Remote Engineering Management: Begin Book Club
by Simon MacDonald
[00:00:00] Simon MacDonald: All right. Welcome everybody to the October edition of the Begin Book Club. If you’re anything like myself, you’ve completely lost track of time and can’t believe that it’s October already. But at least Halloween’s around the corner and we’ll get some chocolate out of it. So welcome back after a couple of months off, I know that things were very busy around begin, so we’re happy to kick start this book club again with Alexandra Sunderland who’s gonna be talking about her book, Remote Engineering Management.
[00:00:25] But before I pass it over to her, I just wanna let people know that we’re following the architect code of conduct which you can find at github.com/architect. Basically to familiarize it is just, just be nice to each other. Don’t be a jerk. And I think that’s probably the best way to look at it.
[00:00:41] If you feel like asking a question today you can unmute yourself and ask a question. Or if you’re a little bit shy, just put it in the chat bubble and we’ll ask it for you. We’re pretty laid back here. So anyway, on to our author. Alexandra is been working remotely for approximately 10 years now.
[00:00:58] She’s a senior engineering manager at fellow app. She is a conference talk giver across the world, including JS Conf and, and most importantly, She is a former Ottawa JS alumni. She spoke at the local meetup that I help run. I don’t understand why that’s not like top of mind on all of your bios, and of course she’s now a publish author.
[00:01:20] So, Alexandra, welcome to the Begin Book Club.
[00:01:23] Alexandra Sunderland: Thank you. Yeah, I love how it comes full circle. Cause I, I think we first met three and a half years ago when I was doing my first talk at a meetup ever in preparation for JS Conf. I’m so happy I got to do that.
[00:01:35] Simon MacDonald: Yeah, I always, I mean this is inside baseball for everybody else, but Ottawa JS is our local Java group meetup club, and it is a great spot to be able to practice talks and get some feedback.
[00:01:46] I’ve often used it myself for when I’ve wanted to, to run a new talk and we were very happy to have you speak there. And I guess it was 2019, so just about half year before the pandemic kicked in.Yeah. Fun times. It’s amazing. Wow. Three years. Ugh. That’s insane. Anyway let’s not go down the pandemic rabbit hole again.
[00:02:09] So so with your new book first time author, I mean, we’ll get into that later. About what kind of insanity did you run into when you thought, Oh, I’m gonna write a book because it’s not a small undertaking but maybe you want to do a brief introduction to the book by kicking into a dramatic reading, which is our tradition here.
[00:02:28] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah, so I found a part of the book that it’s least a little bit like a, a story, and so I thought I’ll read that out. And it’s about retrospectives, which I’ve been, I did another conference talk this summer about how dramatic my retros are in general. So I thought, I’ll do that.
[00:02:44] And I haven’t practiced reading this out at all, So it’s probably gonna come across really ridiculously in a, in a funny voice. All right. The very first retrospective we ran was in person. We booked the boardroom for four hours in the afternoon, and I brought a box filled with sticky notes, markers, stickers, cookies, and chocolate for all the extra energy we would need.
[00:03:09] After talking through the goal of the retro and the parameters, basics, such as don’t be mean and comment on process results instead of people, We spent the first 20 minutes silently writing our thoughts on the sticky notes and awkwardly looking up ever so often to see if others were done or if we could peek and get some inspiration from the things that they had written down.
[00:03:29] Eventually, we all got up and put our sticky notes on the wall where we had defined three categories. Good. Bad and ugly. The idea here is that we wanted to break things down so that we talk about what’s going really well on the team, what issues are coming up that will need to be addressed at some point, and what issues right now that we need to solve asap.
[00:03:50] We crowded around this board, putting up our notes, and then with our little dot stickers, read through each and every sticky note. Grouping similar ones together and adding dots to those that we agreed with. There were a dozen people squished together trying to decipher, scribble, handwriting, and trying to somehow move down the wall and read everything in the 10 minutes allotted without getting in each other’s way.
[00:04:12] Once all the dot stickers were up, we took a step back to form a semicircle around the wall and started to mentally map out which notes have the most popularly held thoughts and concerns. We spent the next three hours together reading through every sticky note one by one, asking whoever had written it to give more context, and having two or three conversations happening in a group all at once, discuss it.
[00:04:37] It was chaotic.
[00:04:41] Simon MacDonald: Bravo. Excellent job. It wasn’t gonna be my first question, but I think it’s an excellent time to lead into, I have worked at companies where, the teams have been completely remote as well, and we’ve done retrospectives the old fashioned way where you get onto a call and you just go until the retro’s over.
[00:05:01] But in your book you talk that is not taking advantage of the capabilities that remote work gives you. And you kind of do these kind of asynchronous retros or at least partially asynchronous retros, and then finish up with some synchronous meetings at the end to wrap everything up. And I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit.
[00:05:19] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah. And so for context too. So I have personally been working remotely for 10 years, but the company I work with right now, Fellow was based in an office in Ottawa for the whole time, until 2020. And so they were all in person together and I was the one person who was remote in the whole company.
[00:05:37] Cause I was living in Toronto at the time. And then I moved to Ottawa, March, 2020 because I wanted to work in the office finally. And I bought a house and got all set up to move here. And never got to work in the office.
[00:05:48] Simon MacDonald: So your, your timing is impeccable there. That is,
[00:05:52] Alexandra Sunderland: It’s amazing. So great. But but it all worked out and like now we’re in like a semi hybrid type situation, so I have an office to go to, which is a big change.
[00:06:00] But so the, the passage though was specifically from when I came to Ottawa and ran this in person retro, which is why it was like, you know, we’re all crowded around the board and, and everything. And that was, so that was really fun to do in person. I think doing like a whole afternoon activity like that is totally fine.
[00:06:18] And when we went remote so we do these retros every six months and June, 2020, I wanted to do the next retro. And I was thinking like, well, the process we have is so great, we’ll just do exactly that same thing, but virtually, cuz we’ll use like Miro as a whiteboard and that’ll replicate the post-it notes and sticky things and we’ll just spend the entire afternoon a video call, which is really, really, really awful cuz like four hours for anyone on a video call is terrible.
