While most companies think of remote working as a cost-cutting option, Ben Congleton, the CEO and Founder of Olark, sees it differently. He and his 30+ person team, which spans San Francisco to Europe, see remote working as a positive investment. And not just the traditional benefits that most people think about, like reduced commute time and increased hours of productivity. No, Ben sees it as a golden opportunity to recruit the best talent from anywhere.
Ben and his co-founding team didn’t start off working remotely. Back in 2008 they began by bootstrapping their business, and when they were accepted to Y Combinator in Mountain View, California, they all decided to live in the same house together.
While tight quarters brought the team together, conflict among the team also came up. This was a good thing. It helped the founding team to solidify their vision, make progress, and come up with values that would guide their company culture, like “assume good faith” and “practice empathy.”
Over the years, the Olark team has expanded, and they’ve had to tackle even more challenges as they strive to meet their goal of having a positive company culture. As a result, they’ve learned how to run a stellar remote team, and we want to share their insights with you today.
In the pilot episode of FemgineerTV, Ben and I sit down to talk about a number of common misconceptions people have about working on a remote team, such as:
Employees won’t be as productive and progress will stagnate;
Communication between employees and teams will break down; and
A remote team will be devoid of culture.
Ben shares strategies and tools that the Olark team has used to avoid these misconceptions (and others), and discusses how they continue to grow their multi-million dollar startup globally.
The next episode of FemgineerTV airs in March. I’ve invited Jocelyn Goldfein, the former Director of Engineering at Facebook, to talk about: How to Make Smart Tradeoffs When Developing Software Products. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to know when it’s out!
Poornima Vijayashanker: This is our live pilot episode of Femgineer TV. Before we get into the topic today, I just want to take a moment to introduce myself. I’m your host Poornima Vijayshanker. I’m also the founder of Femgineer. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Femgineer is an education company. Our goal is to help innovators build tech products that will give them freedom in their careers, enrich other people’s lives, and make the entire tech community a lot more inclusive as well as flexible. Before we get started, just a couple housekeeping items. The first is, like I said before, we’re doing this live. If you want to participate in the discussion, hop on over to Twitter. Use the #Femgineer TV and feel free to start chatting away. If you have any questions, go ahead and post them using the same #Femgineer TV. Towards the end, we will take questions from the live audience. If there’s anything else, feel free to chat with us online and feel free to email us as well.
All right so with that, let’s go ahead and jump into today’s topic. The topic for today is how to build a happy and productive remote team. The reason I chose this topic is because it’s something that’s really important for all of us as tech professionals and also as people who are start-uppers building a company. There always comes a time where you find that amazing employee and it just so happens that they don’t live in your location or maybe you decide that you want to start the business in a new city and you want to start recruiting people who are local. When that happens, you’ve got to decide how are you going to build an in-house team and scale that and make sure that they get along with your existing team. That’s the topic for today. For those of you who wrote in and asked some questions around how do we outsource, how do we hire remote teams, we’re going to differ that for probably a future episode. Today we’re going to focus on in-house teams.
I’ve invited my good friend Ben Congleton, who’s CEO and founder of Olark. Thanks for joining us Ben.
Ben Congleton: Yeah, thanks Poornima.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. I invited Ben because for the last eight years now—is that how old Olark is?
Ben Congleton: I think that’s a little bit of a stretch. Seven years. About seven years.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Seven years, OK. For the last seven years, Ben’s been building Olark. He’s bootstrapped the business. It’s now a multimillion dollar profitable business. His team is a little over 30 people.
Ben Congleton: Yeah, we’re just over 30 right now.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. They span SF all the way to Europe. The reason I brought Ben on board is because first, he built the entire team together. They all lived in one house for the first few years. Then over time they started to make a remote team and started to scale their remote culture. I thought Ben would be a great person to learn from today. Before we dig into the topic, Ben, why don’t you tell us about what Olark is and what you guys do.
