As a remote work product manager, adopt an internet-scale collaboration mindset

Learning from open source

The internet is good for crowdsourcing ideas, turning them into projects, and in some cases, even delivering actual products and services as a result. In particular, open source software technologies and open digital standards are examples of such initiatives, and have themselves driven the development of the internet itself. If these global-scale collaboration projects have turned out to be so successful, then we can probably learn a lot from them in the context of modern remote work.

And so that’s exactly what many for-profit remote companies leveraging open source are doing today. Their business models are built on delivering products that incorporate open source technologies. But their business operations also take many cues from the processes of open source projects, where contributors are working remotely from all across the world in different time zones, just like employees in a remote company.

A shift in mindset

In the context of product management, collaboration is totally transformed in a remote work setting. More precisely, if you are not changing your collaboration mindset (and thinking drives actions), then you will actually be going against the grain, and fighting against what is natural in your current habitat. Instead, consider how remote brings unique collaboration benefits, and try to lean into that.

This is where many novice remote product managers run into problems when they start a new job at a remote company (myself included when I joined GitLab in November 2016). Typically, they are concerned about the far-away aspect of remote. Their new co-workers are far-away from them often in space (geography) and in time (time zones). So they try to virtualize typical Agile ceremonies, such as daily standups, retrospectives, and demo meetings for stakeholders. There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach (and I will address these ceremonies in later articles), but the mindset is predicated on recovering traditional co-located product management processes in a virtual setting. They’ve been taught (and even personally experienced) that spending a lot time together leads to shared understanding of vision, problems, and goals, which in turn leads to good products. The fallacy here, however, is that your realm of collaboration is no longer a physical building, because you no longer have one. Your product development team and your stakeholders don’t fit anymore nicely in that mental image of an office building with folks dressed in business attire. You need to abandon that mindset, and instead, adopt one of internet-scale collaboration.

Your day-to-day co-workers, your company stakeholders, and your customers, can literally be anywhere in the world. You most likely communicate with them via the internet in some way. And so for that very reason, you should adopt an internet-scale collaboration mindset, because that’s exactly where your communication medium lies. Furthermore, the internet determines not just the where, but the when as well. That is, even though collaborators may not be in your same time zone, you can still work with them closely because of async communications (via email and other messaging technologies more broadly). In other words, as a product manager, you should be maximizing your collaboration opportunities. And since remote companies live on the internet in the truest sense, you should be collaborating on the internet natively, and have a corresponding mindset.

Customers are no longer second-class citizens

Every good product manager knows that connecting with customers (and users more generally) is critical for success. In traditional organizations, product managers are encouraged to “go out” and meet with customers. Especially in small startups, founders with good product sense are known to meet with individual customers early in the company lifecycle, because this seemingly non-scalable activity is important to get all the feedback that you can get. In co-located companies, product managers naturally shift their thinking (and maybe their physical location) when meeting with customers. They might leave their own office building, or stare into a customer’s conference room via a video call. That is, the customer’s physical surroundings is different from that of the company’s. With remote, customers are truly no longer second-class citizens from this respect, and you can incorporate their feedback with as little bias and noise as possible. Whether you are communicating with a co-worker or a customer, you are doing so probably with similar technologies, both over the internet. There’s no longer a stark difference. A customer becomes first-class collaborator, along with your other company stakeholders.

Use text because it scales

Text is an amazing communication and collaboration medium. Humans can parse text quickly, and thus information can be transmitted efficiently. The information density of text is also high, so it can be stored efficiently with modern technologies. Text can also be easily indexed and searched, so it can be retrieved and shared efficiently. These all combine to allow for async communication using text, so that collaboration can even happen across time zones. Text is the ideal form of communication on the internet, and it should be the preferred tool used by remote product managers to maximize collaboration, because it simply scales.

Use video to mitigate complexity

While text is the most native form of human-readable communication on the internet, it does have its limitations. Video often is a better choice to communicate nuance, and more complex problems and topics. Compared to all the benefits of text outlined above however, video fails spectacularly. Therefore, only use video when you have to, and make sure it is justified.

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