[00:06:47] I had no energy. It wasn’t fun. I did a feedback survey afterwards. And people were also complaining that I had not provided chocolate and cookies for them. Like I did with the in person was. So it was pretty silly. But we started iterating on this process and we’ve landed on this really great, like half a synchronous half meeting, like actual meeting time thing where we were, we realized that a lot of the parts of retro.
[00:07:17] That we do don’t have to actually take place with everyone there at the same time, cuz a lot of the time that you spend is just writing down ideas and reading other people’s ideas and thinking about things. And so we wanted to make sure that we weren’t wasting time on a call together, silently doing that.
[00:07:34] So we’ve kind of broken it down into these three steps. the first step is that throughout the course of a week or two, everyone writes in a note like what items they wanna talk about. And we, we always have the same format of like things that went really well, things that are important and need to be talked about at some point.
[00:07:54] And then things that like, if we don’t discuss this now, everything will crash. And people have two weeks to start jotting down their thoughts there. There’s a deadline for getting those initial items in. The next week is everyone, whenever they have time. So we’re, I don’t like scheduling a lot of meetings for people, cuz that takes away their focus state.
[00:08:12] So whenever people have time and want to, they get to start reading through those items that people have written voting on them adding comments and, and starting to like even just discuss things in comments. And then the retro itself is an hour and a half meeting with everyone and. The nice thing about that is when we do meet, we just get directly into the things that have to be talked about.
[00:08:34] And a lot of the things that are written down on the board we don’t have to talk about anymore cuz it’s sometimes stuff that we’ve resolved ahead of time where it’s is really simple to just talk about in writing. And so those, that saves us time by not having to bring that up. And then the discussions we have are so much deeper too, because, I mean, it’s so much easier to come up with ideas when you’ve had time to think about the thing and, and what, how it is you wanna respond, which is why meeting agendas in general are, are great cuz I need a lot of extra time to think about things before answering.
[00:09:03] But yeah, so that’s how we do it. Just an hour and a half is kind of like the upper limit of how much time you can spend on a call anyway. But we’ve just been able to make that whole process so much better by making things partially sync.
[00:09:17] Simon MacDonald: Yeah, that’s a brilliant approach to things.
[00:09:19] As I said, I worked in a company where we were doing these remote retros and they were completely synchronous, so a lot of time was just spent watching people type. You’d see the little type bubbles happening and the tool that we were using. And then I think that stretched on for a long period of time because some people were like, Somebody else is still typing, I have to think of something else, or it, I won’t have as many items as everyone else, it just, it was silly.
[00:09:43] And so we ended up, time boxing that specific thing so that it wouldn’t drag on forever. But yeah, just being able to see what the, the items are gonna be for the retro and have some time to think about it rather than being put on the spot because it am the type of person who likes to think.
[00:10:00] Deeper about things and not just be called on the spot in order to come up with like five new ideas. It doesn’t really work for me. And, and the way that my brain works, doesn’t work anyway, the way that I process information. Maybe that’s the pr proper way to say it. So anyway folks, if you wanna ask a question, please go ahead.
[00:10:19] Otherwise I’m just gonna completely monopolize the conversation, but I thought I would at least pause here in order to be able to give people a chance to chime in. Well, one of the things that I alluded to was why, why write a book? Why’s so much work? Why, What was the impetus behind deciding to write a book?
[00:10:38] And honestly, I really love a lot of the books that Apress is coming out with now. They did one recently with developer relations and docs, and I think they’ve been putting in some really useful. Shorter books. Like they’re not 600 page tones, but they’re like 200, 250 page books that are just chalk full of information.
[00:10:56] So I was happy to see that, that yours was being published Apress as well, So yeah. Why books?
[00:11:03] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah, that’s a good question. I started to wonder that halfway through the process as well. It’s a lot of work. I, So the, the reason I started it when I did is because I have a friend who’s also a developer in Ottawa, and she told me about this thing called NaNoWriMo, which is the something like national writing, month of November something.
[00:11:25] And it’s this it’s this challenge where like, it’s not a competition. You don’t win anything. But you, it’s this thing where you you’re supposed to write 50,000 words towards a novel in the span of November, which roughly translates to like 1700 words a day, which is a long blog post every single day.
[00:11:43] And the idea is that it’s a month where you just focus, write something, and then by the end of it you have a first draft of. Something. And she had been wanting to write a book for this and wanted a writing accountability buddy and I, for some reason said, Sure, I’ll do that too. I’m not big into writing fiction, but my partner Colin had been telling me for months, like, you know a lot about remote work.
[00:12:06] You should write a book about it. And I never had the energy to, to do it. And this was a fun challenge. So I thought like, yeah, sure, I’ll participate in. And it was a really hard month cuz I would work like the normal nine to five and then sit on the couch, switch to my personal laptop and like just try to get to a different room in the house so it felt like it wasn’t work time anymore.
[00:12:28] And then spend like six hours trying to write 79 words where the first five hours of that is me browsing the internet thinking like, I should really, I should really write now. Like I, I need to get this done. And then the last hour is when, is like, okay, I need to go to bed, so I need to get this done so I don’t have to write.
[00:12:44] Like 3,400 words tomorrow. And it was so, it was a really hard month, but by the end of it, I, I had the first draft of something that felt real, and I decided that point, like, I’m gonna see if anyone wants to publish this. And Apress said, Yes, we do. So that, that’s kind of how it, it turned into something real.
[00:13:05] And remote work specifically is what I wanted to talk about. Because I have been working remotely for so long, and I know by that point, I guess it was like a year and a half in a lot of others had been working remotely as well. But from what I was seeing online, especially around the, the management aspect of remote work, all of the, the writing and, and, and the.
[00:13:28] Information being out given out was still very surface level. It was stuff like, here’s how to have a good Zoom call. Remember to like mute when you’re not talking. Remember to like, be human and check in on people and it’s good information, but I felt like there was so much more to, to know about and I wanted to go deeper than that, having just spent so long in this world.
[00:13:49] I wanted to help people out, which is what made me pick that topic in particular.
[00:13:55] Simon MacDonald: That is, that is so awesome to hear that. Yeah, you were, you were doing NaNoWriMo, which I think it stands for, National Novel Writing Month, if I remember correctly. I tried that once and there is no longer a draft of a very bad fantasy novella that I created because nobody needs another one of those.