Ben Congleton: Yeah, absolutely. Olark is that little chat box that you keep seeing in the bottom right hand corner of a website. Basically what we do is we let you talk to your customers when they’re on your website so that you can close more sales, provide better support, and get great customer feedback. Lots of startups use us. Lots of SaSS companies, a lot of retailers online, thousands of companies are using Olark to connect better with their customers and build successful businesses.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Awesome. Your customers are all over the place too, right? They’re pretty much in Brazil, they’re in Europe, they’re in Asia.
Ben Congleton: Yeah, absolutely. We have customers all around the world. Most of our customers are in the US but we do have customers in Australia, in Asia, India, Europe, yeah. We’re very international. Anyone can chat, can benefit from chatting with their customers. It works out pretty well.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Awesome. Let’s talk about the remote teams now, the topic at hand. What I’ve always found really strange is that as technology companies, we want to build products that are going to help us share, connect, and collaborate with other folks, whether they’re friends and family. But there are a lot of technology companies out there that despite the products they build, have a real aversion to having remote teams. Some leaders will even go so far as to abolish any sort of remote cultures. I’m not going to name any names here. It happens both in large-scale as well as smaller companies. But what I’ve noticed with Olark is that you guys have embraced remote and it’s actually helped your business and has benefited it. Can you explain maybe a couple reasons how it’s benefited Olark?
Ben Congleton: Yeah, absolutely. One of the big things that remoteness helps us with is hiring. We have the ability to hire anywhere in the world. Mostly we focus right now in US time zones but we can hire the best candidate that we can find regardless of where they live. We can give them flexibility so they can work strange hours or fit into their lifestyle. We also are where our customers are. Like Poornima said before, our customers are all around the world and so are our employees. Members of an elect team can help us organize meetups in New York City or in Austin or in Toronto. It allows us to have this global presence even when we are a relatively small company.
Poornima Vijayashanker: And a local presence.
Ben Congleton: Yeah. A local presence in many locations. That’s true. That’s true. Finally, the one other benefit that we get from this is we’re forced to be really good at communications. Like Poornima was saying, a lot of these companies are focused on building tools that help them communicate. When you’re building a remote team, you need to be very good at communication and a particular written communication. Olark is a chat company. We help people type back and forth with each other. We do this all the time within our company, which helps us really think critically about the tools that we’re building and how we can help people communicate better.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Awesome. Even though you’re now a remote team, you and your other three co-founders all started by living in the same house. Even at one point in time, some of your wives lived with you. Right? That was probably a really critical time. How do you think that living in the same house, or just maybe not living, but being in the same location helped you build your team?
Ben Congleton: That’s really interesting. Let me give you a little bit of a backstory. We went through Y Combinator in 2009. When we moved out to California, we got $25,000 from Y Combinator. Now they’re giving a lot more, but back then it was just that amount of money. Twenty-five thousand dollars does not go very far in Silicon Valley. We wanted to stretch that money out as much as possible. We did. We found the cheapest place where we could all live that was close to Y Combinator. We ended up having a guy sleeping in the dining room. Everyone just had mattresses on the floor. It was pretty, pretty intense because our only living area was an office. People would just go upstairs if they wanted to crash. We had this very intense co-located experience with the team. What I think that helped us do is it forced us to learn how to resolve conflict and work through conflict and understand how conflicts work very, very well.
Having the co-founders go through this experience where we’re all living together, dealing with each other every day and there really was no escape. I don’t know if it’s healthy or not. But there was no escape. We had to work through all these communication issues, understand that we had different styles of communicating, understand that we had different desires for the company. I think getting that awareness really early on in this intense environment, helped us be very mindful of conflict and how we scale communication and how we think about communication as we built the company out.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. That’s interesting. How did your wives feel about living together?
