What We Learnt From Our Chat with GitLab

Karthik Sridharan, co-founder of Remote Tools, shares a summary of lessons from the Remote Working Show podcast with Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab.

GitLab has 900+ distributed workers. Slated to IPO soon, it might end up being the first true 100% distributed company to attempt this. This is extremely exciting for the remote community and a huge responsibility for GitLab as the entire industry’s eyes are transfixed on it.

So, when we got the opportunity to talk to Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab, our heads were full of questions. Clearly, GitLab has probably figured the most about building distributed teams work at scale. 

We wanted to understand why GitLab participates so strongly in the narrative of remote working, how it tackles remote working difficulties, inputs on how companies can turn the remote switch on, and so on. Here are our top learnings from the podcast:

1. Being a strong and loud advocate of remote work is for social good, but also seems to be an important narrative for its IPO

GitLab has clearly taken spreading the word of remote working very seriously. It just naturally led us to ask the question, why they would be investing so much time, energy and money into this initiative. Darren answered this for us. 

Firstly, the social impact of it – to ensure that more people benefit from remote work. It totally makes sense for GitLab to make wider impact, but somehow it didn’t seem like the whole of it.

What we understand is that the remote aspect of GitLab is a really critical narrative for it as it prepares for an IPO. This gives their go-to-public story a unique spin while also educating the wider audience about remote work and also of GitLab’s expertise in this regard. Remote work could be considered an investor risk and these initiatives allay those fears.

Listen to this specific section here on the podcast: Link

“A lot of people know the tech side of GitLab but not so much the people & remote side. And that is big for us on the road to becoming a public company”

2. Collaborative documentation is the backbone to efficient functioning at GitLab

Learning how remote work can work at the scale of 900+ distributed workers was one of the most exciting parts of the podcast. According to Darren, the most important practice has been a very high focus on documentation.

GitLab’s handbook is a staggering 3000 pages and has been collaboratively built by one and all at the company from its very beginning. This has ensured that learnings from its inception haven’t been lost and that almost all answers can be found by relying on the handbook. What’s more – if it can’t be found, the onus is on you to find the answer, and then document it there!

Listen to this specific section here on the podcast: Link

“The biggest thing is documentation. And people like me coming in a few years into the company have a lot to be grateful for to our founders to think about documentation when the company was only 3 to 5 people. So, our handbook is 3000 pages long and it documents every process imaginable within GitLab front to back, even cultural processes. Everything is documented. And so, even people coming in now can look back at what was documented at the very beginning and it is very easy to get onboard instead of getting a hand me down of a hand me down of a hand me down.”

3. Key for every remote work company is to be intentional

The key for every company looking to go remote and definitely for already remote companies is to be highly intentional about everything. It is very easy for individuals and companies to default to processes that would work in a typical co-located setting, which can be very dangerous. Therefore, a conscious and intentional approach to everyday work is needed to make remote work successful.

Listen to this specific section here on the podcast: Link

“From the employer’s standpoint, two things come to mind. You need to be extremely intentional about informal communication. And this is a big one because when you are in a co-located setting, people tend to cross paths so they can more naturally develop relationships in and outside of work which generally helps the morale of the company. In a remote setting, you need to be intentional about this. So you need to weave things like coffee chats, group social calls, team social calls, company calls. You need to weave that into the culture and carve out time company-wide to make this a thing.”

4. Local rates-based compensation is practiced but not without negotiation

An interesting approach to compensation, albeit a hotly debated one, is to offer salaries on local rates. GitLab has a compensation calculator public to calculate the compensation for a particular area. What we wanted to understand was how people performing the same skills however from different cities deal with being paid different compensation packages and whether it was a simple concept for all to grasp.

Darren interestingly mentioned that this is something they have to talk through with people about the idea behind the process. Also, the numbers aren’t rigid and it does come down to negotiation based on skills, aptitude and the needs of the company. It comes down to what people value – personal priorities vs. the need to live in big cities.

Listen to this specific section here on the podcast: Link

“It is something that we have to talk through with people. Obviously, in the interview process, there’s room for negotiation based on the needs of the company, and the abilities and aptitude of the person. It’s one of those things that it depends on what people value. It’s really a case by case basis. If people prefer to move and want to be in a big city, they can.”

5. There is still no elegant solution for time zone issues

While remote work does give a person the flexibility to work from different locations, what it also means is that his/ her team members also need to consistently keep adapting to the new work timings and styles of the person.

Darren accepts that the main problem, timezones, are the bane of our existence and there is probably no elegant solution for it. He draws a parallel with multi-national corporations that have headquarters across continents and face similar problems.  However, one way to tackle this challenge is to have a total bias to asynchronous communication. This allows all to communicate any update or action ensuring the person at the receiving end can consume it asynchronously.

