Anil Dash has been blogging for 20 years, getting his start during the medium’s earliest days. In the summer of ‘99, he was looking for a way to pass the time during his three-hour train commute. Having recently discovered a small community of techie bloggers, Anil thought he’d try his hand at this emerging craft. Back then, bloggers had to overcome technical hurdles that are unthinkable to those who’ve grown up with established blogging software (like WordPress.com). But despite these challenges, something about blogging clicked for Anil. Putting his thoughts online helped him collect and refine his thinking. Plus, it was fun. Later that year, Anil was invited to a bloggers’ dinner in New York City, which he says included “all” of the bloggers — a group small enough to fit around a couple of tables in a Mexican restaurant. 

Distributed Podcast: Hear Matt Mullenweg in conversation with Anil Dash. Read the transcript.

Joel Spolsky, another pioneering blogger, was in attendance that night. Anil found a kindred spirit in Joel: 

I would read Joel’s blog and he would talk about a company where they cared about the software they made, cared about how they treated their people, were very thoughtful about the work that they did. They did not want to be just another dot com, which at the time that was what was in vogue. And I thought, “Wow, that would be an amazing place to work.” 

A decade later, Joel showed Anil a prototype of a technology that he hoped would change the way people make things online. It would point to the future while respecting the internet’s earlier DIY days, where people hacked things together and created their own independent communities around their creations. In 2016, Anil became the CEO of the company that made that technology, then known as Fog Creek Software. He oversaw its rebrand in 2018, when the company became Glitch

Forward-thinking respect for the past

When Joel shared the prototype that would later evolve into Glitch, Anil felt he was witnessing something big. “Oh, this is going to be it,” he thought. “I don’t know if what we’re building is going to be the way it happens, but this way of creating the web is going to be how we make the web.” 

You could have live-in-your-browser code. And as you coded and typed your code out, it would live-deploy without you having to run anything, do anything, touch anything. You didn’t have to ask somebody down the hall for the access to the AWS account. It just worked.

Today, Glitch is a semi-distributed company with over 50 people, a majority of whom work remotely. Glitch has built a browser-based coding environment where users remix their own code and that of others. It supports multiple users on a single project, like Google Docs, and exists alongside a social network, so users can fiddle with each others’ code and find community at the same time. Every project in Glitch features Rewind, a timeline slider for developers to quickly snap back to a previous version of whatever they’re building in order to try something else. 

These improvements on traditional coding tools have been well-received by a new generation of web makers; the Glitch community has built over 3 million full-stack web apps, and nearly all are open source and remixable. 

“You can view source on all the apps — and full stack. You can even view the server code. It feels like a bit of the promise of the web that got so many of us excited in the beginning.”

This enthusiasm for the “promise of the early web” is immediately apparent when visiting Glitch’s website, where colorful, hand-drawn visuals — including puppies and smiley faces — greet you. Glitch strikes the visitor as a friendly, inclusive place and a fun learning environment — the opposite of what many fear when they think about coding (intimidating, cold, solitary, arcane).

This aesthetic approach echoes Anil’s yearning for a bygone web where you could find out who made what and actually talk to the creators of the things you loved — the community was that small and intimately connected. It was a world where coders imbued every pixel of their sites and apps with their unique personalities. As Anil sees it, much of that homespun quality has been lost, and has been replaced by a digital dystopia where most of the web is made by faceless, unaccountable corporations and platforms that have ushered in a degradation of discourse and community.

I think a lot of us had lamented the web we make. That we have apps on our phones, and what I always experienced with the apps on my phone. Everybody complains about [how] the algorithms aren’t fair, and there’s all kinds of awful content being shared, and misinformation and these things. What I miss most is, I look at my phone and I look at the apps and I don’t know who made any of them. 