Ben Congleton: Only my wife lived with us for a while. Cat is awesome. Cat really enjoyed it. For her, when we’re just a smaller team, she felt like she was part of the Olark team in some regards. She just knew everyone on the team. It was one big happy family. As we’ve grown, she’s become a little more disconnected and it feels strange to her. Back in the beginning I think it helps to have that really common bond with people and know that you can go through bad times and good times and you’re there for each other. I think it’s really important.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Awesome. Then there came a point in time where one of your co-founders decided that he wanted to move back to Michigan. That probably brought up some concerns for you. I know one of the major misconceptions that we want to start tackling today is that whenever there’s a transition to remote, leaders feel like employees are just not going to be productive and that progress is going to stagnate. I always find it funny because I think those leaders are the ones who often times lead through fear and threats rather than trust and influence. A lot of times they think, if there’s a warm body in a cubicle, they’re getting work done, they’re writing code. I hear tapping going on. If they’re somewhere else, we don’t know. Chances are if they’re working from home, they’re probably working on other projects. I’m sure you might’ve had maybe an inkling of some of this. How did you build up some systems of accountability? How did you put trust in your employees as you made that transition?
Ben Congleton: The interesting thing about in this particular case—we’re talking about Zack leaving. Zack was a co-founder so we had this very strong bond, we lived together. We weren’t really as worried about him not contributing when he moved back to Michigan. But in the broader scheme of things, now we have 30 employees. We’re spread out all around the world. You can’t check in with everyone every day. I think part of what we do is we put a lot of effort into building a very strong culture so that people feel connected to our mission and really want to help customers. One way that we do that at Olark is everyone on the team goes through customer service training. Everyone has a shared experience of being customer service, understanding our product, talking directly to our customers, and working with people they wouldn’t normally work with, which also prevents a little bit of siloing.
The other thing that we do is we try to add accountability so you’re accountable to your team like the people you’re working with on a day-to-day basis. Often project teams will meet and have a brief scrum in the morning and just sync up. You’re accountable to the organization through a weekly team sync where project leads give a very brief, one-sentence update about what they’re working on. We also use some task-tracking software that lets us keep track of the work that’s being done, seeing if tasks are dragging. Matt built this really cool internal tool that we use called Pancake that lets us see basically all the tasks that anyone on the anyone on site is working on and how long those tasks have been going on. Really what we’re trying to do is figure out how to unblock people that are stuck on things. We’re not trying to say, “This is taking you way too long.” It’s more like, most people finish tasks on a pretty regular basis. If something is stuck, what’s going on, how can we work to sort that problem out?
Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. Giving them the benefit of the doubt. You’re not like, “Why is this bug taking you ten hours to fix? It’d only take me two.” Instead, you’re saying, “If it’s taking you ten hours, maybe you’re stuck. How can I help?”
Ben Congleton: Yeah, absolutely. I think we have changed our core values over time. We started off, we had core values that had the acronym CAMPS. Then we had CHAMPS. The H was help each other.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it.
Ben Congleton: I think for us realizing that we need to be out there helping each other solve problems and working together as a team, it’s not your responsibility to sort this out. If you can’t do it on your own, then it’s your problem. It’s really if we see someone flailing, we need to get out there and understand why they’re flailing, how we can train them, how we can help them accomplish what they’re doing. At the same time, you’re trying to train people that when they are having problems to reach out for help. I think that in a remote culture in particular, that’s really important because you can’t just walk around the room and see people that are frustrated. You need to get people in the mindset that when they’re running into a problem, they need to talk to someone else and just let them know, I’m having some trouble here. Oftentimes just a really quick Skype call or a really quick conversation can sort all this out.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice.
