the country. Since exchange rates do fluctuate, basically they submit invoices every few weeks and some of that is adjusted based on if there is a significant fluctuation. And the other thing that’s tricky is benefits. Because in some countries, for example, in most countries, pretty much every country, healthcare is included essentially. Here it’s not. So we pay people’s healthcare, or most of it. We pay 75%. So we do basically a cash-equivalency benefit to people who live in Canada or who live in Spain or something like that. So the numbers can’t be exact but they are really, really, really close and we do our best to make them as close as is reasonably possible. MATT: As we wrap up, we’re coming up on ten years since Remote was published. JASON: Yeah. Wow. MATT: Which is kind of wild. Now there’s a ton of companies doing remote too, so I would say it’s not “mission accomplished,” but it’s really shifted now where there’s a lot of companies. I’m hearing now from my investor friends that it’s actually the default now, even in the Bay Area. New companies are being built this way. JASON: That’s great. MATT: What do you feel like has changed the most and what do you really want to see change for companies operating in a remote or a distributed fashion? JASON: I’d like to say it’s technology and whatnot but I really actually don’t think it is. I think what ended up happening is that cost of living got so high in San Francisco and continues to get so high in San Francisco that it just doesn’t make a lot of sense for a lot of people to live there anymore. And so at some point if you want to find great talent, you’re going to have to look outside the walls of that city, and that region, because a lot of people just simply can’t afford to live there. And so you begin to realize that hey, there’s great people everywhere, all over the world. Amazing people. And I think it just takes a few companies, like Stripe is a good example now. They’re opening up the remote HQ or whatever they’re calling it. Companies that are widely respected. Of course Automattic is widely respected, but you’ve always been this way so it’s more about the companies that have been all about [how] everyone’s got to be together. Those are the ones I think that people are looking to and [saying] “Oh wow, they are even considering going remote, that’s interesting.” Meanwhile, I think what you guys are doing is incredibly interesting, but you’ve been doing it for so long that things don’t become interesting anymore after you’re like, “This is what we do.” [laughter] But yeah, to see someone like Stripe and other companies doing that, that gives other companies cover and investors cover to go “You know what, if they can do it, if they think it’s okay, if they’re going in the opposite direction of what they believed five, six years ago, then maybe this is okay. And you know what? We can find some great people. And guess what, there are great people. And wow, they’re finding great people, there is a whole world of great people, there is a lot less competition out there for great people when you can look at the whole world.” So I think all those things are finally beginning to happen. Like, video conferencing has been around forever, text messaging has been around forever. It’s not like some new tech came out. It’s really I think just an economic reality. And then of course just people getting more used to things and a new generation coming up that feels very comfortable with it, and some of the people who were very opposed to it are just going away, in a sense. They’re realizing, well other people can do it, and let’s give it a shot. So I hope to see it more and more and more. I think it’s wonderful for everybody involved. It’s, to me, the most respectful way to work. I have always found it borderline offensive that someone would have to lose their job because their partner that they live with had to go somewhere else to get a job. So you’re living with someone and they have to go move to Madison, Wisconsin, because that’s where the work is. And you’re working for a company in Chicago but you’ve got to move because your partner has to move, and all the sudden you have to lose your job. Why? That seems so horrible for everybody. It’s bad for the employer, because now they lost someone who was great and now they have to find someone new and train someone new and all that institutional knowledge is gone. And it’s bad for the employee who feels like they have to be chained to a city. And/or things far outside their control can cause them to lose a job that they might absolutely love, they might have spent their whole life trying to find this job and they got it and now they have to leave because someone else in their family has to go somewhere else. It feels so unfair. So I think remote is so fair. I think it’s important, really important, and I’m glad to see things changing. MATT: Jason, thank you so much. JASON: Thanks so much. Great to hear from you again and catch up in this way and hope to do it again soon. MATT: That was Basecamp’s Jason Fried. You can find him on Twitter at @jasonfried. That’s Jason F-R-I-E-D. He’s on Instagram at the same, but I believe he’s trying to quit both networks. So probably Basecamp’s website and the Rework and Remote podcast are the best places to find him. Basecamp has been building productivity tools for 20 years, which makes it pretty advanced for an independent tech company. In a world where many startups race to make it to the next funding round, sale, or IPO, it’s refreshing to see leadership that see themselves as long-term stewards of a company, mission, and most importantly, their users. I’m grateful to learn from folks like Jason who’ve been at it a lot longer than I have. On the next episode of the Distributed podcast, I’ll be talking to Merritt Anderson, an HR veteran who advises companies about distributed work, among other things. She spent over four years in HR at GitHub, helping to build out their distributed teams and the policies that facilitated that work, and a really interesting hybrid model with a ton of success from both a user point of view and of course an outcome point of view. Thank you for listening, and see you next time.
44 minutes | a year ago
Episode 17: Matt Mullenweg Reflects on Distributed Work in 2019
Read more of our 2019 takeaways in “Eight Lessons from the Distributed Podcast So Far.” Distributed Podcast: Matt Mullenweg Reflects on Distributed Work in 2019. To close out the year, our host Matt Mullenweg is joined once again by Automattic’s Mark Armstrong to discuss the state of distributed work as we transition into a new decade. Matt discusses his key takeaways from his 2019 conversations on the podcast, and reflects on his year as the CEO of a growing distributed company. The full episode transcript is below. *** MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy, howdy. Here we are. We made it: the last episode of 2019. The finale of our first season of the Distributed podcast, with me, Matt Mullenweg. We’re currently in the thick of planning a fresh slate of episodes for next year. We’ve got the first female 4-star general in the U.S. Army, a guy who grew up in a family of Argentinian sheep ranchers and now runs a distributed blockchain company. Business leaders, thinkers… I’m really excited for next year overall. But December is also a great time to reflect. So that’s what we’re going to do now — reflect on some of the great conversations we had in 2019 and talk about where we think distributed work is headed in 2020. Today I’m joined once again by my colleague Mark Armstrong, who works on a bunch of editorial things at Automattic. He’s been very involved in developing this podcast from day one. MARK ARMSTRONG: Hey Matt, how’s it going? MATT: Pretty good, pretty good. It is the end of the year so it’s exciting. I’m actually on my support rotation this week so if anyone contacts WordPress.com support they might get me. MARK: Yeah, feel free to take a break from this interview to do some live chats if you need to jump in there. [laughter] Well, Matt, thanks again for having me on. I have been enjoying the podcast all year and I am curious to understand some of your takeaways from the interviews on this podcast. And also, it’s been a big year for Automattic itself, so [I’d like] to understand a little bit about how the changes at Automattic have changed how we work as well. But first I want to go all the way back. I want you to tell me a little bit why you wanted to do this podcast in the first place. MATT: As we were scaling Automattic — and continue to scale — I meet and interview a lot of really fantastic leaders — in technology, outside of technology — who don’t know how the distributed thing works. And they have a ton of experience leading teams, running products, etcetera, but not in a distributed manner. And so it’s combined with two things happening. One, there are more and more distributed companies than ever, all over the world, many who we’ve had on the podcast already, a lot who are coming up, that were showing that it works and that you could create a world-changing, ultra-competitive company without even a single central office. And two, there weren’t as many materials or information for how to run something larger than a small team or a freelancer but smaller than the whole thing. I guess the target audience for me for this [podcast] is really managers. People who are managing maybe for the first time, maybe for a long time, distributed teams. Just having that point of reference for how other companies do it and what are the best practices they can take away from it. I also hope that people at Automattic are listening to this. [laughs] Many of our colleagues are people who are in this very situation. And the first line of our creed is “I’ll always be learning,” and so I hope that people have been learning from this because I know I certainly have been. MARK: I think it helps clarify what we think and what we believe about how we work, day in and day out, just hearing the other perspectives from the other companies and the other executives or product people within those teams on how they work similarly or differently from us has been hugely helpful. I think you hit on another point too, which is a lot of the remote work materials that are out there right now are very much about selling the lifestyle versus looking at the reality of what’s happening inside. Do you find that’s the case? MATT: The lifestyle is definitely part of what I think attracts people to it. But it’s not the lifestyle people expect. It’s more about autonomy, control. I think sometimes people get this idea of Remote Year or something where people are in a different city every other day or every week or every month. And very, very few people who do remote work actually work that way, which is interesting. MARK: Yeah. Now you very intentionally avoid using the term remote work in favor of distributed work. Can you explain why that is? MATT: Well, “remote” is appropriate sometimes. It’s also a little bit — it rolls off the tongue a little easier than “distributed.” But I think what we are trying to build at Automattic and many other companies we talk to, is a truly distributed organization. So “remote,” even the word itself, implies that there is a “central” — a bunch of people in one place and there’s a few people who are remote. When you’re building a truly distributed company, you want to have all nodes on the graph to be equal. So for no one to be remote, for everyone to be equally participating. I would say even if you have an office, and technically you could describe people who aren’t there as remote, you don’t want them to feel remote, right? Almost no one has ever said “Oh, I hope I feel more remote today.” They want to feel connected, they want that equality of interaction and inclusion. So that’s really, really important for everyone who’s working with anyone not physically with them to make them feel included. And I think the more we can get away from the term “remote” the more we can help people feel included. Another thing that has really changed for Automattic is we have gone from around 800 people to closer to 1200 people, so it has been a year of big growth. And of course with the acquisition of Tumblr, we acquired a company which had a very strong presence in New York City, and in fact we now have a pretty substantial office in New York City. If you listen over the course of the year, before and after that, I started asking a lot more questions about hybrid organizations where they’re partially distributed and partially in-office, and what the best practices are for that. And something fun for me in the podcast is just being able to ask really, really smart, experienced people what’s on my mind and what challenges we’re facing. And that is something that’s been a new challenge and new learning for Automattic this year. MARK: Yeah, I think it’s been fascinating. So this was an acquisition that went through in September, Tumblr joining Automattic, and close to 200 plus employees joining Automattic. So that is a big influx of employees that even within a fully distributed organization can change the culture. But now, on top of that, you’ve got an actual office in New York City in which they’re working in that culture. It has only been a couple months so far but what have you learned about the merging or not merging of those cultures? MATT: It has definitely taught me that we can’t take anything for granted. It actually made me think how much more important the Distributed blog and this podcast are because things that I haven’t thought about for years are — like how best to do calls or conference calls or meetings or things like that, that are inclusive of remote folks and people who are in the room, are not always widely known and might not even be widely agreed on. This is why in the episode with Anil Dash this came up pretty well, it also came up pretty well in an episode with Merritt from GitHub. So these topics that you’ll hear throughout some of the different episodes, both past and future. It made me also realize that culture is so much more than what goes on in an office. It’s really the sum of what everyone does all the time — all those little decisions, the way people communicate, the way people text, expectations for how you reply to things, how meetings happen. Meetings are such a huge part of it. It’s what people are doing when no one else is looking that really makes up culture. And it’s something I’ve always subconsciously missed is thinking that there’s more culture in an office. I wouldn’t say there’s more, there is just a different culture in an office. It’s a culture of that ambient intimacy, a very different type of connection that develops between colleagues when you’re in person versus when you’re not. And it has been so long since I’ve closely interacted with an in-person team that I hadn’t really thought about a lot of those things in a while. MARK: Are you doing that now with the Tumblr team? Do you pay many visits to the office? What is your plan around that? MATT: Yeah, I’ve been trying to make it into their office really whenever I’m in New York City. And that has been really great to be able to make one of those connections. I have also realized that they were a hybrid organization even before they joined Automattic. So they have some great colleagues in Dulles, in Richmond, in LA, in Seattle, and some folks just kind of sprinkled all over the country and the world, so that’s also been really great. I feel like those people have taken extremely quickly to some of the things that Automattic does, including things like P2, and that’s been pretty exciting to watch. Some of our closest integrations have been so far on just the systems side because we’re migrating all the data from Tumblr. It’s billions and billions, maybe hundreds of billions or trillions of posts, and users and things like that that are all coming over. So our systems teams have been working pretty closely together. And I would say systems is also a field or a role where people tend to be very comfortable communicating online. MARK: Yeah, a couple big ceremonial moments that I have witnessed from Tumblr joining Automattic is the first P2 post and the entire company joining Slack and the point at which we decided, like, oh these divisions should all be on the same Slack together. I’m sure there were a lot of meetings around that, correct? MATT: It actually ended up being a technically driven decision as much as anything where I guess they had maintained their own Slack in the past, and that was a good thing, but it turned out it was going to be hard or even impossible to migrate most of that data, so we were like, “Well the data, the archives can’t come over, we might as well just get everyone on the same thing.” Because we had a lot of overlap already. MARK: One of the other things you mentioned in the Anil Dash episode that I found fascinating was the concept that when they’re working together in a physical office they’re not really supposed to talk about work. [laughs] Is that something that you think there is a takeaway from that can be applied within Automattic? MATT: My big takeaway — and we haven’t tried this yet with Tumblr but perhaps we will at some point — is that idea which you’ll hear in the Merritt episode. One face, one voice, the idea that if you’re on a call, if you’re on a Zoom, wherever it is, if you can have each little box, there would be one face and one voice versus a conference room or something like that, it really does make the conversation flow a lot better. MARK: Yeah, that makes a huge difference when you’re on a Zoom, and there is also a little bit of FOMO that happens on the Zooms that I’ve been on where there’s a group of people having a good time together, and you’re watching from your silo and feeling like, “Oh that looks like a fun party, I wish I was there.” MATT: [laughs] But I do think that Anil was very articulate on the importance of building those non-work connections as well. It’s something we try to do. At Automattic teams do meetups a few times per year and once a year we bring a lot of the company, the majority of the company together, [and figure out] how to leverage that in-person time for that connection. A number of people who weren’t part of the Tumblr team but part of Automattic have been rotating to work on Tumblr, both to help integrate the systems and also just accelerate hiring things. MARK: Now in a lot of the conversations you’ve had this season you’ve spoken to what I would call strong founders or people who had the control and the power within the company to shape it into whatever culture they deem best. I think a lot about how distributed work expands beyond very specific companies into this broader movement growing among mid-size and large companies and how exactly does this work when it comes to bringing distributed into a company where maybe it’s a 50-year old company on its tenth CEO? How do you get to a place where those companies really start to get into this? MATT: It’s funny because companies that old typically have multiple offices so they have a version of the distributed problem already, you know? MARK: Mhm. MATT: What I see is probably the most important thing to unlock is this idea of getting everyone around the table [being] the best way to solve a problem. That assumes being in person and being synchronous is definitely a way to solve a problem, but I see many companies, particularly older companies or managers with experience in older-style companies, see that as the only way to solve those problems. I do think that there are asynchronous ways and of course non-physically collocated ways that can actually be far superior in many situations to solve many or most problems that businesses face. I don’t consider it my personal mission to switch all companies to be able to do this but partially that’s because I feel that companies that don’t do this will die off. [laughs] So there will be a Darwinian process where companies who are able to tap into the global talent market and work asynchronously and efficiently all over the world. That’s where business is going to be and that’s how things are going to expand. Even if you have a coffee shop, if you have any ambitions to have multiple of them, you’ll need to start to expand your culture, expand the way you work, expand the way you collaborate, expand the way that insights move from customers to process to design, to innovation in a distributed fashion. I would be astounded, completely astounded, if five, ten years from now Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Netflix, the tech giants that we think of, didn’t have distributed work as a major, if not the major, part of the way their employees work together. MARK: It’s interesting. Also the broader movement of companies, if they are spreading out beyond the bigger urban centers. There’s this tipping point that has to occur as well, and this goes back to another thing from Anil’s episode. We have always compared Automattic’s distributed model to — maybe it’s a Silicon Valley company with a big campus in a boring suburban area of Mountain View or Menlo Park. And he’s saying, “Here you get to live in New York City and people want to live in New York City and that’s exciting!” So cost of living aside, there is this gravitational pull of the big, exciting, urban centers bringing people in. So it feels like maybe there has to be a tipping point still for these companies to take that plunge and to get those workers to want to spread out in other places. MARK: I think that trend and that story will be so fascinating to see play out over the 2020s as well. Because there’s a lot of data that shows pretty much all the job growth, all the economic activity that has happened in America through this incredible bull run has been really concentrated in urban centers. And if you correlate that with things that are happening politically or frustration or — there’s all sorts of things that could be correlated with that economic activity. When you start to spread that economic opportunity throughout America, throughout the world, [think about] how that changes those centers. Part of the reason New York is one of the best cities in the world is it’s a center for so many different industries. There’s great jobs there that support great quality-of-life things — great arts, great restaurants, great everything. As you start to get more of that economic abundance flowing to other places, guess what, that supports other jobs, other restaurants, other arts, other things that people will consider part of a great quality of life — schools, parks, etcetera — in other places as well. And in fact, places where you might not have the problem of San Francisco being on a small peninsula, Manhattan being an island, you know, the kind of geographic constraints that you do in some of these urban centers. MARK: Thinking about this on the broader scale, should there be a government role in promoting distributed work? I feel like we see some novelty initiatives, like Vermont’s remote worker program, where they’ll give people $10,000 to move there. Have you thought about what city, states, and government should be doing? MATT: They absolutely, crucially should be doing programs like Vermont’s. If you think of the brain drain problem, where some of the smartest, most successful people leave where they grew up, which has also economic implications and everything, anything you can do to bring those people back is huge. Economic incentives are definitely one way. I think that there’s also streamlined regulation. And then finally, just incredible broadband [laughter] and normal things you would invest in, in a city, to make quality of life good, like great schools, I think are really, really powerful. And we see it so much with our colleagues — people like to move back to where they’re from and where their family is, and that can be such a powerful thing. I don’t know if I were coming from scratch to America and looking at the top 20 cities if Houston would be at the top of my list to live in. [laughs] But because I’m from there I have such a connection to the place. I grew up there, it’s a formative part of my history. My oldest friends and family are there. It kind of beats out every other place in the world because of those things. Because I can get cool music, cool food, cool other things that you can get in New York, San Francisco, etcetera, I can get that in Houston but I can’t get those people [elsewhere]. So I think that draw of where you’re from could be great to reverse the brain drain that happens very naturally all over the world and all over America. MARK: Are there moments from this season and in conversations with other companies and with our own Automatticians where you think to yourself, “Wow, we are doing this part all wrong?” MATT: [laughs] That’s a good question. I’ve definitely been challenged and learned new things every episode. We could almost go through them one by one. But even some of the more out there stuff, like John Vechey talking about how they’re collaborating over VR. That just got me really, really excited about how much better than the gold standard today — which is probably Zoom — we could have, to connect and feel presence with each other. I really enjoyed our episode, episode four, where we dove into some of the history. Leo Widrich, talking about the downsides, the isolation of distributed work. His and Arianna’s episode, talking about the downsides [of distributed work], I really like those as well, and I hope to have some more of those in the next season where we talk about people who do not agree with this. Because I think that that actually sharpens the ideas quite a bit. Stephen Wolfram kind of blew my mind. I don’t know if you remember that one? MARK: Oh yeah. He has been doing this for almost, what, 30 years plus? What were some of the lessons from that conversation? MATT: One of the things I took away from that is the investment — making the internal tools, which also makes me think there is an incredible business opportunity to create tools which natively incorporate remote people and distributed people much, much better, because a lot of the stuff for running companies currently doesn’t. Even things like Google Calendar, which still has meeting rooms built in, and things like that. You could imagine the next generation of this being so much nicer for getting people together. If you’re in an office, you could walk around and pull five people into a meeting. The distributed version of that is kind of tricky. You end up Slacking each other and trying to pick a time and things like that. And Automattic is not too bad because people aren’t in too many meetings, so sometimes they can hop on things with a short notice. But it would be nice to have a way that pops something up and you can raise your hand — I’m available, I’m not available. And then when you reach some quorum of people who need to be at this thing, you can all just immediately hop on a call or something. And making that a little more ad hoc and on demand versus everything having to be so pre-scheduled, which sometimes can be tricky. I think a lot about speed of iteration and anything that introduces any lag time into particularly decision-making slows companies down. And you really start to look at places that are moving slower than they need to, you often find these little things, these little one-day, two-day delays that just add up to be weeks and months and then eventually years of things moving slower than a more agile team would be able to. MARK: I recall you’ve called that chess by mail in the past. MATT: Yes. Now in an office you can get the opposite problem