Trends Accelerated by Covid-19

Covid-19 has led to significant changes in how we live, work, and interact with each other. In some cases, they have accelerated trends that were already in motion, and in other cases forced changes that we did not anticipate or expect.

In the next few years, I think we will go through a rapid pace of innovation and re-imagination powered by entrepreneurs, and here are a few trends I’m excited about and interested in exploring further.

Distributed Work

The best summary I’ve read on the acceleration of distributed (not in person) work is this one from the CEO of Automattic, Matt Mullenweg where he talks about change happening slowly, and then all at once driven by this catalyst. Automattic has been fully distributed since its inception, and Matt has been a champion of distributed work for years and the benefits of accessing a global talent pool, and working asynchronously.

The #WorkFromAnywhere Podcast series led by the folks at Greylock is also excellent and CEOs of companies like Box, Quora, Okta, Figma and Zapier speak about their transition to working from anywhere.

I’m particular excited about the tooling that will be developed, both in terms of specific software as a service products to drive much better distributed collaboration, but also the underlying plumbing that ties all these tools together.

ECommerce

This article from Ben Evans on the growth of eCommerce is a must read. The UK went from 20% to 30% eCommerce penetration and analysts say that Covid has accelerated the growth of eCommerce by 5 years. This is dramatic, and will change the way may of us purchase, discover new products, and how creators distribute their products.

This also changes the nature of distribution/logistics and the entire supply chain. Companies like Shopify and Amazon have doubled their market cap (adding over $60BN, and $850BN (!!) of value respectively to shareholders since mid March 2020).

Major Cities

The nature of major cities and concentrated urban areas is going to evolve. I wrote about my thoughts on megacities recently here, and I also liked this piece from Fred Wilson about how a reset was much needed in NYC and how the city could evolve into something better. Many of my friends have ‘accelerated’ moving to their ideal living areas and and left places like NYC and London. My wife and I, having just had our first baby, are asking ourselves the same question – is it worth staying in NYC if we don’t intend to stay longer term? The pandemic has forced a conversation we likely would not have had for a few years.

Flexible Work

I believe that the best creators and experts are no longer going to need a ‘normal job’ and will be able to work flexibly and monetize their unique skills talents much better than before, and this will be socially acceptable and maybe even celebrated. I like the writing from Li Jin (Atelier Ventures) about the Passion Economy and Unbundling of Work from Employment (which I also opined on here).

Startups will create innovative tools, and platforms to help craftspeople to discover projects, collaborators and showcase their work (e.g. Contra). Much of the benefit that we get from a ‘normal job’ (e.g. competitive healthcare insurance plans, retirement accounts, etc) will also be available to creators through saas products.

Building Relationships

As humans, we yearn to build new relationships and deepen relationships with folks that we already know. Traditionally we’ve built these relationships in person with repeated interactions and meaningful collaboration on projects. Being forced into lockdown has forced us to explore alternatives.

I’ve personally been experimenting with platforms like Enrich (curated network of similar executives), Fractal (1×1 matching with other product people), Village Global Events (with startup founders and investors), and am starting the On Deck Angel Fellowship soon. These are all digital communities with fairly niche audiences, which I think will become more common.

I’m hoping that these will lead to meaningful relationships and collaboration and also improve the chance for serendipity despite not being able to spend time with folks physically. I’m excited that these platforms could open up the possibility of meeting interesting people all over the world, and not just limited to my place of residence.

I’m not sure how this will play out with larger conferences, where most of the value is in relationship building and improving the probability of serendipitous connections often through extended hang out time (often over meals and drinks). I expect that recreating much of the value will be possible, but will require some first principles thinking.

In my own recent experience, I wrote about how the funeral for my grandfather was actually much more inclusive and rich because it was virtual and allowed for more people to attend that were close to him (like his sisters).

Personalized Services

Folks who provide coaching, classes or specialized services are all going through a similar, accelerated transition.

Companies like Peloton have successfully taken spin classes and made them virtual, allowing both synchronous and asynchronous (on demand) classes with world class instructors. Each class can now be attended by step function more people which greatly improves the ROI for each class.

Experts providing specialized, personalized services like physiotherapy, child psychology, lactation consulting can all increase their addressable customer base and people who are in need of very specific services can access a larger pool of specialists which is better for both groups. They both need tools to make it easier to discover each other, and improve the experience of booking and transacting (e.g. Ribbon Experiences).

