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Giant Swarm lets its employees choose where they work

This week we’re talking to GiantSwarm, a team of 15 who are convinced that people are happier when they are free to choose their own location to work from and that leads to greater work results.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us what are you currently working on?

We provide developers with an infrastructure that allows them to focus on building their applications instead of handling their servers, giving them the flexibility of their own servers combined with the ease-of-use of a platform-as-a-service. With Giant Swarm they can build, deploy, and manage their containerized applications. There are no restrictions regarding programming languages, frameworks, or databases. We are especially optimized for applications that are built in a micro-services style.

What made you go nomadic as a team?

We had several reasons to be nomadic as a team.

One reason is that we always believed in the fact, that the highest possible amount of individual freedom causes the greatest results. And choosing the place where to work from is an important part of this flexibility. The other reason is a simple one: We need the best people. And we could not hire enough locally.

To ensure a smooth working process we still have to handle all things that are related to that. Choosing the right tools (GitHub, Slack, Hangouts, Trello, Asana, wiki, docs) and creating a structure of how and when to see each other face to face.


What steps did you take to “train” yourselves to work remotely?

Well, we had an easy start. All members of the Giant Swarm kick-off team worked together in a previous company and were/are located around Cologne, Germany. We rent an office, but decided to work 2 days a week remotely (especially the developer team). Now we are 15 and located in France, Netherlands, Spain, San Francisco, and several cities in Germany. It works! Furthermore, we established tools like Slack and others (and guidelines how to use them) to ensure good asynchronous communication.

How is your team behind Giant Swarm structured and how do you make sure you can serve your customers efficiently as a distributed team?

We are still in alpha mode. So these things are developing step by step. But in general as we have to build everything from scratch (e.g. a support organization), we chose tools that also work remotely from the very beginning. Further, our customers are all around the world and having colleagues around the world actually makes serving global customers easier.

What are some of the “hacks” that work for your team to keep it productive remotely?

There’s several methods we employ to keep up productive work. One is keeping up communication, so that no one feels like their working alone. We do this by having a lot of Slack and GitHub conversations as well as Hangouts during the day. We talk a lot with each other as we like to keep up the team feeling.

This is further driven by a short weekly “jourfix” meeting at the end of the week, where we recap our work and get everyone on the same page. Keeping everyone updated about what is being worked on is also maintained by our dedicated #donethis channel in Slack, where everyone shares his daily “dones” (not todos).

Another very important point is that we don’t want to micro-manage anyone. We like working towards common goals, which is on the one side supported by weekly sync meetings of teams working together on certain topics. On the other side we create a Tour of Duty together with each colleague that includes the team member’s expectations towards the company as well as the company’s expectations towards the team member. This ensures that we all work towards bringing the company as well as each individual forward on desirable path.


How important are face to face meetups? How often do you meet each other and how do you organize these co-working/co-living periods?

They are of high importance! As we have an HQ in Cologne, Germany, every new colleague is invited to have a proper onboarding session here. Most of our remote colleagues also visit from time to time. Furthermore, every several months, we rent a house and work and live together for about a week – everybody is invited. We also use international conferences as a place to meet.

With all the current experience of working as a distributed team, is there something you’d do differently in the beginning?

In general we’d do nothing different. But of course as the team is growing, a bit more structure is included (having a special Slack channel for absence and stuff like this). And, to be honest, we bought better audio and video equipment and have an old MacBook attached to our conference screen keeping a dedicated hangout open, so that the typical “can you hear me”-thing during hangouts can be minimized.

What are the benefits your startup is already experiencing because of your decision to do the work in a distributed manner?

People are happy :) We ensure individual freedom and colleagues can handle their personal life with less stress. In addition to that we get applications from all over the world. Another benefit of having colleagues around the world is that they can organize or attend respective local meetups and events easily. This way we can build our user community globally, while not having to send around team members all the time.


What are the biggest challenges of being distributed team and how do you handle them?

Communication issues are the biggest challenges. We always have to ensure that everything is documented in written form as we really don’t want to create first and second class employees. But we get through this and we improve our processes every day. Furthermore, we think the “water cooler” effect is pretty important. We need to ensure that people also talk about everyday life. But it works. I for myself try to talk to every colleague every day, even it is just a :))) Further, we have a #random channel in Slack, where non-work related discussions happen quite often, e.g. recently we had some fun topping each others sunny weather reports around the world.

What advice would you give to someone who is ready to take that leap into the digital nomad life and work style?

First and foremost, find a company/team that actually embraces this type of work-/life-style. Once you have found that (or an own project you want to work on and that hopefully pays the bills), you should explore ways to stay productive and motivated about your work as you are about your life. Get to know the tools out there and know where their limits are, find the right tools for you (and your team).

Also check that your audio/video equipment works as expected in cases where you need to do calls. When travelling around, see to it that you get to places with decent Internet connectivity at least from time to time, as most work nowadays requires a high amount of being online and keeping important stuff in the cloud at least partly lessens the pain of a lost or stolen laptop.

While working online from remote work spaces like coffee shops or other places that might have low security (or in case you travel to countries with restricted Internet access), be sure to have a good VPN (either from the company or a third party) in place to secure your connection and ensure that you have open access to everything on the Internet. Last but not least, be ready to work with diverse teams and get to know different cultures. It’s lots of fun.


What do you see in the future of work?

In general, companies should think about: “How do my employees want to work in the year 2015?” and how should people treat each other in these modern working environments. Treating people with respect, trust, and appreciation has nothing to do with the place the colleagues work from.

Liked this? Read more articles on remote startups.

Giant Swarm lets its employees choose where they work

Marina Janeiko is a UX designer, long term digital nomad and founder of What’s It Like, which tells you the best time to travel where.
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