where it is so interrupt-driven that people can’t get real work done, that deep work that Cal Newport talks about, who actually would be a cool person to get on the podcast now that we mention it. When you have too many interruptions, it’s really, really difficult to get things done. MARK: Yeah, it seems like Slack is still the main place where an impromptu discussion can happen, but again, it’s got some pros and cons there. This year was probably the first time I started to feel personally some real tension around time zones in Slack, and it became apparent to me that Slack is not the best on the time zone front. What’s your take on how to move beyond that? MATT: It’s an interesting question because I also feel like 2019 was the year where I felt like for — at least for us — Slack went from being a net contributor to our productivity, to a net detractor. We probably need to do a reset around our norms, around not being signed into Slack all the time, do not disturb notifications, not needing to reply. That just resets that a little bit more for us. One idea we’ve toyed around with and discussed before is just every person, regardless of your role, not signing into these real-time communications for the first couple hours of their day. So you’re still working but staying off email, Slack, other things that are more communication-driven and really looking at, “What’s the most important thing for me to get done today?” and really checking that off the list. MARK: It’s interesting when you talk about cultural norms. Cate Huston from Automattic talks a little bit about autonomy, and the choose-your-own-adventure nature of some of this work, or how different teams work. And I wondered, should we be asserting ourselves more to new employees when people come in pushing the Automattic Way? I think it has been great in terms of people coming in and being able to define what works best for them and their team, but I also wonder whether some of the things that have previously been proven to work have been maybe not completely bought into. MATT: One hundred percent. And that is something — we’re going to make a lot of changes to Distributed.blog next year, and I’d like to get some — almost like some free manager courses. Maybe we can use the Sensei plugin for WordPress. Also, Automattic could be 100 times better at this. I was really impressed with some of the stories of how Glitch, how InVision, how others do onboarding, for both new employees or periodically bringing existing people through things. Training is an area where we’ve only scratched the surface. And actually one of the hires I’m most excited about that we made in 2019 at Automattic was our new Head of Learning and Development, Michael Norman, whose learning and development is looking at this problem around onboarding, feedback, skill-sharing — everything to do with knowledge, which in a knowledge-worker company is something that I think we could be a lot more deliberate on. And, of course, in Automattic fashion, whatever we figure out we will try to open source. MARK: Excellent. One other big thing with Automattic was Automattic raised $300 million this year from Salesforce Ventures. And I’m curious what fundraising is like when you’re a company with no central headquarters. MATT: [laughs] I think it throws some people off. MARK: Those coffee shop meetings are a little difficult? MATT: Yes, yes. So it is nice to have a dedicated space where you can go — you can bring people into. The reality is also a lot of these things, you’re going to their office. [laughs] But it is nice. There was a time maybe in previous Automattic fundraising when we did have an office, people would come into this empty office and you could almost see it run through their head, “Hey, is this a real company? Is this a pyramid scheme or something? There’s no one here.” So that’s all gone. That doesn’t really pop up as much anymore. But for me, I would say the distributed aspect can make it a little more challenging. I spent a lot of time on planes this year, going to those meetings. It also drew me away from the product and engineering work that is my native talent, or thing I’m drawn to, certainly my history with WordPress and Automattic, and it took me away from that a little more than I would like for the year. But it was super, super important. This fundraising really sets up Automatic’s independence for the foreseeable future and allows us to invest in what I think the opportunity is, and other people agree, is a really, really huge tens-of-billions-of-dollars opportunity out there. It allows us to go for it but the actual fundraising process is one which is, well, just incredibly inefficient in so many ways. And I hope to see things change there more in the future, particularly for private companies. MARK: With the fundraising process, did you have a period in the past where you had to spend a lot of that time rationalizing the distributed model compared to this time where it’s more, “Of course, of course you have a distributed team, now let’s talk about the business,” kind of thing? MATT: It’s completely changed. So I think both at the high end and the low end. At the high end you have companies, like many of the ones that we had this season — InVision, GitLab, GitHub, Toptal — there’s so many out there that really show — Upwork — an incredible scale. So you’re getting to thousands of employees, billions in revenue often, with the distributed team. So people aren’t really worried at that end anymore. But the other thing that I think has changed is that folks who work also at the seed level — so invest in seed and series A — and a lot of these investors look at companies both large and small, I’m hearing from investors at that end that almost every company is, if not doing a distributed model, then a hybrid model. So maybe the founders are in San Francisco. And by the way, if you’re a founder or a CEO, I do think you need to be where the other companies in your space are, or where the funders are going to be or things like that. So there is going to be a lot of time in those clusters of those things — technology clusters in our industry that you’ll need to beat. But they are not hiring in the Bay Area anymore and they’re not even trying to. If you draw that line out a few years, there’s going to be 10 or 100 times as many fully distributed, ultra-successful, large-scale companies five years from now than there are today. And that is exciting. And one of the things I wanted to do on Distributed.blog is have a company directory that talks about a few public stats about the scale and approach that some of these companies we have mentioned and had on the podcast have taken, and then of course if they have been on the podcast we can link to it. That I think will be dozens of companies today. And at some point we’re probably going to need to retire it over the coming years, it will just be too many. I also like it as an idea, though, as kind of a no-fee jobs board. There are some jobs boards dedicated to the distributed work, but I think just the links to the companies, because all companies have hiring pages, could be kind of a nice thing for people who are looking to switch to work in one of these. And then to the extent that the founder or CEO or HR person or someone from the company has been on the podcast, what a great way to learn about the culture and approach of the company. MARK: Speaking of jobs, what are some tips, what’s a script for people to use if they want to, if they are out job hunting, and they want to make sure they’re building in remote work as a piece of their job? I feel like a lot of distributed work in the future is going to be driven by worker demand, which is insisting that remote work is a piece of what’s available to them, or flexible work. What are some tips that you have to bring this up in the hiring process? MATT: One tip I do give, sometimes we see people for whom the bulk of their application is that they want to be remote. And that’s not really compelling on the other side of the table. [laughs] This is just general advice for applying for anything. But if you can make your application about why you’re excited about the mission of the company — the products, what you feel is your unique contribution to the products, and the mission and the vision for where the company is going, your experience with a technology stack or their products, or you’re a user, how you supported it. Those sorts of things. So if you can really personalize the application — I hate to say it, but that would put you ahead of 95% of applicants. You’d be surprised how much of applying for a job is very much spray and pray, where people are obviously just sending out their application to dozens, if not hundreds, of people or companies without much personalization. Some of my favorites for applying for Automattic is when people actually make a WordPress website and they make a little mini website about their application or about wanting the job. In fact, we had a colleague of ours, Dave, who was previously a designer at Automattic and then reapplied, and I think he must have known that because he made a website for his reapplication. So in addition to his going to the top of the list because he was an awesome colleague before, it showed that he wanted the job. And that really means a lot. There’s some advice, if you’re in an in-office job and you’d like to have some more flexibility, that I might have first read in Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Work Week, which was forever ago. But first, be amazing at your job. [laughs] If you’re clearly one of the highest performing people on your team, I think that gives you a lot of built-in credibility and currency. And then talk to your boss, your manager, about maybe taking a day a week. And once you get that permission, make sure that day you work even harder than the days you’re in the office, so that it’s really, really clear that there is no downside to the company. If you’re not really respecting the work part of remote work, it can ruin it for your team or the whole company, where people start to associate it with slacking off. So if you can set a good example there, and make sure to hold any colleagues accountable — that if they aren’t going to be in the office, they need to contribute just as much if not more — that helps a lot for warming up organizations to be more inclusive of that non-in-office approach. MARK: I want to go to InVision CEO Clark Valberg and your episode with him, talking about the mental models that we build of the people we interact with and how face time helps us increase the fidelity of those mental models. Have you ever been in a situation where you’re having a conversation with someone, text, audio, or even video, [when] you thought they felt a certain way and then, once you meet with them face to face, realized you had the totally wrong impression? MATT: A hundred percent. Although, I will say that that comes more from text than audio or video. Audio is actually — particularly when it’s high fidelity, like you’re not on “Can you hear me now, can you hear me now,” it’s a good connection, good microphone like we’re using — you can get so much from someone’s tone of voice, their approach, etcetera. It’s really much higher bandwidth. [With] text, even the best emoji users don’t always communicate as well, and it’s very easy to bring your own point of view or your own view of how things are going into the conversation. So you might view something as being annoyed or short or curt when it’s not. So the ability to hop quickly onto an audio call or a video call is really key for compensating for that misreading, which is very natural in text communication. MARK: I think this is the second time we’ve hit on something where it’s like there is a need for an impromptu call or an impromptu video conversation that is not so rigid in these scheduled Google calendar slots. Whoever solves this will be in good shape. Going back to Leo Widrich, formerly of Buffer. He talks a bit about isolation, and for me that’s one of those things I read about but I feel like I wouldn’t know if it’s actually impacting me in a negative way because it is such a slow creep when it’s happening. Do you grapple with isolation in your own work and life? MATT: I am 16 years into working with people remotely from the start of WordPress, maybe even a little bit before that. So I feel like for me, I have a lot of experience now both developing online relationships — the kind of chatter and back and forth that can help deepen that — but also having a strong social network outside of that. I think that’s very much key. One thing that can happen really nicely if you’re around people you work with every day and you like them, is that also turns into your friendships and your social network. I think that can be really positive, it can also be a mixed bag. It can make it more difficult to give critical performance feedback or if someone gets a promotion, that can change the dynamics of people who used to be peers, now being managers or responsible for compensation, or whatever it might be. It’s really nice to have friendships that are just friendships. Neither of you is economically entangled with the other or reporting to the other or any of those other things that introduce a layer of complexity into human relationships. So I encourage everyone, even if you really love the people you collocate with every day, to have that. It’s actually one of the cool things I think about co-working is because you can be physically present with people who aren’t at the same company as you, you can have that, get the best of both worlds, get the people who you like going to lunch with a few times a week, and learn from different companies, but not actually overlap in your work-work. Now, the one thing I do miss — it’s almost like the opposite of what Anil suggested where he said no talking about work at office lunches. I do feel like the catch-up over a meal with a colleague does get you something in terms of the zeitgeist of what’s going on in their part of the company or the world, which is hard to recreate any other way, part of the reason I find it so valuable to have a less formal catch-up with colleagues. MARK: To that same point — Automattic: too many in-person meetups or not enough in-person meetups? MATT: I might have to look at the data to see exactly how many we’re doing. I know that we got to a point where we might have had too many a few years ago and we decided to start dialing it back a little bit. Not in a super explicit way but maybe moving teams from every nine months, from every six months, or even greater cadences than a year to balance out the total amount of travel time that people are doing. But I don’t know, I don’t think it’s the amount of meetups, it’s how you use the time. MARK: Yes. Several of your guests talk quite a bit about that, in which thinking about the time as a very specific thing, and only addressing the things that can only happen in person versus trying to get a lot of work done, or a specific project that you probably could have done on your own, from your own homes. MATT: Where I see teams get negative feedback on their meetups is often where [there] was a mismatch of expectations. If your goal in the meetup is to bond as people and get to know each other better, make that the intention going in, and then everyone is expecting that. I get sometimes that we’re, some people were expecting to have a hackathon meetup and some people were expecting to have a team bonding meetup and the distance between whatever actually happens ends up being dissatisfaction for folks. I think that you also need to be explicit about the goals and what you’re going to try, because people, rightly, are taking [time] away from their family and their home, so they want to feel like there is something that they’re getting out of it that they couldn’t have done in a distributed manner. So by being explicit about those goals ahead of time, you also have that conversation about other ways you can solve that problem, things you can do before the meetup to try to address it. And I think it’s still okay if you try something and it doesn’t work in a meetup. I actually find that people have a lot of open-mindedness to an agreed-upon goal, trying something new, and it’s not going to work 100% of the time, you know? We definitely do this at our Grand Meetups. I tell people, “Hey, we’re going to try a bunch of new stuff this year, it’s not all going to work, that’s okay, that’s how we’re going to find the things that do work and we’ll do them again.” And the things that don’t work, now we’ve eliminated that from the possible solution space and next time we can say “Alright we tried that, it didn’t work, we’re going to try something different to solve this problem.” So it’s okay if things don’t work if you have the shared expectation about something being an experiment and what the actual goal was going in. MARK: Great. Matt, thanks again for sharing your experiences with us. MATT: This has been very exciting. I also want to take this opportunity to thank you and the team that has made the Distributed.blog website, the podcast just a really, really rich resource. I love reading the posts that Cole and others do for each episode. I get something out of it that actually wasn’t in the audio, which I think is a real testament to [how] we’re trying to make the learnings available to as many people as possible and hopefully shift how work is done all over the world, which I think will be a positive impact on the globe. MARK: So there is a lot more coming from the podcast in 2020. Matt will be speaking with author Morra Aarons-Mele about what distributed work means for introverted people, Merritt Anderson from GitHub on how distributed work can empower people with non-traditional backgrounds, Ann Dunwoody, the U.S. Army’s first female four-star general on running logistics on what might be the world’s largest distributed organization, Xapo CEO Wences Casares on the future of work on the blockchain, and many more. MATT: Thank you to Mark Armstrong for joining me today, and for the folks at Automattic and Charts & Leisure who make this podcast happen. Most of all, thanks to you, the listeners, for spending your time with us every couple of weeks. It’s been a joy for me personally to hear our guests’ stories, and I’m honored you’ve chosen to invite us into your device to share them with you. We’re going to hear a lot more great stories about the future of work in 2020, and it’s going to be pretty awesome. On the next episode I’ll be speaking with Basecamp CEO Jason Fried about the frantic pace that defines life at many startups, and whether or not it has to be that way, and how distributed work might help to alleviate that pressure. Basecamp, formerly known as 37signals, was one of the pioneers of distributed work and their book, Remote, is still one of the best ones out there. I’d like to wish a happy, happy holidays to everybody celebrating this time of year. Thank you for listening, and see you in the next decade.
57 minutes | a year ago
Episode 16: Glitch CEO Anil Dash on Strengthening Values in a Distributed Startup
Read more about Anil Dash in “To Remake Tech, Remake the Tech Company“ Distributed Podcast: Hear Matt Mullenweg in conversation with Anil Dash. Anil Dash didn’t like the direction the web was going, so he joined a tech company that promised to take web development back to its indie roots. That company became Glitch, a semi-distributed company based in New York City. In this episode, Matt and Anil talk about the good old days of blogging and how the ideals of those pioneers inform the way Glitch treats its employees and its product. The full episode transcript is below. *** MATT MULLENWEG: A lot of tech companies talk about prizing “people over profits,” but Glitch is a startup that is serious about these ideals, and holds itself publicly accountable for sustaining this commitment as the company grows. That’s partially because Glitch’s CEO is Anil Dash. Anil’s an old acquaintance of mine — he’s one of the early pioneers of blogging. Over the last twenty years he’s developed a reputation as something of a tech prophet — not just for predicting what’s going to happen next, but for holding the industry’s feet to the fire. Glitch is a partially-distributed company that runs a social platform for building and sharing web applications. To do that, they’ve developed a workplace environment that centers around employees’ well-being. I’m interested to hear from him how his company has aimed to go beyond platitudes and create a genuinely equitable and respectful workplace, and to learn where their semi-distributed structure fits into that goal. Alright, let’s get started. MATT: Anil, you have been blogging forever. ANIL DASH: [laughs] Roughly, yes. In geological time, it’s short, but in human years it’s 20 years. MATT: How did you start and what keeps you going? ANIL: People in my life were tired of hearing me rant about things. So they were like, “Go put it somewhere else.” [laughs] And at the time I had a really long commute. I was commuting by train an hour and a half each way. I mean it was really — it was like three hours a day on a train and I was going nuts. MATT: Wow. ANIL: You didn’t have Wi-Fi back then. So I had a giant Dell laptop and I was like, “I’ve got to learn how to do more with HTML.” I knew the basics but I wanted to do it. I would do it, literally just practicing on local on my laptop, on Internet Explorer 5 or something, whatever it was at the time, and I thought “Oh, I could take these rants in my head and put them out here onto the internet.” Right about the time that I had that idea in maybe summer of ’99, I saw the first couple sites. I was like, “Oh, this is what I could do. I could organize it this way.” I saw Peter Merholz’s site, PeterMe, and then very quickly discovered a couple of others. And so these pioneers were doing it, and I thought, I don’t think I can write like them but I think I’ve got something to say. It really felt like it was the right time too because I had started in maybe July and by September the Pyra team had built Blogger and the Danga team had built LiveJournal. Even just the fact that there was software to me meant “OK, this is legit.” MATT: So 20 years later? ANIL: 20 years later. MATT: Dashes.com. ANIL: Yes. MATT: Why do you blog now? ANIL: One, it’s part of how I think. My wife will always say, “You’re staring off into space like you’re writing something.” She just knows that it’s this thing where I’m collecting my thoughts. Certainly one of the most important things to me is, I think better and organize my thoughts better and share my ideas better when I write it, and it introduces a rigor to what I’m sharing. I love that push to accuracy and push to quality. It makes my thinking stronger. Some of it’s just, I like to write. For a long time, I had no other place to do it. I was lucky, after I had written a million words online people asked me to write for things. [laughter] You know? I got a column in Wired and I was like, “Where were you all ten years ago?” MATT: Cool. ANIL: But nobody was trying to hire me to write so I might as well put it out there. And that’s still true. MATT: What would make you stop blogging? ANIL: Well I’ve slowed down. So I would say the thing that slows me down is, well, life, right? So I’ve got to spend time with my child and I’ve got a company to run and I’ve got — the priorities have shifted. I can’t just say I’m going to stay up all night and finish this 3,000-word piece like I used to. But at the same time, the biggest thing chipping away at it is having other venues and other platforms. I resisted doing a podcast for the first 15 years of the medium. [laughs] I think the week podcasts were invented somebody was like, “You should go do one,” and I was like, “Ah, I don’t know.” MATT: And now you have your own little studio. ANIL: Yeah, exactly. Then I started thinking about the craft that… The same is true actually of other social media. Like Twitter in particular I spend a lot of time on. And this is a strange thing to say but I think you’re probably one of the few people who can appreciate it — I care about being good at it. I think people are like, “That’s an absurd thing to say,” like, “Isn’t this disposable, isn’t this ephemeral?” I don’t feel that way at all. I have Twitter threads that have been going for six years. I am very mindful of how I use my audience, who I retweet and who I amplify. So I think very much of that as a body of work too. I never delete tweets. Again, same thing, I am certain somebody is going to go back and be like, “You said this thing that’s terrible,” and hopefully I’ve learned since then. But I very much want there to be a body of work between all the things I’ve done that I look at on a years — and now decades — timescale. I don’t think very many people look at their YouTube channel or their Snapchats [that] are like “Yeah, how is this going to age in 20 years?” But I have that luxury so I try to do what I do with that in mind. MATT: As you mentioned, you’re running a company now — Glitch. ANIL: Yes. MATT: How is that culture of blogging or writing part of Glitch’s culture? ANIL: So Glitch is the latest name and current incarnation of a company that started as Fog Creek Software in the year 2000, founded by Joel Spolsky and Michael Pryor. Joel is, to me, one of the all-time legends of blogging, one of the greatest people to ever do it. Joel started Joel on Software in ’98, I think. MATT: Super early, yes. ANIL: Yes. I would read Joel’s blog and he would talk about a company where they cared about the software they made, cared about how they treated their people, were very thoughtful about the work that they did. They did not want to be just another dot-com, which at the time that was what was in vogue. I thought, “Wow, that would be an amazing place to work.” And also, “I would never pass their coding test.” That was the other thing I thought about the company. And in late ’99 — December ’99 — they had a blogger’s dinner in New York City, which is a funny thing to say because the premise was — MATT: Of all the bloggers. ANIL: All the bloggers, right. And we fit around two tables in a Mexican restaurant. You fast forward over the next 10 years and they had built some products and really established a culture, and Joel reached out and it was just like, “We’ve got something to show you.” I saw the prototype of what became Glitch. You could have live-in-your-browser code. And as you coded and typed your code out, it would live-deploy without you having to run anything, do anything, touch anything. You didn’t have to ask somebody down the hall for the access to the AWS account. It just worked. I still have the notes from that first meeting, and we were looking at them not long ago, we had had some folks join and I wanted to show them where it all came from. That first meeting that we had of the demo of it was — we talked about, well, we need to have a social network wrapped around this so you can find the apps, and you need to be able to remix the apps so you can redo it, and we need to have multiplayer editing, so more than one person can edit at the same time. And we had this list, and we made these bullet points in the first hour, all of which we did, all of which are the heart of the Glitch experience. It was really like few moments in my career. It actually felt a lot like when we first saw blogs. I first saw the blogging tools and it was like, “Oh, this is going to be it. This is… I don’t know if what we’re building is going to be the way it happens, but this way of creating the web is going to be how we make the web.” It was really, really clear. I remember really early on, when I was talking to Mena Trott, who had led the creation of Moveable Type, and was one of the bloggers that influenced me most, with her voice and her tone. I had said, “Someday there’s going to be a million blogs.” And she just looks at me and she’s like, “You dumb ass, there’s going to be like a hundred million,” you know? [laughter] And it was just such a great, both affirmation, and also “This is so much bigger than we can imagine.” I had that feeling with Glitch, which was — I think a lot of us had lamented the web we make. That we have apps on our phones, and what I always experienced with the apps on my phone. Everybody complains about [how] the algorithms aren’t fair, and there’s all kinds of awful content being shared, and misinformation and these things. What I miss most is, I look at my phone and I look at the apps and I don’t know who made any
