Episode 27: Leading with Values: Sid Sijbrandij joins Matt Mullenweg to talk about GitLab, Transparency and Growing a Distributed Company

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“Every company has a poster on the wall,” says Matt Mullenweg in the latest episode of The Distributed Podcast. Matt welcomes Sid Sijbrandij, Co-founder and CEO of GitLab, another pioneering company with Open Source origins and a long-running commitment to a completely distributed workforce.  Sid and Matt settle into a conversation about GitLab’s six values – which have been cut down from the original 13, and which are always visible in Sid’s video background – are reinforced in 20 ways at the fully-distributed company.  GitLab, now with more than 1,300 employees, updated its values over 300 times in the last calendar year. 

“They have to be reinforced,” says Sid, “and be alive in that way.”

And as for sharing just about everything publicly? “Transparency is sunlight.”

The values are part of the publicly-viewable GitLab Handbook that, with over 10,000 pages, details data both interesting and “mundane,” from compensation to how employees should interact with Hacker News. An example: “I think what’s really interesting is our engineering metrics. We pay very close to what we call the MR rate: how many merge requests did an engineer make over a month; how many did a team make over a month?” Sid shares.  “If you push on that, people start making the changes that they make smaller to kind of increase that rate.  The whole process becomes more efficient.”

Sid and Matt – an observer on GitLab’s board – get into the details: taking time off, leadership development programs, scheduling coffee chats that actually work, and much more. And they revisit predictions Sid made on Twitter in May, 2020, about the post-Pandemic future of distributed work.  Check out the full episode above, or on your favorite podcasting platform.

The full episode transcript is below.


MATT MULLENWEG: Howdy everybody and welcome to the Distributed Podcast. I am your host, Matt Mullenweg. Today’s guest is a like-minded leader of a software company that is driven by its values, supports open source and happens to be distributed too. Sid Sijbrandij is the Co-Founder and CEO of GitLab, a fast-growing company and a single application for the entire DevOps (life?) cycle. 

GitLab has been distributed basically from the beginning. But last May, two months into the pandemic, Sid made some predictions that we will talk about today. Even more so, Sid very often talks about the values that  drive GitLab and how they experience each day as a growing company, a really rapidly growing company, actually. 

So it’s rare to get to talk to someone who has been such an advocate for distributed teams as long. And also as full disclosure, I am a board observer of GitLab, so I have had an inside view to some of what y’all have been building and it has been amazing to have a seat at that table. So Sid, thank you so much for joining.

SID SIJBRANDIJ:  Yeah, you’re welcome. And thanks for being at that table at GitLab.

MATT:  Yeah. Talk to me. Let’s start off with just a little bit of the values that you hold as a company because I think every company has a poster on the wall –  and you have one on your distributed wall – but how does it actually come into play for y’all?

SID:  Yeah, I think you can tell how serious a company is about its values in two ways – how often they update the values, our values got updated over 300 times last calendar year.

MATT:  Wow.

SID:  So it is a living document. And then the other thing is how do they reinforce the values. We have now 20 ways to reinforce our values. So it’s not that that document doesn’t matter, it is are they really lived. And for them to be lived, they have to be alive themselves and they have to frequently be reinforced and be alive in that way.

MATT: I saw you could reinforce the values by complimenting people but you could also put a virtual background with one of the values on it as one of the 20 things?

SID: Yes. If you see my Zoom, I will always have six logos above me. And those represent our six values. And yeah, I like the complimenting as well. We have a thanks channel and in that thanks channel people thank each other and then people can comment and they frequently do that with emojis that represent our values and then we keep count of who was particularly good in expressing certain values throughout the year.

MATT:  Do you tie them into performance reviews? Like, do people talk about the values as part of performance reviews?

SID: With those emojis, that is linked to our annual event and we select the people who best represent a certain value and those emojis are used to create a short list and a group of people decides who best represented it. So it’s input. It’s not ideal but it gives a good way to make a short list. 

And then, yes, performance reviews, the values tie into that but also into hiring decisions.  And for example, I think the most important thing is promotion documents. Every promotion document at GitLab is shared with everyone in the company and its primary structure is the values. 

MATT:  To put you on the spot, can you name the six values?

SID:  Yes. We had 13 values before and even I couldn’t name them so that was a good reminder to rationalize. So our values spell the word credit. It’s the credit we give each other by assuming good intent. The first C stands for collaboration, the R stands for results, the E for efficiency, D for diversity, inclusion and belonging, the I stands for iteration and the T for transparency.

MATT:  I guess with D you kind of expanded it. It stands for multiple words, but that works.

SID:  Yeah, first it was D&I and now that we added belonging it.. I am open to changing the whole thing but I think having one letter per value is defensible. 

MATT:  Since you have a backronym or an acronym that spells things out does that make it harder to add values of certain letters or make it more incentivized, like certain letters to be added, like maybe it would be easy to add a value with an S but it would be hard to add a value that started with X. 

SID:  Yeah, Credits. Yeah. I guess there’s a certain amount of sunk cost there or inertia to overcome to change it. I think there hasn’t been a big push to add a value. We have had diversity changed to diversity and inclusion and now diversity, inclusion and belonging, that has been the major thing. Other than that, people talk about how do the values relate to each other and we have a lot of sub values. 

So for example, today I am having a call with Dara and Dara said, look, some of our sub values are more important than others. So the six values I mentioned are core values but then we have sub values that are kind of.. that relate to certain examples and that make it more concrete because otherwise it’s just words and they are very open to interpretation. The sub values makes them actionable. And Dara, her very good point was some of our sub values are more important and more actionable than others so maybe we should cull some of them or maybe we should elevate some of them.

MATT:  What were some of the values you got rid of or renamed? What were some of the seven that got cut out?

SID:  Yeah, I forgot about them so that’s good. But I think we found some overlap. The exercise we did is we wrote down all the values we had, we wrote down some that we thought we should have and started grouping them and we came to this. And actually it wasn’t a big exercise, it was me and my CEO coach who did that one afternoon in a couple of hours. And then I proposed it and it was clearly better and that’s how that happened.

MATT: This is probably a good time to introduce the GitLab handbook. So all of these values and the 20 ways you can put them into effect and everything like that is all  public on your website. 

SID: Yes. I think our handbook is now over 10,000 pages and it has all of our process and procedures, like how you work. And now just the boring ISO stuff but really what you would need to know if you join our company.

MATT:  What does ISO stand for?

SID:  Sorry, I’m from Europe and a lot of companies follow the ISO standards for documenting process. And that left a big impression on me because those ISO handbooks were not what really happened in those companies. There was the written ISO process which you could update once a year and the other was what people really did. 

So there was the paper handbook they haven’t touched in two months and there were the sticky notes on the computer how to really do things. And I was like, look, if you’re going to have something, it should be easy to change because how you work changes every day so it should be a living thing that people use every day and it gets updated every day.

MATT:  So let’s say I’m an employee at GitLab and I would like to update one of the values. Could I submit.. the entire handbook is in GitLab, I could submit a merge request? 