Digitial Payments and Services

Digital payments and digital services (e.g. digital hr, or payroll) to help businesses transact with their customers and run their teams will also see more new users, and increased adoption. I think these products will be ultimately sticky even after Covid-19 because they function better both in person and remotely, and allow for more flexible customer and employee interactions. In my personal investments in these areas I’ve seen increased volumes and good retention through the pandemic.


These are just a few areas where I’ve personally observed changes in my own life or with folks close to me, and I’m excited to learn more and closely track how these trends evolve.

Hiring Product Managers at Scale

In this post, I summarize a process that I recommend for hiring product managers at a midsize or growth company, adapted for a distributed hiring environment (most applicable to a company that will hire multiple product managers).

I’ve hired and trained over 40 product managers over the course of my career, and this draws on my experience as a product hiring manager and team lead.

Internal buy in and scope of role

When hiring product managers (PMs) at a mid size company the most important thing is to have internal support from the executives and the design and engineering partners. There should be a strong desire to hire PMs to help build better products in a better way and to bring in more structure and systems to the product development process.

Once there is buy-in from these stakeholders, organize the teams into sensible working groups (e.g. by user journey such as onboarding/growth or by key metrics such as conversion/retention or by product line).

I prefer a matrix structure (although has tradeoffs) where PMs ‘own’ each of these areas in partnership with a design and engineering lead (with around 5-10 engineers per PM, depending on the project). I also suggest that engineers and designers report into their own functional leads and PMs direct the scope and priorities of the projects.

Hiring process

It’s essential to have a clear hiring process and system both for the sake of your internal team and for the candidates. Most companies are incredibly disorganized about hiring, but a little bit of work can save a lot of time in the future, especially when hiring many folks for the same role.

Internal Team 

  • Recruiter: There should be a consistent point of contact for the candidate during their application process – ideally a recruiter. The recruiter communicates with the candidate, lays out the hiring process clearly, and moves them through the process. They act as a liaison between the hiring manager(s) and the candidate. They often do the initial resume screens and have an essential input into hiring because they get to know the candidate so well. 
  • Hiring Manager: The hiring manager is the person that is hiring for the role. They are the person who ultimately makes the decision to recommend the candidate as a ‘hire’ or ’no-hire’. This is typically a senior product leader.
  • Interviewers: Each interviewer should have a clear set of criteria that they use to evaluate the candidate. The interviewers should be excellent at the functional areas that they are evaluating candidates and hold the quality standard for the organization. The best people should be involved in late-stage interviews and this should be a core part of their job description.

Hiring Process

  • Resume screen: Internal and external candidates should submit a Resume / LinkedIn profile which should be screened upfront (recruiter + hiring manager). Candidates who pass this phase should move to a conversation with the recruiter, followed by the hiring manager.
  • Interviews: Interviews should consist of a standard set of, very well calibrated questions that can be asked by a variety of interviewers representing the different development functions (e.g. design, engineering, product, marketing). A structured hiring guide improves consistency and calibration, and can reduce bias from the hiring process
  • Central Tool/ATS: Interview feedback should be stored in a central place/tool (e.g. Greenhouse or Lever) and each interviewer’s feedback captured clearly (with a hiring recommendation). This allows us to both evaluate interviewers and the candidates – e.g. some interviewers bias towards higher or lower scores.
  • Written Exercise: If you are hiring in a distributed environment, try to find candidates with strong communication skills (particularly written skills) and clarity of thought. All candidates should complete a written exercise as part of their recruitment process which could include:
    • Break down a product you love – what you like, what you don’t like, how you would make it better (1 page)?
    • What is your favorite technological shift and why?
    • Write a ‘product spec’ to address a specific problem that the company has (better if it is a real problem).
  • Trial: If possible, ask the candidate if they would be open to a two-way trial (which is compensated) where they try and solve a real problem and collaborate with an internal team. This is time consuming (20-40hrs for the candidate, 5-10 hours internally) so very few candidates should go through this process if you decide to incorporate trials. You may filter out some good candidates because of the time commitment, but candidates who join are more likely to be successful.
  • References: I think that final candidates should be referenced checked by the hiring manager, especially if there are open questions. Backchannel references are the best (but avoid people at their current company) otherwise, ask the candidate for references. Here are some questions that I like:
    • How do you know the person? (gauge depth of relationship)
    • What are their strengths?
    • What are their areas for development?
    • What percentile would you put them in relative to similar folks in their position?
    • Would you hire them again?
  • Decision: For borderline candidates, the panel of interviewers should have a sync or async discussion – e.g. a private recruiting slack channel for hiring. The hiring manager is ultimately the decision maker. From start to finish, try and keep this process fast (e.g. under one month, and track the throughput).