71 minutes | a year ago
Episode 15: Inside the Grand Meetup
Read more about the Grand Meetup in “The Importance of IRL in a World of Screens.” Distributed Podcast: Inside the 2019 Grand Meetup On this episode of the Distributed podcast, we get an insider’s look at the Grand Meetup, Automattic’s annual weeklong all-staff event, where employees have an opportunity to collaborate, learn from one another, and hang out face-to-face. Folks from across the company share what makes this gathering so special, talk about social cohesion in the context of a large distributed company, and reflect on what’s great (and what’s tough) about the distributed lifestyle. The full episode transcript is below. *** Mark Armstrong: Okay go. Josepha: The song that’s in my head right now is “Good morning. Good morning.” My name is Josepha Haden Chomphosy. I shouldn’t say it like a question. That is my name. My name is Josepha. Mark: Great to see you. Thank you for stopping by the Automattic podcast booth. Josepha what do you do with Automattic? Josepha: Great question. A little bit of everything. I am the lead of the .Organization Division, which is the division that supports and helps to guide a lot of our open-source work with the WordPress project itself. /// Mark: Who are you? Tell me your name. Aaron Douglas: My name is Aaron Douglas. I am a Mobile Wrangler for Automattic. My official job title is actually Chief Tater Tot Officer — I neglected to change that and it just stuck. I work on the WooCommerce mobile app as my primary thing, but everywhere around Automattic I try to help out where I can. /// Mark: OK. Here we are in the hallway again. What’s your name and what do you do at Automattic? Brandon Kraft: Hi, I’m Brandon Kraft. I’m a Code Wrangler working with our Jetpack plugin. /// Mark: What is your name? Sheri: Sheri Bigelow. Mark: And what do you do at Automattic? Sheri: I am an Excellence Wrangler. /// Rocío Valdivia: My name is Rocío Valdivia. I am from Spain and I’m a Community Wrangler at Automattic. /// Achaessa James: I’m Achaessa and I’m with the Legal team. /// Will Brubaker: So my name is Will Brubaker. I am the Chief Mechanical Officer. /// Erin Casali: So hello, I’m Erin Casali, often referred as “Folletto,” and I currently work as the Design Lead of Jetpack. And how long? It’s been a while now, six years. Mark: Where are we now, here? Erin: So we are — I think — in Orlando, because we are inside a hotel, and have been a while, so I’m not entirely sure where we are? Your hotels look all the same. But we’re in Orlando. I lost count of time. I think we are on day three or four of the Grand Meetup. Mark: It really is a blur, isn’t it? Erin: It is. Mark: Thank you for being here. Matt Mullenweg: Howdy howdy, I’m Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic, and the host of the Distributed podcast. Those voices you just heard? Those were Automatticians — folks who work for Automattic — and today we’re going to be hearing from them about this year’s Grand Meetup, and more broadly, what distributed work means to them. Back in September, Automattic held its annual Grand Meetup, which is the one time during the entire year that pretty much everyone at Automattic gets together in one place. The other 51 weeks of the year, we all work from different places all over the world — over 70 countries now. So this is a chance for some of us to meet face-to-face for the first time, and for everyone to catch up with old friends, discuss our work and align around our goals, and hear great talks from folks like Stephen Wolfram (who was a guest on this podcast a few weeks back). We set up a recording booth at the meetup and talked to a bunch of folks from around the company to hear about their experiences with distributed work. My colleagues Mark Armstrong and Ben Huberman were on the ground, asking questions throughout the meetup. Mark and Ben are from Automattic’s Editorial team, and they’ve also been helping out a ton with this podcast. We’ll kick things off with some Automatticians talking about why meetups matter for distributed teams, then get into an interview with Megan Marcel, our Director of Global Events & Sponsorships, about what it takes to pull off this huge event with so many people — I think we had around 900 this time. Then we’ll hear some remote work tips, and finish with some stories about why these folks have chosen the distributed lifestyle. OK, let’s do it. Take it away, Mark. Mark: OK, thank you, Matt. Now that we’ve met some of our colleagues from Automattic, let’s go deeper and learn a little bit more about their experiences at the Grand Meetup. If I can set the scene a little bit, Ben and I stationed ourselves at different tables outside in the hallways of this conference room in Orlando — just a few miles from Walt Disney World. We just flagged down people as we saw them, or people would see us with a microphone and say, “Hey, what’s that? Can I get interviewed?” I have to say it was super fun to have an excuse to pull people aside and interview them and ask them about their experience at the Grand Meetup. It can be such a nerve-wracking experience to be surrounded by all the people you work with, so it’s just fun to take a step back and look at the scene, and ask some questions of each other on what it’s all about and why we’re even there in the first place. Mark: Now we’re here at the Grand Meetup in Orlando, Florida. What is the Grand Meetup? Josepha: The Grand Meetup is basically like a company all-hands. I think that’s how corporate places call it, where we get everybody from the company who’s able and willing together in one place to do some additional training, additional team-building, and a lot of [the things that have] to happen when you work in a distributed company. So when you work in a distributed company, every time that you interact with your colleagues via text, or however you are away from them, you are taking out of your social bank account with them. And so when you get people together, that’s when you have the opportunity to see each other face to face, remind everybody that you’re all human beings, and fill that social capital back up, because it’s so hard to communicate via text. That’s one of the main benefits of bringing everybody together this way. Of course we have a lot of trainings and a lot of opportunities to have high-bandwidth conversations. But I think that’s one of the main benefits, and it’s almost a side-effect benefit. I don’t think anyone thinks actively about that when they bring everybody together for this. /// Mark: When did you join Automattic? Achaessa: November 1 in 2018, so I give a flash talk this year. It’s my first GM. Mark: Fantastic. So what how has it been so far? Achaessa: The GM? I love it. I love it. I’m meeting all these people who I’ve been working with all this time and it’s so awesome. It’s like the best in the world. /// Will: It’s a very energizing experience to be here. My job is very demanding, and my life is very demanding, and everything around us is very demanding. I start to get de-energized in about July or August, and it’s also like things are physically — it’s hot outside, and things are more difficult in this time of year, at least for me. But then I get here, and I get around people and I ask questions there that are on my mind and what I’m passionate about, and I want a real answer here. And you know what? I get a real answer, and I get an answer that inspires me and makes me want to go home and work harder. You know what? I’m empowered now to fix the things that have exhausted me, and we’re going to start over, and we’re going to move towards the next year’s goals, and I’m very clear what those are. And that’s what this does for me, is that it’s a reset. It energizes. /// Ben: So right now we are in Orlando for the annual Grand Meetup. What does the Grand Meetup mean to you? Rocío Valdivia: Wow. The Grand Meetup means a lot of things to me. I love the energy. I come back home with all my batteries charged for the rest of the year. I’m very aligned with the values of this company and I’m very aligned with the kind of people that I find here in general. Nobody’s normal, right, and everybody’s different in so many different ways. And in this company you can be however you want to be, and [be] nice to each other. And something that I will highlight as well is that everybody helps each other. I love that. And what I value the most about the GM is the connections that I create in person, that I can use them. It’s like I take advantage of all the connections I create in person during the GM the rest of the year. I learn more what people do. For example, I sit down and I meet someone during lunch and hey, this person just tells me that [they] work in marketing or [they’re] working on this and that. And then we have a conversation and we realized that we have so many things in common. And then for example, I am marketing seeking help maybe with WordCamps, and then we start planning. “Oh we should do this. We should do that.” And I love it. Because normally those kinds of things don’t happen during the year because you are so focused on your daily-basis job that you can not find the time to just hang out in different teams’ channels. I don’t normally do it because [I am] so busy. Right? /// Mark: What was your first Grand Meetup like? Josepha: Oh, my first Grand Meetup was terrifying. I’m a wild extrovert, especially compared to a distributed technology company standard
33 minutes | a year ago
Episode 14: InVision CEO Clark Valberg on Distributed Design
Read more about Clark Valberg in “Building the Tools that Bring the Screen to Life.” Distributed Podcast: Hear Matt Mullenweg in conversation with Clark Valberg. InVision CEO Clark Valberg needed a tool to help his distributed team collaborate on design projects. So he created it — and it became the company’s flagship product, one that every Fortune 100 company now uses. In this episode, Clark joins our host Matt Mullenweg to discuss how he built his distributed company, and how that structure informs InVision’s collaborative-design products. The full episode transcript is below. *** MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy howdy. Welcome to the Distributed podcast. I’m your host, Matt Mullenweg. My guest this week is Clark Valberg, the founder and CEO of InVision, a company that makes a collaborative design platform that’s very popular with distributed teams. It does ideation, design, prototyping, sharing… and it all lives in the cloud. No more emailing files back and forth — it’s pretty slick. Clark founded the company seven years ago in Brooklyn, and now they have over 5 million users at places like Airbnb, Amazon, Netflix, Starbucks, and my company, Automattic. Like Automattic, InVision is fully distributed. And they’re similar to us in size, so I’m interested to hear from Clark about his experience leading and growing a distributed workforce. Alrighty. Let’s get started. MATT MULLENWEG: Welcome, Clark. CLARK VALBERG: Hey, great to be here. MATT: Y’all are one of the other big fully distributed companies. Tell me a little bit first about what InVision does for people in a cave who might not know yet. And tell me a little bit about the scale of what y’all are doing in the — CLARK: That was my opening to you, by the way. Oh y’all are one of the other largest remote companies. This is a constant debate, by the way, internally, which one is bigger. CLARK: Okay so Clark is the CEO and Founder of a company called InVision. InVision is a design collaboration platform. Most of the products — I hope most of the products — that you use everyday, if they’re well designed, if you love them, if you feel excited about how they work and how they fit into your life, it’s because the design of the product is good. And so that’s where InVision comes in. We are the place where those products are designed, tested. We’re the stakeholders that make that product great, are engaged, we are both the design tool and the place. MATT: So if you were to describe what it’s like to use an InVision product. Let’s say I’m a designer, I’m collaborating with another designer, what will we do? CLARK: If you are a digital product designer, you need a place to design, you need the place to actually create the screens that make your product beautiful. That’s InVision. MATT: So before, I would do this in Photoshop on my computer and now it’s happening in a web app? CLARK: Photoshop or a cave wall, depending on how old school you are. So yes, you would’ve done that there and now you do that [in] InVision and then InVision is also the place where that design comes to life in a collaborative sense. It’s the place where you put your design so that others can look at it, engage with it, give you feedback on it. The question you’re asking is fundamental to this transition of design altogether, which I can talk about for a long time, but design is no longer a job to be done, it’s now an organizational discipline in a world where the screen has become the most important place, or one of the most important places in the world. MATT: When and how did design become important to you? CLARK: I ran an agency and dealt with what was the general operating dynamic of agencies at that time, and probably still today in many respects. You have a client, they have an idea of what they want, they have some business problem they’re trying to solve and you’re trying to put together some kind of a requirements document, some kind of a contract that hopes to look into the future and imagine everything they’ll ever need to accomplish whatever business goal they’re trying to accomplish, and define that today, or at least in the next few hours until we can get this thing signed and move forward. So this idea of up-front definition bothered me, that was a deep intellectual itch. How can I, instead of creating a contract that separates me from the client and hopefully mitigates the legal risk of giving them exactly what I told them that I would give them, and we’re charging by the hour, how could I align my values and go on this journey with them together side by side? How could I act as their guide toward the business reality that we would ultimately end up discovering together? Any time there’s a client, there’s that dynamic of — you know what you want in your head; it’s impossible for me to get that out of your head and get it into my head. And by the way, even if I could, hopefully if we do something right that will change over time, the more articulate that vision of the future becomes. MATT: How did this agency look? Clients, were you meeting them in person, were your colleagues in person? CLARK: Both. It was my first dip of toes into the world of being able to work with people seamlessly online. So a lot of the fundamental inventions, collaborative inventions that we have here at InVision — 900 people, totally remote — came from that world of just trying to make clients happy at a much smaller scale, sometimes remote. MATT: How big did the agency get before you switched to doing the product work as your primary thing? CLARK: The biggest ever? I think it got to 25 tops. So it was a small agency. The word “boutique” sounds much better than small, doesn’t it? MATT: There’s probably a lot of people [who are] part of or running agencies, listening to this [who have] that dream of switching to be a product company. What advice do you have for them? What made it work for you? Because there’s so many examples of that not working. CLARK: I’ll tell you, I did not have a vision of becoming a product company. It happened as an extension to the reason why we started this agency in the first place. So the agency was founded on, “Hey, instead of ending up in these weird litigious, semi-adversarial relationships with clients, what if we could figure out a different operating model, a different communication model?” So we started by building prototypes, and we would write those prototypes in code, we would show them to clients early, we’d be able to have a diverse conversation across the organization, instead of just dealing with one project manager, we’d be able to embrace all the different business leaders that represented the parts of the business that we were trying to serve with the software. We’d have holistic, multi-dimensional, diverse conversations. That was the whole idea. I wanted to be an agency that loves its clients. I want to be on the same side of the table. These were all the different key words, [laughs] the key phrases that we used to make ourselves sound different and differentiate. But I think it sprung from a place of what we saw wrong with the industry. And then that tool called a prototype just evolved over time. And at some point someone — not me — said “Hey, what if we just took designs out of Photoshop and connected them together and turned them into a little simulation that was almost as high-fidelity as the coded prototypes that you were building? It would be almost good enough and probably you could — we’ll just run it as an experiment but it’ll take an eighth of the time to build and maybe we can use that as a communication device.” MATT: Who was the first client you tried that on? CLARK: It was a company in upstate New York. So this is one of our few fully, fully remote engagements, like we went to see them maybe once a quarter but other than that everything was happening online. I’ll reserve the name but a large education-product company. They created educational products that they sold into school districts. And we were building essentially a totally custom ERP solution for them — every part of their entire business modeled into a piece of software, every experience that exists between two people in that entire company was modeled into a screen some place. MATT: Wow. CLARK: So a very sophisticated piece of software. And it would have been an absolute nightmare had we not employed this process because there were just too many stakeholders with too great a diversity of perspective on what needed to be built, and it just had to be a conversation that happened over time. This was a “Let’s try this new thing. What do we call this new thing?” I think literally the time that we’ve been on this call so far was the time it took us to come up with the name InVision. [laughter] I think it was the second idea, like, “Oh, we’ll just change it later, that’s fine.” And we had absolutely no interest, almost an explicit disinterest, in having anyone outside of the company know what this thing was. This was just for internal use only. Somebody even said “Hey, what if we wrote a blog post about this? What if we..?” And once it worked, once we saw that it would totally change the game for us, and it really did in very profound ways, this is like a whole new movement for agencies, this would be a cool thing to talk about. I said, “Absolutely not. This is our differentiator, this is our competitive advantage in this agency, maybe let’s just keep this under hat.” MATT: Ha! CLARK: Luckily someone — it’s good to have a lot of people who disagree with you all the time around you, otherwise you end up being a victim of your own vision. MATT: So at this time, it sounds like you have an office and colleagues in that office. At what point did you switch to being fully remote and using these tools to enable that? CLARK: Even the agency was hybrid. And in New York City, my entire movement into a fully remote world — again, never had a vision for it, didn’t think this was the future. I’m still not sure if it’s the future for everyone, okay, this is a matter of significant debate and worthy of debate. It was a necessity thing. So the agency was a hybrid but let’s call it a reluctant hybrid, like “Hey, we can’t find enough people in New York so we’ll hire people who aren’t here and we’ll just deal with the overhead and managing that overhead, that collaborative overhead as a cost of doing business.” When we transitioned into InVision, so yada, yada, yada — we’re yada yada yada-ing through the birth of an entire company — but this product is cool, what if other people liked it? Let’s put it in front of the world and see if they bite. They did. We raised some capital and then we had to transition out of the agency and into the product company. I sold the agency to a — basically a hostile takeover. I sold it to my wife for a dollar. Literally, it’s a whole big story where the company, InVision, sort of launched its for-pay model on my wedding day. So here we are with $1.1 million and an office that my co-founder and I are sitting back-to-back in a tiny Regus space in midtown Manhattan. I think it was the year that Google opened up the Google megaplex — I don’t know if it has an official name, but the building in Chelsea? MATT: Yes. CLARK: We just found that every conversation we were having with an engineer, designer, anybody, everyone — they were also talking to Google, they were also talking to Yahoo and Facebook. Anybody with a New York office with a more fashionable name and better ping-pong tables to our no-ping-pong tables was just destroying us for talent, and I found that we were spending all of our time wining and dining engineers we weren’t hiring. MATT: Wow. CLARK: And so we got together after about three weeks of slogging through this talent thicket, and asked ourselves an existential question. We did what we called a pre-postmortem — I’m sure you’ve heard this idea. Let’s look into the future, let’s imagine the things that don’t work out and let’s guess, based on what we know today, what are the likely sources of that failure? And the biggest one for me was not spending enough time on the things that really make a business successful. At the end of the day, product-market fit is where it’s at, at this critical birthing stage. We have to get a group of people vehemently, maybe violently excited about this new product and talking about it to people. It has to have independent lift, it has to have word of mouth, groundswell. And what will we probably be doing instead of focusing on the design of the product, the marketing of the product? We’ll probably be trying to hire engineers and moving way too slow. And we just opened up the envelope. And again, it may not have been me, somebody thought, “What if we just hired the people that we had worked with as contractors in the agency?” We had a pretty significant bench of folks that we pulled in who were full-time other places and just did little side jobs for us in exotic, far-flung destinations like Phoenix, Arizona… Houston, Texas. Places that were secondary, tertiary tech markets, folks that we just knew, knew from conferences, because they were developers in the same language that we were developers in — what if we just hired them full time? So we said, what if we just did this at scale? What if we somehow figured out how to make collaboration work where everyone was remote? And I had a piece of advice. I don’t know if he even knows that he gave me this advice and how pivotal it was for me. Do you know David Cancel from Drift? I called him up. He had just sold a company to HubSpot. I ran the idea by him, like, “Hey, what do you think about this remote idea? What do you think about this talent hack — instead of hiring people in New York, we’ll hire them anywhere. We’ll actually pay them above market.” That was our thesis originally, to pay them above their local market but arguably below the New York market. And there is a very, very wide spread there, at least there was then even more so than it is today. And then sell them on this lifestyle change. Sell them on getting rid of their commute, sell them on work/life integration. This is the time where everybody talked about — the common theme was work/life separation — how do I turn off my phone, how do I turn off my email at a certain time a day? We said, well, the people that we work with, they were moonlighting for us while working full time, they clearly have more passion, more interest in being involved in the work they do than 9-5, so maybe it’s not about a certain time of the day where you just die from work. Maybe it’s about having more control over when and how. Maybe there’s a work/life integration idea that we can start selling people that may actually be more meaningful than that separation. And he liked the idea but he gave me a piece of very firm advice that we still follow today, which, you’re not following, by the way. I just want to throw this out there. It’s don’t go half in/half out on this. There has to be a sense that everyone has equal access to the executive team, to each other. And the way he put it, which I thought was a beautiful way to encapsulate it — there can’t be a place where someone is not. Your office, whether if they work in marketing, it’s the head of marketing. Everyone has to feel equal proximity. MATT: And that avoids a classic problem, right, why I actually don’t like the term remote, that some people are more like second class citizens in the — CLARK: 100%. You have a room and then there’s that guy on the wall who’s trying to get a word in edgewise. I said, “Well how far do we go with that? Can we have some kind of a New York office?” He said, “I would say not.” And I think the next week my partner and I decided to disband the office, to shut down the office and to actually go home and work. Even though we had been commuting into the city — I live in Brooklyn and he lived in Manhattan, he was a few blocks away from the office — even though we had been commuting and spending time together in person, and you’d think, “Oh the founding team, they have to get together and they have to collaborate, move at warp speed and problem solving and collaboration.” I said, “I think we should discipline ourselves to be able to make this remote thing work even between us, and if we can figure that out, then that will scale to everyone else.” Big decision. Bold. I would say it was an absurd decision in some respects. [laughs] MATT: I would call it radical actually, yeah, especially for the time. Because what year was this? CLARK: Eight, nine years ago now. MATT: Yeah. CLARK: The only company that promoted itself as remote or promoted the idea of being remote or distributed was 37 Signals. And so they were the original inspiration for this or at least inspired us to believe it was possible. MATT: Totally. CLARK: So we did it, said “Hey, this is a design problem essentially, like many things in life. We’ll just design the people, practices, and platforms of the business.” We think about these three Ps all the time to establish a healthy rhythm of connection. And by the way, Joel Spolsky, another — I’m just calling out all the inspirations for this because it definitely didn’t come for me — wrote a book called “Joel On Software,” which I’m sure you’ve read, everyone has read. MATT: Classic. I highly recommend it actually. CLARK: Classic. He was a