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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Floyd Marinescu on Leading Distributed Teams

Floyd Marinescu on Leading Distributed Teams


1. Shane introduces Floyd, CEO of InfoQ and QCon, whose staff work virtually over 8 countries.

Shane: Good day. This is Shane Hastie. We are here at QCon London 2014. We are taking an interesting look at a topic that is a fairly significant challenge. One of the biggest shoes for organizations today is dealing with distributed teams of knowledge workers and we thought we would take a different view on this. So what we have done is we have put Floyd Marinescu in the front seat. Floyd is the CEO of InfoQ and he leads a team of about 70 people who are distributed all around the world.

35 full time and about 150 part time writers.


2. What are the challenges that you face running your distributed team?

Shane: So, a lot more than 70. Floyd, firstly thanks for taking the time to come and talk to us and answer these questions. We really appreciate your taking time out of what is obviously very busy day and a busy period for you at QCon. Do you want to tell us, for our audience, a tiny bit about InfoQ and what are the challenges that you face running your distributed team?

I think one of the biggest challenges in a distributed environment is alignment. I think it is probably one of the biggest challenges in any business, so myself, being a CEO, I can tell the story from a business perspective, but alignment has to be always on everyone’s mind. There is a saying from a famous movie ”Always be closing” and I would say “Always be aligning” and “over-communicate to clarity” is another kind of Mantra.

Anything you can do to build alignment and next to alignment is also motivation, engagement. Do people know why they are doing what they do? So my two bibles are the notion of alignment and also Dan Pink’s framework who wrote Drive on what really makes people happy.

He says it is purpose, a sense of autonomy, a sense of ongoing mastery are the keys to happiness; a fourth one that I borrowed from the CEO of Zapos is “a sense of progress.” So, I think that in order to succeed in a distributive environment it is really important to build a culture that has these four things where there are intentionally designed structures in place to reinforce continual alignment.


3. When you founded InfoQ, was it with the intent of creating a sort of team or did that just evolve by mistake?

I guess it was the intent but I am kind of an unusual one in that I have been working distributed since university so I actually have very little in-office experience and it comes very natural to me to work distributed Also, as an introvert it is great. You can be a highly sociable person, running a company where people are constantly in communication, great culture, but have space to always stay charged.

Actually, when I was a child, my father had a home office as well and he used to have this magazine subscription to a magazine called “Home Office Computing” which I used to read because they had a videogame section, not knowing that eventually I would have a home office and run a completely virtual company. So maybe I have been indoctrinated from a young age.


4. You said alignment is really important. What does alignment actually mean?

What comes to mind is the people that know where they are going, they know how their part fits in and they understand the boundaries between what they do and what everyone else does so that they can achieve those long term goals. Probably those things.


5. How do you communicate that? How do you get that out to a group of 150 volunteers and 35 employees in – How many locations?

I think we are in six countries now and the news writers for are many more places. C4Media is the company that does and QCon like the one we are at right now. What we call the English team is about 15 people that handles InfoQ and QCon San Francisco, New York and London. We have a Brazilian team which does QCon Rio and Sao Paolo and InfoQ in Portuguese and our Chinese team which does QCon Shanghai and Beijing and InfoQ in Chinese. Then we have a franchise partner in France and Japan and between all these teams we have probably over a couple of hundred practitioner editors that write news and translate and stuff.

Shane: How do you get that message out? How does that consistent message get out to such a big group?

There is a business book about how to run a fast-growth company called “Mastering the Rockefeller habits” and a lot of what I have learned I have learned from that book and I found we used to apply it in distributed manner.

One of the ideas for which I thank Verne Harnish, the author who - he himself synthesized all these ideas from Jim Collins and many other business thinkers – but having a shared vision and the easy way is by having a one page plan that everyone has seen and everyone is reminded of on a regular basis. On that plan you have culture factors - like your core values or purpose are there, differentiators - like your brand promises, who is the core audience that you serve, what is your SWAT analysis at this point in time – it is all on the plan – and also where we are going – your three year plan, your one year plan, your quarter plan.

