Successful Tech Teams and the Superb DJ Set

The term disc jockey was first coined in 1935, referring of course to the phonograph discs that had become popular for recorded music. Forty years and dozens of musical genre shifts later, the Technics SL-1200 direct drive paved the way for turntablists, still concerned with round artifacts of engraved sound, but doing more live manipulation than just selecting and playing tunes.

Since then, it has come to signify any presentation of recorded music mixed for a listening audience. Drum machines and synthesizers snuck their way into the mix as hip-hop and house music were invented. The use of vinyl record “discs” morphed into Compact Discs and even cassette tapes and reel-to-reel mixing. Eventually, this led the activity of “DJing” into the most widespread application today: digital files played by any variety of control surfaces, from none at all to touch surfaces to spinning metal platters to full vinyl replicants that signaled transport controls to the playback system storing the file.

Building a set is another responsibility of DJing that is done in all kinds of different ways, with all kinds of different music, in all kinds of environments and settings. Whether you’re a radio DJ performing to an unknown audience or at a club holding up the dancefloor, there is an elegant methodology of diversity involved. Even when it’s a prescribed style, a lot of preparation goes into the Superb DJ Set.

What makes the Superb Set? I divide “the work of a DJ” into four basic categories:

  1. The homework of selection. What do I like or want/need to include? (materials)
  2. The spectrum of choice. What tracks make sense with what other tracks? (methods)
  3. The environment of creation. What is the setting and acoustics? (form)
  4. The flow of performance. What happens controlled in real time? (structure)

Regardless of medium (disc or no disc), DJs accomplish each step in different ways depending on who they are. It always involves the collection strategies, stylistic tastes, requirements of the event, attention to form and/or/not structure, personal goals (musical or professional), and the audience itself. The DJ may be a completely free improviser, an experimental sound artist, a wedding MC, a techno junkie, an EDM opportunist, a desert party space explorer, a masterful breakbeat juggler, or an underground house magician. I believe they all include some version of each of these categories.

Ready for this? The same tenets apply to building a Successful Technology Team. Compare:

  1. Homework. Who do I want or need to include on this team?
  2. Spectrum. Who has the right balance of talent that makes sense on this team?
  3. Environment. What are the requirements of the business?
  4. Flow. How does the team interact, collaborate, and ultimately deliver?

Just like the diverse history of DJs and music, tech teams span a vast range of expertise and function, not to mention approaches to organization. I’m talking about everything from day-to-day (or should I say, sprint-to-sprint) Agile teams and purpose-built developer tiger teams to “T-shaped engineers” on multi-functional operations teams and necessarily heterogeneous IT departments. Each of these individuals are like specific tracks on a record, the pieces of music themselves, expertly selected and set into sympathetic vibration and choreographing their own results. The audience is not only the customer but also product managers and project coordinators (not unlike event producers and organizers), and many other parts of the technology business.

In fact, where the DJ and the Technology Leader (let’s call them a ‘TL’) really intersect is diversity in construction and release of control. For example, the homework of the DJ might be crate digging or further exploration of known things online. The TL has the homework of digging into the talent pool and recognizing what they want or need on the team. Both are fraught with mistakes and hidden gems. The DJ selects a diverse spectrum of tracks to mix, while the TL should espouse diversity among teammates mixed together. The DJ’s venue is analogous to the TL’s workplace, what is needed not by the music/team but what shapes the work they do. Flow from track to track and section to section is no different from the team’s ongoing efforts to work together, match each others’ strengths, and support each others’ weaknesses.

The resultant similarity between a Superb Set and a Successful Tech Team is not really a tenet as much as it is the desired effect: the DJ/TL steps back and lets the music/team combine and take control. Once the DJ has prepared their set, when it is in full swing and engaging whatever audience, specific control is lost. External forces – like the energy of the dance floor, requests made by listeners, anomalies and failures in the sound system itself, or even just a scratch in the record – indeterminately affect the materials, structure, and flow. The Superb DJ is ready for these challenges, to help guide both the rules under which they operate and the engagement of participants involved to a harmonious and fulfilling goal.