Ben Congleton: Again, I go back to communication a lot because I think that whether you’re physically located in one location and everyone’s in the same office or if you’re remote, communication really is, it’s where you’re going to run into the most problems.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, which is actually the second, I think, misconception that we want to tackle today. That communication will break down. You brought up an interesting point that when you’re sitting next to each other you can at least see the person that’s distressed. If you’re at least somewhat empathetic, you might be like, what’s going on? I’ve actually noticed teams where people will sit right next to each other and either not care or they won’t even know what the person is working on even though they might be on the same team or maybe they’re in different departments. Literally they sit right next to each other. We know distance isn’t a culprit. A lot of times the issues are people are sometimes just afraid to speak up because they think they’re going to get shot down or they’re the new kid in town so they don’t want to ruffle any feathers. Another is people feel like there’s too many channels. They’re on maybe something like a chat channel, you’ve got email, and then on top of that people sometimes SMS each other. They get flooded to the point where they’re like, I don’t want to talk to anybody.
A third issue is people feel like, there’s a really short leash and I’ve always got to respond. I don’t want to always have to respond to every little email or fire that comes my way. The fourth thing you talked about is silos happening across departments. Let’s start with the first, this fear of speaking up. How have you dealt with it? Especially with new employees now that you are a bigger team.
Ben Congleton: That’s interesting. I think part of this is something you hire for a little bit. You do look for people that are willing to speak their mind. In your interview process you look at that. I can go back to our core values. One of our core values very early on was speak your mind. We strongly encourage Olarkers to talk about what they’re thinking because again, in a remote culture we’re not going to be able to pull as well. We need people who are going to stand up and tell us what’s going on. Doing that and also making it safe for people to talk about various topics, I think that another one of our core value…again, a lot of this, I think, to me goes back to cultures. Another one of our core values is assume good faith. Another one is practice empathy. We try to ingrain into our culture that one, if there’s something you want to talk about, you should talk about it. You shouldn’t feel bad. You shouldn’t feel judged. Also, that it’s on the listener to practice empathy and really try to understand what someone is saying. Finally, if you’re having doubts about the motivation behind something that was said, assuming good faith is a really good way of framing things in your mind.
For example, if I go up and there’s a new release and I’m like, “This release sucks.” That we can’t launch this as going on. Some people may take that as a personal attack. Part of it, I mean, maybe Ben didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. Maybe something else is going on. Assume good faith. Assume that Ben is really thinking of the company, thinking of the product, thinking of the customers. Try to practice empathy and understand why Ben is feeling this way and understand that Ben is speaking his mind. He’s not trying to hurt someone. He’s not trying to call anyone out. He’s just really trying to express what he’s feeling. By making it safe for people to communicate with each other, I think that you can alleviate a lot of these problems that often happen where people feel judged if someone else calls them out on something. Or is afraid to speak at all. Again, I think this takes work. This is an ongoing challenge that you have to meet. As you scale, the processes change as well.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Totally. Let’s talk on the fourth as well. Silos. I know you talked about this a little bit. I know that at Olark you said everybody mans chat. So that means everybody has to do customer support at some point in time whether they’re an engineer or they’re marketing or they actually are customer support.
Ben Congleton: Yeah, sure.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Maybe you can touch upon how that’s really helped prevent silos from forming.
Ben Congleton: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think one tool that you can use in a remote company is having something that everyone does. At Olark, everyone does customer service because we care very much about building tools that help people talk to their customers. We want to be really good at training people to talk to their customers, understanding the challenges when you bring new people on, and make everyone very passionate about the product. For us, customer service is one way of getting everyone on the team to have the shared experience. Everyone goes through training. Everyone has a rotation. Right now it’s on a biweekly basis where they’re actually on the front lines talking directly to customers using our product, which means they’ll see all the recent product enhancements, they will understand the questions that customers are asking. Really it will give them some insight into why people use Olark in the first place as they go about their day-to-day jobs, which I think are all very, very important in things.
Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s cool. Some people might be like, I’ve got to do that on top of fixing bugs or doing my marketing plan. That seems like a lot to do. Do you guys carve out time or how do you balance the workload?
