Meetups for distributed teams

Rotterdam Central Station. Photo by me @vbelolapotkov.

Distributed teams have lots of benefits and advantages when done right. There are specific challenges too, and lack of in-person interaction is one of the hardest things to overcome, despite there are all sorts of modern communication tools we use every day. Meetups come to rescue here, so if you don’t run them yet, it’s a good idea to start preparing your first one.

I joined Automattic at the beginning of 2020, and knew that teams have a practice of regular meetups, but COVID-19 pandemic in combination with conflict in Ukraine delayed my first meetup for 2.5 years. I just got back from the first one and realized how important that experience for bonding distributed teams.

During the normal days, everyone in the team operates within their own time-zone and context (family, life events, local news, laws, regulations, etc) which might be very different between locations. These differences may significantly affect the ways each individual behaves or engaged in particular situations. Getting together at the meetup brings everyone on the same page – same time zone, same location, same schedule and so on. All that boosts the quality of interactions during the meetup.

Seeing each other in-person for the first time helps to build the full image of your teammates. During the video calls you can definitely see how their face and top of the body looks, maybe how they sound, but it’s really hard to understand how tall they are or what’s their weight, how their voice sound without microphone, how they move, how they speak while not in the meetings, and many other little details you can sense only in person.

Personal interactions are pretty limited in distributed environment too. We have some social time together or chatting in virtual water coolers, but it’s not the same as getting together in the bar after work or sharing lunchtime. At the meetup there is enough space and time for those activities because all of us are far from home and no one needs to pick kids from school or go to the dentist.

Lots of communication in distributed environment is asynchronous. This is great and works well for most of the discussions. However, there are types of activities which are more effective when done synchronously. In distributed teams sync time might be very limited (if available at all) due to the time zones, but a few days at the meetup can easily give us the same amount of sync time as six months of weekly team calls.

Last but not least, a meetup creates a shared experience and memories for the whole team, and some of them could be pretty unique. This time on top of all the great things we did during the meetup we experienced a false fire alarm in the hotel 🚨 We got together outside the hotel and made a ton of jokes about it, where else we could get this?! All these experiences and memories will stay with us forever and will support the team all along the way when we’re back to usual distributed work.


Can your distributed team survive without meetups? I think, yes, it’s possible! At least we were able to operate pretty successfully without in-person meetups for the last 2.5 years, but meetups help us bring morale and relationships within the team to the new level. Meetups make our distributed work much easier and joyful.

As a final bonus, we’re able to learn from each other during the meetups. At least I’ve learned a lot of things from my teammates last week.

Leadership reads, July 2022

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At the end of July, I got an idea that it would be nice to share in my blog some good posts I read. Can’t say that I read a lot, but I’d like to do a better job here. I also receive quite a lot of reading recommendations from various resources and struggle myself to read all of them or pick the best reads, so I thought you might have similar problems too. That’s why I want the list to be very lightweight, and carefully chosen. I want it to be something that resonates with me as an engineering lead or insightful for a person willing to create great products for real people.

Please note, there is no option to subscribe to that specific compilation. I think there are enough pings, dings, unread messages in whatever apps you use, so I don’t want this to become another one. This compilation is a free ride, you’re welcome to check and read it whenever you want or have time. Enjoy it!

So here it goes, the first edition.


Productivity for Developers

Link: https://giolodi.com/2022/07/what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-productive-software-developer/

Gio Lodi is sharing his thoughts about what productivity means for Software Developers. Doing more? Doing better? Doing the right things? Those are great questions to think about for yourself, and I believe the true answer will depend on your own preferred balance of those things.

The Curse of knowledge

Scott Berkun wrote an internal post about the curse of knowledge concepts and how that affects product decisions made by us. That’s a very interesting problem and concept, being aware of which could help with looking at the problems from the different standpoint. I can’t share the post by Scott, but you can read more about the concept here and here, and try to apply that knowledge to product thinking on your own. Believe me, it’ll be a fun exercise.

Program and Platform teams

Link: https://newsletter.pragmaticengineer.com/p/the-platform-and-program-split-at

This is the story of how Uber get to the splitting teams into Program and Platform teams. Good read for the cases when the number of teams working on the same product is growing and the old approaches stop working at new scale. That also resembles the approach we started following at the end of 2021 for teams working on WooCommerce Payments. Some things already work the same way, and some ideas would be interesting to bring to life.

