Q&A with Bear Douglas, Developer and Advocacy Lead at Slack

By February 9, 2018 ScaleUp

Q&A with Bear Douglas, Developer and Advocacy Lead at Slack

#Topic: Hiring and Managing Remote Teams

Developer Relations is a hybrid world between Engineering and Business Development. Everyone on my team is an engineer and are providing documentation, doing partnership work, writing sample code and speaking. We look for unicorns who are talented engineers with good communication.

Hiring Remote Engineers

  • Experience
  • Rapport
  • Scope

When targeting experience, they need to be senior enough not to flounder upon temporarily having a teammate become unreachable to walk them through the system or answer some of their questions.

Rapport affords your teammates the ability to ask questions openly and avoid silent failure.

When you’re hiring engineers from different time zones, and coordination is an issue, scope their work to identify interdependencies. Maintaining autonomy can be appealing for some and not so much for others. If this is their first remote role, approach with caution. Ask them how they prefer to work in teams? previous experiences with conflict and how they handled it? This is amplified when remote.

Managing Remote Teams

Building Rapport

It takes specific effort when you don’t see each other everyday.

  • Visit Early and Regularly
  • Cancelling Isn’t casual
  • Build in social time

My mistake was not getting out their early. The sooner you can have your remote employee come to your or you visit them, the better. Maintain a cadence. Don’t be random. Showing up every four months like clock work is still good because, it shows you can be relied upon. It’s disrespectful when you delay and postpone haphazardly, it’s disrespectful to everyone time. But also, carving out 5 minutes out of your half an hour meeting to talk about your week is important.

Simple Information Sharing

Easy rules can make people feel like people feel like they don’t slip through the cracks.

  • Automate meeting notes
  • Balance meetings at awkward hours
  • Keep people with dependencies on one another in the same time zone.

With a local team, you have the ability to overhear conversations and make a decision on whether or not you want to insert yourself. However, remote teams don’t have an option, so all decisions should be kept on public channels at all times (Use DM). Try automating meeting notes and posting them to a designated channel (speech to text or manual notes).

When making calls between vastly different time zones, there is never a great time for everyone to take the call. So to minimize the discomfort, try rotating the awkward timezone pain amongst members and leads. That keeps things fair. Even if the bulk of the people are in a manageable time zone, it’s unfair for the minority or person in the awkward time zone to take midnight calls all the time. This shows you value their time.

To the extent possible, ensure all engineering personnel that have engineering interdependencies, are located in same or similar timezone. It takes a toll on where you can hire but it makes a huge difference.

Spend Lavishly on Getting Aligned

It’s almost never time wasted

  • Stand-ups
  • Sharing vision
  • Spotlights on people’s work

The team was very comfortable with the direction they were going, how the work was divided, and what people were working on. There was every teams weekly standup and the group stand up. It was a lot of overhead, but they were very informed about what to do. Format: Key results and metrics review, then do a team by team 30 seconds to explain what they were working on. And an ask for help section on roadblocks. Spotlight people’s successes. Getting called out for good work done, gets extra recognition and promotes better engagement.

Key Question 1

Do you feel getting someone more senior is better for remote positions than junior people? Why?

In your first few years as an engineer, you’re learning about the difference between engineering in university vs the workplace. It’s about learning to read other people’s code, bearing with people, needing to be proactive in seeking out help for difficult parts you’re working on. If they haven’t learnt to deal with those barriers and get acclimated, it’s hard to make progress. Of course there are stellar junior engineers that can break those barriers but that makes things much harder for them.

We have one day in 2 weeks where we all meet at the office. For new hires, it makes sense to stay at the office first. We have them remain in office for 3 months, then transition to 2–3 days a week at the office, then move them to be fully remote. Any thoughts on that?

We do the some for fresh engineering hires too.

Key Question 2

What is your opinion on remote team leaders and remote team managers vs non remote central office managers?

Its challenging to be a remote team lead. You need to meet them asap. Is this person a tech lead or an engineering manager? What you miss sometimes os small indications of performance issues. Eg people inside the office may know that Joe sits at his desk and watches youtube, and you dont, then that presents a challenge. But if Joe submits his work and watches youtube then you can choose to weigh in on that if necessary.

They is a remote engineering manager. We don’t have remote tech leads. He wasn’t fully remote (half remote) but we had a situation where the relationship between the tech lead and his team wasn’t strong.

A lot of this depends on personality. It takes a lot of effort to make sure things don’t fall through the cracks. Communicate constantly. If you are having an architectural question, try sharing your screen and illustrating your workflow.

