Episode 28: Erica Pandey of Axios on Returning to Work

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We admire journalists today more than ever. Whether getting their start as a solo blogger on their own beat, or growing up in a thriving newsroom, journalists must forge their own unique work life as they write the first draft of history.

So it’s no surprise that this episode of the Distributed podcast with Matt Mullenweg and special guest Erica Pandey, business journalist and writer of the What’s Next newsletter at Axios, moves fast and covers a lot of ground, from Erica’s career, to how she works with her Axios colleagues in different cities and bureaus, to what she is seeing as she covers the intersection of technology, business and people.

Erica has recently written about how workers are discovering their own ‘Third Workplace,” and shared insight on how HR departments can improve childcare benefits for working parents. “Childcare has always been a problem. The pandemic just spotlighted it, and hopefully now something will be done about it,” says Pandey.

She balances Axios’ Smart Brevity style with authoritative reporting on complex topics, seeking multiples perspectives, from data to experts to people on the ground.  Says Erica, “One of my greatest joys is being able to talk to people.”

The lively conversation centers on how we’re all returning to work after so much change and adaptation, including the rise of hybrid workplaces.

“The best possible form of hybrid – and this is not just me, this is what HR experts are trying to game out here –  is everybody meeting, and (then) everybody at home, at the same time,” says Pandey. “The benefits of being in person, which are social interaction, which may be rubbing shoulders with leadership, which may be the innovation that happens on the spot when you are talking with someone at the coffee maker, happen when everyone is there. And then when everyone’s home, they can work on solo projects or get longer term projects done.”

“When you make it so that there is no penalty for not being in the office,” Matt later agrees,  “you’re not missing opportunities, you’re not missing socialization, you’re not missing anything. That is to me the superpower (of distributed work).” 

The duo see that this moment may represent – as Erica names it – a ‘code switch’ from prioritizing a job near your family and social life, to adjusting your work to where you live. But it’s an adjustment for everyone, she adds, including journalists:

“Journalism is also so much about the energy of the newsroom. There’s the camaraderie of it too.  When you’re always distributed…and you don’t get to come back to your desk with all of your colleagues typing away furiously, you do lose a sense of the team sport of it.”

And that may be what we can all learn from journalists: at home, out for an interview, writing from a Third Workplace or with the team in the newsroom, figuring out how and where we work our best, deadlines and all.

“We’re not work from home evangelists. We’re kind of like ‘Work from wherever you’re going to be most effective’ evangelists,” says Matt. “I can’t wait for people to experience a good version of work from anywhere – not where you’re isolated, and fearing for your life or your family, but where you can actually really get out and enjoy your community.”

Thanks to Erica for joining and sharing her insight. And thanks for listening.

The full episode transcript is coming soon.


Distributed by Default: Matt Mullenweg on The Knowledge Project

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“Aren’t people lonely because they don’t have their friendships at work?”

On a recent appearance of The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street, Matt Mullenweg revealed that he hears this question often, and that the answer is one of many benefits of a company built to be distributed from the start.

“If your only social network is at work, you might be lonely if you weren’t working with people physcally,” answered Matt. “But then what does that open up? It opens up the opportunity for you to choose people around you geographically to spend time with.”

The conversation evolved to the Five Levels of Autonomy (spoiler: many companies made it to Level Two during the pandemic) and how it allows teams to focus on the work. “Part of our model of distributed work also provides a fair amount of autonomy in how people get their work done,” Matt said. “I like that it creates a lot more objectivity and focus around what the actual work is.”

The episode was first published in January, but it is a great listen today as many companies that became distributed by necessity in 2020 make decisions about returning to work places.

Shane and Matt also talk about blending the cultures of different business units within a company like Automattic, the future of proprietary software, and how Open Source is like kids banding together on a playground, for the greater good of the open web.

This was the 100th episode of The Knowledge Project, whose recent guests have also included Angela Duckworth, Jim Collins and Josh Kaufman.

