Meet the website builders at 10up, a distributed company with team members around the globe
US company 10up started life as a distributed company that invested in people - not office space. It now has a global team of more than 120, from software engineers to user interface experts, all working together remotely to build great websites and tools for content creators.myworkhive caught up with John Ragozzine, Lead Communications Manager at 10up, to find out more about working in a truly distributed team.
Has 10up always been a distributed company?
10up was set up as a distributed company from the very beginning. It started with one person, who decided to invest in finding great people, and not expensive office space. It means we can find the right people for the job, wherever they are. And it can be cost-effective too. We’re not based in a particular city with a high cost of living, which helps keep salary costs under control.
Was this your first remote job, and was the fact you could work remotely a key factor in you applying?
I’d worked remotely before, but this was my first full-time, fully remote role. Actually, I prefer the term ‘distributed’ to remote – we’re all working in different locations, so none of us is actually ‘remote’ from a central part of the company. Working this way has been great. It meant that, when my family and I moved across the country, I could take my job with me. It was a big shift in mindset to realise I just didn’t need to commute anymore.
What was the interview process like? Was it a remote interview?
10up generally has a virtual hiring process. We use Hangouts, Zoom, standard phone-calls – whatever works. I was interviewed by phone or online with several team members, living in locations from Alaska to Maine.
Can you tell us what it was like to start work in a remote team? What was the on-boarding process like?
10up has developed a self-guided onboarding process using BaseCamp. Basically, it’s up to you to go through the information and complete the various tasks. I liked it – I think it’s less passive, you’re more in control of the process and what you do when. It does mean you need to be self-motivated and take ownership of the process, which is a pretty good quality for anyone working in a distributed team anyway.
I think being in a distributed team means everyone has to really level up their communications skills…You also need to be able to self-manage and push yourself.
What’s your work setup like? Do you work at home, or do you prefer to work in other locations?
I have an office at home. If you are based at home, I think it’s vital to have a separate, dedicated work-space. You really need good boundaries between work life and home life, and I think having a separate office space helps with that. It also help you to be more professional. We deal with clients all the time, and it wouldn’t work for us having someone dialling in to meetings from the beach, for example.
I also keep a fairly consistent work schedule, although hours can vary especially if you’re working in client-facing role.
Working this way has been really great. I can do the daycare drop-off and pick-up, walk the dog at lunchtime. My wife hopes that I’ll always work from home!
With colleagues all over the world, how do you handle working in different time zones?
About 70% of 10up team members are based in North America. We also have people in Western and Eastern Europe, plus India, Africa and South America. We don’t mind where people are based – though you do need a really good, reliable internet connection, and a suitable work setup.
We use different tools to stay in touch and communicate. We also focus on finding the right people with the mindset to work this way. And we try to pair clients with 10up staff in the same time zone, if we can. Sometimes, if you’re working in a team over multiple time zones, people do need to be a bit flexible about shifting their day around to work either a little bit early or later in the evening, to make sure that everyone in that team can spend some time working together.
You don’t work in the same place as your colleagues day-to-day – how do teams communicate and work together?
I first joined 10up as a Team Lead. I was managing teams – actually, we call them pods – of around 5-20 people, sometimes with 12 projects at once. I used weekly team meetings, plus check-ins with individuals, to keep in touch. You need lots of purposeful check-ins in a distributed team, as you aren’t casually bumping in to each other in the way you do in an office. We moved to Slack last April, and we use different Slack channels for different groups. We also use Beanstalk to manage code reviews.
I think being in a distributed team means everyone has to really level up their communications skills. That includes lots of different ways of communicating – like being able to create great documentation. You also need to be able to self-manage and push yourself.
Some remote/distributed companies have a famously relaxed approach to working hours, with people setting their own hours and vacations. What’s 10up’s approach?
Because we’re billing time to clients, that wouldn’t really work for us. We do use things like time sheets – that lets us see if we’re estimating the time we’ll need for a piece of work well, or if it needs a little more time, so we can adjust things before it becomes a problem. We track holidays and so on like most companies do.
What about tricky personnel problems, how is that dealt with in a remote/distributed team – is it harder, when you’re not speaking face-to-face?
Actually, I think that video calls are as good as face-to-face communication, so that’s one way to handle tough discussions. If it’s a performance issue, if someone needs a little bit more help, we agree on a performance plan, setting out really clear expectations, and we check in every day to see how things are going. If someone is struggling with a personal issue, again, we check in really regularly and keep communicating. Building up trust and checking-in regularly are both really vital.
Having a more text-based communication system in Slack can also be a great way of solving problems – you’ve got a record there, so you can see where problems might have crept in or if someone perhaps wasn’t communicating things clearly.
How do you have a work social life, when your colleagues are all in different locations?
I think things are changing – we’re all more and more used to using social media to communicate with our real-world friends online. So its not that big a leap to communicating this way with work colleagues. After a few years working together, you do get to know people, and their families, even if you don’t meet up often. 10up also hosts an annual get-together, a Summit – last year 110 people came along. So that’s a great chance to meet and socialise in person. Funding the Summit is pretty cost-effective, when you compare it to all the savings on office space.
10up encourages its people to give back, from sharing expertise at conferences to volunteering on open source projects.
Has working remotely had any impact on your work-life balance?
It’s been really great. I can do the daycare drop-off and pick-up, walk the dog at lunchtime. My wife hopes that I’ll always work from home!