Learn together

Link: https://medium.com/shipup-blog/sharing-interesting-stuff-a-simple-yet-powerful-management-tool-771d3c2b39b7

That post explains a very simply but powerful idea for improving knowledge exchange and learning within daily work routines. In two words: suggest topic/post/article for discussion, give partner or group time to digest the content, get together to discuss and exchange opinions. The author uses the idea in 1:1s, but we took this practice as an experiment to run discussions within a group of engineering leads, and it works well so far.

Leadership is the art of balance

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Leadership is the art of balance

This thought keeps coming back to me again and again over the last months. There are many flavors of leadership – leadership styles, but none of them is a universal enough to fit in the best way for every case.

It’s not a coincidence, I’ve chosen a sound director image for the blog post, because more often than not, I see the leaders do the same for their teams. Similar to sound directors, who adjust dozens of knobs and handles to make sure the resulting sound is as good as possible, leaders operate within their own environment to make teams shine and flourish. However, the devil as always is in the details, because the reality is way more complex than the idea itself. 

For example, every engineering leader has to make many decisions about communication, processes, projects scope, team focus, time allocation for learning and development, amount of tech debt, size of the team, team velocity, code quality, acceptable risk levels and so on. Multiply those to a number of other factors like team members’ individuality, state of the business and market, competitors, and other elements making up the context, and you will understand how vast is the operational landscape can be.

So the definition of good enough will be very different depending on the context you operate in, e.g. velocity in the early stage products might be much more important than quality of the code, and quality requirements for payments service will be much higher than for utility application.

As a result, leaders are working every day to find that unique balance of existing tools, processes, and their configs, to steer in the chosen direction and maximize desirable outcomes, which makes the job pretty close to art.

Getting back to blogging, again

Life is generous for surprises of all flavors …

That’s how the last Getting back to blogging post starts. It was published on Feb 20th, 2022. On that day I was sure the storm is over and had no idea about upcoming challenges. 

Russia-Ukraine conflict which started on Feb 24th, 2022 has put many lives under stress test, including my own. I don’t want to talk or write about the conflict because I don’t know a lot, and neither I have possibility to validate any of the controversy communicated in the news. For now, I just want to acknowledge that this big change triggered another chain of events in my life where I had to make many choices and take actions. As a result, my fragile blogging beginning was dropped and abandoned, again. 

Luckily, it wasn’t forgotten completely. I was thinking about writing from time to time, and even had some interesting ideas for blog posts, but I didn’t have enough courage, energy and time to write. I even felt guilty sometimes and ashamed of not writing anything because I was aware of broken commitment to publish a post per week.

So here goes an interesting leadership lesson I learned after initial shock had passed.  Conscious reset of priorities is necessary at extreme conditions like this, or when the context you operate within changes significantly. I found that the following steps are important for proper reset: 

  1. Acknowledge the changes.
  2. Start/stop/continue. Figure out what you should start doing, continue doing, and stop doing.
  3. Make priorities for things left on your plate explicit. Any prioritization technique would work.
  4. Accept it and communicate to others involved.

I did it for many things at my job and in my life to some extent, but definitely I could do better with blogging. Today I realize that blogging wasn’t the top priority at the moment, but I didn’t accept it then, didn’t give myself permission not to write, and haven’t communicated about it anywhere. 

Now, it’s almost four months passed. New lessons learned, I moved to another country, I feel myself in a much better position today, and ready to give another try to blog. The little blogger within me was knocked out, but luckily there is no referee who would count to ten and stop the fight. Luckily, I can start blogging again.

It was great to go back and reread blogging experiment post to remind myself those five why’s behind this blog:

1. I got curious about the blogging world and the technology driving it. There are lots of tools and practices helping people to deliver useful content to the audience and I’d like to learn them.

2. Automattic creates lots of great products but there is always room for improvement, so by using our own products as a customer I’ll be able to provide valuable feedback to internal teams and make publishing on the web even better.

3. I want to join the community of bloggers and hopefully make some new connections across the globe.

4. Share my knowledge, thoughts, and experiences with readers at the highest quality I’m able to provide.

5. I’m curious how far I can get in the long term doing baby steps every single day.

Blogging experiment post

Getting back to blogging

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

It’s been about a month since I published my last post – book review for Indistractable. I know I planned to write 30 minutes a day and one post per week as part of my blogging experiment, but so many things happened to me so far that I had to drop the experiment to digest the life. Keep reading for more details about my adventures.