[00:14:13] Simon MacDonald: But anyway, that’s completely destroyed. Hard drive, just broken in half, drilled the whole thing. But anyway. Yeah, so you actually had the complete book ready to go for at least the first draft to be able to, to shop it around that must made it a pretty easy decision for Apress to be like, Yeah, okay, we’ll, we’ll definitely publish this cuz we don’t have to give you an advance and say, Hey, go write it.
[00:14:35] They’re already like, Okay, we have a first draft, we just need to edit this with you.
[00:14:40] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah, and I did spend a lot of time editing it after, so I think when I sent it in, there’s a big proposal to fill out. I don’t think I sent any of what I had actually written, maybe the first chapter. And the first draft was rough.
[00:14:52] Like, I thought it was awesome when I finished it, but then by the time I went back, cause I had from the end of November till early April to revise everything and, and send in my chapters. And I was going back and finding that there were some days where I clearly was just trying to hit the word count and I was like making like dad jokes and puns and like writing in brackets, lull so funny,
[00:15:14] And so it was, it was, it was a bit rough and it took a couple iterations to, to, to improve on. But yeah, it’s, it’s impressive like having, having a month dedicated to just writing makes you do crazy things.
[00:15:26] Simon MacDonald: I don’t know. I kind of wanna read the first draft with all the dad jokes in it. Now I’m a very pro dad joke person, if I can see the whites of my daughter’s eyes by making a pun, then that just keeps me going for another week at least.
[00:15:41] And you were talking about some of the advice that you’re seeing out there is like, check in with people, make sure their mental state is okay. But one of the things that you touch. Upon in the book is why documenting everything is so important, and I mean, I know it. It’s people that have been working in the company forever, they just know how to do these things cuz they’ve built up the institutional knowledge.
[00:16:02] But for people that are being on-boarded or maybe for something that you haven’t done in a while, like a particular release of a product, it’s really important to have that documentation. And I was just wondering if you could expand more upon that.
[00:16:16] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah, I find documentation super useful for so many things, and I, I find I use my own documentation really often, and there are a bunch of things that I’ll do, and they, they might be really easy, and it might be just like a command that I have to run somewhere, but I, my memory’s really bad, so I’ll like write a whole page about it and refer back to it whenever I have to do it.
[00:16:39] and there are a lot of different types of documentation too, cuz on, on engineering teams like there’s code documentation, which is very, very important. Just explaining at a high level, like how to set up some system or how to install the project or whatever it is. And that’s important and I think a lot of teams have done that really well.
[00:16:57] But then the, the other part that I’m really big on, Documentation around like team culture, team process type things. So for example, one of the, we have this big section in Confluence where we write down a lot of how to and, and process things. And I, I have a section there about. If you have a big project, how do you break that up?
[00:17:18] Like what are the best ways of breaking that up so it makes it easier for quality assurance? How do you go about setting milestones? How do you communicate with the design team and the product team? Things like that are things that you pick up once you’ve been on the team for a while? But if you can make that explicit for people who are onboarding onto the team, it makes everything go so much better.
[00:17:39] And, and one of our kind of like pseudo documentation that we have, actually George who’s on the call set this up for the team. But we have Stack Overflow for teams cuz there’s uh, I don’t know. I, I, I, I’m really big on asking questions in public and getting answers. I like, One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone sends me a direct message with a question that isn’t like secret information.
[00:18:00] Because if I answer a question and give people the information in a direct message, then they’re the only people who benefit from that knowledge, which, Like wasted growth opportunity for so many people. And so I love that that George set up this place on the team where anyone can ask questions and the answers to those get documented for everyone in the future, and everyone else on the team.
[00:18:23] Cuz it, it also makes it easier for people to. To ask questions and not feel silly. Like I, I, I really like asking what might seem like silly questions in the, in the dev team channel on Slack and just saying like, I have no idea how to update this Python thing. How do, how do I do this? And by me asking questions like that, it makes it easier for junior people and, and people new to the team to feel okay being vulnerable like that.
[00:18:49] Simon MacDonald: I don’t think asking how to update Python is a silly question because it’s not exactly easy. I think the best way to update Python is just to get a brand new machine and install fresh. That’s pretty much how we’ve figured it out. So, yeah. And George was thumbs up there. Yeah, that actually sounds like a great idea.
[00:19:08] We gotta look into that. Ryan, you wanna jump in here?
[00:19:13] Ryan Bethel: I have a question about this. I mean So I think so often on our own team we have this question about like how do we, where do we, I mean it usually devolves into what tools to store documentation in, which I think is like the wrong question. There are so many and they’re all good for different things, but I think the real issue is how to.
[00:19:37] Like discovery, like how do you keep track of where the answers are, regardless of if somebody put this in Dropbox Paper or Google Docs or whatever. But like even I find if I wrote the document six months later, I can’t remember where I put it or the question it answers. So have you found a good way of just keeping track of how to find where the documentation is?
[00:20:04] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah, I found that the, the thing that’s helped me the most is just being consistent in where I put it. So even if it’s even if I store like a bunch of notes in just the notepad editor on my laptop, at least knowing that all of my notes are there and not spread across that and like the 10 other possible note taking tools you have makes it easy.
[00:20:23] Cuz there’s one spot where you can use one search bar and look for things. and for like in our case, we have. Three spots that I’d consider being places where we have documentation and they’re, they’re all context specific, which makes things a lot easier to, So anything related to code architecture, setting things up, how to do anything related to, to code stuff that is in, in the docs that belongs, like in our actual repo.
[00:20:51] So everything about the code is with the code, which makes it very easy to search. And then anything. Teams and process and product and all of that lives in Confluence. And that’s a section too, where to, like the search bar is easy to use there. But we’re also good at like rearranging sections whenever things grow.
[00:21:10] So if, if there’s like one folder where we throw all of the, like how to do this type stuff and then we notice there are hundred things in there, 20 of them are related. We’ll create like a sub folder and throw that in and, and rearrange things as we go to try to. Re-balance the file structure tree. I guess make it easier to search through things.
