Fog Creek

Secrets Behind Etsy’s Remote Working Success – Interview with Brad Greenlee

Looking for audio only? Listen on and subscribe


Up Next
How to Onboard Software Engineers

In this interview with Brad Greenlee, Senior Software Engineer at Etsy, we talk about remote working. Brad explains how Etsy approaches remote working and makes remote workers feel like first-class citizens. He goes into the tools, processes and culture they have to achieve this. We finish up with common mistakes made by those new to hiring remotes and how remote workers themselves can help improve their effectiveness.

Content and Timings

  • Introduction (0:00)
  • Etsy’s Successful Approach to Remote Working (0:53)
  • Remote Working Tools (2:47)
  • Culture to Support Effective Communication (4:10)
  • Hiring Remote Workers (5:23)
  • Common Mistakes (9:15)
  • Remote Worker Effectiveness (10:20)

Transcript

Introduction

Derrick:
Brad Greenlee is a Senior Software Engineer at Brooklyn-based Etsy. He’s based in Seattle and works remotely on their data engineering team. He’s worked a number of remote roles throughout his career, but says Etsy does it best. Brad, thank you so much for taking your time to join us today. Do you have a bit to share about yourself?

Brad:
I’ve been at Etsy for a little over three years. My past life has been a lot of startups and consulting, working both locally and remote. A interesting tidbit, my most remote working experience was spending four months working out of a Volkswagen bus while my then fiance, now wife, and I were rock-climbing bums traveling around the U.S.


“Critical mass is the most important thing when it comes to remotes being successful”


Etsy’s Successful Approach to Remote Working

Derrick:
That’s fantastic. You don’t hear too much of the Volkswagen bus and rock-climbing stories these days. You say that Etsy does remote working better than any company you’ve worked for. What is it about their approach that has been so successful?

Brad:
Generally, the people at Etsy do a great job of making remotes feel included, like first-class citizens. Etsy are heavy users of IRC, so they’re already in a remote by default mode. Even in the Brooklyn office, they’re spread out over many floors and a bunch of different offices, so often, people will first go to IRC to get a hold of someone. We also have built a bunch of our tools around IRC. We deploy our site via, not directly via IRC, but we coordinate deploys via IRC. A lot of other tools are built on that.

At Etsy, there is a lot of email going back and forth. We have something called, we refer to it is a ‘reply-all culture’, which can be a bit overwhelming at first, especially when you first join and you’ve got a hundred messages in your inbox before you’ve even started. The default is to share more information than not, so that also helps. Things like, we’ve got a really good AV set up now, we’ve settled on a technology that works pretty well, a lot of our conference rooms are set up well for video conferencing. We record all of our large meetings and talks and whatnot and have a video archive of that. If you miss something, it’s easier to catch up on it. A lot of of it has to do with the fact that we’ve grown to the size where we’re pretty distributed anyway, we’ve got offices all over the world, and so it’s just natural that we have started including everybody.

Remote Working Tools

Derrick:
Communication is important to the success of any employee, but especially those working remotely. What tools do you use at Etsy to make sure you’re communicating as well as you can?

Brad:
IRC, a lot of other companies use other forms of chat, like Slack, email, obviously. The particular video conferencing technology we use is called Vidyo, V-I-D-Y-O, and it works very well. It’s super easy to just jump into a room. We use Google docs a lot for collaborating, especially on architecture docs. Each team settles on their own tools for the most part. We’ve got a lot of common tools, but the design folks are heavy users of Basecamp, GitHub, Trello.

Also, a couple engineers and I, for a Hack Week a couple years ago, wrote a, what we call Omni-search, to tie a lot of these tools together, so it’s basically searching across IRC and GitHub. One of the problems you have when you’ve got all these different tools is that information tends to get hidden in little corners, and so we try to do our best to bring that back together.


“It’s better to lean towards communicating more than you think you need to”


Culture to Support Effective Communication

Derrick:
That does sound like a pretty neat tool. You talked about tools, but what processes do you have that can support both the remotes, as well as the effective communication?

Brad:
I think it’s more about just culture. We’ve got a culture of sharing and being inclusive, documenting meetings, and critical mass is the most important thing when it comes to remotes being successful on a team, meaning just a single remote on a team doesn’t tend to work out as well. You basically need enough people remote that communication defaults to remote-friendly mediums like chat, that or just sending an email, that’s probably the most common thing.

Derrick:
With the email setup, do you just use distribution groups for all sorts of teams, or is there one or a couple of things that everyone’s on?

Brad:
Each team can have their own distribution list. Our email is going through Google, so anyone can create a Google group, but then we’ve gotten larger, like tech-all mailing lists or everyone. But people tend to err on the side of being more inclusive than not.

Hiring Remote Workers

Derrick:
Are there any characteristics or skills that Etsy specifically looks for when hiring remotes or you look for?