Role switch. I got a new role at Automattic – Director of Engineering for Transact Merchant Experience group at Woo 🎉 That’s both exciting opportunity for me and big challenge at the same time, because I have never led other leads before. It takes time and energy to transition and settle in the new role, but I’m surrounded by great people and professionals, feel supported by my leads and excited about the plans we have this year! Follow WooCommerce.com site and social media for updates.

Vaccination in Croatia. The decision of going to the other country for vaccination sounds weird taking into account several vaccines are available locally in Russia and there is no need to wait for it. However, none of the local vaccines are approved by EU and US authorities, making it hard to travel for work, so I went to Zagreb for COVID vaccination (some nice images from the trip are here). It didn’t go perfect – I was able to got a shot which is great, but unfortunately I got sick a few hours later, and it took me a whole week to fully recover from it. Everything is good now, and I received my EUDCC (EU Digital COVID Certificate).

Moving. Another surprise was awaiting me on return from Croatia. We had to move out of the place we rented with the family, urgently, almost without any notice. That was a very stressful and exhausting experience: looking for places, calling all the agents, arranging meetings, and running around the area to check potential places (we decided to stay in the same area due to convenient logistics for kid’s school). Luckily, we’d found a very nice apartment quickly and moved in within a single week 🤯 It took another two weeks to unpack and get used to the new place.

Now. It feels like the storm is over. Each of the events would be fine to handle on its own, but not all of them in such a short period. Now I’m good, enjoying a calm weekend, started seeing friends, doing some sports and ready to get back to blogging 😌 I’m grateful to all the people around who supported me over those weeks. I also started building plans for the future, both personal and work-related. Those are exciting, and I’m looking forward to making them real.


I’m glad to be back on track with my life and blogging!

Book review: Indistractable

Author: Nir Eyal
Subtitle: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

TLDR; Being indistractable is a superpower of people leaving happy lives according to their own values and beliefs. In his book, Nir Eyal gives everything you need to understand and gain that power to change your own life for the better.

The author

Nir is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. He was taught as a Lecturer in Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Design School, and sold two technology companies since 2003.

Nir worked in the video gaming and advertising industries where he learned and applied the techniques used to motivate and manipulate users. He writes to help companies create behaviors that benefit their users while educating people on how to build healthful habits in their own lives.

For whom?

This book is for anybody, who wants to live their own life, aligned with own values and driven by conscious choices.

How to read

Nir was kind enough and gave precise recommendation on this, so I have nothing to add there.

You’re welcome to navigate the four steps to becoming indistractable however you like, but I recommend you proceed in order through parts one to four.

That’s what I did, and have zero regrets. However, if you don’t like to read books in order or prefer learning by examples, Nir covered you as well:

If you’re the kind of person who likes to learn by exmpalpe, and you want to see these tactics in action first, feel free to read parts fine and on, then come back through the first four parts for a deeper explanation.

My impression

I was impressed by the amount of great reviews at the beginning of the book. There are several pages of them, but I was already hooked by reading the first several reviews.

The book is very well-structured and easy to follow. Relatively short chapters allow getting joy from the book step by step. It’s nice that each chapter ends with Remember this section holding the major ideas, so it will be easy to quickly refresh some key points in memory. In addition to that, there is a Chapter Takeaways section at the end of the book for a supersonic look back.

Language used in the book is of high quality, in my opinion, it is very expressive and precise. I’m not a native speaker and had to use a translator from time to time to get more accurate meaning of some words, which is good for me as I learned some new words phrases.

I liked a lot the model of traction and distraction presented in the book, and was surprised that modern tech is not the source of the distraction problem, but human brain is. It was also interesting to read how brain structures and behaviors which helped us to survive over the ages are preventing us from feeling comfort for too long.

Furthermore, there are enough tips on how to explore distractions, deal with internal and external triggers, and stay focused on what really matters. Ideas and tools mentioned in the book look simple and obvious (after you read them), yet insightful at the same time. It’s easy to try them out, and I’ve already started validating them on practice. Don’t have enough results to share yet, but I’m very excited at the moment and curious where I will get to in the next months.

Favorite quotes

Sharing my favorite quotes as is, and letting you make your own conclusions.

Living the life we want requires not only doing the right things; it also requires we stop doing the wrong things that take us off track.

It’s good to know that feeling bad isn’t actually bad; it’s exactly what survival of the fittest intended.

While we can’t control the feelings and thoughts that pop into our heads, we can control what we do with them.

you are only powerless if you think you are.

Think of all the locks, security systems, and storage units we use to protect our property and how little we do to protect our time.

You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it’s distracting you from.