SID:  For sure.

MATT:  And what would happen?

SID: You don’t have to be an employee.  You don’t even have to be a board observer.  You can just.. anyone in the world can make a suggestion to improve them. And then if you think I should have a look at it, I suggest you at mention me on Twitter or send me a DM. But most of the time also people kind of check it out and escalate it within the company. We have a values Slack channel that will probably pay some attention to it.

MATT:  To give people a sense of the scale, its 10,000 pages but these are very, very distinct. So it has onboarding. Do you still have the org chart and everything on there? 

SID: Yeah for sure.

MATT:  Salary. And occasionally you will run into something that links to an internal google doc that you only have access to as a GitLab employee. But there is, yeah, what I can only describe as a radical transparency that the organization practices, that’s different than I have seen really anywhere else, even other companies that really practice a ton of open source thinking.

SID: Yes. And I think what has been cool, I gave a talk at YCombinator recently and there was a bit of what would GitLab do. So if you have a question (started?) the first thing is like try to see.. Google the question with GitLab and see if it is already in our handbook. And that is probably a decent starting point. And that is just because we kind of document a lot of mundane stuff. Like, I don’t know, I’m not sure we documented trademark registrations but it would totally be something we document. So because we document so many mundane sales, marketing, engineering for processes, it’s a good starting off point if you have to make something yourself.

MATT:  You know, there’s often CEO backchannels where you’ll ping another CEO and be like, so how does this work at your company or what do you do for this? And I would say that you are the one I ping. And 99.9 percent of the time it’s a link to your public handbook. I mean you don’t say Matt, let me Google that for you but [laughs] I’ve started just.. I’m probably pinging you a little less because just everything is on the website. I’m like, oh, how does GitLab do sales on boarding? I know you brought your time to productivity down quite a bit and your time to hire, some things you’ve been improving. So that’s all there, including what you’re trying to improve.

SID:  Yes. And Matt, rest assured that every time I send the link I’m just very, very proud that we have written it down. It’s not dinging anybody for not looking it up. It is very counterintuitive that that is out there and that it’s big. So it’s not.. Google really helps but it’s not always easy to find something.

MATT:  What is something that listeners might find surprising that you have public on the handbook?

SID:  I think our compensation ranges. Its maybe not as surprising anymore but it is always something people care a lot about. I think all the mundane stuff, like how we interact with hacker news, like people in the team should probably not post GitLab articles to that, we don’t want to be perceived as astroturfing, disclose who you are. I think there’s just a whole lot of mundane things. 

I think what is really interesting is our engineering metrics. So in engineering we pay very close attention to what we call the MR rate, how many merge requests did an engineer make over a month or did the team make over a month correlated to the team’s size. We found if you push on that people start making the changes that they make smaller to increase that rate, which is great because then it becomes easier to write, easier to test, easier to review and the whole process becomes more efficient. 

MATT:  That is interesting because developer productivity is notoriously hard to track and measure. What is the rate that you aim, an engineer at GitLab might aim for?

SID:  Yes, so we are around 8.8 right now. 

MATT:  Merge requests per month?

SID:  Yes.

MATT:  Oh, so that’s.. I had expected the number.. is that where you want to be or is that where you’re at?

SID:  We always want to be a little bit higher. So, like nine, ten-ish would be great but we are also in the middle of a global pandemic so we have not pushed very hard on it recently. So yeah it also differs a bit between teams and what they are assigned to. But I think it’s a great rate. And I think the awesome thing is it only counts if you actually got it all the way to the end user, people started using your code. And I think that helps to keep things small and to reinforce one of our top three values – iteration.

MATT:  How fast does GitLab iterate?

SID:  So I think it is very important to quickly get things out to users but I think in the end it is like how productive is an individual. So I think that 8.8 captures our productivity. 

MATT:  8.8?

SID:  8.8. Sorry. 8.8 merge requests per month.

MATT:  Oh, yeah, yeah. But to that question, you ship major new releases is it once a month and have for like a bajillion months?

SID:  Yes. We now.. I think we get code into production after it’s merged within 12 hours, so released on GigLab.com and it’s a continuous process. We just bundle it up per month because we have a lot of self-managed users, they kind of need a version number to make it digestible and a blog post to make it digestible but it’s really a continuous release. And every month we have over 50 substantial things that we ship, at least substantial enough to mention in the release post. So I think we are extremely productive considering the whole company is about 1200 people and engineering on features is about 500 people. 

MATT:  You mentioned maybe working with ISO in the past. Was there anything earlier in your experience or life, personal or work, that drove you to create a company which was so ruthlessly documented and relentlessly documented and process driven but in a really, really positive and enabling way?

SID:  Yes. I think a lot of GitLab values can be explained by my scar tissue. And I did a lot of things. I built recreational submarines, I was a part-time civil servant, I worked at Proctor & Gamble and IBM. I thought it was so inefficient. 

If you have to ask somebody else, like, how is this done.. It’s not just inefficient for the people on-boarding but I think it is most inefficient when you have to change something. If you want to change something what you had to do is you had to build up all that context for this is what I’m talking about and then say okay, and this part we are going to change and then present that to the whole company. And then a person onboarding a month later would now have that presentation.

So, like, how does that work? It kind of works but it’s really silly. And I think one of the biggest benefits of having a handbook is that you can change something and it’s.. You don’t have to build up all the context because the context exists in all the links from the documents so everyone understands what you are talking about. And it is relatively easy to change, it’s easy to make the suggestion, anybody can do it, it is easy to discuss that suggestion. And then when that is merged, when that is pulled in, it’s clear to everyone from then on that that is effective. 

MATT:  By the way, this has been very influential on me as well in that I have been asking a lot, actually for a few years now, like, why can’t we make more of our stuff public?  And the answer is generally just that it takes time. There’s not a real reason that anything in our internal field guide needs to be private, most of it. And so that makes me think that if you do this from the beginning it is just so much easier. So I would encourage anyone listening that is curious about this, just start publishing things as soon as possible. 

What would you say to people who think it’s scary or we have things that are proprietary to our company or if our competitors know what we’re going to do they’re going to be able to out-maneuver us?

SID:  I think there is a page at the bottom of our strategy page from Peter Drucker, strategy is a commodity, execution is an art. I think the really great companies, they have a super obvious strategy, they just do it better than anybody else. I think if you depend on your strategy being a secret it’s first of all very hard. Some of your people are going to quit and then talk to the competition, so it is very hard to keep it secret.

I think it is actually very hard for everyone in your organization to know your strategy. Most companies I have been with, like, people didn’t even understand the strategy, the people who worked there. So I think in general optimize for more people knowing your strategy, not fewer people knowing it. And we have found that having our roadmaps public and things like that has been a bit benefit. It has been such a big benefit that we might have inspired our competitors who are also now publishing their roadmaps. 

MATT:  And you are in a highly, highly competitive space.