[00:21:31] Yeah, but I think just limiting the number of places where you put information is, is really key to that.
[00:21:40] Simon MacDonald: So maybe not put it in GitHub, Google Docs, Dropbox paper and notes on my laptop. I think Ryan’s getting to the heart of an issue that we have sometimes. We can pick one, we can pick one, maybe. No, I mean, it’s, it’s having, having four to six is really helpful.
[00:22:02] Yeah, at least we can go read the code of the documentation there. But sometimes finding some of the other information is a challenge and it would be nice to standardize one. But anyway, that’s, that’s not error dirty laundry there. But I think everybody has that kind of same sort of issue.
[00:22:18] With regards to onboarding, I know Cole just joined our team yesterday and he went through onboarding and I, I bet you it would’ve been super useful for him to have like a set of documentation somewhere to be able to go through everything. So I hope. You and KJ wrote everything down yesterday for the next.
[00:22:35] Kristopher Joseph: So that was actually one of, one of his first, one of his first questions was, So do we have like a notion or something that we put these docs in? Like that’s a really good, a really good idea. Yeah. Okay. So we’ll add notion to Dropbox paper. Okay, cool. Yes, we’re definitely, definitely not learned our lesson there.
[00:22:52] That’s awesome. That’s the one that will fix it. That’s the one that will fix it? Yeah. Okay. One, one
[00:22:59] Kristopher Joseph: document site to rule them all. Confluence I hear is great until we actually had this where, we moved some documents and then all the URLs were broken.
[00:23:12] Simon MacDonald: I’m like, no, never, ever move anything. If you see my desk, you can tell that nothing’s ever been moved. The stack just keeps on getting higher and higher. I know I have to re-balance when the paper starts blocking the monitor in front of me, but that’s, that’s neither here nor there.
[00:23:29] Anyway. There was one thing, like really early on in the book that I was gonna ask about, and it was the, the internet quality bias. And I never really thought about it before, but as soon as I read it, I realized that that had even been applied to me. And I’m sitting here in Ottawa, I have relatively good internet speeds.
[00:23:45] But when you are communicating with people in San Francisco and you’re going through an under performing VPN gateway here in Ottawa, and then it’s going across the country and it’s coming up through another VPN, then there’s call. Issues. And I would definitely see issues in those meetings where people did not wanna call upon me or ask my opinion because the robotic nature of my voice at that point in time was just no good.
[00:24:10] And I think you’ve had some experiences with that as well when it comes to interviewing folks.
[00:24:14] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah. And, and that’s so interesting. It’s, it’s true cuz yeah, I put it in the context of interviewing, but I it, it’s definitely true that when you’re on a meeting with someone and they’re lagging or they keep dropping the call, like you’re, it’s so easy to just say like, Oh, well just not, not include them.
[00:24:30] It’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Which isn’t fair cuz they’re, they have opinions and, and they should be contributing if they’re on the call. But yeah, so specifically in the context of interview, It’s interesting doing them remotely because for, for interviews in general a lot of companies, it’s great they have interview training so that they can like HR is usually trying to remove any or point out any biases people have and make sure that specifically you don’t ask people like, How old are you?
[00:24:57] What’s your gender? And all that kind of stuff. For legal reasons, But there are a lot of new biases introduced by remote work that aren’t protected by that kind of stuff. And so they’re not mentioned as things that you should be paying attention to and, and looking out for when you’re thinking about how interviews went.
[00:25:15] And that has to do with yeah, things like internet quality and. Your back, like literal black background behind you and the noises that come through the call and there it’s giving a lot of signal that doesn’t exist when people come to an interview in person. Cause if you, if you come in person, I have no idea where you live or what your, like social economic status is and why your house looks like and, and, and all of that stuff.
[00:25:41] But when we started interviewing people, In their homes. It was, it was very interesting to see that like in some cases there were people with messy beds behind them and that kind of stuff can very subtly influence how you’re, how are you, you’re viewing the, the interview. Cuz maybe someone will see that and think like, oh, they’re a messy, disorganized person, so I don’t want them on the team.
[00:26:06] But that’s not a good signal, cuz if they came to the office and the interview went exactly the same, like you’re not gonna know what their bed looks like. It doesn’t matter. Why, why is that something that should be taken into account and the internet quality is yeah. That, that very specifically makes you think differently of, of how they’re speaking.
[00:26:23] And there is, I forget if I linked to a study in, in the book or not, but there was something that made me think of this, which was a, a study where they Had people listen to two recordings of people speaking. One of them was like a lot harder to hear and kind of broken up and they were saying the same thing, but people viewed the person who is speaking really clearly as more intelligent than the other person, which is.
[00:26:47] Not good and shocking, like the information’s the same. So that kind of thing can have a big influence when you’re interviewing for a job and it’s like through a no fault of your own, like it could be a VPN thing causing that to happen. Or could you speed that somebody’s loving in an area that isn’t serviced by great internet.
[00:27:04] And, and that’s actually something I did a lot of research into a few years ago when the, the talk that I did for the JS meetup was called Bringing Back Dial-up, the Internet over SMS. And there was this. I completely forget what it was now, but some large percentage of like Canadian population still has dial-up internet as their main source of internet.
[00:27:24] and so it’s something that a lot of people are, are having to, to struggle with. So, yeah, I I thought it was important to, to point out those kinds of things, cuz. It’s not fun when anyone, and it’s such a solvable issue too, like if somebody joins the company and the internet is the thing that’s bad, like the, the company can throw money at the, at the problem to pay for it and make it better and, and then everything goes away.
[00:27:50] Simon MacDonald: Yeah, it’s, When I read that, I was completely blown away cuz it’s not. Nothing that I ever thought about before. But then as soon as I was introduced to it, I realized all the different ways that we could be biased against people because of it. And like I said, even how it affected me just having conversations with people and having my internet act up.
[00:28:08] Yeah, I guess you could have throw money at the problem, fix things, but if people live in very rural areas, especially if you’re like, I don’t know, you live outside of Regina, Saskatchewan, where I was a couple of weeks ago. It’s kind of hard, like you say, to get high speed internet there, everything’s over dial up.
