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8 Secrets Of GitLab’s Remote Work Culture

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At the GitLab Contribute event, Sid Sijbrandij, CEO and co-founder of GitLab shared some open secrets that make GitLab a successful ‘all remote’ company. What’s unique about GitLab is that being true to its Open Source roots, the company wants to share these ‘secrets’ with the rest of the world. It wants other companies to learn and benefit from the work it has done.

1) Write it down

One of the bedrocks of GitLab is its Handbook. Everything the company does – all the way from marketing to coding – is very well documented and written down as a Handbook. “When you write things down, you can iterate on them, make them better and pass it on to the next generation,” said Sijbrandij. “Your values and mission don’t get lost with time.”

It’s a living document that continues to evolve with the company. When a new person joins the company, they go through the Handbook and get complete ‘orientation’. If they have any suggestions, they can simply edit the handbook. “You have to do it only once then you don’t get a shoulder tap from people asking you the same questions over and over,” said Sijbrandij.

2) Be fully transparent

Everything that GitLab does is fully transparent. When Mark Loveless joined the company as a security expert he thought that putting everything out in public was a recipe of disaster; it was a risk. But once he read the Handbook, it changed his mind, “It made a lot of sense to be open an transparent.”

While most ‘open source’ companies keep the source of their technologies open, GitLab keeps everything in public; in their Handbook. The company even disclosed the date when it plans to go public. This transparency breeds trust within employees and the community.

3) Be the community

Another core piece of GitLab’s success is its attitude towards community and contributors. 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.

In fact, 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 ‘DZ’ Zaporozhets, he approached 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.

4) Few synchronous meetings

Sijbrandij said that if you want to work remote you want as few synchronous meetings as possible. You want to work asynchronously. Use technologies that cut through these challenges and allow feedback to each while not be online at the same time, he said.

5) Small steps…one at a time

Another open secret behind GitLab’s success is small steps. One of the drawbacks of an all remote company is that you can’t get all of your employees under the same roof at the Same time. People work in different time zones. They need to catch-up with other teams. If you take small steps, its’ less to catch-up with.

“If you take a small step, you don’t have to know the exact direction you were going to go because you can adjust it later. If you take a small step, you don’t have to involve a lot of people because you’re not going to be very far away from what everyone else is. If you take a small step, you’ll get the feedback after that so you don’t need to unfold all kinds of scenarios. So doing a small thing is such an important way in which we prevent coordination that requires people to be in the same office or being in the same time zone. By taking small steps really quickly we do much better there,” said Sijbrandij.

6) DRI: fast decisions

With great freedom comes great responsibilities. Being a fully transparent and remote company means anyone can express an opinion and suggest changes. But you need someone to take responsibility, call the shots and execute.

GitLab has the concept of DRI – Direct Responsible Individual. “Everything we do, it should be clear who’s the person who’s going to make that decision,” said Sijbrandij. Everyone can express an opinion, but you don’t have to convince everyone, you don’t need to get consensus to put something into action. That take times; forever.

“We want people to take quick decisions. We’re on the exponential growth and the most important thing to keep up with that is to make decisions as fast as possible. The biggest driver of our future success is our speed of decisions, not necessarily the quality of decisions,” said Sijbrandij. Input-based decisions get better with time and GitLab culture encourages that.

7) Focus on results and not time

All remote culture provides employees to work when they want to. GitLab believes in each employee being their own manager. GitLab doesn’t care about punching cards and when you work. It’s focused on results. As long as you get the job done, it doesn’t care when you did it. What it does care about is that its employees should not overwork. The People Team (HR) told me that if they notice someone has been working long hours they do get worried. This freedom and flexibility empower remote employees to work when they are the most efficient and productive.

8) Build trust

Building trust is critical to the success of a company like GitLab. People should be able to relate to each other. “Sending text messages back and forth to get something done is functional but it’s not a great way to establish a connection and build understanding,” he said.

That’s when events like GitLab Contribute create an environment to build that connection and trust.  “The better you know another person, the more likely you’re going to have a positive interpretation of what they say. It’s very important to join group conversations, have coffee chats with people,” said Sijbrandij, “We are remote, but we shouldn’t be a lonely company.”

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Swapnil Bhartiya
I have more than 12 years of experience covering Enterprise Open Source, Cloud, Containers, IoT, Machine Learning and general tech. My stories cover a very broad spectrum - traditional Linux, data center and Free Software to contemporary emerging technologies like 'serverless'. Widely Read: My stories have appeared in a multitude of leading publications including CIO, InfoWorld, Network World, The New Stack, Linux Pro Magazine, ADMIN Magazine, HPE Insights, Raspberry Pi Geek Magazine, SweetCode, Linux For You, Electronics For You and more.