Carrie Rice - SitePen

Development shop SitePen has spent the past decade and a half developing web applications for some of the world's biggest companies while creating some of the most popular open source projects. Their commitment to building universally loved open source technologies is made possible by their commitment to building a universally talented team of engineers.

To attract those great team members, SitePen offers a laundry list of benefits including the ability to work from wherever you want, whenever you want, in your PJs if you'd like. Here's SitePen COO Carrie Rice on building a distributed team and keeping everything running smoothly at a growing remote company.

What does SitePen do and what do you do there?

SitePen develops web applications for companies who value clean, maintainable, and performant code. To achieve these results, we create and develop tools that embrace open source technology like the Dojo Toolkit, dgrid, and Intern.  My role involves the oversight of company operations while also lending a hand in sales, marketing and strategic direction. I like to think I’m focused on simplifying as many things as possible for the team so that they can focus on the extremely challenging work they do every day!

How many people are at SitePen now and how far flung are team members?

We have 25 people at SitePen and we’re spread out across the United States; Arizona, California, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. If you live in the US, it works for us!

When did you start hiring remotely and what drew you to hiring a distributed team?

We didn’t really decide to ‘become’ a distributed team, it just grew organically. SitePen really got its start when our CEO, Dylan Schiemann, started collaborating with other like-minded JavaScript engineers on IRC in the early 2000s. Out of that the Dojo Toolkit was born. At this time the JS ecosystem was very small and most companies were not very interested in creating web applications with JavaScript.

We had spent a couple of years pushing the limits and proving that JavaScript was the right tool for building web apps. When the Web 2.0 / Ajax revolution hit in full force our small company of a few people was suddenly in high demand. Who do you turn to when you need to quickly grow a company from 3 to 15 at a time when people are only just becoming familiar with JavaScript based web apps? The people you have been working with over IRC and mailing lists, of course!

We were already familiar with working distributed so it just carried over when we hired them at SitePen.

How do you keep everyone feeling connected?

The feeling of connectedness is one of the harder things to replicate in a distributed setting. It’s easy to make people a part of the work but the goal is to make people part of the team, and one way to do that is to connect on a personal level.  

One of my favorite things that we do is our Monday morning, all-hands, web conference. We cover company news and highlights, our priorities and goals for the upcoming week. The best part and majority of this meeting is spent hearing from each individual on the team. So, we go around the virtual circle and each team member (engineers, c-levels, sales, PMs, designers, etc.) answers the question of the week, tells everyone about their weekend and anything else they’d like to share. “The Question of the Week” are questions like, “if you are what you eat, what food would you be” or “What was the most life-altering decision you’ve ever made?” or “Tell us about the best meal you’ve ever had”.

We learn a lot about each other through these weekly conversations which are always light, funny and keep us human. We also have an active chatroom called ‘lounge’ where people hang out and... chat.

New hires are often hesitant about working remotely and fear that they will just be a cog in a machine. After they join, we hear overwhelmingly that they can’t believe how much they feel part of the team and how naturally everything flows.

Has it been difficult to build a company culture with team members so spread out?

I think that culture is nourished not built. It’s a combination of what’s chosen and how it’s cared for that makes the culture. The core values set the boundaries and from there, culture evolves. It takes effort to maintain and nurture culture in the hectic details of daily life and multiple project priorities but knowing who you are and what you are about is the key to solving culture issues.

It’s easy to make people a part of the work but the goal is to make people part of the team, and one way to do that is to connect on a personal level.

Two of the core values we have at SitePen are:

What are the biggest challenges your company faces being distributed and how do you overcome them?

We’ve been fully distributed for over 10 years and the landscape has changed dramatically. If you had asked me in 2007 what our biggest challenge was, I would have said, without pause, convincing potential customers that our team could work remotely and be productive. This was a foreign concept to many and they could not fathom the idea that a team could complete complex web development projects if they weren’t sitting within 5 feet of each other. Sales were much harder then!