SID:  Yes. And I think a lot of the things you do are not differentiated. No one is going to buy from GitLab because our accounts reconciliation process. Like, people don’t care. But it should be efficient and the best we can do but it’s not like we lose our ability to compete if our competitor implements the same process. In general, people have a super hard time embracing even just best practices, let alone their competitors’ practices. 

And I think you lose a lot and you win a lot, I think. Transparency (and sunlight?) makes you do better work. You get a bigger.. an easier ability to change. And yeah, there is a bit of hesitation that is from being afraid. I think that doesn’t make sense. I think what does make sense is that it is more work. When you want to make a change, changing it in the right context takes more work than firing off an email. 

So I think while the change is more work, it is more durable. So over time you can start reaping the benefits but it’s a.. Short term it is more work and then it pays off over the long term.

MATT:  And that is because, and this is my understanding, that the change isn’t actually.. it isn’t real until it’s in the handbook, right? 

SID:  Yes.

MATT:  So we can’t say we’re going to do this for a month and then we will put it in the handbook later?

SID:  Oh no. That doesn’t work. So we are very adamant about handbook first. The only way you can communicate a change is when it’s done in the handbook. And then commonly you just refer to the (dif?), like this is what changed, you link directly to it. What we cannot have is someone emailing, presenting, talking about a change that is not in the handbook. 

Because if you instill in the company oh you can document it later, it’s not going to happen. Like, people have jobs to do, they will move on. So it has been one of the hardest things to enforce in the company, to work handbook first, but it prevents what happens at 99 percent of the companies where the knowledge base is very big but most of it, a lot of it, is out of date.

MATT:  What is maybe underappreciated about this approach as well is that due to the fact that everything is in version control you have essentially an organizational block chain of every way the company has run and every change and who made that change and when it happened going back to when the handbook started, which.. was it at the very beginning of GitLab or a little later in its life?

SID:  Yeah, no from 2015, so from when we were ten people. So I think someday hopefully if we continue growing, some organizational research is going to have a field day. Because I think we are the best documented instance of a really steep growth trajectory for a startup and how your processes changed and what’s important. And it’s all kind of.. it’s to the letter dated and everything else. You could see all the comments.  I think that’s gonna be an amazing research if you’re into organizational research.

MATT:  It is the code that runs the organization, which I think, like you said, super fascinating, I hope it gets studied. Is – 

SID:  Yes, we both have a software engineering background and I think we just moved onto a higher level language, namely English. 

MATT:  [laughs] It’s less deterministic for sure, I don’t know.

SID:  Yes and it’s hard to trouble shoot and there’s no tests for it and there’s no indentations.. Well, the indentation standards are pretty okay but it’s much  harder but it’s much more powerful.

MATT:  To give a sense for the listeners who might not be familiar with GitLab, you mentioned ten people in 2015. What are some of the growth milestones since then, in terms of people?  And I think some valuation has even been public in the press. 

SID:  Yes. So I think our craziest year was 2019 where we tripled from 800 to 1000, or something. We are now 1300 people. And the last  public metric we share was a valuation of $6 billion. 

MATT:  That is pretty incredible because I think that.. You know, one of the criticisms, I don’t know if you heard this much in the early days of GitLab, but that distributed or remote companies or open source companies can be nice lifestyle businesses or some of these approaches work if you’re like base camp and only 50 or 60 people but it doesn’t turn into hyper scale or blitz scaling, as Reid Hoffman might say. But you did that. You went from 300 to 900 or 1000 in a 12-month-ish period. What broke that year? 

SID:  Actually not a lot. It was kind of hard to do recruiting at such a scale. I think we relied a lot on in-bound. So we got 15,000 applications every month and I think now that we grow a bit less fast we are better able to reach out to people who will add diversity to the company. And any time you grow faster, that’s tougher. 

I think I have to thank you because WordPress was the number one example to convince investors that we’d be able to scale fast a distributed company, an all-remote company. So thank you for giving that example. I don’t think we could have convinced them otherwise. 

MATT:  I appreciate it.

SID:  And now looking back on it I’m like how can you scale when you don’t’ have a handbook, when you have not documented things? Like, that is ridiculous. If two-thirds of the people at the end of the year are new, how do you do that? So I think having all these practices has enabled us to scale. And I think in general, all remote, you don’t have to do special things for it, you just have to do things that would be good for any company and you are forced to do them sooner.

MATT:  There are stories I hear from friends that have hyper scaled around like they can’t find enough desks in the office and so they’re squeezing people into the same desk and things, which is such a quaint concept if everyone has their own office because they work wherever they’re coming from. So I wonder what might be a.. 

I  have heard kids now don’t know what the disk icon, it represents a floppy disk so when they see a floppy disk they’re like oh, cool, you 3D printed a save icon. It’s totally lost the original metaphor. So I wonder if there’s other metaphors around work that have completely changed maybe permanently even now with the pandemic.

SID:  Yes, it seems that most companies are going back to the office but I think.. I don’t know, I look back on cubicles as super outdated and I think one day we’ll look back on the open plan offices as something super outdated. Like, how could you be productive there?

MATT:  How does your values impact your meetings?

SID:  Transparency impacted that most meetings.. Like, my calendar.. Most meetings are shared with the rest of the company. In advance you, because of efficiency, you link a Google doc with the agenda and then the notes are taken in line and most documents are open to the entire company. [crosstalk] [00:26:33.16]

MATT:  So while we’re meeting someone will be taking notes on the shared Google doc so people will have both up on the screen?

SID:  Yes, multiple people will be taking notes. And if you ask questions you also commonly put them in written before and then you get to verbalize them.

MATT:  Are there any external meetings? Like, let’s say the board that you also run in a similar manner?

SID:  Yes. We are blessed with board members who have an open mind and I’m learning a lot about how to run better board meetings with their feedback. What they have embraced is running it from a document and that’s been super successful. They actually start putting in questions like days before and we already start answering them. So when the board meeting actually comes around a lot of things are like well that’s already answers, we can skip that. And like any board meeting, we can fill the time but it’s just they have much more opportunity to get their questions answered.

MATT:  It also requires a lot of pre-work. Do you want to talk about what you expect people to do before a meeting and for board meetings and I imagine internal meetings as well?

SID:  Yes. Board meetings are quite special. They require more work than any other meeting. Of course you can Google GitLab board meetings but I’ll do some of the highlights. I think one thing that we do throughout all meetings is no presentations in the meeting. It has been one of the toughest things to enforce. People really like a captive audience. 

So before the board meeting I will send out a video with my overview, our go to market leaders from Sales and Marketing will send out a video where they review that. My notes kind of sound like an earnings call because we kind of.. we aspire one day to be a public company. So those videos are sent up front plus a deck  plus a doc for them to ask their questions.

MATT:  Do you have a sense for the scale for like how many slides, how long the documents, etcetera?

SID:  I think our worst has been 140 slides, which is not good, so I think now we’re back to like 60 slides or something like that. And I think what is essential is like how do you allocate the time in the  meeting. So we have three key questions or key discussion points that we state up front, this is what we like to talk about as a company. 