You can listen to the full episode on your favorite podcast platform, watch it on YouTube, and read Shane’s highlights from the conversation over at The Knowledge Project.

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.


Hiring For Distributed Companies & Angel Investing: This Week in Startups with Jason Calacanis

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“Why would the best employees in the world choose so little autonomy in the third of their day or more that they spend working?” Matt Mullenweg asks Jason Calacanis in a recent appearance on the long-running This Week In Startups.

The angel investing-themed episode opens with both investors sharing their approaches to early-stage companies, supporting entrepreneurs, and making an ecosystem-building impact, on top of return-on-investment.

The conversation soon shifts toward the outlook for distributed work. “What do you think the world’s going to look like in six months when everybody’s got their shots and is back to work, in at least the United States and Europe?” Jason asks. Matt shares a hiring insight for distributed, global companies, from the changing perspective of a talented individual who can now work from many more places: “You can really build a robust social network with folks you choose to connect with…(anything) that gives you that sense of community, not just where you happen to work.”

Matt’s latest appearance on the show – he first appeared on Episode 26 in 2010, according to Jason, and again in 2013 – touches on Automattic’s business structure, using collaboration tools like P2 to onboard new employees, cryptocurrency, and the value of editors. “I haven’t met a single writer – or any of my own writing – that hasn’t been vastly improved by really great editing,” says Matt. “Engaging your ideas with another human just improves them every single time.”

You can listen to the full This Week in Startups episode here, or check out the YouTube channel.

Getting Legal Work Done in a Distributed Environment: Paul Sieminski with Chad Main on Technically Legal

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500-page bound merger agreements, office printers, and libraries lined with law books. Legal work looks a lot different now that most in-house counsel (and law firms for that matter) have adopted some form of distributed work. 

But that doesn’t mean the work itself has changed. Contracts still need to be written and signed, litigation still needs to happen, and employment law might be more important than ever. What’s become clear over a year into a global pandemic is that legal work can be even more effective without the office. To make it happen, however, lawyers need to adapt their communication mediums and technology in a way that fits company culture and mission. 

Automattic’s General Counsel, Paul Sieminski, recently joined the Technically Legal podcast to talk about how legal work can thrive in a fully distributed company. “It’s aimed at a legal audience, and I love to remind my fellow layers how much value we can add to a distributed organization,” said Paul of his appearance on the podcast. “We are trained to communicate clearly, and especially to write cogently and persuasively.  These are invaluable skills in any environment, but especially in an environment where writing is paramount…like a distributed company.”  Paul has written on the topic in other places, such as Modern Counsel

He talks about communication starting just after the 23:00 mark with host Chad Main. For that discussion, and legal topics spanning the advantages of creating a searchable document database, to what tools and protocols we use to communicate transparently while protecting confidentiality, you can learn more about legal work in the distributed model by listening to the full episode here.

Growing as a Leader: Matt Mullenweg on the Starting Greatness Podcast with Mike Maples Jr.

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“Was there a palpable time when you felt like…you had to have a new kind of thought as you got bigger?” asks Mike Maples Jr., host of the Starting Greatness podcast in an April conversation with Automattic founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg.

Matt shares several such pivotal moments in an episode full of stories and insight from the growth of Automattic, and of his own journey and leadership evolution.

“For better or worse, you become close personal friends with everyone because you’re kind of in the trenches,” Matt said, sharing a story about when the company almost accepted an acquisition offer at a time of friction among the small, but growing, Automattic team. “So when you fight, it kind of feels like you’re fighting with your partner, your significant other.”

Matt reflects on a journey from his Palm Pilot user group to first meeting Jeffrey Zeldman of A List Apart (and now a Principal Designer at Automattic), and later his first visit to San Francisco, all before committing full-time to WordPress and Automattic. Mike and Matt also touch on the difference between a learn-it-all and a know-it-all, and even some books that have been influential along the way.

Maples, partner in venture capital firm Floodgate, has also hosted Annie Duke, Mark Cuban, Tim Ferriss and David Sacks in the second season of Starting Greatness, a podcast dedicated to startup founders who want to go from “nothing to awesome, super fast.” You can listen to the full Starting Greatness episode, and all others, right here.

