Interview with Sid Sijbrandij, CEO and Co-Founder at GitLab
GitLab, the 44th company on Inc. 5000 list, is well-known for its award-winning product which is now serving over 37M users. Apart from that, GitLab is a unique company with a transparent corporate culture and a fully remote working environment. Built around open source philosophy, GitLab is sharing its stories of success on how to make the remote actually work with YouTeam CPO and Co-Founder, Yurij Riphyak.
Sid Sijbrandij, Ceo and Co-founder at GitLab, tells how to make 16 hires a week, scale a team to 500 people, and speed up meetings to 22 minutes, all while operating remotely.
I think for many companies it’s inefficient to be co-located and have everyone in airplanes the whole time. Our handbook is a way to help companies scale by embracing remote. We created it because we needed more optimization. If you make a change and implement a new process, you should make it pain-free for the people who aren’t yet at the company. The only way to do it is through a handbook. So this book is meant as educational, not a promotional tool.
It works really well if you are all in the same room. If you’re a team of seven people, the speed of iteration in a co-located setting can be very high. Based on that positive experience, people keep using the same model. They learn a lesson from the beginning that no longer applies to the company at scale.
As the company gets bigger, it’s harder to get benefits out of being co-located. It’s nice if you’re all in the same room, but it’s not so nice if you’re on the same floor, building or city. As you get bigger the benefits are reduced.
You main jobs as a founder of a company are:
1 — to make sure there’s enough money and a clear growth strategy that everyone understands,
2 — to get the best people to work on it. It would be a big coincidence if they’re all located in where you are starting your company.
I don’t think it makes sense to try to limit your search for those people to just where you coincidentally tend to be. Meet the people where they are now and make it easy to join your company.
I’d say it happened gradually. As we grew from 150-200 to 500 people, we realized that there’s no limit to this growth and we’re really nice on remote. Maybe it changes one day, as remote is not one of our values, but we’ll do whatever works. It’s important to keep an open mind about things and to be willing to change your approach when you’ve faced new data.
It works better for us. Sometimes we make 16 hires a week now. If we work asynchronously, we have a lot of people onboarding. If you have all those people asking the same questions that is a big burden on your organization.
There are 150 new things employees have to ask, plus 2,000 pages in the handbook, of which about 200 pages are relevant. At GitLab, we address 95% of these questions up front. As a result, there’s a lot fewer questions left and people are more open to answering them.
I think it’s a continual struggle to write things down. The natural state of things is for people to say something in a structured format. Written communication is difficult because it takes constant reinforcing on the employer side and firm self-discipline on the employee side.
Well, the first thing you should do is to make all company meetings optional.
The second thing you can do is to record the product demo up front. Record everything which doesn’t imply interaction in advance. This way, 22 minutes would be more than enough to have a productive meeting, a short Q&A session, and a discussion around shared materials.
The third you should do is to encourage people to work on other stuff. You can join a call, but it’s totally okay for you to do email. Just mute yourself so that people don’t have to listen to your keyboard. Don’t force people to do something that might not be of benefit.
I think it’s very counterintuitive to hire people and then dictate them how they should spend their time. If there’s value, they’ll do it. If there’s no value, they won’t do it. It’s up to them to produce the result.
- IP theft of hoarding
- Communication gaps
- Time zone difference
- Lack of employee motivation and loyalty
- Weak culture link
- Distractions associated with working from home
- New employee onboarding challenges
Well, most companies nowadays allow people to travel with a laptop because they have to frequently travel and stay effective on the road. In terms of IP hoarding, I don’t see the difference between a co-located and a remote company.
I think communication is the hardest thing about running a company, but I don’t think it’s harder in a remote setting.
Yeah, it’s a big problem, and there’s no perfect solution to it. Recording is a great way to time shift, so a lot of people consume it whenever it’s ready for them.
Time zone difference can be an advantage. We need support for customer questions, telecom, site-to-site reliability, etc. Instead of working at night shifts, people can work during normal hours, which I think is great.
Well, when you are fully or partially remote, there’s no reason for loyalty to be different. I don’t like the word loyalty because you’re not always loyal. But I think people are free agents, so that they should and can do whatever is better for their productivity and themselves.
I would say: make sure that you know exactly what you mean by culture. I’ve seen people use culture as an excuse to hire people that look similar to themselves and not have a very diverse team. Be mindful of that.
We see culture as sharing our values, and with your values you don’t enforce them all to be in the same office. What we do at GitLab four times a week is a breakout call with a group of people to talk about life outside of work. We have coffee breaks or coffee chats, we schedule 25 minutes with another person just to get to know them better.
We have a travel statement where you visit other team members and we’ll pay for that. There’s a couple of more examples, but we spend great time and effort making sure these things happen.
“The weather” or “which sports team is better” things are more important than personal things. That’s why having water-cooler conversations is important.
Yeah, those are certainly present. I think they are the hardest on people who have kids. In GitLab our values we say “family and friends first, work second”, we try to lift that.
If people don’t want to work out from home but want to work from a co-working space or a rented office somewhere, we’ll pay for that. Everyone has to figure out how they incorporate the rest of their lives into their working days.
Yeah, one of the things we do to form social bonds is we have our contribute event every 9 months and we fly everyone to a location.
This picture was taken in Cape Town, South Africa. I think we were 300 people at the time, but now we’re 500 people.
At corporate events, we don’t lock people into a conference room and make them watch presentations. There is an opening and a closing event. Most of the time we spend on excursions, going out and exploring the site where we’re at. People in the company propose a subject they want to talk about. You can join whatever you like to join. It’s been a great way to get people for this kind of informal connections.
Yeah, I do think that we all struggle with different things here.
Our salespeople are still very used to direct messaging people instead of working at a public channel. It’s a hard habit to break and I can see how hard is that.
Our marketing people took a while to embrace remote but now they do all the work at GitLab remotely. That’s why I don’t think that there’s any department that cannot do remote.
We do ask people if they’re open to remote work, but there’s nothing that predicts success by just remote itself. What does predict success is making sure that you can allocate your own time and set your own priorities properly.
If you depend on your manager to look on your screen every now and then to make sure you’re not on Facebook, you’re not gonna have a good time with GitLab.
I think one of the striking things will not be the remote becoming a new default, but the co-located companies having a super hard time changing their model. For co-located companies, it’s almost like going extinct and being replaced by new companies that are all remote.
Apart from that, what I think will also happen in the future is:
- We’ll see a full operation of ‘hey these days I’m going to spend with my family together’.
- Not having a proper internet and a webcam will be equal to coming to work in a dirty shirt.
- Income will be better distributed, no matter the location: be it New York, London, Berlin or a tiny metro area.
Companies like GitLab are living proof that you can build a super successful world without sitting in one nice glass shiny office with your logo on the top.
This interview is just a tiny part of our huge project – a series of founder stories shared by YouTeam. Enjoy your reading and keep coming back for more opinions from the world’s most successful tech founders!