March 26, 2020

Collaboration in a #WFH World

Stack Overflow, an online Q&A community for developers, has a clear #WFH advantage—they’ve operated with a largely remote workforce for over a decade, and they’ve done it well, simultaneously growing their business and earning a spot on numerous Best Developer Website lists. That’s why, in response to COVID-19, they’ve made it their top priority to share their #WFH best practices and anticipate the challenges that more traditionally in-office businesses may be facing.

On this week’s episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite, we’re joined by Khalid El Khatib, Stack Overflow’s VP of Marketing, to discuss the things companies can do to not just keep their teams connected, but to continue collaborating and innovating as they work from their new home. Tune in to hear his well-informed take on virtual socializing, the future of events, and the wealth of resources and tools available as we navigate a virtual world.

Useful Resources

Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Khalid El Khatib

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers. I’m recording this episode from home and I’ve already had four takes on the intro. Clearly, I am flustered. This is the situation that most of your employees are feeling and maybe you are too. We’re working from home and we’re trying to deal with it. There are lots of issues that we as leaders of our departments or organizations need to be thinking about that we didn’t have to think about just a couple of weeks ago. To help me think this through is Khalid El Khatib, who is the CMO of Stack Overflow. Stack Overflow is a community and a company that has been focused on the developer market for a long time, starting out as a blog, and what’s interesting about this market is that developers were on the forefront of working at home early and working remotely early. I thought it’d be interesting if Khalid and I talked about that subject so, Khalid, welcome to the show.

Khalid El Khatib: Thanks for having me.

Drew Neisser: Phew, that was hard. Just getting through the intro was hard. I imagine there’s already some challenges for you because you don’t always work from home, right?

Khalid El Khatib: I don’t. Stack Overflow is headquartered in New York with about 260 employees all over the world, but I work in New York with most of the senior leadership team. I’ll work from home if there’s a doctor’s appointment that I have or something in my apartment needs to be fixed, but I spend most of my time in the office, so this has been an adjustment for me as well.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. I had to set up a whole new rig at home to make it work and wait until the end of the day when it was actually quiet to record when my wife was taking the dog out for a walk because otherwise, he would want to join the show. I’m imagining that you’ve had to make some adjustments as well.

Khalid El Khatib: I have. I think everyone is different and we’re taking the situation that we’re all in one day at a time. But for me, it’s less about the physical space. A lot of the challenges for me are more psychological. As you’re working in marketing and communications, you tend to have this “always-on” mentality and so what I’ve struggled with, and I think a lot of people are struggling with as well, is waking up, starting the day, and then closing the computer at the end of the day when your computer is yards or feet away from you at all times.

Drew Neisser: That is certainly one of the areas that I want to focus on in this episode because I think this is a subject that you as a CMO, all the CMOs listening and your employees are going to be feeling. You literally have to create a new routine. We used to get up, get ready, brushed our teeth, had our breakfast or not, and then we had our commute and got to the office. Then the day began, the workday began. Now, you’re absolutely right, the workday begins the second you wake up. What I been reading a lot is—and I’m sure that some of the developers you’ve worked with have figured this out a long time ago—you need a new routine.

Khalid El Khatib: I think that’s true. You definitely need a new routine because our reality has changed, but we shouldn’t sacrifice or give up our old routine entirely. That’s advice that I hear from all of my colleagues who have been remote for months or years, which is good news for you. It means that everyone should keep listening to their favorite podcasts even though they’re not taking the subway or driving or running to work. It means that you should get dressed every morning and brush your teeth. You shouldn’t necessarily take all your calls in sweatpants, as tempting as that might be, and I think that one of the reasons that I’m on the podcast with you today, and where I’m getting a lot of this advice from, is because Stack Overflow has been remote-first for a long time. Our company, before we went fully remote on March 9th, was 40% remote already, so when we made the decision as a leadership team to go remote, one of the very first things that happened is all that of our remote colleagues invited us into a Slack channel, “Office Remote” is what it’s called, and they started peppering us with best practices and tips almost immediately. Someone on our people team consolidated it all into a doc and we got smart faster than most people were able to.