Staying late at work or feeling pressured to reply to work-related messages after hours means spending less time with our family and friends or doing something for ourselves.


This review is barely a tip of the iceberg. I encourage you getting the book (FYI, I’m not affiliated), reading it from cover to cover, and becoming the main stakeholder in your life!

Now: Dec 26th, 2021

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“Now” – the magic moment in time which will never happen twice in your life. It’s shared by billions of people on Earth but still unique for every individual. In this post, I want to capture my very own “now” and share it with you. It’s all about me and my life, so proceed reading if you are interested in day-to-day details. As always, it’s ok to skip if you are not at that place now.

I’ve heard about the idea of “now” page from my blogging group fellows and liked it a lot but was putting aside for a while to focus on writing about leadership, software development and books. I’m at the end of the year and sort of trying to slow down a bit after a long, challenging and eventful year. That in my opinion makes a good timing for “now” post. So where I am now?

I am at my home now (the rented apartment at the northern part of Moscow), in my office (cozy corner in the living room), writing in the dark room (it’s less than 5pm, but already dark). 

The Christmas tree is all set up and lights are blinking to remind about the upcoming New Year. There are still three days of work left before the holidays, but the holiday mood is already there. I probably need to explain a bit the context specific for Russia and some other countries. Christmas is celebrated on Jan 7th, that’s why I’m not away from keyboard yet as most of my colleagues, and New Year’s Eve kicks-off a holiday season with big presents exchange happening on the New Year night.

That Christmas/New Year mood though has a bittersweet flavor this time. My daughter has got sick couple of days ago and there is not that much emotional energy left to party and celebrate. Anyway, I’m looking forward to it as a very needed break to refill my tank and jump into exciting 2022. There is still enough time for my kid to recover and for us to get prepared for a little family party.

My wife and I had a very productive year, learned a lot and have enough moments to remember. We both miss trips, but 2022 looks more promising in that regard, despite all the additional risks and unexpected changes which have been appearing since COVID times the beginning of 2020.

My work at Automattic has been an amazing adventure this year. I’m proud of what we achieved with the company as well as with teams I work closely. WooCommerce Payments has become available in 18 countries and got a ton of new features, it’s powering thousands of online stores and is helping merchants to sell their great products all over the world! It’s incredible to be part of that journey and share it with such wonderful people and professionals. There are ambitious plans for 2022, but I won’t share them here, you’ll find out yourselves either by following my or WooCommerce Payments’s updates.

I’m glad that I started writing and sharing my thoughts with people a few months ago. It’s not easy sometimes and far from ideal, but I’m happy with consistency since the beginning of the blogging experiment.

Wellbeing has become important to me recently. I started to focus more on this part of my life as well as continuing to care about other’s comfort. Thinking is not doing though, so the “doing” step needs to be improved in 2022 😀

Pausing here for now to spend some time with my family, bye!

My 2021 insights

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2021 is getting to the end and it’s a good time to reflect a bit on what happened during the last 12 months. So did I with the help of my coach and want to share a couple of interesting bits of it.

Energy

I worked hard this year at my job along with many fantastic people around me. But hard work takes energy, which consecutively affects the quality of life outside work and threatens the balance between the two. What I found out though is to maintain that balance and live a happy life I need not only effectively use my energy during the workday but also effectively restore it. Rest is as important as the work I do. Taking rest is necessary to do the work well and should be planned accordingly. 

As part of the reflection with the coach, we were also looking at my activities giving the most energy. So here are the two winners of mine: solo trips (like the one I had this year) and skiing (my new hobby). They work differently to some extent but have at least one thing in common – they create a space where I am alone without access to daily routines. Sort of escape from busy days.

We also talked about how to apply that discovery on a daily basis in 2022 so I can always have energy, but those are only ideas yet to be tested, so not sharing them for now.

Surprises

The second part of the reflection was focused on things that surprised me most this year and two things popped out of this: my personal journey at work and how well the team has coped with all the challenges.

Without going too much into internal and private details I think if somebody would present me the plan one year ago with all the things which actually happened this year, I’d say with confidence it’s not realistic or at least too optimistic. Looking back I can say that constant learning, iterative approach, and the culture built within Automattic were the key elements of that success. That’s why for 2022 I’m not trying to make any precise plans, but want to stay ambitious, adjust as the situation changes, and enjoy the journey.


That’s it, now it’s time to apply those learnings – try to stay ambitious with keeping a good energy level and avoiding burnout at the same time. I’ll let you know how it goes in 2022.