If that’s not like building and running a great team, I don’t know what is. We deal daily with interruptions and unknowns in running software on distributed networks. Humans are humans, and like scratches in records, they can cause mild-to-severe issues within the team. Requests made by product (or other) managers can interrupt, company events will necessarily intertwine, and unforeseen losses of momentum and energy can mean nobody is dancing anymore.

Sometimes as a DJ I will buy a record because I like the sound or the album art or even just the composer’s name, only to find that its BPM doesn’t match anything I own, or its sound is too harsh to really use in a public setting. It is why it is crucial not to only consider one of the four tenets, but to carry the desire for something great as a thread through each phase of the approach. Intuition is good, but also including close evaluation and clear decision making is better. In that sense, careful listening and observation is as important in musical interpretation as it is managing diverse human personalities and lifting them be successful technology leaders themselves. It might be true that everyone is a DJ because they can just “press play”, but the Superb Set – and the Successful Tech Team – is the reachable dream.

The Shocking Before and After of Remoteness

I was once employed at a startup whose attitude about remote workers had begun to retrograde to the point where even simple tolerance of the practice became a hot point. Leadership was known to stroll through offices and make comments about how they didn’t see butts in seats, even frequenting some facilities on early morning Fridays just to scoff at the emptiness of the expansive “open floor plans” where interruptions and distractions were kept at a maximum. Human Resources went as far as to craft a strict remote worker policy, and included a very unpopular (and I think ultimately struck down) requirement of being in the office during “banking hours”. Multiple times, as both a senior engineer and hiring manager, I hit roadblocks with remote employee hires – really good ones. In fact, working from home became a privilege that had to be approved at the executive level.

Hard to believe I’m talking about a startup in the 21st century, isn’t it?

In Remote Worker: A Primer I gave an introduction to my rich history as a remote employee and included some tips on how teams can make it successful. So as egregious as this all sounds, I would rather move beyond the ranting and finger-pointing. I want to talk about health.

Soon after leaving said company, I happened to mention to a close friend on IRC about how my gastro-intestinal problems seemed to have subsided since I left. To my surprise, he mentioned exactly the same thing happening after a similar experience and then said a friend of his also made the same comment after leaving a stressful company situation. We were all victims of being in distress and not understanding why. Frankly, I thought it was tomato sauce.

So yeah, stress is weird. You cannot always identify it, sometimes until it’s too late, or when its sources have disappeared. It physically manifests in the weirdest places, so that you feel like you must be wrong in some other way… how could what seems like only an extreme mental condition cause such extreme physical distress?

I first recognized this effect when a manager (not my supervisor) at different startup came up to me to rail about some random technology decision, I can’t even remember what it was. The change was Hulk-like. I immediately flushed, I could feel the heat rising to my head, my ears start itching, eyes water. This person leaves after 5 minutes of ranting at me and I look down and I’m literally covered in hives.

I also used to have long, work-related nightmares featuring whatever employee or edict was brightest in my cranial heat-map at the time, and my feet would start intensely itching while I slept. The next morning I awoke covered in hives. This constant nagging of the itching would put me into weird fugue states where my mind was making strange abstract logic connections to my physical state, holding me in this kind of cognitive limbo where I wasn’t deeply sleeping but nowhere near awake, and not dreaming.

So I finally jumped.

I decided to take control of my career. For too many years after the first “DotCom Bubble Burst”, I felt like I was faking it. Good at what I set myself out to accomplish, but ultimately held back by one ceiling or another. Not always, but often enough, times felt rough and constantly churning under the whim of forces I could not control. I wanted to be an influencer and craft things, expand my learning, and contribute to the Earth.

Innovating technology work on a small, highly senior, and highly intelligent remote engineering team was exactly what my body needed. For the first time in years, I am regularly getting a good night’s sleep. Surprising considering the intensity of work and entire estates of new knowledge that I am now experiencing.

