Sid Sijbrandij: “People don’t want to commute; they just don’t want to miss out”

Interview
sid-sijbrandij-people-dont-want-to-commute-they-ju

This transcript was shortened and partly edited to bring out the best parts of this interview. It’s still probably 80% intact – all parts were so good to us. If you'd still prefer to listen to the whole thing, the interview was recorded by the folks at GitLab and is available at http://youtu.be/EeUhxQn_ct4/.

 

“Today, Investors see being remote as a plus”

Dominic: Whenever I'm talking to new founders who are just starting building a remote company they’re always saying “We want to make it work like GitLab is making it work”. GitLab is always one of the first examples. Maybe to start with a bit of a loaded question: How did you get here or what did it take to get here? 

Sid: I think when we realized that we were going to be remote, we tried to accommodate it. We try to make sure that we're intentional about informal communication, want to make sure that we stimulate informal communication because that tends to get lost if you're remote. Another thing was that our values are very conducive to working remote. And maybe a third element is that there was scepticism from our investors whether if remote will work. From a very early start, we were forced to articulate how we were accommodating for remote. And that helped to maybe spread the word a bit. And maybe that's also why we're one of the better known remote companies now. 

Dominic: When exactly did you feel like this is the time to go remote and what was the decision process behind that? 

Sid: We’re remote because people stopped showing up. In the beginning, there was no office because it was me in the Netherlands, Marin, in Serbia and Dmitriy, in Ukraine. Later on, I had two desks next to each other. But the Dutch team member who just joined after a few days didn't show up because you could just work from home and everyone else was doing that. It was natural. And then after a while, we got an office. But even then, there were salespeople that came in for a few days and then one day they didn't bother because it wasn't needed. We've always had the tools and the processes so that you don't miss out. You don't miss out on information and career opportunities when you're remote. I think people don't necessarily want to commute. It's just that people don't want to miss out. If you don't feel like you're missing out, then it's okay and a company will naturally become all remote. 

Dominic: What was your biggest issue early on where everyone started not showing up, and I'm assuming you were so prepared for that scenario; what were big issues in the beginning? 

Sid: The biggest issue was investors. One investor, we really would like to have as an investor in a company said, look, you tick all the boxes, I believe in everything. The remote thing we've not seen before, it's a risk. I'm not saying it's not going to work. I'm just saying that it's a risk, and we don't have to take a risk. We have a limited number of investments, we can just invest in a company that doesn't have that risk. They weren't even dismissive of remote, they were just saying, hey, it's not not going to work. It's just why take the risk when you don't have to? Makes perfect sense from their perspective. But of course, we were sad. 

Dominic: Do you feel like that has changed today? I heard from other founders that they had a lot of issues three, four years ago with raising money when being remote and today that might look a little bit different? 

Sid: Investors today see it as a plus. We have some early investors that were sceptical who now say “I'm scouting for companies who are all remote because they have a much easier time attracting and retaining talent” 

Dominic: Do you feel like GitLab might be a reason for that too? 

Sid: I'm sure it helps. 

 

“Timezones are the bane of our existence”

Dominic: That was in the beginning, a few employees being remote. But now you've scaled up to a lot more employees. How has that evolved? How do you handle communication? How does everyone stay in the loop?

Sid: I think one of the ways to know what's going on in the company is our group conversations. That's 25 minutes of Q&A, or shorter if the questions run out. I think that has been a great way to show all the different things going on at the company so everyone has a feel for what's happening.

I think the handbook has scaled well. It's now 3,000 pages and whatever the activity is, it's a good starting place to find out what you want to do or if you want to make a change, that's a great place to change it.

I think what hasn't scaled so well is our breakout call. We're trying different things there. And the idea is to give people 20 minutes every day where they just hang out and talk about life outside of work with a diverse set of people. What is working is team socials, where you hang out with your team, but then I’m really afraid of teams becoming isolated from each other. I would love for there also to be a cross-functional group of people you interact with frequently. 

Dominic: Do you feel “limited” to these communication tools, let's say chat, and handbooks and video chat? Do you feel like that's difficult at all and that there are issues that you wouldn't have if everybody was in a big office and just hanging together all the time? 

