James Governor's Monkchips

The Great Switch: distributed work first

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In my walking around the neighbourhood keynote for DevOps World in 2021 I said this:

The last 20-25 years has really been about the rise of distributed systems. The next 20-25 years is going to be the rise of distributed work.

Nothing has happened since then to change my mind, and evidence is growing that the last couple of years were indeed a watershed in the build out of the global, tech-driven economy.

This week I have seen some interesting commentary in that regard. Let’s start with San Francisco, a bellwether for my thesis. There is a deep irony at the heart of the idea that software is eating the world, first floated by Mark Andreesen in his 2011 essay. It has often seemed like software is eating the world, but it all must be conceived of and written in San Francisco.

More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services — from movies to agriculture to national defense. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.

“In more cases than not”… is doing a fair bit of work there.

While companies in SF and Silicon Valley built tools that allowed global access to information and services, which should indeed allow you to work anywhere, they generally really didn’t want their engineers and employees to do so – other than maybe sales and marketing people, who should of course be “close to the customer”. Everything is about “on campus” or in the office. That’s where the snacks, free meals and table tennis tables are at.

Apple built a vast donut cathedral to the idea of serendipitous meetings between employees.

You’d think that Slack, that ubiquitous tool for distributed work, would be all about working from anywhere. Not so much. Though the company bragged about its remote work bona fides as the pandemic hit, in truth it was a classic team in an office operation.

There are some exceptions to the rule – GitHub was famously a distributed organization and pretty good at this stuff. GitLab is properly a distributed organization. It’s perhaps no coincidence that both of these companies are building infrastructure that truly does allow the business of coding to finally be a distributed, asynchronous, process.

So what caught my eye this week? Some interesting chatter, some signal with some data.

Patrick Collison, Stripe’s CEO said:

In Q1 2019, 39% of Stripe’s hiring was outside Bay Area and Seattle. Last quarter, it was 74%. I think the rate at which tech industry is going global is still under-appreciated, and that this will be a big tailwind for the world over the next decade.

Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s CEO chimed in:

Same thing: In 2019, 48% of Cloudflare’s hiring was outside the Bay Area. Today it’s 90%. Our San Francisco office is our only office globally that shrank in 2021.

Another related conversation. Jaana Dogan, Principal Engineer at Amazon Web Services, had this to say] recently:

The number of senior people who can negotiate for Bay Area base salary levels while working from Europe is increasing. Maybe this will change the startup scene in Europe and US startup scene’s relationship with Europe dramatically.

For talented people like Dogan, optionality is increasing. She can live where she wants.

In truth the relationship between the US and Europe in terms of opportunity has changed markedly in the last 15 years or so. The VC scene in Europe is far more advanced. It’s a thing now. There are growing ranks of unicorn companies, being minted on a seemingly weekly basis. Startup culture is a given in many European cities now. And the quality of life is of course European, which is to say, really pretty good.

We’re seeing significant wage inflation in Europe, but also Asia, Australia and Latin America. The Pragmatic Engineer blog has some good data there.

US-based companies are investing in Europe very differently in 2022 than they were in 2011. Europe used to be business development, sales and marketing, with very little local engineering. Now engineering is happening here. Apple, Google and Amazon for example all have significant engineering presences in the UK, notably in AI and machine learning.

The joke about every hiring conversation ending in: “must relocate to San Francisco” just isn’t true any more. These changes were set in place before the pandemic. Now they’re in stone. We’re not going back to the world’s elite software engineers all living in one city.

A couple of things to add. This post has really talked about the increasing globalisation of tech, rather than looking at vertical industries, but the truth is, that Andreesen was right, all business sectors are now tech, software and service-driven. That’s a global phenomenon. As tech work becomes increasingly distributed, businesses globally also become increasingly digital.

It’s also worth arguing that how software people work and the tools they use increasingly become the norm for how people in other sectors work. The developer aesthetic is transferable. Slack is a good example, which started as a tool for software engineers, but is now used by everyone from digital agencies to law firms to automotive companies.

New companies are emerging to tap into new distributed working patterns. Take for example Remote, co-founded by Job van der Voort, ex-GitLab, which is literally all about remote work, global HR and payroll services. This week it hired one of the industry’s most talented (and funny) tech evangelists Cassidy Williams to run developer experience and education. New tools and platforms enable new ways of working.

So work is becoming more distributed, but so is opportunity.

I wrote recently about grassroots developments in Africa.

From my perspective the most interesting phenomenon here will not be what US companies bring to the table (and of course, take liberally from it), but what local businesses and developers do.

How about, say, Zambia?