It may not seem obvious, but I discovered part of my stress was actually anticipating the alarm going off in the morning. I don’t need to make a train departure time for a 90-minute commute, the morning ritual is not rushed and haphazard, but I maintain it. I feel human waking up in the morning, and ready to conquer (no small amount of thanks to my spouse and partner in life, because our tiny house has now become my tiny office, too).

Look, I barely have room in my psyche to handle the anxiety of my personal world, much less my professional one. When there is stress on both sides, they feed off each other, self-amplifying in a torrential loop, difficult to break. Getting to a place where I can be myself and completely kick ass at what I do gives me the strength to handle stressful situations and not be stressed about them.

The chronic GI problems I used to have are no longer. I’ve lost weight. I get hives only from real allergies, physical things I can avoid (although you can argue I now eschew the mental ones as well). My relationships are closer, and it is invigorating to feel more connected to my local community. I’ve been energized to finish DIY builds and even record new things. Plus, I finally feel like I can make room – in time and thought – to write.


The flowers sort of peeked
out of the tops of glasses.

They appeared to be in water,
surviving only because the tender kept them wet.

Their smell wafted across the corner of the bar,
hint of basil, tarragon,
a combo that seemed like the mix
of bergamot and chocolate.

The color of the green leaves
almost sparkled in the setting sun,
as beads of new water drifted
across the cool curve of the tiny hurricane glasses,
spilling moisture onto the slick marbletop,
infusing the counter with diamonds
as the air lifted scent across and over
a weathered,
finely carved

Her bolo tie hits the edge of the next drink poured
as surely the color of rye
emblazoned the clean stretch of night.

Inside, a bebop band sounded simply
mingled into the cacophony,
blurring the distraction between noise and structure,
its improvisation almost composed
as if the score called for a freely improvised crowd.
Those sound their tones,
the keys and metal with a sincerity
of wanting this crowd to join them
inside the music.
Sleeping for nothing.

It was beside the books at the window
where the plants were held in suspended existence,
the last bartender told him:
“I got a whole bunch of these,
as much as you can fit in a bag for a dollar,
right over at the farmers market.”

They looked rejuvinated,
as if they had just been pulled from the ground,
still tendrils of rooty structures veering into the water,
searching for soil.

Infusing them relives
into a redic sward be by thanks,
lovers, cheaters, brothers,
sisters, and murderers.
So close to death,
but so much hanging onto life
due to one guy who,
before leaving his shift,
carefully filled each glass to sustain
the illusion of longevity,
only to be consumed.

Eventually the smells of the city
drifted in through the glass-paned doors,
mingling with dozens of body scents,
various plumes of sharp liquor,
emulsifying cloud of perfume and stinging cologne.

Still he sat,
looking over the tops of books,
instructions for a living wage,
maps and legends to guide the patrons
(or even the hosts)
through the evening.

Across the way,
a fire twinkling,
gaslamps glowing,
trailing lights and sexy street waving,
somewhat of a corner,
and then wind.

(August, San Francisco, 2018)

WUMC 1998: Mother of Invention

I’ve been clearing out shelves and digging through old notebooks, and came across this steno pad from the summer of 1998, exactly 20 years ago. I lived in the northern suburbs of DC, worked as a graveyard shift unix system administrator at a datacenter company called Digex, and hosted a radio show for two years while I studied in graduate school as a vocal student and specialist in experimental vocal music and opera performance. These were also the years I was heavily entrenched in the mid-Atlantic free improvisation and experimental avant-garde music and noise scene.

As an undergrad I hosted an early morning (6-9am) show on WUVT that was all about experimental music and jazz, something the station didn’t have, and wanted to carry that tradition on in grad school. Naturally, it was at the U of Maryland that I hosted an experimental music radio show on WMUC, called “Mother of Invention”.