We’ve found that a lot of trust built from non work related contact is lost and people don’t recognize the POC as someone who can help them. They then approach another team, and that fractures trust. This has kept us from engaging fully remote teams and partially curtailing semi remote ones, as it affects culture.

Having someone on the ground as a designated “go to” person that can be there to physically assist your team when you aren’t there, is also helpful.

Key Question 3

How do you test for cultural fit for remote people? How important is it? How do you infuse the culture from an existing team into a remote hire?

The term cultural fit is too vague. What means a lot to you? Like let’s say “we will do anything to ship” and that makes sense as a company ethos, but for some people, culture means being able to sit down together and have a beer.

Having company values that are communicated in a competitive and meaningful fashion is useful. Eg Facebook has maxims like “fortune favours the bold” and it really helps.

So do you value work life balance or if someone flips on a deadline, do you yell at them publicly?

What does it mean to you?

For us it’s the set of beliefs we use to get the job done.

Another tip, is to have collaborative ownership over values, eg Salesforce has a V2MOM which is a live collaborative document that cements your values as a company. We did that over a year ago and haven’t looked at it since. But since we did it, its had a tremendous effect on keeping us goal oriented.

Context: Peter:Recruitment Startup called Instaland. We connect freelance recruiters for collaboration. We have a sub company called remote talent, and we provide remote technical talent.

Key Question 4

We struggle about full time remote employees. It’s difficult for us to keep them engaged and active. Some of them are digital nomad and take long travel breaks. So what tips tricks, hacks and apps would you suggest to make things easier?

I like zoom, it has the most consistent quality over mediocre network connections. A lot of stuff isnt around a software but around best practices when using the software eg. Slack is useless if you only use it for DM’s. A lot of things are about visibility and making sure the tools are piped into slack. Eg we have a jira integration that notifies people who want to see a task done live and learn from them. Its about piping your CI and github results into channels to so people can keep an eye on what’s happening.

Do you prefer daily or weekly standups?

It depends on people’s personality. I’ve had times that were fine with one weekly standup and others who wouldn’t bother showing up to work or opening up their computers without a 9.30am standup. You have to be flexible as a manager, I try to do a more than weekly but non daily standup to see what’s going on without getting too heavy handed.

Have you ever engaged people on a commision basis or hired a freelancer?

Yes, it was for design. Our relationship has been more “client — service provider” rather than being looped into the team. So what’s your relationship with them? Are they short term contractors who are full members of the team or is it more of a “client service provider” relationship?

It’s like a partnership, so there are active people who we engage frequently and there are one time users who are sporadic. We struggle to find users and maintain consistent engagement with them.

Oh so are you looking for ways to engage them more efficiently or are you trying to build a relationship?

We try to be a community that shares knowledge rather than transactional motives. What we are planning to do is host a retreat twice a year, and get them to share.

That’s a great idea. Just remember when you host these at your home base, there are people that have familial obligations and sometimes prefer to be elsewhere and others who are coming just to work and hang out with you. To try and relieve this tension, try and schedule all boning time during the day so people can go home if they need to. We had so many limitations to bonding as well. I had people who couldn’t do any physical activity other than walking. Multiple people didn’t drink and didn’t want to go out and participate in anything that involved going out and getting beers. Some people on the team were deathly afraid of water and we couldn’t have a boat trip. People also hated bowling or bowling alleys or were allergic to certain things. It forces you to get creative and be empathetic. So when you organize this, just bear in mind whether you are sending messages, creating any barriers or expectations unintentionally.

Key Question 5

While we had a remote team, we felt that they were under performing. Are there any tools that can help you manage performance issues, like how to remotely keep tab on Bob watching too many YouTube videos?

So this was something I went through. And you can always have a conversation with them about the fact that the they are conducting themselves is affecting morale because people can see that you’re slacking or behaving as though you are. But that’s risky in a startup. Any conversation about performance issues needs to be grounded in evidence based on quality of output. If you don’t then your conversation becomes about the perception of effort rather than quality of output.

Key Question 6

Are there any identifiable and prevalent traits that are valuable for or incompatible with hires for remote teams?

Find people who are good at communicating their pro-activity in learning skills that help them with tasks. Like asking people for help. Also look for someone in the habit of communicating out or being talkative online about sharing what they’re doing.

I ask them to tell me about the 2 favourite colleagues that they’ve worked with, and what makes them qualified to be part of your dream team. Their answers are very telling because they identify what they value in a team.