Hi, everyone. Thank you for the great response to the first round of Turing’s Distinguished Leader Series (with Henrik Hussfelt, Director of Engineering at Proxy).
Today I’m talking with Darren Murph, the Head of Remote at GitLab. Darren may be the first person ever to hold the Head of Remote Title at a top-tier tech company. GitLab has a reputation for excellence with remotely distributed teams. In the discussion below, Darren reveals many of the techniques GitLab uses to make remote work hyper-productive.
Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab
Jonathan Siddharth, Turing:
Welcome to Turing’s Distinguished Leader Series, Darren. We are conducting this series to bring together leaders who are experts in building distributed teams.
So, Darren, you are the Head of Remote at GitLab, a 1300 person globally distributed company built entirely in the cloud. Could you share a little bit about how you became Head of Remote and got to embracing remote work and distributed teams?
Yeah, so I’ve been working across the remote spectrum for over 15 years my entire career. And the last two years at GitLab are my first stint in an all-remote company. I remember when I first heard about GitLab. I learned it had absolutely no company-owned offices, and it was an intentional decision. I had to sit down and process this. I thought, how in the world has this company already invented a future that I always longed for? I felt like I was pushing the remote work rock uphill, and now COVID has greatly democratized that conversation. I’m excited that more of the world is eager to learn more about doing it well.
I joined GitLab in July of 2019 as their Head of Remote. To my knowledge, this was the first-ever remote head anywhere in the world. And now, many other companies like Dropbox and Facebook are also hiring directors of remote work. Companies realize that this is a massive change in how they operationalize their company, convert tacit knowledge, and apply it to documented knowledge. So it’s been an enjoyable journey. I’ve worked across marketing, comms, and organizational development. I do a bit of all of that in this role. It’s very cross-functional.
What advice would you have for the founder who’s building her company in a remote-first fashion on day zero? What is something that they should think about? For example, let’s say this is a founder who has raised $2 million, currently based in the Bay Area, and they would like to go the GitLab route and go fully remote-first. What advice would you have for some of them?
So step one would be to pressure test any of your company’s workflows and cultural underpinnings to make sure that they are resilient and work outside of the office. By default, a lot of workflows are office-first. If you have something you rely on, you should audit that and convert it to a remote-first workflow. There are plenty of excellent tools that allow you to do that collaboration digitally so that even if you choose to go into an office, you would still go about your work in a remote-first fashion.
And this kind of ties into point two: trying to set the tone from a cultural standpoint. Things aren’t about the physical location; they’re about how and not where work gets done. I’ll share with you one other thing that we have seen work for us and has had beneficial compounding interest over the years: document early, create a company handbook, create a single source of truth. When you’re just two or three or ten people, you don’t need to document, but be mindful that it’s easiest to start this when you have a small team. It pays dividends down the road.
Tacit knowledge is a fundamental part of building the company culture. In a remote setting, you can’t afford to have tacit knowledge. You have to document how you work with one another explicitly. So it’s not enough to just say we value collaboration at our company. You have to write down what collaboration looks like. GitLab’s values are open source, and they’re available online.
We explicitly say that we collaborate with short toes. This phrase means that anyone can contribute to anyone else’s domain without the fear of stepping on someone’s toes, as we all have short toes. This practice enables people who have never met face-to-face to gain a shared understanding of how you want to treat each other and how work gets done.
By systematically documenting things, you can imagine how this would make even a co-located team have greater cohesion. You would need fewer check-ins by each other’s desks to get a status update even within the office. These principles make the transition seem less daunting. These are just great business principles, but a lot of it is part tooling and part culture. You have to have both of those tracks going in the same direction for maximum effectiveness.
That makes a lot of sense. Is there any function or role that you found to be challenging to work within a remote context?
That depends on the industry. For example, sales and customer service cannot necessarily be negatively impacted by remote, but they have less flexibility than some of the other roles. For example, many of these customer service roles must require working from a particular hour to a specific hour, so there’s less ability for them to work a nonlinear workday.
What I’ve seen in sales is that a lot of deals happen because relationships exist. Around the globe, there are some cultures where an in-person moment at some point in the sales process is critical in ensuring that the transaction happened. So certainly, there will be areas where in-person moments are beneficial.
I would offer this to companies who are all remote and don’t have any headquarters: make sure that you invest in travel and leverage appropriate touchpoints to ensure that those in-person elements are there. The goal here is not to create a company where people never see each other. The goal is to create a company where you empower people to do their best work around the globe and also invest in getting people together when it makes sense for the business.
It makes a lot of sense. Is there something that you would recommend to ensure that the people in the company formed the right relationships with each other?