So as a company we are going, we are thinking about this new product offering, give us feedback about the pricing, about the implementation, about the roll out, what do you foresee. As a company we are struggling with X, Y, Z, do you know people who  might be able to help, what do you think about our current approach. I think board members should want to help, they give you advice, if you don’t indicate what you need help on, they will start helping you on stuff you don’t need help with, which can be a big distraction so channel all that energy into something that they can help with because they will do a great job.

And we spend most of the time on that. And then there is  Q&A, in which they can ask about anything. But that has been a really big improvement. And I think that should be true for every meeting in general. In our internal meetings my policy is I want to discuss a proposal, I do not want to do brainstorming or something like that. Have a proposal and we can review it, that is a much more better spend of all of our time.

MATT:  So if everyone asks the questions before and reads everything and watching everything before and you answer them before, you don’t run out of stuff to do in the meeting?

SID:  No, you don’t because people build on each other. And even if you might’ve like tried to answer the question many times you still verbalize the question. So I mentioned an example of something that.. where people would say oh its already answered, we can skip it. That tends to be about trivial stuff. It’s important that we don’t skip, like, hey you asked this question and even though it’s already answered – 

MATT:  So they present the question?

SID:  Yes, they present the question. And frequently you learn more. They will say it in a certain way, they will have more intonation, they will have enthusiasm or worry or be pensive or other things and they’ll tend to say more, like it’s easier speaking than writing so they tend to elaborate it a bit more. And then we call it reenactment. We reenact the question and answer so that the answer.. they answer people too, they reenact their answer. And then hearing all of that in the rest of the room, now suddenly, now that they have heard that, they have something to add as well. So no, we don’t run out of stuff. 

MATT:  It makes sense for why the sort of reenactment of the question and answer might give additional information that is not on the page. But couldn’t you make that same argument for the entire presentation?

SID:  Yes. And so I think it is really good to, if you want to present, to do that. Just record it and send it to everyone upfront asynchronous and don’t want for the super expensive, synchronous time to do it. 

MATT: So it’s maybe about the amount of time?

SID:  I think meetings are for back and forth.

MATT:  Because interrupting a presentation could be good, right? Like we are having a real time conversation so we can jump in, like I just did?

SID:  Yes. I think that’s the benefit of this, right? We can go back and forth. I think interruptions are great because if I say too much or too little it’s easy to give me feedback in the moment. I think most presentations, especially remote, there’s not enough interruptions, interruptions are awkward. We just (did delay?) because it’s kind of hard to hear someone breathing in to ask a question. Maybe you can look at who is un-muting their mic but it’s much harder. So we find that in general there’s not a lot of interruptions so  you might as well just do your presentation and then have people ask questions during the meeting. 

MATT:  A hybrid meeting makes that especially hard. I remember when I first joined I was.. I thought everyone was going to be remote. Everyone else was in the room. I think I was the only one remote and it was very, very difficult to both hear and jump in.

SID: Yes, hybrid is horrible and I’m very glad that our board meetings are now all remote.

MATT:  I remember we also talked about sending people some microphones and some other things because there was some varying audio quality.

SID:  Yes, we did that. Thanks for the suggestion. A lot of board members received that Sennheiser microphone you suggested.

MATT:  It’s like the cheapest way to make a meeting better, if you’re going to have a couple hours together. The collective value at that time is huge, particularly because you have so much of the team there, like, might as well spend a couple hundred bucks to make it sound better. 

SID:  Yeah it’s a $100,000 meeting, you better make the most of it. I send a lot of people I meet with, I send them cameras and microphones kind of as a thank you for meeting or just to help them out. 

MATT:  To go back to transparency as a value, like, you have started broadcasting many meetings, not the board meeting but lots of others?

SID:  Yes. So by default we put our meetings on GitLab unfiltered on YouTube. So  most meetings can probably be public and we just live stream them from Zoom to YouTube.

MATT:  The only other organization (that has a way of?) doing this is probably Mathematica, the Wolfram [00:34:40.16] stuff, (Steven?) Wolfram. But what is that like? I have watched some of these or I have tuned in to some that are happening live because YouTube will ping me. 

SID:  Well you have trouble sleeping because most of these meetings are very boring so I assume you watched them because you had trouble falling asleep.

MATT:  Yeah ya know, I find it kind of fascinating because I’m an organizational voyeur. I am very fascinated on how different companies work and how they solve  problems. And also I feel like as a duty, as someone trying to contribute to GitLab, to get to know the organization as well as possible. But also,  YouTube pings me about it because you’re one of the only channels I follow that does live broadcasts basically all the time.  Who watches these besides GitLab employees and has anything interesting ever come out of that?

SID:  I think it has been great in finding and convincing potential team members. So I think like what you always want to know is like what is that company like on the inside. You go talk to people, you go have lunch with someone who works there and they say stuff but there is nothing like being in the meeting, that boring meeting that no one cares about on Thursday at 3PM about some boring subject where everyone is kind of bored. 

Like, that’s what a company is really like. So I think it’s amazing for potential team members. People watch that and like, okay, this is a boring meeting but it’s a better boring meeting than at my old company because like they’re efficient about stuff, they are transparent with each other, they are really goal oriented. They try to make.. try to come to actions and to agreements, it’s well documented, people screen share, people try to contribute, people are positive, people assume good intent.. this is better boring than the company I’m at now. And then they apply for a job. 

MATT:  So all of your culture around meetings doesn’t make them more exciting?

SID:  No.  No. I don’t think they get more exciting, I think they get more effective. 

MATT:  This approach to meeting culture sounds very efficient. But how do people get to know each other better?

SID:  Yes, you have to organize that too. So I think one of our biggest lessons is to be intentional around informal communication. There’s a web page we have with 20 ways to kind of stimulate informal communication. And most of it is like have a meeting but have it explicitly not be about work. And that is tough and the concept doesn’t always translate well. 

I just had a meeting with a country manager of ours, an international country manager, and like we tried to signal to him hey, this is going to be a coffee chat, it’s going to be a social call, this is.. here’s how coffee chats work. And still like, I can’t imagine out of the blue you’re going to talk with the CEO, you have some backup slides about the business. And he did that, he had the slides ready but he was like, oh, this is a different meeting than I expected. 

It’s a coffee chat, so it’s informal and can be a bit about work or a bit about our private life. I wanted to kind of set the tone, this was just getting to know each other better and get a feel for how he was experiencing his work and our support for what he was doing. And that’s one example, we’ve got a ton. 

But I think what is most important is that you make it okay to do that because it feels really weird, it feels like somehow when you’re on Zoom it feels like you should be working and then people are not always working but they’re always not working when they are not on Zoom. And you have to make it okay, like, hey, two of us are in a call and we are not working and that is okay and we can just hang out together. 

So that water cooler chat, organizing that, that has been hard. I think we’re the most effective at it, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect and we do try to augment it with in-person meetings where that’s a lot easier to do.

