Litmus Behind the Scenes: Managing our Remote Engineering Team0
Ever wondered what it’s like to work remotely? Eddie Cianci, Director of Engineering at Litmus, shares what it’s like to work on a team that’s spread across the globe, and the benefits and challenges that come with it.
How did you get started with remote work?
I eased into remote work. Around August 2009, I was living 30 minutes away from my job at the time. I convinced my boss that I could work from home 1-2 days a week. This was a great benefit to me, as we were in the process of building and launching a new SaaS service. It gave me the time and space I needed to be completely focused.
Back then, we still called it “telecommuting”, and—given that the rest of the company was all colocated in the same single office—it wouldn’t fit what I consider the modern definition of remote work.
Fast forward to 2012, when I joined Litmus. The company was already semi-distributed; about 20% of the company was in the UK, including my boss, who was the developer of our Rails team and one of the co-founders. (If you’re reading this, Dave, hello beardy!)
As we grew the engineering team, we decided to hire the best candidates regardless of where they were located. We hired folks in the US, but also Canada, Italy, Berlin, and the UK.
By the summer of 2014, remote work was going so well that our founders decided to extend the opportunity to all employees. I leapt at the chance, moved further away, set up a proper home office, and the rest is history.
What are you working on?
At the Director level, I serve at the intersection of people, process and technology.
My job is building happy, productive, inclusive teams and helping them do their best work, so that our customers (both internal and external) can also do their best work.
I run half of our software engineering group at Litmus. Specifically, our team is responsible for all the customer-facing web properties, including full-stack web apps and APIs, most of them built with Ruby on Rails.
Our team is about 15 folks total. I manage both engineers and engineering managers across a range of skill levels and tenure.
My day mostly revolves around making sure everyone’s needs are met. This involves regular 1:1s and coaching with my direct reports, code reviews with scrum teams, planning with stakeholders from Product, Marketing, Sales & Finance, interviewing candidates if we have open engineering roles, and contributing to our code base where it can improve developer experience & overall quality of life.
What’s your typical work routine?
About half our company works remotely, and our entire engineering group–about 40 people in total–is distributed. This means that juggling timezones and working asynchronously are just facts of life.
But before all else, coffee!
First, I go through unread Slack messages and emails, answering questions and unblocking folks where needed. Then I take a life break to get the kids up and off to school.
The rest of my workday is spent in meetings.
I used to be very anti-meeting, but now I think that when run well, they can be very effective at keeping projects moving. Meetings also provide much-needed social interaction that is generally lacking in remote teams.
My meetings range from 1:1s with direct reports, to playing scrum master for one of our dev teams, to policy review and writing, to discussing strategy, roadmap, and culture with other leaders across engineering, product, and data science teams.
Most of our meetings happen via Zoom or Slack video. I like to feel prepared, so I take 10-15 minutes before each meeting to compose my thoughts, and then 10-15 minutes after the meeting to summarize outcomes and next actions.
As a team, we make sure to set aside at least one hour each week to meet and discuss salient topics. This satisfies our social drive and acts as a scrum-of-scrums.
The format is fluid, but the beginning is mostly banter. Then I update the team with any new information or noteworthy events, after which we invite team members to share things they’ve worked on or found interesting or challenging. This can be work-related or more broadly technical.
Since we don’t all share an office, and can’t glance at a colleagues screen, we have to be intentional about making time to recreate those opportunities remotely.
I try to keep Fridays open. This gives me the time and freedom to roll up my sleeves, work on development projects, research, and/or mentor newer team members.
Do you have a dedicated space to work?
I’m fortunate enough to have a spare room in our house that has become my dedicated office.
Litmus has been very gracious with their hardware and office outfits. Our motto has been “anything you need to be awesome”, so I’ve set up a standing desk, comfortable chair, the latest Apple hardware, an ultrawide monitor, and an ergonomic keyboard & trackball. (#teamtrackball forever!)
We all know “sitting is the new smoking”, so on my own, I’ve purchased an under-desk elliptical machine to help me get active and healthier throughout the day.
I’m a big believer in private offices for knowledge workers. I have found it much easier to get that private space remotely than within the limited real estate or open office plans found in most buildings—whether that private space is an actual office, or “just” a bedroom.
What tools do you use to stay productive?
So, I think of tools as both apps and habits.
Depending on the project, Pomodoro is still a useful technique for managing time. I prefer it for more mechanical projects, as it runs the risk of breaking out of flow.
In my role, having an up to date calendar—and trusting that everyone else is up to date as well–is super important. We have integrations with our HR system to sync calendars with whoever is out sick, on holiday or vacation, and also announce it in Slack’s #general channel.
