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RailsConf 2019 - Communicate Like You're Remote by Eric Tillberg

Eric Tillberg
Software Engineer at TEECOM
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RailsConf 2019
April 30, 2019, Minneapolis, USA
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About speaker

Eric Tillberg
Software Engineer at TEECOM

About the talk

RailsConf 2019 - Communicate Like You're Remote by Eric Tillberg


This talk explores the benefits of purposefully choosing when to type and when to talk, using remote work as an example that promotes very different communication skills than in-office work. We will examine our default modes of communication (typing vs talking) and what biases they involve and then use that knowledge to talk in a more nuanced way about how to make the most of remote work and how to avoid the well-known pitfalls.

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Good afternoon. Have you ever had an idea probably in your head and you wanted to put it in someone else's head chances are that you have and this is called communication. We've all done it. We've all done it a lot and we're going to think about it a little bit today together for me communication is an evergreen idea of exploration because of the ambiguity and subjectivity involved in thinking about it what one person thinks is good or less effective communication those opinions differ, but that's my opinion about modes of communication

that we use and the Genesis of the stock Springs from my experience working on teams that are remote teams that are co-located bits in between what two different permutations and teams that worked remotely effectively and not so effectively so I would like to invite you to join me in exploring these observations and conclusions about modes of communication the first let me dress myself. My name is Eric tillberg. This is my biography written by a friend many years ago. I work for a company called tea, which is an architectural technology consultancy the

company however work on a rails up most of my time in the research and development department. I also work in a few other areas as well technology speaking wise the company is based in Oakland, California. However, I live and work in Durham, North Carolina. Before we jump right in I'm going to run to the road map of this talk quickly and we're going to start my commute by defining and adding a Lil Bit of nuance to what the communication modes are. They were concerned with today. And we're also going to go through what can go wrong if we

are unconscious to them or we just go with the flow about them. We're going to use two different approaches to think about the communication modes. And these are a more analytical approach and approach based on rules of thumb. You might find a after hearing some of this information that you think of a time when when you are staying with somebody or writings of somebody and you want to change your behavior. You want to change the way that you communicate with them. So we're going to talk a little bit about transitions of between communication modes and then we're

going to end with this click baby section, which is actually the grand apotheosis the conclusion that you're all here for. So these are the two communication modes that I'm concerned with that. I think dominate what we do when we communicate and it would be speaking and writing. We can think of a spectrum from the left hand side to the right hand side of the most spoken lead to the most writtenly modes and I'm going to use these made up words a little bit more and I'm not going to find them yet, but they will become less fuzzy at the

talk goes on. So as an example on the far left is actually speaking to people which is clearly a spoken communication station right is a synchronous. So it's not quite as she were in a body with a wooden me to speak to somebody then there is SMS, which is where the story gets a little interesting. You don't speak right. This is a text based system. But my point here is that you treated like you're speaking like a conversation. We jumped the Gap there and we get to email which is clearly written communication, but it can be sort of conversation only if it's a one-to-one

correspondence between people this read me is a stand-in for documentation in general which is clearly written and even more written lie than that on the far right? I have a stack of books. Just represent any kind of final written document like a legal contract or something or the final code. It doesn't get changed. This is the embodiment of a written artifacts in the most written Lee sense. We're going to talk about two tools that I know I use frequently and I imagine many of the rest of us do as well slack and GitHub and we're going to

see where do they fit in on this the Spectrum? What's up with you? And we're going to go to the source of all ultimate truth that we care about witches IRB or ask Ruby. What are the features that get hub off results? An answer is that we get issues we get pull requests we get Milestones bunch more of course, but my question is what's the thinking style involved in in these communications that we have any answers if they're all written. I think that makes intuitive sense where typing things were writing complete sentences to each other. That's the way it is. from the

Scituate get up here on the writing side is a little bit more writtenly than email but it's not quite the level of permanency as documentation might be So we can jump back into RV and ask the question of our other tool that were interested in today, which is slack. What teachers did we get here? We get presents channels. We get some sweet emojis get private messages. For example question. We have the same question with the thinking style involved with these features and I would answer. I'm sorry that Ruby IRB answer that it is a spoken style of communication.