MATT:  Yes. So if I were to try to be more social in a more goal driven meeting would that get shut down or do you have some space for people to goof off a little?

SID:  Yes, I think it’s appreciated when the meeting hasn’t started yet. So people at GitLab tend to come early to meetings. So in the first few minutes you joke around a bit. I had an interaction like that today in a meeting where I joined a few minutes early and we had some banter but then we tend to start on the dot, so on the top or the bottom of the hour.

MATT:  Literally on the dot almost to the second, correct?

SID:  Yes.

MATT: Tell me about your personal thoughts on timeliness. Does this translate into your personal life as well as professional and how have you gotten the whole culture – because you have people from dozens of countries – to make this important?

SID:  Yes, I think we set the standard, like, hey you start on time, you don’t wait for people to arrive. So if you say in a meeting we have quorum or everyone is here and so we start, I will remind you, no, we’re starting because it’s time. And everyone is here because we start on time and we don’t wait for them. And then also very important, you end on time. 

And we do speeding meetings at GitLab, which is a settings in Google Calendar that means 25 or 50  minutes, not 30 or 60. So you have some time in between the meetings to do whatever you want to do.

MATT: And for you, how important are meetings to how you do work? Like,  how much of your week is meetings?

SID:  Most of my week is meetings. I think if you radiate a lot of information it’s a very efficient way to work. For me also, it’s.. because its interactive, it’s easy to ask for a little more or a little less information and to speed things up. So I think there’s a bit of a burden on the other side but I’m.. because I tend to be on the busy side I optimize for my own time. And I think also as the company progressed, I get more and more interrupt driven where I just have to respond to things so I set up the mechanisms that force me to.. that send out pings where I just have to respond to it.

MATT: In terms of other unusual things, that probably hits transparency as well. You have a shadow program. Could you talk a little bit about that? And is it just for you or is it also other roles in the company?

SID:  Yes, it’s called a CEO Shadow Program and it’s two people who go to most of my  meetings. And the idea is we are a functional organization, as a CEO I’m the level at which all those parts come together. So it is an opportunity for them to look across, see more than just their own function and see all those other functions. 

So its two weeks, it’s an opportunity to learn and get a broad perspective. They also have to work. They take a lot of notes during meetings and they sometimes get assigned small changes to the handbook that come up during the meeting. I think it’s a great opportunity. Look at the bottom of the CEO Shadow page, you’ll find videos from alumni and how they experienced the program. And hopefully it is a way to create that next level of leadership at GitLab.

MATT:  How has it evolved over time? It used to be one person, now it’s two?

SID:  It used to be three weeks. So I was inspired.. First of all, it was trigged by when I was recruiting for a chief of staff and they said well it’s great because for the chief of staff you have one person a year that kind of.. you graduate one person a year that knows the entire organization. And I was like, wow, that’s not fast enough. [laughter]  

So I’m like how about three weeks? See one, do one, teach one, which is kind of a medical thing. And then they were, well, the see one made a ton of sense, to learn from the old person, the teach one makes a ton of sense but to do one is kid of.. well, when you see one, you can do one. So we cut out the middle week also to make it more approachable for people who couldn’t be away from their family when it was still in person. 

Now luckily [00:43:44.13] like I have a lot of external meetings and those used to be in-person but I think that even after the pandemic a lot of those can keep happening online so we might keep the program remote to keep it more accessible from other places. 

MATT:  Yes, I recall when I was a board member you even were like hey can this shadow join this meeting. And for some of them it made sense and for some I think we were going to discuss something private and so I was like well maybe not this one. 

SID:  Yes, so they attend board meetings and things like that.

MATT:  How do people respond to it?

SID:   Well people never tell you the negative stuff so maybe some people are weirded out. But in general it gets a really positive reception and I think it drives home that we are a really transparent company.  You have to be pretty transparent and have a high bar for sharing.. or not a high bar but be comfortable with sharing things to even have such a program. So I think in the meeting with external parties they exemplify our values. 

MATT:  I think a common question people would have – oh well we could do that but what if something private comes up? So what do you do both for the shadows if something private comes up, or sensitive, and for these broadcast things?

SID:  You say bye shadows. And I say it a lot. I think I said it three times yesterday. But we tend to.. It happens mostly during one-on-ones where we have to discuss performance of one of the reports of the.. my reports. 

MATT: So your one-on-ones are really three-on-ones. 

SID:  Yeah, they’re one-on-ones but with two shadows in the room. But what we tend to do is we put it on the agenda, so there’s confidential subject, and then at the end we, depending on how many there are, we take five or ten minutes without the shadows.

MATT:  How about for any of these live broadcast meetings? Does ever anything come up that you need to take down later or you turn off the broadcast, maybe dealing with a specific customer issue or things you want to keep confidential?

SID:  Yes, that happens as well. So we just had our product key meeting, live streamed publicly to YouTube and there was a question about CI abuse and we don’t want to have the.. the people who abuse our CI, I mean it’s.. to have them be aware of how we are trying to counteract that. It’s kind of a cat and mouse game. So there was one question about that that gets placed at the bottom in between the.. I’ll take it offline now. So we say oh, there’s now.. There were I think eight public questions and now we took it off air and we have one private question. 

MATT:  You’ve been remote distributed almost since you started, right?

SID: Yes.

MATT:  How has the pandemic changed..  how are these ways of people connecting, how is it working? Would you say it’s 50 percent as good as when you used to do meetups or 80 percent?  And how did you think about.. let’s say pretend the world is fully healed and vaccinated and safe, what do you want to get back to in terms of in-person?

SID:  I think meeting with external organizations has gotten so much better, just that everyone can get on Zoom and like audio and video quality and internet quality is so much better.  And we really are looking forward to the world opening up again, obviously these people are vaccinated and safe and we won’t be suffering from this pandemic and people don’t have to fear for their loved ones and kids can go to school as they should be. 

But as a company we are looking forward to doing local meetups. We used to have, or we still have but it’s in active, a travel stipend where you can visit other team members. But most of all we have a yearly get-together and this year we are hoping to have that in the September time frame and I think we’ll be able to make it with more than half of the team. So super looking forward to that.

MATT:  Applause for that. We actually decided to not do the grand meetup this year, our equivalent of this annual get-together just because it’s still unrolling so differently across 80 countries that we are in. And you’re probably in a similar.. Actually how many countries are you in, do you know?

SID:  67

MATT:  67, yeah.

SID:  So it has been a topic of conversation. It is clear right now that not everyone will be able to make it, not everywhere there will be vaccines. The majority of our team members are in America and Europe. America is looking like a lot of people will be vaccinated and Europe is also looking like September will be.. there will be a lot of vaccinations. But it’s a daily topic of conversation and it’s not a clear-cut decision at all. 

We do think it’s super important for us to have the event. Past events have been really a boost in moral. So we’re going to keep monitoring it but for now it’s on.

MATT:  It’s kind of the beautiful paradox of distributed organizations is that being distributed most of the time is fantastic but then that makes getting in person that much more fun and that much more exciting.