proponent of this idea of having an office with a door that closes. Now we think about it as deep work. This is a common theme that’s used in tech today. And I had this thought — I’m still not sure how valid it is — but that the percentage of intellectual focus — deep work — that happens in your business is a significant driver or limiter of the success of that business, to some degree. If you have a large group of people who are really talented and have a lot of time to focus on the work they do well, and there’s an environment that brings them together when they need to be, but that ebb and flow of focus time, that intimate craft time and that kinetic energy of collaboration, but not at the same time. There is a dual-modality model that one can leverage to get the best out of both. MATT: What percentage do you target for yourself there, and what percentage would you target for an individual contributor with a vision? CLARK: The more creative your work, the more focus you need to move through the work that you do. I think real creative work is done alone. You know when you need to collaborate, you know when you need that validation from a third party, or your rate of innovation starts to slow to a certain point where you need to start sparking and stoking those flames of creativity through communication with other people. You have to build a system that makes that reliably happen at least at some point for each person on the team. So early days, we had a stand-up, every team in the company. At that time we had three teams and 15 people. Every team had a stand-up. That stand-up had a ritual. It happened at the exact same time every single day. So 1:00, whole company, three or four questions. I think it evolved from three to four questions for each person, round robin. Obviously that’s much more difficult to pull off at 900, but that is scaled in different ways. Let’s make sure that everyone knows or is aware of the work that everyone else is doing. That’s the fundamental platform that creates that connection. And then people go off and they do their own work as individuals or as groups, and they reconvene regularly to check back in. MATT: So if I were an ideal designer or developer at InVision in this model, would I be spending 80-90% of my time in this deep work? CLARK: I would imagine probably 70. I think probably people at InVision would tell you that they get less than that because there are many meetings, and at scale, obviously there’s an overhead, a connective tissue overhead to managing very large projects at scale that are cut across multiple departments and disciplines. Again, there’s no perfect formula, it’s just making sure that people can preserve that time, or as much of that time as they can. MATT: I have a selfish question, which is, as a CEO of a distributed company, what do you think your percentage is of that work? CLARK: Mine is probably closer to 30%. I’m not a production person. I don’t have a work product necessarily that I put into the world. I don’t have a screen that needs to be designed to an excruciating level of detail and iterated on over time. MATT: I would say at this moment I’m probably under 10%. So that’s something I’m working on increasing because I feel like the time I’m able to invest in writing helps a lot, and the company is, of course, a product I think about a ton, and need to spend more time than I currently am investing in how that product is designed — the product of Automattic itself. CLARK: Here’s a little weird hack. I don’t know if this makes any sense for folks. I like to sometimes just go to conferences, even though I’m 50% interested in the content, just because being at a conference blocks off your schedule, it puts you in a room with a lot of that kinetic energy, of buzz, of people who aren’t distracting you because they don’t have any interest in you, they’re there for other things, they have no connection to you, but it’s a room that’s vibrant with the energy of people. And there is someone talking and there’s time in between. And I find that just disconnecting and absorbing ideas on drip ambiently gives me a ton of headspace to have divergent thinking time. MATT: That’s a cool hack. Now we opened a lot of threads there. I’m going to loop back to some of them. One, if you were doing a pre-postmortem today for InVision, what would be on your list? CLARK: Oh without a question it’s the cohesion of the company. I mean it’s a risk being a remote company. There are things that happen in a co-located environment — that’s what we call the world of on-site work, co-located — there are things that happen there between the seams that people don’t even understand are happening. They don’t consider it an explicit part of the work. A loose example — the watercooler. There is this — I’m bumping into people in the kitchen, in the hall. There’s this ambient transfer of energy through “Hey, you’re working on this? Hey what are you up to?” We have to figure out how to allow that to happen deliberately. If what we’re doing now is 80% as good as being in-person in some ways and 130% better than being in-person in other ways, how do we make sure that we take that 80 and get it to 100 so that we’re not leaving a liability on the table? MATT: I’m particularly curious about that watercooler. What did you figure out and what has worked well so far? CLARK: What I have learned in these settings is driving to solutions in real time. Again, going back to that ebb and flow of together time and alone time, it doesn’t work in larger groups of people. You can seed things, you can create good traction around the idea, but I think a longer, more thoughtful, more deep-work-enabled process of driving to a solution is important. Where we are beginning to think about this is making sure that the time that we have together as an executive team, even the online time — two hours every two weeks we have something called the Strategic Alignment Team Meeting — so that group of people meets online, just putting more ceremony on that. So rather than getting together and just having a random group listing of things that we want to get through, maybe doing a little bit more pre-work. So one idea that surfaced was taking a facilitator that wasn’t a part of the group — the Head of Biz Ops or Chief of Staff — and making that person responsible for interviewing all the members of that team individually, one on one, with a set of pre-defined prompts to pull out the value and get that value on the agenda ahead of time. Because if I pulled you into a meeting, Matt, right after this call — I don’t know if you have a meeting right after our little podcast here, but if you did. you probably would not be in a state to pull out the most important thing that’s going on in the business or the biggest threat or the biggest opportunity or some weird HR thing, or opportunity or great idea that you thought about two weeks ago. You wouldn’t be in a state to evoke that unless you’re just a — you meditate a lot more than I do. I don’t know. There has to be a mechanism, I think, for tilling that soil with those executives ahead of time, or with anybody in that case, ahead of time. So how do we create a list of questions? For example, what’s the biggest threat to the timelines that you’re facing, what’s the biggest HR or people or resource or talent issue that you’re facing? I’m just making up examples of kinds of questions we would ask. What’s the thing that you need the most from who on this team? I’m imagining a world where there are about five or six questions that we ask each executive one-on-one before getting into that meeting and that those questions ultimately end up tilling the soil and driving the agenda of the meeting. MATT: One thing that I’ve heard that’s unique about InVision that I’d love to confirm is that y’all have everyone on East Coast office hours? CLARK: I do believe that you need a certain number of hours of overlap. So we have a kind of a loosely held standard set of operating hours. I think it’s like 10AM to 6PM. The recommendation that is fairly closely held is that there should be a three hour overlap between most of the team because within those three hours you can negotiate when your stand-up meeting is. If you’re a team that works together, you can get to the wide-wide meetings, generally speaking, unless some people in Australia watch those the next day or a week later. I don’t know what the time is in Australia right now but you get the idea. Generally try to aim for three hours of overlap. MATT: So does that mean you don’t have many people in the Asia Pacific region? CLARK: I would say not by design. We probably lean out of hiring one-off individuals. We’ve done acquisitions, for example in Australia. We do have people in Asia Pacific for sure, but there is probably a light bias towards folks that fit into teams that have a schedule with more overlap. MATT: The number I heard for you all, and this is the other day, is around 20 or 25 countries that you’re in? CLARK: It’s got to be. Yes. I mean 900 people? Yes, probably 25 countries I would imagine. MATT: We’re at a very similar size, I think we’re at 68 countries. I would say there’s definitely a cost and a tradeoff to having that kind of time zone overlap as an explicit part of the hiring, and it definitely means that there are certain teams that are more Asia-Pacific-centric, because that overlap is important. And if you have a single team with people in what I think are the three zones, South America, Europe, Africa, and then Asia Pacific, there is no good time for anybody. CLARK: 100%. You have to be getting something out of the remote thing. It’s an interesting question. When people ask about remote, they assume that I’m a remote zealot. I’m not. I’m not someone who believes in remote as “this is the future.” I’m just not religious about the topic at all. What we needed out of remote very early on is we needed it as a talent hack, as a talent arbitrage. Hire the best people wherever they happen to be, figure everything out later, hire them quickly, get them in the ship as early as possible and start seeing results. How can I just hire the best people no matter where they are? If you’re not hiring, if you don’t find that your talent density is significantly greater than your contemporaries that are co-located in whatever city you happen to be in, then you’re not leveraging that arbitrage the right way. MATT: That’s a really good way to put it. How long do you think that talent arbitrage exists? Stripe famously now has remote as their new office engineering center? CLARK: Sure. MATT: How long before Google, Facebook, etcetera, the same people you’re competing with in New York, open into the distributed world? CLARK: That time is probably now. It just means you have to be more creative. Also, even if ten of the biggest tech companies in the world were out hiring, the talent supply is big enough for us all. MATT: Playing off on site versus off site, we have talked a lot about how you work in a distributed fashion. How and when do you bring people together? CLARK: We have a company all-hands on site, a global all-hands, called IRL, InVision in Real Life. MATT: Ha! I like that. CLARK: This year it was in Phoenix, Arizona. We took over an entire resort and that was an intense, amazing, high-energy experience that brought a lot into the work that we do, that we have done since. And the year before that — also really incredible — in Los Angeles. I definitely like the format of all of us together in one resort better than all of us split up between a few hotels. So all company, all hands, IRL. And then we have miniature IRL. So the product department has a product managers’ IRL, which I think was two weeks ago in New Jersey. And I think this week, if I’m not mistaken, is the all-designers’ IRL in Chicago. They pick a city that just makes sense. And I think there was CFT, the Customer Facing Team, was in Denver a couple of weeks ago. So departments have an IRL, the whole company has an IRL, and then individual teams can tap into budget to get together in person. MATT: If I joined InVision, how many weeks or days out of the year am I going to be at these IRLs? CLARK: My guess is probably three throughout the year. We also encourage folks to go to the InVision events that we have, the customer-facing events. Design + Drinks, we do panels, not a week goes by that there isn’t some sort of InVision customer event happening at some bar someplace in the world. MATT: That’s really cool. CLARK: And so we try to encourage some folks to get together that way. Again, this is personal, my personal principle behind this online universe is it’s called Cloud Culture — that’s what we call it — Cloud Culture versus the IRL stuff, when you’re in real life I prefer us not to be doing work. MATT: Interesting. CLARK: I prefer us to be connecting as people. If you gave me a week with the team together in person I would really like 80% of that to be stuff — it could be conversations that sound like work but conversations that really bring us closer together as people. My mental model here is that we have little scale models of ourselves. Even if we’re in person, we’re not really relating to the person we’re looking at, we’re relating to our little mental model of that person that rests in our mind. Does that make sense? MATT: Sure. CLARK: The more time that we spend together, the more articulate, the more detailed that mental model of you becomes. So when we’re online you get to a certain level of precision, [I can] take a long time to get to know you as a person and get to know how you behave and act in different contexts, how you react to certain things as individuals or as groups. When we get together, the fidelity of that model increases exponentially. And we take that mental model into the online environment. That’s the reason for the on-site, in-person experiences. MATT: I’ve heard — you talk about the screen a lot but I have also heard that InVision — rumor — that you’ve banned slide decks. CLARK: It makes a great headline, doesn’t it? [laughs] It’s not exactly true. What I’ll tell you is that we encourage visual collaborative communication in meetings more than prepared slides, only because that visual communication tends, number one, to be much more democratize-able. You can get more folks who are of a greater diversity of connection to the problem space. If you’re going to present something to a product team, that’s one kind of collaboration but arguably a lot of those product conversations should reach far beyond the engineering, product, or designers who work on it. You’d like to be able to engage business stakeholders, domain experts that exist within the business, or folks that are impactful. You’d like to have your Head of Finance on a product call and to have them totally track an influence. So staying visual, being sure that you just have a strong bias to visual communication, visual storytelling, getting visually-driven artifacts that are real to the customer, real and true to the customer experience, I think are really important. You generate better conversations than you would with a deck. It happens to be that we’re all trained when we see a deck. It’s like a movie, like “Now is our time to take out the popcorn, kick back and let someone else do the talking.” When you do a Freehand sketch — we have a product called Freehand, which is basically a gigantic, online white board — or you’re actually showing screens of an experience, and tying the conversation around pricing into the user experience, that drives that conversation around pricing to the customer — two things. Number one, you’re being super customer-centric, you’re orienting all of the people on the call around the front line of that problem space. Pricing is not a number conversation. Pricing has financial impact, pricing needs to be within financial guardrails, but ultimately pricing is not about a number, it’s about a customer experience. All of the leverage you have around pricing, all of the acceptance from the market that is required to make that price the right price — and now I’m spinning off into a pricing conversation, but you’ll understand how this is a microcosm for all these things — MATT: Totally. CLARK: — comes down to somebody looking at a screen at some point and feeling good or bad about it. So if you can have that pricing conversation through a lens of design — and by the way, this is what InVision principle number seven is meant to imply — being design-driven. How do we get into the mind and the heart of the customer and have the business conversation while we’re having the customer conversation? Design conversation and business strategy conversation, all in one. If you can do that, you can have a much greater diversity of people in the conversation, your Head of Finance doesn’t feel like they’re on a product call, the product people don’t feel like they’re in a finance call, everyone feels like they’re in a creative problem-solving call. MATT: I love it. Thanks again. CLARK: Pleasure. MATT: That was Clark Valberg. You can find him on Twitter at @clarkvalberg. That’s “Clark,” then “Valberg” — V-A-L-B-E-R-G. We’ve got a special treat in store for the next episode. Back in September, Automattic held its annual Grand Meetup in Orlando. The Grand Meetup is a time for all Automatticians to get together in one place. We get to meet some of our colleagues face-to-face for the first time, hear some great talks from folks like Stephen Wolfram (who was a guest on this podcast a few weeks back), and of course hang out and have fun together too. We set up a recording booth at the meetup and talked to a bunch of folks from across the company to hear about their experiences with distributed work and the importance of in-person meetups for keeping people connected throughout the year. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.
32 minutes | a year ago
Episode 13: Attorney Lydia X. Z. Brown on Making Work More Accessible
Read more about Lydia X.Z. Brown in “Making Work Accessible, Wherever it Happens.” Because of their background in working with disabled and marginalized people, attorney and activist Lydia X. Z. Brown has a deep understanding of how different workplace environments can best serve diverse workforces. Today they join our host Matt Mullenweg to discuss what distributed companies can do to make workflows and working conditions more inclusive. The full episode transcript is below. *** MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy howdy. Welcome to the Distributed podcast. I’m your host, Matt Mullenweg. Today’s guest is Lydia X. Z. Brown, who is a… well, Lydia wears many, many hats — we’ll get to that in a minute. Lydia once gave a talk for Automattic about disability inclusion, and today we’re going to continue that conversation. Lydia spent much of their life feeling left out, and they’ve dedicated their career to advocating for marginalized folks of all kinds. As the CEO of a distributed company, I’m curious to know more about how we can make the hundreds of Automatticians across the world more comfortable at work, and I know Lydia will have some insightful thoughts to share about that. Okay. Let’s get started. MATT MULLENWEG: Hey Lydia. LYDIA X. Z. BROWN: Hi Matt. Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. MATT: You are a multi-hyphenate. It says here you’re a writer-advocate-organizer-strategist-educator-speaker and attorney. How did all those things come to be for you? LYDIA: I have believed from a very young age that every single one of us has a moral obligation to use whatever resources we have — time, money, knowledge, skills, emotional energy, access to physical resources — however that might be defined — that we each have a moral obligation to use those resources in service of justice, and fighting against injustice and oppression and violence in all of its forms, structural and individual, subtle and overt. And since the time I was young, in grade school up through high school and now as an adult, I have done that. And I have been enormously privileged in many ways, although I frequently talk about experiencing marginalization in others, I have an enormous amount of privilege and I have experienced some of that in terms of access to some resources. And for me that makes the journey quite natural and quite intuitive. It wasn’t so much that I chose “I’m going to be this thing, I’m going to be an advocate, I’m going to be an educator,” so much as I have to. I have an obligation to, and I have the skills necessary to develop, so that I can be successful in doing it. MATT: There is so much injustice in the world. How did you pick the areas that you focus on? LYDIA: The work that I do is deeply personal to me. I am a multiply-disabled person. Most people who know about my work primarily know me from the autistic community. And not only am I autistic but I also live with psychosocial disabilities and other cognitive disabilities. And not only do I move through the world as a disabled, neurodivergent person, but I also move through the world as a queer person and as an openly non-binary trans person, and as an East Asian person of color living in the U.S. And all of those experiences of marginalization, and what some of us might say is hyper-marginalization, people who live at the margins of the margins where there is so much that is stacked against us, and how society is designed, and who society assumes is normal and healthy and the ideal, and who society decides shouldn’t really be at the center, shouldn’t be in the lead, should be denied opportunities, should not have access and all of those things, it gives you a very different perspective than when you grow up in the world with access to more privilege and resources in ways that I didn’t, even in the many ways that I have had some privileges. And for me, going through school, targeted all the time as a freak — that was one of the most common refrains of my grade school and middle school bullies — and making it to high school, where I was falsely accused of planning a school shooting because of stereotypes and stigma about people like me. MATT: Oh wow. LYDIA: And then making it through college and law school, where you would think that people might have a more egalitarian approach. Well, that’s laughable because sometimes the people that are in what are supposed to be the most progressive kind of spaces — forward-thinking, innovative — sometimes were the most damaging and the most harmful precisely because they already believed that they were incapable of inflicting such harm. And moving through those spaces, constantly receiving the message that I didn’t belong, and at the same time that I couldn’t speak for or alongside or even in support of other hyper-marginalized communities, because, well you do have this privilege — it gives you a fire. MATT: How do you develop empathy for someone whose lived experience is different from your own? LYDIA: For me it starts with recognizing firstly our shared humanity and secondly believing deeply in and being passionate about a commitment to valuing all people and all configurations of people’s lives and experiences, and how their bodies and minds work, whether they are like mine or unlike mine. And if we all start at that premise, that every single human is valuable for who they are in all of their complexities, in their many identities and experiences, not in spite of them, because we are not the same and that’s a good and okay thing, but as all of the things that they are, then we can recognize that even if we don’t understand intellectually or emotionally what another person’s experience is, it doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable or that they’re not valuable as a person, or that that experience or part of their identity somehow detracts from their personhood. MATT: Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on today? LYDIA: Right now I’ve been working on developing a project called The Fund for Community Reparations for Autistic People of Color’s Interdependence, Survival and Empowerment. We call it the Autistic People of Color Fund for short. I launched the fund last summer, 2018, using some award money that I had received from a disability rights organization, as well as the proceeds of “All the Weight of Our Dreams,” the anthology that I edited, along with two other folks — Morénike Giwa Onaiwu and E. Ashkenazy — featuring 61 writers and artists of color who are all autistic. And we used those proceeds and that award money to seed a fund that provides micro-grants to individual autistic people of color as a form of direct support and mutual aid. The fund so far has given out over $12,000 in funds in grants of between $50 to $500 each to people from a variety of countries, as young as toddlers and as old as our elders, to help them with everything from accessing mental healthcare to covering a shortage in rent money, to escaping an abusive situation, to buying textbooks for school or art supplies or posters for a protest, and everything in between. And that project, every several months is reinvigorated with donations from our community because we’re always running low on funds. So something that I’m working on today and this week is hoping to gain more sustainable and long-term sources of funding for the fund because right now we are in a place where the vast majority of our donations are small gifts from individual community members, many of whom are low-income or no-income, who are disproportionately unemployed or underemployed or have only precarious access to financial stability rather than having general access. Every time I open my inbox, there’s anywhere from five to 25 emails from people who are seeking to apply for money through the fund. And we never have enough money to meet the need because our community is facing so much. And when you are negatively racialized and autistic — and most of the applicants to the fund have many other experiences of marginalization on top of that — the likelihood that you’re facing circumstances that are far beyond your control in terms of access to healthcare, access to safe, affordable and accessible housing, or simply being able to live and enjoy your life, go on vacation, see a movie is just so difficult and so hard to grasp. And that’s something that I’m hoping we can begin to change. I know we already have with what we’ve done but it’s also not enough. MATT: If people listening wanted to support this organization, where could they go to donate? LYDIA: You can donate funds to the Autistic People of Color Fund by sending a check, money order, or PayPal payment to the Autistic Women and Non-Binary Network, AWN. If you donate to AWN, you’ll need to include a note that it goes to the Autistic People of Color Fund and they’ll include it in our budget. MATT: Great, thank you. What’s your current work environment like? LYDIA: My current work environment is in a traditional office location in downtown Washington, D.C. As an attorney, I work as a fellow for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. In our offices there are 12 floors, there’s different law firms and organizations, legal and non-legal, who all share the same building. And in our office space, Bazelon is the primary leaseholder for this very large office suite. We have seven staff currently here and we also have three other organizations, one law firm, and two nonprofit organizations that sublet space from us. So we all share this large office suite together in D.C. I’m sitting in an office right now where
30 minutes | a year ago
Episode 12: Toptal’s Taso Du Val on Finding the Top Distributed Talent