If everyone knows where you are going, then everyone feels involved. There are no questions, there are no existential questions in the teams. So for the people inside the business staff, they see that.

For the editors and the part-time volunteers then, depending on the function of those teams, they will see something similar, but that it is specific to their team. So, for example, I facilitate the committee that organizes the content for QCon. They do not need to see C4Media’s business plan, but they see a document that has our purpose, our core values, our differentiators which makes a QCon unique and then some guidelines on how to be effective as a community member and how to choose excellent speakers; this is the “one page plan”, so to speak, for this particular team and we make that alive for the team throughout the whole process – we talk about the core values. As a facilitator I will bring up differentiators and our purpose as a means of decision-making when we are deliberating between one speaker or another.

Let us take a whole different team: we have the InfoQ news writers which has nothing to do with the other teams I have mentioned. They have a constitution that starts with the why – it has the purpose, it has the core values, it has the most important guidelines like what is news, what we are trying to accomplish, has examples of the best kinds of news, has a bunch of design patterns on the constitution of things you should think about when writing. Then we have some scoreboards, as well, so people can see a sense progress. So that team understands why they are here, where we are going and has the tools for a sense of progress.


6. You touched on scoreboards. How do we measure things like performance, productivity and so forth in these very distributed groups? How do you keep people motivated?

There is a thinker that is closer to our space named Dan Mezick. I would recommend people to read his blogs. He has a book called “The Culture Game”. He takes principles from gamification and applies them to software development and he says that everyone should have immediate or frequent access to a means to look up their progress – so from gaming, that would be a scoreboard or some kind of dashboard with lots of visual indicators, so any time you can go and see how you are doing, because virtually you do not have anything like that.

For the news writers for InfoQ we tried to create a scoreboard which visualizes people’s contributions relative to the whole and there is no monetary incentives to it. It is just a means of understanding one’s progress.

For the internal full time staff we have adopted a “management by objectives” approach so every quarter, everyone has objectives. We have a Google spreadsheet that we call the objectives dashboard. The first column is the name of the objective, second column is who owns it and then all the columns after that – there are sixteen of them, one for each quarter – where they can color code their progress based if they are on a track to meet the objective behind: yellow means they are slightly behind, red means they are very behind.

By having this one information radiator, everyone in the business can see what everyone else is doing which builds transparency and builds a sense of teamwork. Everyone can track their own progress which builds accountability and a sense of progress.

These are some of the approaches. For the QCon committees we have a spreadsheet where you can see progress, number of accepted speakers for each track, who they are. It is a quasi upside down Kanban, but it is visual indicator. I guess the theme is you need visual indicators, but if you have visual indicators with no processes to actually look at them together, then you are wasting your time.

Another key theme I could talk a lot about is building in rhythms for alignments where you actually review the indicators, review what you learned from them and align as a team.


7. How is that different from status reporting?

Very different. At least to me, status reporting feels like a report to manager relationship. It feels like you are doing something for someone else to understand or control you. Somehow, it does not feel like a bottom up culture. Even the word – why do you have to report to anyone? If you are building a culture where people own their own objectives and they own what they do, it is not about communicating status, it is about aligning on whether the outcome is agreed upon or likely to be met.

In our objectives dashboard, people may write progress in a cell like little things, but they are really lighting on whether we are likely to meet the outcome because we are a team and we need to rely on each other to meet certain outcomes.

It is really about building a culture of ownership and accountability. So it is not status reporting. I guess it is technically your status, but it is really about just how you are doing. It is self-reporting lets call it that: self-reporting on one’s progress, which may or may not even be seen by their manager. That is another difference, right? We review the dashboard on our department calls and each department reports in and we ask people that are falling yellow or red to bring up to the group if there are behind so we can use their group’s brainstorming to unblock them. So, it is not so much about status reporting as it is about people being responsible to unblock themselves and leveraging the wisdom of the group.