Ben Congleton: That’s a very good point. I think it is from a straight-up capitalist perspective, it’s very expensive to have very high-paid engineers to customer service. For us, it’s always a challenge, the cost of doing this. The way we do at Olark, the way we solve this problem is Cat, who’s on the customer service team, basically does the schedule. Everyone on the team has a block of time that is scheduled on a biweekly basis where they know they’re going to be on chat. Everyone else knows that they’re going to be on chat during that period, too. Having a very solid, set schedule is important. Then also, we have a board like a ride board where you can trade off shifts. If you’re going on vacation or if maybe you’re doing a TV show in the morning or something, you can put up your shift there and switch it with someone else. Making it flexible, making it easy to switch shifts is really important. Honestly we’re always looking at ways to improve this process. Currently we even have a project that’s about to kick off. We’re thinking about, well let’s think about the next version of on-hand support.
Let’s figure out how we can make it better. How can we help our teammates get more out of it? The one thing we’re not giving up is having everyone on the team have the shared experience because I think it’s very valuable.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Let’s talk on the third and probably most heated misconception, which is if you have a remote team it’s going to be totally devoid of culture, everyone’s going to be doing their own thing, they’re not going to talk to each other, they’re not going to know what the other person’s favorite, I don’t know, candy bar is or their kid’s names, and you can only get that if you are definitely in the same location. But as you mentioned, it’s not always about that. It’s about defining and hiring the right fit. How do you communicate the criteria for your culture to your other employees during the hiring process?
Ben Congleton: One thing that I’d like to point is just that we live in this world where a lot of our communication and interaction with others is digital. If you look at Facebook and how much time people spend on Facebook, a lot of that is not in-person interaction. Currently in the world, a lot of people are engaging with each other in a nonphysical thing. I think we have that going for us. It’s a lot easier to engage socially without physically being next to each than it used to be. We do a lot inside of our culture to help, first of all, hire the right people that are excited about not just say writing code all day but really want to help build a company. What I mean by this is we have great aspects of our culture that as founders, we didn’t think of doing this. It just organically happened. There’s a few neat anecdotes from Olark. One Olarker that we hired, decided that he was going to become the Olark gnome. Basically, whenever anyone has an Olark-iversary, when people are one year in, the Olark gnome will anonymously send someone a present.
That’s really cool. It wasn’t something we started. It was just this person had this idea and we’re like, “Go run with this.” We also have weekly show and tells that happened when one Olarker was like, “I’d really like for us to have more talks and talk about stuff.” He just started organizing that event. Now, people are giving talks about something they’re passionate about on a weekly basis. From that, we actually did an ignite, like an Olark ignite at our in-person retreat. Totally organized just by Nick because he thought, I’d love to do ignite. We had a ton of really, really great talks at our retreat. A lot of this is hiring people that care about people.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Who are going to bring that, yeah.
Ben Congleton: One interesting aspect of our culture is because we’re interviewing people who want to do customer service as part of their job, they know that when they’re hired. You tend to get people who care about people or are a little bit more empathetic. I think it has some interesting side effects. There’s a few other things we do in our culture that are interesting. We have this annual retreat. For me, the annual retreat is trying to cram in all that hang out with coworkers into one crazy week.
Poornima Vijayashanker: How do people feel about the retreat?
Ben Congleton: That’s a really good question. On average, I think everyone’s pretty excited about it but I don’t know survey results off the top of my head. Generally I think everyone has a really good time. What we end up doing is we end up flying everyone and their significant others out to some location. We think bringing significant others is very important because we want Olark to be part of people’s…Olark is very much part of someone’s life. When you’re building a remote culture, your significant others never really meet any of your coworkers or any of their coworker’s spouses. We really want to facilitate those types of relationships as well because it can be lonely working from home. Through facilitating those types of interactions, we’ve had remote teams go on ski trips together as bringing their wives or significant others, which is awesome to have these remote, impromptu interactions that might happen in a physical workplace but facilitate remotely.