[00:28:25] I believe things are delivered by moose in Winnipeg, if I’m not mistaken. Cole, is that how? Sorry. Sorry. This is the best part about Cole joining the company is I finally have a city in Canada I can look down on, cuz it’s actually colder in Winnipeg than it is in Ottawa. So, I mean, join me in, in Dunking on Cole at least until he moves out to Vancouver and then he can hold it over my head.
[00:28:48] Anyway, such is life. Just to be clear, I dunk on Winnipeg too, so it’s totally cool. Yeah, and I will dunk on Ottawa as well. Actually, I’ll pretty much dunk on any Canadian city. It’s fun because we’re, we’re so polite. Nobody calls me on it. I love it. . Yeah. But the other, the other thing I was wondering about, when you get into a situation where you’re having a team meeting and the person is definitely having internet issues like.
[00:29:10] At that point in time, should we just switch to asynchronous communication at that point? Like, if the meeting is not an actionable thing where we absolutely, positively need a decision that day, does it make more sense just to switch to asynchronous so that there this kind of bias does not kick in?
[00:29:27] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah, I think that is a good solution. What, what I normally do is like we’re, we’re big at only having meetings if we absolutely need meetings and communication should default to asynchronous for, for the most part. So if we’re in a call trying to discuss something, then it usually means we have to actually be in that call, cuz it’s gonna be difficult to, to discuss otherwise.
[00:29:48] So we’ll often like reschedule it for some other time or Yeah. Or I mean, it depends on the size of the meeting too. Cuz sometimes if, if there, if there are too many people, sometimes it’s okay to, to continue and, and post about what happened afterwards and, and see if the, the person who dropped off the call has any updates to or anything else to add to that.
[00:30:09] But yeah, I think meetings should only really be happening if they absolutely have to anyway. And a sync is the best way to go otherwise.
[00:30:19] Simon MacDonald: Yeah, I think everybody here is nodding along with that. We try to keep our amount of meetings in our company down to a bare minimum, although for some reason today is a meeting heavy day.
[00:30:28] But on that topic of trying to keep things as a synchronous as possible when a company is switching over from the. Way things used to be to a fully remote. It takes them a while before they get rid of that management by walking around philosophy, where the managers popping into your cubicle and then they switch that to having like a whole bunch of different meetings or slacking you at weird hours the night.
[00:30:53] Yeah, I know you have some experience with that as well. Or as Ryan said, his six year old keeps running into the office looking for Scotch tape. You know what, it’s weird because my daughter, who is 18, ran into the office and was looking for scotch tape yesterday, so maybe it’s an epidemic going around.
[00:31:10] I don’t know what to tell you, Ryan. How do companies transition easier from the old style of working to a remote style of working and like how do we, how do we keep people from like, just absolutely destroying the whole work life balance by demanding updates at weird hours of the day.
[00:31:30] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah, I remember when we first switched to, to everyone working remotely, which I actually enjoyed a lot cuz it’s a lot less lonely than me being the only person working remotely. Cuz now instead of me missing out on every single conversation that’s happening in the office, I got overloaded because, Every single conversation’s now happening on Slack and there’s too much to, to keep up with.
[00:31:51] But I remember even I made the mistake originally of, for the team for the first month, I think it was, I was looking my calendar the other week cause I was trying to compare like what my meeting week used to look like before compared to now. And we had stand-ups for the engineering team every single day at 10 in the morning.
[00:32:12] And we, we did that for the first few weeks or so, and it, I think like the context is different cuz everyone was scared and, and feeling lonely and, and so I think it, a bit of it was just like, let. Connect and make sure everyone’s doing okay. And I think everyone was fine with having those kinds of meetings at first, but then a few weeks in it, it was really just like, what are you working on today?
[00:32:35] What are you blocked on? Typical stand-up structure that I’ve never been a fan of, but thought like this is the way to run the team now that we’re remote. And we stopped that. Pretty quickly. and even now, we, we do have twice weekly, they’re, they’re called stand-up meetings. They’re not the typical stand-up meetings cause I’m not a big fan of, of those either.
[00:32:56] They’re just so many better ways of figuring out what people are working on than asking them directly in a call. And so we use those like half hour, twice a week, just as social time so that we can make sure to get that. Water cooler talk and, and catch up on each other’s lives so that we don’t spend the entire workday just doing work, which is really exhausting.
[00:33:17] But yeah. But I, I, so I’ve, I’ve never been a fan of the whole like, management philosophy of you need to see people doing work to manage them and understand that they are actually doing work. I, I don’t get that. And even now being hybrid we, we have an office that we go to and a few people show up every day.
[00:33:35] It’s like a non-mandatory thing just for fun. And I’m excited cuz I never really got to work in an office, so I’ve been going there a lot. But even there, like there are people there are engineers there working and I’ll look over at them and it looks like they’re working and they’ll like walk by and be like, Oh no, you’re like on Reddit and YouTube and like doing fun stuff.
[00:33:51] Like, it’s never a good way, like, looking at people and seeing them at their computers is not a good way of finding out. What’s going on? But yeah, so we’ve, we’ve set up a few processes though to try to. Make the, the transition easier cuz we, we did found that, find that going from working fully in person to remotely, fewer updates were happening.
[00:34:14] Cuz a lot of updates used to be very spur of the moment just on, like people start talking about some problem at their desks and then everyone kind of understands what’s going on from that, which, Isn’t super ideal. And that’s like even that not a good form of management cuz you’re just relying on the right people being there and relying on people knowing to bring things up.
[00:34:35] And so what we’ve done is tried to, tried to formalize the randomness of that almost. And so one of the things that we’ve done for. Engineering project specifically is instead of having like a check in meeting type thing, we do, we do that once a week to, with like specific talking points where there are like actual things we need to discuss together and, and really go through over a call.
[00:35:01] But otherwise, for just like generic status updates, we have a, a Slack bot that runs every day at the end of the day for like Ottawa based people. And it just asks. Do you wanna post anything about what you did today? Do you have any screenshots? Do you have any questions? Just to let people know.
[00:35:17] And it’s not a mandatory thing, It’s not something people have to fill out. As soon as it shows up, it’s just a prompt to say, like, other people are probably wondering what you’re up to. So if you wanna put something here that, that would be nice. And it’s, it’s a lot lower effort. People get to fill it out whenever they want.
