Craig Brown is a veteran of software product development that has experience leading and managing global software product development teams spanning four continents, 8 cities and hundreds of team members. His new baby is the Everest Engineering team, a modern software product development consultancy that delivers innovation capability out of India to the Australian tech industry.
Luis Magalhaes: Greetings, ladies and gentlemen. This is the DistantJob Podcast, a podcast about building and leading remote teams. I am your host, Luis, and today with me I have Craig Brown. Craig Brown from Everest Engineering. So, Craig, welcome.
Craig Brown: Good morning, Luis. I’m here at the other side of the world having a beer with you. You’re having breakfast, I’m wrapping up for the day.
Luis Magalhaes: Lovely, I’m having coffee.
Why don’t you tell our listeners a bit more about you. What do you do? What are you all about?
Craig Brown: Well, six months ago I started, with a co-founder, a company called Everest Engineering, and we’re a software product development company and we rely pretty heavily on remote working. There’s a bit of a backstory to what we are, who we are, and so on, and part of that backstory is I used to work for a company called Aconex. When I joined it there was 30-odd, 34, I think, software development people in Melbourne and there was a small team of eight or nine people in Bangalore. And then over the five or six years ,or so, that I worked for that company, that product development team grew to about just under 250 people in Europe, North America, and a couple of cities in Australia, India, and so on. So, during the course of that, we learned a heap of stuff about working with a very distributed team, and there’s bigger companies that have got global and distributed teams.
We were kind of right on … I would brag about it, and say we were right on the front of that agile curve, and high levels of collaboration, and high levels of competency and software engineering skills. A handful of us left last to start our own company. So what we’re leveraging is the culture that we cultivated and grew in the other company. The way we’re starting at the moment, is we have software product development capability in India and at the moment we’ve been focusing, mainly, on partnering with start-up [inaudible 00:02:14] and the economic story of why it’s good to have in your development teams and start-ups in Australia, but our special sources. Usually, locally, the market rates are quite high and usually, that means that start-ups can’t access good quality software development. They’re lucky if they have a personal network that they can pull in and get involved in the team. But it’s difficult for them to spare.
Start-ups and scale-ups generally, will then look overseas and go … Okay. So from Australia, you’ll look to the Philippines, Vietnam and India as to the obvious places to access software development. And generally people think; well, it’s cheaper, and I can get more done. But in reality of course, if you drop the bottom out of price, you drop the bottom out of quality as well. And so you might be okay for a little while, but it will catch up with you.
So we’re doing that thing where there is a price difference with working with Indian developers and local developers, but we’re operating at the same quality as some of the best software consultancies in Australia. It’s really working out. People get good quality work and so on.
You know this. I’m banging on to tell this story all the time, but you know there is the myths of our job, right?
Luis Magalhaes: Yes.
Craig Brown: You have to have a cross-functional [inaudible 00:03:31] team and everyone’s got to be in one room. Blah blah blah. That’s an idealized version of a team and, of course, communication, [inaudible 00:03:39] and rhythm and all that sort of stuff, and frequency of feedback, and all that kind of stuff does drop off the further way you are, but at the end of the day there’s only so many people in your city that you can get access to.
Luis Magalhaes: Plus, they’re all in the same room and they’re communicating via Slack.
Craig Brown: Well, some teams. Some teams.
Again, I just acknowledge that communication is slightly more challenging, but it’s not really an order of magnitude harder. It’s just you have to have a bit more discipline about turning up on time and being prepared. Especially when you deal with people with different accents and different languages and different cultural contexts. Sometimes you just have to slow down and experience … Not experience, explain things a bit more carefully.
My partner in the business, Ranganathan, we have two things which keep coming up between the two of us. We’ve been working together for years, but still, the cultural differences between us make you sometimes stop and go, “Hey, what was that?” An example is … We’ll meet later, right? Ranganathan? We will meet him some time. And I’m like, “What is that?” And at first he was like, okay, there’s a cultural gap there and he would likely clarify for me. But he still had the habit of saying ‘In some time’ which is this way people in India speak. But now when he does it to me, I see the glint in his eye and I know that he’s taking the piss. He’s having a joke at my expense and he’s enjoying himself. So, yeah, it’s fine. And you learn these things over time.
Another funny one is … You know the term ‘You’re a chicken’?
Luis Magalhaes: Yes.
Craig Brown: I wanted to do something with our business and Ranganathan is going, “No, we’re not going to do that.” And I’m like, “Come on. You’re a chicken.” This is in a Slack chat. And then there’s this kind of … I see the cursor in Slack and somebody is typing, and I’m waiting, and I’m waiting and then it comes through; ‘what is chicken? What is this chicken metaphor?’ And I’m like, “All right, cool”, so then I just explain it. And then I give an example. And then also …
Luis Magalhaes: That’s because you have such a great relationship already. Because in a lot of situations, let’s say that you’re dealing with someone new on your team, or something like that, those are the kind of things that you need to look out for, because sometimes people will just be chewing that ‘what does it mean? What does this mean? Am I in trouble?’ Something like that.
Craig Brown: I know. And you just have to … It’s a leadership behavior to break the ice and step out and ask the awkward question.
Luis Magalhaes: Exactly.
Craig Brown: Throughout my career I’ve noticed, the people that establish themselves as good leaders, are the people that will ask the awkward, stupid questions that everyone in the room wants to ask. If they’re the dumb ones, right? And I’ve done it many a time. I just ask the stupidest questions because somebody’s got to ask, right?
Luis Magalhaes: Exactly.
Craig Brown: Fortunately, I come with a resilient ego, so I don’t care if I look stupid, but a lot of people do. Especially earlier in your career, you don’t want to look like an idiot, you don’t want to stand out and all that sort of stuff. It’s a culture platform thing. You have to work at it over time and over time and overtime. And model good behavior and encourage things. Ultimately, it just comes down to the current generation of leaders have to model and support behaviors that you want the future generation of leaders to have. We don’t want hero leaders. We want leadership at any moment. So anyone can pop up and be a leader for six seconds by asking one awkward question. And then they can just pull back into the team, while the next leader steps forward and answers that awkward question. And maybe they’re answering it, venturing in opinion, without actually being 100% sure. You want that [inaudible 00:07:40] of people, stepping forward and actively participating.