We also try to make it really easy for remote coworkers to work together in a location. For example, Olark will pay for the air fare if you spend a week in any location. For example, some of our San Francisco Olarkers flew out to Ann Arbor to work with the Ann Arbor team. They hung out there for a week, had a lot of fun, and Olark covered the flight. We try to do that whenever someone wants to go meet up with another Olarker. In person is still important.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Right. That’s really generous of you guys to do that. What do you do if you find somebody, a candidate, or you bring on an employee and they just don’t fit?
Ben Congleton: You let them go.
Poornima Vijayashanker: You let them go?
Ben Congleton: If it doesn’t fit, they’re gone.
Poornima Vijayashanker: How do you screen for that early on?
Ben Congleton: That’s true. One example is, we had this candidate we loved. He was amazing. For this candidate, we decided to do a contract to hire, which is something that people talk about fairly often around here. We actually decided not to do that anymore but in this particular case we said, come contract us for a month. We’ll do two weeks in person and two weeks remote. In person, this person was amazing. They were awesome. They were really driven, they got a lot done. When they were remote, they just weren’t engaged. Mutually we decided this isn’t really working. You probably need something that’s a little bit more in person. One thing to keep in mind is remote is certainly not for everyone. I think that you really need a support structure to support it. A lot of our remote employees have started to go into coworking spaces because they found out that they weren’t really getting any human interaction when they were working from home. That works for some people, it doesn’t work for everyone. There are many challenges of keeping your remote teams healthy and happy.
For us, we invest a lot in our employees. We are not doing remote to cut cost. For us, someone needs a coworking space, someone wants to go to a conference. If someone needs a flight to an office to go collaborate on something, that’s all part of what we budget into our hires. Just really being supportive of your team I think is very important.
Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s awesome. I’ve got one last question for you Ben. Then we’ll jump to Q&A. Time zones. I know that we try our best to work remotely. We try to have the best communication channel. Sometimes it’s really, really hard. Especially with folks who might be 17 hours ahead like some folks in Australia. It’s not your fault, it’s not our fault. A lot of times that can make it difficult to get synced up. How have you one, benefited, but also has there been any sort of struggle in dealing with time zones?
Ben Congleton: To be perfectly honest, we avoid time zone issues. We are afraid of time zone issues.
Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s fair.
Ben Congleton: We do have Roda, who’s in this little island in Scotland. She has a weird work schedule where she’ll work in the morning. Work at Olark in her morning and then she’ll go off and I think she’s doing basically farming. So she’ll go out and—
Poornima Vijayashanker: Feed the chickens.
Ben Congleton: Feed the chickens and she’s been doing a lot of home renovations stuff like that during the day while it’s light out. Then at night she’ll come back and she’ll work some more. Basically in that case, because she likes staying up late this works out well. She’s able to be online during a time where we can meet up and she can attend our team meetings and our show and tells and stuff like that. I will admit that, that is hard. Roda is the only person in that situation. Everyone else inside Olark is within four hours of PST. I feel like if you’re within four hours of PST, you’re probably fine. We mostly try to hire remote up and down the—
Poornima Vijayashanker: Equator.
Ben Congleton: Yeah. Whatever hemisphere we happen to be on.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Awesome. Great. Thank you Ben. I want to take some questions now from the audience. For those of you who have a question out there, feel free to jump on onto Twitter. Use the #Femgineer TV and go ahead and enter your question. I’m going to go ahead and take the first question from the audience. The first question is, “We use Slack to manage our remote team. What tools do you recommend?” Yeah, Slack is great for communicating. Especially on remote teams. Ben, do you have any recommendations for tools that you guys use? I know you said you built an in-house tool called Pancake. Do you use any?