[00:35:35] It’s worked really well as well when we have people who like we, we had two developers who are working in South Korea for, for a month, and so they’re completely opposite time zone from us. We didn’t really have meetings with them cuz it’s it would be like early morning for them, late at night for us.
[00:35:49] And we’re big on having like proper work life balance. So we, that bot though, like it would run at 4:30 PM for us and. Whenever they were done, their workday over there, they post in it. And it’s not so much about the timing of it, it’s about like, just letting people know in general what’s going on. So that, that’s one of the things that we’ve done to kind of make that better.
[00:36:10] Simon MacDonald: Yeah. I thought that was pretty neat when I, I read it. And just to clarify my question, does it run time zone based or is it only Ottawa time zone that it, it does the reminder at four.
[00:36:21] Alexandra Sunderland: It’s always at four thirty, it’s one bot. And I set it up with like multiple worflows, it’s a Slack workflow and it has like multiple steps in it.
[00:36:29] And instead of creating like 10 workflows, I create the one workflow that runs at one time and I just like add the steps as posting each channel. So it’s, it’s out of laziness for me, but it, like, it posts at the same time. But whenever people decide, Message about it doesn’t matter. Like you could post about it 10 hours later and, and that’ll be fine.
[00:36:48] It’s just the, the fact that it’s like a consistent recurring thing that is helpful. Yeah.
[00:36:54] Simon MacDonald: It’s just a prompt at that point. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. I was just wondering if you’re able to. Post it separately for people in South Korea. Yeah, luckily everybody in the company is in North America, although we’ve pretty much covered all of the North American time zones except for, I think we decided Newfoundland Atlantic Canada.
[00:37:29] Alexandra Sunderland: Oh, we’re, we’re a meeting calendar product.
[00:37:31] I know the struggle so much.
[00:37:33] Simon MacDonald: Yeah. I have the replacement clock I have on my Mac here, and I look at all the different time zones that I have listed in it, just to be able to do that kind of time zone math at a glance, which is super useful. Being able to put the country emoji next to the time zone as well also helps.
[00:37:50] But hey again, I feel like I’m really monopolizing the conversation. If anybody wants to, to jump in here I will take a breath. All right, cool. One of the things that I thought was really neat, and I never thought about doing it and I didn’t for this call, and I probably should have and now I’m kicking myself, is the closed captioning.
[00:38:10] That is just such a great idea and we should probably normalize having that on by default for people, because we may work with a lot of different people who English is a second language, and that could be really beneficial for them to be able to have on. So, yeah. How did you, how did you run into that idea?
[00:38:30] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah, so that was a friend of mine at work, Moni pointed this out cuz she, her first language isn’t English and she, she joined the company like a week before we started working from home. And she was pretty new to Canada still. So like getting used to hearing people and, and speaking English in, in work environments here.
[00:38:48] And she pointed this out to me probably a year in, I. How it came up. I think I there, so like the company has people from so many different countries. I ran a survey at one point and more than half the company was born outside of Canada before moving to Canada for work or, or school or, or whatever it is.
[00:39:10] and so there are these groups of people who speak specific languages or. Like immigrating to Canada, and this is like a tip that they all knew about and shared where it’s so much easier to understand what people are saying. Like not by just reading, but if you hear something, I got it.
[00:39:27] Same as how like people watch or learn English by like watching Friends with subtitles. And it’s the thing you hear from celebrities a bunch. It’s, it’s kind of the, the same concept of that where the subtitles help you internalize what’s being said. Which I thought was really great. And I think the video calls in general kind of level the playing field for so many different types of people too.
[00:39:49] Like one of the things that’s great about, I wish Google Meet and Zoom would do this, but I really like having calls on Discord because you can increase individual people’s volume. So if, if like one person’s microphone is quiet or they’re like whispering, then you can make it louder or. Even like, I don’t know, sometimes I have a hard time hearing what’s going on in the meeting and I can like individual, like turn the knob on my keyboard to like make things louder if I need to, to, to hear what’s going on.
[00:40:16] And you can’t do that in person. So I, yeah. There, there’s so many interesting benefits of, of like the tools that video call providers give us for, for meeting.
[00:40:28] Simon MacDonald: Yeah, certainly things have gone a lot better since I worked in telecommunications in the late nineties, early two thousands. It’s like, yeah, video calls suck a lot less than they did back in the day.
[00:40:38] But the closed captioning thing, great idea. Can’t wait to use that everywhere now and even in our company. I think we should just normalize having it on. Just if we’re recording any meetings that would be helpful for, for people down the road, so that’s awesome. Yeah, there was, there was another quote, and I forget who it comes from, and it’s probably been said by many people and many different times, but it’s praise and public criticize and private, and I totally agree with that sentiment.
[00:41:07] I grew up in Cape Breton, so the far East coast, and that’s pretty much the way we were, we were brought up is. Any kind of public stuff, you just, you went along with it, but in private is where you would, pull somebody aside and, you know, tell them what, what the problem was or how something bothered you.
[00:41:23] And I was always shocked when I moved Ontario and people didn’t do that immediately. So that was, that was a bit odd. And I was trying to rack my brain. Is there, can you ever think of a good reason to criticize somebody in public? Like I. Couldn’t think of one myself, but I mean, I could be completely wrong.
[00:41:41] Alexandra Sunderland: I’m curious. So like, what do you mean? Like, you came to Ontario and started, people started criticizing in public, Like what, what do you mean?
[00:41:50] Simon MacDonald: So, okay, I started working for a large telecommunication company. I mean, I’ll just say it’s Nortel, It was Nortel back in the late nineties. And I mean, it doesn’t exist.
[00:41:59] Well, it’s still, there’s like four guys who still work there. There’s there’s actually a closet somewhere in Ottawa. That has the Nortel servers that are still running because they have to have them up for patents. So there’s about four guys who keep the, this server going, and it’s really hilarious.
[00:42:16] Couple of years ago I had lunch with all of Nortel. We all fit around a table. It was, it was nuts considering the company used to be like 18,500 people. But anyway. So early nineties or sorry, late nineties, started working at Nortel and I would see managers just absolutely rip into people and criticize 'em for some of the things that they were doing and calling them stupid.
