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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)

Comments Filter:
  • by djl4570 ( 801529 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @02:31PM (#43107017) Journal
    All you need is a method to accurately measure productivity.
  • by Aviancer ( 645528 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @03:01PM (#43107441) Homepage Journal

    Pfft. Everyone on any given team knows who is good and who is dead weight. Listen to people, and make appropriate decisions. Yes, metrics are good to show improvement over time, but a weak, immature and cowardly way to identify poor performers.

  • one difference (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Trepidity ( 597 ) <> on Thursday March 07, 2013 @03:08PM (#43107539)

    These companies did it on purpose and planned for it, while it sounds like it just sorta "happened" at Yahoo, with management neither having a plan for how to manage it nor (apparently) really paying any attention at all to what remote workers were doing and how they were doing it.

  • by Kenja ( 541830 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @03:08PM (#43107543)
    How about "do they do their job". This metric can be applied to everyone, not just those telecommuting. Now I work from home, writing software for very dull business processes. I do not think I would be nearly as productive at a desk 9-5 simply because some of my best ideas and breakthroughs happen at night when I'm winding down.
  • Engaging work (Score:4, Insightful)

    by s1d3track3D ( 1504503 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @03:19PM (#43107679)
    If you have a cool product, interesting things to do and hire interested people, you will have good employees.
    Many technical people work in the field because they enjoy it, how many people work on FOSS in their spare time anyway?

    Working on new, interesting, challenging things is fun! Maintaining 'legacy' stuff, not as fun. No disrespect to Yahoo but Flicker, Yahoo Mail, YUI, OMG! (please), for me it would be hard to be excited about maintaining these.
    Additionally, working in a smaller company where one person can really help shape things is huge, being just another worker bee in a huge corporate environment can be depressing. (especially one with a declining public image)

    Obviously, just my opinion.
  • by firex726 ( 1188453 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @03:27PM (#43107789)

    And therein lies the problem with what Yahoo was doing.

    They had few performance metric and feel that by having the seats warm they will get more productivity.

    So they just moved the slackers from the home to the office.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 07, 2013 @03:28PM (#43107797)

    unless the recently dismissed was able to game your metrics to show they were the highest performing member of your team, and uses that data against you to win their case.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @03:35PM (#43107891)

    Indeed. And metrics are easily gamed or done wrong. The results are usually strategic mistakes, sometimes severe, as Yahoo will likely find out.

    There is no replacement for a competent manager with high personal integrity that actually has a well-founded expert opinion about all of the ones he manages. I see a primary task of a manger to create the environment where those in his/her care can work with the least amount of trouble from outside and at their most productive. This means that a manager actually serves his/her "underlings", not the other way round. Every good manager understands that.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 07, 2013 @03:52PM (#43108131)

    All you need is a method to accurately measure productivity.

    I really hate it when people just casually blurt that out as if it solves everything. Usually its an MBA or a manager saying that too. I am a QE team lead for two different small QE teams. I personally have an incredibly hard time to come up with any objective way to measure my personal productivity, especially on day-to-day granularity. Even for my testers, how am I supposed to objectively measure their productivity? By how many issues they test and close off? As ludicrous as measuring a developer on lines of code. By how many bugs are caught by them? Thats a measure of how bad the code is, not how good QE is. By how many issues are logged afterwards by customers? Even if thats a valid measurement (and its more a measurement of the complexity of features and how many customers might use a particular feature) - how does that translate to a day-to-day measurement? Or even to a measurement for an *individual*?

    'Metrics for productivity' is, in many cases, a phrase management loves because they can see some number go up or down, but in the real world, in complex environments, there simply is no simple way to 'accurately measure productivity'. There are few people just cranking out identical widgets every day and you just count how many widgets were produced.

    So I have to use my own judgement to see if my team members are pulling their weight and contributing.

  • by mcmonkey ( 96054 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @04:07PM (#43108325) Homepage

    There is no replacement for a competent manager with high personal integrity that actually has a well-founded expert opinion about all of the ones he manages.

    Right on. If you don't trust your managers, or don't know which managers to trust, you've already lost and all the metrics in the world won't help.

    To me this is the same issue as standardized tests. If you don't (or can't) trust your teachers, testing won't change that feeling. But how does the governor of a state know which teachers can't be trusted or should be replaced? She doesn't and shouldn't need to.

    The teacher in the classroom identifies which students are falling behind and need more help. The department head gets summary reports on student performance and monitors teachers. The school head gets summary reports on teacher performance and monitors the department heads. The head of the district gets summary reports on department performance and manages the school heads. And so one up to the governor, president, etc.

