The Distributed Podcast is an in-depth conversation about the future of work — with the companies and leaders driving it. Hosted by Co-Founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic Matt Mullenweg. Subscribe >
When you supervise a team of engineers hailing from over 40 countries, the way Upwork’s Senior VP of Engineering Han Yuan does, you develop priceless knowledge about how distributed teams work. According to Han, the crux of the challenge is setting expectations with every team member. Doing this well requires maintaining a consistent culture, along with regular, frequent, and — most of all — clear communication.
What does it mean to maintain a consistent culture? Han calls this a “very difficult problem” when applied to distributed teams.
Upwork is the largest freelancing platform, operating across 180 countries. It’s a company that deals in human resources, so its own HR department needs to model best practices. Upwork’s Head of Human Resources and Talent Innovation, Zoe Harte, keeps the department at the cutting edge. Making sure that the right people in the right places are equipped with the skills and tools they need to perform at a high level requires strategic decision-making, so it makes sense that the person responsible for that core work would serve much more than an administrative role.
Launching the Distributed podcast has given me space to reflect on the last 14 years at Automattic. In 2019, distributed work has spread throughout the Bay Area and beyond, but when we were getting started, having no corporate headquarters was seen as quirky. Our distributed status has come to define our company, but we didn’t set out to be distributed. It was common in open source projects and our initial team was spread around the world. But over time it became who we are.
I’m originally from Houston, Texas. In 2003, web developer Mike Little and I, along with a few other online friends, developed a web publishing tool called WordPress. It quickly became popular, but we had no inkling that it could ever be a revenue-generating project. We just wanted to make better publishing tools so that non-engineers could express themselves online with their own blogs. For me, it was satisfying simply to hang out on IRC (an early chatroom protocol) with smart, curious people working on an interesting collaboration. I was spending all my free time online, hanging out and coding with people all over the world, having an absolute blast.
We believe that distributed work is great for many reasons, and will eventually replace most traditional office environments. But an important part of treating distributed work seriously is discussing its downsides and the hurdles it presents to teams and individuals. To better understand the concerns around the distributed work model, Matt recently spoke with venture capitalist Arianna Simpson, a vocal skeptic of remote work.
It’s difficult to know what kinds of statements are going to make a big splash on social media. Brands spend untold resources trying to learn how to “start a conversation,” but usually the tweets that go viral are offhand remarks that were never conceived as definitive statements.
Such was the case with venture capitalist Arianna Simpson’s “tweet heard ‘round the world,” as she calls it. She set out to share a casual thought with her audience, but something about her perspective touched a nerve:
Those of us who work on distributed teams have become accustomed to a workplace tool that, even after almost two decades, still feels very sci-fi. It’s cheap, it’s seamless, and it’s ubiquitous: video chat.
Chatting with video has long felt like an inevitability; it’d been featured in popular culture since at least the advent of the telephone. From The Jetsons to Star Trek, many of our utopian visions of the future involved the simple but rather magical concept of broadcasting your face across the globe, if not the galaxy.
Stephane Kasriel, the CEO of Upwork, thinks that work, as we think of it today, is in need of an overhaul. Nothing less than the American dream is at stake.
The cities where the best jobs can be found are crowded, the commutes are long, and the rents are outrageous. The jobs themselves are inflexible, and closed off to most of the world’s talent pool, so employers end up poaching workers from each other. Enterprising people who move to hub cities like New York or San Francisco live in cramped conditions, and pay handsomely for the privilege. Many can only hope to win the lottery of a successful startup exit to afford such luxuries as home ownership.
Meanwhile, there exist vast swaths of America where rents are affordable and life is comfortable. But the jobs just aren’t there, and haven’t been for decades. If there were some way to bring the jobs to those places, you’d ease the pressure of city life, revitalize local economies around the country, give employers better access to labor, and give workers a higher quality of life.
Changing the way we think about work
Upwork is the largest freelancer marketplace, and is valued at close to $2 billion, operating in 180 countries, and connecting millions of distributed workers with employers. Kasriel built and led a team of over 300 engineers located all over the world as Upwork’s SVP of Engineering before taking on the role of CEO. Prior to joining the company, he was a leader at PayPal, where he helped grow the company’s presence in France and subsequently led its consumer strategy. He thinks a lot about labor trends, and established himself as early as 2014 as an expert on the growth of the distributed work model with his book Hire Fast & Build Things, which details how managers can build distributed engineering teams in order to scale quickly and cost-effectively. He sees this problem as a collection of bottlenecks that are a result of our stubborn reliance on an outdated labor model.
My life’s work is WordPress. But in building my life’s work, I discovered something just as important:
Talent is evenly distributed around the globe, but opportunity is not.
With WordPress, I discovered the power of open source software development. I met a group of like-minded people online, and we worked together to build a publishing platform that now powers over one-third of all websites on the internet.
In our quest to democratize publishing, I realized we were also changing the way work gets done. While the early companies of Silicon Valley started out in garages and cramped workspaces, WordPress was being built without any offices at all.