Jake Goldman

Distributed straw men

August 14, 2014

While hardly my only rationale, Chris correctly identifies the central tenant in my case for distributed teams as “finding the best.” In essence, looking everywhere for talent is increasingly vital in a competitive, global market for high skill, diffuse talent, at a time when there’s increasingly less friction involved in remote collaboration. He proceeds to construct a counterargument based on the premise that he’s not looking to build a team of the best, and digs in, suggesting building a team from the best is a fool’s errand, contingent on getting “really lucky.”

Professing to not hire “the best” seemed an odd admission, until I realized he was constructing a straw man visualization of “the best”, painting a cartoonish picture of remote teams that are unable to effectively collaborate, indifferent to mentorship and growth, and filled with Gregory House types.

Did not work on a distributed team.

Did not work on a distributed team.

In reality, as I write this post, I’m remotely conversing with our Director of Engineering about adjustments to the engineering mentorship role 10up carves out for each pod in the form of a technical lead. And while I’m proud of the rockstars we’ve attracted (we’ve also declined or respectfully parted ways with more than you might think), I’m even more proud that our biggest stars didn’t begin anywhere near rockstar status. That’s not to say that we can’t strengthen growth programs: we can, and are. That’s not to say that remote collaboration – all things equal - isn’t slightly more difficult across the continent: it is. It is to say that it’s quite doable, and to the extent everything else is not equal – we’re able to pick culture and skill fit from a hugely broader pool – a global team is still the better option for us.

Let’s be clear: when I say we’re looking for the best, I mean the best fit. As with any viable business, the best fit is a subjective mix of innate promise and aptitude for our work (some of our “best” came right out of school, one hadn’t held a traditional job in a decade), preexisting skill and education, culture fit, personality match, and cost, among other criteria. I think we can find the most promising talent by entertaining a global candidate pool, not just the biggest rockstars. His characterization of “the best” as essentially abrasive rockstars mischaracterizes my position. The notion that pioneers of the remote model - Automattic, Basecamp, Mozilla, the WordPress project itself - succeed by virtue of pure luck in hiring borders on insulting (though I’m certain it was not intended as such).

Let’s be clear: when I say we’re looking for the best, I mean the best fit.

The concluding notion, that everyone with a college degree, in all corners, has the same aptitude and interest for the kind of work a premium, high performance team like 10up does, that there’s no baseline skill set subject to shortage in fixed geographies, borders on the demagogic. One need only look at just how much capital companies in places like San Francisco – where there is a concentration of such skill and schools – invest in trying to find the right hires.

As is often the case, I agree entirely with Chris’s caution about rockstar egos, his emphasis on team building and mentorship, and what matters to clients. Less so when it comes to disassociating these values from a definition of the “best”, and implying that distributed models represent their antithesis by knocking “Skype meetings”.

Speaking of Hub and Spoke

August 8, 2014

10up was designed from the ground up to be a distributed agency. At the time, I had a really good reason and a rather lame reason.

The good reason: I’d spent the last 5 years in leadership positions at consultancies, a “hub and spoke” model with 3 offices around the country and a few one man “stations”, and one company with a centralized office adding a space in a larger city to expand its talent pool. At both shops, I played a central role in recruiting production talent. While building the latter team, I was beginning my immersion into the WordPress community, notably the WordCamp phenomenon, where I met amazing talent all over the country. I became convinced that the idea that one could build the best possible team while limiting ones self to one – or three – 50 mile geographic living radii was faulty.

Costs & Benefits

This is not to say I was oblivious to the benefits of in person collaboration, having worked with both local and very remote clientssome of whom were involved in the technical builds, as well. It was to say that the costs of remote collaboration had fallen dramatically over the last decade: from reasonably good and incredibly cheap home video conferencing and collaboration tools, to the rising dominance of ever-connected smart phones, to access-anywhere based collaboration tools like Google Docs and Basecamp, the barriers to good remote collaboration were falling quickly. There was also precedent to model, with 37signals (now Basecamp) and our community’s own Automattic leading the remote charge.

At the same time, the benefits of “hiring anywhere” were rising rapidly in our space. I saw an increasingly sub-specialized web technology industry where that sub-specialized talent was becoming even more diffuse and in-house training was becoming more difficult. Put in simpler terms: the number of web technologists, broadly, was rising steadily, but the number of areas requiring specialization was rising much faster. The net effect: it was harder to find someone really good at a specific, high skill task in one geographic area, and the increasing complexities of our work was making training and mentorship increasingly more costly, especially when you consider that the average job-span in the technology sector, and other youth dominated industries, is about 2-3 years (and hence the return on training investment much smaller).

I also mentioned that I had a lame reason: and while it feels unbecoming to say that in a time of great personal change, I didn’t know where wanted to live in 6 months or 3 years, it’s actually a pretty good reason when you consider how commonplace that is in the labor market. From military spouses to talent that hasn’t settled down in their personal life, the distributed model is incredibly attractive to a significant fraction of the talent market that is increasingly transitive, be it by necessity (traveling families) or lifestyle preference.

There are other benefits to the distributed model:

WordPress as an App Platform?

