Sumbry, Head of Reliability Engineering at AirBnb, and George discuss tips for the current challenge many of us in the software industry are facing: how we communicate with our coworkers remotely. We consider lessons learned from managing globally distributed teams and compare those to what we’re learning now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having managed engineering teams at Twilio, Uber, and now AirBnb, Sumbry shares a bit about the timezone madness from being globally distributed. Some teams orient their schedules around the timezone at their “default” location. That doesn’t do the team in the default location any favors when it comes to thinking about their remote peers.
“When most of the people on the same video conference are in the same room, there’s an ebb and flow to the conversation. Add in a couple of remote folks and they feel like they’re interrupting the conversation when they interject.”
George overlooks Sumbry’s past experience being a solo entrepreneur working from his living room. They discuss the differences between “working from home” and being a distributed team that needs to communicate, aka “remote work.”
“When there’s a center of gravity around a particular physical location, it’s very easy to be excluded if you’re not physically there.”
You gotta wear pants, people. Or rather, it’s tough to work from home in your pajamas. Working from home doesn’t mean ignoring your usual routine.
“Staying in my pajamas all day was the key signal that my work days and my overall well-being were suffering.”
Sumby just started his new role at AirBnb. Many companies with distributed teams fly new teammates into a central office for onboarding because they think it’s easier to build relationships in person than it is over video conferencing. But not meeting someone can have unexpected results.
“We started our interactions over video conferencing and got to know each other. When we finally met in person, I realized they were about 7 feet tall. I didn’t notice until then how my perceptions and how my interactions might have changed if we’d started out getting to know each other in person.”
Remote work means turning communication into documentation. It helps to document team “norms” so that anyone can easily get up to speed. Make it clear how much communication over which mediums are expected because everything needs to be more explicit when you’re distributed.
“Correctly set up expectations, develop this routine and cadence, and it helps a lot.”
The reality is that when working from home, our personal lives can sometimes work their way into our workdays and distractions can appear unprofessional. But should they?
“You need those rules of engagement not just with your teams, but within your household as well.”
People often report being able to get more done from home, but that can also have unexpected consequences.
“After we saw a 30% increase in deployments, we sent out a survey to our engineers. 70% of them reported feeling like they were able to get more done, but those same 70% also reported lower energy levels.”
Sumbry and George discuss tips & tricks that have worked for their teams during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We did our own version of MTV Cribs. People would take their laptops and show off their homes and working areas. Seeing people’s homes instantly changed our levels of interaction and familiarity.”
Sumbry cleverly calls out the need for simpler production systems and wishes he’d learned to appreciate a lack of complexity sooner in his career.
He also becomes the first guest to plead the 5th amendment.
Sumbry currently leads Reliability Engineering @ Airbnb. His team is responsible for the overall reliability of the Airbnb Platform: building tools, automation, ensuring product quality, and providing production engineering expertise to all of Airbnb. Sumbry has almost two decades of experience working in the platform, infrastructure, and reliability engineering space but comes from a non-traditional background: having started his career as a software engineer, Sumbry pivoted to network engineering because he wanted to learn more about the core technology that enabled the Internet and other distributed systems.
Sumbry joined several startups as the Internet grew in popularity and quickly learned how to build and scale infrastructure, striving to strike the right balance between perfection and growth. Sumbry eventually started several of his own businesses because he thought he had some good ideas (and also wanted to learn more about problem-solving from a product and customer perspective). Some great (and expensive) lessons were learned here are a big reason why Sumbry is heavily customer focused today even from the infrastructure and reliability side of development. Sumbry is also an Electronic Music DJ and producer in his free time, as getting away from platforms and infrastructure actually helps preserve his sanity.
George Miranda is a Community Advocate at PagerDuty, where he helps people improve the ways they run software in production. He made a 20+ year career as a Web Operations engineer at a variety of small dotcoms and large enterprises by obsessively focusing on continuous improvement for people and systems. He now works with software vendors that create meaningful tools to solve prevalent IT industry problems.
George tackled distributed systems problems in the Finance and Entertainment industries before working with Buoyant, Chef Software, and PagerDuty. He’s a trained EMT and First Responder who geeks out on emergency response practices. He owns a home in the American Pacific Northwest, roams the world as a Nomad with his wife and dog, and loves writing speaker biographies that no one reads.