Candidate experience

Candidates should have a great experience, understand how they are being evaluated and have consistent clear communication through the process.

  • Hiring Criteria: Candidates should understand the criteria by which they are being evaluated and the steps in your hiring process – this should be a templated email or a public blog post that you can send to product candidates.
  • Point of Contact: Candidates should have a clear point of contact (ideally the recruiter), to ask any questions about timelines and next steps.
  • Acceleration: If a candidate performs very well in early interviews or comes in through a trusted referral, they should be bumped up to the top of the queue or potentially skip steps so you don’t lose great people because of slow process.

How to Assess

When hiring, it’s important to be explicit about the skills you are looking for, and get a sense for where candidates are truly exceptional.

Here are the dimensions that I think you should use to assess candidates in the interview process:

  • Analytical Ability: AB Testing, Interpreting metrics, Data-informed decision making.
  • Product Judgment: System design, UX design to solve user / business problems.
  • Leadership: Inspiration, Influence, Empathy, Communication.
  • Execution: Prioritization, Getting things done when you say you will.
  • Technical Ability: Earn trust and respect from engineers as partners. Some roles will have a higher technical bar than others.

Each person on the interview team (3-5 people) should be responsible for evaluating the candidate along a subset of the interview criteria to create a balanced view. Ideally interviewers would ask the same questions to each candidate to calibrate their answers. I suggest that each interviewer test at least 2 dimensions of the list.

I suggest looking for candidates with an exceptional ‘A’ level strength, particularly in harder to learn skills like analytical ability and product judgement. I much prefer ABC candidates over BBB candidates because it’s possible to design complementary teams with AAA skills in aggregate.

Candidates should also demonstrate strong domain knowledge, and passion for the product, company and the customer. If they have prepared, it goes a long way (and it’s surprising how many candidates are ill prepared). If a candidate teaches me something new, or helps me challenge my own assumptions, that is wonderful. 


Appendix: Other resources

Google Criteria

  • Product Design: User experience, Design driven problem solving.
  • Analytical ability: Fluency with numbers, Using data to drive product decisions, dashboard design.
  • Technical ability: Understand technology and fundamental computer science principles.
  • Strategy: Go to market, Competitive analysis.
  • Culture: Googliness, Kindness, Leadership, Empathy.

Facebook Criteria

  • Leadership and Drive: Influence, Self-starting, Motivation, Persistence.
  • Execution: Goals, Metrics, Prioritization. Understand, Identify, Execute.
  • Product Sense: A design exercise to solve a specific user or business problem.
  • Engineering fit: Do engineers want to work with you?

Product Manager Articles

Here are a few articles about product management as an appendix, in case they are useful.

My Home Office Set Up

My current home office set up is a little bit makeshift as we are living with our in-laws (temporarily). I figure that a lot of people would be in a similar situation and thought it would be worth documenting and sharing as I’ve already helped a few friends and family members with their home office.

I’ll share the details of my set up and then summarize some practical tips that apply to most people.

Home office Front View
Home Office Side View

My Set Up

My set up is optimized for using a Macbook Pro 13 inch as the computer, and so this will only really apply to mac users.