Anil’s crisis of faith

In the late ‘00s, Anil had been building blogging tools for over seven years. He began to feel that his employer at the time wasn’t driven by a love of its products, and he was no longer proud of the work. More broadly, he’d become disillusioned by the wider trends in tech. The spark of do-it-yourself creativity that had originally inspired him to build the web was fading. Online self-expression seemed to be migrating toward a few giant companies, which were not animated by the same norms that guided his cohort of bloggers. Self-expression had become simpler, but in exchange, users surrendered their data, found themselves in highly templatized environments, and lost ownership over their digital identities. 

“This is not good for me personally, but something is wrong here,” Anil thought at the time. “Something is really wrong.” 

Anil pondered how he might help stem this tide and shift the culture toward his indie ideals. He tried tackling the problem through governance and worked with the Obama administration, but found that even with the best intentions, government moves slowly and is vulnerable to corruption. He also tried changing hearts and minds through broadcasting his opinions widely, first on his popular blog and then in a column at Wired. But the tech leaders and investors he tried to reach often dismissed his criticisms as the whining of a jealous outsider. 

“Ultimately the theory of change I arrived at was you only change the tech industry by being a founder and by having a hit,” says Anil. “There is nothing else you can do. Anybody else will get dismissed.” 

To be the change he wanted to see in the world, Anil joined Glitch. 

A foundation of respect

In addition to technical innovation and a commitment to a warmer, friendlier aesthetic, Glitch stands apart with its clear-eyed moral vision. In an industry that doesn’t always excel at making everyone feel welcome, Glitch proactively works toward a more diverse and respectful tech culture, with a handbook that features workplace inclusion tips, allyship best practices, and commitments to reasonable work hours. Salaries are internally transparent; everyone knows how much their coworkers make. Everyone has access to the company’s financial data. Employees can qualify for paid climate leave if they live in an area that’s been affected by extreme weather events like forest fires or floods. 

“We have people in different places,” says Anil. “And we build policies that work for all of them. And that rigor, that perspective, I think it makes us run better. It makes us much more disciplined. It makes us have to be intentional about communication.” 

Many of these principles date back to the company’s early days. “The fundament is respect for the people on our team,” says Anil. “Joel Spolsky, as our founder and our chair, said from day one, ‘We treat our people well and we give them a great working environment.’ And it is a very deeply held view of his.”

Anil says these principles have helped the company attract talent: people respond to the company’s principles and recognize that these processes are going to help them feel included and secure in their roles. 

No second-class workers

The values established by Glitch’s co-founder led to the company’s embrace of distributed work. Joel Spolsky believed that every coder should have a private office with a door that closes in order to facilitate deep work. But in the expensive real estate market of downtown Manhattan, the company eventually outgrew its space. Rather than move to a bigger headquarters, they decided to open their company up to people living elsewhere. 

Glitch requires remote workers to work from a dedicated office space with a door that closes, just like the engineers at HQ. In exchange for that investment in workspace, the company provides a standing desk, a comfy office chair, a speedy internet connection, and a monthly stipend for office supplies. The goal is to replicate the same work conditions across the organization, regardless of whether a person works from home or from the main office in New York. 

The company has found other ways to synthesize the experience of remote workers with that of in-office staff. Everyone at the company, including leadership, dials into meetings from their desks. This way, remote workers enjoy the same access and visibility as their co-located counterparts. This practice helps them avoid a scenario that Anil begrudged at previous companies. 

I had had this [experience] in many other companies that I’d worked for or worked with… the scenario where if I was remote, everybody in HQ was all around one table, in one room together, and then I was on the other end on some weird conference phone, like one of those Polycom phones, and they forgot I was there and they couldn’t see me. Or the weird creepy thing [where] your video shows up when you talk, so every time you talk you know you’re on some giant 10-foot screen with everybody staring at all the pores on your face.

Instead, everyone uses the same setup — a quick internet connection, the same camera, and the same headset. 

To help reinforce the equal treatment of remote and co-located employees, the company discourages employees at HQ from holding hallway conversations about work. They don’t want offsite workers to feel like they are missing out on important information. Anil argues that this practice is more easily accepted than outsiders might think. 

