James Stanier (@jstanier)
James Stanier, author of Effective Remote Work , discusses how to rethink the office as we enter the Age of Remote Work.
The office isn’t as essential as it used to be. Flexible working hours and distributed teams are replacing decades of on-site, open-plan office culture. Wherever you work from nowadays, your colleagues are likely to be somewhere else. No more whiteboards. No more water coolers. And certainly no Ping-Pong.
So how can you organize yourself, ship software, communicate, and be impactful as part of a globally distributed workforce? We’ll show you how. It’s time to adopt a brand new mindset. Remote working is here to stay. Come and join us.
James Stanier: I’m James. James Stanier, Director of Engineering at Shopify, and I’m the author of Become an Effective Software Engineering Manager and, most recently, Effective Remote Work. I’ve only been at Shopify for a few months. The previous ten years of my life was spent being a seed engineer at a startup. We grew that all the way through to acquisition this year. It took about a ten year journey.
In terms of what sort of things I’m interested in, obviously remote working is something close to my heart. I relocated into a very remote part of the UK about a year and a half ago to be near family.
Outside of work and software and technology and all that kind of thing, I’m just an average guy. I like spending time with family, my dog, going for walks, and being in the countryside.
Pragmatic: What books have you written for Pragmatic and what are they about?
James Stanier: Book number one was Become an Effective Software Engineering Manager: How to Be the Leader Your Development Team Needs by James Stanier. It’s about people making the transition into engineering management for the first time. It is the journey from the first day in that new job, all the way through to building the tools and the skills to be effective in that role. The book very much came out of past experience, when I went through that journey myself. At the time there wasn’t a huge amount of material out there in the same way that there is these days. I felt that book is a great hands-on field manual for anyone who’s looking to make the transition.
The second book is Effective Remote Work: For Yourself, Your Team, and Your Company by James Stanier. That came together in a much shorter space of time. In the previous company I worked for, we went through that transition from being fully co-located to being remote. In my current role, we are a fully remote company. Again, I wanted to have that field guide, that kind of toolkit manual for anyone who wants to become more effective in our new world. It does need a mindset shift to be effective remotely. That’s very different from when you are physically co-located in an office.
Pragmatic: What is the big difference between working remotely and working co-located in a group?
James Stanier: The biggest difference is that learning, or any collaboration by osmosis, is just not possible in the same way: everything from company culture to the way in which teams work together, to the way individuals work together and seek answers to questions and get help. The office facilitates that because everyone is within earshot of each other. They have many opportunities to bump into each other or simply walk across and talk.
Remote working is very different because you have to move away from in-the-moment synchronous conversation and really work on a model that’s much more asynchronous, more written, more explicit communication. This suits some people. They find it easier and they work that way. Other people find it a lot, lot harder. I think it’s not just about working in your house or working from a co-working space. It’s very much a complete change in your mindset that you bring to work and also a change in the tools in which you use to get your work done.
Pragmatic: You talk about it being a more explicit situation. Is that a net positive? Is it something that adds to the work environment or do the costs make that something a little bit too hard to attain?
James Stanier: Yeah, that’s a good question. This kind of revolves back around to why I wrote the book. I think that by using the kind of mindset and tools and ways of working that you need to work effectively remotely—I think those things do produce better cultures, more transparent information, more written documentation, more artifacts for people to build their work upon and discover. And, especially if you’re onboarding and you have great remote culture, then all the information you need should be there. In the same way that if you start a new job in an office, you have to rely on asking lots of people and shadowing people.
The reason the book exists is because without people really making that mindset shift, they can struggle. I think with the pandemic, so many companies had to go remotely very, very quickly with little planning, with little idea of how to do it. I think that remote working is here to stay. We can tell by the workforce that people want remote work. For it to be sustainable in the long term, it does require a different way of working. That’s very much all the tools and techniques that are written about in the book.
Pragmatic: What are some of the ways and the ideas on how to do this successfully?
James Stanier: One of the core chapters in the book draws out this spectrum of different types of communication. On the left-hand side of the spectrum, we talk about synchronous interaction. We talk about face-to-face meetings. We talk about video calls and we talk about chats and so on. And on the other side, the right-hand side of the spectrum, we have asynchronous and more permanent things like Wikis and READMEs and documents and so on.
I think the physically co-located world has always been on the left-hand side of that diagram. They have spent decades working with synchronous chats, keeping information in people’s heads, and going over and working with people physically in order to get things done. This meant that there hasn’t been enough documentation for new people, who are theoretically based anywhere in the world, to come on, to explore, to understand how they contribute to the company. How they are effective.
Core with these skills is talking about how every day, every week, every month you can really start pushing to the asynchronous side with what you do. For example, instilling a culture of writing great design documents to each other. When you are thinking of adding new features to your code base, how can you capture decisions that you’re making in how you’re structuring your code? How are you thinking about your tooling? If you think about historical cultures, we’ve learned from the past via archeology because we discover artifacts that these cultures and civilizations have left behind. If they hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t know anything about them.
The mindset of these skills is we need to start creating all these artifacts that people can discover from the ways that we work. If a new engineer joins the company tomorrow, if there are three-years worth of design documents that explain how the product has evolved and the decisions that we’ve made, then that’s a fabulous thing. Not only is that documentation we can use in the moment when we build something and we can discuss reasons about things, but we’re also leaving gifts for the future: to help onboard people.
Effective Remote Work: For Yourself, Your Team, and Your Company by James Stanier is available in beta right now and hopefully the full version in print should be available early 2022. Very, very nearly done. We’re just going through review right now.
If anyone’s interested in getting into engineering management, then I’m going to highly recommend my first book, Become an Effective Software Engineering Manager: How to Be the Leader Your Development Team Needs by James Stanier.
Both are available on Pragmatic at pragprog.com, or your local bookshop. If anyone wants to follow any of my other writing, then they can go to theengineeringmanager.com, which is my blog. Or follow me on Twitter @jstanier. It’d be great to keep in touch with everyone.
James talks to us about his new book and how remote work changes office dynamics and interactions. Read the complete interview here:
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