Drew Neisser: Wow. Well, a couple of things come to mind. One, would you be willing to share that doc with the audience? I’d love to link to it from our show notes if you can make that public.

Khalid El Khatib: We’re actually one step ahead of you. We recognized that there was an opportunity to get some eyeballs on our blog, but also that we wanted to lead by example. We recognize that people here are really struggling, and if there’s an opportunity to help them and lend expertise, we want to do that. We turned that document into a blog that not only shares tips and best practices on working from home but also shares some of the tools that we use to stay connected since we have employees all over the world. <Working from home tips from our experienced remote employees>

Drew Neisser: I want to talk about some of the basic tips before we get into the tools. The first couple of days I was working on the couch, but that gets old fast, so I went upstairs where we happened to have a good work chair that supports my back. I’m curious, what were some of the tips from the folks on your team who have been doing this for a while that surprised you or that you hadn’t thought about?

Khalid El Khatib: One thing that’s important to recognize is that these are highly unusual circumstances. I think if you accept a job offer somewhere and it’s fully remote, you would approach that situation differently than you would the situation we’re in today. It’s not feasible or realistic to order a new chair from Steelcase or an incredible standing desk that will be shipped to you in a matter of days. I think the reality we’re all grappling with is that, to some extent, we have to make do with what we have. The one thing that I think we can all practice that I’ve heard from my colleagues is that working out of your bed or on your couch is not really a best practice. It’s going to negatively affect your sleeping habits and it’s probably going to hurt your back. Having space as far away from your social or relaxing space as possible is certainly important.

Drew Neisser: A lot of things like that are coming to the fore and I encourage all of you, if you haven’t already, to do a quick #WFH search because all sorts people are coming up with innovative standing desks. I saw one woman who had stacked the toilet paper on the sink in her bathroom and that was her standing desk, and I saw others that had taken the giant cases of water because, you know, everybody’s hoarding everything, so they’re taking advantage of the stuff they’re hoarding and putting it on a washing machine. There are some clever solutions out there and another part of this is that there’s an opportunity to get everybody feeling connected. Sharing those stories internally is really, really important. I’m wondering if you all are doing that now and if you’re having more video conferences with your dogs or kids joining the meeting.

Khalid El Khatib: One of our long-standing principles of being such a remote company for so long is that if one person is remote on a call then everyone’s remote. If we had a meeting of 10 people on the marketing team, for example, and 8 of them are in the office, but one is in Denver and one is in St. Louis, we’ll do that meeting over Google Hangout. That’s a best practice that’s serving us well today, but to your point, socialization is really important and because we’ve been such a remote company for so long, we’ve done this pretty well for a long time.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, I hadn’t really thought of that because we actually have that situation at Renegade. We have a number of employees who’ve been working remotely one day a week and we have one employee who works remotely in a different country. We hadn’t really considered the notion that you might make that one individual feel isolated if everybody’s in a conference room with one camera and they aren’t. That’s a really good observation.

Khalid El Khatib: It’s not just isolation. Most conference rooms aren’t great unless you work for an incredibly well-designed state of the art workspace, and most of us don’t. I always joke that tech offices have the worst A/V in conference rooms. Beyond the isolation, it just sucks being the one remote person on a call that has to keep asking, “what did they say?” or trying to catch up over Slack or get notes after the call because it’s so hard to follow along.

Drew Neisser: With everybody working at home, you would think that there’s going to be a great strain on Internet connections and again, I suspect you’re ahead of the game on that. I heard somebody the other day say, “I can’t work at home.” “I don’t even have Internet.” “I always work at somebody’s office.” There must be some logistical challenges that bigger companies are facing in terms of just having basic connections.