Sid: No, I think it's more effective. If I compare the video calls I have people with in-person meetings, for every video call we have, we have a Google Doc on the site. It includes the questions that we should discuss, it has the notes, the follow-up actions. 

Also, we don't have people late for meetings. We start on time, we end on time. It enforces a discipline that's just much more effective. I don't see it as downside. I think it's great, except, obviously, some meetings can't accommodate for time zones. I think time zones are the bane of our existence, and we try to do as much work asynchronous as we can accommodate for that.

Dominic: I know that a lot of people at GitLab are also in the US, but you have people all around the world. To come back to the timezones, how do you overcome that when you have meetings crossing US, Europe, Asia; how do you put a bigger all-remote meeting together? 

Sid: The solution is to not have the meeting. Two of our top three values are conducive in that. One of the values is transparency. We write things down. So that you don't have to shoulder tap someone and ask them. The other one is iteration. We take small steps quickly. When you take a small step you don't need to coordinate with as many people. You have a six-month project, you better make sure everyone's aligned.

Dominic: You've talked about team retreats, what's usually happening when you have such a big meetup? 

Sid: We've seen a lot of other companies who do “Death by PowerPoint” where you have to sit through hours and hours of presentations. Don't do that, we have an opening and closing event, but the entire rest is excursions. We go visit new places together, and discuss subjects put on the agenda by individual contributors, groups of no more than 15 people discussing that without a presentation. 

 

“Remote forces you to do the things you should be doing any way earlier and better”

Dominic: Do you feel GitLab always being very transparent is a crucial part when there are so many people and everything's remote?

Sid: I think it helps. I think the hardest thing about remote is not so much the remote part but the timezone part. Because of time zones, you need to go asynchronous. And to go asynchronous you need to start recording. 

Dominic: And so when meetings are happening, what are usually the cases where we would prefer a meeting face to face over a written down or chat? 

Sid: I think anything work-related can be a video call. I think in-person it's great to break bread together to get to know each other on a personal level. Any meeting that has an agenda – which most meetings should have – I prefer video call. 

Dominic: Right. Do you ever feel like you're losing a bit of flexibility because you can't just group anybody in a meeting right now? 

Sid: I can. I did. I called in Darren four minutes before this meeting started. 

Dominic: Right – but you're not sitting with a person in the office and say, “Hey, everybody come in” Somebody might be in a way different time zone and asleep. 

Sid: Async is hard. But in any 1,000 person company it would take more than four minutes to get to someone's desk. I think it's flexible. We can’t solve for time zones. Time zones are hard. 

Darren: I was just going to say that Sid and I are about 3,000 miles apart right now and he was able to bring me into this meeting probably a lot more quickly than if we were in the same co-located space. He doesn't know what floor I'm on, he doesn't know if I'm already in a meeting. He can just Slack me and if I'm available, I'm able to jump in. I think in many ways, it's easier. 

Sid: At the Facebook headquarters, you take about half of your meetings over a video call, because it takes too much time, it takes 10 minutes ago between offices. 

Dominic: That's a great point. 

Sid: It's a ridiculous situation. Come on, we can all see that - this thing is better. Just have to accommodate for it. If there's no Doc attached to a meeting, I will join the meeting and I will shut down to meeting one minute in. And I expect everyone in the company to do the same thing. People's time is really valuable. And you should take it very seriously if you make a demand at that time. 

Dominic: And that's not only limited to remote companies, right? In the best case every company should also do that. 

Sid: Exactly. Remote forces you to do the things you should be doing any way earlier and better. 

 

“Remote People are a Manager of One”

Dominic: When hiring, are you testing for remote readiness at all or attributes that you could attribute to good remote work? 

Sid: No, we regularly hire people who've never worked remotely before and we haven't found any problems. What's important is that people are a manager of one. They can manage their own time. They don't need someone to tell them what to do on a day-to-day basis, but they're disciplined about that, and they can handle a higher level of input from their manager. 

Dominic: Is that something that you actively look out for? Is it something that people can learn on the job and grow into? 

Sid: We're not doing a good enough job filtering on that. But I think we want to hire people who already have demonstrated that. 

 

“Work-Life separation is an issue if you work from home”

 

Dominic: For just some additional, more general questions, is there a big issue at GitLab in terms of remote working with you, in your mind still weren't able to solve to this day; something big that's still a thorn in your eye? 