So even though Flack is written in terms of its medium in terms of its mode the thinking style. I would say is a spoken kind of style situated here on the closest side to the writing style show slack gives you some ability to get close to written style kind of effective. And so that's the way of making it more a documentation type experience. You can connect documents and things that also have a sense of permanency that feel like more written things as opposed to the Morris spoken way that I tend to use black witches in terms of greetings and

short conversational tidbits. Are we going to interpret the spectrum that I have down here as the answer to a question of how easily we can convert what we're working with into documentation and documentation is sort of central idea in this talk and I would say it's worthwhile goal to strive for documentation by default or at least as close as you can get to it. So I would say the things on the far right are pretty much already documentation things on the far left are probably the most challenging to convert into documentation. They evolved translating it

into things further to the right. now I'd like you all to think about a time when communication went catastrophically or hilariously wrong and I'd like you to think about whether that time that you can think of when you're trying to give a communication whether the communication was spoken or written and if it might have helped you or help the communication in general if it were the opposite and start like you to turn to a neighbor and if you have a neighbor, you know, and maybe you don't know turn the one you don't know introduce

yourself. Give your name. I'm going to give it one or two minutes in which I'd like you to discuss this question. And then at the end of the time I will Mark The End by initiating a round of applause for our great conference organizers, very excited to be here. So, please thank you very much. Feel free to continue conversations afterwards if I you found them exciting and interesting. Now that we've all revealed each other with our entertaining and hopefully funny and possibly enlightening stories about the miscommunication or

imperfect communication. We're going to move on to the what could possibly go wrong section where maybe hopefully we're all convinced that there is a price to pay for choosing a sub-optimal communication mode. I think about extremes going to think about what happens in a world where we write nothing down and what happens in a world where we say nothing to each other and that might give us an idea of how things can go wrong. The first is if we write nothing down the obvious answer. He'll have the official documentation. You will have people on your team repeating things or do

things over and over again and the message getting lost or things getting forgotten and you basically you will end up having to reinvent knowledge or read the side on decision that could have been codified sometime along the path. So you end up with a lot of information and we can think of this as a variance on the game of telephone, which I'm going to illustrate Bruce Lee here we can imagine that a technical decision is being communicated between these two teammates. And so that I can go decision is the purple broccoli flies at noon. Great, you should be sure

to keep track of the hats that these phones are wearing cuz it'll be important later. We're going to say that nobody ruin anything down after this communication with the issue came up again. So the information was related to another team made and we have a clarifying question is are we working in Alma at that time, which is the time zone of Eastern Kazakhstan flight tracking app in case I wasn't clear and the others like no. No, let's just stick to UTC. Maybe it'll be easier.

So it happens a third time. The communication is given in this time. It's a revised communication of clarified communication and everything is hunky-dory, right? We could say it's no problem or they saying cuz according to Yelp. But one of the first telephone I asked you. Access information can be a function of social standing and oftentimes, we or other teammates can forget to invite teammates to important meetings that might be relevant for them. There might even be a personality type out there that frequently seems to get

forgotten. You might be this way. You might know somebody who fits this description. They might feel frequently out of the loop or like there's an inner circle. They're not a part of and we can help smooth out these unfortunate social dynamics by riding mower and I just more but in an accessible way where people know where to look to find what they're looking for. Now we can switch to if everything is written and nothing is spoken. You might suffer from a feeling of alienation on the team and sometimes people will doubt that actually even working with human beings and can

lead to a social loss on the team. Are you seeing this image before if you were here at the keynote, it's just a testament to how universally interesting and relevant to remains to all of us if we just names and avatars on a screen exclusively carrying out and goal-oriented tasks and Communications. I can feel dehumanizing not only that if we end up writing more because I think we only want to write a don't want to speak if it gets organized writing working even get counterproductive because I have a feeling that people have an aversion to clutter and so if you don't guard

against us by organizing your writing better people will devalue what's inside. I know I've experienced and maybe you have to a time when you think some documentation is old are outdated because it may not be just answering the perfect question that you're asking, but it might be more useful it if there was You can solve these problems by speaking more. So we see the problem is real and we would like to dig a little deeper into the communication modes themselves. And this is the part where we going to talk in an analytical sort of framework about

these mountains. We can territories are we can find characteristics for a modes that you was being written and spoken again and we can find out the goal here is to find out what each mode is best at conveying in terms of content. I would argue that writing is impersonal and speaking has a known Audience by contrast writing can be read by anyone. But when you are speaking, you generally know who you're talking to which might lead to a question in your mind, which is is what I'm doing right now speaking. It's also ties into what we heard this

