Your first tool for distributed work: the headset

This is an essential tool that every worker on a distributed team or company should have, no exceptions: a headset. Let’s explore why.

When working distributed you are going to be having a lot of calls and the quality of audio is important. All meetings are tiring the same thing work is tiring, but bad audio is a divider. The worst the audio is, the shorter people can sustain the attention to complex meetings. Not only that, but the cognitive load generally means that people get cranky, irritated, tired and that means wasting productivity.

You want the audio of the other person to come directly to your ears. That will help you understand and hear, but also it will remove any chances of the audio getting to the mic completely removing the chances of any echo. Yes, software can kill echo, but generally that adds awkward micro silences at the beginning and end of someone’s speech that are very tiring.

You want the microphone right in front of your mouth to avoid capturing your environment’s noise, the cars on the street, the AC or fan, the children on the patio (or your lap), the cat running around, etc.

This formula is not new, it’s what we use in environments that are so noisy people can’t talk to someone sitting next to them and so critical that miscommunication can mean death, aviation:

Just copying the aviation headset form factor is a good place to start.

FAQ

Can I use my laptop’s speakers and microphone?

The microphone tends to be bad, capture audio from the speakers, generating echo, or vibrations from the cooling fans making a buzzing sound that can go from annoying to overpowering depending on the laptop and frequently they are omnidirectional making any tiny noise on your environment really loud.

When someone uses a laptop I feel they don’t care about anybody but themselves. Everybody has to put up with their shitty audio while for them it’s just fine.

What about headphones and my laptops or phone microphone?

That’s a bit better, at least there’s no echo, but buzzing and background noise as well as bad quality voice are still there.

What about my phone?

The mic and speaker tend to be of poor quality and limited processing power on the device mean more frequent artifacts, but at least there’s no echo nor buzzing. Depending on the phone, the mic could be quite omnidirectional though.

What about the phone in loudspeak?

No… that’s almost as bad as the laptop.

Distributed companies vs time zones

Time zones is the arch rival of distributed companies (or rather, the earth being round, but I digress into the meaning of time zones).

When you run a distributed company and you hire people, you might be tempted to hire from all over the world but there’s a problem. If you hire someone that lives 12 time zones away from you, you’ll barely interact with that person and suddenly the company moves at a day-cadence, instead of immediate cadence.

The second problem is that those people in the other side of the world will develop their own culture, their own style, an us-vs-them mentality in which you, the company, is them. All unwanted traits.

My advice, when getting started, is not to hire anyone more than 4 time zones away, so, you can end up with half a day of work of overlap. Only after you have very trusted and senior managers 4 time zones away, you can hire people 8 time zones away that have 4 hour overlaps with those managers, and repeat until you have all time zones covered by trusted senior managers that can carry the culture of your company.

This means that you are unlikely to go fully global until you are at least 50 and even then that’s pushing it. I’d be uncomfortable with a fully global company that’s smaller than 200 people.

Be distributed because it’s cooler, not cheaper

There are two motivations that drive the creation of distributed teams or companies:

  • it’s cheaper
  • there just isn’t any available people locally

There’s nothing wrong with these motivations as starting point, but if they become your sole driver for being distributed the results are probably going to end badly. Remote workers will be treated as cheaper handicapped workers and nobody likes being on that position. Soon they’ll find another better company to work for.

Also, if you expect that a distributed company behaves the same way as a local one, you’ll end up with a dysfunctional organization (something that’s happening to a lot of companies during the pandemic, they are now distributed but they behave as if they are not).

To build an effective distributed team engage the cool factor: we are all different, we are more diverse, we bring variety and we feel very strongly about living where we live. Celebrate the distributeness. This will not happen automatically and as a manager/leader at a distributed company, you have to make it happen. Same thing with socializing and bonding: it will not happen automatically as it might if you are all in the same room, and the manager/leader is in charge of making it happen.