Ben Congleton: We use a bunch. We use Hip Chat. I think Slack is getting a lot of popularity nowadays. It’s probably worth evaluating. Having a good video chat solution is also pretty good. We’ve toyed with Skype. We’ve messed around with this tool called Fuse. I don’t think we have a great recommendation there. For task tracking, we have gone through every tool you can think of. We’ve used Pivotal Tracker. We’ve used JIRA. We’ve used Trello. I think the key thing to remember is all those tools have their pluses and minuses. Actually what we found is once you decide on a tool and are like, “We’re going to make this tool work and not have discussions about tooling all the time,” I think it’ll do wonders for you. There’s no perfect tool to use.
Poornima Vijayashanker: I think the others is a lot of time people get too reliant on their tools. They think the tool is going to do all the work for them but the tool is only as good as you use it. A lot of times, the tools come with best practices. I know with Tracker for example, it’s not going to predict how long it’s going to take you to do a task. You’ve got to figure that out. The more often you enter in and the better you get at estimating, then it’s going to be more predictive. I think that’s important for people.
Ben Congleton: I have one actually final tool recommendation I don’t hear talked about enough. I feel like we should blog about it. We are heavy, heavy Google Docs users.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yep, same.
Ben Congleton: The thing that’s awesome about Google Docs is you can have 30 people in the same document. When we have say a team sync on Mondays, you have 30 people in this document. They’re able to add agenda items as they want. We have this whole kudo section where people thank each other for what they did last week, which is all dynamically entered into the meeting. Agendas I think are very important if you’re going to have remote meetings. We found Google Docs to be very helpful for us.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Awesome. I think they do a good job of collaborating on that. I know my editor and I use Google Doc as well. Cool. We’re going to go onto our second question. Let’s see this one. “How do you handle scrum standups with remote teams? Or does scrum even work in this case?”
Ben Congleton: At least with our team, you can do five-minute Skype standup. I don’t really see a big concern with that. Actually some of our teams do that. Some of our project teams decide that they want to do five-minute standups in the morning. It seems to work fine. I think the key thing is the time zone issue because we’re not spanning. We don’t have anyone who’s ten hours off working on a scrum team that we don’t have this asynched problem. We also do a daily scrum and maybe not following scrum entirely. But a lot of times inside of Hip Chat we have a bot that you can just type #scrum and then what you’re working on and keep track of that. You can go in and see what everyone else has been up to.
Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s great. I think asynchronous communication with my Busy Bee, we always try to emphasize that because developers would get in the zone. The last thing they wanted was to step away from that and do scrum. Instead, just having asynchronous communication like jumping into a chat channel, saying what they’re working on, and then they’ll come back a few hours later. But not having to sync up all the time is important so that people can stay productive. All right, next question. “What tools do you use for source control with remote teams?”
Ben Congleton: Sure. We use GitHub. We haven’t done a lot of evaluation but I can tell you. When we switched to GitHub, it completely changed the way that we did remote collaboration for source control. Part of the reason was it had really good built-in code review tools. I think that very early on when we were four people, I was personally very resistant to doing code review because it was just so glitchy. Once we adopted GitHub, we immediately started doing code review. Now we have very, very good code review and good practices around code review. I think the nice thing about something like GitHub is it’s really easy to do asynchronous code review. You can put up a pull request, people can go through line-by-line comment. If there’s a lot of confusion, you can do a quick Skype call or maybe chat back and forth in Hip Chat. Finally, before anything gets shipped out, someone has to give it a ship. The person who gives it a ship takes on responsibility. This is good enough to go out.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. Actually, yeah. I’ve got a follow up question to that. How do you then manage all the pull requests, like make sure that they don’t pile up? Because I know that’s oftentimes an issue for people like, I’ve been waiting on my pull request so that I can mark this bug as fixed.