  • Monitor: In my opinon, this is the most important part of your setup. I have an expensive LG 5k monitor with a built in HD camera ($1,300). If I had a less generous monitor budget from work, I’d get a 4K monitor, like the Dell one ($500) I recommend below, with an additional HD camera clipped to the top.
  • Keyboard: I use a mechanical keyboard as I like the action, and it makes me feel like more of an old school gamer. I use the Keychron K2 Wireless Keyboard ($80) with a red switch which is a bit quieter than the blue switch (although the louder ones are more satisfying).
  • Mouse: I use the Logitech MX Master 3 wireless mouse ($100). It’s super comfortable, has lots of customizations and is way superior in ever way to the Apple mice in my opinion.
  • Headphones: A great pair of headphones is essential. I use Bose QC 35 II noise cancelling bluetooth headphones ($280) just because I’ve had them for 5 years. They are really comfortable and have great sound, but the microphone sucks so use them with the wired mic if you are not going to get an external mic. If I was to replace them, I’d go with the Sony WH-1000XM3 ($240) which seem to be a one of the better picks in the market right now.
  • Samson G-Track Pro mic: I’d recommend either my Samson G-Track Pro ($130) or the Blue Yeti (Nano, Yeti or X are probably all fine) which are USB condenser mics and easy to set up and use with great audio. Watch out for room echo – if this is an issue, switch to a USB headset mic, like a recommend below.
  • Desk mat: I really like having a desktop mat. They are inexpensive and increase the friction for your keyboard and mouse keeping them in place while giving you a nicer surface to rest your hands. I use this Yikda Leather Pad ($14).
  • Stand for monitor: It’s important to have your monitor a t the right height and I like a stand that lets me put my laptop under the monitor to save some desk space. I just picked one from Amazon and ended up with this AboveTEK Stand ($45).
  • Wireless charger: I use this Anker one ($12) which is useful to charge my phone and AirPods without a lot of additional cable clutter. I like just being able to drop my devices on the pad to charge.
  • Desk plant: Plants can apparently reduce stress and improve mood. I got these succulents from Lula’s Garden as a gift and like having them on my desk as they are low maintenance as well.
  • Candle: I love having candles on my desk. I find them soothing and like the smell. I like the Aquiesse candles ($32) as they are both high quality and last a really long time. Highly recommend.

Note: my desk and chair were already in the house, and repurposed for my home office.

Universal Advice

Here are a few of my most practical tips when setting up your home office:

  • Monitor: Get a decent monitor (4k), you can get pretty excellent ones for the Macbook Pros like this 27 inch Dell 4k (~$500) with a USB-C cable that can be used to both charge your computer and be the display/data connection. I bought this for my father in law and think it’s great. This is the thing you stare at all day, so don’t skimp here. Make sure the monitor is positioned high enough so your eyes are in the center of the screen when you sit upright.
  • Video camera: Good quality video helps you seem clearer because you are! The cameras on Macbooks suck, and are 720p, not even HD, so if you do get an external monitor then definitely get a camera that clips to the top of your monitor. I use my fancy camera or the built in camera on my monitor. The one I see most recommended is the Logitech C920, but I’ve not used it myself.
  • Light source: Face a light source with either a lamp on your desk to light your face or a window. If you are by a window, make sure that the sunlight does not hit your face directly as it’s annoying and distracting.
  • Audio: Good audio is so important for distributed work. I did a full write up comparing a bunch of options here. A wired USB headsets with a mic that is a consistent distance from your mouth is the best option for most people. This is one we recommend at Automattic. Here is another audio comparison from Matt, the CEO of Automattic.
  • Chair: I’m still researching the best value chairs (my current one was lying around the house), so don’t have a practical suggestion but you sit in this all day, so get something comfortable and adjustable that allows you to have good posture.

The rest of the stuff is really dealers choice in my opinion, and icing on the cake. For a long time I did not have an external keyboard and mouse and just used my Macbook keyboard (or mouse), which worked really well and was space efficient (see below).

Using the Macbook as a second screen and keyboard

I also use a mirrorless camera (see below) but it’s a bit less frictionless so I don’t use it all the time. I set up the camera above my laptop screen, with the camera above the screen because this keeps my eyes closer to the lens without it looking like I’m very close to the floor. It also helps me focus on the conversation better.

With the mirrorless camera setup

Hope this helps you level up your WFH set up, and let me know if you have any tips for me. Oh. and make sure you have good internet, or none of this really matters 🙂

Performance Management

This post will summarize my personal learnings for managing performance in both a distributed and non-distributed environment. I recently hosted a discussion on ‘Remote Performance Management’ with engineering and product leads at other companies (through Enrich) and these were some of the topics we covered.

Performance management in a distributed environment is very similar to working in person, except you need to rely more on measuring actual contribution, and more written communication. 

It can be very draining for a team, and for managers in particular, to deal with performance issues on their teams. If these are not dealt with quickly, they can fester and affect the entire team. It is important to have a clear path to gather data, diagnose and solve for the productivity and for the ‘health’ of your team.

1. GATHER INFORMATION

Start by gathering data to figure out if there are performance issues.

