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Video Former MySQL CEO Mårten Mickos Talks About Managing Remote Workers (Video) 100

Millions of pixels have been used to talk about Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to ban telecommuting and her reasons for doing it. Today's interviewee, Mårten Mickos, built MySQL AB into a billion-dollar company with 70% of its workers, all over the world, telecommuting instead of working in offices. Now he's CEO of another young open source company, Eucalyptus, and is following a similar hiring pattern. Mårten says (toward the end of the video/transcript) that he believes people working out of their homes is entirely natural; that this is how things were done for thousands of years before the industrial revolution.

Robin: Marten, what percentage of your MySQL workers work from home?

Mårten: We had 70% working from home when we were 500 employees in total.

Robin: Okay, okay. 70%?

Mårten: We were based in 32 countries across 18 time zones.

Robin: 32 countries, 18 time zones.

Mårten: Yeah.

Robin: How did you manage those workers?

Mårten: I wonder if I did, meaning I mean something with it, I think when you manage a distributed team, you cannot manage through command and control; you must manage through vision and culture.

Robin: Okay.

Mårten: You must get the vision across to everybody. You must agree on how you behave, and what the company culture is. And then you let them do what they know they need to do. And that is how it works. But if you think you must observe them and monitor them and command them, and control them, then it won’t work for you.

Robin: Okay. So you need very self-motivated people, that you are telling me.

Mårten: Very true. I call it the fishing village analogy. Meaning our people at MySQL and now at Eucalyptus are like fishermen. They live in a fishing village and are very social together, but every morning before the sun dawns, they go out in their small boats to sea and they are all on their own, and they come back only when they have caught fish.

Robin: Okay, now recruiting these fishing people, (that’s a beautiful analogy) recruiting these independent workers, is it different from recruiting people you are going to be able to watch at their desks?

Mårten: Yes and no. First you have to interview them like you do with anybody, you have to post your open reqs like you do with anybody, but of course you must check that they truly belong to the portion of the world population that is capable of working from home, because not everybody is. It is not for everybody. It is for some of the best people in the industry but it is not for everybody.

Robin: Okay, and in the industry, what jobs work best filled by remote workers? And what works worst?

Mårten: As main rules I would say if your product is an intangible product, then it works well. And it so happens that software was the first industry to do it, but you can do it in politics, medicine, science and arts as well. The second rule is that for this to work, people need to be able to go all in online. They need to be able to live not just their professional life, but convey their personality online as well. Because the argument against distributed teams is that body language doesn’t work, and you don’t get the sort of the closeness, but on the contrary, we say no, that is not true. You can bring your personality and even your body language online if you decide to do so. And that is how you make it work.

Robin: Now you are talking about creative people, programmers, scientists, the artists; what about people like finance and marketing? Are they good, as good remotely?

Mårten: They are. And I would say their job is increasingly creative. But we had people working from home in every part of the company. We had accounts receivables, which was operated as a home operation, marketing was done, some of the accounting as well; of course, there are functions where you have to be in an office, you have to put things on real paper and store them in a real cabinet. So I am not saying you can live completely without it. But I don’t see any part of the organization that couldn’t be at least partly distributed among people who work from their homes.

Robin: How much money does it save if you have a quantification, how much does it save with all these people working from home?

Mårten: We never did it for the purpose of saving money. And we told ourselves that what we saved in office costs, we spent in travel costs. And that is probably more or less true. Maybe we saved a little bit but not much. A benefit we got and whether that is a saving or not I don’t know, but we managed to hire some of the best people in the world, people who would have refused to move to big cities to work for another company. So in the job market, we got access to just amazing talent who had offers from Google and Yahoo! and other companies of three times the salary, and they just didn’t take it, because for them, their life and their home, and the locality where they were were so important that they refused to move; they would rather work for an amazing open source company from home.

Robin: Okay, well that was an amazing open source company too. Plus, you had first David and Monty and then forever Monty. I mean working with Monty, for a whole lot for a certain kind of person, the chance to work with Monty is just hot stuff, right?

Mårten: Yes, I think like with any employment you have if you really love it, it is because you love the people you work with and you work with smart people and you learn something every day. And I think that was the case with MySQL.

Robin: So here is a question, a backwards question on that, from Yahoo! Now I’ve heard that they are bringing in not thousands of people but hundreds; it is not that big a deal, but if they are bringing people into offices, who are used to working at home, doesn’t that mean they may be losing their best people?