SID:  Yes, it makes it more exciting and also I think it allows you to do something extra special. Like we do a week. We commonly go to a destination that’s interesting. So I think you are able make a little bit more of it.

MATT:  How do you try to incorporate customers into these?

SID:  Yeah, we did that. What tended to happen is that if they are at the actual event they are the.. team members are no longer there for themselves but for the customers, which makes sense, right? Customers are super important to us. But it didn’t really work. I think what might work is have the team event and then tag on a few days where there’s customers but don’t make that part of your team event. 

I think it was different for contributors, for contributors to GitLab, having them as part of the main event. That felt much more natural and that’s what we keep doing – the core team members commonly are invited.

MATT:  So at your company meetups you’ll have people attending who aren’t part of the company?

SID:  Yes. We also once had a journalist attending. I think that was tricker. 

MATT:  Hmm.  Yes, the one I remember going to, I think it was in New Orleans and it was interesting. There were customers there, there was all sorts of different folks. A lot of companies say customers first. And I believe you explicitly don’t so what is first at GitLab?

SID:  I think results first. So, whatever gets you to the results.

MATT:  I think I read friends and family.

SID:  Oh yes, friends and family first, yes, thank you. That was a lay-up and I totally missed it. 

MATT: No it’s no worries. I was just reading the handbook.

SID: And that’s not.. Look, I don’t think that there is an easy.. is it your contributors, is it your suppliers, is it your team members or is it your customers. I think picking between that is like who is your favorite child. It depends. I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer. 

MATT:  It depends on the day who your favorite child is.

SID:  No you’re not going to pick a favorite. And it depends on the question of what you’re going to do and it shouldn’t be based on favoritism. I think it’s not about customers versus team members, it’s about work versus your life outside of work and family and friends is a way to represent that. And there we have a clear opinion – family and friends come first and work comes second. 

And I think if you ask anybody in your friend group, like, what’s more important to you, work or family and friends? Everyone’s like, well, family and friends, obviously. And there’s a lot of companies which kind of pretend that work is the most important thing in your life and I never quite got that, that doesn’t make sense to me, I think it’s disingenuous and it forces everyone to pretend something. 

And I think by saying that explicitly it opens up the possibility for people to say hey when something important is happening with my family or my friends, I’m going to take time off work to pay attention to that or I’m going to move.. I’m not going to be in this meeting because.. And I think that flexibility is a great benefit to people. 

It doesn’t mean that at GitLab we don’t work hard or we don’t care about the result. I think on average we are very ambitious and put work.. work is really important to most people at GitLab. But yeah, we can just be.. We don’t have to pretend to like it more than our family and friends. 

MATT:  And have you been doing family and friend day, like days off for the whole company, essentially? And how did that start and how is it going?

SID:  Yes. During the pandemic we saw productivity inch up. We saw the (MI?) rate inch up, especially in the beginning. We’re like, what’s happening? It didn’t make sense. People had kids at school, were distracted.. But people were super bored so they just started filling that time with work. We were like, hey, this is probably not a sustainable thing and  we want to prevent burnout and we want to.. We don’t think this is the right thing. 

And to set as a company a direction, kind of indicate what we thought about it, we said hey, we’re going to take some Fridays and we’re going to treat them as holidays. So treat them as a holiday, everyone is off. You can tell people to take time off but if you are the only one taking time off then your inbox fills up with stuff that you have to take care of. It’s harder to do unless it’s.. it’s easier to do when it’s coordinated.

MATT: One of my favorite things about the GitLab handbook is that there’s also the FAQs. So often you will hear about a policy, like Google’s 20 percent time or something like that, and you’re like, okay, how does that work? And for you, you can actually look at the day for Family and Friends Day and it has the questions, like, well what if I need to work because I’m on call or something like that? And it’s like, well it’s very common sense. It’s like, talk to your manager, take the next business day if you can, all these sorts of things.

SID:  Yes.

MATT:  I’m glad that’s been going well. Do you do anything else on Fridays that’s different from other companies?

SID:  Oh yeah, no meeting Fridays. So we have now made that permanent. They were a big success. They were called Focus Fridays and we try to not schedule Zoom meetings. I think for a lot of people it’s nice to have uninterrupted time where you can work on something without having a meeting in between and Focus Fridays helps us to organize that.

MATT:  I know other people do this on Wednesday’s and things because they worry if they do it on Fridays everyone just, I don’t know, takes the day off or.. How did you end up with Friday?

SID: Yeah, I think it enables people to take the day off if they think that’s better.

MATT:  Cool. I know there’s some people who research organizational design and things like that. I really hope that more people study GitLab, one because you are open to it, literally they wouldn’t even need your permission, so much is open. But two, I think one of the challenges in even talking to relatively new GitLab-ers is that they internalize your culture so quickly that it becomes almost like water to a fish. They don’t realize it’s there. There’s really quite a bit that’s like very unique and unusual and arguably controversial at other companies in the way that you do things. 

SID:  Yeah, thanks for that. And we’re seeing that with the people who come back. So often people who leave GitLab they leave because there’s a lot more options now, right? The only way to work for an up and coming start up when they joined was  – in their area – was GitLab. And now there’s like a thousand options because everyone is hiring remote. 

So they make a move and then they are like wow, this company, they do work remote but they do it so much worse. And some of them bring the  GitLab practices to their new companies, so that is very cool, and some of them return to GitLab. I think, yes, especially for people for whom GitLab was their first remote job they assume that remote means the GitLab practices but it can be very different.

MATT:  Our name for that internally is boomerang.

SID:  Yes.

MATT:  People will go.. And actually I really appreciate it. It’s never great to lose a colleague you enjoy working with but many of folks who’ve returned have brought in some perspective and there is nothing that recreates actually working someplace else. They’ll say like okay this worked, this doesn’t, this is what I know about Automattic now that I’ve been outside of it for a few years and been successful someplace else. And so I really find that a valuable, valuable input. 

SID:  Yeah, me too. And I think.. we say you’re the CEO of your own career, so it makes total sense to interview externally even if you’re not looking. And a lot of GitLab people get approached by companies because those companies know that GitLab team members have a lot of great remote work practices. So great if they end up advancing their careers because they spent time at GitLab.

MATT:  We have started seeing the same thing, especially in 2021, where a bunch of companies are like, oh no, how do we do this distributed thing better? We’ve been doing it for a while and we want to get good at it.

You know, I’m curious, you mentioned in-person being warmer, building trust.. And I see how this kind of more scheduled, social or non-work time can work internally because you can kind of force people to do it and it feels weird but then once they do it I imagine it feels better, right?

SID:  Yes, exactly.

MATT:  It’s [00:58:23.20]. But for customers, I feel like there’s almost a prisoner’s dilemma where no one is meeting with the client in person now but in let’s say a few months some sales person, and you’re a very sales driven organization, is going to get on a plane from a competitor and if you lose a deal because of that then it’s going to start almost like the dominos falling of everyone feeling like they need to do that for the client to take it seriously or to build a deeper relationship. It’s not just signaling, it can be actually true deepness of understanding the customer problem. 