Your Gut: Most of the time, you know if someone is performing well. Trust your gut and use it as the starting point. Write down examples of issues you observe in a document so you can spot repeated patterns. In a distributed environment, it can take longer to calibrate your gut – you can’t ‘feel’ the energy of a person or a team as easily, so you need to rely on the output of teams. The more teams work out in the open (public by default), the easier it is to understand their output.

Team: Ask for feedback from folks who interact with the person closely – peers, direct reports, other functions. This can be more casual or part of a broader discussion if you don’t want to cause ‘alarm’. You can also ask your HR rep to help gather feedback for you as well. 360 degree feedback tools are also really valuable for managers and teammates to give feedback on each other.

Data: Try and figure out objective measures of output – communication metrics (e.g. Slack stats, public posts and comments), projects delivered, GitHub commits can all help paint a picture of productivity. It’s important not to use these metrics as the starting point for performance management – they are simply a useful tool to help validate or invalidate hypotheses. If people feel like they are being ‘watched’ they will not like it, or try to game the system which is not where you want them to focus.

2. DIAGNOSE ISSUE

Once you have established there is a performance issue, the next step is to unpack the why behind the issue.

Capability vs. Effort : I start by trying to understand if there is a capability problem or a motivation problem and use this simple matrix. Folks who are high capability and effort should be rewarded, and folks who are low capability and effort should be transitioned out of the company quickly.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is impact_effort_matrix_brainstorm_-_brainstorm.png

Manager / Team Fit: The individual may just not fit in well with the team culture or have a good rapport with their manager. Once a manager has ‘lost faith’ in someone on their team, it’s very hard to regain faith without a team switch.

Project Fit: The individual may not enjoy or be well suited to the type of work they are doing. This person might have a capability or effort issue, and in most cases this requires a move to a different role or to a different project. 

3. IMPLEMENT CHANGES

Once you’ve diagnosed the issue, the next step is to figure out a path forward. Many new managers simply avoid having these hard conversations because they are awkward and can be difficult.

Communicate clearly: Communicate performance issues clearly with the individual and then lay out a clear path forward with areas for improvement and timelines. This step comes before a formal performance improvement plan (PIP) which is more serious to developmental feedback.

Termination: If you have reached the point of termination, then be clear, direct and kind. Schedule a short in person meeting or video call, and get straight to the point. Often HR is involved in this call, and at some companies they are responsible for this meeting.

Team / Role / Project switch: If the individual is new to the company and has performance issues, and you suspect they are in the wrong role, wrong project or have fit issues with their current manager or team then you should allow one switch to give the person another shot. If the performance issues are persistent, then they should be let go from the company.

Permission to leave: Often, an individual was the right fit for the company or for a role at a point in time but given the stage of the company’s growth, or a shift in the nature of the work this person may not be a good fit any more. As a manager, you can give this person the ‘permission to leave’ and they will be able to find a place outside your team or company where their skills are better suited. It’ll be better both for the individual and the company.


Managing Distributed Teams

At Automattic, I lead a fully distributed product development and engineering team. This post will cover some of my personal practices for managing teams and if/how this is different in a distributed environment. These practices are probably more useful to newer managers running distributed teams for the first time.

I recently listened to Matt (Automattic’s CEO) and Raj Choudhury’s (Prof at Harvard Business School) discussion about the future of distributed work and the ‘Work from Anywhere’ movement which were the inspirations for writing this post.

DISTRIBUTED PRACTICES

The principles of managing a distributed team are the same as managing a team in person, but a few of the practices are different. People are still people, whether they are sitting right next to you or halfway around the world.

Here are a few practices that I’ve found helpful:

  • Trust: Start from a place of trust. Assume positive intent in written communication, and assume your team is working and trying their best regardless if they are sitting right next to you or they are working from home.
  • Expect Asynchronous Communication: Don’t expect a response immediately, even over chat tools like Slack. Learn how to use Slack asynchronously, and set the same expectation on your teams. I deleted Slack from my phone (because I would miss things), and close Slack on my computer when I want to remove distractions. I respond to messages in batches, and use the reminder feature if I need to come back to something later.
  • Focus on Output: Don’t falsely assume someone is more productive because they work longer hours (even when working in person). Focus on the quality and quantity of the work produced by an individual vs. the number of hours worked.
  • Clear Goals, Roles, Expectations: Develop clear goals and a shared understanding of the ‘why’ behind these goals, roles and responsibilities and what is expected of managers (and their teams) in terms of output. Extreme clarity here leads to more empowerment, not less, in my experience (one of my takeaways from Essentialism, by Greg McKeowen, which I recommend).
  • Project Kick Off: For new projects, with new groups of people working together or working across different teams it’s good to get alignment right at the start. I suggest experimenting with a kick off call with project stakeholders and participants followed by a written summary. The call may be difficult to schedule, and less conducive to working across time zones. but project kick offs are infrequent enough that I think these calls are worth it.
  • “Grab a Room”: If you sense a real time conversation is going off the rails in Slack and if it was in person you would ‘grab a room’ to chat it through, do the same over Zoom for 10 minutes. It helps if your team is not inundated with regular meetings so this can happen more seamlessly. I personally also leverage ‘office hours’ to skip level meetings a few times a quarter. 
  • Hiring: When hiring folks who are distributed, put extra weight on the quality of their written communication and their ability to work in a self directed manner. Documentation becomes even more important in a distributed environment.
  • Feedback: Give frequent, specific feedback both positive and developmental over Slack or in your regular 1x1s (both personal and project related). Write up more thoughtful feedback every 6-12 months. We all have recency bias in the longer reviews, so I keep a record of the small pieces of feedback in a running document. At Automattic, we have a tool called ‘Kudos’ which allows folks to send public thank you messages to a few colleagues a month. It’s a nice way to show appreciation.

MANAGEMENT DURING A PANDEMIC

Managing a distributed team during a global pandemic (Covid-19) requires greater care and empathy. Many folks who are working from home had it forced on them and it may have felt jarring. They may have additional responsibilities of looking after their children, caring for sick/old folks or dealing with loss either directly or indirectly. There is also a psychological toil that is hard to quantify, and simply not knowing when we will return to “normal” can weigh on people. As a manager, simply recognizing these issues explicitly and then being empathetic to their circumstance can go a long way.

I would encourage your teams to take the time they need for self care, and be accommodating to more flexible hours. If individuals or teams are going to experience a productivity hit, adjust goals accordingly (and publicly) as long as your business can afford it. It will pay off in the long term with improved happiness, productivity which will translate to better employee retention.

I’ve noticed extra output from some folks who are now simply working more to fill the extra time they have, and less output from others who are more affected. Teams realize and recognize this asymmetric contribution and much like any small community there are times where we need to contribute more to help out our colleagues. That’s ok, as long as it’s not permanent.


For more on this area check out the companion post around managing performance.

This series from Greylock is excellent as well – https://greylock.com/workfromanywhere-podcast/

Better Audio for Distributed Work

tl;dr: A wired USB headsets with a mic that is a consistent distance from your mouth is the best option for most people. This is one we recommend at Automattic.


Many of us have transitioned to working from home, and spend a lot more time talking to people over video and voice – we usually have no idea what we sound like to the people on the other end.

This post will give you some practical advice for sounding much clearer, including the specific products that I recommend. I will list recorded clips of each audio device without any additional processing so you can hear what each one sounds like in its original format.

If you prefer watching a video, check out the YouTube video instead.

Summary

There is a lot of research to show that better video and audio quality can reduce cognitive load and increase our attention span. Ultimately, it gets us closer to being in person and I think it’s well worth the investment to buy a good headset and microphone.

General Advice:

  • Make sure that your microphone is a consistent distance away from your mouth. This makes you sound more clear and consistent.  I think that headsets with an adjustable boom mic are the best (like the Jabra Evolve 65). If you don’t move around a lot you can sound really good on a USB mic like the Samson G-Track Pro.
  • A wired connection is more reliable than a Bluetooth connection, and generally sounds better. I sometimes have Bluetooth connection delays when starting Zoom calls but I like the flexibility of being able to walk around the room on audio calls, so the tradeoff is worth it for me.
  • If you are in a noisy place, or don’t have a headset where the mic is a consistent distance from your mouth (these typically block noise really well) then try software solutions like Krisp AI.

Top 3 Microphones

  1. Jabra Evolve 65: I don’t have strong opinions on this particular headset/mic itself, but a headset mic which is a fixed distance from your mouth is the best option for most people. The sound from the Jabra Evolve 65 mic is clear and consistent, and it blocks out most of the external noise. This is not wired, but sounds decent, and allows me to move around my room.
  2. Samson G Track Pro: This wired USB microphone has the best sound but it’s a little more fussy. You need a quiet room with decent acoustics in your space (soft things, no echo) and you need to tolerate that it’s absolutely massive, heavy and has an industrial look to it.
  3. Apple Airpod Pros: They actually sounded decent and were a big upgrade from the first version of the Airpods (which sounded awful). They are compact, so if you are traveling, or on the go, they are not a bad option especially as they also have built in noise cancellation.

Detailed Comparison

For each of the devices (photos above for scale), I recorded a short clip saying exactly the same thing and did not do any post processing. Here are some photos of each one (my wife added the teddy bear to the shot), the audio clip and a short summary of how I think it sounds.

I’ve ordered these from the best to the worst sounding, in my opinion.

Samson G Track Pro – $130

This microphone sounds leaps and bounds above the rest, but it’s big and needs to be a consistent distance away from your face so you can’t really move around while you are speaking, or it’s really distracting to the other person. The audio quality is fantastic, and makes you sound really clear. I recorded my YouTube video with this microphone.

Jabra Evolve 65 – $160

These sound clear, consistent and generally really good (especially the noise cancelling). The sound is a bit less ‘natural’ to me but all in all I was very impressed. These are my main pair of headphones for Zoom calls, and I’ve used them for around a year. The bluetooth pairing can be really annoying at the start of calls but a recent firmware update has made this much better.

I paid $160 for these last summer (June 2019), but they look to have gone up in price, possibly due a surge in demand as folks transition to working from home.

AirPod Pros – $230

These were surprisingly good despite not being that close to my mouth, but no where close to as good as the Jabras. The noise cancellation is adequate, and not a bad option on the go. They are a massive upgrade in sound quality from the first generation AirPods.

MacBook Pro 13 inch – $1700 (base model)

This does not sound great. It’s echo-ey and boomy and picks up a lot of background noise (although I was in a quiet place). I’d only use this if absolutely necessary.

Bose QC 35 II  – $350

Bluetooth Mic

This sounds pretty bad, and I would not recommend it. The audio is ‘grainy’ and it’s distractingly bad to hear. Please don’t use them.

Wired Mic

The wired microphone is a big upgrade to the bluetooth mic, and would rank above the Airpod Pros.

Apple AirPods First Generation – $130

These also sounded pretty bad, and I had no idea! I have been using them for calls for two years and am pretty sad about it now. I’m happy I’ve replaced them with the AirPod Pros (only last week, due to battery issues).

Beats Studio 3 – $220

In my opinion, this is the worst sounding headset. The audio is echoey, grainy, and overall absolutely terrible. Throw them to the curb or only ever use them for listening (which I don’t love either as they hurt my, large, ears).


When listening to the results, I was quite surprised at how much the audio quality can vary. The more expensive Bose and Beats headsets have really good sounding headphones, but really really bad microphones despite their high costs. I much prefer the Bose QC 35 to the Beats Studio3 for listening, for what it’s worth.

I think it’s worth investing in better audio, and with a wired USB headset with a boom mic it can be relatively affordable. You’ll get your message across more clearly and your friends and colleagues will enjoy your interactions more, without even realizing it.

Use your Fancy Camera on Zoom

tl;dr: A better camera, with front facing lighting will make you look much better. A fancy camera is great, but a pain to set up. The best option for most people is to attach an HD camera to your monitor, like the ones recommended by Wirecutter.


This post will summarize how to set up your fancy DSLR or Mirrorless camera with Zoom, and it will work for most video calling or web conferencing tools. It will make you look clearer and better simulate being in person, as we all transition to working from home.

I’d also suggest getting a decent audio set up. The best option for most people is a wired USB headsets with a mic that is a consistent distance from your mouth.

Please note, this guide only covers Macs and Canon cameras. It is meant to be a companion to my Youtube video below.

Fancy camera on Zoom guide

A number of other guides recommended using the Camlink and a HDMI cable, but these were sold out, and required a ‘clean’ HDMI out feed so it’s a little more fussy from a set up perspective but easier once you have it running.

Results

Here is a screenshot of my Macbook Pro Zoom feed, the feed from the built in Camera on my LG 5K monitor, and from the Canon M50 (in that order). I took these screenshots directly from Zoom, and I hope you can see the difference between the three 🙂

Hardware

The most important thing to get right is the video and audio quality when setting up your home video conferencing kit. Quality video and audio can make interacting virtually feel more natural, and may be worth the investment if you spend lots of time on video calls and plan to work in a distributed fashion for an extended period of time.

