How to successfully work remotely in an engineering organization - Deepstash

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Panel

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 four 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.

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Meetings and workflows

Murph recalled being asked by a chief people officer how to make remote meetings better. His response? 'Make them harder to have'.

"Ideally, you want as few as possible using asynchronous tools and then reserve synchronous meetings for making decisions."

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.

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Meeting Free Days

Leadership should also adopt a mindset of protecting focus time. "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.

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Coffee Talks

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. 

Collaborations went up in the coffee talk rooms, where issues like planning and production troubleshooting occurred. There was a "command and response room" created.

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random breakout rooms

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."

The rooms are designed to make people feel like they are sitting next to someone in an office. It keeps people bonded.

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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

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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.

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focus on results

"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.

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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.

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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."

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

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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. 

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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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