Episode 26: Jack Dorsey and Matt Mullenweg on Remote Collaboration, Finding Serendipity, and the Art of Deliberate Work

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Join us for the latest episode of Distributed, as Matt Mullenweg interviews Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter and Square. They discuss how both companies have embraced remote collaboration, the underrated value of deliberate work, and how questioning preconceived models from the get-go can change everything. 

This spring, Jack Dorsey told Twitter and Square employees they could work from home forever if they choose. But a year earlier –– before the global pandemic happened –– he had already started working from home two days a week. There wasn’t the noise or the distraction. It was a place and a time where he felt more freedom and creativity. 

Now, he reflects on how his way of working has evolved alongside Twitter and Square over the past year. From leading thousands of employees as a self-described introvert, to why he planned (and still does) to work from Africa for an extended period (spoiler: largely, to support entrepreneurs on the continent), Matt and Jack share ideas for combining the deliberate, thoughtful pace of asynchronous work with the serendipity that occurs in the office. 

“If we can run the company without missing a beat,” says Dorsey of planning to work in Africa, “it really opens the door for a lot, especially our ability to hire anywhere as well.”

Tune in to learn how meetings work at fully distributed Twitter and Square, what open source and the punk scene have in common, why bringing thoughtfulness into collaboration is more important than ever, and if Jack Dorsey ever wants to go back to the old board meetings. Plus a whole lot more. 

The full episode transcript is below. Thanks to Sriram Krishnan for help preparing for this episode.


Episode 25: Davit Baghdasaryan on the Science of Sound in a Distributed Work World

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Trying to sound your best as you work away from an office more than ever before?  

As audio and video conferencing surge worldwide, Matt talks about the science of sound with Davit Baghdasaryan, the CEO of Krisp, a fast-growing company offering an AI-powered noise cancellation app for removing background noise on any conferencing platform. Krisp’s technology, including its proprietary deep neural network krispNet DNN, processes audio securely on the user’s computer. 

Find out how Krisp started, why Davit foresees his company returning to a hybrid work model, and what it means to Work from Forest

With employees in the United States and Armenia that shifted to working from home in 2020, Krisp surged this challenging year, announcing a $5M Series A round in August and growing to 600 Enterprise customers despite continuing to focus on consumer users. Check out this demo of how Krisp works in meeting room.)

A native of Armenia, Davit spends time in both countries leading Krisp. Prior to co-founding Krisp, Davit was a Security Product Lead at Twilio in San Francisco, among other security-focused technology leadership roles.

The full episode transcript is below.


Episode 23: Lara Hogan on the Secret to Being a Successful Manager

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Are companies setting up their managers for success? What are BICEPS? How do you assemble your colleagues like a management Voltron?

Lara Hogan is the founder of Wherewithall, a firm that specializes in management and leadership training — a company that Automattic has worked with in the past. She’s the author of Resilient Management, a must-read for anyone who is a manager, wants to become one, or generally just wants to learn how to be a better teammate.

Lara spent a decade growing emerging leaders as the VP of Engineering at Kickstarter and an Engineering Director at Etsy.

Related links:

Management Voltron Bingo Card

Core Needs: BICEPS (Paloma Medina)

@Lara_Hogan on Twitter

Full episode transcript is below.


Episode 22: Raj Choudhury Sees a Future Where You Don’t Have to Move Your Family for a Job

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“We have introduced so many frictions to people’s lives by forcing them to move.”

Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, the Lumry Family Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, studies the future of work — specifically the changing geography of work. What happens to cities, to immigration policies, and to issues around gender equity when more companies let people work from anywhere?

Choudhury earned his doctorate from Harvard, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology, and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management. Prior to academia, he worked at McKinsey & Company, Microsoft, and IBM.

For more on Choudhury, go to HBS.edu or follow him on Twitter (@prithwic).

The full episode transcript is below.