Read more about Taso Du Val in “Inside Toptal’s Distributed Screening Process.” When hiring managers interview a candidate for a high-level role, they want to be sure that the person they choose will be productive and able to work well with their prospective team. But what if the hiring process takes place over video chat? A growing number of companies outsource the vetting process to a company like Toptal, a freelance marketplace. Toptal’s CEO Taso Du Val joins us on this episode of the Distributed podcast, with Matt Mullenweg. The full episode transcript is below. *** MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy. My name is Matt Mullenweg, and I run a company called Automattic, with over 950 employees distributed across over 70 countries. We’re growing quickly, so I spend a lot of time thinking about how the company is going to find the very best people. Since our team leads might never meet a far-flung applicant face to face until well after they’ve been hired, our hiring process has to be comprehensive, so sometimes it can be a little bit of a slow and long process. But what if you need to hire top talent quickly? What if you need a world-class project manager on a short-term basis, and you don’t have time to rigorously vet a bunch of applicants or set them up on a payroll platform? Well, you might turn to Toptal, a freelance marketplace that aims to provide companies with a fully-vetted pool of talent that represents the top 3 percent of their network’s applicants. Toptal’s CEO, Taso Du Val, joins me today to talk about how he built his company, which happens to be distributed all over the world, and about how current approaches to recruitment are undergoing a major sea change. Let’s get started. MATT: All right, we are here today on the latest episode of Distributed with Matt Mullenweg, and we have CEO and Founder of Toptal, Taso Du Val. Welcome very much. TASO DU VAL: Thank you, Matt, for having me. MATT: Just for listeners who might not know what Toptal — do you mind explaining your journey to Toptal and then you can introduce what Toptal is? TASO: I was doing some consulting work and working with some companies doing contract software development, and at the time I was mentioning to them that they should use some other resources to be able to get software developers. I mentioned the freelance marketplaces on the internet. And so many times they said to me, “Those are terrible places. You can never find good resources there.” Meanwhile, I was having a great experience finding great resources there. So I said “Hmm, this is fascinating, I keep hearing time and time again that people are having terrible experiences finding top talent, yet I’m having a very consistent experience finding top talent. What is the difference?” And the difference really came down to my domain expertise, being able to identify and screen that top talent. And that was really the genesis for what Toptal is today. MATT: And your background, like myself, is engineering. TASO: Precisely. MATT: And in fact, we met at — was it a MySQL open source conference 14 years ago, or something? TASO: Yes, in 2007, 2008, after the first MySQL camp at Google. So that was a really long time ago. MATT: So Toptal is, if you were to summarize it, a site I can go and say, “Hey, I want X, Y, Z?” TASO: Mhm. MATT: You cover a few areas now — developers, designers…? TASO: Project managers, product managers, and finance experts. We just launched recently project managers and product managers, and that has been phenomenally successful. So I would say the demand and the experience that people are having with product and project managers far surpassed what we thought it would by a long shot. So it’s been really cool to see a management type of role take place remotely and be so successful. With developers, they have a long history of working remotely, even designers, and that is in part because individual contributors can contribute more rigorously to a project. You have, in the case of software development where you can commit code, in the design world now lots of tools are evolving to be something similar. MATT: InVision, Figma, and things like that. TASO: Precisely. So if you look at it from that perspective, it’s very conducive to the remote working process. When it comes to management, it’s still a little bit new, of course not for us internally, and for many distributed companies, but for outside consumers it’s a little bit more new. They’ve been very receptive to it, and it has worked really, really well, more so than we anticipated. MATT: So if I’ve got a job to be done, I can go to Toptal. I hire someone, and I can now hire someone to come into an office, or is it all through the platform? TASO: We do some on-site work. Generally what we do is 95% remote. And so when a client or someone wants someone on site for a certain period of time, we allow for that, however we are not generally the conduit for facilitating on-site work. MATT: The advantage of going through you all versus just finding freelancers, is you ensure the quality of the talent? TASO: Mhm. MATT: And you have tools to mediate the experience, right? I don’t need to worry about how they’re getting paid, I could just pay you and you take care of it all? TASO: Precisely. And I would say the biggest value-add is the time it takes to acquire the talent and the energy it takes to screen the talent. We have done all of that for you. And so — no kidding, this is a real stat — our send-to-hire ratio is about 1:1.5. For every 1.5 “candidates” that we send you, you will hire one of them. MATT: Oh wow. TASO: We aren’t a recruiting shop, we aren’t a typical staffing company whereby we send you ten resumes and you say “Okay, I want to screen and talk to all these folks.” We generally send you one. And the reason that we are able to do that is because we actually have a lot of process and domain expertise internally to be able to vet those talents, whether it’s in finance or software development, to ensure that that person, before we send them to you, is the perfect match. So it’s about getting information from you up front in a more modern way than a staffing or recruitment company generally does it, and then facilitating the matching process through software and processes that are reinforced through software. MATT: Let’s do some level setting around the company. I know you’re private. TASO: Yes. MATT: But to whatever extent you can talk publicly about how many people is it, how many people are on the platform? If you can talk about revenue at all…? Just to give the listeners an idea. TASO: In terms of a core team we are approximately 500 full time internal folks. Those folks work on software development for our platform, for the website, for different technologies that help facilitate the screening and matching processes, and so on and so forth. And then we have other folks who work in operations, marketing, and so forth. So that team is about 500, let’s say. MATT: Were you distributed from the start? TASO: Yes, we were distributed from the start. I started the company on a handshake and then contracting out a software developer to a company almost without a website. So that is really how the company started. And I was in Palo Alto at the time. The individual who was contracted out — actually, we pretty much had two — were in Argentina and South Africa. And I was actually going to an office that my roommate’s family’s friend allowed me to have as a way to go to work everyday. However, the point was rather moot. I was going into an office but not seeing anyone or interacting with anyone except myself. So it almost was this zombie-like walk to the office every morning where I’m going to the office because I go to work, but I don’t see anyone who I work with. [laughs] And so I actually started waking up and just working on my computer at home. And then I said to myself, “Well why am I even working from home? I should just go somewhere else because I’ve never really traveled!” So I ended up going to Europe and all sorts of different places. And that’s what took me on my remote journey, so to speak. MATT: So, FotoLog and Slide, places you were before, did those have distributed teams or were they mostly co-located? TASO: Those were in-office companies. I went into the office pretty much everyday. The remote working nature was there, but it was very light. MATT: So 500 people. I know a couple years ago you said it was over $100 million revenue, so I imagine it’s beyond that. TASO: Yes, and this year we are likely to be in the nine figures in net revenue, which is a really big accomplishment for the company. MATT: Congratulations, that’s huge. TASO: Thank you, yes. MATT: Again I think it’s good to set this up because not that many people know about Toptal yet. TASO: [laughs] Well said. MATT: And after this podcast, at least dozens more will. TASO: A few dozen, a few dozen. MATT: One of the worries people have about building distributed companies and distributed work is this hiring aspect. How does that work for you all? How do people find you? How do you screen them? What can you tell us about that process? TASO: A lot of people find us through our brand. Freelancers find us in different countries as we are generally the best source for them to get good jobs remotely, especially within the United States and with Fortune 500-type companies, companies that are doing more serious engineering work and are longer-term engagements. So our reputation has permeated in those types of environments on the talent side. On the client side, I would say it’s similar. Now, of course we do marketing, however, we do often have referrals, and word of mouth is a strong way that we get a fair amount of business. So those are, on both sides, really how people know about us, generally speaking. MATT: How many applications do you all get? TASO: Oh my gosh. Here’s an interesting stat actually. At this point in time, I believe, and I’d have to double-check this, it’s over a million a year. MATT: Wow. TASO: And to put that in perspective, Google as a company gets approximately 1.2 million applications a year as a company. MATT: Wow. TASO: So if you look at it from that perspective it’s actually a pretty sizeable volume. It is a little bit apples and oranges because all we do is screen talent, that’s it. MATT: But it probably speaks to how much global talent there is looking for remote opportunities, which is one of the big advantages of being in a distributed company. TASO: It does. And that is kind of the miracle of it, I suppose. While we are doing a million applications a year, I think that absolutely pales in comparison to what’s out there and what we could do if we put even more effort behind it. My assertion, if we went pedal to the metal and we started doing a lot more advertising, we actually worked to amplify it, I think we could get easily four to five million applications a year globally. If you think about — MATT: Wow. I can’t imagine that applicant tracking system. TASO: [laughs] Well we built our own because all the other ones were certainly not sufficient. If you think about it from that perspective, that not only highlights the amount of people that are talented all over the world but it also highlights the amount of people that want to work remotely that are not today. And so the far majority of our applications want to work remotely, meaning they are not working remotely today but they are applying because they see it as a huge, life changing opportunity for them. And so it’s really interesting to see the dichotomy between what is today versus what we’re seeing people want tomorrow to look like. MATT: So I’m an engineer somewhere, I want more flexibility, I go on Toptal. Let’s say my resume makes it through. How do you determine whether I’m top two, three percent or not? TASO: Well it’s a subjective process, and so I can’t state it’s perfect, but we err on the side of conservatism so that we have a near-guaranteed great experience for our clients, in a similar sense that McKinsey does or that some other top-tier firms that offer top talent, so to speak. The real high-level deals are that you go through what is in effect an interview process. MATT: Like you’re going to be hired? TASO: Like you’re going to be hired at a Google or a McKinsey or a company like this, depending on the vertical. MATT: How important are their technical skills versus their people or soft skills? TASO: They are both incredibly important to us. So we have looked at, for example, how McKinsey screens people. And we have actually taken some of those processe and refined them and introduced them into our screening processes. Same with Google, same with some other companies that are keen on hiring good cultural fits. I wouldn’t say in terms of our own network there is a unified culture, but there are certainly elements that unify people in terms of soft skills. They have high integrity, they have punctuality. No kidding — something we screen rigorously for. They have good judgment, which we are able to screen for in different areas. So if you think about elements like that, you can actually screen well beyond hard skills. Do you know how to write an algorithm in constant time versus quadratic time, or something of the nature like this, which is still a very important skill to have. But I would actually say the soft skills are, especially when working remotely, more important. MATT: So even if I’m a brilliant engineer, if I show up late to your interview, it’s going to be a mark against me and you might not hire me if I don’t have those good soft skills? TASO: Oh 100%. The punctuality component is very, very real. So if you show up just a little late you will literally be rejected automatically. MATT: Wow. TASO: And people get pissed on this point. They’re like “Hey, I was on another call, I went through the—” Hey, look, that’s our integrity on the line. If McKinsey and the best companies have survived by upping the bar in terms of integrity, we’re going to do the same. MATT: I was going to ask how you test for integrity, and punctuality is an interesting window into that. TASO: Yes. MATT: What are some other things that you feel like are really important to the Toptal culture? TASO: One element that I can speak to is the character of the person. As many people know, great engineers can be very abrasive. And I would say there was a point in my life, if not still in many cases, I can be abrasive. But if you go into an interview process and you understand it’s professional, you have to show your best self. And if you are abrasive when you’re showing your best self, it doesn’t go uphill from there. Right? [laughs] It kind of goes downhill. So you have to be very judgmental on those factors because if they are introduced to a client that then experiences Toptal as a group of abrasive but brilliant people, that’s not going to resonate with them very well. So you have to take elements like that, that are a little bit more subjective, a little bit more nuanced, and factor them into the equation, because it’s not just about whether you can write algorithms or not. MATT: Like all distributed workforces, like your own, for a lot of people English is not their first language. TASO: Correct. MATT: So are there resources you point to or anything or is that something people need to learn on their own? TASO: Internally at Toptal, we have provided English lessons before. We don’t anymore. But it’s generally something, both in our core and externally in our network, that we expect people to know coming into Toptal, whether that’s through our network or through the core team. MATT: I actually was pitching this to Austin from Lambda School. Part of what they’re doing is taking people who don’t know how to code and teaching them to code. TASO: Sure. MATT: I think there’s a huge opportunity in that there are probably millions of great engineers who are great coders and don’t know English well. TASO: I would say that’s the case. MATT: So versus teaching someone how to code, teach them English. I don’t know which is harder, to be honest. They’re both learning a language, just an artificial versus natural language. TASO: We have thought of putting people through different re-skilling programs. However, I’ve never thought about it as well — if you already know blockchain but you speak Chinese, can we just teach you English and will you be able to work with people internationally? MATT: How do you decide if who you’re hiring goes to the Toptal internal team versus clients? TASO: It’s very separated. It’s very separated so that we have clear client expectations and KPIs and we have clear internal KPIs in processes. You would think we would mix them, that we would leverage the incredible technology that we’ve built for our network, but it wasn’t so easy to compartmentalize. MATT: So Toptal itself is not a client on Toptal? TASO: We are in some instances but we are not using it to the extent that people would think we would use it. MATT: When you say KPIs, what are the differences? TASO: We are looking at time to hire, time to fill, so on and so forth. So we would have to disable all these components. In regards to how we do our screening we have capacity, metrics and triggers that exist in there to help manage the pipelines. It’s a really big system, rightfully so, for Toptal the network. Internally it’s a little bit difficult to decouple from the purpose that it has already been constructed to serve. MATT: Let’s zoom into the virtual wall. TASO: Sure, sure. MATT: Tell me a bit about how the company is set up. Who are your direct reports, how is your hierarchy and what’s your structure? How should people think about Toptal? TASO: Let’s kick it off with how the company operates. I think that’s a good window into how we work and gives you some good insights into how structured we are, how we set goals, how we actually work day-to-day. We have an OKR method that we use, like many companies, to set objectives quarterly, annually, so on and so forth, and we are very rigorous about it. We are very methodical about it. MATT: As CEO you have some OKRs and those..? TASO: I do, yeah. MATT: What are some off-the-shelf tools you use? TASO: Slack, Zoom. In terms of product management we use Jira. What I find really interesting is Confluence. I find Confluence very interesting. MATT: That’s their internal blogging thing, right? TASO: It’s actually more like a Wikipedia slash — MATT: Yes, like document management plus some internal — what I would call blogging, but you can use it instead of email, right? TASO: Right. It’s still a little bit cumbersome, still a little bit big in some instances, but it is a really good tool. MATT: I know Atlassian runs on it religiously. TASO: Yes. MATT: They say it’s their secret weapon, it’s the thing that makes everything work. TASO: We’ve started to go down that path actually for knowledge management, and for documenting processes, and for other elements that are important for the company to be unified on. MATT: So those are some off the shelf ones. Any others that come to mind? Google Apps, Office 365? TASO: Yes, Google Apps. Yes, I would highly recommend it. [laughs] MATT: Yes, it’s pretty good. They did a good job there. Who’s on your exec team? How did you meet? TASO: Sure. So our executive team is pretty traditional. It depends if you’re looking at a more traditional company or an internet company. We have a fair amount more executives that report directly to me. That’s a personal choice. MATT: So is it flat at the top? TASO: I have about 12 direct reports. And from what I’ve seen via conversations and from what other companies are doing, that tends to be on the larger side of things. I have seen companies with 20 and I think we even had 20 at one point, not realizing how bloated that was. And so we — MATT: So what reports directly into you? Is there a CTO, HR? TASO: CTO, CAO, we have a chief administrative officer, that person is really working to refine all the processes, the data analytics, business insights. A VP of people, a VP of brand marketing, a VP of growth marketing, a VP of design, a VP of comms, a VP of finance and probably two others that I’m missing. MATT: How do you all get together? Where are those people located? TASO: Well our VP of finance is in Pennsylvania. Our general counsel is in Massachusetts. Our VP of product is in Greece. MATT: So these people are all over the world. TASO: They are all over the world. MATT: And do you meet weekly, every other week? TASO: We meet biweekly, so every two weeks we have meetings. And that is the cadence at which we meet. We also have an all-hands that’s monthly. And so that gives you insight into how often our all-hands occur with our company. MATT: We do a similar thing where once a month we do — we call it a Town Hall. Typically the questions come in via text but everyone is on video now. We can all be on Zoom. You can get hundreds of people on Zoom pretty easy now and it’s — so sometimes they come in real time. I really like it. I also enjoy not knowing what’s coming next. We don’t pre-moderate or pre-screen the questions or anything. It’s just whatever pops up at the time. Everyone sees the question being asked. It’s not like I can skip them if I don’t like it. And sometimes the conversations are difficult, sometimes the answer is “I don’t know” or “Maybe we made a mistake,” or things like that. TASO: Right. We used to do it via text. Now we’ve just chosen to do it in a free-form style, so that it’s a little bit more engaging. We also had a method by which you could do it anonymously, which we have totally abolished across all of Toptal. We don’t have anyone have anonymity. And while I understand that there may be ramifications of people not being as forthcoming as they may, it’s really our duty to ensure that we create an environment where they can be. MATT: When did you do that and why? TASO: We did that because you’re actually taking an action that encourages hiding and we don’t believe in hiding anything. We believe in radical transparency, radical truth, bringing difficult conversations and difficult topics to the forefront. And by taking that action, you’re saying “We actually believe in hiding something.” Well I don’t believe in that and I would say our executive team doesn’t believe in that, so we have abolished it. MATT: When did you abolish it? TASO: About seven or eight months ago. MATT: Pretty recent. TASO: Yes. MATT: I’ve got some quick ones as we wrap up. Tell me quickly what is your ideal workspace? Where are you productive? TASO: I am productive sitting at a desk I am familiar with. MATT: Do you have a big monitor? What’s your — TASO: I don’t have a very big monitor, I have a regular sized monitor, but I’m just familiar with the setting, it’s something about the familiar setting that allows me to be focused. So if I’m in a hotel room, my first impulse I suppose, is to get out of the hotel room, go to a meeting, go connect with someone because you’re traveling. It’s not to sit down and focus and go through Excel and dive deep into the nitty-gritty details of whatever it might be, whether they’re financial reports or they are reports about whatever it might be, and scrutinize them. Likewise, when I’m on a plane, I’m always reading. It’s just my natural state, so to speak, on a plane. And so whenever I’m at a desk that I’m familiar with, with my computer that I’m familiar with, I can do work much more productively. MATT: How often would you say you’re home versus on the road or traveling? TASO: I’d say it’s 80/20 now. So I am more so settled, working, than I am traveling. MATT: That’s a good thing to note, that a lot of people think remote or distributed means you’re on the road all the time. TASO: Oh no. MATT: And actually I think the vast majority of people at Automattic at least, they’re in the same place 95% of the time. TASO: 100%. MATT: How about meetups? When does your team meet up in person, if ever? TASO: Yes, our executive team probably meets up on average every 18 months. So not so much, but I don’t see it as a requirement. When we meet up, it’s generally when there are some executive changes and we are unfamiliar with one another. And so — MATT: And are there other meetups within the company? TASO: Yes. Actually, as we’re speaking right now there’s a function that’s having a meetup in Miami. MATT: So like all the designers, all the engineers might get together, something like that? TASO: Precisely. It’s a little bit too large for the engineering team, being about 200 people, to be able to do that, but yeah. On a functional basis, especially with some of the smaller functions, they’ll be doing that. MATT: Do you have any must-have equipment that makes for ideal work? TASO: A laptop and a phone. [laughs] MATT: That’s it? Nice. You mentioned Zoom, Slack, phone? Do you make phone calls? Do you talk to people? How much are you on text versus video, versus audio? TASO: I would say I have moved to mostly video. When I’m mobile I don’t do video generally because my battery is dying. [laughs] But generally I’m on audio when I am traveling and I’m on video when I’m situated. MATT: Last question. Let’s fast-forward 20 years from now, what percentage of jobs do you think will be distributed or remote? TASO: I believe that at least 50% of all technology jobs will be distributed. MATT: That’s wild. Because it’s probably, I don’t know, what is it today? Probably under 10%? TASO: It’s under 10%, but it is growing so fast and there is such a strong movement across the world for this. You have all of these strange companies, Toptal, Automattic, InVision, GitLab, so on and so forth. MATT: We’re not that strange. [laughter] But I get what you say. Right now it’s the exception. In the future I think it’s the rule. TASO: Exactly. And they’re looking at us saying “Okay, yeah, they created a billion dollar company. It’s a billion dollar company, we’re a $200 billion company. This is hogwash,” right? MATT: It’s a toy. Yeah. TASO: Well more and more people are doing it. More and more people are picking up on the fact that this is the future and that is becoming more and more compelling to the talent. So more talent are keen on working for those companies — the Toptals and the Automattics of the world. And that’s just going to grow. So what’s going to happen is, all these small companies where they’re working remotely, well actually that’s going to be the majority of the talent in the world. And when these companies can’t recruit them anymore and there are millions of people working remotely that are skilled, and they’re saying, “Well we want you to work in our office,” they’re going to say, “You know what? I don’t work for companies like yours because you’re the old, stodgy company. You’re the company that doesn’t understand the future and opportunity and innovation.” And that’s when it’s going to come and force them to be remote. So you’re going to see that happen because the workforce of talented people is going to be more keen on remote work than not. And people don’t see that now but once they’re unable to recruit at all from anywhere, in effect, that’s when the change is actually going to happen. MATT: Amen. [laughter] I think that’s a great place to end it. Thank you again, Taso, and I hope to continue this conversation in the future. TASO: Thank you. MATT: That was Taso Du Val, and I’m very glad he was able to join and share his experiences. On the next episode of the Distributed podcast, I’ll be speaking to Lydia X.Z. Brown. Lydia is a lot of things: a writer, advocate, organizer, strategist, educator, speaker, and attorney. I’m interested in talking with Lydia about how distributed work can make work more accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities, and learning more about what inclusion means in a distributed context. Thank you so much for joining us, and see you next time.
