Hi, everyone. Thank you for the great response to the first round of Turing’s Distinguished Leader Series (with Henrik Hussfelt, Director of Engineering at Proxy).
Today I’m talking with Darren Murph, the Head of Remote at GitLab. Darren may be the first person ever to hold the Head of Remote Title at a top-tier tech company. GitLab has a reputation for excellence with remotely distributed teams. In the discussion below, Darren reveals many of the techniques GitLab uses to make remote work hyper-productive.
Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab
Jonathan Siddharth, Turing:
Welcome to Turing’s Distinguished Leader Series, Darren. We are conducting this series to bring together leaders who are experts in building distributed teams.
So, Darren, you are the Head of Remote at GitLab, a 1300 person globally distributed company built entirely in the cloud. Could you share a little bit about how you became Head of Remote and got to embracing remote work and distributed teams?
Yeah, so I’ve been working across the remote spectrum for over 15 years my entire career. And the last two years at GitLab are my first stint in an all-remote company. I remember when I first heard about GitLab. I learned it had absolutely no company-owned offices, and it was an intentional decision. I had to sit down and process this. I thought, how in the world has this company already invented a future that I always longed for? I felt like I was pushing the remote work rock uphill, and now COVID has greatly democratized that conversation. I’m excited that more of the world is eager to learn more about doing it well.
I joined GitLab in July of 2019 as their Head of Remote. To my knowledge, this was the first-ever remote head anywhere in the world. And now, many other companies like Dropbox and Facebook are also hiring directors of remote work. Companies realize that this is a massive change in how they operationalize their company, convert tacit knowledge, and apply it to documented knowledge. So it’s been an enjoyable journey. I’ve worked across marketing, comms, and organizational development. I do a bit of all of that in this role. It’s very cross-functional.
What advice would you have for the founder who’s building her company in a remote-first fashion on day zero? What is something that they should think about? For example, let’s say this is a founder who has raised $2 million, currently based in the Bay Area, and they would like to go the GitLab route and go fully remote-first. What advice would you have for some of them?
So step one would be to pressure test any of your company’s workflows and cultural underpinnings to make sure that they are resilient and work outside of the office. By default, a lot of workflows are office-first. If you have something you rely on, you should audit that and convert it to a remote-first workflow. There are plenty of excellent tools that allow you to do that collaboration digitally so that even if you choose to go into an office, you would still go about your work in a remote-first fashion.
And this kind of ties into point two: trying to set the tone from a cultural standpoint. Things aren’t about the physical location; they’re about how and not where work gets done. I’ll share with you one other thing that we have seen work for us and has had beneficial compounding interest over the years: document early, create a company handbook, create a single source of truth. When you’re just two or three or ten people, you don’t need to document, but be mindful that it’s easiest to start this when you have a small team. It pays dividends down the road.
Tacit knowledge is a fundamental part of building the company culture. In a remote setting, you can’t afford to have tacit knowledge. You have to document how you work with one another explicitly. So it’s not enough to just say we value collaboration at our company. You have to write down what collaboration looks like. GitLab’s values are open source, and they’re available online.
We explicitly say that we collaborate with short toes. This phrase means that anyone can contribute to anyone else’s domain without the fear of stepping on someone’s toes, as we all have short toes. This practice enables people who have never met face-to-face to gain a shared understanding of how you want to treat each other and how work gets done.
By systematically documenting things, you can imagine how this would make even a co-located team have greater cohesion. You would need fewer check-ins by each other’s desks to get a status update even within the office. These principles make the transition seem less daunting. These are just great business principles, but a lot of it is part tooling and part culture. You have to have both of those tracks going in the same direction for maximum effectiveness.
That makes a lot of sense. Is there any function or role that you found to be challenging to work within a remote context?
That depends on the industry. For example, sales and customer service cannot necessarily be negatively impacted by remote, but they have less flexibility than some of the other roles. For example, many of these customer service roles must require working from a particular hour to a specific hour, so there’s less ability for them to work a nonlinear workday.