Today, I’d have to say that our biggest challenge is clear communication of goals. In any company, it’s important for people to understand the goals that are driving what’s being done and why. It’s difficult to keep big picture thinking front and center in a remote environment because the passive communication and observation isn't there. This requires us to spend more time being very deliberate about that communication and making sure everyone’s looking in the same direction.

What is the biggest benefit that working remotely has afforded SitePen?

I hear commercial office space in Silicon Valley is pretty spendy so, that’s a no-brainer! In all seriousness, the most significant benefit is talent. Smart JavaScript engineers are in high demand. If being distributed gives us an edge on Google because Jed the JS guru wants to live in Nowhere, USA — we’ll take that edge and welcome Jed to the team!

Do you think you lose anything by not working in an office?

There is definitely a certain level of closeness and human understanding that is lost when communicating primarily through technological mediums. While reading someone’s body language, observing interactions between two team members, or simply giving someone that well-deserved pat on the back are all obvious connections we lose in a remote work environment, even more important is the loss of empathy. In a distributed environment where chat, documentation and conferencing replaces eye contact, it takes more effort to recognize that the person you’re working with is... a person. Demonstrating empathy is a fundamental component of successfully working on a team and is a much greater achievement for those who work remotely.  

If you had asked me in 2007 what our biggest challenge was, I would have said, without pause, convincing potential customers that our team could work remotely and be productive

What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?

When projects are going smoothly, our team is happy and we’re being productive. Increased negativity and complaints arise and are symptoms of stressful or undesirable projects.  

Do you think it takes a certain type of person to succeed at working from home?

Definitely. If you work from home, you have to be action-oriented.

What are the characteristics look for when hiring for remote roles?

Willingness and drive to help. Willingness and drive to push things forward. Willingness and drive to knock it out.   

Describe your personal work environment.

My primary work location is my home office. In it, you’ll find my iMac, iPhone, Macbook Air, Lifespan treadmill desk, sawhorse desk and Mirra chair. For my stints on the sofa, I have a lap pad for my laptop for cushy couch comfort.

How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?

My two small children are the supervisors of my work life balance and keep me on track. When they leave the house in the morning, I start working and I stop when it’s time to pick them up. I have lunch with my husband every day -- he works from home too -- and we rarely work on the weekends, which we dedicate to family. I do have a bad habit of sneaking back on in the late evenings, but is it really “sneaking” if you enjoy what you do?!

How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?

As a company, we try to minimize real-time interruptions as much as possible. It’s so easy to send someone an instant message for that “quick” answer but the costs of context-switching over a large team quickly add up. I think everyone on the team keeps this in mind and there’s always room for improvement and education when it comes to communicating effectively and efficiently. For instance, I prefer to see our team sending out information for review and comment prior to scheduling time-consuming, directionless meetings.

That said, I measure my personal efficiency by the number of back’n’forths required during information sharing. If I’ve taken the time to provide clear, concise well-documented information, there will be very few questions and maybe not even any need for a meeting. WIN! If I don’t take the time to provide good information, it often results in misunderstandings, misinterpretation and large numbers of follow up questions which will most likely end up with multiple discussions -- all of which amount to severe efficiency drains. Spending additional time on documentation in order to provide clear concise information always pays for itself in the long-run.

What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?

Anything that promotes more effective communication! Chat/Jabber, web conferencing, Etherpad, GitHub and our trusty ol’ task tracker.  

What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?

  1. Prepare for a higher degree of administration. You’ll need people(s) dedicated to organizing the overall details and keeping the company focused and moving forward.
  2. Your project tools should support good communication. Documentation, tasks and chat should never replace logical, out-loud, real-time communication.
  3. Be inclusive! Promote team engagement by continuously inviting individual participation.
Josh Catone
Josh has been the Content & Community Manager at feedly, the Executive Director of Editorial Projects at Mashable, the Lead Writer at ReadWrite, and the Lead Blogger at SitePoint.