Flutterwave and Chipper Cash, two of Africa’s most valuable tech companies, are part of a new group leading efforts to turn Zambia into a business haven for the continent’s startups, according to startup founders involved in the plans.

The Zambia Technology Sector Working Group is already in early talks with the country’s Ministry of Technology & Science to develop business-friendly legislation to support African tech companies looking to incorporate or operate from the country.

The world of work is changing, dramatically, and rapidly. My friend Eddie Jaoude recently upped sticks and apparently moved to Bali, taking his open source evangelism with him. YouTube works wherever you are.

RedMonk has always been a remote-first, micronational company. But Covid changed things significantly. I haven’t been on a plane in more than two years, and frankly. It’s been pretty great, apart from the Covid part obviously.. Never missing dinner with the family, always being there to read bedtime stories, and yet continuing to do great work for my clients, and work effectively with my colleagues. I want to fly less, to do great work from where I am, working from home.

A great deal has been made in the media about The Great Resignation, where people are reconsidering where and what they work for. I don’t think this phenomenon is just about employers, it’s about quality of life, and often about place. We want to choose where we live. And today increasingly we can. It’s exciting times.

Plenty of companies want everything to snap back to “normal”. Get back to the office! We need you on campus. You’ll be at a disadvantage if you work remotely! But because of global competition, and the war for talent, these negative noises are likely to fall on deaf ears. If you can make an excellent salary at a startup, with share options, and live in Porto…. that’s going to be preferable than Seattle for a lot of people.

So let’s close with Brian Chesky, founder of AirBnB, who, it, must be said, has a vested interest in remote work being a thing, but has certainly helped facilitate it. He says

Yup, the place to be was Silicon Valley. It feels like now the place to be is the internet (which is everywhere). I expect this trend to only accelerate.

So do I.

8 comments

  1. There’s no doubt that remote is here to stay. I’ve been part of fully remote companies (MySQL, Gatsby) and companies that had multiple hubs (Zendesk, Duo) and there is something to gathering people together in person that is more powerful than fully remote all the time. A lot of this depends on the individual and their need for focus balanced with socialization. Covid has made many things harder, but at least it is leveling the playing field for remote. That said, I miss working in person in an office with others. I think life is better with in-person camaraderie.

    1. i fondly remember your talk at the – i believe it was the inaugural Monktoberfest – Zack. so many great lessons and stories – there may have been saunas and birches, i certainly learned the favourite beers of some of the folks you’d worked. some of the best talks at our events have been about distributed work. I had a great GitHub talk on that topic for example at Monki Gras. I don’t want to travel like i used to, but of course there is something powerful about being in the room together. RedMonk has always been remote though – and arguably we wouldn’t have made it as long had it not been.

  2. […] The Great Switch: distributed work first (Redmonk article) […]

  3. Love your crisp analyses here James. Thank you.
    25 years seems like a pretty reasonable timeline for this shift to happen, as there are so many and such deep dependencies that needs to be managed. Timing, as always, will be key to navigate successfully in this shift as well. There are a lot of companies which pioneered distributed systems which are no longer around.

  4. I read this and believe there’s an awful lot of merit and truth in what you write James. Anecdotally, though, I believe larger employers, especially in London and especially in finance (I can only comment where I have some knowledge) are putting pressure on remote to be curtailed.

    The only thing I’d add to the premise of your article is a qualification: we in the digital parts of organisations are lucky that mobility and remote is even a debate. Most workers have no chance of working with a coffee and a laptop on a island of their choice.

    So when you say ‘the world of work’, I think it’s important to differentiate between those that can (work wherever) and those that can’t. Maybe it’s implied.

  5. Hey James, great post, and of course I have a lot of thoughts about this 🙂 I was fortunate to work for Chef at a time when the company made an explicit decision around 2013-2014 to become remote-first, so I saw the effects (both positive and negative) of that. One nuance that I think you could address is that the native working style of the firm matters less than where the power centers are. It’s no good if the default work mode for those not in the C-suite is distributed, but decisions aren’t made in a distributed fashion (the “you have to be at HQ for your voice to matter” problem).

    You’ll recall that San Francisco-based companies often ended up that way because of physical proximity to VCs — i.e. those who ultimately hold the power and control the purse strings. I’ll buy into the notion that distributed work and remote-first is really here to stay when I see an aggregate increase in the mean distance between lead VC(s) and company’s notional HQ increase. (It would be an interesting metric to track over time…)

    1. yes @julian VC proximity is very much a thing – luckily VCs are becoming more distributed too. London, Berlin, Miami etc would like a word.

  6. […] James Governor talks about the transition from distributed systems to distributed work. […]

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