Leon Barnard of Balsamiq: "You need to be OK with not knowing what everyone is working on"

Interview
leon-barnard-of-balsamiq

Balsamiq is a leading wireframing tool, which has been on the market for over a decade. The team behind that company consists of over 30 people, working from the US and Europe. Today, we are talking to Leon Barnard, lead of the education team, about his role at Balsamiq and his experience with remote work in the last decade.

 

"Balsamiq has changed a lot, but also not that much"

Hello Leon! You are the Education Team Lead at Balsamiq, a well-known remote-first organization. Before we jump into it, tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do in that role!

I got my start in the field of User Experience over 15 years ago, so I have a lot of domain knowledge about wireframing and UX. My job at Balsamiq is to use the knowledge I’ve accumulated to educate our customers - most of whom are not designers by training - about how to create better user interfaces. My team and I create educational material for our Wireframing Academy site.

Balsamiq has been around for a while – 12 years – and you have been part of that journey for 8 years. How has Balsamiq developed since then?

It has changed a lot, but also not that much 🙂

When I joined, there were just 10 people. Now that there are 33 of us, it feels huge! Compared to a typical startup, though, adding 23 people in 8 years is nothing. But the goal of our CEO and founder, Peldi Guilizzoni, has always been to keep the company as small as necessary. He has had to reluctantly accept that Balsamiq’s “natural size” is more than just him and a few friends. 

So I’ve seen us learn how to become a “real” company during my time here. We’ve added teams, an HR department, internal tools, and, most recently, lead and organizer roles for our teams. Yet we still, stubbornly, you could say, resist having managers. This has kept a lot of our core culture the same. It means that we all feel ownership of, but also responsibility for, our own performance and the well being of the company.

How did you get your start there?

I became a fan of Balsamiq, the tool, when it first came out. In 2008 the prevailing tool for UX designers was Adobe Photoshop, which was never a good fit for us. It led designers to create really good looking designs that had little connection to user needs or developer frameworks. Balsamiq allowed me to produce UI designs that focused on workflow instead of appearance.

At some point I felt that I had mastered the basics of UX and started looking for a way to stay in the field without doing the day-to-day design exercises. The timing was perfect, as Balsamiq was then creating the first position in what would become the Education team.

I give a lot of credit to Peldi for having the foresight to create the role that I’m in at Balsamiq. He anticipated early on that a key to our success would be creating not just a great product, but also badass users, the people who do amazing things with it. 

 

"We create an overlap period between teams"

Balsamiq is a distributed team with members of the team all around the US, but also with a large part of the team in Europe and you being in California. Being spread across these timezones – you have up to 9 hours difference with some of your peers in Europe – what does collaboration and communication look like?

When most people think of a remote, distributed company they imagine employees spread across the entire globe. The idea is that you can work from anywhere, right? But in our case, and I suspect with many other successful remote companies, it’s not quite like that. 

We have employees in only three time zones - U.S. Pacific, U.S. Central, and CET - and in most cases we work most frequently with people in (or near, for our U.S. employees) our time zone. Nearly all of our development team is located in Italy, for example. Our CEO is based there and felt that real-time collaboration and communication was important for product work (we actually have an office there, although most people don’t go in every day).  

Each day we have an overlap period, called the “golden hour”, when we expect everyone to be online. That’s when real-time communication between employees in the U.S. and Europe happens, as well as all of our company-wide meetings.

Outside of that, a lot of our work is heads-down and doesn’t require too much collaboration. We try not to have too many meetings so that employees can get “in the zone” as often as possible. 

Do you ever feel like there is a disconnect between remote workers and the ones in an office?

We don’t, actually. Very early on we started working “remote first”. This means that even when employees are working together in an office, they work as if they were working remotely. That doesn’t mean that they can’t talk or work next to each other, just that important information and decisions should be communicated using our virtual office tools.

There are a few cultural aspects that we in the U.S. miss out on, games of ping pong and lunches together, for example. But there are also virtual cultures that form within teams and friends across time zones. Our office is not enough of a central hub to create that divide because it’s there mostly as a place that employees there can go to, not that they’re expected to go to. 

Give me a little bit of an insight into how Balsamiq runs on a day-to-day basis… Which tools are being used, whether you are doing team meetings, how people work together….

