During my two-week rotation in GitLab’s CEO shadow program I noticed something: Being a CEO involves a lot of repetition. Whether meeting with his executive team, board members, public or private market investors, candidates for open roles, or journalists, our CEO Sid Sijbrandij had to repeat himself – a lot.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve read articles about the importance of repetition for leaders. My job can be pretty repetitive, too. I'm constantly planning meetups and explaining my role and the programs I manage to people throughout the wider GitLab community. And yet, given Sid’s position in GitLab and his desire to pursue “interestingness” (a Sid-ism I heard often), I was still surprised the 10th time I heard him tell the story of how GitLab was founded.
I want to highlight a few of the other common themes, topics, and questions that came up repeatedly throughout my time in the CEO shadow program – to both share some insight with our community and inform folks who will be meeting with Sid about what to expect.
1. "We don't have any offices"
GitLab’s all-remote culture is a popular topic right now. It came up frequently in conversations with potential investors, candidates for executive positions, and journalists. People were curious to learn how we make it work at our scale and how we replicate the serendipitous moments that occur among co-located teams. Sid typically relies on explanations of our handbook, breakout calls, coffee chats, and Contribute to help folks better understand how we are able to be successful as an all-remote company.
It's exciting to hear the conversation on all-remote work evolve as people learn more about it. One of the main reasons I joined GitLab was the ability to be part of an all-remote company. I believe we can change how the world views all-remote teams as we continue to be successful. With more than 2,000 contributors, more than 600 people on our team, and many more wanting to join, we are off to a good start.
Over the last 3 months we had over 20,000 applications for the vacancies at @gitlab https://t.co/JbmWvk3uDB It encourages us to push for even more transparency https://t.co/WQcUPXzcWj since many people cite that as a reason to apply.— Sid Sijbrandij (@sytses) May 30, 2019
Our success has already inspired other companies to follow the all-remote blueprint. The movement towards all-remote organizations will continue as we grow, generating more awareness and opening up opportunities that were never previously available to people around the world.
Here's a recording of a meeting I attended between our CEO Sid and GitLab board member Sue Bostrom that touched on our all-remote story:
2. "One of our values is…"
In nearly every meeting I attended over the two-week rotation, GitLab’s values were mentioned. Transparency is the most common value highlighted when our CEO meets with members of the wider GitLab community (see above tweet), many of whom are surprised to see Sid using Google to search for our handbook, roadmap, or OKRs – which is possible because they’re published publicly on our website. With his executive team and other leaders in the company, Sid is frequently focused on results – from structuring his meetings with a bias to action (more on this later) to pushing for GitLab to always be more data-driven and analytical in how we execute on everything from our releases to our vision. When something is moving slower than expected, Sid will encourage people to break down the work and make small changes that are easier to ship in alignment with our iteration value.
Our other values came up in conversations about how we recruit for our fast-growing team and the recruitment of a new chief people officer (diversity), how well our people are performing as managers of one (efficiency), and the importance of dogfooding our own product (collaboration).
3. "Is this already in the handbook?"
As I alluded to earlier, at GitLab we value results and that starts with the CEO. Internal meetings with Sid require an agenda. Those agendas typically follow a specific format, and they are usually filled with merge requests and other actionable items. Meetings with our CEO are not for status updates. They tend towards discussions that lead to action or for taking action (such as reviewing and merging an MR that is linked to in a meeting agenda). When a discussion takes place without a related MR link in the agenda, Sid inevitably asks, "Is this already in the handbook?" or something to that effect. This ensures any follow-up actions are assigned to someone so that actionable, visible changes are not delayed.
Even participation in the shadow program is viewed through the lens of results. As a shadow, one of the tasks you’re expected to complete is updating GitLab’s handbook, particularly the shadow page. During my rotation, Sid commented multiple times on the number of MRs that I created to update our handbook. Results have the CEO’s attention.
4. "Google Docs are the new whiteboard"
Google Docs are the default tool for GitLab agendas and meeting notes. While they are a necessity in the remote work environment, once you begin using them, you quickly notice the efficiency they bring to meetings. The delight that Sid draws from the efficiency of using Google Docs for notes is clear whenever he happily explains how they are superior to whiteboards, which happens frequently in meetings with people new to GitLab's way of working.
At GitLab, we find Google Docs to be so efficient and helpful, that we’ve even included why to use them in our handbook. This handbook addition was contributed by my fellow CEO shadow, Cindy Blake. In her words:
"Often we are asked, 'But how do you whiteboard without everyone physically together?' We use Google Docs for collaboration. Every meeting has a Google Doc for the agenda and for documenting discussion, decisions, and actions. Everyone in the meeting adds notes at the same time. We literally even finish one another's sentences sometimes. By brainstorming in text, instead of drawings, we are forced to clearly articulate proposals, designs, or ideas, with less variance in interpretations. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it is open to as many interpretations are there are people viewing it. In Google Docs, we use indentations to drill deeper into a given topic. This method retains context for comments, discussions, and ideas."
5. "Can you put your headphones on?"
The emphasis on clear communication is a priority for Sid and leaks into many of his conversations. This ranges from his awareness and respect when communicating with folks for whom English is not their first language to how we name and structure the parts of our organization and to whether or not a meeting attendee is using headphones on a Zoom chat (note: you should). All of this – even the preference for headphones – makes sense.
At a macro level, as an all-remote, open core company with a global community and team members in 54 countries, GitLab’s community consists of people with varying levels of English fluency. In order to promote a diverse and inclusive culture, it’s important to choose clear language when writing and speaking – from how we name teams and features to the idioms and slang we choose not to use. At a micro level, if you’re meeting with someone who has a poor video or audio connection the issue must be resolved so that everyone can understand each other and get through the agenda.
Whether you're reading this because you have a meeting with Sid, you're joining the CEO shadow program, or you simply want to add some best practices from a CEO to incorporate in your routine, there are a few key takeaways to distill from these common topics and questions.
- All-remote is gaining momentum
- Values matter
- Have a bias towards action
- Find tools that work for you
- Clear communication is key
One other thing you'll hear often when you're with Sid is "Thank you." Despite being a CEO, Sid is generous with his time and praise and never fails to say thank you to folks he spends time with. As a parent of two young children myself, I think that might be the most important takeaway of all.