Sid: The timezones. We do that group conversation every day at a fixed time and the people in the Asia Pacific cannot join that. I want to make sure that our group conversation starts to be at different times. But we found before that if we start shifting the time of certain events, the attendance drops dramatically because people can no longer fit it into their day. That's a big problem still to be solved. 

Dominic: And do you feel after all those years, that you had a really bad experience with remote work where you felt it would have been better if we would all sit in an office somewhere? 

Sid: Not really. I think that digital nomads that stay at backpacker hostels have a super hard time being disciplined about work. I'm sceptical about that. But I'm supportive of nomads. Today, we just talked about someone who's travelling America in an RV - makes total sense. But if you surround yourself with people that are partying day in, day out, that's not conducive to getting work done. 

Dominic: Do you do anything to make sure that your employees don't overwork or get burned out, which is often an issue for remote workers? 

Sid: That's a great one. The only time a manager is allowed to inquire about how many hours you work is when they suspect you're working too many hours. 

Dominic: Okay. And what happens if somebody works – let’s say – 15 hours per day?

Sid: Well, that’s ridiculous but even working eight hours a day you can get overworked. It's not just about hours, it's also our motivation, lots of other things. But managers are responsible for the reports. And if they suspect someone is not doing well, can be burned out or working too long hours; it's a conversation and there are different things up to the point where they mandate time off.

Hopefully you can catch it earlier, have a conversation and many times it's a misunderstanding of the manager not realizing the workload they were demanding, or miscommunication leading to a lack of motivation, Especially new team members thinking that they should work crazy hours because they did that at their last startup. 

Dominic: Is that still a big issue for GitLab to have people overworked and burnt out because there might be a change from having a commute and being in the office from to just working from home and having work accessible at all times? 

Sid: I think that work-life separation is an issue if you work from home. I think that's something that a lot of people in the company are struggling with. I do not think that we have a lot of people burning out. I’ve seen way worse things at other startups, but at our global get-together, the two most popular subjects were lack of motivation and burnout. This is stuff we talked about and that we use those global gatherings to discuss. 

Dominic: What's your best advice for remote workers to keep their work-life balance if they have a home office, for example? 

Sid: If you have that luxury, make sure it's a separate room. At GitLab, we don't force you to work from home, if you want to work from an office, we’ll pay for that. You can probably find an office space pretty close by, so you don't have to commute long. A lot of people when it's their first time remote working, they first do the office thing so that their family gets adjusted to it. And then also enjoy the benefits of your kids barging in on a meeting and distracting you, it's the best distraction in the world. 

 

“Zoom was the last missing piece in remote work”

Dominic: In your company, what's your tool stack specifically to remote work? You said you have a handbook, but when you are doing a meeting, when you're communicating and so on – what tool stack that you use?

Sid: We use Slack, use Google Docs for those meeting notes, we use Zoom for video calling, it's amazing, and then we use GitLab Issues to plan, use GitLab merge requests to do our code, GitLab Issues to plan things, GitLab Epics for portfolio management, and GitLab Pages to store things like our website and our handbook

Dominic: I think a lot of these tools that you mentioned, they're very standard in remote companies. A lot of them are using them and they weren't specifically engineered for remote work. They work well for that use case. What do you think about the specifically engineered for remote work tools that are coming up now? 

Sid: I’m intrigued, let's see, I've seen a lot of virtual office tools. We have virtual meeting rooms and stuff like that. I don't think that makes sense. They're trying to solve a problem that doesn't need to be solved. There are cool new startups like Tandem we’re trying to integrate more and let’s see how they do. We have very curious people at GitLab so I'm sure some people will check it out and will not hesitate to tell other people if it's good. 

Dominic: Do you feel like there is still one tool missing in a workflow of a remote company; something that would be nice to have on a day to day basis? 

Sid: That’s a great question. I don't think so. The last missing piece was Zoom. We're now hitting the limitation of Google Docs where at a certain number of people you cannot edit anymore. They say too many people are viewing this document. I hope they up that limit a bit. 

Dominic: For closing up as the last question, what would be the number one advice you can give to a new fresh company that's just starting and it's looking to build their team fully remote? 

Sid: Read our handbook and copy from it.

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