David Horowitz - Retrium

As David Horowitz says in the interview below one of the most important things that a remote team needs to nail to ensure success is, "Communication, communication, communication."

One of the key pieces of the agile software development process is the restrospective -- a post-iteration meeting in which team member identify what went right and wrong and how to improve going forward. Yet Horowitz found that many distributed agile development teams weren't running retrospectives. This key part of the agile process wasn't being done and their work was suffering as a result. These teams were failing to communicate at the most important part of the process.

So Horowitz co-founded Retrium, an app specifically designed to help distributed agile teams run effective retrospectives. Not only that, but Retrium itself is a distributed agile team. Read on to find out how Horowitz approaches working remotely and why he believes distributed teams are the future of work.

Tell me about Retrium and what you do there.

Retrium gives distributed agile teams the ability to run effective retrospectives. It provides a set of prebuilt retrospective techniques (like Mad Sad Glad, 4Ls, and Start Stop Continue) which are just a single click away. I’m the CEO of Retrium and a cofounder. Since we’re a very small startup, my role is everything from taking out the proverbial trash to setting vision, from writing code one line at a time to talking to customers, and everything in between!

How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?

At the moment, it’s just two of us. On any given day, we could be working from home, from a coffee shop, from a farm, or from the beach. We rarely work in the same physical location, and ability to choose your work environment is very liberating.

What made you decide to build a company specifically for distributed teams?

It’s really a strongly-held belief, based both on intuition as well as on data, that “work from anywhere, at anytime” is the future of work. I truly believe that what we call “remote work” today will simply be called “work” within the next 20 years. I wanted to enter the market today before that becomes obvious.

What do you think will be the biggest driver of that transition?

It's hard to name a single factor because it's really the convergence of multiple things at once that's going to make the transition possible.

First, you have the internet. Twenty years ago it was new, it was slow, and no one had it. Today, it's available in every city in the world and comparatively, it's quite fast. In twenty more years? My bet is that we'll have globally available wireless internet at speeds faster than our connections are at home today.

On any given day, we could be working from home, from a coffee shop, from a farm, or from the beach. We rarely work in the same physical location, and ability to choose your work environment is very liberating.

Second, you have a generational shift. For most of the 20th century, the ideal job could be summed up in a single word: stability. Your goal was simply to keep a stable job so that your family could have a modest living. Today, stability is generally not the goal for 20 and 30 somethings. We're taught to follow our dreams, to enjoy what we do. Life's too short. As the younger generation makes up an ever-growing percentage of the workforce, more and more working-age adults will have personal autonomy and independence as their goal. If you take those two trends together, faster and more widely available internet alongside a desire to pursue your passion, you'll see people wanting to work from wherever and at whatever time they wish.

How do you keep everyone feeling connected?

Communication, communication, communication. Look, 20 years ago if you had a distributed team, your options for communication were very limited. Today, technology is giving us the ability to feel more and more connected over vast distances. The problem lies not in the technology itself, but in its misuse and underuse.

My cofounder and I use Sqwiggle, Google Hangouts, and other video chat software to talk not just about work, but about everything else too. Asking “what did you do over the weekend?” and actually caring about the response makes us feel connected.

What are the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you overcome them?

Since we are a small company, there are times when each of us is intensely focused on a separate task. If one of us is taking longer than imagined to complete the task, it’s easy to assign blame rather than have empathy. I think that’s because there’s a lack lack of visibility into the minutiae of the other person’s day. When you’re in the same physical office location, it’s easy to tell that someone is hard at work and needs to focus, if the person is in a good or bad mood, or if the person is slacking off. Remote work makes this more difficult.

That's a really interesting point. Is there anything specific you do to make sure you and your cofounder keep on top of that mental accounting and always know where each other stand?

Absolutely, though we're not perfect at it yet! We've found Sqwiggle to help. It's an interesting product. Unlike traditional video chat software that requires a lot of upfront work to get started (installs, invites, etc), Sqwiggle is a quick and easy live video board of your team that's very simple to setup.

The reason it helps us keep track of each other is that you can automatically initiate a video chat anyone on your video board at any time ... even without their consent. Sounds scary right? At any point in time, anyone from your team can peer into your working space without you giving them permission to do so. But if you think about it, this is no different from the office environment. Have an office? Anyone can come in at any time. Work in open space? Everyone is always there by default. Sqwiggle helps to recreate that sense of togetherness in a distributed context. It has its pitfalls for sure, and like any tool it can be abused, but used correctly it helps us feel more together.

What's the biggest benefit that working remotely has provided for Retrium?

It’s simple math. I used to commute one hour a day, twice a day, to get to and from my office downtown. Now that I can work from home, I’ve reclaimed those two hours every day. I can use that time to improve the quality of my life (going for a run, spending more time with my wife, or cooking dinner, for example), or I can use it to work longer hours. Either way, two hours a day is ten hours a week and forty hours a month. That’s a lot of time.

If you take those two trends together, faster and more widely available internet alongside a desire to pursue your passion, you'll see people wanting to work from wherever and at whatever time they wish.

Do you think you lose anything by not having daily face time in an office?

Of course. But then again, everything you do in life has advantages and disadvantages. It’s a matter of weighing the costs against the benefits and deciding what works best for you. Certainly by not working in an office, you lose the water cooler conversations, the random lunch dates.

What do you think is the most important thing a distributed team can do to ensure successful collaboration?

You can’t just be distributed and hope to for the best. You have to focus on being good at being distributed. Like anything worth doing in life, it’s hard.

To me, the most important thing you can do to successfully collaborate on a distributed team has nothing to do with tools or process. Just like for a collocated team, success is largely dependent on relationships, teamwork, and culture. Work on building friendships with your colleagues, have empathy for them, tell jokes, and build a cohesive culture that everyone buys into, and you’ll be fine.

Describe your personal work environment.

It varies from day to day. When my family is out of the house, I work from home because there aren’t too many distractions. When my family is home, I’ll leave and go to a local coffee shop. At home, I have a dual monitor setup. That’s really important to me. I like to do my calls with leads and customers from home because it’s very quiet. At the coffee shop, I bring headphones to block out the noise. On the other hand, it’s nice being in a social environment.

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

I know this is an issue that a lot of people struggle with -- I’m fortunate to not be in that situation. I love what I do. I’m 100% passionate about it and focused on it when I’m home. In the past six months, there have been a total of two days when I haven’t felt that burning desire to build the best retrospective tool in the world. That’s not a bad percentage of days! But I also have a rule -- when the kids come home, I’m 100% focused on them through bedtime. The only thing more important to me than my company is my family. I want to be a good husband and dad. That’s really what life's about.

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

Finally, the tools questions! It’s interesting -- usually this is one of the first things people ask me. But as I mentioned earlier, to me it’s one of the least important aspects of being good at being distributed.

You can’t just be distributed and hope to for the best. You have to focus on being good at being distributed.

There are an abundance of tools out there to make your life easier as a remote worker. We use some of the obvious ones -- Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts. But we also love Sococo. Sococo tries to simulate the office environment by providing a office layout which you can put your avatar on. We really love it. We also use Sqwiggle and appear.in for video chat. Lastly, we use Calendly as a meeting scheduler. It ties in with our Google Calendar and it’s saved us countless hours.

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

Before deciding whether to be distributed, ask yourself why? What’s your goal? Is it to cut costs? To gain time in your life back? To hire the best talent, regardless of where they live? Figure out what you’re trying to achieve and focus on it. You can’t do everything right the first go around, so figure out what’s most important to you and work to become the best at it. If you do that, I can almost guarantee you won’t regret your decision!

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.