Switching to a remote manager

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Photo by Marius Christensen on Unsplash.

git merge

In the last four weeks, I’ve made a transition from having my line manager based in the same office, which has been a situation I’ve been used to for all of my professional life, to having them be remote. In my case this has happened because of the merger of Brandwatch and Crimson Hexagon. The CTO of the combined company is now based in Boston, and I’m in Brighton, England.

I have a VP Engineering role, which, silly job title aside, means that I have a division of the Engineering department reporting to me, focussed around building our Analytics and Audiences applications. We have other divisions of Engineering focussed around our infrastructure and compute, our data platform and the Vizia product. At the time of writing, I have 38 people in my division.

I’ve been fortunate to have always had the CTO in the same office over the recent years. As the company has continued to grow at a fairly fast pace, I’ve had local support. Ideas, thoughts, gripes: they’ve been there in the same place or on the same timezone.

There have been a number of benefits to having the leader of the department co-located:

  • My staff have been able to get to know him easily. We’re all just around most days. This makes them feel connected all of the way up the chain with minimal effort.
  • The general narrative of what’s going on, such as happiness, morale, stress levels, has been observable by both myself and my manager.
  • If there’s ever a crisis – of people or of production systems – then, most of the time, 35 steps is all I’ve needed to get some counsel or a second opinion.

However, things are now quite different.

After our companies merged, the CTO role was given to the Engineering department leader in the other company, putting myself in an interesting position:

  • I now have a manager who is not in the same physical location, so I lose out on all of the informal in-person contact that I had before.
  • My manager is now 5 hours behind me, meaning I have less times of the day in which to speak to him.
  • The new CTO doesn’t initially know me or any of my people; only what we’re responsible for. The rest is a black box.

Letters across the pond

Over the last few weeks, as was expected by the merger, we’ve both been very busy, both with logistics and with traveling. Our weekly hourly 1 to 1s often end before we’ve managed to cover everything off, and then we’re sliding into another meeting before clearing all items on our agenda, which has been frustrating.

Because these weekly catch ups didn’t seem like enough time, and because email chains typically devolve into stasis, I started writing a weekly digest which I send each Friday afternoon. The idea was that I could take some time to properly summarize everything that was going on in my world and flag anything that I needed help with. 

This has been working really well. 

I write it in a Google Doc, which means that a lot of the smaller items can get covered off asynchronously via the comments. Larger items that are worth spending some more time on become the focus of our conversation in our 1 to 1, and that more precious face to face time is spent on the meat of the main issues, rather than on the periphery. Both of us enjoy written communication too, so this works very well. It also gives us an ideal chance to poke fun at our Britishisms and Americanisms.

Here’s roughly what I cover in the weekly document. It takes me about 30 minutes to write:

  • Any interesting developments in any of the ongoing work streams, such as new links to demos, updates on estimates, or anything particularly good or bad that’s unfolding.
  • The latest on what’s next in the project pipeline from conversations with Product.
  • The general feel within the teams, such as happiness and morale. Are any of them overworked, or, on the contrary, spinning the wheels while waiting for a decision on the next thing? Are the teams right sized and is this looking true for the coming months?
  • An in-depth look at anything that’s front of mind right now, such as hiring, or thoughts about backend architecture and scaling, or contemplations over cool ideas we could pitch to the Product team.
  • A list of “documents of interest”, such as designs for upcoming features or architecture, or the fortnightly product and engineering updates that get sent out. I don’t expect any of these to be read in detail, but they’re there to satisfy any curiosity.
  • Occasionally a light sprinkling of GIFs. Because life’s too short to not use that one of Kermit furiously slapping the typewriter.
Yes, that one.

Soap opera rather than novel

I’ve been trying to open up my black box as much as possible to give my new manager a view into the decisions that I make on a day to day, and to allow my thought processes to be observed and discussed. However, the style of writing was challenging at first: how do I make the digest interesting and not a labour?

Given that my new manager was taking the role of the reader and I was the author, I didn’t really know where to start or how to collate my thoughts. But then I came to realize that it wasn’t my job to be the creator of a novel, thoroughly documenting everything that happened. Instead I needed to take the position of a screenwriter of a soap opera: an inventor of a regular rolling feed of narrative that is easy to soak in, letting the reader learn the characters and plot lines gradually by osmosis.

Tuning into The Wire halfway during Season 3 can leave you feeling a little lost and overwhelmed by the detail, but switching on Eastenders a couple of times during the week allows you to (assuming you want to…) follow along pretty easily. I decided to be more Eastenders, except with less arguing and fighting in the Queen Vic.

I scatter the document with parts prefixed with “Your thoughts please…” where I’d like to get some input. We usually chat on the comments around these parts.

Getting comfortable with async await

Although I thought that the experience may be more jarring at first, I think that I am getting better with a predominantly asynchronous relationship. 

There can be some benefits to having a remote manager, after all:

  • Because our face to face time is more valuable, we prepare more for when we do talk, meaning that conversations are rewarding.
  • We do a lot of written communication, which allows us to think more deeply about what we’re saying and how we’re saying it before presenting it to one another.
  • We have to continually operate from a place of trust, since we cannot easily insert ourselves into each other’s worlds to observe and come to our own conclusions. I like this.
  • I feel like I have to step up and represent my people more, in terms of my personal accountability and in promoting their cause, which can only be a good thing.
  • The introduction of even more extreme timezone differences across the now global Engineering department means we need to get better at being a company that supports flexible remote working, fast. I would like to think that being forced to break our predominantly European timezone habits will make it easier for us, in time, to hire people remotely all over the world.

But, still, a quick chat in the kitchen is nice, and is missed.

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