SID:  Yes, I totally agree. Those organized, informal communication is.. it has to be kind of sponsored by the company, like the company has to tell you about it, give the name, make it okay, help with scheduling and it is hard to do that with external parties. And so we still have an exception process now where sales people have to request meeting customers because of Covid but it’s certainly ramping up and I think that’s.. the in-person for external especially customer meetings is going to come back.

MATT:  What have you seen be effective for deepening relationships? Because you’ve grown a lot in the past year when you haven’t been meeting people. For deepening relationships and building that kind of sales-driven trust and understanding when you can’t get together in person.

SID:  Yes. I think that there has been a big shift in that customers are now much more okay with taking Zoom meetings. I think I have not seen kind of informal communication during the meeting. There’s no banter or stuff like that in the meeting. It’s interesting, yeah. I think we have not been able to do that. I think I have personally done a lot more gift-sending, which is like you figure out during a call something that might be relevant to the person and you send it because that’s a thing we can still do with Covid. Other than that I don’t have any great suggestions. 

MATT: Well good to keep in mind. I know you’ll share it when you do figure it out.

SID:  For sure, yeah. That’s a great question. 

MATT:  Explicitly remote is not a value even though you’re one of the most famous remote or distributed companies. Why not?

SID:  I think remote is a work practice that we have. I don’t think it should be a value. Making it a value feels like a cart before the horse. Values are deeper principles and I think it makes total sense if you are transparent and you want to be effective and you want to have a diverse organization to be remote, like it’s an outcome of that. I think making it a value feels strange.

MATT:  So it is derived from these deeper values. You’re like, well if you want to do this you can end up with distributed. But if there were a scenario where an office made sense for being more inclusive, more transparent, etcetera, you’d do that?

SID:  Yeah. I don’t know, one time I argued hey, should we have an office at a beach in Mexico for people to just hang out, like you can work but you can still hang out in a nice atmosphere. And then people pushed me on oh what’s the first iteration? Well, I have a house in Netherlands that I hardly use so people can just go there and see whether people like that. 

And then we did that and what didn’t end up happening was like I said hey, this week it’s co-working week at my place without me there, do people want to join? And people were like, well I’m not gonna go with other people. And I said okay well it’s no longer co-working week but you can just go to my place. And then that was amazingly popular. So to this day we have the CEO house where you can just.. as long as it’s available you can stay in my house for free. 

So that works but all getting together didn’t quite work. Maybe we should buy a small village of houses but that’s expensive. 

MATT:  Are you still looking at that? Is there going to be a GitLab village somewhere?

SID:  No. I have given up on that. Given up.. it’s not a priority. Maybe some of our team members hear this and are like a village of houses in Mexico? It sounds interesting. So we’ll see. 

MATT:  I have also fantasized about something like that because it would be really fun to see colleagues more in a fun setting. And I know some companies have tried it. It just gets a little tricky. 

One thing that I would say that distributed companies don’t develop a strong muscle for is facilities management and managing a physical space, especially a high volume one or especially one that people actually live in maybe with family and kids, etcetera, is a lot of overhead and you start to get into something more like running a hotel than changing dev ops works in the world or democratizing publishing. And so like it goes outside some core competencies. And at that point there’s lots of places you can pay to do that.

SID:  Yeah. I think if you go hey, you’re basically running a hotel, I totally agree, and that come with a lot of things, like you are responsible for making sure it’s a great environment and there’s not any HR violations and that there’s security people and things like that. So if you do a hotel you might as well bring the whole company together on the same week because it’s kind of nice to have a bigger group there. So you have a yearly event like we are having now instead of a much smaller group somewhere for a year.

MATT: What I tried to do a few years ago was take the grand meetup, which was the whole company, and split it up. Because I enjoyed the smaller ones when we were hundreds of people as opposed to more over 1,000. And Automattic is organized as almost essentially separate companies internally so I thought it would make sense to split it up. But people  pushed back so much that I kind of surrendered to that idea. I even announced on stage this is our last grand meetup. And we just kept doing it. Obviously it stopped last year, but.. 

It is amazing how much people enjoy getting together and how much value that week comes. It is also stressful as well. You’re not around people for a while, I imagine this will be especially acute on the first one. So it can be tiring to be surrounded by people constantly. 

But you can iterate your way into better versions of that too. Like, we often do kind of a quiet zone. So it’ll be a little area that’s marked off where you can go in here to just have no one talk to you. [laughs] So that’s kind of a I just want to reset and recharge zone. And hotels are actually really nice because then people each have their own room and they can go back and recharge and have their own private space, which gets tricker in shared houses or Air B&Bs or things that aren’t hotels essentially.

SID:  I totally agree. It can get very overwhelming. We make a ton of things optional and we are super lenient if people want to leave early or things like that. It can be overwhelming and it’s not for everyone. I do think that there’s something to like having most of the company in one location. And yeah, maybe someday that is – I don’t know – a stadium or something like that. And yeah it will be very different. Yeah, you don’t get to talk to everyone and it’s a different vibe but it’s.. it’s different but not necessarily worse.

MATT:  People still go to conferences that are thousands or tens of thousands of people and they get value out of it.

SID:  Yes.

MATT: It’s just different from meeting every single other person. Internally it comes up where people say I feel like part of the reason this team is having friction is because we haven’t had a meetup in a while. And I try to push back on that because there’s lots of reasons why someone couldn’t make a meetup and we want to make sure we develop the ability to have a team be super cohesive and aligned and everything regardless of whether they’re getting together in person or not. 

But I do personally miss it and I think there is a real desire to return to seeing people in person, which brings us a little bit to your Twitter thread. You wrote this last May. Do you want to recap or could you recap a little bit of these predictions you made in May of 2020, so about two months into the pandemic?

SID:  Oh wow. Is this the one that’s pinned on my Twitter profile?

MATT:  It is pinned, yes. 

SID:  And it starts with [01:07:22.09].

MATT:  It’s still pinned a  year later so I thought it would be interesting to return to it. 

SID:  A year later, well it’s the only successful thing I have ever done on Twitter with 1,000 retweets. So let’s see. I haven’t looked at it for a while. Yeah, no, I’ll.. the first point is remote work will be allowed at Twitter, Square, Facebook and Shopify. Great. And that’s.. many of them are going to continue. 

Many companies are learning that their workers are just as or even more productive working from home. And I think that is true as far as I’ve heard of other people but my sources might be a bit biased. But a lot of companies actually got more effective, like more work got done, it’s just that people said they were unhappy and I attribute that to not having enough informal communication. 

And I kind of acknowledge here that I thought it took all these practices to do remote work right and it turns out without [01:08:20.03] practices you could still do remote work and it still was better than in-office work. So co-located work was even less useful than I thought. 