September 8, 2013

A slightly overweight 47-year-old walks up and says, “I plan to become the next Olympic medalist for track. What do you think?” I say, “Well, I like where you’re headed, anyways.”

In fairness, that guy would probably never make it to the Olympics. WordPress features many app framework and platform hallmarks, including core APIs and methods that automate and simplify otherwise complex operations like user authentication and remote data interaction. WordPress succeeds spectacularly largely because it emphasizes the publisher experience atop a capable, approachable, and open platform. Business-minded decision makers selecting a publishing system aren’t terribly interested in nuanced argument about PHP’s suitability to object-oriented software engineering.

So when the conversation is about “the best platform for content delivery and management”, there’s a compelling, evidence-based argument for WordPress. If the conversation is about “the best platform to engineer apps on top of”, it’s unclear that objective evaluation – of this admittedly murky and broad criteria – leads to “WordPress”, largely because this is a debate about the comparative merit of platform architecture. In a debate about architecture and engineering prowess, the freshest technologies – free from legacy weight and optimized for the latest real world use cases – are bound to excel. Our vision for auto-updates (Chrome-like updates that happen in the background without intervention) – which can succeed only with virtually guaranteed backwards compatibility – conflicts with a vision of a competitive, fresh software platform.

Unhealthy temptations

Some tangential, important context: I understand the temptation of a loyal, often insular community to think of every possible project as a nail when they only carry a hammer (Tom McFarlin effectively articulates the same point). There’s a cautionary joke told by doctors: take a difficult to diagnose patient to a neurologist, and they’ll receive a neurological diagnosis; take that patient to an oncologist, and they’ll find cancer. Engineers apply their personal tool belt to engineering problems. Salesmen push the product they have on the shelf.

…he’ll talk through the comparative merit of 3 or 4 different platforms, some of which he doesn’t support. I want to be that guy, not the “WordPress, f–k yea” guy.

Then there’s the fanboy thing. There’s nothing wrong with cheering for a team, until right and wrong is defined by the team. With my current fortunes tied to WordPress, a “WordPress good, platform X, bad” frame of mind is tempting – and dangerous. I don’t want to be that guy cheering for MovableType in 2008 or Adobe Flash in 2011. I’ve admired my friend and fellow web strategist John Eckman for years largely because you can describe your functional web platform requirements, and he’ll talk through the comparative merit of 3 or 4 different platforms, some of which he doesn’t support. I want to be that guy, not the “WordPress, f–k yea” guy.

Why I shouldn’t blog

September 1, 2013

I own an agency called 10up, which leverages and builds the web’s best publishing software: WordPress. If you believe my friends at Acquia, blogging is WordPress’s singular worthwhile purpose. I have unique perspectives and an oft-contrary but usually well-reasoned insight… or so colleagues and friends tell me when they’re not suggesting it might be time to stop speaking. Then again, maybe telling a busy guy to “write a blog post about it” is just a clever way of pocket vetoing the conversation, in which case: bluff called. But seriously: in the age of social media, strong personalities, and community engagement, how is it that I don’t have a blog already?

Jake's Sports Jacket

As “Mr. 10up”, I do have a blog

Granted, the 10up blog mostly features announcements and tips, though it’s a reliable way to see what I’m up to, professionally. If I have a new engineering tip I’d like to share, a new presentation, or just some exciting business news, you’ll find it all over there.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: my perspective and insight is largely inseparable from the agency I own. I can shout from the hilltops that 10up policy and practice is influenced by diverse opinion within our team, and I’d be wasting my breath. I don’t blame the skepticism, either; at the end of the day, I call the big plays that land on my desk, and those plays are necessarily informed by a mix of concrete data and subjective instinct, informed by that same perspective. I’m told this is called “leadership.”

…public expression influences the way outsiders perceive our team, fair or not.

I remind every 10upper that public expression influences the way outsiders perceive our team, fair or not. That’s true for me, five times over. If a client or recruit actively doesn’t like a given 10up engineer, for example, I can get on the phone, apologize, and institute changes. If he or she doesn’t like me, odds are that he or she will pass on 10up, and encourage others to do the same.

Paneling on Team and Agency Building

September 1, 2013

During WordCamp San Francisco, I was honored to share the stage with inspiring friends and fellow agency owners Alex King, Shane Pearlman, and Brad Williams, along with our moderator, WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg. Even as we pushed our time allowance to 45 minutes, it seemed to me that we only scratched the surface, offering high level insight into the agency consulting model.

The moderator led conversation was at its best when each of us championed a different team engagement model. This panel was intentionally designed to showcase leaders with informed, strongly held, and most of all, very different philosophies on team architecture. I’ve debated the efficacy of distributed teams with Alex, who advocates passionately for centralized offices. Shane and I have argued respectfully for and against his 100% contractor model (as opposed to 10up’s salaried model), where the team is often paid a premium, but only as billable work is available. Even Brad, closest to me philosophically, differs on employment policy. Our successes demonstrate that there isn’t a “right answer”, making this an introspective choice for would be entrepreneurs; I would love to dig deeper into this topic at some point.