[00:42:37] And it was really shocking to me personally coming from an area of Canada where that type of behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. I don’t wanna say they would take that person out to the wood shed, but they would take that person out to the wood shed metaphorically and have a good talking to.
[00:42:54] But yeah, it was really strange. Obviously it’s gotten better over the past 25 years. And I was, like I said, when I was reading that and nodding along with it, I was trying to think like, Is there any situation where criticizing in public makes sense? And I’m like, I don’t know if there is.
[00:43:04] Alexandra Sunderland: I can think of two situations. And the first is so it, the only situation I think where it’s okay to criticize in public if you’re a manager is if somebody has done something really bad and like hurt people. in front of others and you not saying anything would be a sign that you don’t care.
[00:43:32] So for example, if you’re in a meeting and someone says like, Oh, your idea is stupid, or something like really rude or whatever, if you as a manager don’t address that immediately, then people are gonna wonder like, why? Why aren’t they doing anything? That type of behavior is okay. Even if you go and tell 'em in private, like, You can’t do that.
[00:43:49] That’s not good behavior. It’s gonna make it seem like you let it slide and that, and that you’re fine with it. So I think in, in, in like this, in the moment when things like that help happen, it is very important to say. That’s not fine. Like, and you don’t have to go in depth about it and like reprimand them and, and, and everything there, But you do have to make it clear like, Nope, not okay.
[00:44:10] You can’t do that. So that’s, that’s one situation. The other situation is I think I think as, as a manager, it’s important for people to be able to criticize you in, in front of others. And I. Yeah, it’s definitely, it’s a hard skill to have, but I, I find that giving people permission to talk about why things that I’ve done wrong that they don’t like or, or give constructive feedback.
[00:44:37] Like not, I don’t want anyone to say like, Alexander’s stupid in front of everyone, but I’m, I really like that people give me constructive criticism in front of others because the way. You respond to that shows as long as you’re responding the right way, shows that you appreciate the, the feedback and you respond well to constructive criticism, and that makes it okay for others to do that.
[00:45:03] So for, so like with the retros, one of my big things was like the, when I say you can You can complain about process. You can’t complain about people in the retro unless the person is me, cuz I want people to be able to, to, to bring things up and, and not have the maybe some like untouchable thing that is.
[00:45:23] Above everyone. and so like one of, one of the things I really like doing with retros in particular is at the end of them, I’ll run a feedback survey and ask, What did you like, what did you dislike? A retro after the retro? And we’ll ask, what did you like, What did you not like? What should we do better next time?
[00:45:38] And how did I do as a host of it? But everyone will write their comments and then I’ll anonymize that, summarize it, and instead of just keeping it to myself, which is the easiest default thing that most people do when they, they run feedback surveys, is I in the next team meeting will share that with everyone.
[00:45:56] Say like, This is what everyone said. And I’ll specifically call out the things where people said like, You could have done this better. And I’ll say like, Yeah, I agree. Like, I’m gonna change that next time and I’m gonna work on this. And then, The process of like doing that and just responding well to feedback that people are, are giving you makes people feel like they’re being heard.
[00:46:17] It builds trust, makes people feel like they can come to you with like big things when they go wrong. And so, yeah, I, I’m a big fan of people criticizing managers in public when it’s safe to do some.
[00:46:29] Simon MacDonald: Yeah. And obviously. Anytime there’s any kind of reprehensible behavior like sexism, racism, ageism, that has to be corrected immediately.
[00:46:38] I don’t consider that criticism. I just consider that this person is behaving extremely badly and you can’t let stuff like that go. But I’m really glad to hear that you’re open to criticism and again, how you respond to things. Gives people that idea that this is, it’s very safe space.
[00:46:56] So, you can have an open and honest conversation. And that’s why I wanna say I’m very disappointed that you did not provide chocolate to all of us. Apparently that was an option.
[00:47:06] Alexandra Sunderland: I’ll do better next time.
[00:47:07] Simon MacDonald: Please do.
[00:47:09] Kristopher Joseph: I do like this idea though, of like anything that could negatively affect the culture of the company is open at any point in time to be like, not necessarily a reprimand, but just being like, Hey, you know, this is the culture.
[00:47:21] Like we’re not, we’re trying not to do that. We’re trying to make a safe space. I remember that we had an employee at one point in time had a, you know, different company that made a joke about the code of, of conduct because there’s a thing about like, not harassing people. It’s like, Oh, so. Now I know how I can harass people without breaking the rules.
[00:47:35] And I was like, Hey, no . And I think they even came up in Slack, someone was like, not okay and which is great, right? And that’s what you wanna do. But like it’s hard not to like, I don’t know, as a, trying to step into being a manager. I mean, Simon does a great job at this. And it sounds like you’re amazing at this.
[00:47:52] I am just learning, stepping into a manager role. It. How to know what things would negatively affect culture, especially opening yourself up for, discussion.
[00:48:01] Simon MacDonald: Like, Hey, what am I doing right or wrong? I don’t really know.
[00:48:04] Kristopher Joseph: Like , if there’s any pointers you have around how you get feedback. We talked about radical candor at one point in time, which I thought was really interesting, in practice, you know, not everyone’s as comfortable with being radically candorish.
[00:48:18] Kristopher Joseph: So do you have any thoughts on that?
[00:48:19] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah. So it, it takes a lot of effort before you’re able to just ask people like, Do you have feedback for me? What should I change? Like, and, and that’s kind of hard no matter what. So what I like to do is start by asking very specific pointed questions, which I think is maybe mentioned in the book as well, like, don’t remember, cause it’s been a few years.
[00:48:38] But instead of saying, so, like, especially when I became a manager, The first few months I was really scared that I wasn’t doing a good job and people didn’t like me. And cuz I had been, I was managing people who were formerly my peers. And so I, I was, I felt kind of awkward about that and I ran a feedback survey cause I’d been asking for feedback and they were like, Nope.
