Continuously Managing Through the COVID-19 Virus and Beyond

Written by: Heidi Gilmore

5 min read

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Susan Lally is vice-president of engineering at CloudBees. During these unusual times marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, we sat down together to talk about CloudBees' remote culture, how to manage remote teams, the COVID-19 virus and the impact of the pandemic on CloudBees and on our customers.

What are you seeing in the current environment?
It is important to recognize the changes people are experiencing right now and the new patterns that are emerging for people. CloudBees has always been remote, so in many ways this is all business as usual for us. But our employees have spouses who are now working at home, so they may be sharing home offices. Kids are running around because schools have been canceled. We are seeing it all on video calls, where children are in the background or, in some cases,join the calls! You feel like you are getting to know the personal side of people a lot more - getting to know more about their lives away from work. You are being exposed to them in a much different way than before. The work/life balance is undergoing specific changes. Employees need to work with their managers to be sure they know how to balance work and home demands, and that they continue to focus in the right areas.

How do you personally manage remote teams? What is your philosophy in managing?
The most important thing is really making sure the team is aligned on what’s important. Not just goals and priorities, but values. What happens when we have customer escalations? Or you have to move more autonomously because the person making the decision isn’t sitting right next to you. We are collaborating using Slack, GitHub - we are even collaborative with pull requests. The ease in collaborating supports identifying what’s important and enables us to support each other.

How do you stay connected with remote teams - especially covering timezones all over the globe?
It’s hard and ever-changing. It’s a latticework of methods. I have been using a combination of things like:

  • Office hours, to make myself available to my teams. We do video and the whole team videos in. We talk about things that are top of mind.

  • Engineering all-hands meetings. These have more of a business focus, as well as enable us to share news across the teams.

  • Email for more formal things.

What I find is people tune in to some channels and not others. One thing doesn’t work for everyone, so we do several things.

I also do a fair amount of redirecting, relying on feedback that comes from other company channels, such as our internal Slack channels BeeInformed, BeeUpdates, Watercooler, etc. I try to leverage those as much as possible. When you are working remotely, planning on working asynchronously is important - you can’t plan on always getting an immediate response.

Are there physical engineering tasks or activities that now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, can't be done remotely?
The answer is no. We are extremely well-equipped to deal with this crisis. We have been remote from the beginning of our company - for 10 years. We do many, many things remotely.

Which IT tasks are most suitable to be handled remotely?
For us, everything we do from writing code to collaborating, to deploying can be done remotely. The entire DevOps lifecycle of building, shipping, delivering and maintaining are all ideal candidates for working remotely. Tech support is a perfect candidate for remote work. We have people all over the world in tech support roles, working with our customers in various regions. The impact of this virus on us and on the level of support we provide to our customers has been negligible. We are very fortunate to have already established a remote culture.

Which tasks simply can't be effectively assigned to a remote IT team?
There is nothing we do at CloudBees that cannot be done remotely.

How quickly can a remote engineering team be assembled in the event of an emergency?
To deal with system issues, teams can come together in a matter of minutes, based on system data that tells us problems could be brewing. We don’t wait for a crisis, we try to foresee problems coming and be proactive in addressing them.

What's the best collaboration platform to use?
Slack, Zoom, Jira, GitHub and Hangouts are all key platforms for us. Jenkins and CloudBees Core can even be considered collaboration platforms. That is what those platforms do - they help teams to collaborate around software delivery. This is what we also do - our work is dependent on collaboration. The artifacts that we build and manage are all collaborative efforts. In a very real sense, Software Delivery Management embodies similar collaboration channels for us and for our customers throughout the software delivery process.

What's the best way of ensuring maximum productivity?
To make sure priorities are clear and that employees have a way of asking for help when they get blocked; that they have the tools they need to do their jobs.

What's the biggest mistake to avoid with a distributed workforce?
It’s either ineffective communication or no communication. Those are the things that will send people away. Communication is a rich, virtual fabric that represents the company. It’s very tenuous. That richness is the substitute for the hard walls that exist in offices. Not supporting and growing those relationships is a mistake. Teamwork, face-to-face events and shared experiences are important to sprinkle in there as well.

Any additional tips for companies that traditionally haven’t been remote/distributed?
Don’t let this crisis go to waste. For companies that haven't learned to do this, learn. Get started. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. This could become the new normal and companies may find it's a more efficient way to work. For companies like us that are already remote, let’s find ways to get even better at it.

Thanks for your insights, Susan!

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