I also use Calendly to let folks (either inside or outside the company) pick a time slot that is available for both of us.
I take copious notes but also love to keep things simple, so Apple’s default Notes.app gets hourly use. It syncs across all devices, so my notes are available on Mac and iPhone. I tend to do most of my note-taking, sometimes dictated, on my iPhone.
I’ve yet to find a to-do system that fits my brain and habits just right, but lately I’ve taken to using the Gmail.com “Tasks” sidebar. It lets you create tasks from emails, so I leave Gmail.com open in a tab all day every day.
For technical lifehacks, I can’t live without iTerm set to “visor” mode and bound to a keyboard shortcut. By doing this, I can “summon” a terminal at the top of my screen, no matter which monitor or virtual space I’m viewing.
I also have hot corners set up on macOS, so with a flick of the cursor, I can put the mouse in the top-right corner and lock my screen. Handy muscle memory when walking away from my desk.
Lastly—a cheeky one—on macOS, press cmd + ctrl + space to summon Apple’s emoji pad from any text input. This one also gets hourly use. 😅
How do you stay on task?
I’ve come to believe that a large part of my role is absorbing interruption as much as possible, so it doesn’t trickle down to the rest of my team. So it’s almost less important for me to stay on task than it is to be able to “pause and resume” that task.
Slack can be a huge distraction—I feel like we could dedicate an entire interview to just that. 😉 But a few key points are:
- Managing presence is important. Knowing when to set “do not disturb” or just exiting Slack completely is a skill worth learning. I also encourage my team to delete the mobile app when going on vacation, and practice what I preach. We have a lot of social channels, as well as channels that are peripherally interesting (for example, to me that might be #coffee, #gaming, or other product management & customer support-centric channels). I keep those muted and only check them irregularly.
- @mention abuse. Training people on the differences between e.g. @channel and @here, and when to use them, helps curb interruptions.
Lastly, remote doesn’t mean distraction-free.
Whether it’s social media online, or friends and family offline, there’s always somewhere else you can divert your attention. Practising deferred gratification helps me stay focused. (For a trivial example, “I’ll take lunch right after I finish this PR review.”)
What do you like about remote work?
There’s a lot to like about remote. Independence, autonomy, privacy, freedom, and health benefits.
- Enables me to hire the best folks for Litmus from (almost) anywhere, and as long as we’re being intentional about building our culture, this helps avoid creating a monoculture.
- Not worrying about commuting, traffic, parking, etc. Time is a finite resource, and over the years, this adds up to a massive lost opportunity cost, both personally and professionally. #killthecommute
- Control over my daily interactions and flexibility to react to life events. The ability to work around my schedule, instead of scheduling around my work, has improved my quality of life significantly.
- Being in control of meals, meal times, and physical activity. Frankly, I am way less self-conscious about eating and exercising in the privacy of my own home, so both of those things have helped me get healthier.
What do you not like about remote work?
There’s a lot to like about remote, but it does require certain adjustments to personalities, habits, and expectations.
- Loneliness and perceived isolation. Humans are social creatures and–speaking as a lifelong introvert– there is just no substitute for face time. Since seeing people doesn’t happen organically in hallways or shared office spaces, we have to cultivate those opportunities remotely, even if it feels artificial at first. We organize a variety of these events throughout the month—from small team talks, to company-wide lunch-and-learns and new hire meet-and-greets, to individual coworker “coffees”. I also encourage people to join or form non-work-related channels on Slack. They act as informal clubs, social outlets, and can be a great way to get to know colleagues across the organization.
- Information overload. We encourage over-communication and use a variety of tools and services—like email, Slack, Basecamp, Google Docs, and more—to distribute it. There is a cost or burden on folks to have to find and retrieve it (“pulling”), so I also encourage folks to push that information out as much as possible. (Example: “The schedule for X can be found [here]” and “fyi I’ve just updated the draft for X [here]”, then looping in any key members involved.)
- Time zones and asynchronous communication, in general, are foreign. Adjust your expectations, embrace the ability to “work async” instead of waiting until someone pops online and thinking you need that information right now.
- Work/Life balance. It’s easy to “do work” when it’s no further than your pocket. Learning to disconnect (and that it’s OK to disconnect!) doesn’t come naturally.
Learn more about remote work at Litmus
Have any questions for Eddie or about remote work at Litmus? Let us know in the comments below or check out these additional resources:
- A Remote Frame of Mind: How Distributed and Local Teams Collaborate at Litmus
- Litmus Behind the Scenes: The First Engineering Team Retreat
- Why Great Teams Embrace Remote Work: Tried and tested strategies from the world’s leading companies for remote work.
- Litmus Behind the Scenes: The Difference Between Remote and Remote-First