    No one other than the teacher in the room and that student's parents should be involved with an individual student's day-to-day performance. Not that the department head doesn't care about students, but the best way to express that concern is by putting the best teachers in place and giving those teachers the resources they need.

    Likewise, if the CEO is concerning herself with the day-to-day productivity of individual contributors, sounds like a company with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. The CEO should be able to pick trust-worthy executives. Those executives should be able to pick able department heads. Department heads should oversee managers. Managers should manage people.

    That there may be a few slackers here and there is not a moral failing. But for the issues in a company to be so wide spread as to require a policy change of the magnitude we're seeing at Yahoo, you've got bad managers no able to motivate or replace bad workers, and bad department heads not able to identify bad managers, and bad executives not able to identify bad department heads, and a bad CEO not able to identify bad executives.

    Now that may be the case with Yahoo, which is why there is a new CEO and that CEO is making these changes. But she is bound to fail. The CEO should be concerned with getting the right executives in place. Those executives can retrain/replace department heads as needed. The department heads can get the managers on the right track. And then those managers can decide who needs to be in the office and who can work best remotely.

    A CEO jumping over a half dozen (or more) layers of management to tell a worker how to do their job makes as much sense as having the Secretary of Education sit down with each individual 3rd grade to check their sums.

  • Really hard to do. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Chirs ( 87576 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @04:08PM (#43108331)

    What do you use for measuring "productivity"?

    Lines of code? My happiest work days are when I end up removing more code than I put in. Also, this is really easy to game.

    Bugs fixed? I usually end up working on the really nasty bugs...intermittent, only occur in customer sites, and under no circumstances can you shut down the system to debug it. Some bugs take weeks or months to track down.

    Hours worked? Pointless, doesn't track if you're actually being useful during those hours.

    While it's easy to measure productivity if you're making widgets, its *really hard* to measure productivity if you're doing creative stuff.

  • by RabidReindeer ( 2625839 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @05:00PM (#43109073)

    Lies, Damn Lies and Metrics. Metrics are what you use so that you can be blind to things that can't be/aren't measured.

    Lines of Code is a classic. If I rip down an algorithm and replace it with one that's faster, more reliable, and 1/3 the size, I have negative LOC. And if LOC is all of the above that got metrics, I'm a loser.

    I have a great respect for being able to measure things (where it's possible and meaningful), but unlike the legendary Statistical Bikini, it's what isn't covered that's as important as what is. Metrics should be a guide, but when you have people spending all their time fiddling with metrics, and other people spending time fiddly ways to look good under the metrics you're losing a lot of your productivity to metrics. And unless you are in the business of producing metrics, that's not good.

  • by Bucc5062 ( 856482 ) <> on Thursday March 07, 2013 @05:47PM (#43109661)

    That comparison would only seek to enforce what the OP stated. If employees have a dress code, whether it is Business casual or jeans then it is up toe the immediate management to enforce that policy. If it gets/got out of hand then it is the immediate manager's problem, not hte company. To change that example, I come to work every in my clean, un-holed jeans wearing a decent shirt and shoes. Around me folks attire is failing so my reward for others bad behavior is to be punished for following the existing rules and required to go back to wearing a suit, because a manager could not enforce a rule. That is just wrong thinking.

    The same then applies in telecommuting. There are ways to measure performance, be it completion times, lines of code or some other metric. If management fails to measure shame on them. If they measure and fail to act again shame on them. That is their job thus the term Management. take away my telecommute, because others are irresponsible is throwing the baby out with the bath water, a poor management practice and like the OP said, a company that is rotten in the core and will soon fall.

  • by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @06:06PM (#43109933)

    Works while you have functional teams. When the team is dis-functional, not so much. Then it becomes a popularity contest.

  • by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @06:07PM (#43109965)

    Remote workers have nothing to do with integration testing.

    What you say could just as easily happen in the office.

  • by ILongForDarkness ( 1134931 ) on Friday March 08, 2013 @12:27AM (#43112979)

    Also a lot can be team dynamics. A person can be a great worker but for whatever reason a few other team members decided that they don't like talking to them. So they are never included in conversations aren't seen as helpful when problems come up etc. But is it due to a real personality fault in that employee or that employee just having a different way of communicating, work style heck even extra curricular interests can come into play (people will generally go to the person that they can chat with for a half hour about the latest sports drama than the guy that is say a dungeon master (when sports are their interest and not role playing) or vis versa). That is part of the issue with remote work that needs to be considered not just individual work performance but how well will the team communicate without the queues you get from in person interaction? It can work and it can not work but you need to at least leave the option of going back to a work from the office model if the telecommute doesn't work for the employee (or you find other people's performance goes down because they aren't as available for helping out with random questions etc).

"Never face facts; if you do, you'll never get up in the morning." -- Marlo Thomas