Brad:
Generally, we only hire more experienced people as remotes, and ideally, people who have shown a record of working remotely before, but otherwise, certainly more experienced engineers who are, being self-sufficient is really important, especially if you happen to be in a different time zone. You need to be able to speak up if you need information. Don’t be shy about reaching out and being an excellent communicator, especially written, given that a lot of the communication is through chat or email.

Derrick:
Having in-person face-to-face time is still really important though. What types of things can you do to make sure you’re encouraging that to happen?

Brad:
Probably the biggest thing is we encourage our remotes to visit the Brooklyn offices often as they like, anytime they want to come out, they are welcome. We also encourage, it’s not really in person, but we also encourage face-to-face video, one-on-ones. One of our engineering managers wrote this app called Mixer that you can sign up for and basically just randomly matches you, every two weeks, randomly matches you with one other person who’s signed up for the Mixer app and just sends an email to both of you saying, “Hey, go chat.” That works great for just meeting people who you normally wouldn’t interact with. Another thing is when you’re visiting the Brooklyn office, teams will often have team dinners, we’ll do team meetups in different cities, so I guess that’s a lot of face time.

Derrick:
How do you handle having employees in different time zones or working on different schedules?

Brad:
For the people in Europe, from the ones I’ve talked to, they generally don’t have to alter their schedule too much. Occasionally they’ll stay late for an important meeting or something, but Etsy is pretty good about respecting people’s work-life balance. Generally as long as you have a few hours of overlap, it’s not that big of an issue. Again, I think it’s less of an issue for engineers who tend to do more solo work.

Derrick:
In your experience, are there any roles that don’t work remotely?

Brad:
It’s my personal belief that anything can work if both sides put enough effort into it, but that said, I think those roles that require more interaction with other people tend to be harder to be remote. We’ve got a few remote managers at Etsy, but they’re also largely managers of remote teams, or nearly all remote teams. Even then, it can be difficult if they’ve got a lot of meetings with others. Also, some groups within Etsy, they just haven’t had as much exposure to remote workers, so they’re less likely to hire remotes in the first place. Our design group has I think, we’ve got one remote person and some people in Berlin, but I think maybe because design tends to be a little bit more collaborative, at least in the initial stages, they haven’t really bought in as much to remote working as say, engineering.

Derrick:
There’s a bit of ramp-up to try to break through that barrier. I guess you have to have a champion there for that.

Brad:
Yeah, that definitely helps, having someone in the office who champions remotes and makes sure that people are aware of remote workers.


“Etsy do a great job of making remotes feel included, like first-class citizens”


Common Mistakes

Derrick:
What are common mistakes you’ve seen employers make when working with remote employees?

Brad:
Just forgetting about them. For example, chatting about a problem in front of a whiteboard in the office instead of in a more remote-friendly medium. Assuming that people are getting information, that I think is a really common problem. That’s one reason why it’s better to lean towards communicating more than you think you need to, because it may well be that you think someone is getting information but they’re not. Not documenting decisions that are make, or communicating those decisions out. And just inadequate audiovisual setup, or not even having a go-to solution. Even if Vidyo wasn’t as working as well for us as it is, just the fact that this is the tool that we use to do this and this is where you go if you want to talk to someone, that makes a huge difference.

Remote Worker Effectiveness

Derrick:
Do you have any advice for remotes on how they can make themselves more successful as a remote employee?

Brad:
Probably the biggest thing is just to try to make yourself as visible as possible. As a remote employee, especially if you’re in a situation where the majority of people are local, as is my case, you have to make an extra effort to make yourself known to people. Participate in meetings. I do a lot of postmortem facilitation. Basically when an outage happens at Etsy, or it doesn’t have to be an outage, could be any kind of issue, we get a bunch of people together in a room and we have a facilitator lead people through the discussion, so I spend a lot of time facilitating these meetings.

I’ve also taught some classes. At Etsy we have something called Etsy School a couple times a year. Anyone in the company can sign up to teach any subject, from wine-tasting to rock-climbing, whatever. I’ve taught a couple of those classes. Just generally making sure that people know who you are, and of course, visiting the office whenever you can. I try to go out at least once a quarter. Also making sure that you have a good home office environment, like you have a space dedicated to working.

Derrick:
Do you have any other resources you can recommend for those thinking about hiring remotes or those already working remotely?

Brad:
The guys at 37 Signals wrote a really good book about remote working, called Remote. It’s more targeted towards convincing employers that they should hire remote people, but I think any remote worker could get something out of it. I would check that out. There’s a bunch of remotes that have formed a little IRC channel on Freenode, that anyone’s welcome to come by. It’s ##remotes, two hashes. You’re welcome to come by and chat with us there. There’s probably 30 people in there now.

Derrick:
Brad, thank you so much.

Brad:
Great, yeah, thanks for having me. I love spreading the remote gospel.