Luis Magalhaes: How do you incentivize people or get people inside that mentality? Get people comfortable with asking that stupid question and being a leader for six seconds, when your whole culture is remote?
Craig Brown: [inaudible 00:07:59] I’m sure every guest you’ve had how many years, it’s just that, you don’t put someone on the spot at the critical moment. You build report with people first, and then later, when there is a critical moment you can put them on the spot because they know that you’re not trying to make them look bad or be a fool or anything like that. You’re just asking because the question needs to be asked. And we work our way up. I bet you’ve had this same question answered the same way dozens and dozens of times, but you work people up as well. So you give someone a small challenge and then I’ll meet it, and then later you might look back and give them some sort of positive reinforcement. You know, Luis … Luis.
Luis Magalhaes: That’s fine. And by the way, you’re the first person answering this question.
Craig Brown: Oh, good. So, there’s that thing about … Yeah, cool. So, you’ll look back, right, and you just have a one on one thing and it might be just the one line in Slack, or it might be the quick call to them or something to say, “Hey, I really appreciated that thing you did. It was really good. Thanks.” And it’s just little bits of feedback continuously plays really well. Because people want to be good and people want to be appreciated. And they know that they … Generally, people want to do better that what they did before. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a conversation with software developer who hasn’t said to me, one way or another; “How can I be better?” And I often struggle because I …
The secret to having a good team, of course, is to recruit really well. I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by really talented and motivated people for a long time. Yeah. We don’t dry the culture that suppresses people and pushes them down or anything like that. We have a culture that encourages people to take a chance and to move forward and to have a go and all that sort of stuff, and we’ve been doing that for years. In the teams that I’ve been a part on [inaudible 00:09:55] or whatever. There’s a [inaudible 00:10:00], we’re all trying to help and we’re all trying to lift things up.
There’s times where different agendas can emerge, especially I you’re remote, because you don’t have continuous conversation going on and so … There’s some people that I really like, really enjoy working with, but we don’t talk to each other everyday and so over … I don’t know to get three or four weeks without talking to each other, different agendas can emerge, and you can feel awkward, as well.
I remember one conversation I had with two guys a couple of years ago, where we were in one conversation, and there was just some idle chatting going on in the hallway, but it wasn’t particularly complimentary. It was just gossipy. But the other two guys were in another country and so I’m like, how do I handle thing, do I ignore it? Or do I pass the feedback across? And if I pass the feedback I come with some sort of authority in my role. Is it going to come across as criticism or is it going to come across as; ‘Dudes, here’s some feedback. Do with it what you want.’ I waited out and I just went, well, everyone needs feedback … Back to that, what is it? Radical candor? If I don’t tell them I’m doing them a disservice. So what I have to do is, I have to give them the feedback and then try to manage the conversation in a way that I don’t come off as the asshole. I don’t come off as the one that’s gossiping or anything like that.
Rather than just bullet point a bunch of notes in Slack or an email or something, tell them that I’ve got some feedback for them. Let’s have a call as soon as possible. Signal what it is so that people then don’t spend 18 hours going, “Oh shit. What’s coming?” So just give the brief points of it and then when you call you go, “Look, this is what i heard, this is what i learned.” Here’s information for you, it’s really up to you to do what you want to do with it. I’m not directing you in any particular direction, to address it or resolve it. It’s just like, you’re smart people you’ll work it out. Here’s the information.
I reckon to … Sorry, I’m talking all over the place.
Luis Magalhaes: I’m enjoying it, it’s … I will interrupt you every now and then, but it’s fine.
Craig Brown: No, good.
I was just going to say … There’s another part of, not just remote working, but good leadership in general, I think, which is to table the problem or the opportunity. Only direct when you need to. Only give guidance when you need to, because people enjoy creating their own solutions and enjoy owning their own solutions, and enjoy leading in their own context and in their own spaces. But so many people get frustrated when some manager turns up and says; “This is what you’re going to do and this is how you’re going to do it.”
I remember one funny job. When I was, I think it was about 19, 2000 to about 2000. See the gray hair. I was … It’s a long time ago, so I can tell the story.
Luis Magalhaes: That’s funny.
Craig Brown: I was moved into this team and I was told here’s what you need to do, and here’s how you need to do it. And I looked at it and I went; “They’re not reconcilable.”
Luis Magalhaes: Surprisingly how often that happens.
Craig Brown: Yes. And I’m like how am I going to solve this problem? So I asked someone that had been in that team longer than me. Its going to have another [inaudible 00:13:21] now. And he said to me, you just pick one. Just pick one and do the one. And then communicate like a bastard explaining the steps you’re taking and what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, and how it traces back to the goal. Turned out that worked. Because the manager didn’t mean to drive two irreconcilable approaches at me, she was just … This is how I would’ve done it in my past, but things have changed so just trying to be helpful and give guidance. Naïve, 29 year-old me was; “Oh shit, I have to do both”. The smarter 35 year-old guy went, “No, just pick one. It doesn’t matter. Just pick one. Whichever one you think is right, just do that.” And I did. She was actually a lovely manager, she was a good boss, but she had her short comings and her blindsides and I just saw her and I went; “Well, cool. I could make that same mistake myself.” Just try to learn from it, not that I got it right from day one, but always watch and learn from other people and be reflective and all that sort of stuff.
Luis Magalhaes: So that story actually brings me a bit to something that I read in your blog. And by the way, you should really make that blog more visible in your home page because I almost missed it and you’ve got some very good writing there.
Craig Brown: It’s old. Its from the …
Luis Magalhaes: No, you have stuff from 2018 there. Come on.