morning from. Dhh, which is that I am speaking in my medium, but what I'm saying is a piece of writing and so it's not so much time doing a reading as she would have put it but I'm delivering my my writing and it's even more complicated because there is no such document as this speech in written form, but it's a written style of communication that I'm giving. Timer the point home even further we can notice that this is being recorded So has a permanency of writing. I don't actually know who my audience is not even in this room and certainly not whoever is watching elsewhere at other times

and has a monologue. This is not a dialogue which is an important part of spoken conversation. Another distinguishing thing between these two writing and speaking is writing is Hocus on the literal meaning of printed words on the surface and the writing lacks contextual clues that are generally president speaking these include things like body language facial expressions social vocal tone. And one point to point this out is that we have this funny sign which means sarcasm in writing. Why is it so hard to convey sarcasm is right in

in writing that we feel the need it sometimes on the internet to indicate this this weird faux HTML something rather. I would say that if somebody has to stay physically with her mouth. I was being sarcastic it probably means that the jokes failed. Writing can be more succinct and clear on the surface where I was speaking follows a less curated train of thought. So an example of this is if you look at a word-for-word transcript of the conversation, it can be kind of hard to understand what's going on unless you take away a lot of the detritus of words until you get this one looks

more like it was written and extreme and unfortunately, this is if you look at a transcript of something that mr. Trump has said without watching the video or hearing the sound it is literally in this not true for most people. This is a special case at least for me for my understanding of it is literally unintelligible many times to know what he was trying to say until I see the video I see the hand gestures. I see them hear the vocal tone that sort of thing. Another difference between writing and speaking is that writing lend itself or to permanent communication and speaking

as more ephemeral example of this who is the broad generalization that literate civilizations are more powerful than those that rely on oral tradition. This is not a value of the way that they express themselves. And so my conclusion here is that writing is better suited for technical decision-making and that speaking is better suited for emotional care taken will get back to that last one in a little bit. I would also argue the Beast to Encompass all communication. If you take emotional caretaking to be a

bit more expensive and what it covers then we tend to do which again we'll get to later on. We can also put axios on each of these and think of the idea taxis, like dials food example would be we may want to communicate something that should be permanent. So we're thinking okay. Let's write it down. But maybe there's an Unwritten context which makes me think maybe we should talk about it. It's a contradiction and it's a common type of contradiction was fine until we can't find an answer that will be a cure-all for that particular communication, but we know the trade-offs and maybe

compensate for what we lose in one communication by supplementing in another mode of the same or similar communication tall is an analytical way to approach the problem, but I wouldn't say that most people don't work analytically in day-to-day interactions. You don't want to memorize that chart and think of it every time you're talking to somebody or writing somebody So we might find rules of thumb to be helpful and four rules of thumb. We're going to lean on the well-worn nomenclature of coat smells and we're going to adapt it to communication second code that

indicate a deeper problem. These are not rules written in stone or even signs that you have a bug or a technical problem that will cause things to fail but again an indicator of some potential suboptimal aspects good news, which is that we're better at communicating than coding see for example, the first question that I asked we've been communicating since we were but babies we learned everything we need to know in kindergarten it's true. So what my goal here

is to to to do is to optimize what we already do by Instinct and social training. And I just got a little bit better at it and see how we can make a difference in our work product and our lives in general. Another Proviso I have to offer before I go into the communication to Roma's is that like coat smells these communication to Rumours rely on judgment. And so when you're communicating with someone you should definitely take into account your audience their relative position of power their Authority perceived or actual and their comfort level and your comfort level. So my advice here

relies on trust and without trust the proper mode of communication could drastically change from what I am proposing you might want to consider switching to hear. So that we're going to talk about these 7 questions that you can answer and that might lead you into one direction or another. The first two will take him in small bunches the first two might point you to writing and these are directly about documentation of the first one being if you think decisions are being made that's a great opportunity to establish a new document a new piece of documentation further to that. If

you are informing somebody or somebodies informing you, for example, that's a great opportunity to update documentation. You can make it more clear more complete more accessible and findable that sort of thing. It has to question our things ambiguous and this might lead you to want to speak instead of writing and ambiguity might come the form of you not understanding someone's question where they're coming from you think there is an important missing piece of share contacts between the two of you in that case. You may want to talk first establish where you're at relative to each

