Work in the Open
How to not suck at remote working
The following was written in a private repository when I led an engineering team at a multi-billion dollar software development company. The company and its workflows started off to terrific success through operating loosely as “pro open source”. Yet slowly as the company scaled, the verve was lost. On urge from a much endeared colleague, I am publishing this failed attempt at restoring balance into the public sphere.
At the time of my exit, the organization as a whole failed to identify what made it work well. It did not know what to amplify and scale post-public offering in tech-in-2018 hyper-scale. People kept coming. People kept leaving. Decision making moved into the shadows. Consensus disappeared. People with no remote experience were hired into significant positions. Middle management sought “fix-all” workflow tooling before understanding open source Ethos or Logos.
In short: the organization forgot how to work in the open.
Many teams were forced into remote work because of COVID. Many have since learned that it has its own unique and very difficult operational and social challenges.
The reality is simply that many people are not well suited for using remote work to run high functioning teams or to create high quality work. Your office job is not your remote job. And you probably suck at working remotely because you are failing to work in the open.
Working in the open is a team value. For those of you who are newer or have not heard the rationale in depth, my goal is to answer the “why” and express what it means to work well in the open.
Working in the open means that context is kept free and not confined. Transparency happens when context around decision making is open and available. Transparency is essential for:
A remote environment to function well
Sustaining a positive team psyche
Developing a fair habitat for growth and opportunity
If your pattern is to communicate through direct messages or in private channels, then the knowledge and the contributors and the decision making process remain hidden from the team. You are – without malice — working against a transparent and fair and psychologically healthy team environment.
Hidden context is a dire anti-pattern for three key reasons:
The first was alluded to above: attribution. If you spend time helping people and providing expertise in a channel that is not visible, then that work cannot be attributed back to you. We assume good faith and this is not to suggest that your colleagues have “evil” agendas and want to take credit for your work. But, you know, that can happen and sometimes they do. 😜
In the more common case you can spend your time assisting people that other — often managerial — people are then unable to reward and recognize. You could spend significant time providing an invaluable service to a person or to many people and be bettering the team. But when it is time to reward you for your hard work, then there is no paper trail. Maybe not a big deal for the selflessly idealistic, but over time it leads to disgruntlement and as is next: it does not scale at all.
The second reason is scalability. Remote teams grow fast and in weird directions. Private context is buried context and someone new cannot benefit from it. If you become “the secret go-to” for all things “Platform” or “Connectors” or “Interfaces”, then the best you have done is transferred tribal knowledge, from human to human, in a 1-to-1 relationship and received a spritz of dopamine for your efforts.
Were this to have been in the open then this private context becomes the team’s context. It becomes onboarding, either in providing accessibility to the present communication pattern or in creating a more thorough, historical breadcrumb trail. It becomes a feather in your cap. It is your proof. If you create it genuinely in the open then you do not need to fabricate it elsewhere (politics).
Team knowledge is for the team. Working in the open ensures knowledge is not confined solely in one person. Thoughts become 1-to-many. You scale much wider with the same effort. Your knowledge becomes everyone’s.
The third reason is psychological health. If communicating in the open feels like being imprisoned in a Panopticon where someone is always watching and judging and thinking less of you for not having all the answers — well, then — we have failed to make an open working culture that is psychologically safe and supportive of learning and executing. Then I have failed as a lead, in a profound way.
It takes courage to not know something in intellect heavy environments. It takes courage to say: “I don’t know”, or “This is hard, I’m confused”, or to ask questions that expose the truth that you do not understand how everything works at all times. Let me set the tone: I have no idea how any of this “really” works and make everything up on the spot.
If you do not have the courage to look fallible in front of others then the working culture as a whole is poor and the accomplishment of our goals is at risk. Without courage, we cannot gain confidence together. Without courage, we cannot grow as a team. If you do not expose the roughness and the rawness, then in its absence you create something much worse. We shoot ourselves in the foot.
Through the lack of deep in-person physical connection and through the hue of various time zones and cultural values it becomes easy — and indeed very normal — to create personal narratives around the people with which you work and the scenarios that you experience. If there is no clear and transparent context that informs positive motive and fair decision making, then you will create narratives to explain these motives.
These often subconsciously created motives can spiral into resentment and become alien to the characters that they involve to the dire impact of everyone. And it will all be based on an individual neurotic state that is known to one and one alone.
Assuming good faith is no salve. Working in the open is. If we hide the insecurities and wither alone in a bubble, we can never grow past them. Each person that joins the team will wonder “Am I smart enough? Am I missing context? Am I doing the right things?" and risk falling into the same trap. All so you the well-intended and curious student or the well-tenured knowledge holder can avoid the perceived personal risk of being human or noisy in public.
We can — and should — work to remove this feeling and better our team by putting our words and feelings in public, raw. It is not “noise”. It is the real state of what we know and do not know and need to know. It is how we are feeling, whether we’re around and what we’re focused on. It is our strategy and it is our tactics. It is our truthful state. All together it creates the right space for a high functioning international team.
Open context creates fair opportunity. The working systems we must develop exchange trust for autonomy. You earn trust and in exchange you receive autonomy. The open functions we leverage like GitHub issues, project briefs, Slack channels, emails (preferably), pull requests and similar are all systems wherein we earn trust and prove merit. This currency is the lifeblood of a healthy remote team. It can only be earned from public work.
Please work in the open.
Use more simple language. Consult the Hemingway app for guidance.
Avoid direct messages unless they are very personal, which is cool.
Put extra flavour in your written standup. We are not robots. Feelings, random events, random thoughts or whatever is all relevant and valuable. Just know your audience.
Private channels are for sensitive information. Sensitive information is related to security and disclosure, human resourcing concerns and similar.
Alignment takes time. Dialogue takes time. Open large threads, ambitious topics on philosophy, meta-programming, team building, vision; whatever. Just remember: no one is obligated to buy-in and mind unreasonable distractions.
Use the mailing lists for “more formal” communication.
Use Slack for “more informal” communication.
Create clear boundaries with personal phones and notifications and similar.
Zero expectation for general, un-abiding availability. Get a life!
Learn to filter.
Another similar writing is Conway’s Law. In both I have tried to make a case for “remote working soft skills” that engineers will acquiesce.
Thanks for reading.