Ben Congleton: I think typically what you do, if you have a pull request and someone is not reviewing it, you go bug other people on Hip Chat until they review it. Alternatively in our engineering meeting, we don’t have a bot or anything but a lot of times we’ll list the number of open pull requests. We also have this concept of “ship it Thursday” where we really encourage everyone to get their pull request shipped. I know that Brandon, for example, at one of his startups he used to be at, they would have a set number of pull requests to be opened at once. Before you open a new pull request, help someone finish off their pull request. I think a lot of this is just discipline, having people in the organization. I think Zack has taken on a lot of responsibility of just making sure people either ship or close their pull request. This is just organizational process.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, I think that’s a good golden rule policy. Do other people’s pull requests as you would want them to do to you.
Ben Congleton: Exactly. Another quick point is that tools are great. Process is what make tools work in scale. Understanding that no tool is a magic bullet like you were saying. We end up spending a lot of time developing process to help us work better. Originally when we were four people, I was against all process. But now we’re 30 people. I’m like, wow. Process is amazing. The key thing to think about is when you adopt process, just make it valuable. But be willing to give enough time to know whether it works or not because a lot of times it takes a while to work out all the kinks in the process. If something didn’t work for one week or two weeks or a month, but you see the light at the end of the tunnel, stick with it. A lot of times people will adopt a process, fail at it for a few weeks, and try to adopt a new process. You never find the right thing.
Poornima Vijayashanker: Right. Yeah, we actually had a Busy Bee, Alex. My co founder and I, when we first started using Tracker it took me a while to get used to the process. He got it but for some reason I was just struggling with it. I instituted this policy of having post-mortem at the end of every release. Then having everybody sit down and being, “This is what we love about the process, this is what we hate, how can we fix it?” We’d only make one improvement. We didn’t try to jam in everything. We weren’t like, “Here’s my list of ten complaints, now let’s fix them all.” It’s just like, pick one complaint and let’s focus on that. But I think it really helped. It got us to a point where we were shipping consistently and like you said, doing that Thursday shipping as well. Definitely process is important. Awesome. Thank you Ben for joining us today. I think this was a great pilot episode. I appreciate you coming out, sharing Olark, teaching us about your remote culture, and hopefully the audience has definitely learned and will start to use or maybe implement some of your strategies as they grow their teams.
I also want to just do a quick recap. We talked about three misconceptions today. The first one that we talked about was how your employees aren’t going to be productive and progress is going to stagnate. I think Ben’s done a great job of showing how you can keep making progress but a lot of it is keeping the communication channels clear, finding the people that are really invested in your product and your company. The second misconception we talked about is as we decide to make the transition maybe from maybe being a pure, local, in-house team to remote team, you might feel like communication is going to break down. How do you keep the lines open? I really liked that concept of having the one shared experience that everyone’s got to do because it forces them to get together. For Olark it’s everyone’s got to man chat. The third being devoid of culture. I think we’ve touched upon that just being really clear, setting your values, making sure everybody on the team understands that. Also, gauging the fit as you hire new people. Then having some fun things like doing retreats, having maybe gnomes or whatever quirky things people in your company want to do.
Creating a safe zone in which people can express themselves and add to the culture. I think we’re all still a little bit skeptical about time zones so I’m curious to see if anybody in the audience has a solution for that. I think this was great. Thanks for coming out. I also want to take a moment to thank all of you for tuning in today. I hope you enjoy this episode. We will be doing the next episode in March. Our guest will be Jocelyn Goldfein, who is the former director at Facebook. We’ll have her on the show. Then last but not least, I want to thank our amazing sponsors, Pivotal Tracker, for helping us with this pilot episode. They’ve given us space. They’ve helped put this all together. Thank you to Ronan and his amazing team. Thank you Theron for fielding all the questions today. Awesome. We’ll look forward to seeing you all in March. Until then, have a good day.
Femgineer’s lean product development program will be opening up soon. For more info and resources, visit Femgineer.com/lean-product-development. Enjoy learning about Olark’s remote working culture in this episode and want to learn more about the company and available positions? Then go to olark.com/jobs. This pilot episode of Femgineer TV is brought to you by Pivotal Tracker—build better software faster.