other and then proceed either continue to speak or maybe to establish the sun documentary evidence and artifacts. Next to how to do with repetition which true to what it is. I've already spoken about and whether you or your interlocutor feels something the repeated verbal Communications are very common and a further new ones on repetition is to ask yourself why you're saying it again, if it's for Pure repetition mean that you're simply conveying documentable information to somebody then maybe pointing at the Docks makes sense and that

it's doesn't need to be repeated but there might be an emotional function that you're unaware of in the so-called repetitions. We have to be careful of that in this instance where you might want to speak even though the information is repeated. For example, you might be welcoming a new team member and they may I ask you a question the answer to which is clearly in the docks. It still might be worth your while probably is to talk to them about it and express by doing that you express that you value their opinion. They're their knowledge all that good stuff. It may be hard

to recognize for number 5 that is if you or they feel something I missed depends on your emotional maturity. But some other question answer every question you can ask about if you feel something or if they feel something which might lead you to want to speak instead of writing. Is it ego Zara play or if power dynamics are in sharp relief of each other or their questions about career advancement or stagnation touching things like We can also ask is if either party is taking notes. And if so that is a sign the note taking is itself writing. But what's going on here

is your giving a spoken communication their writing it but you're not writing it like pros their writing it like notes, which means it's probably only going to be intelligible to them if them truly I barely shortly after I write them and then they should be edited perhaps and then turn the real writing will you could cut out a few of those middle steps and just write the thing start with a written thing let the other person respond with questions clarifications that sort of stuff and then proceed from there. And then the final communication Aroma is ask yourself. If

you're teaching or if you feel like you're being talked for example, and this I would like to differentiate am I teaching from am I in for me? I considering forming to be giving information or knowledge that is particular to your situation, whether your product situation your company's situation, your code bases situation teaching is more of this generic knowledge that people as they gain experience in a broad field for example might get is a large-scale under their belt sort of way. So when you think you're teaching where you think teaching is going on it's to me very important. I

think to ask the question of the learning style. My personal preferred learning style is to speak not to write so that's why I give this optional thing. If you think of the person you're talking to prefers to read something and perhaps that communication should go on in and writing. Otherwise, I can be spoken. So we've now gone through the communication room is and we can think about if you are finding yourself in a communication with somebody and you think there's a better way I'm writing but I want to be talking around talking and I want to be writing it can be a little awkward to what may

be perceived as abruptly stop a conversation and rerouted in a different mode. So excited that comes as a surprise the person you're talking to me. So we're going to go through a little bit of how you can do that gracefully and respectfully. In this transition section. The first is that we're going to move it. If you're honest with whatever station and you want to write something. The first thing to do is simply to ask and in asking what you can do. You can do your your friends. You're calling a favor by offering to write first. It's whoever writes the first thing is taking the first step out

of the comfort zone of the what was I've spoken conversation the results of that writing should be an issue in GitHub or equivalent to what you might use and something that you can refer to and build on as you go before I go to next line. I'm going to warn you have a lot of words on it. Don't read it perhaps you can't read it might be too small. So just as well. This is a spoken style discussion in flag. That's why we called spoken discussion not a written one and that's going it's getting deeper and deeper into technical weeds. What if we look at this bottom section we

can see that my colleague is offering two. Write something in a GitHub issue it in in a response from which we can take the conversation forward as I was a very gracious thing but that he did offer to reiterate what he saying here in writing. Not only that we have the documentation here that resulted from this which includes a link back to slack which is kind of a technologically unique thing we can do here where we can tie are speaking to a writing together into a more complete set of what might maybe someday become documentation type of material. Let's imagine that you're in

a written conversation with somebody and you want to take it to speaking in these cases. You might want to ask for meeting, but you should be careful about asking for give a reason for the meeting. It can be a little frightening especially if there are power or position Dynamics at play when somebody says let's just meet and you have no idea why you may have to be vague about it, but that's okay better to give a big reason. No reason at all. This is an example in a written format in GitHub where we're doing a portal Quest review. I think and my colleague here