People like to put it away. We have really good boundaries. And also, they feel a real out-loud sense of “I’m not going to have this conversation without her here, without him here, without that person who is in charge of that.” Because we have people who are leaders in the company that are remote, so you couldn’t have a full conversation. Half the company is not there. So you couldn’t have the conversation without them. 

Employees opt to table work-related matters until they can address them in a forum where all stakeholders can participate. Co-located team members try to eat lunch as a group every day, and there, too, work-related chatter is set aside. 

We as a company have always done lunch together every day in HQ. So everyone in New York. Really, meetings stop, calls stop, whatever is going on. Everybody sits down, actually company-wide, because it tends to happen in other locations as well, but really in HQ we provide lunch every day and everybody sits down and has lunch together. 

Anil believes these practices reinforce the company’s egalitarian ideals — everyone with equal access, approaching work on equal footing. 

Those things are superpowers. They make our work better, faster, more efficient, more reliable, more trustworthy, because we have that discipline. And we honestly, I think we would be lazy if we were not distributed, if we were not rigorous around how we communicate, and in ways that would hurt our long-term opportunity. 

Anil has attempted to strip away some of the inherited norms that might create barriers to folks with different backgrounds and identities. For example, they’ve done away with the interview practice of forcing applicants to show their knowledge through rote memorization — writing out algorithms on a whiteboard. Anil compares this to a hazing ritual, and one that didn’t accurately measure an applicant’s actual coding ability in the first place. 

I felt very personal about that because one, I care a lot about inclusion in the industry, and anything that’s a barrier is really dangerous. And then for me personally, I had worked as a coder for years and yet I knew I couldn’t pass that test. So what did it say about the utility of that test? Clearly it was testing something else, you know, to be standing at that white board and be put on the spot that way.

Anil describes this shift as the beginning of a general trend to challenge the industry’s assumptions about the way a tech company should function. Glitch’s leadership concluded that some of these were received wisdom that no longer yielded positive outcomes (if it ever did). They decided to do away with these practices and create new ones in order to attract, respect, and magnify the voices of all kinds of people.

Introducing new workers to a new way to work

New employees immerse themselves in the company’s culture during a three-to-four-month onboarding program, some of which takes place at the company’s Manhattan headquarters. Anil describes first-week logistics as “school,” where newbies get a company laptop, connect to Slack, and join their teams. They usually observe an all-hands meeting — a good opportunity to witness the way the company does things. After an update on the company’s financials, employees exchanges “bravos,” where people give their colleagues shoutouts for the work they’ve done above and beyond the call of duty. 

They get to see — a new employee on their first day — how we share gratitude to one another within the company, and they get to see a meeting where everybody is dialed in, in the same way, whether they’re remote or not. And they get to see us model the behaviors of what we are in the first day, and then they spend some time getting two-factor all set up and all that other annoying stuff.

Employees learn how the business runs, and get an introduction to company’s mission, history, and roadmap. Anil meets personally with new employees so they can ask questions and voice concerns. Sometimes they’ll fly in a new employee’s team lead for a week so the two can build a strong relationship out of the gate.

The onboarding process is as much about reinforcing a sense of comfort and security in the employee as much as it’s an opportunity to soak up institutional knowledge. Anil helps his team members avoid feeling like they’re in junior high, wondering where they’re going to sit at lunch. 

We are very intentional about that, because we all eat lunch together every day, we’re like, “This is where you’re going to be, and everybody is going to sit with you, and you don’t get picked for a lunch table, everybody sits together.” That stuff is — nobody wants to talk about it, but even if we’re adults, even if we’re decades removed from those points, there’s still that lizard brain in the back of your mind — that is always there. So we do a lot to accommodate that. 

Anil hopes that the level of employee care that Glitch provides makes it easier for everyone, whether distributed or co-located, but especially those from communities who’ve been historically marginalized in tech, to enjoy their work and the structure of their working lives. 

Anil’s theory that tech culture change agents have to be founders is up for debate, but Glitch may affect change simply through leading by example. As the company continues to grow, it will turn heads, and other leaders might wonder if there might be a more respectful, humane way to run a company. If Glitch can do it, why can’t anyone?

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