Status reporting sucks. We have all been in meetings where people go on a status forever and it bores everyone. That is why another good tactic for virtual teams is to use daily stand-ups or huddles, whatever you call them, to get status out of the way efficiently and then you are weekly calls are not about status, they are about unblocking, they are about medium term issues.


8. So you are having a look at what has gone yellow or red and saying “You are late!” or “How can we help you?”

Yes, it is more like that “How can I help you?”. “Is there something the group can discuss?” It is more empowering questions as opposed to “Why?!” “Why is this?” and “Why is that?” or something like that.


9. You have spoken about having rhythms and aligning practices. What are some of the practical things that you actually use?

OK. In a virtual, in any team but especially in a virtual team, again, always be aligning. The simplest level is stand-ups. In think this should be done daily. In my company, because we are across California and Eastern Europe we do them twice weekly: Tuesdays and Thursdays, and that is good enough.

Everyone does this typical stand up style, people say what they have been up to, what are their priorities in the next few days and whether they are stuck. So in 15 minutes, each department, people that work together frequently, will report in on the same stand up – so usually that is by department – and everyone hears from everyone else. It is quick in 10 minutes it is done and that is important because that builds a sense of connection like you know you are here for a reason, you are hearing what everyone else is doing, the information is flowing very quickly around people, people have this shared sense of purpose, you hear what everyone else is doing again, you get that sense of in the stand ups.

Virtually it is important to know that someone will be there at a certain time. It will diminish some of the shyness of contacting someone because you know they will be there, so you can ping them after if you have a question. That is why I think it is good to be done daily.

Between myself and my team in Asia, I just talk weekly to the GM there because more than that might be a bit too difficult. So the stand up is a building block.

Now, if you have stand ups, then you can have weekly department calls that focus on medium-term issues. No reason to talk about status. So, first we check-in. Check-in is more of an emotional check-in, like something fun, it can be personal or work-related because it is important to put that first. You get a sense of personal goodness which you do not have the rest of the time. So we are intentionally building that in to our practice.

Then we spend 20 minutes looking at the numbers so every department has metrics. Not necessarily KPI’s, not necessarily goals, but just operational metrics like “How many news items have you published?”, “What was last week’s traffic?”, “How many retweets were there?” – just things that people who are in this business should know, to understand. In dev teams I am sure there are lots of other matrix one could watch weekly and we always have the discipline to look at the metrics first and we discuss them and we learn.

Any metrics that are surprisingly ahead or behind are discussed and it is never about pointing fingers, it is about uncovering truths and learning. In doing so, everyone on the call, at all levels, junior or senior, gets to learn together about the business and understand each other’s interpretations of the numbers. So that is a really powerful practice.

Then we go into open time, usually the last half hour - it is a one-hour call – where we use that hour to unblock objectives that are yellow or red. If there are none, then people can ask questions of others. So we do not use that time to request status and we try our best not to use that time for firefighting or as a holding place for stuff that really should be held on more focused ad-hoc calls. We use that time for unblocking.

So you can see how department calls are different from the stand-ups. Department calls are not about status, they are about operational intelligence and unblocking. That is another rhythm.

Then another weekly rhythm we have our eye on a one-to-one basis. There is a really cool tool called that automates the process of manager report one-to-ones. Again, it is great to have a call, if you can, but if you have a lot of people and if it is very distributed, it can be difficult. So 15five makes it a lot easier to answer a set of questions and then that gets submitted to your manager and you can have other followers, if you want your team to be more aware of what you are up to and then you can comment on people’s updates.

I have structured that report not as a status or a management tool, but actually more as a personal retrospective. So, the first question is “What are you proud of from this week?” and the last question should be” In order for your next week to be successful, what should have happened?” It is about outcome focusing and some of the questions in the middle were happiness rating: “How was last week 1 to 10?” and “What did you learn last week?”