Here are some examples of things you can do:

  • Create a Slack channel where people can share pictures of their food. People will show off the good and bad of the food of where they live. People might end up exchanging recipes.
  • Follow news of the countries/cities where your staff is located and if something major happens, reach out to check on their well-being. Send the signal that you care about where they are, not just that they are far away.
  • Create optional and mandatory engineered social time for people to hang out together. A small amount of mandatory bonding is a good thing, because otherwise it may not happen at all (there’s no water cooler), but don’t force people to be away from their families for a gaming night to avoid losing status at the company.
  • Embrace hobbies, activities and lifestyles. People that work remotely they often care deeply about somethings, like their families, living in rural areas, having more free time, being able to work with constraints, hobbies that are location specific. Celebrate all of that.
  • Allow extra flexibility: don’t expect them to work 9 to 5, but know that they can still work hard or harder and even for more hours. Allow someone to break away from work to go pick up the kids from school in the middle of the day but they fixed a ticket in the middle of the night.

If you want to learn more, I highly recommend The Year Without Pants. If you want some help distributing your company, feel free to contact me.

My biggest hiring secret: text interviews

I built a kick-ass team of 6 developers in little over 6 weeks, by myself, doing all the hiring and without using any recruiters. When I tell people how I did it there’s one aspect of my hiring process that raises the most eyebrows: text interviews.

When someones profile looks promising (CV, GitHub, cover letter) I send them a text message over Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Signal, etc asking them if they are free for 10 minutes. I don’t even book a time, it’s a short informal text conversation. The goal is to evaluate how good they are at maintaining that type of communication which is important for all development teams and essential for distributed ones. These are some of the questions I ask:

  • How did you learn to code?
  • How did you learn programming language X?
  • What do you want to learn next?
  • What are the pros/cons of distributed companies?
  • Can you tell more about project X?
  • In your application you said X, what did you mean? Can you clarify?
  • Do you have any questions for me?

The sad reality is that a lot of people don’t pass this stage and only a few pass it with flying colors. This makes it a good filter to put at the very beginning.

But there’s another reason why this is a good first filter: I can hold several text conversations at the same time. I can probably interview about 4 people at the same time this way. Or, I can interview 1 or 2 as I keep on doing other work, reading documents, addressing questions, etc making it not only of high efficacy but also highly efficient.

I didn’t invent this, I was inspired by how Automattic hires according to The Year Without Pants. If you have any questions feel free to just ask in the comments and if you need any help hiring developers, don’t hesitate to contact me, but know that I’m not a recruiter.

From bank to Google, what’s your staff onboarding like?

I remember two onboarding experiences the most. Joining Google was an amazing experience, I felt like a hero in a hero’s parade. Joining a Swiss Investment Bank made me question my life choices.

Google

At Google, I had clear instructions sent to me well in advance about what to expect, where I was supposed to show up. I was taken step by step like clueless tourist in a packaged tour. There was one whole week of super interesting lessons about the ins-and-outs of Google, from the amazing (how does search work) to the mundane (how do I log in to my own computer). It was like being a Disney World. My manager personally came to pick me up from the cafeteria where us nooglers (new googlers) would be hanging out to take me to my brand new desk ready for me to start learning more.

The Bank

At the bank I had to convince the receptionist that I worked there, get her to issue me a badge and then give me some instructions on how to find my team. When I finally did I and said hello to my manager he said:

Oh, I forgot you were starting today. I didn’t order your computer, I’m doing that now, it’ll take 2 weeks. Go find someone to pair with.

I was faced with a sea of 200 grumpy-looking people of which about 4 were in my team but I wasn’t sure who, or their names, and there was no way for me to find out. This is a horrible way of onboarding socially awkward introverts. It made me feel bad for weeks, months even.

The Strategy

When designing an onboarding process for your new staff, I believe this is the strategy to follow: don’t make newcomers do any work other than what you are paying them for.

New staff shouldn’t spend any amount of time trying to figure out the company, navigating complex undocumented hierarchies of people, wondering what to do if their computer doesn’t start, finding out where critical information is stored by accident, learning what tools to use because they overheard someone else talk about it, not knowing where the central documentation is, etc.

If you like to learn more about staff onboarding tactics, let me know and I’ll write a follow up post. If you need any help designing the onboarding experience at your company feel free to contact me, I’m very passionate about it.