We rely primarily on Atlassian Confluence as our central knowledge repository. Most of our shared knowledge and recorded decisions are there. For day-to-day communication, we use Slack. For project management, we built our own internal tool because we couldn't find a tool optimized for flattish, distributed organizations like ours. For meetings we use Google Hangouts/Meet or Zoom.

What are the biggest misconceptions you hear about remote work?

That it’s only for specific roles, like coding, technical support, and other jobs that have traditionally been outsourced or done by freelancers. We run a real company with everyone working remotely. And so do lots of other companies. It’s possible!

 

 

What’s the toolkit at Balsamiq (except Balsamiq itself, of course)? Do you ever try some of the new, experimental tools?

We are very cautious about adopting new tools. If it’s not reliable, or hard to use, it doesn’t really matter what features it has. We would rather make do with a few good tools than switch between a dozen tools that each offer a specific “killer” feature. 

Not only that, but we’ve seen so many promising tools die out because they couldn’t achieve profitability or find the right business model. We’re in it for the long haul and we like to go with tools that are going to be around for a while.

How often do you see your team members in person? Why/How?

We have annual company retreats as well as team mini-retreats on an as-needed basis (every other year or so?). I also meet up with my local coworkers a few times a year for social gatherings. It’s not that much, but it’s enough to feel a connection.

 

"We work hard on creating and preserving company culture"

You have collected a fair share of experience with remote work over the years then. What is your number one advice for managers and founders who are starting working/building a remote company today?

Invest time in hiring the right people. Trust is essential. It’s a two-way street, so you need to be OK with not knowing what everyone is working on at all times, but it’s much easier if you start off feeling that they can be trusted to do their job. 

Try to assess whether they are able to get their work done without a lot of supervision or hand holding. I don’t know of any easy way to do that, but a good start would be finding someone who is genuinely excited about the work they would be doing. Ask yourself if this person would enjoy it enough to overcome the lack of “guard rails” that the office provides.

Balsamiq seems like a really close-knit team, with so many miles in-between, how can people start building better remote company culture?

I don’t know how companies with hundreds of employees do it, frankly. It definitely helps that we’re a small, slow-growing company. Our company doesn’t change dramatically from year-to-year (by design!), so everyone has time to settle in and get comfortable. We have very low turnover, so most of our employees have been here for 5 years or more. Even though we don’t see each other often, that adds up to a lot of time to get to know one another.

That said, we work hard on creating and preserving our company culture. It’s a frequent topic at our annual retreats (we focused on it a lot at last year's retreat) and we have a dedicated team that includes rotating volunteers devoted to it through the rest of the year. 

What is something that you still struggle with today, in terms of remote working? 

Feedback and encouragement, especially when I’m feeling unsure of myself. Most of the time I know what I need to do and how to do it, but when I don’t it can be hard to ask for feedback using less personal methods. It just doesn’t feel as natural to ask “hey, what do you think of this?” or “could I ask your advice on something…?” as it would in person. 

But I know that the right way to handle it is to ignore the objections that my brain comes up with (“what if you’re interrupting them?”, “what if they think it’s dumb?”) and get over it! So I try to force myself to do that. Sometimes it works 😅

 

"Working remotely during a crisis is not representative"

What does the future look like for remote work, in your opinion? Is it still something that only a certain category of businesses are able to master (e.g. historically bootstrapped or very mindful businesses)?

The elephant in the room is the COVID-19 pandemic, which will change many things about our economy, our communities, and our work in the years to come. It’s tempting to say that, because so many businesses have now been forced into doing it, many of them will decide to embrace it going forward. I agree with that to some extent, but working remotely during this crisis is not representative of what remote is like. But perhaps it will lead to a boom in really good remote tools that lower the barrier to entry for companies wanting to try it. 

Overall though, I don’t think it’s so much about the category of business as the culture (and to a lesser extent size) of the business. It really requires a lot of trust from the top, and that’s not something that comes naturally to a lot of executives and managers. That shift, I believe, will be slower to happen. 

What are you most excited about for Balsamiq, or yourself, this year?

I’m really excited about the updates to our education site that we just launched. Balsamiq Wireframing Academy is where entrepreneurs, product managers, marketers, and developers can learn the basics of UI and UX design in order to create better products. It contains practical advice and lessons from decades of experience. And it’s all free! 

And to wrap things up, where can people find you and learn more about you?

I maintain a pretty basic website with the things that I write and do at leon.land. You can follow me and say hi on Twitter @leonbarnard. If you want to chat, you can sign up for a free office hour session with me!

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