I think this is important. Somehow the lesson that companies deduced from this isn’t that they should go all remote – but this works really well – but that they should go hybrid, combining remote and collocated work. I think that hybrid is much harder and less likely to be successful and I am still of that opinion. So that’s going to play out over the next couple of years. 

Also these companies are going hybrid for the wrong reasons. Social bond building, culture, creativity, white boarding and brainstorming needs to happen at the office. I totally disagree. You can do those things but you have to organize it just like you have to do facilities management. Like it doesn’t happen automatically. Put some effort into it. I have a list of 17 reasons why  Google Docs is better than white boarding. With the social bond building you gotta organize informal communication.

MATT:  It sounds like you agree with a lot of this still.

SID:  Yes. Where do you think it went sideways?

MATT:  Well there’s a few things there. Is some ways, we are hybrid organizations in that we, in non-pandemic times, tell people we’re going to get together for a few weeks out of the year, which technically is a hybrid. Right? It’s not fully you’re never going to see your employees.

SID: I think the hybrid I’m rallying against is not that sometimes you bring everyone together or you have local meet ups. The hybrid I’m rallying against is that some people are never remote and some people are never at the office. And I think that is going to create A teams and B teams where the people have an information and a visibility advantage.

MATT: Especially if things aren’t documented or transparent. Kind of like we described meetings earlier, a meeting where some people are in person and some people aren’t is kind of the worst type of meeting, no matter how good the conference room system is.

SID:  Exactly.

MATT: I think what people over weight is they look back at the office.. Well, one, they really want to see people again, just in general. They look at rose colored glasses of the best things that could possibly happen in an office versus what actually happens in an office 99 percent to the time. and I think they over weight office and underweight commute. 

And if you look at something that actually the meet-up version of hybrid does is we kind of amortize a really big commute, probably flying across the world a couple times of year and then you stay there at that place, versus the everyday driving 15 to 60 minutes each way to get to an office, or commuting, I think can be.. is actually the hardest thing on people. It’s more about the commute than actually the office environment. 

SID: Yes, I totally agree. I bet that most people commute longer than that they have super valuable informal communication at the office. Like how much water cooler talk are you going to do? For most people it’s less than an hour and their commute both ways is probably more than an hour. And it doesn’t mean like don’t do water cooler talk anymore and don’t do the commute, like, skip the commute and just organize  that water cooler talk. 

MATT:  And like you said, it can feel awkward at first but then gets better. Y’all use the donut. I think Automattic uses this too, a donut pairing bot, right?

SID:  Yes, ‘do not be strangers,’ a great plugin for Slack that for people who want to kind of introduces them to one new team member every week at random and you set up a call together. I think it’s a bit weird but you just send a calendar invite to someone for a coffee chat. And I think it really helps if the company names the concept –  this is a coffee chat, informal, you don’t have to prep anything – and then also introduces new team members to it. If you join GitLab you have to do 12 coffee chats.

MATT: Wow. There is also something to the.. like you do these as well. You lead by example in all this. 

SID:  Yes. I had a coffee chat yesterday. And I encourage people to schedule them. I think it’s really important to lead by example. Another big thing has been taking time off. I like my time off. I have an argument to do even more of it because I have to be a leader and then I try to be really visible and talk about it a lot. Vacation and time off is not something that you have to be ashamed of (or hide?), it should be a point of pride that you’re taking care of yourself. 

MATT: That’s something I need to get better at. I think pre-pandemic I was better at taking time off and talking about it and then post-pandemic I’ve been a lot worse.

SID:  Two weeks ago I took half the week off. I just took on from noon and went biking for a week. 

MATT: Oh cool. In some ways I love thinking about how the distributed intentional version of this can be even better than in-person. I have definitely seen and experienced where in-person social pairings can kind of by default fall into cliques and not even maliciously but folks who you maybe know better and are more comfortable with. But when you are randomly paired by a bot it breaks up all the cliques because everyone is being randomly paired with everyone else. 

SID:  Yes. And I think for example if you’re remote it’s easy to do a quiz about like guess whose team member does this or that. It’s kind of interesting. It gives you something to talk about. It’s like there’s a reason there’s pop quizzes. I think they are pretty easy to organize when you are remote and it’s easy to screen share and everyone is online anyway.

It’s also super fun to hang out in person. It’s not a.. we are not trying to find a substitute for that. We are trying to find a substitute for some of the informal communication. 

MATT:  People underweight screen sharing too. I find myself often screen sharing some Google photos or something like that, like you might take out your phone and show someone something. It’s a nice way to jump in and out of things.

SID:  I think if you look at like per-hour  how many times is this screen share button pressed, I bet that is a great indicator of how remote proficient an organization is. 

MATT:  Wow. That is probably a good place to end. Sid, where can people check out more about you and GitLab?

SID:  Yeah, if you type ‘GitLab about’ you’ll find a good starting point, or GitLab handbook if you want to dive into those 10,000 pages immediately. 

MATT:  What is your handle on Twitter?

SID:  @sytses

MATT:  And more than most interviews I would encourage listeners to really dive into these (resources?). It’s almost like a Wikipedia of GitLab, which also happens to be a Wikipedia for some of the best practices in the world for how to run a distributed organization, I truly believe that. And I find myself referring to it often. And thank  you for doing that. 

It didn’t start as the easy path. Maybe it’s easy now to keep doing it but when you started it was probably not easy to convince the world, the investors, everyone else that you should publish every single thing about the internals of your company. 

SID:  It was funny in the beginning. I tweeted out our OKRs and one of our investors said I almost had a heart attack, suddenly seeing oh my goodness you publish your OKRs, you shouldn’t do that. No, like, we’ve been doing that for years, it’s fine.  But it’s certainly gotten easier and I am really grateful for you clearing that path and I think there’s now a whole bunch of companies following in WordPress, in their footsteps.

MATT:  The lane is getting wider. I think GitLab opened it quite a bit and now both distributed and open source and open core I think is getting more and more common. 

As an exercise for the reader, I would encourage folks to check out.. there’s a lot of published read-mes about .gitlab, which are basically like developer documentation but for people and including a CEO one that talks about Sid’s… Well, describe it really quickly.

SID:  Yeah, if you Google GitLab CEO you’ll probably end up on my handbook page and I just try to define my interface, how do you interact, how do you get a meeting…but also like what are my flaws, what are things that I frequently do wrong and how to be aware of that, how to… if you wonder how to tell me, how to point me at those things to correct them. It used to have my favorite restaurants. It makes.. the whole goal is to make someone more approachable. 

I think with remote you have sometimes less of an opportunity to be an observer. So we do a lot of practices to make that easier – CEO Shadows, the live streaming of videos are examples but we also try to give a read-me, like this is how I tend to work, this is what I care about, this is how I am best.. here’s how to enable me in processing information quickly.

MATT:  I think one of the best compliments I could give GitLab is it’s a very self-aware organization. Thank you for leading by example and thank you for joining. 

You have been listening to the Distributed Podcast with Sid Sijbrandij of GitLab and Matt Mullenweg. Have a great day. See you next time. 


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