I hope that by now our users and followers are catching on that Tutum is all about delivering a service that, as our CEO likes to say, is the “happy marriage between simplicity and flexibility.” Striking this balance, in the world of infrastructure application development, isn’t an easy task and has historically been mutually exclusive. However, we believe Tutum and containers now make it possible to achieve this balance.
I think running a distributed start-up is a bit like trying to find that happy marriage. Tutum as a company is more flexible by virtue of being distributed but less simple when it comes to working together. In this post, I’ll explore a few of the ways we go about running our distributed start-up, i.e. what our “Tutum” for running Tutum looks like.
Effective communication is the top priority in running a distributed team. For Tutum, it is especially critical while in our formative years as a company. We quickly outgrew chatting over Google Hangouts after reaching six people in size.
Fortunately for us, Slack was well on its way to its current billion-dollar valuation when we decided to give it a try. Slack accounts for the bulk of our synchronous communication between our New York and Madrid office as well as intra-office. Outside of direct messages and private groups, our Slack is organized into about 30 different channels. We tend to break down the different aspects of growth, design, development, product, hiring etc. into more targeted discussions and initiatives. While it may sound like a lot of channels to monitor, it has proven effective in organizing the never-ending flow of communication. Some channels are long-lived while others are spun up and archived as initiatives are accomplished and tasks are completed. Slack has become a staple for us, allowing the team to stay current on day to day information while giving easy access to the past via archives.
Once we found our rhythm for instantaneous communication, we moved on to solving the basic problem (but not easy!) of “How do we all work on the same project while being thousands of miles apart.” As with our synchronous communication, we started with Google and quickly moved on. We tried a number of different task, project and event-based solutions before settling on our current mix of Trello, Basecamp and Dropbox.
We use Trello for things like our product roadmap, timelines, experience sprints and other projects that are list-oriented. Basecamp is our collaborative repository for more detailed and ever-evolving projects. We use it like Google Docs but find the functionality to be superior. For example, some of our Basecamp projects include our go to market strategy, hiring, competitive landscape, user personas, positioning, marketing and more. On the technical side, GitHub is the foundation of our development workflow. Lastly, there is email. Email correspondence is virtually non-existent intra-company; thank you, Slack.
Effective communication and collaboration across offices is always a work in progress for us. We by no means have it 100% figured out, but we have begun to hone in on the right mix of channels. We do have one additional way of connecting the two offices…
Virtually Connecting Offices
“Trello, Slack, Basecamp…I just want to ask someone a quick simple question, face to face”. For that, and for our daily company-wide stand-up, we installed TVs with wide-angle HD cameras perpetually running a Google Hangout. It may not sound like much, but it really adds an element of connectivity that isn’t possible with the various other forms of communication previously discussed. Here is a recent picture of some of our Madrid team members.
All this technology has been great for making a distributed team possible, but something else was missing. In speaking with one of our advisors, Tom Preston-Werner, he turned us on to the idea of holding a company-wide retreat. At first this seemed a bit extravagant for our small start-up. That said, Tom spoke of the positive outcomes he experienced from investing in retreats during the early days of GitHub.
Our first retreat will be fairly modest, taking place in rural North Carolina where our entire team can work and relax together. We’ve found no matter how many video calls and messages exchanged over Slack, that nothing creates a sense of camaraderie like meeting face-to-face. We plan to hold two of these a year, one in the U.S. and one in Spain. Our first one is less than a month away in April, so I’ll have to report back with my findings.
In Person Visits
With our CEO in New York and our CTO in Madrid, we wanted to give each office the benefit of exchanging ideas and working with our founders in person. About once a quarter our CEO and CTO will make visits abroad. Sometimes we’ll time this with other initiatives and meetings, such as a design sprint we recently ran out of our New York office (which brought in three individuals from Spain) or an upcoming board of directors meeting being held in our Madrid office. Being in New York, I’ve found it beneficial being able to pick our CTO’s brain on a number of ecosystem events.
Since we have many users in the process of creating their own products, we want to offer a candid view into how we operate. We’ll continue to share our experiences and lessons learned while building Tutum. Have you experienced working in a distributed team? What worked and what didn’t? Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts!