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How GitLab Cracked The Code Of Remote Working: GitLab Contribute Report


Industrial revolutions have changed our world. They built the foundation of modern civilization. But there were side effects of these revolutions, too. One of the most notable “damages” industrial revolutions did to our society was to break families apart. People had to leave their homes, kids and loved ones behind and go to ‘work.’ We spend several years of our lives in just commuting to work.

[Also read: 8 Secrets behind GitLab’s All Remote Working Culture]

The 4th iteration of the industrial revolution is going to repair this damage to some degree. 5G, AR/VR will help create technologies that will eliminate the need for physical presence. People will be able to work remotely, from their abode – their homes. But these are technical solutions; we still need to solve the people problem; the social problem.

Enters GitLab, a company that has all remote working culture.

At the first GitLab Contribute event (which was technically the seventh GitLab Summit under the new name), the company CEO and co-founder Sid Sijbrandij shared his vision of all remote working during his keynote.

It’s virtually impossible for a start-up, even established companies, to be able to hire and relocate the best talent that they need. By embracing the remote working culture, GitLab was able to tap into talent from every corner of the world.

“All remote working started out as a necessity,” said Sijbrandij, “but we also wanted everyone in the world to be able to contribute to GitLab on an equal footing.”

After the successful Y Combinator incubation, when GitLab was raising money via investors, the advice Sijbrandij would often get was that remote works great for engineering, but it won’t work for finance, sales, marketing or PeopleOps (Human Resource). You need an office.

But Sijbrandij’s unorthodox approach proved them all wrong and made it work even for these departments. Commenting on Haydn Mackay, Regional Sales Director of U.S., Sijbrandij said, “He is very effective at not showing up at the office.” Haydn wouldn’t show up at the office, because GitLab made sure it was not necessary.

“I don’t think people show up at office because they want to commute or to miss their kids; they come to the office because they don’t want to miss out on information or career opportunities. If you provide it through another venue, people stop showing up, and that’s what keeps happening at GitLab,” said Sijbrandij.

But remote working is not very easy to do. There are many different cultures. There’s are many different people involved in GitLab. Over 2000 people have contributed to the project. “One of the hardest phases is working across multiple time zones. I don’t think we’ve cracked the code yet on the Asia Pacific. We have ended the distance problem but not the time zone yet,” he said. But it wouldn’t be Sijbrandij if he didn’t try to solve that problem. Focus on innovation and transparency helps cut through some of these challenges.

“If you want to work remotely you want as few synchronous meetings as possible. You want to work asynchronously. Be able to give each other feedback while not be online at the same time,” he said.

Sijbrandij also stresses on taking small steps, quick changes that can be reverted. One step at a time, small changes also allow others to catch up. It helps build a very healthy community of contributors.

We are the community

Another core piece of the GitLab DNA, besides remote working, is the contribution. One of the reasons GitLab changed the name of the event from Summit to GitLab contribute was the fact that they wanted to remind everyone of the culture at GitLab. “Our mission is everyone can contribute,” said Sijbrandij.

Sijbrandij dislikes the idea of talking about the community because there is no company vs. community at GitLab. “We are part of the community. Everyone is on equal footing,” he said. “Equal footing is really important as that is why we got over 195 contributions because we invite people in.”

The sentiment was echoed in a contributor’s panel where almost every contributor said that one of the reasons they became part of the GitLab community was that they felt welcomed.

This value is rooted in the DNA of the company also because of the way it was created. When Sijbrandij saw the GitLab project by Dmitriy ‘D Z’ Zaporozhets, he approaches Dmitriy. Sijbrandij asked if Dmitriy would mind if he created a company around GitLab without him? Dmitriy said ‘go ahead and make it more popular. I am glad that you are creating awareness for it’. That is the attitude that was the foundation of GitLab’s unique culture. Anyone can contribute.

“That should be our attitude when someone wants to contribute something to GitLab or use it for their project even if they compete with us as a company. We should be a great steward of the project,” said Sijbrandij.

A year later after founding the company, Dmitriy tweeted that he wanted to work full time on GitLab. Sijbrandij asked how much money Dmitriy needed and then headed to the nearest Western Union. When he wanted to wire the money to someone in Ukraine, the executive asked: “do you know this person or you met him over the internet?”

A company was founded by two people who never met in person and worked remotely. When Sijbrandij couldn’t get a Ruby on Rails programmer, which he could afford, he made a deal with Marin Jankovski, the first employee of GitLab that Sijbrandij would teach him Ruby in exchange of working for the company. Jankovski is still around and is getting a paycheck instead of a Ruby lesson.

The point is that Sijbrandij innovated and solved the problems as they appeared. All of it becomes part of the company culture.

Something is right

Sijbrandij’s unorthodox approach to work culture is working out quite well for the company. The company itself is growing at an unprecedented rate; GitLab is doubling its work-force every nine months. GitLab Contribute was evidence of this growth. The volume of attendees has gone up from 6 to 600+ in between these seven summits.

“The time in which that happened is way, way shorter than for most other companies,” said Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO of GitLab. So there is certainly something right in Sijbrandij’s approach to company building. There is no GitLab headquarters; Sijbrandij’s home is the HQ with his cats.

Next year he is planning to take the company public. He already has a date set: November 18, 2020.