The notebook flips between esoteric sysadmin notes, network architecture doodles, scribbled passwords and my radio playlists from the show. I will spare you the chicken scratch of Sun hardware, kerberos, RAID, nfs, mysql (yep, it existed back then) and T1 interface notes… let’s focus on the playlists!

Below you’ll find my complete playlists from this summer, from around July 2018 sometime into the fall, because like an idiot I was horrible at notating dates back then but some pages do have them. Originally I thought, hey! I should do each as a single blog post… but then I figured it’s much better as a single reference, because social media is great at hiding sequentially updating things.

I hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and learn to enjoy some incredible music that is just as interesting and groundbreaking today as it was 20 years ago.

— July 27, 1998 —

  1. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Overture
  2. Heikki Nikula (Jarmo Sermilä) : Danza 4B
  3. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Tomkins Square (3 parts)
  4. Jarmo Sermilä (Miklos Maros) : Manipulation Vbis
  5. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Booty Dance
  6. Jerry Hunt : Transform (stream): monopole
  7. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : I Love You So Much
  8. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : As Momentums Go By
  9. Eve Beglarian : Disappearance Act
  10. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Recitative: Trombone, Guitar, Harp & Drums
  11. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : So Noble and Kind He Seemed
  12. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Clockworks
  13. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Now and From Finale Part One
  14. Arvo Pärt : Berliner Messes Kyrie
  15. Arvo Pärt : Berliner Messes Gloria
  16. Arvo Pärt : Erster Alleluiavers
  17. Arvo Pärt : Zweiter Alleluiavers
  18. Arvo Pärt : Veni Sancte Spiritus
  19. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Introduction Giovanni’s Dream
  20. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Immitations
  21. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Upshifting on an Upgrade
  22. Heikki Nikula (Markus Fagerudd) : Ingrepp I
  23. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Spontaneous Navigation
  24. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : ‘Til the Cows Come Home
  25. Ellsworth Milburn : Menil Antiphons
  26. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : T. Sq. Reaggitated
  27. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Desolution
  28. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Z Gate To A Void
  29. Frederic Rzewski : Jefferson
  30. Morgan Powell : Alone
  31. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Carnival
  32. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Epilogue
  33. Jarmo Sermilä : Pois
  34. Jarmo Sermilä : Tango macabre
  35. Jarmo Sermilä : Urbanology 7

— August 3, 1998 —

  1. John Cage : Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, 3rd part
  2. Morton Feldman : Piano Piece (for Philip Guston)
  3. Allen Anderson : Klava in Strada
  4. Heikki Nikula (Timo Hietula) : Strutsi Ostrich
  5. Zeena Parkins : Scruples
  6. if, bwana : 3 out of 4 (Ain’t Bad)
  7. Jarmo Sermilä : Contemplation I
  8. Chris Brown : Wheelies
  9. John Cage : Fourth Interlude / Sonata XIII
  10. Michael Kowalski : Vapor Trails
  11. Jim Staley : Roast the Bird
  12. Jim Staley : Sunny’s Halo
  13. John Cage : Song Books (performed by Comma)
  14. Edward T. Cone : New Weather
  15. Stewart Saunders Smith : Wind in the Channel
  16. David Mahler : Rising Ground
  17. T.A.S. Mani : Konnakkol

— August 10, 1998 —

  1. John Cage : Sonata V
  2. William Thomas McKinley : Curtain Up
  3. Charles Ives : March: “Here’s to Good Old Yale”
  4. Arnold Schoenberg : Serenade, Op. 24 – Marsch, Menuett
  5. Bela Bartok : String Quartet No. 5 – Schertzo: Alla bulgarese
  6. Philip Glass : Rubric
  7. Lukas Foss : Baroque Variations: On a Bach Prelude “Phorion”
  8. Iannis Xenakis : Echange
  9. Mestres-Quadreny : Música Per A Anna
  10. Larry Polansky : Movement for Andréa Smith
  11. Morton Feldman : Piano Piece 1955
  12. David Mahler : Cup of Coffee
  13. Kenneth Gaburo : Antiphony III
  14. Ton Bruynel : Serene
  15. if, bwana : Flute Thang
  16. Stuart Saunders Smith : Family Portraits: Brenda
  17. John Cage : Etudes Australes: Book 1, #5
  18. William C. Banfield : Wagussyduke
  19. Tom Trenka : Watch… Wait
  20. Mike Vargas : Stripe: 2