Craig Brown: I’m practicing [crosstalk 00:14:46].
Luis Magalhaes: I was reading something that you wrote about a time when you were trying to teach people what scrum was about and one of the conclusions that it reinforced for you … You used a gamification approach, you tried to make it into a game, and you gave them a copy of the scrum guide to refer to as they were asking their questions.
Craig Brown: Oh, yes. I remember that.
Luis Magalhaes: Well, you should. You wrote about it.
But one of the conclusions that you took, and I think it’s relevant, what you’re talking about is really, how it seems that on a team, especially, oral traditions are more important that what’s written. Oral traditions matter more. And I wanted to pick your brain about how you … what do you think are the implications for working with remote teams, and how you develop that oral tradition when most of communication happens asynchronously? Especially because typing is hard. If we’re just talking, we’re just talking, but imagine how far would we have gone in this conversation if we were typing.
Craig Brown: It’s important at competency with remote working is report building. We’ve got a nice report going on here. You have to have that skill. Not everyone has to have it, but somebody in the conversation’s got to have it. I remember there’s a … You know Alistair Coven? I was talking to him one day, and he referred me to a friend of his from France, Jerry Derbia. Jerry has this model around host leadership. Have you heard of that before?
Luis Magalhaes: No, I haven’t, yet.
Craig Brown: Okay, cool. I think that simple … I’m sure that it’s very [inaudible 00:16:36] now with lots of stuff to read. [inaudible 00:16:39] I’ve never read it. But imagine you’ve invited 20 people, 30 people, to your house on Friday night and you’re having a whole bunch of people over. So you’re a leader in that context. You’re the host. You’ve catalyzes the event, you’ve scheduled it, you’ve invited it, you’ve given it a meaning of some sort. So, all these people come to your house, you don’t take a project manager approach to the night. You greet people at the door, you open a bottle of wine, you pour some wine into their glass. You introduce that person to that person , you introduce that person to that person. You hover around the room. You listen. You spot the person that’s standing in the corner looking awkward, you engage him in a conversation, you drag him over to another awkward person, you get a conversation going, then you back out and you go somewhere else.
This notion of leadership is a host. You create a platform and a network effect across the room that enables people to provide their own leadership and provide their own guidance and self organizing to an enjoyable Friday
night. There’s a competence there. And you can do that remotely. We’re doing it right now. There’s a competence there that I think is really critical to teams, and often people miss it. They think self-organization comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t. There’s definitely someone in a good self-organized team that’s got good interpersonal skills and can read the room. It’s harder to read the room when you’re remote, so you just have to spend more time at it.
Luis Magalhaes: Absolutely.
Craig Brown: I went onto Reddit a few weeks ago, maybe two weeks ago, and asked them on the agile thread on Reddit; “Hey, how do you do scrum mastering as a remote person on a distributed team?” Got some really interesting answers, got some good answers. Sometimes you go online to forums, or whatever, and you ask a question and everyone thinks you’re trolling them, but I just want to know the answer to something. What the people were saying on that thread was you don’t just do the work, you have to as a scrum master on a distributed team, you have to spend time personally engaging in every person, making sure that they’re feeling safe and connected and contributing and know what they’re supposed to be doing and all that sort of stuff.
If you’re paying someone to coach the team, then that’s great, because someone is doing it. Vast majority of teams don’t have a professional full-time coach, so in that context, you’ve just got to have people that have good interpersonal skills and know how to connect.
Luis Magalhaes: That absolutely makes sense. I guess, the leadership as a host metaphor is one that I hadn’t heard before, but that makes sense. Especially when you take into consideration the Allen curve, it feels that that really is the way to try to reduce the degrees of separation between people, but how do you think though this could fit on a more practical term with your typical remote work day. How do you think you would, or maybe you do already do this, how do you try to play host on a daily basis in your team?
Craig Brown: Yes, so I don’t, because I’m two steps removed from the development process, but what I see people do well, just really engaging in conversation. Do we create a virtual room and turn the cameras one and spend all day chatting to each other? Probably not. Some teams do, and the teams that do that are quite proud of the fact that they’re always on. Do they talk across that glass wall? Probably not much, maybe they walk up and ask questions. I remember in a team that I worked with not [inaudible 00:20:13] they had the monitor. We had the team area and there were people sitting there, there was a monitor there, and at the other end of the world there was people sitting there with a monitor there. They could see each other and then if somebody wanted to, they could turn around and walk up. It didn’t really happen. You would walk past, you would wave and people would wave back. That’s not a rubbish thing, right? That’s not a rubbish thing because it’s just friendly, it’s just walking passed and saying hello to people, but really …
Luis Magalhaes: I personally find it hard to concentrate on my work when I know that people are watching maybe [inaudible 00:20:45].
Craig Brown: So really the cameras on is only for a conversation. Like a focus time.
Luis Magalhaes: Exactly.
Craig Brown: Anytime I think you really need to do it in a sustained way is if you have a crisis. Have you ever done production incident or war room type stuff? What happens in those instances is there’s some sort … Imagine your application that your managing goes offline, off the internet, and it’s been gone for like, I don’t know, an hour or two. Somewhere in that period somebody’s got to go; “Oh, shit. ” We need to turn a camera on, everyone gets into a zoomed call or something like that and we all stay on that call, headphones on, and we’re all doing our bits. And we might all be head-down quietly working and not talking during periods of it, but at any point someone can just lift their head up and just go, hey, can you tell me about the whatever.
Luis Magalhaes: Yes, that’s crisis mode.
Craig Brown: Right. So, that’s good. Can you do that in a sustained basis ? I think it’s just … It’s like pair programming, it will just burn you out. You’re too hyper aware too long. But it’s good. And maybe you should just do it for an hour or two each day. I don’t know. Look, I’m not overly prescriptive I think people need to figure out their own methods. What you’ve got to seek is an outcome. What’s the outcome that you seek? It’s trust, collaboration, mutual understanding, the discipline to ask a question when you need to is an important one. How often do people sit on a problem, and sit on a problem and sit on a problem too long? Versus hey this is hard, right. We have that problem when people sit next to each other.
Luis Magalhaes: Oh yes, we definitely do. We definitely do. And I think that part of it, for me at least, what answers part of those problems are just really people getting in the mindset of doing the daily standup properly, because … And paying attention to other people’s blockers when they say I have this blocker, the hard part for me is getting people comfortable enough to reveal their blockers. Because what a lot of people do is, they just keep [inaudible 00:22:43] away at it. And they always say I have a blocker when the blocker has been there for one week or two and they’re ready to go in the other room and commit suicide or something.
Craig Brown: I know and I suspect that you shouldn’t wait for the daily standup to talk about blockers, you should cycle the team every two hours or something and just go; “Is anyone stuck?” And of course there’s a dynamic in that where most of the time, most people won’t want to do that. But if you’ve got that host leader in your team the host leader can just do a quick … And they might do as a group slight call or they might just … Not a slash call, but more like a ‘Hey everyone, is anyone stuck?” And then what does stuck mean? You’ve been sitting on one problem for one billion x, 20 minutes, an hour, whatever it is.
I remember … Another old story. Lovely team that I worked on. There was a … I can’t even remember what the job was, but there was a couple of guys and they were going to work on a thing. I had a team. It was about four teams, or something. Three teams, or something. And one of the little squads in this group had a job to do. [inaudible 00:23:50] it’s three or four days. [inaudible 00:23:53] four days turns into seven days, eight days, 10 days, didn’t finish. Trying out this [inaudible 00:23:59], three or four days. Three of four days. Eight days. Seven days. 10 days. Another sprint. Four days, five days, six days, 10 days. Just around the corner there’s a solution. Any minute now. Any minute now. But honestly they were stuck.
We did a couple of things. We tried consulting with other people and teams and all that sort of stuff. Eventually the tech-lead on the team bought himself two bottles of wine, went home on a Friday afternoon, drank the wine, coded the solution, had it ready on Saturday.
Luis Magalhaes: Great. Why not sooner?
Craig Brown: Well, because he was working on other things and not focused on it.
Luis Magalhaes: I like that solution by the way. I apply that.
Craig Brown: Two bottles of wine?
Luis Magalhaes: Yes.
Craig Brown: Well, maybe one’s better, but you know …
Luis Magalhaes: I disagree. I [inaudible 00:24:45] disagree. Two bottles of wine is always better than one bottle of wine.
Craig Brown: It’s about context. And so that second person had a different context, a different set of experiences, saw problems in a different way, had did knowledge, and was able to look at a problem and say, “Hey, this is actually pretty straightforward and simple. Whereas the other dudes that worked on it, a team of people, that worked on it for months at the end of the day, given what they knew and what they had, they couldn’t solve it. So, when we’re in distributed teams, that information doesn’t flow across team boundaries, as easily, does it? I think that’s something that just we inherently [inaudible 00:25:28]. What we need then, in response to that, is to not rely on information flow just across teams or networks of teams. Instead, what we need to do is become a more porous organization to open ourselves up to the world.
Get onto Stack Overflow and Cora and various internet discussion areas and participate in professional communities and don’t rely on your team, your network, your company to have the answers. Go out and talk to the whole internet. And in that way …
Luis Magalhaes: I think that you’re being very optimist. I think that for most businesses, for most companies, from my experience, if can get transparency within the company that already helps a lot. Because most don’t have it. Again, the biggest struggle I have in remote teams is having people admit tat they’re blocked early on.
Craig Brown: Well, I’m not operating in that problem so much, I’m operating with how do I … It’s a more advanced problem, I guess. If you’ve got that culture where people can talk openly and frankly and they’re quick … Still, nobody likes to volunteer that they don’t know what they’re doing quickly, you’re right. But the solution … I don’t think the solution is transparency with an organization. I think the solution is be curios, and go where you need to be. The onus doesn’t rely on your organization to provide transparency and access and all that sort of stuff, the onus sits with you to solve the problem. You need to start with a foundational belief that you don’t know enough. Even if you know how to solve the problem in one particular way, you don’t know if there’s a better way that’s just been invented six months ago. You need to always be skeptical and your own beliefs and your own competence and continually learn and seek new information. And be scanning the world. One of those vectors might be your company or the network of teams that you’re in, but ultimately, look wider. Go to the internet. Why rely on the limits and the constraints of the hundred, thousand, 10 thousand people that you work with versus the millions of us around the world.
Luis Magalhaes: Absolutely. I have a different question for you. I’m absolutely, when it comes to Agile, I’m a novice. I’ve always been … I’ve been working online for like 15 years now, mostly in an editorial capacity, running things off writers and now in the marketing capacity and I’m fascinated by Agile and I read the Scrum book, I read the Scrum guide, I’ve had Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman here on the podcast, I had a great time with them, read their book. I still have a bit of trouble and I’m reading stuff to earn that objective, but I still have a bit of trouble applying Agile to my marketing team. Have you ever had a challenge trying to explain Agile to non-development teams?
Craig Brown: Not really.
Luis Magalhaes: Some advice?
Craig Brown: I’m going to read you something. Going back to that blog you referred to, there was a meetup here in Melbourne and the host of that meetup posed the question; “If you could change Scrum, what would you change?” I couldn’t go to the meetup, but he asked me to contribute, so I wrote this; “I think, for me, Scrum is a framework for teams working together.” Scrum’s not Agile, there’s this whole internet talk about what Agile is and what Scrum is and what it isn’t and all that sort of stuff, but whatever. Ultimately, Scrum is a kind of a framework for putting a team together and operating a team, and the goal of Scrum is to continuously want to improve. It’s not to deliver an outcome, it’s to become a team, so you can learn and improve and continue to learn and improve. People with Scrum and with XP and with Agile, in general, they hang onto practices and processes and roles and I think that’s just a miss direction. When you look around and you go and have a look at teams that are really effective, they’re generally not doing anything as prescribed by somebody else. They’ve grabbed an idea here, and they’ve grabbed a collection of ideas there and they’ve tried this and they’ve thrown it away …
Luis Magalhaes: Wow. You’re doing some heavy therapy on my Impostor syndrome right now.
Craig Brown: And then also, beyond that, they reach beyond Scrum practices and you’ll get into design thinking and you’ll get into psychology and you’ll get into leadership and you’ll get into project management. There’s good stuff everywhere. You just go find the good stuff and you grab it and you configure it around the type of team you are.
And so, what I wrote is just [inaudible 00:30:05] back to … I went and grabbed what I think Scrum is, which is these five words; focus, courage, openness, commitment and respect. On this blog post it’s focused. Let’s get everyone on the same page and focus on the same goals and let’s remove distractions. Does that sound useful and applicable to marketing?
Luis Magalhaes: It sounds very useful and applicable. In fact, I try to do that.
Craig Brown: Yeah, so let’s try another one. Courage. Courage, right. Don’t be shit, don’t let poor work or poor behavior live in our team. Push boundaries, call things out =, make thing better. Does that sound like it applies to marketing?
Luis Magalhaes: Sounds good.
Craig Brown: All right. Cool. Let’s try the third one. Openness.be personally transparent. Share what you’re doing, share what the team’s doing with your stakeholders in an open and honest manner. Don’t hide anything. Show the real, ugly things as well.
Luis Magalhaes: We just talked about it. Yes.
Craig Brown: All right. Let’s go commitment. When you start work towards a goal, look each other in the eye and say, “Let’s personally care about this work and let’s care about each other and let’s do our best together.”
Luis Magalhaes: Yes. That’s good.
Craig Brown: Right? Last one respect.
Luis Magalhaes: I can deal with that.
Craig Brown: Right, so the last one is respect. Everyone’s doing their best. You know everyone’s doing their best. We don’t come to work to be shit, we come to work to contribute and to create value and to do something good. We like to be proud of the work we do. Let’s have faith in each other. Let’s help each other when we need it. Let’s look around. Let’s be patient. Let’s be supportive. Let’s understand that everyone’s on their own journey and no one is like me. We’re all doing our best and we’re all trying our hardest and let’s support each other on the journey.
Luis Magalhaes: Sounds great. I like it.
Craig Brown: That’s Scrum.
Luis Magalhaes: We have a …
Craig Brown: That’s Scrum. So measure Scrum on those attributes, not the process stuff, not the role stuff. Measure Agile on the Agile values.
Luis Magalhaes: That’s wonderful and I see what you’re doing it and I agree, but there’s this thing about it could work on development as it could work in marketing, as it could work ina relationship. This could be hanged on the wall of a marriage councilor. But the specifics matter because the abstraction … I agree that the abstraction is important, that the abstraction is the goal, but when you drill down to it, you need to figure … You can’t just hang it on a wall. You need to figure ways to implement this.
Craig Brown: We’ve all got different takes on what Agile is, right?
Luis Magalhaes: Yes.
Craig Brown: I reckon there’s not many software developers left in the world that give a rat’s arse about Agile. Most of them have gone … There’s a whole bunch of [inaudible 00:32:37] that’s sort of taken it over and I don’t give a shit about it. What I want to do is ship good product. What does that look like? And I think there’s specifics for any particular job, and there’s specifics for any toolkit you use, but when you look at the patterns it’s about past feedback. How can we shorten the cycle time to feedback and how can we deepen our understanding of what customers really think about the work we’re doing and where we need to be going? There’s an art to that as well, because we want to launch a new product we can’t get feedback yet. We can go and talk to them, but then we’ve done something so now we get feedback. The feedback cycle matters and the quality of the feedback matters.
So, what do software developers do? The automate things so that they can ship product to customers faster. They automate things so that they can watch customer behavior on their products and get insights into when people are failing to complete a process or getting distracted or making the wrong move, or whatever it is. So, for software developers, the pathway to proper agility is automation of all this stuff.
For a marketer I don’t know what that means. What do you need to do to get fast feedback and good quality feedback? Probably automation because everything’s digital, but if you’re writing a book … What if you’re writing a book. Can you publish chapter by chapter? Can you publish paragraph by paragraph? Maybe paragraph by paragraph isn’t the right thing to do.
Luis Magalhaes: Just tweet the book out. A tweet a day.
Craig Brown: Yes, exactly. On the other hand, one of the funniest and one of my favorite books in the last five years … I read this book called ‘John Dies at the End’.
Luis Magalhaes: Spoiler alert.
Craig Brown: Spoiler alert. Yeah, the book’s called John Dies at the End, but it’s a really funny book. The guy that wrote it was just publishing these kind of 10 page chapters online, over and over again, and then at the end of it he’d written a book. And then he collapsed it. Now, it didn’t have the normal structure of a book because it didn’t have the normal narrative [inaudible 00:34:35] it was cliffhanger, cliffhanger, cliffhanger, cliffhanger, cliffhanger. But it was hilarious, it was great.
So I don’t know, anyway, in different jobs how would a family therapist be agile? Should they be? That’s not important, they should actually go slow and take their time and not be in a rush to get too much feedback [inaudible 00:34:54]. A lot of reflective practices about going slow, and thinking deeply and not rushing forward. Don’t think that Agile’s got the answer to all the problems either.
And I think that Agile journey it’s different things for different people and to say you need a precise solution that means that everywhere in the world when they think of agility means tester and development, or means [inaudible 00:35:21] these prints or whatever. That’s not right. You need to look at your circumstances and you need to say, “What do I need to do, to do a good job?” And then you need to look around and go, “What are the tools and frameworks that I can grab, that will be useful for me and help me and my teammates do a good job?” The goal should never ever to be good at Six Sigma or good at Agile or good at XP or anything like that. The goal should be to do a good job. To create value for yourself, value for the people that you deliver to, value for the community that you live in. And then just go out and be curious and figure shit out.