46 minutes | a year ago
Stephen Wolfram on 28 Years of Remote Work
Read more about Stephen Wolfram in “The Machine that Turns Ideas into Real Things.” Stephen Wolfram started out on an academic career path, but eventually realized that founding a company would allow him to pursue his scientific work more efficiently. He’s served as a remote CEO of Wolfram Research for the last 28 years. In this episode, Stephen shares with host Matt Mullenweg — another remote CEO — his perspective on the value of geo-distribution, and the processes his partially-distributed company uses to make world-changing software. The full episode transcript is below. *** MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy, howdy. Welcome to the Distributed podcast. I’m your host, Matt Mullenweg. I got the chance to catch up with today’s guest, Stephen Wolfram, because my company Automattic invited him to give a talk at our annual company meetup in Orlando, Florida. This is a magical occasion where all 950+ Automatticians (which is what we call ourselves) get together to meet up face-to-face. This gives us an opportunity to hang out, break bread, and collaborate over the course of a few days. We also invite a number of speakers, smart people like Stephen. Stephen’s been leading Wolfram Research for 32 years, which is a really long time for a tech CEO. The company has pioneered a lot of different technologies in computation and education. Wolfram Research has about 850 employees, many of whom are scattered across 29 countries, so it’s pretty close in size to Automattic. But Stephen’s been doing the remote CEO thing for way longer than I have — about 28 years! So naturally I wanted to pick his brain, which is an amazing brain, on why he chose to go the partially-distributed route, and learn about how he’s led his company remotely for longer than just about anybody. Alright. Let’s get started. MATT: Welcome. This is Distributed with Matt Mullenweg, and today we have Stephen Wolfram, who is the Founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, known for things such as Mathematica, an amazing tome called A New Kind of Science — which I guess you worked on for about ten and a half years — created Wolfram Alpha, which is one of the intelligence engines behind Alexa and Siri… STEPHEN WOLFRAM: Siri and other things, yeah. MATT: Yes, and of many other things. And just an incredible amount. I encourage you to google him. Go down the rabbit hole of all the amazing stuff and people he’s worked with and everything. Thank you so much for joining today. STEPHEN: Nice to be here. MATT: Part of the reason, in addition to all those fun things, that I wanted you to be here is your company is a similar size to Automattic, around 800-900, and is geo-distributed as well. STEPHEN: Yes. MATT: You have been a remote CEO since 1991. STEPHEN: That is correct. MATT: And your company goes back to..? STEPHEN: Late ’86. MATT: Possibly one of the older geo-distributed companies I’m familiar with. STEPHEN: I think so. I mean, I know — MATT: It’s got to be one of the longest, if it’s not— STEPHEN: Yes, you’re right. MATT: Maybe there’s something out there but that’s got to be one of the longest. STEPHEN: Right. MATT: That’s pretty cool. What caused you to be geo-distributed at the beginning? STEPHEN: So OK, the first thing was, I started the company. This was the second company I started. The first company I started, I started when I was 21 years old and that was in Los Angeles, and that company was a pretty traditional company. It was venture-capital funded, I brought in a CEO, I didn’t CEO it myself, I was the technical person — MATT: Did they call it adult supervision back then? STEPHEN: No, no they didn’t. I mean that company went through various mergers and things and eventually went public some time in the 1990s in a very undistinguished IPO. So anyway, so my first company was not distributed at all, it sat in this building near the Los Angeles International Airport. [laughter] I was involved in basic science and I had developed this area of science that I guess now gets called complexity theory, and so I tried to figure out what university would give me the best deal to start a research center in this kind of science. So I went around to lots of universities, and the one that won that was the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois. But I said, “OK, I’m going to start a company that builds the tools that I want to have for myself and that I perfectly well know are going to be useful to lots of other people in the world.” So we started the company in Champaign, Illinois, which is not probably most people’s first choice for where to start a tech company, even back in 1986, but it was great. We got terrific people from the area — it’s a good university, producing a lot of interesting graduates. We were the only game in town, so to speak, and I think we’re still the largest tech operation there. So we started in a slightly outlying place. Then [we] got off to a very quick start, up to a couple hundred employees, maybe 150 or something. I was injecting ideas into this thing at a very high rate. MATT: So when you inject ideas, you’re coming and saying, “Hey we should do this thing.” STEPHEN: Yes. And getting more and more frustrated that they weren’t getting done. I have to say that just a few years ago we finally finished my 1991 to-do list. MATT: Ha! [laughter] STEPHEN: So it’s done, that one is — it finally, finally happened. MATT: That one’s… Yeah, the thing that got you to leave is now all the way complete. STEPHEN: Yes, right. My original plan had been to build these tools that will, among other things, allow me to do the basic science that I wanted to do. I said, “Let me step back a bit and let me go off and spend some chunk of my time doing basic science, and let the company grow up and we’ll see what happens next. Maybe there will be a coup and somebody else will say ‘I can run this better than you can’.” MATT: So everyone was in the office except for you? STEPHEN: Not quite. What happened was — I’m trying to remember how many people weren’t in the office at that point, but I was definitely the main go-offsite person. MATT: What were the tools at that time? Was that because you had been in a university setting and were familiar with email or internet? STEPHEN: Yes, well I started using email in 1976. So that was — MATT: That was pretty familiar to you. STEPHEN: Yes, right. It was modems dialing up. My email would arrive in bunches every 15 minutes. And I was on the phone a bunch. I had hired a chief operating officer. MATT: I was going to ask what the exec team looked like. You had a COO who could be the on-the-ground lead? STEPHEN: Right, who was with us for six or seven years. And he did a good job of maturing the company from being high-growth to something which had good systems in place and could roll forward. MATT: And this second iteration of the company, did you also raise venture capital, or did you decide to take a different approach to have the longevity? STEPHEN: No, no, not at all. Version two — I was the CEO from the beginning and forever type [of] thing, no outside money ever. It’s been a shame for me that I’ve never really had a quote “business partner.” I think of myself as pretty average at business kinds of things but I’m not totally incompetent. Personally I view it as an optimization. You can do things that are very commercial, but a little bit intellectually boring. And it tends to be the case that you’re doing a lot of rinse-and-repeat stuff if you want to grow purely commercially, so to speak, or you can do things that are wonderful intellectually, but the world doesn’t happen to value them and you can’t make commercial sense that way. And I’ve tried to navigate something in between those two where I’m really intellectually interested and where it’s commercially successful enough to sustain the process for a long time. MATT: I love finding that intersection. STEPHEN: Oh yeah. MATT: And it feels like now that the world has caught up a little bit to voice assistance and the natural language processing stuff you’ve been working on forever, that you found — is that the main business model for Wolfram Research now? STEPHEN: No, no. MATT: Oh, I would’ve thought that licensing drove it because there must be billions of users of these voice assistants. STEPHEN: There are. Yes. And it’s a good source of revenue. At this point it’s fairly diverse. There’s a big chunk of licensing software but a lot of that — there’s, for example, the academic sector, there’s site licenses to universities where basically the goal is to make the software free for people to use at universities, and we’re complete now in the U.S. in the sense that all the major universities have site licenses. So if you’re any kind of major university in the U.S., you will be able to use our software for free. And there’s a lot of commercial use of software where we’re basically selling pre-packaged software. It’s been nice that it has been gradually quite diversified between different kinds of channels. Back to the whole no venture capital do. It’s been great. I don’t have a boss. I recommend it. [laughter] And also I can do things — MATT: I feel like you always have a boss. It might be a customer or all of the customers in the world. STEPHEN: Yeah, at some level — MATT: It could be the employees for whom you’ll respond to if they reach out. STEPHEN: That is correct. Yes, that is really what happens. But in the first approximation you think, “Oh, I can do anything,” and then the second approximation is, “Oh, we have all these customers. Oh, we have all these employees.” I take those responsibilities really seriously. But I’ve been doing them so long that they seem natural, so to speak. It’s a thing where there is a certain kind of intellectual freedom, that I at least believe that I have by virtue of the fact that I’m just responsible to myself. MATT: I will say that I think, as a result of so much capital flooding into the market, that there now are very long-term investors who, if you choose them correctly, can be aligned on longer time spans than the standard five to seven [year] fund life of some of the historical venture capital. STEPHEN: Right. MATT: And founders now are able to retain a lot of control through voting mechanisms. They might sell economic interest but [you’re] no longer selling control interest. STEPHEN: I always wonder how that’s going to come out in the end. I thought about taking my company public back in the early 1990s. We were on a great trajectory and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But then I was like, “Hmm, I don’t know.” Actually the final thing was my employees saying, “Why are we doing this? This doesn’t seem like a way to have a good time,” type thing. MATT: That’s great that you had the kind of culture where people felt comfortable challenging that as well. STEPHEN: Yes, yes. I think it’s fair to say that we have a culture — We have a lot of very bright people who have a lot of opinions. And I like to believe that we have a company where what we are mostly interested in is finding people who can be productive in our environment, and they have very different personalities. Some of them, I think I at least, have the view that they pretty much couldn’t work anywhere else because they’re — MATT: [laughs] Unemployable. STEPHEN: They have very unusual personality traits and poor internal politics skills and so on. MATT: What makes them successful at Wolfram? STEPHEN: That they do good work. That’s the thing that I — MATT: Part of good work is working with colleagues and the teamwork aspect. STEPHEN: Yes, yes. But I think that the role of management is given who these people are, how do you fit them together with what we are trying to do in such a way that you take advantage of their good traits. MATT: So to end the business thread, do you grow the employee base of the company along with the revenue or with your scope of what you’re trying to accomplish? STEPHEN: Good question. We have been lucky enough, touch wood, that we have been profitable every year for 31 years now. That is achieved by a very simple process, which is, spend less than you make. Thankfully we have never had to have a big “Oh my gosh, the revenue is less than we expected, let’s let people—” No. We’ve fortunately never had that. Our general principle is we’ll pay Champaign, Illinois rates for a certain set of people. Other people, it will be based on where they are, but we’re never going to go above that. So that means when people wind up in San Francisco or New York, we’ll often lose them because we’re not going to pay the rates that people expect and need in those places. On the other hand, if they find some obscure place somewhere, they’re going to be doing really well because — MATT: I recommend Houston, where I’m based. Not too obscure and a very reasonable place to leave. STEPHEN: Yes, we have quite a number of people in Texas. I think we may even have a couple people in Houston. I’d have to look at the map. MATT: I read some really interesting research hypothesis around why geographic mobility has gone down in the United States. You would think people would move more for economic opportunity but it has actually gone down. And the conclusion of this was the blocker was two-income households. STEPHEN: Yes. MATT: Where if one person were moving, and the sole breadwinner, you only have to find one job. And now you have to find two jobs in the new city, which is at least twice as hard. STEPHEN: That’s interesting, yes. MATT: But when one of the partners has no geographic attachments, you end up following. I just talked to a colleague who ended up in Copenhagen and he’s from — I forget where — some place very far from Copenhagen. He said, “Yeah, my wife got a research job and now we’re in Copenhagen for a few years.” STEPHEN: Yes, we find that all the time. There were some obscure ones. Like there’s one guy in our user interface team who’s been at the company a long time, but he said, “Well I’m going to go remote and I’m going to this island off the coast of Nicaragua because my wife is a primatologist and she is studying… What were they? Some kind of monkey-like creatures on this island. And he got a microwave link set up, and there he was, being perfectly productive. MATT: Impressive. STEPHEN: To me the focus is on — Can you be productive? Are you doing good stuff? And then where you live is your independent business, so to speak. There is a certain amount of complexity in scheduling things and meetings and so on when people are in all different time zones, but somehow that doesn’t end up being that horrifying. MATT: Is there some sort of predetermined taxonomy or is it more of a free-form? STEPHEN: It’s free-form. One of the things that is fun about my company is I think of us as a microcosm of what goes on, because we have people from the history PhDs who are actually doing history stuff for us, to the people who are doing — whether it’s graphic design or whether it’s some software engineering, server infrastructure thing. One of the things we’ve done — I don’t know how you’ve done this — but the company is pretty vertically integrated in the sense that we don’t outsource anything really. It’s all in-house graphic design, legal, this, that, and the other. Partly because we’ve got enough stuff going on that there’s not really a group that’s going to have nothing to do. And it also really, really helps to have, let’s say, designers who really know and understand our technology, and they’ve met customers of ours and they know the story. And plus some of the people in our design group become really good Wolfram Language programmers. MATT: Cool. Actually some of our best developers and architects started off as designers. STEPHEN: Yes, I think it’s a really good field to start in. It’s funny, because I track where people come from and so on, and physics, for example, is good. For the techies, it’s a really good export field, so to speak, and I think graphic design is another one of these good export fields, where you learn a certain discipline of thinking to do good graphic design. For a while it seemed like UX was — we were pretty early in the hiring of official UX people and it seemed like that might be taking off more in that direction, but I think it’s a little bit merged with the graphic design. And I feel like sometimes the designers — they always have something to show for what they’ve done, in a sense, whereas UX is a little bit less clear. Somebody made this flow diagram or something but that turned into something different from what finally came out. MATT: The visual communication helps a ton, right, for getting people on the same page? STEPHEN: Yes. MATT: It’s one thing we’re trying to do more, is just draw something, even if you’re not an artist or a designer or anything, so you really are on the same page, literally, with what you’re trying to communicate. STEPHEN: Yes. I don’t know in your geo-distributed setup, but we never use video conferencing, I mean really never, to the point where — MATT: It’s always screen sharing and voice? STEPHEN: It’s just screen sharing and voice. MATT: It’s mostly video actually, with us. And what was interesting to me observing it from the outside, is before Zoom, we had very few meetings because I felt like the process was so frustrating to everyone, we just didn’t do it. And Zoom spread like wildfire in our organization because there was just something to it that made it — It worked just a bit better, it got over that threshold, whatever that uncanny valley was that kept us from using it before. And now I think we have too many meetings, perhaps. But video is a thing, and people think about their background and try to have good lighting. Good audio is really important to me personally. STEPHEN: Yes. Good audio is very important to me. I am always complaining about that. MATT: I will send you a link to the Sennheiser headset we like. It’s USB and it’s only about $34. It’s become very standard. STEPHEN: OK, I’d like that. Yes, we’ve spent lots of effort on headsets for people and complaining about people not having the right audio setup and so on. And I am glad to know that I’m not the only person who really cares about that. MATT: It makes a huge difference. I’ll use this opportunity to tell people to check out your blog post. Was it “Seeking the Productive Life?” STEPHEN: Yes. MATT: On your WordPress-powered blog. STEPHEN: Indeed. MATT: Which is a very comprehensive view of your entire personal operating system and productivity, which I found — well, it’s impossible to summarize. And then two, we used this to point to [the fact] that you have started livestreaming many of your design meetings. STEPHEN: Yes. MATT: And so I could probably google “Wolfram livestream” or something? STEPHEN: Probably, yes, right. MATT: And so these actual internal meetings are now broadcasting publicly, which is pretty unique and fascinating. STEPHEN: That is correct. This livestream meetings thing, I started doing it about a year and a half ago or something because I thought, these meetings are fascinating. It’s a shame for these things to just go off into the ether and nobody — so I thought, let’s do this. MATT: It’s mostly screens and then audio? STEPHEN: Screens and audio, no people. We’ll get people who are both expert users of our product and often world experts in the particular thing that we are talking about. And they show up and they contribute useful things. MATT: It’s interesting. You have a lot about your company which is very much like how open source works, but a lot of what you do is not open source, correct? STEPHEN: That is correct. MATT: There is a post I read about this while doing some research, 12 reasons — I think one of your colleagues wrote it — that Wolfram Language wasn’t open source. And one of them was, things like language design aren’t benefited from being more open, is how I interpreted one of them. STEPHEN: Yes, probably, yes. I think — look, it’s a complicated thing because my goal is to be able to produce this intellectually valuable, long-term thing. And the question is, given the world as it is, what is the best way to do that. And we have built, back 33 years ago, when I started the company — it was like, OK, we’re going to sell pre-packaged software. And I didn’t know whether that industry would survive. I mean back at that time — MATT: It wasn’t clear, right? Piracy was huge. STEPHEN: Yes, piracy was a big problem. Another big problem was, what was the price point going to be for software? Because at that time there was Borland versus Microsoft. Borland was at $100, Microsoft was at $500 for typical software. And it’s like, who’s going to win in that space? MATT: How much is Mathematica? STEPHEN: Well it’s very complicated. [laughter] It ranges from — MATT: How much was it at the beginning? STEPHEN: It was $495. But no, I think what we’ve done — it’s a thing I’ve thought about quite a bit — what is the right way to slice — We are trying to do a long-term, intellectually valuable thing, having something — maintaining that kind of coherence over a long period of time, I don’t know what the best way to do it is. I think we have found a pretty good scheme. Wolfram Alpha has been free from the beginning to use. We recently introduced this thing, a free Wolfram engine for developers, which people seem to like. And the deal is, using it for development, it’s free, you can do whatever you want with it. But if your work product is what it is producing, if it is actually in production, that’s when you have to start paying something for it. MATT: I think it’s interesting, you’re adopting some of the elements of what helps open source become ubiquitous, and some of the open things that, by the way, open source didn’t invent — they came from academia and many things before, in terms of the collaboration — and I think it’s very cool. STEPHEN: An important thing for us is the alignment of where we make money versus who is actually getting value, who our real customers are. And I think some of the cracks that are happening in some of the areas of the technology industry — I think come from a lack of alignment between — who are the actual customers? Well the actual customers are advertisers, they are not the people who are — whatever else. And I think we have been both lucky in that our customer base is wonderful people we really like. The thing that tended to happen though is these projects that — it starts open source and then there is some kind of bait-and-switch somewhere. And it just drives me crazy. We keep on — MATT: I totally agree. And that was the open-source model for a long time. We’re going to be open source but then hey, that open-source license is really scary, don’t use it, buy our proprietary license, or things like that. STEPHEN: Right. MATT: Or we’re going to put all the good, new stuff in this proprietary version of the license. STEPHEN: Right, right. MATT: That’s why I want to talk more about open source at some point because, if you look at — They’re not always the best products, Wikipedia was not the best, WordPress in some ways you could say is not the best. Chromium engine — I don’t know if you saw the engine behind Chrome was just actually adopted by Internet Explorer. STEPHEN: Yeah. MATT: So we’re getting a ubiquity and a de-facto standardization of a code base that becomes so useful. STEPHEN: Right. MATT: You could never force Microsoft and Google to say, “We’re going to do the same thing.” But they have, through their own personal utility maximization, have chosen to collaborate in this one area, which is really beautiful. STEPHEN: That’s interesting. There are these different things, like, let people see the source, right? I don’t care if people see the source, that’s not the issue. I mean that’s not the point. Although we did have an interesting experience. So one thing happened because our products get used for lots of fancy, tech-y things. At the very beginning we would have the following sort of thing that would happen. Some mathematician would come up at a trade show and say, “How can I trust your stuff, I can’t see inside how everything works?” And I’d say, “Well how can we trust these papers you’re writing?” It’s kind of like, their mechanism for validity is peer review. Our mechanism for validity is software quality assurance, which is a lot better. MATT: I take it you have some opinions on peer review? STEPHEN: Oh, it’s terrible. I think peer review is — I always thought it was broken, even when I was in the business, so to speak. My point of view was, if I have an original paper or idea, it’s going to be really tough to get it through a peer review process. 