— August 17, 1998 —

An all John Cage show:

  1. Five Songs for Contralto
  2. First Construction (In Metal)
  3. Forever & Sunsmell
  4. Tossed as it is Untroubled
  5. Root of an Unfocus
  6. Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata XVI
  7. Sixteen Dances: No. 15 (The Erotic)
  8. String Quartet in Four Parts: slowly rocking
  9. Music of Changes: Book I & II
  10. Concert for Piano & Orchestra
  11. Aria
  12. Cartridge Music
  13. Cheap Imitation (I)
  14. Song Books: Solo for Voice 49 & 67
  15. Sonnekus2
  16. Four6
  17. Fourteen

— August 24, 1998 —

  1. Elliot Miles McKinley : Summer Portraits
  2. Eve Beglarian : Disappearance Act
  3. Philip Glass : Freezing
  4. Alexis Alrich : Night Air
  5. John Bischoff : The Glass Hand
  6. David Tudor : Rainforest (Version I)
  7. Gavin Bryars : The Sinking of the Titanic
  8. Joseph Celli : 36 Strings
  9. Lisa Gerrard : Celon
  10. Richard Einhorn : Voices of Light
  11. Richard Einhorn : Victory at Orleans (Letter from Joan of Arc)
  12. Italian Instabile Orchestra : Satie Satin
  13. Italian Instabile Orchestra : Fellini Song
  14. That Nothing Is Known (John Berndt) : Improvisation 6
  15. Spin 17 (Ed Chang) : Mirror mirror on the wall…
  16. if, bwana : Ellensbirds
  17. Shelley Hirsch / Ikue Mori / David Shea / Jim Staley : Ulula Zone
  18. Christian Marclay : Neutral

— September 1, 1998 —

  1. David Weinstein : Poland
  2. J. A. Deane & Martin Schütz : Sounds from the Third Stone
  3. Kenneth Gaburo : The Wasting of Lucrecetzia
  4. Roger Reynolds : Blind Men
  5. Richard Einhorn : Voices of Light: V. Pater Noster
  6. Krzysztof Penderecki : Utrenja: The Entombment of Christ
  7. Philip Glass : Dance #3
  8. John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: XIV & XV
  9. Morton Feldman : Extensions 3
  10. Mike Vargas : Diads (Part 1)
  11. Iréne Schweitzer : Unexpected Demand
  12. Nick Didkovsky : The Twittering Machine: Little Jester in a Trance
  13. Leo Kupper : Guitarra Cubana
  14. Miklós Maros : Manipulation Vbis
  15. Eve Beglarian : The Garden of Cyrus: Sections IV & V
  16. Circular Firing Squad : Inertialess Drive
  17. Lowell Cross : Three Etudes for Magnetic Tape
  18. Pauline Oliveros : Beautiful Soap

— September 8, 1998 —

  1. Doug Cohen : On a fait partout crier
  2. Matt R Davis : Satchel Spilleth Peas
  3. John Cage : Etudes Australes #9
  4. John Zorn : Carny
  5. William Thomas McKinley : Curtain Up
  6. Sofia Gubaidulina : Chaconne
  7. Olivier Messiaen : Quartet for the End of Time: Liturgie de Cristal
  8. Sofia Gubaidulina : String Quartet No. 4
  9. Philip Glass : Einstein on the Beach: Act III/i (Trial/Prison)
  10. John Cage : Europera 5
  11. Luciano Berio : Sequenza III
  12. György Ligeti : Nouvelles Aventures
  13. Eve Beglarian : Disappearance Act
  14. Norman Lowrey : Dreaming/Weaving (river/stars)
  15. Eirik Lie : 112 Par Sko
  16. Colby Leider : Veni Creator Spiritus
  17. Guy Klucevsek : Sylvan Steps
  18. Bill Frisell : April 16, 1988