Mårten: It is difficult for us on the outside to know. On the one hand, I can understand Marissa, a relatively new CEO, she has to make serious changes, and maybe this was a good decision to make. I can’t judge that. But generally speaking, demanding that people who successfully worked from home, that they would come into an office probably won’t really work very well. That would be my guess. But I think we can’t know the situation there, and Yahoo! is a company that needs to reinvent itself. So they would need to take some drastic action even beyond what is rational and useful for others.

Robin: Now I am not saying, that I have heard anything, because I haven’t but if you were offered a chance to become CEO of Yahoo! as an example or similarly large but not too squared away company, would you do it?

Mårten: Thanks for the question of it. I don’t speculate about those things. And I haven’t thought about it. I have no idea. I like being with difficult challenges, that if they succeed will give a big upside, sort of against common perception and common belief, I do like that. Maybe it is my Finnish roots that make me look for seemingly impossible tasks but I don’t know.

Robin: Marten, where is Eucalyptus's headquarters?

Mårten: Eucalyptus started in Santa Barbara, California. That is where we have our headquarters.

Robin: And you live in?

Mårten: I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is five hours north by car from Santa Barbara.

Robin: And obviously you don’t commute every day?

Mårten: Nope. I go there for about a day or two or three per week, depending on the situation, and then I travel around to other places of course.

Robin: Yes. And you visit your remote workers often?

Mårten: I do. But I haven’t visited everybody. We have employees at Eucalyptus whom I have never met in person. We have two people in India whom I haven’t met, and we have a guy in Dhaka, Bangladesh whom I haven’t met in person. But I look forward to doing it.

Robin: But have they met each other, do they have contact with some of their coworkers?

Mårten: They do. Yes they do, and they will be coming over here so I can meet them here as well. So we try to connect people in many different ways.

Robin: Now with MySQL I remember you having I don’t know, I guess annual big company-wide meetings.

Mårten: Correct. Yes. And we have the same tradition at Eucalyptus, we have at least an annual all-hands meeting typically in Santa Barbara but we may do it elsewhere as well, where we bring everybody together to the degree it is possible. We have had challenges with visas for everybody so we actually have employees who didn’t get visas to the US which is very sad. That was the reason we didn’t do the MySQL meetings in the US, the last one we did here was in Orlando.

Robin: I was there.

Mårten: Yeah.

Robin: You went swimming with dolphins.

Mårten: Yes.

Robin: It was a great meeting.

Mårten: It was fantastic. But before that, we did St Petersburg, Russia, Budapest, we had one in Helsinki, we had one in Cancun, Mexico which was just an amazing staff meeting.

Robin: So nowadays you are saying that even if you are based in the US, with a seriously international... well we are both saying it, you can’t have an international meeting in the US, can you? Hardly.

Mårten: It is difficult given the way we are set up. But whatever you do in business and in life, there will be challenges that you have to overcome, so we are just taking it as a challenge, and seeing how we can figure it out.

Robin: I am sure that the-world-is-flat thought, the Thomas Friedman situation, does it matter where you are headquartered anymore? I mean your headquarters is in the US, but it couldn’t it just as easily be Finland or Cancun?

Mårten: It could. And the world is flat for software development, but the world is not flat when it comes to taxation, or legal systems, and so on. And you could even argue that it is more favorable to be registered in, say Luxembourg, than the US as a company. We haven’t tried to optimize for that. But the reality is the world is flat in some dimensions but in many dimensions it isn’t.

Robin: Interesting. But on the whole, you are saying Eucalyptus is, what is your percentage again of in-house versus remote workers?

Mårten: I think we have 35 percent in Santa Barbara in offices, and then another probably 15 or 20 percent elsewhere in the US, and then the rest are outside of the US in Europe, in India, Bangladesh and China.

Robin: So the way you are describing it, you are not choosing people on where they are located, you are not looking for the lowest cost help, I mean you say you have one guy in Bangladesh, and a few in India, and so on, and a few in China, but you are also saying Europe, you are just looking at what, just the best people, period?

Mårten: Yes, we choose the best people. Sure there are some things where you are dependent on location but mostly we just try to hire the best people we can find.

Robin: And if you were building another company, would you do the same thing, with a heavily distributed workforce?

Mårten: I do believe it completely. I think I know how to manage it. I think it works wonderfully well. I don’t think it is suitable for everybody on the planet, but nearly everybody. And let’s remember that the whole notion of going to an office or a workplace and having work hours is a new invention. It came with the industrial revolution.

Before that, people worked wherever they were, they didn’t have a distinction between free time and work time. They did the work they had to, and if they could take time off for a harvest feast or something, they did. And I think this modern distributed organization is modeled based on what has been working for thousands of years.

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Former MySQL CEO Mårten Mickos Talks About Managing Remote Workers (Video)

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