is talking about some of the things that he wants to expand upon with the code. And I don't really know what's going on here on a technical level cuz this is a probation kotlin and I'm not that familiar with kotlin. So I detect a teaching or learning opportunities for me and I asked him. Hey, can I pick it up with you and Tara and I can ask my questions as we go because I feel that I don't think document documented evidence or artifacts of this interaction are going to be necessary to get my preferred learning style. Is it to talk hence the pairing session? A funny thing

about going from writing to speaking is that you may want to go take it back to writing again did Affleck conversation you find there are things that came out of the conversation that are worth documenting. It's definitely worth considering bring it back to writing Bus 36 All right. Now we're eating their vegetables. Do you want to click on the clickbait? Good, okay. What's the stock supposed to be about remote work? It is about remote work. Thank you for reminding me first review a little bit of Aleve looked at. We looked at this hyper analytical way.

It was not very useful in daily life. We've looked at this way application Aromas which may be a little more useful. But if I can't really go around talking to people thinking of these 7 Things is if this isn't that and so on and maybe even more mental work then I am eager to do. The answer that I would offer is that you pretend your remote if you are remote you embraced the remoteness and if you're not remote you pretend you remote and you respect those who are remote. It's a single Michael shortcut that gives a lot of the benefits of what we've been talking about for

free. There are dangers with embracing remoteness though and there are certain directions that I might push you in that taken to extremes if we don't guard against it can be unhealthy and can make real work live up that unfortunate stereotype that a lot of people, you know my new ride at 4. So we'll need to compensate for the successes. So the first thing to do is to write more that's been kind of a thread through what I've been saying is good, but it's good. We have to compensate by organizing our writing being better about that and that is a hard task. The second thing

is that remote gives you is it gives you more access to a public chat and a tool like slack for example is the way that you get this public chat. I can think of an example of a message you might send to your team and black. Would you stand up at your desk and Shout that same message in the office? Probably not somehow it's less obtrusive. If you're just in your chat box and people can read her or ignored engaged with it or not. So this technology gives you a nice middle ground and what might be considered the formality Spectrum where you can give a communication without

being too obnoxious and in either direction, However, when we were doing the chattanoogan in slack or something like this, we need to avoid private messages which doesn't mean don't do private messages. But what I try to do is always ask myself why if I want to send a message in private, why can't it be public to the team or to the company or whoever is in the slack and since the public and I find the private message I send are quite rare and you know that it doesn't get in the way the fact that I have more publicly readable by more people in the company

that I might. Otherwise if we were all in the same place. Listen example, which you can read his is a spoken conversation that contains no content. It's all just people being nice and good to each other in the morning and what another nice thing that gives you is this fretting option that under I think each of these messages there is a Fred that usually involve one or two people. So give you a semi-private feel without actual privacy. And in this instance, I'd say that's a good thing because it lets other people see what you're doing and they can jump in if

they want to or not if they don't but it gives you this one-on-one connection while still maintaining the the public room I'm a little technical information here in these spoken side greetings. I would say this is basis in my colleagues shaking hands and say how do you do? I think we all know what that means. Everything we do in our work in our relationship with other people professional and not is or should be in the service of Love Dakota Lee write the products that we create expresses love for our customers and users for a teammates and for ourselves as well

and the ironic in the documentation and the code itself that did we talk about is less important than the ephemeral less permanent communication. And so these documents and Technical discussion and decision-making vet that we can preserve its artifacts and all this is all just a means to an end. It might feel like an end cuz it is a lot of work but it's the means to the end and the end is more direct express verbally and brats and fortunately ephemeral d In this moment, we return

this is the higher need for all of us. And it's hard to talk about it directly and easily and this Talk itself is an example of insufficient attentions paid to emotional caretaking. I spent far more documentation blah blah blah and then I am here on emotional caretaking my goal here is that thoughtfully choosing your motive indication while it doesn't do the emotional caretaking for you. It gives you a shot. It opens up your awareness of your communication modes and how you're using it so you can use that knowledge

and be more purposeful about when you emotionally take care of each other and yourselves actually choosing. Your mode of medication is one way to manipulate your brain into being more open honest and loving so with this talk. I hope that I have open the door open the door, we all have to do the work and this is not sweaty work this work of conscientiousness to walk through the door. I'm trying to make a call. Aware of a choice that we always have when we're dealing with other people. So end on a final question. Would you please raise your hand if you are tired of

Comic Sans? You're welcome.

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