[00:48:55] Awesome. Good job. Like, That’s it, which isn’t helpful at all. And I found by asking specific questions like, how do you feel about the support that I’m giving you? Or How do you think I’m doing running these projects? Or what could I do better to help you grow in your career? Things like that. Get people thinking about very specific things and it’s, it’s a lot harder to say like, Oh, I have nothing to say about that specific thing than it is to come up with something to say.
[00:49:24] So I. I, I really like doing that and, and also something I’ve, I’ve noticed. People’s background and culture comes into play with how they give feedback a lot too. And I just read this book called The Culture Map by Aaron Meyer, which was super interesting, especially cuz my, my team, like at one point there was someone from like every person the team was from a different country.
[00:49:44] And I noticed the way people give feedback is so different cuz some people would be like this is what’s wrong here. That’s it. And it would be like really harsh and I felt really bad. But then other people would from like different kind of softer cultures would be like, Oh, everything’s amazing.
[00:50:01] Nothing’s wrong at all. There’s just this tiny little thing that could maybe be addressed, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s totally fine. And it would be something like massive that was really the end of the world. And they’d just be like, sugar coating it. Not cuz they were trying to be nice. It’s just that’s the way that certain cultures give feedback or it’s very like, read between the lines.
[00:50:19] So I found having Like understanding those differences and being able to really read through what people are saying helped me in, in like absorbing feedback too. That’s great.
[00:50:30] Kristopher Joseph: I actually wish I would’ve heard this years ago. I had a, a team where I worked with a Newfoundlander and a Berliner on the same team and talk about contrast.
[00:50:39] It was intense. You very much suck at this job that you’re doing. Like, oh, thank you so much. Like, you’re all right. Like, I don’t know which one to listen to. That’s cool. That’s a really good, I’m gonna read that book now.
[00:50:43] Simon MacDonald: I mean, the. The Berliner is gonna be very blunt with their estimation and the Newfoundlander if they like you, is also gonna be very blunt with it.
[00:50:57] If they don’t think you can handle it, they will sugarcoat it. That is a definitely an East Coast culture thing. We wait until we’re sure that you can handle our sarcasm before we dive in completely. I have made people cry before. I have learned not to do that until I get to know people better.
[00:51:14] Kristopher Joseph: I just turned my camera off when you make me cry.
[00:51:15] Simon MacDonald: That’s my trick. So yeah, it’s what I realized that I’ve gone to far when you, you keep saying it’s because your camera’s acting up, but I know, I know you’re shedding a tear at that point in time. Yeah. With, with regards to the, the culture thing.
[00:51:29] I worked for a manager few years back, and they were from the Salt Lake City area, and he was the nicest person you have ever met. He would not say a bad word about anybody, but that made it very difficult to get feedback because you weren’t sure if you were doing a great job or a terrible job because the feedback was exactly the same.
[00:51:47] After working with him for a few years, I was able to kind of suss out what he was really trying to say and it was very useful for me because we would go into meetings and he would sound like he was promising the world to the people in the meeting when he was actually saying no. So politely that he gave him the exact opposite impression.
[00:52:07] So he would leave the meeting and then I would. The bad guy. I’d be like, By the way, he said, No. It’s like, that’s not what we heard. I know that’s not what you heard, but he said no. If he would’ve meant yes, he would’ve said yes, but he went 20 minutes talking around the issue, not actually saying yes.
[00:52:24] You just didn’t realize that because he was being too polite and they’re like, Huh. Okay. So yeah, culture is, is just fascinating. As you go to different parts of the, the country and different parts of the world work with work with some Norwegians, you will get a blunt assessment of your capabilities, which is great too.
[00:52:42] Jesper: I agree. I’m from Norway, we are direct.
[00:52:46] Simon MacDonald: Yeah. And I love it. I absolutely love it. It’s very appreciated. It’s just for some people in North America, they’re not aware of that. And it, it’s, they kind of take it as an attack. And as long as you’re aware that it’s kind of the thing. The fundamental attribution problem where people think everybody thinks like that.
[00:53:04] Everybody acts like that. And it’s like, no, that’s not the case. You know, people grew up in different countries, different cultures, languages. They approach things way differently. So anyway, just you have to kind of take it as it comes and, and take that feedback differently. I too worked in a, a team.
[00:53:20] There was 25 of us that I don’t think any of us were from the same country or at least the same region of Canada. We all, everybody spoke a different language. It was pretty amazing. My favorite part was we had one Mandarin speaker and one Cantonese speaker. So they would actually communicate over like a text messaging thing instead of trying to, to talk to each other, because that was the most efficient way that they could do it.
[00:53:42] So it was pretty neat. Anyway. That’s cool. We’ve kept you for an hour now, and it’s been a great conversation. I just wanna give people a chance to, to chime in with any more questions before we start wrapping things up. All right. Well, Awesome. Then. Well, I just really want to thank you for coming on.
[00:54:04] I really enjoyed the book. I got my copy right here. It’s gonna go on my bookshelf next to a bunch of the other Apress books I’ve been reading recently. It was great. And tell us where we can follow your work and what you’re, what you’re doing these days.
[00:54:17] Alexandra Sunderland: Yeah, so I have a lot of stuff coming up cause I’ve gone to do so many interviews and things after publishing the book.
[00:54:24] So everything’s being posted on Twitter and LinkedIn where searching Alexander Sunderland can bring that up. I have a, a Superbosses episode coming out in November where I talk more about culture and management things, and specifically also an article coming out. on, Actually, I don’t know.
[00:54:42] So I’m supposed to say, Yeah. So I’ll wait. But an article coming out about me, about the culture stuff as well, Specifically how it relates to writing code. Yeah. I, I had so much fun though. Thank you so much for having me here.
[00:54:54] Simon MacDonald: Yeah, it was awesome. We’re so happy to have you here. And for folks who are watching this after the fact We’re also gonna be doing a conversation with Charles Petzold in November.
[00:55:03] Yeah, that’s next month on his book Code, the second edition. So I’m really interested in that because one of his books on Windows programming enabled me to pass a university course because without that, I would’ve had no idea to COM the DLLs or whatever was going on at that time with Windows Operating Systems.
[00:55:21] So looking forward to that talk as well. All right. Thanks everybody, and we’ll see you next month.
[00:55:26] Alexandra Sunderland: Thanks.