1986 was the last time I published a paper in an academic journal. I decided they were a bad idea and I wasn’t going to do it. MATT: And now you have a blog, which is even better. STEPHEN: Yes, the blog is — some of the things I write on the blog are quite academic. And it’s really interesting, I remember I was writing a piece about Ada Lovelace, actually, at the time of her 200th birthday celebration. And I happened to, at the last minute, I decided to go to England and go to some fancy celebration that was happening about it. And I was visiting some museum that has a bunch of her papers and so on, which I’d already got copies of most of. But the curator there was saying, who was used to academic stuff, was saying, “When do you think you’ll be publishing this?”, thinking the answer would be a year from now or something. And it’s like, well no, I’m going to publish it tomorrow morning before I get on a plane. Because you can write anything there. MATT: And you do. STEPHEN: And I write some stuff that’s quite technical and some stuff that is quite product-oriented. MATT: Back to that live-streaming of meetings. I think it’s great that you say the meetings are kind of like they were before you live-streamed. They’re not too performative or anything. STEPHEN: Yes. MATT: I’ll add something else to that, which is you said you’re a CEO for life, more or less, there is a lot of authority vested in you and this company, but it also seems simultaneously that people are comfortable with challenging you and presumably the other executives. What do you feel like you’ve done to foster that culture where there is a comfort, it sounds like, at many levels to challenge you very directly? STEPHEN: Yes, it’s an interesting question. I suppose that I’m actually prepared to listen at some point. Some of these things get quite heated. It’s hardly as if — I don’t necessarily — I kind of know myself well enough to know by the time I’m getting heated, I don’t know what I’m talking about. That is the typical — and I will even say that because if I can explain myself, I’m just going to explain myself. And it’s always frustrating when people don’t speak up and don’t say — MATT: Do you do anything to encourage people who you might feel are hanging back a little in the meeting? STEPHEN: Yes. I am enough of a people person. The fact is that having been running a company for 33 years, if I wasn’t a people person it would have driven me nuts, OK? MATT: Or them away and there wouldn’t be a company. [laughs] STEPHEN: Yes, yeah, right. I like people, I find people interesting. Sometimes I would say, more cynically I would say, after I’ve been managing people for 40-something years, and you might have thought you’ve seen every pathology that could possibly happen. But no, there is always a new one. At this point I just find it faintly amusing that — “Oh my gosh, another bizarre thing I’ve never seen before.” And I see a large part of my role being that I’ve got all these talented people, I’ve got all of these projects we’d like to do, how do we match talented people with projects we want to do? MATT: Do people feel like they’re moving around or is there some stability once they get onto a project? STEPHEN: There is as much stability as they want, basically. There are people who have worked at the company for 20 years, and have never done management even though I can tell they have a good personality to do management. And finally we persuade them, you should do this, and they say, “Oh this is actually quite interesting.” MATT: Is that more in your head or do you do any sort of testing or other objective ways to determine people’s strength or potential abilities? STEPHEN: No, nothing, other than the Who Knows What database of just factual information. MATT: And does this all come from you or is this also the rest of your executive team? STEPHEN: No, there is a bunch of people who have gotten experienced at doing this, I would say. When I look at org charts of companies I always — MATT: I love org charts. STEPHEN: Yes, right. That was probably a decade ago, I was like “Oh, our org chart is such a mess.” For a long time, our org chart was classified because there were people, it was like, particularly one person who was with the company for a long time, and has now spun off doing related things, but who was an executive at the company and was always like, “We shouldn’t really tell people what all the weird reporting arrangements are.” I wasn’t a big believer in this but it wasn’t… But then, look at our org chart, and it seems messy in many ways. And then I was working — actually that was with Microsoft — and somebody who is actually now an even much more promoted executive at Microsoft, said to me, “We were trying to understand how it worked.” He said, “There’s this company on the outside that has reverse-engineered the Microsoft org chart, we just buy their stuff to understand what’s going on.” MATT: That’s funny. STEPHEN: Yes, right. So I get this thing and it’s a big foldout thing and it’s fascinating because it’s a huge mess. I mean, I don’t remember whether it’s still a mess but at that time it was a huge mess and you could see lots of historical stuff. And so after that I felt so much better about our org chart. Although, our org chart is now much cleaner, I would say. MATT: It’s the map and the territory, right? Our org chart is currently clean but it’s not comprehensive, so there are some things that aren’t represented on the org chart, which sometimes a person is in two different places, that might be represented, but then they have informal authority in an area that we don’t try to demarcate necessarily. STEPHEN: Right. MATT: We have had a lot of success, actually, removing everything compensation-related from the management structure. So there’s only a few, only the centralized HR deals with all that and everyone else just focuses on getting the job done and peer feedback and everything. STEPHEN: One thing at our company, which was a long-time joke, was the claim there are more projects than people at the company. MATT: Yes, we have the same thing, wow. STEPHEN: It has been a running joke — can we actually inventory all the projects? Well now we’ve, thankfully — I’ve got this team together to just go and do that and it has been a good process actually. MATT: Are you familiar with Marie Kondo? STEPHEN: Sure. MATT: You know her thing is you put all the stuff that is the same, like all the clothing, in one pile. It sounds like you’re doing that from an organizational point of view. STEPHEN: Yes, yeah… MATT: You’re trying to get all that stuff together so you can sort it out. STEPHEN: Right. I’d certainly like to apply software design methodologies to the way that we’re doing things. Look, the thing that we have done that I think has worked pretty well is we have pretty good project management, tradition, and infrastructure. And part of that is, I’ll come up with some crazy idea, actualizing that has to be flowed through the organization. Now to be fair, I think I am probably — one of my less-bad traits is that I’ll come up with these ideas and then people will say, “How on earth are we going to actually do that?” And I will actually know, that is, if they don’t. It will be like, because I know enough about engineering and the whole technology stack, that I’ll be like, “Look, we can — some thing or other thing has to be authenticated here, and do this and that and the other, and I can actually dive down to a pretty high level of detail about how it should be done. And I think part of my role is to explain why things aren’t impossible. And I see increasingly with a lot of projects we have done, the first response is, “That’s just impossible.” I’ll have some idea and it’s — and actually I am happy when people say that. When I’m not happy is when people say, “Oh sure, we’ll do it,” when I plainly know there is no way they can do it, it’s too hard. And so then I’m trying to figure out, “OK, so let’s see whether we can figure out how to do it.” I think the other thing that I find I do a lot of now is, we have all these projects connecting — I’ll be in some meeting and somebody will be talking about, “Oh, I’m doing this, this, and this,” and I’ll say, “Oh, you should talk to so-and-so because they’re doing something similar.” And we were doing stuff to do with external storage systems. We have this group that’s been doing database integration and a blockchain group, and they all have things to do with this external storage story, and that becomes part of the role — explaining, just knowing enough about what’s going on around the company. MATT: And how in this — I’m curious from a software point of view — how does maintenance work in this structure? STEPHEN: Well that’s a good question. First of all, a lot of things we do in the language are quite modular. There’s a function, it fits into the language, but it doesn’t have a lot of nasty, dangling interdependency. MATT: Gotcha. STEPHEN: We’ve gotten a lot of experience and good systems for doing software quality assurance, and I think we are pretty good at doing that. Some of the QA we have to do is kind of hair-raising, like a lot of real-time things, which are always difficult, but even for Wolfram Alpha, there is — the natural language is a fundamentally non-modular thing. MATT: Yes. STEPHEN: So the classic example is if you type in “50 cents,” you have money, if you type in “50 Cent,” you get the rapper as the default thing. What happens when there is another rapper who is called “30 Cent” or something? That’s a very non-modular thing, and you have to be able to deal with all those kinds of situations. But I think we have done pretty well at that. What we tend to do are these big subsystems. They get swept through every some number of years, and then a lot of stuff gets — a lot of things that we’ll fix — MATT: Who decides to sweep through the system? Is it because a number of bugs accumulate? STEPHEN: No, it’s not as organized as that. That’s a good question. It ends up being the people who run those engineering teams. I have to say that I am pleased with their level of responsibility in the sense that we are going to rewrite a bunch of the UI stuff because it’s out of date. MATT: On the converse side, sometimes I believe it’s easier to write code than read code. STEPHEN: Yes. MATT: And so you get sometimes new engineers on an area who want to rewrite it partially to understand it. STEPHEN: That’s true. MATT: So how do you keep the over-read factor? STEPHEN: Yes, right. Well I push back on that and say, “Why are we doing this?” In fact, I was just doing that yesterday, a particular thing. It’s like, we can do this wonderful thing — why are we doing this? This is not an important feature, this is just not the time to do it. MATT: Are there programs around learning and developments or ongoing training? STEPHEN: The one constant is a lot of our development, most of our development is in our own language. But at this point, most of the people we hire know it. MATT: Before they get there? STEPHEN: Yes, it’s kind of scary that the system is older than many of the employees. And they’re like, “Oh yeah, I started learning this when I was ten years old” type of thing. So that’s — MATT: I’ve started to have conversations like that in WordPress and it is very humbling. STEPHEN: Yes, yes, right. For some areas I let different managers have different rules about how they set that up, but some people insist the person should come to an actual office for some number of months when they start to get — MATT: This is onboarding. STEPHEN: Yes, right. And that seems to work well in some cases. And I don’t know whether it’s really necessary, I haven’t really — we haven’t done a — MATT: Would a prospective employee know what kind of team they’re joining? STEPHEN: Yes. MATT: Are you hiring for specific teams or are they generally open roles and you try to place people based on their — STEPHEN: We are placing people. But by the time they are actually joining, it’s pretty clear what they’re going to be doing, for sure. MATT: You’ll say, “Hey, you’ll need to come to Champaign for two months,” or something? STEPHEN: Yes, right. sometimes we’re hiring people where it’s like, “When I finish my PhD I’ll come,” and they’ll start in some number of months and we’ll say, “Well we’ll have something interesting for you to do.” MATT: By then. STEPHEN: Yes right, yes. MATT: Let’s say I’m a coder in Houston and I apply to Wolfram. What is my process like on the way to being hired, assuming I will get hired? STEPHEN: That’s a good question, actually, I don’t — I have to say, I regret the fact that I don’t get to see most of the frontline applications, only some of the more senior ones. I used to look at a bunch of these things. Cover letters are, to me, a critical part of the story. I haven’t been reading them recently because I have — MATT: That’s why I don’t like applicant tracking systems, or form applications. I want to see how they email, what client they used, what fonts there are, how they formatted it. I want to see everything about the application as free-form as possible. STEPHEN: Yes, right. What I find is that when I used to read these things a lot, the ones that were just, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this.” “I just graduated in computer science from this place and therefore I am qualified for whatever.” It’s like, no. And then there are other ones which say — MATT: There are some cover letters though that are such a good story, and you can get a sense for someone’s clarity of writing. STEPHEN: Yes, yeah, right. Well, also some of the ones that are more fun are things like, “I’ve been reporting bugs in your software for six or seven years now, I want to come and help fix them,” type of thing. That’s kind of cool. MATT: What are the characteristics that you feel particularly makes someone successful at Wolfram Research? STEPHEN: A certain independence of mind, that they can think about — that they keep the thinking apparatus engaged at all times. Oh, yes, a very important one — no bullshit. That’s a — MATT: How do you detect that though? STEPHEN: It’s really easy, I think. You just listen in the interview how people will say, “Oh, yes I know all about that process.” Well, I know a tiny bit. And sometimes — MATT: Some people can be more humble in their — STEPHEN: Right. MATT: So interviews are very high-pressure. We do a lot of our interviewing on text, on a chat. STEPHEN: Oh that’s interesting. MATT: And that’s partially because we found that there is a class of people for whom a real-time conversation like this can be incredibly intimidating. There’s an asymmetry as well. They’re hoping for a new job and they just don’t perform well in that situation. That looks like almost nothing else we do in most people’s daily work. The interview, it’s very artificial. But the text chat looks a lot like what an average developer might do most of the day. STEPHEN: That’s interesting. MATT: So it can allow people that kind of space to — it’s like a take-home test a little bit. They can take five minutes to respond to something, they can Google something, if they get really freaked out by the question, they can take a walk around the table. STEPHEN: I have to say, in all the interviewing that I do, people sometimes come into it tense but I don’t think — I think if you’re doing interviewing right, the people aren’t that tense. MATT: It’s probably an inherent power dynamic that is impossible for you, in particular, to remove. STEPHEN: Maybe, maybe. MATT: Well text removes that even more. STEPHEN: Yes. I would say that at some level, if the people are sufficiently intimidated, that’s probably not a great indicator, because the fact is, in our company, there are a bunch of strong opinions and people will express themselves. And if somebody is like, “Oh no, I can’t deal with that,” that probably isn’t a great indicator. I have to say, it’s a different thing with more senior folk, like business people and things like that. That’s a horrifying world of interviewing, for me at least. Because people who have, who are used to a very polished presentation, it’s just so difficult to find out who is the actual person here. MATT: How do you balance that pattern matching? Not leading the confirmation bias or where the company might need to evolve, which might be different from where it has been in the past? STEPHEN: I’m a guy who likes new stuff, so that helps me be more change-oriented. I have to say that by the time it’s working smoothly, I’m not the person to be dealing with that. I have for myself and my personal life, I have endless systems that I have developed and they work, but also sometimes they stop working and then I’m like, “Oh, this doesn’t work anymore, I’m going to change it.” For example, it could be the case that the things that I like and that resonate with me and that are the directions that I think of going are just not the ones the world happens to be keen on. A couple years ago I was like, “Let’s look at VR and AR.” And it’s like, well, I have a bunch of long-term people at the company, and they said, “You told us that in the early 1990s.” MATT: That’s funny. STEPHEN: What a bust that was at that time. You’re going to have to do better this time to convince us. And I have to say, I couldn’t. I couldn’t really convince them. Or IoT is another area where we’ve done a bunch of stuff, a bunch of interesting things, but it hasn’t quite taken off the way that I think some people thought it would. This question of, when you’re the CEO, when do you fire yourself, type thing, and do you change, or is the thing going in a direction that you just don’t want to change it? MATT: And your name is in the company, so how does that happen? STEPHEN: Yes, right. MATT: Is it just “research” at that point? STEPHEN: Right. That’s an interesting issue. I was thinking — MATT: We joke Automattic would be just “Auto-ic.” STEPHEN: Right, right. I’ve been thinking of this. I was thinking at one time if I had a club of people who had named their companies after themselves. And you’ll be a partial member, right? MATT: Thank you. Well we luckily have, I think, 17 other Matts at the company, so it could keep going without me. STEPHEN: OK, OK. But I think — MATT: Yes, I do joke — the egotistical founder, we always slip our name in. I want to ask two things as we wrap up. You have a lot of trust, it sounds like, which just allows this very candid communication, candor between folks. Do you have something like the meetups that we’re doing here? STEPHEN: Yes, it’s not quite as formal. Once a year we have a technology conference. Users come, they have a good time, they get to meet a bunch of our employees. The employees come, they have a good time, they get to meet a bunch of our users. MATT: Cool. Well after all this time, would you consider management or running a company computationally reducible? STEPHEN: [laughs] That is a good question. This is one of the embarrassing things about people who like to think they’ve invented paradigms for thinking about stuff. The question is, “Can you live your own paradigm?” And it’s often the case in these things where I can see something developing at the company — I’ve been doing this a long time so I know how this story ends. From the point of view of science and technology, there are things we’ve invented, I’ve invented. I could be very worried. Is the world ever going to pay attention to this, is the world ever going to care? Maybe I’m just too arrogant, but the fact is, I just know it’s going to go that way. This thing about computational language and the importance of having a rich language which can express computational thoughts, this is inexorable. This is going to be really important. I don’t know how long it will take the world to realize how important that is. MATT: It’s not if, it’s when? STEPHEN: Yes, yes. MATT: Well that’s a good place to wrap up. Stephen, thank you so much. This has been an endlessly fascinating discussion and I’m looking forward to continuing it over dinner. STEPHEN: Sounds good. MATT: This has been Distributed with Matt Mullenweg and we’ll see you next time. MATT: That was Stephen Wolfram. You can find him on Twitter at @stephen_wolfram. That’s Stephen with a PH, underscore, Wolfram — W-O-L-F-R-A-M. He also has an awesome blog, if you just google his name and “blog.” It’s powered by WordPress of course, and it’s really good. Stephen says that he set out to build a company that would, quote, “allow him to build the tools to do what he wanted to do.” And by that he means working on projects that he calls “intellectually valuable.” It’s easy for CEOs to come up with lofty mission statements, but very few actually follow through. I’m inspired by Stephen’s steadfast commitment to intellectually valuable work and the organizational freedom that has allowed him to pursue it across three decades — and hopefully for many more to come. Next time on the Distributed podcast, we’ll be talking to Taso Du Val, the CEO of Toptal, a freelancer network where employers can access a highly curated pool of remote contractors. Toptal itself is fully distributed, and they’re trying to convince blue-chip companies to integrate remote talent onto their teams, so I’m excited to talk about how this could help usher in a distributed future. Thanks for joining us, and see you next time.
15 minutes | a year ago
Automattic’s Sonal Gupta on Communication and Chaos
Read more about Sonal Gupta in “Welcome to the Chaos.” Sonal Gupta leads Automattic’s Other Bets division, a team that builds products that aren’t yet core to Automattic’s business, but keep the company innovating and pushing it to explore new territory. In this episode, Sonal and our host Matt Mullenweg talk about how important communication is in the organized chaos of a fully distributed company. The full episode transcript is below. *** MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy howdy. I’m Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic, and the co-founder of WordPress. Automattic is the company that makes WordPress.com and a bunch of other things. At Automattic we have a division called Other Bets, which encompasses a host of experimental projects that aren’t directly related to our core business. When we started thinking about this department, I knew we needed a renaissance person to lead it — with a background in legal, finance, and entrepreneurship, Sonal Gupta is just such a person. Sonal’s been with the company for coming up on three years, and I wanted to get some time on the calendar to talk to her about what made her want to work for a distributed company, what she likes about it, and what she finds challenging. Alright, let’s get started with Sonal. MATT: Today we’re going to go inside a company I know a little bit more about — Automattic, which is a company I founded in 2005. Today, Automattic has over 850 employees working from 68 countries. So to understand better how Automattic works, I’m joined by one of my colleagues, Sonal Gupta. Thank you so much for joining today, Sonal. SONAL GUPTA: Thanks for having me. MATT: She is the lead for what we call the Other Bets Division, a name we borrowed a little shamelessly from Alphabet, which oversees a number of different emerging businesses, including our latest bet, which is focused on tools that power our distributed work model, Happy.tools. Sonal is both a tech founder and a lawyer. She joined Automattic two years ago as a legal counsel after a successful run as cofounder of Rank & Style. And Sonal, you’ve also been named as one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People. So when you joined Automattic, it was your first distributed work company. What made you want to apply for it? SONAL: Yes, actually the distributed nature and culture of Automattic was one of the things that really drew me to it in the first place. I was really intrigued and loved how open and transparent everything was and the amount of autonomy Automattic places on its employees. I had had all sorts of experiences with different offices as a corporate lawyer for a big part of my career. I worked in a big corporate office here in New York City where I had my own — MATT: How big? SONAL: 500 employees. MATT: Wow. SONAL: Not huge but for one office it was pretty big. The office itself was nice, but the expectations around face time and just being in the office just in case a client might need you, those types of expectations made it a little bit difficult to keep up that kind of lifestyle. I have also had other different types of office experiences. I have worked in open plan offices, I have worked in a cubicle at a bank, I have also done the co-working space at WeWork. So my experience in offices really runs the gamut. My two years at Automattic [has been] definitely the best fit in terms of the way that I work, the way that makes me most productive, and overall life/work balance. MATT: So one question that comes up sometimes is, “What’s the first day?” There’s no desk you go to or computer. What was your onboarding like? SONAL: Well it’s funny because you start your first day and you’re sitting in your living room and your friends or family say to you, “Do you really have a job?” [laughter] The first day at Automattic was great. Automattic requires every employee to do a two-week support rotation so that everybody can understand the product and how customers see our products. MATT: You log on that first day, you’re in your living room, you’ve got a laptop. What was your first impression? SONAL: I think my first day I thought that there would be more video chats but all your onboarding is done — MATT: All text. SONAL: All in text. So that’s — MATT: Were you paired with someone? How does it work? I haven’t been onboarded in a really long time. SONAL: Yes you’re paired with a buddy — mentor — for your support rotation. You’re trained completely on Slack with a group of others who are also starting that day. MATT: And going from law to doing customer support, what was that like? SONAL: It was interesting. I did interact with our customers. I hadn’t really experienced anything like that. MATT: One thing people get on the first day is — internally to Automattic we have something called the Field Guide, basically our internal handbook, but it’s a WordPress blog so anyone can edit a set of pages. There is a headline on the Field Guide that says “Welcome To the Chaos.” What did you think when you saw that? SONAL: Seeing that just gives you comfort, immediately. Because it is overwhelming. You’re getting pinged from every direction. But as soon as you learn to embrace the chaos rather than resisting it, it makes it so much easier to understand Automattic’s culture. MATT: What does it mean to embrace the chaos? SONAL: To embrace the chaos to me means just surrendering to it and understanding that there is just going to be a barrage of information coming at you from all angles and it will take a little time to have a process in place, but you’re not expected to just get it immediately. MATT: One of the things that I’ve always thought is — recovering lawyers or attorneys — you write a lot in school, you read a lot, you are consuming and writing massive amounts compared to almost any other modern-day trade or industry. Automattic has a basis of a lot of written communication. Were there any things that you learned as you were training to be a lawyer that helped you in that, or that you found made you better able to consume and produce written stuff? SONAL: Yes, absolutely. Being successful at a company like Automattic — you have to be able to communicate effectively via text. As you said, we’re using all different kinds of messaging and internal blogs in order to communicate with the entire company. So I think my legal background was really helpful in being able to convey messages and information to people in a very clear and succinct way. MATT: How many hours did you work in a given week before versus now? Did you burn the midnight oil in the corporate job? SONAL: Oh yeah, definitely. I had times where I was working overnight or till four in the morning, but there are times at a law firm where you have downtime too. I think at Automattic, I wouldn’t say that overall I work that much less but I just work in a way that really works with my schedule and my life. So that is just something that is really important to me. MATT: What’s an example of you using that? SONAL: We use Slack and internal blogs for communication and it’s all async. While I try to get back to my colleagues or external partners as soon as I can, there is an understanding that we’re working with people in all different time zones around the world and you might not be working the exact hours, or maybe I take off three hours in the day and make it up later in the night. However I want to make my schedule is allowed. MATT: You joined as a legal counsel and you made the switch to running a division. Automattic has four divisions; you run one of them. Tell us about Other Bets. How many people, what does it do, etcetera? SONAL: We develop or acquire products that fall into three categories — things that we need to exist for Automattic’s operations, things that we build as experiments or that are useful tools for our community, and things that have the potential for substantial revenue growth. A lot of our products cross multiple categories. We are currently 40 people in the division, spread across six different teams. MATT: And I think part of the design goal of Other Bets is that we want about five percent of the company always working on the future. SONAL: Yes, exactly. MATT: Taking the thing that could be the next WordPress, could be the next Jetpack, could be the next WooCommerce, going from zero to one is really, really hard, and it’s different than going from 100 million to 120 million. We don’t disclose revenue, but we can say that Other Bets is about 10% of the revenue at Automattic, which is now starting to be quite substantial. SONAL: Absolutely. MATT: Tell us about some of the products. SONAL: Well we’ve got about 20 products in the portfolio, not all actively developed at the moment. Some of our products are Crowdsignal, which is a poll and surveys platform. MATT: Competes with Survey Monkey maybe? SONAL: Exactly. And we’ve got our new suite of products, Happy Tools. Our ads business is also part of the portfolio. MATT: One of my favorites is actually Simplenote. It is a simple notes app, and it runs on Android, iOS, Mac desktop, Windows, everything. It’s just ultra- fast synchronization of super clean notes. A lot of other notes apps become not that simple over time but we have managed to keep this one pretty lean and mean. SONAL: That’s correct. So Simplenote is one that we’re constantly building and improving. MATT: Let’s talk about communication. You have 40 people, how many time zones does that generally span? SONAL: We work
32 minutes | a year ago
Author Scott Berkun on Managing Distributed Teams with Respect