— September 15, 1998 —

  1. Laurie Anderson : Maria Teresa Teresa Maria
  2. John Adams : Bump
  3. Robert Gibson : Ex Machina
  4. Larry Moss : Timepiece
  5. Stuart Saunders Smith : Notebook
  6. Toru Takemitsu : All In Twilight
  7. Karlheinz Stockhausen : Set Sail for the Sun
  8. Malcolm Goldstein : A Summoning of Focus
  9. Morton Feldman : Voices & Cello
  10. Robert Ashley : Improvement (Scene 18)
  11. Henryk Górecki : Miserere
  12. Igor Stravinsky : Abraham and Issac
  13. John Adams : Tourist Song

— September 22, 1998 —

  1. John Berndt : Improvisation #5
  2. David Behrman : A Traveller’s Dream Journal
  3. György Ligeti : Glissandi
  4. The Hub : Waxlips
  5. John Cage : She is Asleep
  6. John Cage : The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
  7. Henry Cowell : The Banshee
  8. Henry Cowell : Aeolean Harp
  9. Iréne Schweitzer : Unexpected Demand
  10. John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata I
  11. Steve Reich : Tehillim: Part III
  12. Meredith Monk : Volcano Songs: Duets
  13. David Hykes : Hallelujah
  14. Comma : Corduroy Piano Dream
  15. Luciano Berio : Circles: n(o)w
  16. Brian Smith : The Panther
  17. Howard Rovics : Tangere
  18. Pauline Oliveros : A Woman Sees…
  19. Mike Vargas : Zone: High
  20. Trigger : Windows
  21. Herbert Henck : Hymmstrom the Great Temple: Hymn 1
  22. Arnold Schoenberg : Five Pieces for Orchestra
  23. Stewart S. Smith : Hawk
  24. William Schuman : Orpheus with his Lute

— September 29, 1998 —

  1. Ellsworth Milburn : String Quartet No. 2
  2. Igor Stravinsky : Concertino for String Quartet
  3. Larry Polansky : Movement for Andréa Smith
  4. Béla Bartók : String Quartet No. 4 (IV-V)
  5. John Fonville : Many Songs
  6. Howard Rovics : Cybernetic Study
  7. Stuart S. Smith : Gifts
  8. Iannis Xenakis : Kraanerg
  9. John Cage : Concert for Piano and Orchestra
  10. Philip Glass : Prophecies & Rubric
  11. John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata I
  12. Morgan Powell : FFFF
  13. John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Etude V
  14. Morton Feldman : Extensions 3
  15. if, bwana : Mal Air


Remote Worker: A Primer

I am the nerd who annoyed you as a roommate because I always had the phone line busy dialing into BBSes when you were pounding cheap beer to “jump up jump up and get down” in the living room, while I searched Usenet for pirated software and other nefarious files, loving the thrill of connecting to a different reality.

I am the music major geek at a largely engineering-focussed university that sat for hours at the library VAX/VMS amber-toned terminal using raw telnet to log into MUDs and MOOs, attempting RPG challenges, having “virtual sex” and all other kinds of things, collaborating on tracks, partying together as a community IRL, and creating some of the strongest friendships I have today.

I am the underground file sharing maven, exploring an entire world of both listening to and creating music that I only know through meeting people on Hotline and IRC. It’s also very likely I would have never experienced fly fishing without them.

One day while working on the music department gopher server on an Apple LC running MacBSD, I learned about the “talk” command, and was amazed that such an operating system could connect me directly to someone on a computer in the UK. Even though I had been on MUD/MOO and BBS for years, I remember it making a big impression on me. It gave me a sense of independent worldliness, where I did not need any one of these tools to communicate immediately with people across the globe. I glimpsed a world of opportunity unfolding before me.

