Spotlight: James Stanier (Author) Interview and AMA!

AUTHOR

Author Spotlight:
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.

Effective Remote Work: For Yourself, Your Team, and Your Company by James Stanier

TALKING WITH JAMES STANIER, AUTHOR OF EFFECTIVE REMOTE WORK:

:fountain_pen: 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.

:books: Pragmatic: What books have you written for Pragmatic and what are they about?

:fountain_pen: 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.

:books: Pragmatic: What is the big difference between working remotely and working co-located in a group?

:fountain_pen: 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.

:books: 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?

:fountain_pen: 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.

:books: Pragmatic: What are some of the ways and the ideas on how to do this successfully?

:fountain_pen: 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.

FOLLOW JAMES

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.

READ MORE OF THIS INTERVIEW!

James talks to us about his new book and how remote work changes office dynamics and interactions. Read the complete interview here:

READ JAMES’ BOOKS!

Complete your collection of James’ PragProg titles today! Don’t forget you can get 35% off with the coupon code devtalk.com!

WIN!

Post a comment or a question in the ask me anything (AMA) below for a chance to win a free digital copy of one of this author’s books. At a time of the author’s choosing, the Devtalk bot will randomly pick a winner and automatically update this thread with the results!

YOUR TURN! JAMES’ AMA

We’re now opening up the thread for your questions! Ask James anything! (Keep it family friendly.) By participating you automatically enter the competition to win one of James’ ebooks!

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This seems like a good approach. However I’ve noticed that colleagues will not always follow the example, they seem to prefer synchronous communication, maybe just out of habit. Habits are stronger than reasons, you cannot argue against habits. Which brings me to the question, do you know which tools are effective in creating asynchronous communication habits?

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One of the things I find most difficult to do well remotely is performance evaluation. I was a manager shortly before and found it tricky enough to keep on top of the team members current skill levels and performance while in the office. I went back to being an IC before COVID, so I don’t need to worry about it as much now, but I don’t envy my current manager. Some might say just use metrics, but it’s hard to know which metrics make the most sense, and how to avoid becoming intrusive big brother measuring too much. You can also try to use one-on-ones, but people might oversell or undersell their contributions due to their personality. And being remote, other teammates know even less of your work making their peer evaluations not as accurate. I’m curious your thoughts on this.

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Great interview - and I’m loving the new written format @PragmaticErica - much easier to quote things for the AMA :003:

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.

It’s great to hear you think remote working is here to stay James, it’s much better for the environment and the quality of life of people working, I wish this is something more companies did and did sooner!

My question is partly answered here:

…more transparent information, more written documentation, more artifacts for people to build their work upon and discover.

Other than the above did you notice any other differences in remote working after the pandemic? For instance did it lead to any specific improvements in being able to work remotely? Did you see new tools surface that made it easier for instance and if not, do you think something might be missing that could help make remote working easier?

I relocated into a very remote part of the UK about a year and a half ago to be near family.

That’s awesome! Do you have a high speed internet connection? I ask because some parts of the world (particularly the more remote areas) are lagging when it comes to internet connections, and so I’d be interested in knowing what you think the minimal speed requirements might be. (I am thinking about moving or travelling to remote areas and this info would be useful to me!)

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That’s a good point. It takes a long time to change habits, and forcing rules to make people change rarely results in a good outcome.

So the question is, what little habit changes can you try each day? This is especially effective if you’re the leader of a team. Can you move a video call stand-up to be a written one, perhaps on whichever chat software you use? There are tools like Geekbot that allow you to automate this on Slack. Instead of having synchronous project update meetings, can those instead move to a weekly or fortnightly digest via email? There’s lots of ways that the synchronous can be made more asynchronous.

I’d say it’s less about specific tools that can enforce the change, but it’s more about trying to make it 1% different every day, and seeing what works for you and your team.

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Performance management is quite a big topic to unpack, for sure! Management is indeed difficult even when we are physically present, since somebody’s impact can be nuanced and subjective, even if you have some kinds of metrics in place to provide evidence of that impact.

Something I find invaluable is always getting 360 feedback from others at the time of review. For each of my staff, what do their colleagues, direct reports and peers think of their performance as well? By collecting all of this information you get a much clearer picture of their impact.

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Given that we’re some way through the pandemic—and hopefully well on the way to it being an endemic—there is definitely a fatigue that has built up. Remote working during the pandemic was not like normal remote working. The conditions were far from normal: people had to do this, rather than had chosen to do it.

Not everyone had great WFH setups. Not all companies had adapted in such a way to make remote working an easy option. However, this is getting better now that many people are deciding to continue to choose to work that way, and companies are making it easier by better adapting to remote practices, providing stipends to allow for better home office setups, and so on.

However, there are always going to be people that absolutely hate being remote: those that love being in offices. And that’s totally fine. So I wonder whether beyond the pandemic we’ll see companies that are office only as a unique perk to attract talent. We’ll see!

As for my internet connection, it’s fast enough. I live in the UK and most of the country has fibre, and my connection is around 70Mbps, which is plenty. The real estate websites over here also list broadband speeds as part of home listings, which makes it easy to know what you’re getting into. I’d always recommend thoroughly checking the zipcode/postcode with internet providers to make sure that it’s not going to be a deal breaker. I’ve had 10 Mbps before, and when there are multiple users in the household, it can get a bit sketchy!

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So the follow up is: How do you improve the data that colleagues & direct reports can provide? In the last 2 years of working remotely I am definitely less aware of the struggles, triumphs, and contributions of my colleagues than when I was working beside them in the office, and vice versa. My best idea so far is to do a journal at the end of each working day. To write down things I dealt with and any work I did with others. Then I can use that for 360 feedbacks later. However, I often forget to do that. (forming new habits is hard). Any other ideas?

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I think there’s lots of ways, but what exactly will work for you and your team requires some experimentation.

  • Journalling for yourself is a good idea, and related to this are brag documents: Get your work recognized: write a brag document
  • You can encourage progress and/or project updates to be written and shared once a week.
  • The same can be true for daily stand-ups—written and asynchronous in a way that leaves behind information for the rest of the team.

As you say, it’s easy to forget, but you can automate. If you use Slack, there are plenty of plug-ins out there that automate the collection of this data via DM, such as Geekbot: https://geekbot.com/

That way you can set what you want and forget about it, and it’ll prompt you and your team at the specified times each day/week, and DM everyone to collect the information.

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