Khalid El Khatib: I think there are two ends of the spectrum. One is the cultural shift. I have a friend who is married to an architect and they were saying that they heard their husband on a conference call for what seemed like the very first time since architects certainly aren’t used to working from home. This is all very new to them. On the other end of the spectrum, to your point, there are some real technological challenges here. In addition to writing the blog post on working remotely, we wrote one on how we built our VPN and some best practices that companies and CTOs and CIOs should think through as they scale their VPN very quickly. Certainly not my area of expertise, but again, in service of all the people who need help right now, we felt it was important to share those. I’m happy to send you that link to share with your readers as well. <Scaling your VPN overnight>

Drew Neisser: That’s awesome. All right, we’re going to take a quick break as it’s a perfect transition to talk about tools and technology to support this process. Stay with us.


Drew Neisser: OK, we’re back and we’re talking about something that’s probably happening to you right now: you’re working from home. #WFH. Khalid had just mentioned VPN, and for those of you who haven’t heard that term, virtual private network is a way of having secure communications when employees are all working remotely. If you were a company that had a strong, sizable workforce that was working remotely already, you already had VPNs, but for a lot of companies, that’s a new term.

Khalid El Khatib: There are a lot of new terms and we’re going to have to quickly acclimate to this new environment because it seems like it’s going to be our new reality for a while. I think that VPNs are a real challenge for technology leaders, but one that folks will be able to figure out. I think that some of the biggest challenges are going to be cascading a new tool or technology to an entire organization. Many of us, especially in the marketing world, take for granted a chat tool like Microsoft Teams or Slack. It’s pretty intuitive to us especially since many of us have been highly digital for a long time, but there are all sorts of industries where that is groundbreaking. Communicating over text will also pose problems. Just one small example of that is, in the same way a text from a friend can be misread, if the organization is moving into Slack or GChat or Microsoft Teams, tone can be mistaken all of the time. That’s just an enormous cultural adjustment that folks are going to have to be able to get used to.

Drew Neisser: Our team is on Slack and we’ve been using Zoom a lot more and I’m finding that, because we were all so used to seeing each other in the office, even if we go to work and put our heads down and work really hard and don’t have too many conversations during the day, just the fact that we were in the same room together gave us this sense of being connected, but suddenly we’re not. I’ve got a small team but when we did the Hollywood Squares in the meeting on Monday morning, everybody got a big kick out of it and I realized that we need to do this almost every other day. The video is important because we need to see each other, and I’m wondering if you’ve found that on your end.

Khalid El Khatib: 100%. Socialization is super important. We’re all social beings and these are unprecedented times. The likelihood is that we go a little bit stir crazy if we don’t keep connected to folks, and we do it two ways. One, we don’t just use Slack to collaborate on work, we have channels for our pets, we have channels for our babies, we have channels for work out tips, TV, and coffee. What you see on TV and movies isn’t always true, but it is true that developers love coffee, so there’s a fairly active Slack channel where talk people about the espresso they made that morning or how many red eyes they’ve had over the course of the day. Folks stay connected there and another thing that we do is we leverage video conferencing all the time. We use Google Hangouts and we use Zoom for larger meetings. In addition to doing all of our meetings over Zoom and Google Hangouts, we occasionally have lunch over Zoom. Someone will pop into our big Slack channel and drop a Zoom link and then anyone who wants to have their lunch over Zoom can. Then, on Friday, and I imagine this will continue to happen because it was pretty successful, we did a virtual happy hour at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. and a number of people joined. I think that it helps not only keep them sane, but it’s comforting and reassuring just to stay connected to folks.

Drew Neisser: You know, I love both the lunch over Zoom and the virtual happy hour. I will be borrowing that immediately for the Renegade team. Obviously, if you have hundreds of employees it gets more challenging, but let’s just start with the marketing team, do lunch over Zoom but order food for everybody and have it delivered to their houses and apartments. That’s a nice way of saying, “Hey, we’re doing this together.” It’s a little more challenging when it comes to a virtual happy hour. You probably heard the term “quarantini” and I think that’s certainly a meme opportunity and a way of bringing folks together. I think part of this is also just thinking about now, as a leader of a team, if not an entire organization, what are the things that you can do to bring back normalization in a crazy time? If we’re used to having lunch together or having a happy hour, which a lot of companies are, then find a way to do those virtually and, we’ll see if the novelty wears off, but certainly, in the first, god forbid, month or two, this will add a lot of value. I think, again, as the leader, and this is what this episode is really about, as a leader of your marketing team and frankly, of the organization, it’s your job to think about how employees are feeling about the business right now and how they’re feeling about the world right now. You have to stay connected to your team and you have to stay connected to the organization. I want to go back to Google Hangouts versus Zoom. Why don’t you Zoom for everything? I’m just curious.