What I’ve seen in sales is that a lot of deals happen because relationships exist. Around the globe, there are some cultures where an in-person moment at some point in the sales process is critical in ensuring that the transaction happened. So certainly, there will be areas where in-person moments are beneficial.
I would offer this to companies who are all remote and don’t have any headquarters: make sure that you invest in travel and leverage appropriate touchpoints to ensure that those in-person elements are there. The goal here is not to create a company where people never see each other. The goal is to create a company where you empower people to do their best work around the globe and also invest in getting people together when it makes sense for the business.
It makes a lot of sense. Is there something that you would recommend to ensure that the people in the company formed the right relationships with each other?
You have to be very intentional about formal communication. There are a couple of things right off the bat that you should implement. One is an onboarding buddy. Make sure that every new hire is paired with someone that’s already in the company and knows a bit about what their role entails, and have them proactively set up coffee chats with key stakeholders.
The other thing is to consider getting teams together every quarter or bi-annually. So make sure that you invest in getting people together. The other thing I’ll mention here is the link between transparency in work and the sense of belonging. And so what we have seen is that if you provide greater transparency and visibility to work that’s happening, it’s easier for employees to feel like a part of a team.
I try to look at everything through the lens of opportunity and abundance instead of scarcity and fear. And this is one critical example of a remote workplace being far more amenable in a co-located space. When everyone is on the same proverbial floor and just one click away, it is much easier to be transparent.
That makes a lot of sense. And do you recommend having any kind of structured in-person meetups happening at a certain cadence, or do you kind of let it happen organically, where the understanding is, if you want to meet, the company will pay for travel transportation, etc.? How much of it goes bottoms-up vs. some top-down recommendations on bridging the remote, in-person development?
We’ve seen top-down set the tone, which fosters a lot of bottoms-up contributions. So I would recommend getting the entire team together once a year if at all possible. As your team scales, this will become more difficult, but do everything you can to bring people together, at least, optionally. It makes a big difference. You’ll find that a remote team’s in-person time is best used for cultural building and rapport building.
You can certainly do some strategy work during those times, but make sure you leave a lot of open space for people just to do their thing. Especially in sales and customer support, who interact a lot together: try to get them together quarterly or bi-annually. You want to make sure that if someone asks you: “Hey, when’s the next time we’re getting together?” you at least have an IOU together.
It’s great to hear that. What advice would you have for a people manager who will be managing a distributed team for the first time? What should she keep in mind to handle this globally distributed team spanning multiple times? What are some common pitfalls people usually encounter when managing a distributed team for the first time?
At GitLab, we have a substantiating value called ‘Assume Positive Intent.’ Remote managers must assume positive intent, no matter what.
The second thing is to assume that the company is the issue. For many managers, if they’re sensing underperformance or maybe some apathy, it’s their default to believe that the problem is the employee. But in fact, you should assume that the company isn’t providing adequate documentation for adequate upskilling and workplace benefits.
The reason why I would recommend approaching it from the company-first angle is that, if indeed there is a void in documentation or the collaboration flow, if you solve it for one person, you now have solved it for the entire organization. So it is a much more scalable way to look at challenges.
The last thing is, all remote managers should see themselves less as a director and more as an unblocker. First, you have to create a psychologically safe atmosphere where your direct reports are comfortable coming to you with challenges. And then, your goal is to unblock them as fast as possible so that they can run as fast as possible. There’s a fantastic book called High Output Management that you can refer to for the same. An unblocker as a manager seeks to unblock as many people as possible to create massive amounts of leverage for the people who report to them.
My conversation with Darren Murph will continue with part two of this interview where we discuss how GitLab uses GitLab, the best way for remote-first companies to use video communications like Zoom, and how you should deal with the tricky issue of timezones. You don’t want to miss it!