How I’m testing seed data generation

When I create a new Rails project I like to have a robust seeds that can be used to quickly bootstrap development, testing and staging environments to interact with the application. I think this is critical for development speed.

If a developer creates a feature to, for example, connect two records together, you just want them to fire up the application and connect two records to see it work. You don’t want them spending time creating the records because that’s a waste of time, but also, because all developers end up having different subsets of testing data and generally ignoring everything that’s not included in them. It’s better to grow a set of testing data that’s good and complete.

One of the problem I run into is that generating testing data, or sample data, doesn’t happen often enough and changes in the application often break it. Because of that, I wrote this simple test:

RSpec.describe "rake db:seed" do
  it "runs" do
    Imok::Application.load_tasks if Rake::Task.tasks.none? { |t| t.name == "db:seed" }
    ENV["verbose"] = "false"
    Rake::Task["db:seed"].invoke
  end
end

It doesn’t have any assertions, but with just a few lines of code it probably covers 90% of seed data creation problems, that generally result in a crash. I would advice against having assertions here, as they may cost more time than the time they’ll save because sample data evolves a lot and it’s not production critical.

The startup CTO dilemma

About 10 years ago I took my first job as CTO but I wasn’t a CTO, I just had the title. I was a developer with ambition. I made mistakes, very expensive mistakes, mistakes that contributed to the failure of the startup. Since then I have learned and grown a lot and although there’s still a lot for me to learn, there are some things I understand reasonably well. One of those is how to be the CTO of an early and not so early stage startup.

With this experience, though, my salary went up. I’m more expensive now than I was 10 years ago and I didn’t know what I was doing. Because of this, I tend to evaluate working for a startup not on day 1, but on day 700 or later, when they have some traction, revenue, etc. The problem is that a lot of those startups are deep in problems that are very hard or impossible to fix by that point. It’s very painful for me to see expenses that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars because someone didn’t do 30 minutes of work 5 years ago (this is a real example).

So, the dilemma is this:

  • If a startup hires an experienced CTO from day 1, they are wasting money because they might only be spending 5% or 10% CTOing and the rest coding, doing IT, etc. which can be done by a less experienced developer.
  • If a startup doesn’t hire an experienced CTO from day 1, they are likely to make very expensive mistakes that may literally kill the startup in year 3 or it may slow it down a lot.

 I’ve been thinking about this for a while, how can this be solved?

One of my ideas was being a sort of CTO enhancer, to be the voice of experience for a less experienced co-founding CTO, helping them a few hours a week for a few months up to a couple of years. What do you think? Does this sound valuable? Useful?

I might be thinking a lot about this lately since I’m leaving my current job and searching for the next thing to do.

Growth vs maintenance time

Someone asked me if I would have a property manager if I lived 5 minutes away from my rental property instead of across the Atlantic from it.

Yes, of course I would!

You have two types of time in your life: Free and Taken. Taken time is the one consumed by tasks required to maintain the current condition of your life. You need a job to pay the bills, you need to take the garbage out to avoid living in toxic waste. This time is, in the long run, a waste, because you get nothing from it other than surviving.

Now, free time is more interesting. You can use it as you want, you can binge on all TV shows or you can use it for growth: learn a new skill, buy a new property, create a new business, work a few extra hours for savings.

Only during free time you can really create the compounding growth that leads to financial independence. If you are not familiar with compounding interest, I’d recommend you read about it, but long story short, small changes in investment now, bring big changes in the future.

Based on that, one should maximize the amount of growth time, even if it costs money, because in the long run, it makes money.

To put it in concrete terms, I’d rather have 1 extra free hour per week to figure out how to buy my new property, than ditch the property manager and make 10% more per month… because an extra property is much more wealth than 10% of extra revenue in one.

My end goal is to reach the point in which I could permanently leave on holidays on a beach and my life would just work, because all responsibilities will have someone assigned to them that gets paid to fulfill them, not because I want to live on permanent holidays, but because I want to live in 100% growth.

One clarification: a job that lets you save money is part maintenance, part growth time.