You have to be very intentional about formal communication. There are a couple of things right off the bat that you should implement. One is an onboarding buddy. Make sure that every new hire is paired with someone that’s already in the company and knows a bit about what their role entails, and have them proactively set up coffee chats with key stakeholders.
The other thing is to consider getting teams together every quarter or bi-annually. So make sure that you invest in getting people together. The other thing I’ll mention here is the link between transparency in work and the sense of belonging. And so what we have seen is that if you provide greater transparency and visibility to work that’s happening, it’s easier for employees to feel like a part of a team.
I try to look at everything through the lens of opportunity and abundance instead of scarcity and fear. And this is one critical example of a remote workplace being far more amenable in a co-located space. When everyone is on the same proverbial floor and just one click away, it is much easier to be transparent.
That makes a lot of sense. And do you recommend having any kind of structured in-person meetups happening at a certain cadence, or do you kind of let it happen organically, where the understanding is, if you want to meet, the company will pay for travel transportation, etc.? How much of it goes bottoms-up vs. some top-down recommendations on bridging the remote, in-person development?
We’ve seen top-down set the tone, which fosters a lot of bottoms-up contributions. So I would recommend getting the entire team together once a year if at all possible. As your team scales, this will become more difficult, but do everything you can to bring people together, at least, optionally. It makes a big difference. You’ll find that a remote team’s in-person time is best used for cultural building and rapport building.
You can certainly do some strategy work during those times, but make sure you leave a lot of open space for people just to do their thing. Especially in sales and customer support, who interact a lot together: try to get them together quarterly or bi-annually. You want to make sure that if someone asks you: “Hey, when’s the next time we’re getting together?” you at least have an IOU together.
It’s great to hear that. What advice would you have for a people manager who will be managing a distributed team for the first time? What should she keep in mind to handle this globally distributed team spanning multiple times? What are some common pitfalls people usually encounter when managing a distributed team for the first time?
At GitLab, we have a substantiating value called ‘Assume Positive Intent.’ Remote managers must assume positive intent, no matter what.
The second thing is to assume that the company is the issue. For many managers, if they’re sensing underperformance or maybe some apathy, it’s their default to believe that the problem is the employee. But in fact, you should assume that the company isn’t providing adequate documentation for adequate upskilling and workplace benefits.
The reason why I would recommend approaching it from the company-first angle is that, if indeed there is a void in documentation or the collaboration flow, if you solve it for one person, you now have solved it for the entire organization. So it is a much more scalable way to look at challenges.
The last thing is, all remote managers should see themselves less as a director and more as an unblocker. First, you have to create a psychologically safe atmosphere where your direct reports are comfortable coming to you with challenges. And then, your goal is to unblock them as fast as possible so that they can run as fast as possible. There’s a fantastic book called High Output Management that you can refer to for the same. An unblocker as a manager seeks to unblock as many people as possible to create massive amounts of leverage for the people who report to them.
My conversation with Darren Murph will continue with part two of this interview where we discuss how GitLab uses GitLab, the best way for remote-first companies to use video communications like Zoom, and how you should deal with the tricky issue of timezones. You don’t want to miss it!
Fintech Kennek raises $12.5M seed round to digitize lending
London-based fintech startup Kennek has raised $12.5 million in seed funding to expand its lending operating system.
According to an Oct. 10 tech.eu report, the round was led by HV Capital and included participation from Dutch Founders Fund, AlbionVC, FFVC, Plug & Play Ventures, and Syndicate One. Kennek offers software-as-a-service tools to help non-bank lenders streamline their operations using open banking, open finance, and payments.
The platform aims to automate time-consuming manual tasks and consolidate fragmented data to simplify lending. Xavier De Pauw, founder of Kennek said:
“Until kennek, lenders had to devote countless hours to menial operational tasks and deal with jumbled and hard-coded data – which makes every other part of lending a headache. As former lenders ourselves, we lived and breathed these frustrations, and built kennek to make them a thing of the past.”
The company said the latest funding round was oversubscribed and closed quickly despite the challenging fundraising environment. The new capital will be used to expand Kennek’s engineering team and strengthen its market position in the UK while exploring expansion into other European markets. Barbod Namini, Partner at lead investor HV Capital, commented on the investment:
“Kennek has developed an ambitious and genuinely unique proposition which we think can be the foundation of the entire alternative lending space. […] It is a complicated market and a solution that brings together all information and stakeholders onto a single platform is highly compelling for both lenders & the ecosystem as a whole.”
The fintech lending space has grown rapidly in recent years, but many lenders still rely on legacy systems and manual processes that limit efficiency and scalability. Kennek aims to leverage open banking and data integration to provide lenders with a more streamlined, automated lending experience.