Read more about Scott Berkun in “Observe, Don’t Surveil: Managing Distributed Teams with Respect.” Scott Berkun wrote the book on distributed teams. Literally. He spent a couple of years at Automattic and wrote about his experience as a manager in a distributed company. In this episode, Scott talks about that experience, discusses how things have changed since, and explains how today’s managers can cultivate a shared vision in a distributed team. The full episode transcript is below. *** Matt Mullenweg: I want for you to imagine that you’ve been hired as a manager at a scrappy startup where there are no meetings, no hierarchy — not even an office. How do you make people feel like they’re part of a team? How do you brainstorm, and how do you make sure the work’s getting done? Is it possible to cultivate a shared vision, structure, and goals by only meeting in person twice a year? That’s what Scott Berkun faced nine years ago, when I hired him to join a little company called Automattic, which is the parent company of WordPress.com, which I founded in 2005. As you know from listening to this podcast, Automattic is fully distributed, with no central office and more than 900 employees working from 68 countries. When Scott joined us, we were quite a bit smaller, we were using IRC instead of Slack, and there was a lot that we were still figuring out. Scott wrote a book about his experience at Automattic called The Year Without Pants, and since then he’s written a whole bunch of books about management, culture, and how we work. Today he’s a sought-after speaker on creativity and innovation. I caught up with Scott in Seattle to talk about his experience at Automattic, and everything he’s learned since then. Has the future of work panned out like we first imagined it? Matt: We used to work together, actually. SCOTT BERKUN: We did used to work together. I used to work for you. [laughs] Matt: Well let’s talk a little bit about how that happened, because that was an interesting arc in the story. Scott: Yes. That was probably 2009 that you asked me to come to an Automattic Grand Meetup and you wanted me to advise on the team or lack of team structure at the company at the time. That was the first time that we officially were working together. Matt: That’s an intriguing hook. Scott: Yes. Matt: And I guess that was a point when Automattic was totally flat, right? Scott: Yes. Matt: It was like 50 or 60 people all reporting to me. I don’t know how that worked, actually. Scott: That’s right, yes. [laughs] Matt: I don’t remember. Scott: We talked a few months later about me joining Automattic as a lead of one of the newly formed teams at the company. Matt: Before that you had been at Microsoft for a while? Scott: I was a team lead, a project manager guy for about nine years there and I wrote a book about it, which is — probably how we first knew of each other is that you were on my mailing list that was about project management. Matt: Oh was that the Art and Science — the Project… Scott: Yes. That’s how we first titled the book. And then when WordPress launched I used it for my blog and that’s how we got to know each other. Matt: Can we plug that book really quick? What’s the new title? Scott: The title is Making Things happen. That’s the title of the book now. Matt: I highly recommend it. That’s the one with the matches on the cover, right? Scott: That’s right. Matt: I really enjoyed that book. Scott: But that was the beginning of my full-time remote work experience was working for you at Automattic. And I remember one of my biggest reasons for wanting to do it was that it very clear in your mind and in my mind that this was an experiment. Can we bring this experienced manager from a traditional company into a company like Automattic that has all these special things — being remote is one of them — but the high autonomy that every individual employee had — continuous deployment, was another. And then the notion of teams itself was an experiment. And then there was also this other notion that you knew that I was going to write a book about this, which was this other curveball to the whole thing. Matt: Yeah. Scott: And that combination of experiments — I love the word experiment, and when you used that word, I felt like no matter how this went, it was going to go well. For one of us, at least. [laughter] Matt: Yeah, sometimes those book documentary projects don’t go as well. Scott: No. The distributed work element wasn’t my greatest concern. I was worried about that but I was more worried about — do my skills as a manager in a traditional company where it’s an open office — you see people everyday. Could those skills transfer well to distributed work and to a far more autonomous culture in terms of the individual’s relationship to their work — how much control they had. I was more concerned about those things than distributed work. Matt: I think this is a big concern of a lot of managers who have worked one way their whole career and then might be thinking about joining or starting or working in a distributed fashion. What did you see your superpowers as when you were in these in-person cultures? Scott: I don’t know that I ever thought I had a superpower. I thought — Matt: Well you’re a modest guy so let’s call it “medium-powers,” that made you effective at what you were doing. Scott: I thought that, and I still think this, that most managers are really not very good at managing. Most people you talk to, when they come home from work, they’re not that happy about how well they’ve been managed — they have complaints. And that may extend out to the way the team is organized or the way the goals for their product has been set. I thought that I was a good team manager in that I remembered all of my bad experiences as an employee and I tried to work really hard not to repeat those mistakes. And I gave a lot of autonomy to employees because I was one of those employees who liked a lot of control. Once I’ve earned some trust I wanted to be able to run and go at full speed. And the best managers I had are ones who are comfortable giving me that much control. And I tried to rely on that as a strength coming to Automattic. Because everyone was already independent. I have to start out by saying I may not actually add any value at all. I need to observe first to see how things are going before I have any reason to change anything. And that’s a common mistake that new managers make everywhere, that they come in and they’ve got this new salary, this new job title, and it kicks their ego in and now it’s about them — How am I going to change the team, how am I going to change the organization? But you don’t know anything, you don’t know these people, you don’t know what their strengths or weaknesses are, you have no data. So the best thing you can do — and this comes up in the book that that was what my strategy was for two months — I’m just a note taker. When we have meetings, I’m just going to take notes. I’m going to observe, I’m going to reflect back. And then little by little, once I have something useful to say, I’ll put it into — well it was IRC then but it’d be Slack now — little by little I’ll just try to show, A, I’m not stupid, B, I’m not trying to get in your way, and C, I may actually have some insight that will help you be more productive or successful or happier. And you have to earn that even if you’re the most senior person on the team or the company or whatever. Matt: How do those meetings happen? Scott: Well obviously there weren’t teams yet so there were no meetings. [laughter] So what we agreed to do was — Matt: Were those Skype calls? Scott: It was all text. Matt: Everyone would be there at the same time, once a week? Scott: Yeah. And we would chat about whatever everyone was working on. And it started off really short and little by little we added more structure, then we moved to Skype and then eventually the big breakthrough was we switched to audio! Woohoo! It was a big deal because everyone was fully paying attention. Matt: We’ve had different experiences on audio meetings. Scott: Yes… Matt: Just to define some of those terms… Scott: Yeah. Matt: IRC is a text-only chat. Scott: Correct. Matt: Think of it like Slack but with a really old school version, like almost terminal-like interface. Scott: Old school, yes, old school Slack. Matt: Skype is a messaging platform plus voice. Scott: Yup. Matt: And is that what you did the voice meetings on? Scott: Yeah. We agreed we’d keep the meetings really short but every communication tool is good for some things and bad for others. And text has the advantage that you have time to think but the downside is that written language takes away a lot of data. You can’t hear someone’s inflection in their voice, or pick up on how loud or quiet they are. There’s a lot of data that you lose. And having a moment every week where we were on audio, even if it was just for five minutes or ten minutes, emotionally, in terms of your relationship, in terms of understanding people’s nuances and sense of humor, their sarcasm — you could only get that through audio. And you don’t need that much, you don’t need to have two-hour meetings, but ten minutes a week to hear everyone, what they’re talking about, what they’re excite
28 minutes | a year ago
Automattic’s Cate Huston on Building Distributed Engineering Teams
Read more about Cate Huston in “How to Build and Strengthen Distributed Engineering Teams.” Cate Huston is the Head of Developer Experience at Automattic, where her team is responsible for hiring, onboarding, and retaining some of the best software engineers in the world. In this episode, Cate talks with Matt about what kinds of people thrive on distributed engineering teams, and how team leads can keep their engineers happy, productive, and connected to their colleagues. The full episode transcript is below. *** MATT MULLENWEG: There are all sorts of approaches to distributed work. Some people work from home or at a café in their neighborhood. Others are digital nomads. I’m Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic and co-founder of WordPress, and I travel around 300 days out of the year. I appreciate that I get to spend time with my family in Texas, but I love life on the road too, and being able to hang out with friends and colleagues all over the world, and meet WordPress users wherever they might be. One of the nice things about running a fully-distributed company is that even the CEO gets to be just as remote as everyone else. Today’s guest is Cate Huston, who is a true digital nomad. All she needs is a cup of tea and a place to set up her laptop and she’s ready to go. Her home base is the city of Cork, in Ireland, but you’re just as likely to find her in any other corner of the globe. Just because Cate is always moving doesn’t mean she has trouble staying connected. Her role at Automattic requires her to be in close contact with her team, and it’s her job to help make sure that all of her fellow engineers stay connected, too. After leading several engineering teams at places like Google and others, Cate became the Head of Developer Experience at Automattic, a team responsible for helping all our engineers at Automattic stay engaged, productive, and professionally fulfilled. I knew we had to talk to Cate on this podcast because she lives out the distributed model so fully. She also has a comprehensive point of view on what kinds of engineers excel in distributed environments, and how companies can create the conditions that help engineers thrive. Alrighty, let’s get started with Cate. MATT: Hello Cate, thanks for joining today. CATE HUSTON: Hi Matt. I’m ready for a one-on-one. MATT: [laughs] Ahh I forgot to tell you we’re recording it. CATE: [laughs] You should warn people about these things. MATT: For the audience, can you catch us up a little bit on some of your experience that led you to Automattic? CATE: I worked at Google as a software developer and then spent a year roaming the world and doing my own thing, and then joined a startup and was a questionably-legal migrant in Colombia for a while, and then that startup kind of imploded. And around that time, you sent me a GIF of a raccoon being adorable and I was like, “Okay, he can be my new boss.” MATT: [laughs] You joined to lead the Mobile Team at Automattic. CATE: Yeah. MATT: But that has grown. So talk a little bit about that. CATE: I joined towards the end of 2017 to lead the Mobile team, which was amazing. And then after about 18 months I went on rotation to the Jetpack Engineering team, which was also super interesting because, as you know, I’ve been using Jetpack for a long time too. But when that came to an end it was clear that I was more needed elsewhere. So I didn’t back to the Mobile team, and I got to work with you, and rolling out Gutenberg. And now I lead our Developer Experience team. So we work to support our entire developer organization, and that includes owning the engineering-hiring process. MATT: What is developer experience at Automattic? I’ve heard of user experience but what does developer experience mean? CATE: I mean: “What does it mean to be a developer at Automattic, what are the challenges of development at Automattic, what are the challenges of development in a distributed, remote context, how can developers learn from other developers, how can they have the support that they need to chart out their own career path?” We have a lot of autonomy at Automattic, which I think is amazing, but that autonomy can be a bit overwhelming. So can we turn it for people [from] “Write your own MadLib,” into “Choose your own adventure,” [giving] people that kind of support. Also a critical part of the developer experience is the hiring experience going through into the onboarding experience. So how do we give people in our hiring process a good experience so that they can see if this is the right fit for them and we can see if they are the right fit for us, and how do we carry that through into them joining their team and becoming successful? So one of the ways that we think about developer experience is — our engineering organization is quite big and we’re only so many people. So what we talk about is, “How do we find the pivot points for individuals in teams so that we can be present at those pivot points and try and make them accelerants where possible?” An example of that is when the team gets a new lead, that’s a pivot point. So we want to be there supporting that new lead, bringing them into the kind of support that we have for dev leads, helping them develop and iterate on their process so that that new lead can take that team to new levels. MATT: There are probably some engineers listening right now who would love to be hired at Automattic or another distributed company. What advice would you give to them? CATE: The first thing I would say is, “Be patient, because I think all distributed hiring processes take a little longer.” I think people feel — I don’t know if it’s true — that they get a stronger signal in a day of face-to-face interviews but I think people feel like they have a stronger signal in a day of face-to-face interviews. And distributed companies, you can’t tell really if someone doesn’t show up to work. I mean, you can eventually tell, but it’s much easier to disappear. The level of trust required is much higher. And so there is a portion of the process that is earning that trust. We really believe that people can be successful and we’re looking to make people successful. There is no “prove it again” after you get hired. I think that’s really important. So the first thing is patience and just understanding that the processes take longer. The other thing is that these jobs tend to be more competitive, especially for more specialist roles. There’s not always as many of them as you might want. So you want to craft what you’re doing a little better. Tell a good story in your cover letter, get excited about that company specifically, not just remote work in general. I’m sure all remote companies get a lot of the kind of applications that we get, which is like “Yeah, I just want a remote job so that I can travel around the world.” And it’s like, “Okay, it’s cool to travel around the world, I do it, you do it, but it’s not easy to do that on top of a full time job.” MATT: So what’s the key for maintaining high performance, as you do, in all these far-flung locations? CATE: I get pretty rigid about certain things. Like breakfast, I’m very rigid about. So every morning there’s breakfast and then I – MATT: That’s very British. CATE: [laughs] Very British. British being rigid or breakfast being important? MATT: I think breakfast. CATE: [laughs] So I try and carve my day into two four-hour blocks. And I just don’t expect to do anything fun during the week, so I do my tourist-ing on the weekends. I really just go and spend a month in a place and try to live there. And honestly I live like that most of the time. When I’m in Cork, because I live in Cork, I try to do things on the weekend, get away from the computer, go out and see things. So if I’m doing that in a different place, it’s fine. I have my certain needs, which are pretty minimal, like breakfast and some form of exercise and that’s it. And so I just orient myself on “This is breakfast and here is a place to work, there is tea, and this is how I’m going to get regular exercise,” and then, honestly, that’s fine, that’s all I need. I’ve probably paired down these needs over time. I don’t know if I started that way, and it is quite hard if you need more stuff. I think sometimes people want peace and quiet, for example, or they need more social contact or whatever, and things that take more time to build, but for me, a laptop, a pair of headphones, a good amount of tea, everything’s fine. MATT: When you’re hiring engineers, what are you looking for as part of this process besides obviously some base technical-level skill? CATE: Probably two really big things. One is the ability to work with the kind of code base that we have. WordPress has been around for a long time, there’s probably still code you wrote floating around in it, and that’s quite hard. Not everybody has the experience, the desire to work with truly legacy code. And it is a very complex system. It’s not just about technical capability but it’s also being able to grok the complexity of what we had. And this is something that we saw in the mobile apps as well. We would have people on trial for that. There would be three networking stacks because the mobile apps have to speak to WordPress.com, they have to speak to Jetpack, and they have to speak to every other WordPress site too via XML-RPC. There’s just a huge amount of complexity that comes with that. And if somebody has not
33 minutes | a year ago
Leadership Coach Leo Widrich on Emotional Wellness for Distributed Workers
Read more about Leo Widrich in “How to Stay Connected in a Distributed World.” Leo Widrich co-founded Buffer, the social media management software company, in 2010. But like many founders, the frantic pace and daily stresses of startup life caught up to him. After spending a couple of years in a Buddhist monastery studying mindfulness and learning to build emotional resilience, Leo now coaches other business leaders. In this episode, Leo shares tips for distributed workers on how to build healthy habits and avoid the “loneliness spiral.” The full episode transcript is below. *** Matt Mullenweg: Imagine starting a company with your buddy, turning it into a multibillion dollar business, and offering a service used by brands all over the world, and then walking away from it all to live in a monastery. That’s exactly what this week’s guest did. We’re going to hear all about why he did it. With the startup Buffer, Leo Widrich has achieved success by any measure. But something was missing. His dissatisfaction with the lifestyle led him to pursue deeper truths that he came to realize cannot be found in the pursuit of material success. Leo studied Buddhism. He spent some time living with monks, and learned to appreciate an intentionally slow lifestyle. Now, he coaches entrepreneurs and even other coaches with the goal of helping them manage the stresses of their careers with a combination of ancient wisdom and a sprinkling of modern neuroscience. He wants people to learn how to build emotional resilience, and the ability to self-regulate their emotions so they can deal with their issues and avoid the full-scale burnout that he suffered. Buffer is a remote company, so it’s clear that Leo has a passion for unconventional work arrangements. However, he’s extremely sensitive to potential emotional and psychological pitfalls associated with working from home. In this episode, I learn about the loneliness spiral, what can happen if you don’t exercise your social engagement circuits through regular social contact, and Leo shares a few tools that we can use to care better for ourselves and the people we work with. Leo Widrich: I started a company called Buffer close to a decade ago with a friend and we worked completely remotely. Matt: Where were you both when it started? Leo: We both first lived in Birmingham, U.K., so in England, we both studied there. And then we flew out to San Francisco and said hey, Silicon Valley is the spot. That’s how we got started. And we went through all the startup struggles and ups and downs and a couple of the things that were really wonderful as we built the social media management software. And we did it eventually fully remote also, to a level of transparency where I really wanted to put everything on the table about what was going well and what wasn’t going so well in the business. Matt: An unheard of level of transparency. So Buffer publishes its revenues, its salaries, its options. Everything, right? Leo: Right. That was a real desire for us to bring that level of transparency to the business world to reduce some of the sense of secrecy and some of the sense that this is a fight and make it a little more collaborative. Matt: Tell me about the why there. Why were you distributed if you started in the same place? And then why the transparency? And are they related at all? Leo: I think that the distributed part — we were in San Francisco and the team was growing and I’m sure you know that as the team grows in San Francisco, your office space needs to grow. And we were in the middle of — should we expand and get a new office? And I remember even meeting with some brokers, and the prices, they seemed incredible. And we were like, huh… And some of us were barely even coming to the office. And I think that was a moment where we all thought, “Well why don’t we try not being in the same office.” And we had tried that before because of visa problems. So at first that was totally not a choice, we just had to be all over the world because we couldn’t stay in the U.S. My partner, Joel, he was from England, and we had a third cofounder, he was also from England. I was from Austria. So it was really hard for us to actually be in the country, so we had to be distributed. But eventually it was a question of cost and a question of joy and ease too, right? Like, “Oh, why don’t we get to work from wherever we want to?” Matt: Great. And when was this? Leo: It must have been 2013, over six years ago, that we decided — before it was unclear, more like an unwritten rule, because we were so small. But then we decided, no, I think we will allow people to be wherever they want to be and then make that a more official commitment, so to speak. And that was also the time when we did start to be more transparent because we wrote down our values, we were very inspired by a company called Zappos at the time. Matt: Yeah, of course. Leo: Right? Tony Hsieh is a real mentor in that space of really defining your values and having your purpose. And that was also one of the things that came out of that. So committing to working remotely and committing to being transparent as a way to share with the world what we are learning and to foster a sense of collaboration and openness. Matt: What was your biggest lesson from being distributed like that? Leo: At first it was so wonderful. We were traveling around the world, we got to really live a life as well as we were working. So we weren’t deferring enjoying life, so to speak. But over time for me personally what started to creep in a little more was this sense of loneliness, this sense that I feel not as connected. I don’t need to have a base so I’m not committing to a base, that untethered-ness, the longer it went on, the less enjoyable it became, the more almost-painful it became, I would say. Matt: When you left Buffer, what was next for you? Leo: I started to feel like I was hitting a wall. This thing that I always dreamt of, to have a profitable company, to be financially secure, to have a team, like a lot of things that I started to aspire to when I got in touch with this idea of startups early on — I felt that having that success, having some of that financial security — it left me unfulfilled in a lot of other areas. In the sense of deep lasting connection and also just a lack of emotional resilience to deal with the ups and downs that startup life comes with. So I felt exhausted and we weren’t quite fully in agreement anymore with my cofounder. And I took that as a sign and said “Maybe this is just no longer the right thing for me.” And I took my hat and I left and it started this really interesting journey from outwardly doing stuff and accomplishing stuff — which was the only thing I knew at the time — to go inward. And I started to go and live in Buddhist monasteries and do some therapy training and really start to understand — “Okay, there is so much I was externally striving for but what’s actually here? What’s this foundation, this house that is my body and my psyche?” Matt: Wow, that’s a big step. Tell us about this Buddhist monastery. Leo: It’s a big step and a lot of people at the time, they looked at me and they said, “Oh, you’re crazy.” Matt: I’m so curious, is there an Uber for monasteries? How do you find where you go? Where did you end up? Just walk me through the whole thing if you don’t mind. Leo: [laughs] Right, for sure. I started to become very interested and soothed by the writing of a Buddhist monk called Thích Nhất Hạnh, and that is really the person that I think brought me into this world. And he wrote this book called Peace Is Every Step. That was the first book I read. It really touched me. It set something off in me. He talked about a sense of living in the world and being in the world without that constant striving. And here I was finding myself striving so much, trying so hard to make something successful, to be successful, and he was challenging that idea. And so I saw him speak in 2013. That was when that was more on the sidelines. I was just learning about this stuff. And I was living in New York and there is a monastery called Blue Cliff Monastery in upstate New York that I wanted to check out. And I went there for a few retreats, to see what is this life like that seems the exact opposite from the rapid fire startup life, where these Buddhist monks and nuns were living, going so slowly, barely any agenda on the day, every day. And so it was this very different life, very slow. There was very little content, other than what was bubbling up from within me, right? So it was really making a lot of space. Matt: So you went from startup founder to — I don’t know if you’d call it a monk but you were at a monastery for several years. Leo: Right. Matt: And now you’re like a coach. So you work with clients. Leo: Yup. I call it emotional resilience training, that’s the tagline I have. Matt: So assuming that you can’t tell your clients to also go away for two years… Leo: [laughs] Right. Matt: What’s a middle ground? Leo: Yeah, you don’t need to go off for two years. But there needs to be some sense of regularity to coming inward, to coming internal. And that is what allows us to build that muscle of emotional resilience where we can not be so cut off from ourselves in the face of difficulty that happens to us and instead to flow with it, to surf the wave of pain, of anger, of sadness, whatever it is. And I started to incorporate that with executive coaching, with a framework that — yeah, and you want to also keep contributing to the
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