And the other thing is, you know there’s a game around optimization. There’s a great metaphor of climbing hills. Start up [inaudible 00:36:09] you get to the top of this hill and you think “Hooray!”. But then you look forward and you see there’s a bigger hill. And then you’ve got to dip again to get up to the next hill. And you’ve got to dip again to get up to the next hill. That game of optimization. Don’t optimize just what you can see, instead, know that it’s a up and down road forever. Every time you think you’ve got to a good state you’re going to discover a better state.
Luis Magalhaes: It’s funny that you mentioned the therapist because I never acquainted agility with speed necessarily because sometimes you’re doing great work and look like taking a walk. Sometimes I do my best work when I go outside and take a walk and slow down. I always talk about agility more like …
Craig Brown: The ability to respond.
Luis Magalhaes: Adaptability.
Craig Brown: Its plain English meaning is ability to respond. In the world of software product development generally that means being able to get new things to market quickly because you learn something about the market and you go, “Oh, shit. We need to deliver that new thing.”
Luis Magalhaes: Yes. Another factor we found easy to do in marketing these days. You can just create a basic planning page or a basic promotion or a basic campaign. You get the results in in a week or two and you adapt so …
Craig Brown: Right. Why wait a week?
Luis Magalhaes: Yes. Exactly.
Craig Brown: But that goes back to the problem, right? Somethings you can figure it out in two or three days, somethings you need 20 days, 30 days.
Luis Magalhaes: If you get a hundred visitors or if you get a thousand visitors … The bigger the sample size, the better the decisions.
Craig Brown: But at a certain point the sample size drops off. So you get all that [inaudible 00:37:49] sort of stuff, but look, it goes back to that Agile is a bunch of good ideas. It started as a movement in software development which was a reaction to bad practices and then it was catalyzed by an aggregation or a collection of good practices around this 10 pole value statement. Just like the values I read to you a minute ago, the values tend to resonate, but the practices don’t. Maybe the practices are good, maybe you can take [inaudible 00:38:20] and take them to marketing. Maybe you can take daily stand-ups and take them to marketing, but maybe you don’t need to. Honestly, you don’t even need those things in software at all. They’re useful sometimes, but other times they’re not. If you’ve got a team of two people, why would you do daily stand-ups?
Luis Magalhaes: That just sounds silly.
Craig Brown: Right. And also, I’ve walked around and looked at a lot of software teams, not just in the companies I’ve worked in, but others as well, the teams that perform best are the teams that vary their practices because they’re mindful about what they’re doing. And they don’t always optimize to get everything the best they can. What they do is, they experiment. A really good [inaudible 00:39:04] that I used to work with, and I should bring back into my life, is in our collection of teams the only bad practice is the one that looks exactly like somebody else’s.
Luis Magalhaes: Oh, interesting.
Craig Brown: If you want one … Yeah, because it means you’re a follower, not a leader. If you want one rule around team design and process design, every team should have something about it that’s unique. Because teams will naturally converge on the good practices and the best practices and so on. And everyone will go, “Well. This particular practice is the best thing that we can imagine, so let’s all do it.” And they’ll learn from each other. But if they’ll settle on that the you stop learning. If you have this underlying discomfort because you’re the same as the team next to you, you have to spend time and energy figuring out something that’s new and [inaudible 00:39:57]. Maybe it will make you better, maybe it won’t, but it will make you different. And so that diversity will then grow and improve your team over time.
Luis Magalhaes: Certainly. All right. So …
Craig Brown: I’m not talking about remote work much, am I?
Luis Magalhaes: That’s fine. I’m learning stuff and that’s all I care. This is really what the podcast is, it’s a trap for me to talk to interesting people.
Craig Brown: I love your work.
Luis Magalhaes: But look, this is something that I fundamentally believe. When you’re talking about remote work or you’re just talking about work there’s this myth that you need to rewrite the playbook for remote work and actually no. You need to do somethings differently, but you can use a lot of the playbook. And a lot of the playbook is actually … There’s no playbook makeup what works best for you.
So it’s definitely …
Craig Brown: You’re absolutely right. Work is work. Remote work is … You have to actively think to communicate, right?
Luis Magalhaes: Exactly. I like talking about Agile because often I hear that Agile doesn’t work with remote work as you started the conversation, because people should be all in the same room and et cetera, et cetera. The more I learn about Agile, the more I think a lot of these things make sense and actually make it easier to manage remote teams. And I think that it is, at the heart of it, it’s because the one thing that you cant do in remote work, or that it’s very hard to do and unproductive to do, is measure productivity by time spent at work. That’s very hard to do in remote work when …
Craig Brown: That’s hard to do. That’s hard to do anyway, that’s even the … It’s fundamentally the wrong thing to do.
Luis Magalhaes: Exactly, but it’s … When I first started reading about Agile, part of what attract me to it is that it pushed hard against that and pushed into measuring by results and stories complete [crosstalk 00:41:55].
Craig Brown: Measure impact.
Luis Magalhaes: Exactly.
Craig Brown: Yeah, measure impact.
Luis Magalhaes: So that’s why I originally gravitated and why I think it’s still relevant to talk about Agile whenever we talk about remote work. I know it’s not the only thing out there, but so far it’s the thing that I’ve seen being the most useful.
Craig Brown: Well, it’s definitely a movement that’s changed the way work is done. Across software development. The whole software development industry is transformed because of that movement. The cascading effects of it, it rolls beyond software development into a lot of different roles. There’s a mate of mine who runs a consultancy who specifically targets Agile outside IT or outside technology. And he works with marketing teams, legal teams, HR teams, call centers, sales teams, and of course when he does that, what he has to do is he has to have this broad toolkit, but he can’t go into any team going, “This is the solution.” He has to diagnose the situation first. And then when he drives or when he coaches improvements in, what he’s doing is he’s handing them one tool at a time. Learn to use this, get good at it, reflect on it. How would you change it?