The seed funding will allow the London-based startup to continue developing its platform and expanding its team to meet demand from non-bank lenders looking to digitize operations. Kennek’s focus on the UK and Europe also comes amid rising adoption of open banking and open finance in the regions.
Featured Image Credit: Photo from Kennek.io; Thank you!
Fortune 500’s race for generative AI breakthroughs
As excitement around generative AI grows, Fortune 500 companies, including Goldman Sachs, are carefully examining the possible applications of this technology. A recent survey of U.S. executives indicated that 60% believe generative AI will substantially impact their businesses in the long term. However, they anticipate a one to two-year timeframe before implementing their initial solutions. This optimism stems from the potential of generative AI to revolutionize various aspects of businesses, from enhancing customer experiences to optimizing internal processes. In the short term, companies will likely focus on pilot projects and experimentation, gradually integrating generative AI into their operations as they witness its positive influence on efficiency and profitability.
Goldman Sachs’ Cautious Approach to Implementing Generative AI
In a recent interview, Goldman Sachs CIO Marco Argenti revealed that the firm has not yet implemented any generative AI use cases. Instead, the company focuses on experimentation and setting high standards before adopting the technology. Argenti recognized the desire for outcomes in areas like developer and operational efficiency but emphasized ensuring precision before putting experimental AI use cases into production.
According to Argenti, striking the right balance between driving innovation and maintaining accuracy is crucial for successfully integrating generative AI within the firm. Goldman Sachs intends to continue exploring this emerging technology’s potential benefits and applications while diligently assessing risks to ensure it meets the company’s stringent quality standards.
One possible application for Goldman Sachs is in software development, where the company has observed a 20-40% productivity increase during its trials. The goal is for 1,000 developers to utilize generative AI tools by year’s end. However, Argenti emphasized that a well-defined expectation of return on investment is necessary before fully integrating generative AI into production.
To achieve this, the company plans to implement a systematic and strategic approach to adopting generative AI, ensuring that it complements and enhances the skills of its developers. Additionally, Goldman Sachs intends to evaluate the long-term impact of generative AI on their software development processes and the overall quality of the applications being developed.
Goldman Sachs’ approach to AI implementation goes beyond merely executing models. The firm has created a platform encompassing technical, legal, and compliance assessments to filter out improper content and keep track of all interactions. This comprehensive system ensures seamless integration of artificial intelligence in operations while adhering to regulatory standards and maintaining client confidentiality. Moreover, the platform continuously improves and adapts its algorithms, allowing Goldman Sachs to stay at the forefront of technology and offer its clients the most efficient and secure services.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Google DeepMind; Pexels; Thank you!
UK seizes web3 opportunity simplifying crypto regulations
As Web3 companies increasingly consider leaving the United States due to regulatory ambiguity, the United Kingdom must simplify its cryptocurrency regulations to attract these businesses. The conservative think tank Policy Exchange recently released a report detailing ten suggestions for improving Web3 regulation in the country. Among the recommendations are reducing liability for token holders in decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) and encouraging the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to adopt alternative Know Your Customer (KYC) methodologies, such as digital identities and blockchain analytics tools. These suggestions aim to position the UK as a hub for Web3 innovation and attract blockchain-based businesses looking for a more conducive regulatory environment.
Streamlining Cryptocurrency Regulations for Innovation
To make it easier for emerging Web3 companies to navigate existing legal frameworks and contribute to the UK’s digital economy growth, the government must streamline cryptocurrency regulations and adopt forward-looking approaches. By making the regulatory landscape clear and straightforward, the UK can create an environment that fosters innovation, growth, and competitiveness in the global fintech industry.
The Policy Exchange report also recommends not weakening self-hosted wallets or treating proof-of-stake (PoS) services as financial services. This approach aims to protect the fundamental principles of decentralization and user autonomy while strongly emphasizing security and regulatory compliance. By doing so, the UK can nurture an environment that encourages innovation and the continued growth of blockchain technology.
Despite recent strict measures by UK authorities, such as His Majesty’s Treasury and the FCA, toward the digital assets sector, the proposed changes in the Policy Exchange report strive to make the UK a more attractive location for Web3 enterprises. By adopting these suggestions, the UK can demonstrate its commitment to fostering innovation in the rapidly evolving blockchain and cryptocurrency industries while ensuring a robust and transparent regulatory environment.
The ongoing uncertainty surrounding cryptocurrency regulations in various countries has prompted Web3 companies to explore alternative jurisdictions with more precise legal frameworks. As the United States grapples with regulatory ambiguity, the United Kingdom can position itself as a hub for Web3 innovation by simplifying and streamlining its cryptocurrency regulations.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Jonathan Borba; Pexels; Thank you!