Khalid El Khatib: It’s a licensing issue for us, so we just use Zoom for bigger meetings.

Drew Neisser: Right. Are there any other tools that you’re using, because you’ve been remote for so long from a collaboration standpoint, that folks may not have thought about before?

Khalid El Khatib: I wouldn’t be doing my job as a marketing leader of Stack Overflow if I didn’t tell folks a little bit about Stack Overflow for Teams, which is a collaboration tool that we use at our company. Stack Overflow, as many people know, but not necessarily all marketers know, is the 35th most popular website in the world where developers and other technologists ask Q&As relative to programming challenges. What we’ve done is we’ve taken that Q&A platform, which has been very successful since 2008, and we’ve given folks a private instance that they can use as their internal knowledge base. It replaces wikis and while we realize and recognize that while tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams are incredible for real-time conversation, they aren’t the best place to store knowledge and they’re difficult to search. When an employee leaves, that knowledge may disappear and there is certainly a lot of redundancy. One thing that we do to memorialize knowledge and to put processes in place is we use Stack Overflow for Teams. A great example of that, the way the marketing team is using it—it’s not just for developers—is when we have new messaging, for example, or a new resource library for a salesperson. We’ll ask a question on Stack Overflow for Teams, answer it ourselves, and then we’ll cascade all of that information down to sales teams and update it as appropriate. That’s one tool that we use. Like I said, it’s in my best interest.

Drew Neisser: No, that’s totally appropriate and it makes sense. It immediately made me think of two things. One is that you can bring your employees together over this, and two is that you’re drinking your own champagne at the moment so you guys can get used to using what your customers are doing. It certainly makes a lot of sense for you to do that. There’s a larger thing here, which is probably a good transition—once we’re done thinking about our family and personal health and the health and the well-being of our employees, obviously we need to be thinking about our customers. By having a large community with this kind of Q&A thing, I’m wondering if you guys feel like you’re really on the pulse of what your developers are thinking about at this second about this issue and about the environment that we’re facing right now.

Khalid El Khatib: That’s a great question. I think, like many questions in this unprecedented time we’re in, the answer is a little bit of hurry up and wait. Like everyone else, we’re assessing all the information that we have available to us in real-time, and one thing that we have at our disposal is a massively trafficked website, so we’re assessing traffic patterns over time as people work from home in the same way that you’re trying to figure out how and when people listen to podcasts now. We’re monitoring all of the tags that people are reviewing. Has there been a massive spike in people searching for how to troubleshoot VPN challenges? Are people trying to figure out what to do with manage clouds now? It’s very early days and we have less than a week of data, but one thing that we’re trying to figure out and will hopefully be sharing more is based around what people care about right now, their biggest challenges, and how we and the rest of the tech community can help them. I’ll share this link with you afterward, but I think that while these are tough, unprecedented times, the tech community has really stepped up. There are all sorts of initiatives and tech companies that are making resources available to folks for free. One that comes to mind is Open for Business, which is an initiative that has consolidated Atlassian, Box, Zoom, Google, and a number of other companies who are extending their free trials, waiving fees, and things of that nature to support people who might be going remote for the first time or who are facing unique challenges.

Drew Neisser: It’s such a great point and I expected to see a lot more of that. It’s just hard to gather everything in one place. I noticed that Zoom had offered something for K-12 schools and unlimited access, and initially, they were extending their limitations for the folks in China. But I feel like you’re right, the tech community has to be very careful here to not be a profiteer, not to be too opportunistic. This is an opportunity to step up and really make a difference and I love hearing about Open for Business. We’ll definitely link to that from the show notes as well.