Luis Magalhaes: That’s interesting.
Craig Brown: Then do another one. Then do another one. There was a … Probably about 10 years ago, there was this guy who was a recruiter, his names was Karl, a Dutch guy, who was here in Melbourne, I don’t know if he’s still here. But he drew this diagram on a piece of paper for me and it was … I’ve got to get it right. The concave curve up. I think that’s right? Concave curve up.
Luis Magalhaes: Yes.
Craig Brown: And then the convex curve across. He said what happens as organizations want to improve and if you want sustained and continuing and eventually hockey stick up improvements you have to take the slow burn approach to it. You start with learning to learn and you start with learning to improve and you start with learning to reflect. On the other hand, most organizations bungle their way into crisis and then they have to call a whole bunch of experts in that temporarily lifts up all the capability. And then the practices of the organization become the new standards and best practices and then organization operates at this new level. Then all the experts leave and then that’s the new level with no further continuous improvement.
So that convex versus concave improvement are two pattern for improvement. And if you’re in crisis, great, get yourself out of crisis, but it’s not …
Luis Magalhaes: The thing is, and maybe I’m butchering your metaphor here, but when you’re doing convex, you lose acceleration as you move further along and when you doing concave you gain acceleration.
Craig Brown: Right. So when is the moment that you want to face the consequences of your strategic management of your organizational capability? If you constantly cut budgets and cut costs and run everything too lean, you build a brittleness into your organization. You build an inflexibility. You build a brittle workforce, key people eventually leave, no one really does good work, there’s too much consensus driven stuff, there’s too much bureaucracy, there’s too much standard processes. Innovation and creativity comes out of variation.
Luis Magalhaes: Of course.
Craig Brown: If you build your organization around best practices there is no innovation. If you in the future, let’s say in five years time, you want to have innovation capability start today. But don’t hire in a whole bunch of consultants, teach your organization to be a learning organization.
Luis Magalhaes: That’s good advice.
Craig Brown: On the flip side … There’s a system dynamic here. On the flip side, if you’re an executive and you’ve got two to three years left in this role before you go do the next thing, hire in the consultants. Show the innovation to all the stakeholders. Launch a few cool things out to market and then get good press, quit and take the next job.
Luis Magalhaes: That’s definitely a route, but I [inaudible 00:46:06] …
Craig Brown: That works.
Luis Magalhaes: Yes. It works. If that’s your goal, sure, but …
Craig Brown: Yeah, yeah.
Luis Magalhaes: So, you have, again, I’m going to link to your blog, but you’ve given a lot of talks, you’re very active or at least you seem to be active in the conference circuit. Tell me, what have you changed your mind the most about in the last two to three years? And this can be Agile or it can be remote work, really in the kind of environments that you move.
Craig Brown: Yeah, good question. I got through periods of learning and then tentatively holding ideas and then firmly locking onto them. That’s a really good question, because I’m struggling to answer it.
Luis Magalhaes: Finally I managed to find one!
Craig Brown: I think, what I’ve done is, I’ve really grown in confidence in things that I believe in over the last couple of years and I’m much more confident in things that I believe in and thew way I think things should happen. I think for several years I’ve been able to forecast, if you do this, then that’s going to happen, so, having a theory of work , but I was a bit tentative about how true it was, but I’m finding it’s more and more universally true, and I’m finding my theory of work is pretty resilient.
And the other thing is, what have I changed my mind on in the last couple of years. Look, at one point, maybe five years ago, I was really big on that idea of a distributed workforce, but co-located teams, and those co-located teams could virtually be distributed, but if you’re managing 30 teams, one of those teams might be distributes, but in your network, it’s a node. And each of those nodes in that network would have their discreet area of responsibility and that would be your target. But ultimately, the organization priorities just get in the way of that and so I think just don’t hold onto that stuff so tightly, just good flow of priorities, good flow of …
Look, trust and culture just keeps coming back. That ability to swarm across to a problem even though you’re remote is a really strong capability for organizations. So, sure, our regular theme is looking after identity management, but this week or this month or quarter or whatever, the organization’s problem is taking that new market, so let’s bundle all that capability and through it into that new market stuff, just like everyone else is. And I think that just works.
We all live with … What happens is people that are focused on structure or process or stuff or trying to lock things into boxes, but just let it be more flowing. Let it move around more. I just think that.
Luis Magalhaes: That’s right.
Craig Brown: Don’t on hang onto it so tightly, and let it move around.
Luis Magalhaes: So, you’ve been very generous with your time … And I want to just … I’m going to ask you one more elaborate question and then we’re going to wrap up with some easier, more quickfire-like questions.
You started Everest, was it like six months ago or something like that?
Craig Brown: Six months and five days. Believe it or not.
Luis Magalhaes: Wow. So, during that trip, during that journey, what was a lesson that you learned the hard way?
Craig Brown: Every new business. Cashflow. You spend it faster than you pull it in. And everyone knows that, you intellectually know it, but eventually you feel it.
Luis Magalhaes: Eventually you are looking at your credit card debt and you’re like …
Craig Brown: Yeah. So to anyone that’s going to go ahead and start a new business, you know the deal, how much you think it’s going to be, triple it, triple it again.
Luis Magalhaes: That’s good advice. Okay. So, moving on.
If you had $100, it can be U.S dollars can be Australian dollars, heck, it can even be Canadian dollars if you’re feeling like it, but to spent with each person working for you, what would you give them? And specifically to improve their work-life balance or quality. Make their daily lives better.
Craig Brown: Yeah. I’d put it in their hands and let them decide.
Luis Magalhaes: Okay. Simple. I would spend it all in Portuguese wine, but that’s just me.
