Interview with John Agosta from Canonical/Ubuntu on working remotely
In this interview on remote work, I’m speaking to John Agosta from Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu). As a long-time Canonical team member, John and my paths have crossed multiple times over the years, starting when I was at a cloud company, and he was at the server division at Canonical, to more recently when he moved to the Ubuntu Core (formerly known as Snappy) side, as I was building out Screenly where John now is the Program Manager.
While Canonical isn’t a fully remote company (they have multiple offices around the globe), a large part of their workforce is working either partially or fully remotely. As such, I wanted to understand more about their internal structure for this. Because I’ve had a lot of communication with John over the years, and he’s one of the fully remote team members, he’s an ideal candidate to better understand the inner workings of Canonical’s remote culture.
Can you tell me a bit more about yourself?
I’m an old school software developer. By that I mean, I started software development back in the days of mainframe computing; Fortran, C, assembler, and when 256K was a lot of memory, and 10MB was a large disk. I originally thought I would be an architect designing the next generation residential homes. Little did I envision that the architecture I ended up loving more would utilize computer software building blocks. Over my three decade career I have stayed in the software development field as a developer, product manager, and deliver manager.
How long have you been working remotely?
For 8.5 years.
Where are you based out of?
Steamboat Springs, Colorado a small Colorado ski town.
In your opinion, what are some characteristics of a well functioning remote team?
Characteristics of a well functioning co-located team and a remote team are very similar. Where they diverge is probably more in the levels of clarity communication. Communication is core to every aspect of the team characteristic.
- Business clear direction and goals
- Organization leaders need to understand that they need to provide clear set of directions. This allows for team members at all levels to make important decisions at their levels and not wait for answers.
- Strong open communication
- Every member of the team needs to be both a good listener and comfortable contributing to discussions.
- Self motivated
- There is no one looking over your shoulder to see that you are at your desk working. Remote workers need the ability to focus on the required business tasks
- Ability to shutdown
- If you sleep and work in the same place it can be difficult to know when to quit. Where brick and mortar managers worry their staff are not working if they cannot see them working. Remote managers need to be concerned that their employees are not burning out by beings always on.
- Good collaboration tools
- Chat tool: All employees – at all levels (even CEO) – need to be online, and active in a company wide messaging. This is your legs when you need to stop by someone’s desk to ask a quick question. Or this is a place where coffee station discussion turns into an extended brainstorm or technical discussion with decisions. I am not particular to any one chat tool as long as I can search chat archives for previous discussion points.
- Video conferencing: We are human and we thrive on contact. Whenever possible, meetings (even this customers) should be done with live video. We gain a lot of insight be reading the body language of others. This also forces you to get out of your pajamas and dress for work. ;-) I do like Google Hangouts because it is integrated into my Google calendaring system.
- Shared document system: A tool like Google docs. Desktop editing systems just do not work for distributed teams. You collaborate in the documents.
There are some obvious omissions from this list of remote characteristics, such as great work ethics, reliability, ability to manage your time, and of course Trust. These are very, very important, but these are very, very important for any well functioning team and business.
How did remote work change or impact your life?
If you have ever read one of the original career management books, “What color is your Parachute”, Richard Bolles discusses the principal around your career success and happiness starts with the foundation of being happy with where you live. You spend so much time outside of work, so everything grows from that base. So, for me, remote management has allowed me to be flexible in where I can live. So, now I live in the Colorado Rocky Mountains a resort town that features world class skiing in the winter, a world class river in the summer, open wilderness, and also another love, many mountain biking trails.
Other than your home base, what is your favorite place to work remotely from?
With age I have lost a lot of near field vision. So, I am not nearly as productive away from my home setup. I also need large screens to spread out my work across my monitors (desk). So, while I do enjoy the occasional coffee shop to get away. I only do that if I am reviewing documents and responding to emails that don’t require a lot of analysis.
What are some habits or rituals that you do to keeps you going?
For me it is ensuring a regular schedule of biking and skiing. For others this may just be their favorite hobby. We need something to help us refresh. Also, ensuring you get out of your home to interface with others.
Can you describe your home setup?
I have a sit/stand desk. It is of decent size. It has a manual control that allows me to very quickly adjust height. I have a Herman Miller ergo chair for when sitting and a foot pad for when standing. I also have my desk next to a large window that overlooks the mountains. I have a 15” laptop that is connected to a docking station connected to a large monitor, external ergo friendly keyboard and mouse. I only use a single monitor, but do use my laptop screen as a second display.
What are your favorite tools for collaboration?
- Google suite of tools (Google Docs, Hangout, Calendar)
What advice would you give to someone who has never worked remotely before and is about to join a remote company?
Have a routine and a schedule. Don’t let the fact that work is always “here” get in the way of the things you like away from work. This doesn’t mean you don’t absolutely love the work you are doing. It is more that you also need to get away from “work” to refresh your mind and help you be more productive at your work.
At Canonical, the teams often do in-person sprints and summits. How do you think these gatherings impact team spirit and productivity?
These meetings are critical to spirit and productivity. I suspect the brick and mortar businesses would also find the same as these meetings force the process to “stop” and “confirm” your directions are still valid, and provides a good “pivot” point as required. These meetings also build connection points between the business and technical areas. All business and technical owners are present; thus allowing for quick iterations and not getting bogged down.
This process builds strong relationships and connections, and an understanding around the important linkages and dependencies that otherwise take a longer time to build. This results in building strong relations even among teams that may on the surface appear to be unrelated and disjoint.
What is a good frequency for these in-person gatherings?
Canonical does these on a quarterly basis for business roadmaps, and semi-annually for engineering teams. There are some people who need to attend both, so that is 6 times a year for a select few – and that does get rather extensive so things may change in the future, however right now we have a number of strategies in flight so the increased frequency is currently necessary.
At these summits, what does the agenda look like?
They are different depending upon an engineering versus a business summit.
Business reviews have a combination of roadmap presentations from the different business units, breakouts for deep dive presentations that are open to any attendee. Everyday we close with “lightening talks”, which is a series of 5 (10 max) minute presentation of a topic of interest – these vary widely.
The engineering sprints typically have very short 30 minute intro for the day, and then each engineering team have own deep dive rooms. Agendas vary based upon the team. These are more of individual engineering teams co-locating their individual summits at the same place and time to work on very specific technical issues with advantage of other teams being present as required. These meetings also close out the day with “lightening talks”.
Looking to learn more?
While you’re here, I’m thinking about writing a book on this topic. Sign up here for updates.