Khalid El Khatib: I think that you make an excellent point. It’s one thing that we talked about very early on as a marketing team. I took a subgroup of the marketing team to start working on the question, how do we create content in this era? As you can imagine, and I think as many CEOs are grappling with right now, an enormous amount of our demand generation focus was on live events and conferences. We had to figure out how to shift that to virtual. What should we be talking about in virtual events and how we can best help people without taking the wrong approach both in the content we create and how we position it? Very early on we created a Google Drive folder that the full marketing team had access to and we started dropping in examples of how other people are navigating these strange and uncertain times with examples of people who are doing it really well and companies who have left a bad taste in our mouths in some of their outreach and their ads.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, with some of the emails that I’m getting, not only do they make me want to gag and immediately put them on the profiteering list and shame, but they just don’t seem to know better. Clearly, they’re not purpose-driven organizations. Anyway, not going to preach, at least at this second. We’re going to take a break and when we come back, we’ll talk a little bit about productivity. I also want to talk about virtual events and how you guys are looking about re-allocating event dollars. We’ll be right back. stay with us.


Drew Neisser: Okay, we’re back and Khalid, you just mentioned how your team is using a Google Share Drive to share ideas on what to do since we can’t meet face to face and that had been such a big part of a lot of B2B businesses. It was being at conferences, exhibiting at conferences, working at conferences, learning at conferences. The soonest I’ve seen anything re-planned is for September and we don’t know how long this is going to last. What are some of the things that you guys are thinking about in terms of replacing events?

Khalid El Khatib: That’s a great question and, again, we’re just over a week into this so I think that we’re still figuring it out. We’re having discussions all the time. I was supposed to be in San Jose for a conference last week, and I had two conferences in Vegas next week or the week after. All those were gone and so, pretty intuitively, we’re focused on virtual events, on hosting webinars, on AMAs and AMAs that we hadn’t had historically. Most of the time, webinars or virtual events that we and most marketers have posted have been for a co-presentation with a customer, profiling and integration, all sorts of things of that nature. Given how important it is to highlight subject matter expertise right now, the things we’re considering are along the lines of how to lead an engineering team remotely, how to scale your VPN, what our tool kit looks like for a product designer who is working remotely, and how you can do that. We’re trying to position content that’s very helpful and coming from a place of knowledge. Another thing that we’re doing is we’re experimenting. All marketers do and have done for a long time, but I think that in the same way my team is experimenting, event organizers and conference planners around the world are doing the same thing. Some of the conferences that we were sponsoring and supposed to be at are now doing a virtual expo hall. Talks that we were planning to give are now being recorded and cascaded through to conference attendees who were supposed to be there in person. None of those have actually happened yet so we don’t necessarily know what they’re going to look like or how well they’re going to work, but we’re shifting some of our budgets to a digital focus and are continuing to experiment with conference partners.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. I’m of mixed minds. People have been wanting to do virtual conferences and expos for years, and as far as I can tell, there’s no great solution. I think about the enthusiasm that I have for conferences and why. It’s all about meeting people and sharing with people and the sidebar conversations and more, so it’ll be really interesting to see what some of these tools and organizers come up with to try to replicate that. Still, if you think about it, you leave the office, and once you’ve left the office, you’ve committed to going. If I’m at home and I know that Adobe has an event coming up very soon and I’m asking, am I going to watch this streaming conference? Why would I do that? Why would I do it during the normal business day? Maybe I’ll make a note to watch it some other time, but there’s no urgency.