Listen to this specific section here on the podcast: Link

“So, look, timezones are the bane of our existence. But that’s the same in a multinational that has a headquarters at San Francisco, London and Singapore. Just trying to arrange the timezones between those three offices is a nightmare, and so that doesn’t change in a remote setting. Timezones are tough for any company that are across more than one or two. But how we deal with it, is that we have a bias towards asynchronous communication. And this is really important, because it trains people to default to communicating an update or a change or a thought, anything, in a way that can be consumed asynchronously. In practice, you just assume that no one is online in your timezone. Just assume that you are the only person in the company online at a given point of time.”

6. Interesting method to implement asynchronous through Slack

One interesting nugget that Darren slipped in while discussing how they implement asynchronous through Slack, was that GitLab doesn’t subscribe to a tier that stores messages perpetually. 

This forces everyone to document information that is critical to the project or a later time in the future in GitLab project management/ issues rather than relying on a short-term convenient option on Slack.

Listen to this specific section here on the podcast: Link

“We do not pay for a tier in Slack that would keep your messages perpetually and it’s intentional. We actually don’t want people defaulting to using Slack if they could convey project-related information through GitLab issues or merge requests which are much more permanent and are directly related to the work. From an efficiency standpoint, if you have solved something on slack then you have to translate that over to a merge request or to an issue to make something happen.”

Joining in on the discussion, Nancy, who’s worked remotely for 8+ years, said that she really likes number 6 here and the idea behind it. Her words, "It seems like every organization has a tough time getting the team to document in a single place when there always a ton of place something could go. Having at least one area where the messages will disappear has to filter at least part of the team to the correct place. I wonder if tools other than Slack have this type of option."

To this, Karthik, wanted to know which other tools bring out the poor habit of not documenting info. He feels Slack is one because casual chats turn into work discussions, which then get left out.

The conversation thereafter - Nancy: "Maybe Zoom or other video apps that have chat features. This isn't specific to a single tool, but I always ask people on my team to close a conversation where it started. If you Slack me a question and find an answer elsewhere, even if we talk about it over the phone later, go back and close it out in Slack. That's partially because I'll probably remember that you asked me over Slack, but not remember where/when we answered it. Also, if we ever need to figure out what the decision was, I'd like the entire thread in one place. I think one single place for documentation would help solve my memory issues and the desire to have entire threads in a single place."

Karthik: "Absolutely. Rather than thinking of it as closing the thread where it started, we actually follow a document it in a single location and notify the others on Slack whenever the update is made. I shared a bit about this in a post on team wiki. This helps not only the two people involved in the conversation but also the wider team who might encounter the same question in the future. Also has helped us quite a bit in conversations."

In another instance, Justin, the creator of Quidli, said "particularly reassuring to read #2, #3, and #5 to see even companies in the majors regularly make such considerations/face such challenges 😆 A bit curious to know more how remote plays into the IPO narrative though - I honestly can't imagine Wall St. being emotionally stirred by a remote-work side story 😂 Looking forward to taking the time to give this one a complete listen!"

Karthik also reiterated this saying " I learned a lot from the conversation and it is good to know that even the pioneers of remote working don't have all the answers, all the time. Around the IPO narrative, I don't think it is to emotional stir the public (😂). The way I understand it is that while VC investors have in general become more comfortable around the idea of a globally distributed team, the same can't be said/assumed for most of the public. So, I believe that the idea is to showcase Gitlab as the leader of remote working and a company that has figured it all out. This is so that, that aspect of the company doesn't cause uncertainty in investor minds even if it doesn't give them brownie points."

The conversation between the two continued along similar lines, here are the excerpts:

Justin: "That's what I meant; to clarify Wall St. = IBs As you mentioned, I think remote work is a great narrative for main street and the public. However, not sure if this sentiment is shared by non-tech VC institutional investors (IBs, PE/HFs, etc.) yet. But what do I know 😅 Guess we'll find out though once GL hits the market 🚀"

Karthik: "Haha, I did understand that the point of Wall Street referring to IBs :) Don't you think the amount of press they are getting around remote working, will ease the minds of bankers around the uncertainty of being the first globally distributed team to IPO?"

Justin: "I mean, I'm not a trader and I'm not running a remote org that's pursuing an IPO 😅 But 2020 has been a pretty good year for tech IPOs so far. So why deviate from what's working in the market with an added narrative that's still a question mark among most big corporates, banks included? Not an apples-to-apples comparison but we've seen what happens when tech offerings try to be different in the public market (ex. $WORK)! While the sentiment for remote work has been high among the public as of recent, I anecdotally see that most people still associate the general concept with WFH due to COVID. So it'll be interesting to see if there'll be confidence in a 900+ remote team. After all press != $. But I suppose if any company is going to be able to do this, it should be GL, right? 💪"

I doubt they are trying to lead with this narrative. They will surely be talking more about the merits of their business. But, I somehow do understand why they would be investing into this talk too - as they would want to cover themselves on what might be seen as a possible unknown, which is that they don't have a headquarters and their employees are distributed across 60 countries. An unknown is a risk and they are trying to mitigate it by showcasing their ability to ace it."

He acknowledged that GL would be the one company most able to pull it off.