The future is distributed

November 13, 2018

I took the Starsky job to get into robotics. So far, it's been great: good team, great progress toward putting autonomous trucks on the road. But I have to admit, after running a distributed team for 4 years (shortbar), going to a physical office every day feels like a step backward.

It feels dated, like sending a fax. Yesterday's news.

Robotics is indeed a bit different than pure software—we have teams soldering chips, and analyzing the force response of truck pedals. But at Stripe, another place I interviewed, they have more of a pure software culture and dialed it up to 11 on remote work; they have 1400 employees, only 350 of which are in the San Francisco office, and more than half of my interview took place over high-bandwidth videoconferencing. Given how intentional they were about every aspect of the interview, I realize this was no accident: they wanted to ensure I'm OK working wherever, from day 1.

The big companies—facebook, Google, Apple—will be schlepping people to Silicon Valley for decades. Big companies are always slow to change; they hate risk and don't want to mess up a good thing. They also can afford to pay the obscenely high costs of Bay Area technology development. But I'm starting to think that's not the point—distributed teams should be "Plan A", with "you must come to the office" a distant second; it already is for those that can't compete with the giants for people (basically everyone). But I think that in a decade, the consensus will have shifted; we've finally crossed a threshold with Internet bandwidth and video, and the holdouts will be seen as stubborn, and backward.

The advantages are overwhelming:

  • No commute = 1-1.5 hours/day of time back to employees. For me, that's the difference between exercising, or not; for others, it might be time with children, volunteering, pretty much anything other than "commuting".
  • Hire the best from anywhere, rather than being constrained by who's available locally.
  • Avoid the Bay Area racket: start with double salary, end up even after the tax collectors, landowners, and do-nothing local governments get their take. All for crummy housing stock, the most potholed roads in the US, dysfunctional schools, and skyrocketing levels of debt. Who's winning here?
  • Work in a quiet office, rather than an open-plan pit where you need earplugs to drown out the noise (I'm not kidding, I wear these)
    • Added bonus: need to have a private conversation? No need for conference room jockeying.
  • Avoid others' germs. Like getting sick? I don't.

Funny: I decided to write this post yesterday, but this morning, as I write, we're having the worst rainstorm in months. Here's the first 45 minutes of my day, today:

The storm

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