Craig Brown: Yeah, that’s good. Taking people out for meals is definitely up there. And you have a conversation around it, but ultimately, I’d push it into the people’s hands because one solution doesn’t fit everyone. Let’s all go out for drinks everyone, but then there’s those three people that don’t drink. Or ‘Lets all go out for dinner!’, but then there’s that bunch of people that’ve got family commitments and can’t go out. So I’d hand it to the people, have a conversation, everyone participates in the conversation and people can decide themselves.
Luis Magalhaes: Fair enough.
Craig Brown: Is that boring?
Luis Magalhaes: So what about your self? In the last year or six months what purchase has made your work-life easier or more productive?
Craig Brown: I reckon a good pillow. Yeah, being able to sleep well. There was a couple of years ago where I was working from about 6AM to about midnight four or five days a week and it was exhausting. I was getting through Wednesday nights, in particular, which was a really long day but just … I would start having a beer over dinner and then I’d have wine and then I’d have whiskey and the last guy I was talking to was in England, at the end of the day, but I’m like [inaudible 00:51:46]. So I don’t think alcohol’s the answer.
But I think just focusing on rest. And I’m not particularly living a well-balanced life at the moment, I need to get around to that, but finding the times to rest. Probably something like a gym membership would be useful, but I’m more likely to spend it on wine.
Luis Magalhaes: Well, if you ever come by Portugal I’ll take you places.
Craig Brown: Excellent, [crosstalk 00:52:11].
Luis Magalhaes: I might not be able to bring you back from places, but I can certainly take you there.
Craig Brown: That’s what I want. That’s what I want. Step into the uncertain. That’s the way to live life.
Luis Magalhaes: Exactly. What book or books have you gifted the most?
Craig Brown: Actually, Henry Mintzberg’s management book springs to mind. He put out a big, thick book called ‘Management’ a couple of years ago and just the last couple of years he’s got a smaller version called ‘Simply managing’ and it really just gets the guts of his idea. And I’ve had different responses from people. Some people read it and go, “Holy shit! That’s really good. It makes me feel comfortable that this management stuff that I’ve been doing is actually complex and hard. And I don’t feel as deeply in the Impostor syndrome [inaudible 00:52:57] as I did a week ago.”
Luis Magalhaes: It took me like two years to get over that.
Craig Brown: You never get over it, really. But other things is … I’ve had one person come back to me and say, “I read. Why did you give it to me? It makes no sense, it doesn’t say anything.” And different people grab onto little bits of it. But I think, Henry Mintzberg, when it comes to management leadership, I think he’s one of the biggest thinkers in the world. He’s got huge depth and he’s been on this gig for 40, 50 years. He’s contributed a lot and he’s really able to render down what it is to be a good leader and a good manager into a couple of key, simple ideas.
When I read the book, one of the phrases that really resonated with me is; “Ultimately, to be a good leader you have to be a good person.”
Luis Magalhaes: Interesting. That just feels so obvious and I don’t know, I wouldn’t have [crosstalk 00:53:51].
Craig Brown: It’s not manifested that frequently, is it?
Luis Magalhaes: Exactly. I wouldn’t have thought of that before you said it, but yeah, it doesn’t manifest that frequently. That’s a good way to put it.
Talking about manifesting things, if you would be hosting a dinner at Chinese restaurant where top technology execs would be going to discuss remote work at a round table. It’s the shiniest dinner [inaudible 00:54:13], so you get to pick what comes written inside the fortune cookies. What is your fortune cookie message that these people will be cracking up at the end of the night?
Craig Brown: I have no idea.
Luis Magalhaes: That is a great fortune cookie message.
Craig Brown: Well, it could fit. It could fit perfectly.
Luis Magalhaes: Want to have another shot at it or shall we go with you have no idea?
Craig Brown: Yeah, I can’t tell my future.
Luis Magalhaes: Fair enough. Well, thank you so much for this conversation. I had a great time. Where can people continue the conversation with you? Where can people know more what you’re about, where you are going to be giving speeches, about your business etc.
Craig Brown: Yeah. I’m a bit distributed across the internet. Everest engineering is 99.9% of focus, to my child and wife’s dismay. We’re still tinkering with out website and trying to get it up, somewhere in the next … We’ve got a website, but somewhere in the next couple of days we’re going to have a proper website. I’ve got the betterprojects.net blog site and hilariously, I have brown_note as my Twitter handle which I’ve got sort of like you never take Twitter serious.
Luis Magalhaes: Well, I have some tales about Twitter usernames. My surname is Magalhaes which shortens to Maga.
Craig Brown: Right, you said that.
Luis Magalhaes: It shortened to Maga because it’s hard for English speakers to say Magalhães I shortened it to Maga on Twitter so it is M A G A. And that got me into trouble in 2016. That got me into some serious trouble.
Craig Brown: Oh my god. Hopefully it’s over soon.
Luis Magalhaes: Anyway. Again, it was a pleasure, I will get all those links in the [inaudible 00:56:07] where people that are interested in … And I really recommend the blog. It was really nice going through some of your stuff. And thank you for taking the time. Was a pleasure.
Craig Brown: Thank you very much Luis. Lovely to chat to you.
Luis Magalhaes: And that, ladies a gentleman, was another episode of the DistantJob podcast. If you enjoyed this episode please share it on social media and slash or, leave a review [inaudible 00:56:34] or your podcast hosting service of choice. It helps us get more listeners and that helps us get high quality guests like the one you heard from today. And if you would like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do so at our blog; distantjob.com/blog/podcast. You get some nice goodies, and you’re notified once the transcripts are up.
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This was Luis, your host on the DistantJob podcast. See you next week.
In this episode, we talk about a wide variety of topics, but fundamentally: leadership. What should cultural and language differences mean for leaders of distributed teams? Once you get down to it, what are the Agile and Scrum principles that really matter? What should your remote team do when they have a crisis on their hands? And why and how should leaders ask stupid questions? And teach others to do the same!
You can learn more about Craig’s business at: https://everest.engineering/
The book Craig recommended during the podcast is “Managing” by Henry Mintzberg:
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