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The Remote Product Stack – The Discourse #10
To take you towards remote work nirvana
I started off my Product Management career in 2015 using Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop, and Email. Imagine using those in the current era in a fully remote setup. Yes, it would be a nightmare.
The world has since moved on to multiplayer SaaS apps. The remote stack that I use right now focuses on async communication (Level 4) and not just something that recreates the office experience online (Level 2).
Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, is a long time remote operator. He talked about the 5 Levels of Remote Work in a podcast with Sam Harris.
Even though most of the challenge in adapting to remote work is cultural, the path towards making this transition successful is through the tools you use. I’ll take you through the different use cases with each having their own prerequisites for success.
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In 2019, we conducted meetings on Zoom only with the US team; but now, since we are fully remote, all are meetings are exclusively on Zoom.
Video meetings allow two things: connecting people and facilitating team decision making. The features that enable this are — low latency audio/video, clarity, group calls, and screen sharing.
To closely simulate face to face conversation, you need to able to hear what the other person is saying and at the same time read non-verbal signals from facial expressions
Low latency and high clarity enable this, and Zoom does a great job at it.
When you run a meeting to make decisions, screen sharing becomes really important. Noting down action items becomes essential in remote meetings. (more on that later)
Two other reasons why Zoom has become really popular are the ease of joining a meeting (causing security issues during their explosive growth) and changing the background (a breakaway hit).
There are alternatives like Google Meet, Microsoft Team, Skype, Tandem. I’ve tried Hangouts and Tandem out of these. But they don’t offer the same simplicity and high quality that Zoom offers.
Around, a new app in private beta with an interesting feature set is worth checking out. It solves a lot of Zoom’s issues with echo, backgrounds, background noise, etc. Although I’m still waiting for my early access.
Docs / Async notes
Docs are an integral part of a fully-remote setup and especially if you’re across time zones. Writing clearly and concisely is a key skill at a remote company. These can be meeting notes, product specs, technical documentation, or any other documents that need to be shared.
What features work best for docs are once again real-time collaboration, feedback through comments, templates, wiki structure, interlinking of documents, and tagging team members.
While Google Docs does collaboration really well, it doesn’t support templates, wiki structure, interlinking of documents at all. Slite and Notion do all of this really well. I use Slite as it offers a generous free plan.
Docs are essential in a remote setup to memorialize institutional decisions. This can be asynchronously through specs, plans, PRDs, BRDs, etc. or through meeting notes.
For meeting notes — it’s best to run meetings while sharing the screen and writing down points of discussion on the doc directly. This ensures no duplication of work and at the same time, increases transparency in an organization.
For spreadsheet work, Google Sheets remains a gold standard. I haven’t used Airtable much, but the simplicity and versatility of Google Sheets remain unsurpassed.
In a remote setup, written communication is extremely critical.
Nothing is better than Slack right now for team communication. It’s the simplest way to communicate.
Although you should not rely solely on Slack to document decisions, since it’s a back scroller and not a wiki structure. Those should be stored in a permanent store like Slite or Notion.
For teams who have replaced Slack over email have found that their team members are spending most of their time in Slack. This brings back the point about async and batch communication. If you expect your team members to be prompt in replying at all times, they will not be able to get the work done.
Other alternatives are Microsoft Teams, Doist Twist, and others — but Slack reigns supreme.
Agile Project Management
Project or task management becomes more important when you’re relying on asynchronous communication. You can no longer go tap on someone’s shoulder and ask them what they’re doing. Everything is tracked in a project management system.
Key things to look out are the ability to plan sprints, commenting, reports, Kanban boards, and most importantly the speed of use.
We use Atlassian JIRA at our organization for planning and tracking sprints. Although I wish there were a better tool for Agile Project Management. JIRA is extremely bloated and sluggish to use. The creator of Gmail, Paul Buchheit, says that every interaction should be faster than 100ms to feel instantaneous.
Ideally, the app would be a combination of the best things about JIRA and Trello (both owned by Atlassian).
Clubhouse.io and Linear appear to be upcoming alternatives that are worth checking out.
We moved from Sketch to Figma mid-2019 and have never been happier. Figma has been a revelation to the design workflow. It combines the workflow of Sketch, Zeplin, Invision/Marvel into one seamless one.
It lives in the browser and is multi-player focussed. You don’t have to save and share Sketch files or PNG exports to get feedback. Multiple people can edit at the same time. It allows rapid prototyping and link sharing.
The common theme across all the apps is that they live in the browser, real-time editing, and collaboration through comments.
It has resulted in checking more apps than usual for comments. However, the upside is that the comments are completely contextual next to the content.
But when you’re not physically colocated, it is very important to focus on strong written communication over a series of meetings throughout the day.
You will face challenges while going from Level 2 (Recreating the Office Online) to Level 4 (Async communication). No doubt. But being aware of the 5 levels is the first step and using the right technology to enable that transition is the low hanging fruit that most organizations can achieve.
That's it for today. Did you like today’s edition? What is the stack that you use? Comment below and I'll be happy to discuss it with you.
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