By having that report being useful as a personal retrospective is another rhythm of self-reflection which in a virtual environment, again, I think establishes purpose because you are reflecting on what you did and why, you are reflecting on how you did – that is sense of progress, you are building transparency between you and your manager and others who can see it and it is mastery because you are reflecting on what you have learned and you are thinking about how to be more effective next week.

So it is all the fours ingredients of happiness, right? Virtually, you really have to care about intentionally building this culture that motivates people because if not motivated, you will fall apart. You are at home. You can go watch TV. So you have to be self-motivated.

That is why I love virtual environments because they lend themselves to a very healthy culture or they fall apart. So if you are in healthy culture, that is great. You are actually better off in a virtual environment than you are in an in-person environment because you do not have commutes, you do not have all the typical stresses and politics and crap you see in a normal environment.


10. Are there any particular lessons that you have learned that you would like to share with the audience? Or maybe some words of wisdom.

I mentioned already - always be aligning. Any opportunity to align is a good one. Over-communicate to clarity. Establishing the “Why” is important – one of the best ways to do that is by codifying your culture through a short list of core values, maybe no more than six or so values which everyone understands what they are.

Having programs in place to make them alive. So it is not just something you talk about once a year but people somehow, in a tasteful way, can reflect or see them in action, on a regular basis. Internally we do that by acknowledging people and thanking them for exhibiting the values on our public enterprise social network – we use the Yammer for water cooler type of stuff.

Results oriented work place in whatever way that looks for you. For us it looks like having a one page plan, that is well defined – having a quarterly objective setting regimen and having these dashboards to track progress and having weekly meetings to review progress.

Those things are really important. I guess the important core value in a virtual environment is transparency and anything you can do to build transparency is good.

I think in our business everything is transparent, except maybe for salaries. But everything else, everything is transparent. Everyone has access to everything and I think that is really important.

Anything you do to build transparency - that is why your dashboard is opened to everyone, that is why the one-page plan is open to everyone, that is why we have all these rhythms where people report in a transparent way to everyone else.

I had a comment once from one of our staff members that they know more about what their colleagues are doing here than they have known in an in-person environment when someone sat in the next cube. That is because we have intentionally designed systems and processes to build transparency and build those four elements required for happiness.


11. How often do people actually physically get together?

Everyone in the company, from all the different geographies, flies in once a year to a fun all-hands. The all-hands – we have two days of best practice sharing. Every department reports what it has been working and not working in their departments and then we have an open-space component where people just submit ideas and they collaborate across teams. Then we have a day of sightseeing. So that is really important.

Everyone flies in and I would argue that somehow, it may be better to be virtual and cross countries and cultures but have that experience of going somewhere cool then being collocated and going somewhere lame like a two-hours’ drive away which is typically the case in most companies that try to make all-hands. They will go outside the town to a nice little resort and play tennis and soccer. But it is different when you are going to China or going to Ireland. When people expect all year round, knowing that they are going to go somewhere fun next year, it builds so many opportunities for reflecting on excitement and happiness than if you knew that your next all-hands would be in the suburbs. People do not even care. They will probably see that as an annoyance in an in-person environment. Being virtual has some advantages even on moral in that matter.

Different departments do get together more often around projects that require them meeting in person. So luckily, we are a conferences business, so probably half the English team meets three times a year around the conferences, in addition to the all-hands meeting and that is a really great thing. Also, within this GEO, the Chinese team meets all their events and the Brazilian team meets at all their events. So there is a lot of other opportunities to get together.

Shane: I can say from experience that those get-togethers are fun. Floyd, thanks so much for talking to us. It is really great to get that sort of insight into what is for many organizations a difficult and challenging way of working so we really appreciate it.

A final word would be that you have to be willing to trust from the very beginning but couple trust with a lot of transparency. I am always willing to give someone a chance, especially if I believe they are core value match but then if you have transparency tools that people will fail fast and you’ll know. They say great companies hire slow, fire fast and that is true in the virtual environment as well. So I say trust and transparency need to be tightly coupled.

May 08, 2014