Getting into BSD got me into ACM, among even more people who spent the majority of their social life as avatars that comprised a “cyber self”. There was no Facebook, no graphical social media at all. Even so, throughout all these online platforms, I began to think of myself also inhabiting a “cyber world” in addition to the analog world. Not only that, as I spent more and more time online, my typing got better and better! I absolutely account my strong typing skills to being so involved in text-based social networks. There is an inherent creativity in needing to use only words to communicate, Twitter’s character limitation always reminds me of an early high school English assignment to “write an entire story in one sentence”.

Indeed, I got my real start in my current career by being heavily involved in these tools. From the very beginning, the idea of being remote and collaborating with people in different locations and time zones has been ingrained in my work approach. This style of communication became a distinct part of me. Not only were programming languages important, but so was an attention to human language itself. I already wrote a lot of poetry, so the transition to interactive wordsmithing was not too far a jump. At AOL, where I worked in a real office but remote to HQ (then in Virginia), you were considered “in the office” by being present on AIM.

This isn’t to say there aren’t face-to-face interactions. This is a crucial part of making remote employees work, there has to be some intersection of in-person human contact. This could be weekly or monthly or more, but in my experience even a one-time visit with a remote collaborator/employee/colleague/friend can make a universe of difference in understanding how to work with them. You’ll notice in my lineage as a “cyber personality” I often mention in-person interactions, it is always an important part of it, even though it may not happen very often (that said, I have known people who were married online without ever having met in-person).

Companies where I’ve been employed have always had a mixture of in-office and remote, and while some do it naturally and consider it a core value, others cannot seem to gain any consistency. Regardless of whether it’s a nearly 100% remote situation, multiple offices separated by both distance and time zone, or a small population of great employees external to headquarters, the company culture must embrace it.

One enemy of this approach is the “open floor plan”, which is closely related to the other enemy: unintentional locality. When a team is distributed, the entire team needs to be a part of what the team discusses and decides. When there are concentrations of that team in any one place, there is a tendency to make decisions and communicate planning to only those who are local. In database operations, we call this “split brain”, and it can have catastrophic results; one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing, even if it’s the same thing.

Anything at all that feels like a team-wide thing should be taken to your distributed team tool set. I’ve found that it feels much more natural to default to this behavior if you also socialize on the same tools. Just like you’d joke around or share some knowledge in person, do it in chat. Make it a habit that it’s the first place you turn. In fact, I have even found that text-based chat tools surmount language barriers. There are former colleagues of mine who spoke terrible English, but had a much better command of it when typing, so I would much prefer having a conversation in chat than otherwise.

I might be a special case because I have been insufflated with the concept of working with people remotely since before the “web” even existed. Nevertheless, I believe it can be a learned skill, and it doesn’t have to be entirely chat-based either. Collaborative video and whiteboard solutions exist nowadays as well. Regardless of the tool, what it does take is commitment to making it work, threading it into your company culture and not treat remote employees as exceptions that become a second thought. The first thought should be: how are we making sure we’re inclusive and communicating well?

What will happen if you don’t do this? Remote workers will feel unloved, uninformed, and cut off. You will lose good people and not be able to hire more. The perceived trouble with communicating with them actually extends from not planning on supporting that style of communication from the beginning. I would go as far as making this part of the interview process, even on the job description. Underline that collaboration with remote workers is necessary and required, and the company supports this paradigm as part of its culture.

In at least one case I have witnessed a company go the opposite direction. Praise was handed down multiple times that the advantage they had was that everyone was under one roof, and agile teams can work more closely together. This attitude went un-checked and un-corrected, which gives remote workers – even in large remote offices – the feeling of exclusion. There must have been some sense that a successful distributed company will “just work” by nature of it already containing remote workers, but that’s not enough. You have to go the extra mile to make it happen, you must foster a culture of inclusion and respect for remote employees. This is one thing you cannot half-ass and “just see if it works out”; commit to it working, and it will.