How to successfully work remotely in an engineering organization

1 month ago 19
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Leaders from GitLab, GigSmart, Equinix and Shopify discussed remote collaboration, onboarding new employees and defining metrics/KPIs during a remote panel.

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Image: GettyImages/Maryna Andriichenko

As remote work becomes more prevalent among engineers, success requires the key building blocks of workspace communication and mindset, said Darren Murph, global head of remote for GitLab. Murph was one of three engineering leaders who shared insights and perspectives on the future of remote work and remote software engineering during a recent panel hosted by Dev Interrupted and moderated by Dan Lines, chief operating officer and co-founder of LinearB.

SEE: What's the best work environment for engineers: home or office? (TechRepublic)

"Be very intentional about your organizational design'' just as organizations have traditionally done for colocations, Murph advised. While a lot of companies have shifted to remote work, they continue to have an "office first" mentality, he said.

Meetings and workflows

The Gitlab platform is used for all collaboration and enables the company to get rid of organizational silos and encourage virtual collaboration, Murph said. It provides a single source of truth with maximum efficiency, he said.

Murph recalled being asked by a chief people officer how to make remote meetings better. His response? "Make them harder to have,'' he said. "Ideally, you want as few as possible using asynchronous tools and then reserve synchronous meetings for making decisions."

As teams become more distributed this becomes even more important, Murph said.

Lawrence Mandel, director of engineering at Shopify, said the company is now 100% remote and leadership has made an effort to utilize tools to drive efficiency, such as Slack Huddles. Slack Huddles offer audio-only calls, allowing greater freedom, Mandel said.

Leadership should also adopt a mindset of protecting focus time, he said. "When we saw that wasn't happening, leadership mandated 'meeting free Wednesdays,'" he said. But if leadership doesn't enforce this, meetings will bleed back in, he added.

Chris Downard, vice president of engineering at GigSmart, said that when the company went fully remote, he knew it was important to keep people "in sync" and his strategy was to create a Zoom meeting that offers "coffee talks," and the first person who joins makes a list of breakout rooms focused on projects and various committees. 

There are also "a couple of random breakout rooms that simulate small conference rooms in an office,'' he said. That way, people "can roll in and out as you see fit."

Collaborations went up in the coffee talk rooms, where issues like planning and production troubleshooting occurred. There was a "command and response room" created. The rooms are designed to make people feel like they are sitting next to someone in an office if they want. "It keeps people bonded,'' Downard said.

Equinix's senior director of engineering, Shweta Saraf, said they want to make sure each employee is able to contribute efficiently and effectively, regardless of their location. She agreed that reducing meetings has to have a commitment from the highest leadership. The company focuses on asynchronous communications because there are engineering teams around the world. "I think the key difference is we try to be remote-first, versus remote-friendly," Saraf said.

Metrics, KPIs and goals

The speakers also discussed how to make remote engineering teams more effective, noting that it can be a challenge to understand where issues such as delivery bottlenecks are in remote teams. Saraf, who led a fully remote team at Packet before its acquisition to Equinix, said they start every Monday with a meeting, during which every department goes through different metrics and explains why numbers went up or down.

Murph said that whatever metrics a company uses, people should write down what success looks like to them. That forces them to put numbers or values around things that may be ambiguous or esoteric, he said, and that way there is no guesswork involved.

"I would argue that it makes your company more inclusive because it puts the focus on results" and pushes politics aside and makes the metrics about the work. Although it may sound paradoxical, when people do that, they are actually kinder to one other, Murph said. "It's not about who can position themselves a certain way but driving toward results." 

Mandel added that he doesn't need to know what his staff is doing, only whether they are delivering results. "Offices allowed us to be lazy,'' and now there needs to be a system in place and rigor to develop output.

Downard said Gigsmart is "extremely results-oriented. Nothing else matters." He said it's easy to measure how many times something is released to production. "What's hard to measure in engineering is understanding indirect impact,'' he said.

He has also started paying attention to whether people need to be encouraged to take more paid time off. "We have to take care of our people,'' Downard said.

Murph observed that "metrics have this dangerous way of being only additive--not subtractive. It's really key to create a psychologically safe atmosphere where people can question if a metric still has value or should we delete it,'' he said.

Murph referenced the book "Time Off," which points out that people are "creative athletes" and just as time off and rest are key to athletes' achieving gold and other medals, the same holds true in knowledge work.

"If you want innovation and creativity on your team you have to bake in rest," Murph said.

Hiring and onboarding

Mandel said when you work in technology, flexibility in terms of time and location are important.  

GitLab hires for values fit not a cultural fit, Murph said. "Our values page is more than words on a wall. You want people to join your organization and know they're going to align with the specific way you're working."

COVID has forced companies to be explicit about who they are, he said. "We convey our strategy and what it's like to work at GitLab before the interview process starts."

The speakers also offered their tips for onboarding new employees remotely. Downard said they want to get participation as quickly as possible.

At Equinix, senior leaders have informal discussions with candidates during the closing round of interviews "to get them excited about our mission,'' Saraf said.

Several of the speakers said they also pair new hires with an onboarding buddy, which has proved to be very effective.

Another way to help engineers become acclimated as quickly as possible is to make sure the onboarding process is very documented and explicit, Murph said. That way, other employees can help a new hire. 

People and culture

A company with a "hero worship culture can be very toxic," especially for support roles, Downard said. He advised engineers to focus on collaborating and working together to accomplish a goal--not whether they have completed something as an individual.

"This is a team sport and it's critical that you create an ethos and understanding that everybody is contributing to getting us going in the right direction and having success," Downard said.

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