Khalid El Khatib: I completely agree but I would say two things. One, we’re all going to start changing how we behave, how we work, and how we live, and there is a reality in which we get very used to virtual events and conferences and it becomes the new normal. A while back I worked for TED, the TED Conferences Agency of record, and they had a pretty successful virtual conference model. Of course, a lot of people went to Vancouver and watched the conference live, and because TED embargoed all their talks for a long time, there was a sense of urgency and a number of people around the world who did tune in live. I think the first conferences and conference organizers who can pull that off will potentially see some success. I think maybe one of the first major ones who is tackling the challenge is Collision, the Collision conference, I think they’re calling it Collision from Home, is happening from home this summer. Historically it’s been in Toronto but that’s no longer going to be the case. I guess we’ll just wait and see.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, I think that’s a great point about TED. It speaks to a brand that was well known as really high quality for presenting organizations, so they already had credibility in the marketplace. The length that you can watch them, in 20-minute bite sized chunks, is also helpful. As you’re talking, I’m thinking of the Bill Gates TED talk that has been going around from 2014 or 2015, where he was talking about anticipating and planning ahead for an epidemic. Everything that he talked about didn’t happen but could have happened. It’s a shame because this isn’t a surprise to science-oriented people. Where we are today is not a surprise and we’ll link to that episode that TED talk from Bill Gates. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll just gulp.

Khalid El Khatib: Yeah, I was in the audience for that and that’s actually been a crippling fear of mine since I saw it in 2015, so I wish I had taken him more seriously.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. It’s so rational and science-based, and it totally makes sense. You watch that and say, “so why did we ignore that?” Anyway, not much we can do about that now. I want to end on a somewhat upbeat note and circle back to some of the things that we were talking about from a productivity standpoint, both from a CMO standpoint, concerning things that you do or some of your developers do that we haven’t talked about yet. I noticed, for example, that Forrester has a new Pelleton group so employees can work out together and stay healthy and motivated. I thought that was a great idea. I’m curious if there are any other things that you had on your list that didn’t make it into this show so far?

Khalid El Khatib: Someone showed this great graphic with us and I can send you the link. The tl;dr of it is that when you work from home, you’re basically a plant. Drink water; get sunlight. That’s been hard for me, just continuing to fill up my water, because at the office we have a fully stocked fridge. Now I have to keep going to the sink. The sunlight point as important. We’re grappling with a reality in which most of us are confined to our homes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t go for a walk, or what could have been a walking meeting is now a walking conference call. I think my biggest tip, and one that I’ve been talking about with my team since all of this happened, is that we have to take care of ourselves and each other. We have to constantly check in on both our physical and our mental health and we have to be cognizant of the fact that everyone is processing this differently.

Some of us have children, some of us don’t. Those children are most likely home, that’s a new challenge for many, many parents as they work with kids around them. Some of us have older parents that are incredibly high risk and that can be an enormous stressor. Beyond checking in with folks over time, one thing that I implored my team to do is to leverage tools for their scheduling. Maybe you have an amended work schedule, so you’re starting at noon and working to eight now because of the childcare situation, but be mindful of the fact that your other colleagues might be trying to sign off at 5:00 or at 6:00, so schedule that email to go out the next morning. Leverage statuses on Slack. If you need to take a full hour for lunch for self-care, certainly do that. Let people know not to bother you during that time, turn on do not disturb. I think that’s one of the most important tips, even if it seems pretty intuitive.

Drew Neisser: I love it. I think it’s great and having spent the whole day inside, we’re going to wrap up the show. Khalid, thank you so much for spending time with us. I know it’s a crisis moment for all of us and sharing the insights that you’ve been able to gather as a result of having a huge remote workforce has really been helpful and also inspiring. I love the fact that we are plants and we better get some sunlight. Thank you for joining us.

Khalid El Khatib: Thanks for having me and take care.

Drew Neisser: Yes, you too. To all the listeners, I’m so grateful that you’re spending the time with us, as always. I hope you found some inspiration here. If you have some thoughts on how you guys are coming up with motivating and exciting your employee base, do let me know. You know how to get a hold of me. In fact, you can hit me up on Slack or text me, I’d love to hear your ideas. This is a moment to share and make yourself available so, please, I’m here. We’d love to hear how you’re doing with the challenges that we’re all facing. Until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.