This entire set up costs under $1,000, which is still expensive but I think worth it if you’re working from home all the time.

  1. Canon EOS M50 ($400-600): This was highly recommended by a number of blogs and Youtube channels that I follow. It seems to have very good price to value ratio and costs around $450 for the camera and the lens. I bought the ‘creator kit’ from Amazon (linked above) which was $550, and includes a Rode mic as well.
  2. Dummy Battery ($25): The dummy battery just makes it more convenient for you so you don’t have to change the battery often – each battery only gives you about 2-3 hours of video, so it’s pretty essential.
  3. USB micro to USB C cable ($10): This is how you connect your camera to your computer. You could use a standard micro USB to USB cable and a USB to USB C. Try and get a fast USB 3.0 cable as you’ll get some lag otherwise.
  4. Amazon Basic Tripod ($15) : This is a very basic tripod but does the job keeping my camera well positioned behind my monitor.
  5. [Upgrade] Sigma 16mm f/1.4 ($400): I upgraded the stock lens a Sigma 16mm f/1.4 lens which I recommend. It is a prime lens (without zoom) with a large aperture (better in low light) and a low focal length (helps blur the background). I really like this lens, and it takes really nice portrait photos as well. If you use it outside though you’ll need to get ND filters (sunglasses for your lens) as otherwise too much light gets in and your photos are overexposed.

Software

NOTE: Canon just released (May 27, 2020) a beta webcam utility that makes this whole process much easier from a software side. Here is their video to set it up – it saves on all the steps below but the software is still in beta.

The following steps below still work, but the webcam utility is easier!

You need three pieces of software to make this work and they are all open source or free:

  1. Camera Live – Camera Live is an open source tool to create a live video feed from your Camera. Download the latest Alpha (13) if you are on the most recent version of Mac OS Catalina (10.15.4 at the time of writing).
  2. Camtwist: Camtwist allows you to broadcast the live video feed from Camera Live to other tools, like Zoom via a Syphon server.
  3. Zoom: Download the latest version of Zoom. They now allow you to use virtual cameras agin so you should not have any issues.

Office Set Up

I set up the camera above my laptop screen, and don’t use my large screen while on Zoom with the fancy camera. I position the camera above the laptop screen because it keeps the camera at eye level (how a real person would look at me), and allows me the see the person I’m speaking with while making eye contact with the lens.


I hope you enjoy using your new video conferencing set up!

Setting up for Distributed Work

I work at Automattic where I lead a distributed development team. I shared a few thoughts from my first few months working at a distributed company.

Working remotely is a topical issue (March 7, 2020) given the spread of the Coronavirus, and many companies asking employees to work from home.

I will share some additional thoughts on:

1) Why distributed work is going to become even more important and mainstream.
2) Tips for setting up and running your distributed team.

Why Distributed?

The availability of high quality collaboration software combined with the availability of fast, reliable internet all over the world is making distributed work easier and more common by the day, especially for technology companies.

Many amazing technology companies in the world have set themselves up as ‘distributed first’ including Invision, Gitlab, Zapier, Basecamp, Upwork, Stripe (later) and Automattic to name a few and have grown to significant scale (1000+ employees). As companies reach significant scale and become even more global (e.g. Google and Facebook), they run more and more distributed teams collaborating towards the same goal.

Distributed work has a lot of advantages for your business; you’re able to recruit globally, your teammates have more flexible hours, working environments and mobility which ultimately expands the available talent pool and improves employee retention.

You’re also able to set up systems and institutionalized knowledge for your company that do not rely on synchronous, in person interaction which are more durable over the life of your company.

Here are a few good resources about distributed work:

Running distributed teams

If you’re thinking about setting up your company to be a distributed company, then the most important thing to do is set up your company as ‘distributed first’ from first principles. Even if you do have one or many offices you need to set up your culture and systems to make all employees feel like first class citizens no matter their location. At Automattic, we have a written creed and one of the ones I really like is ‘Communication is Oxygen‘.

Practical advice

Set of common tools and norms: Decide on your norms are for the business – this does not have to be perfect in the beginning, but write something down then iterate. For example, we don’t email each other at Automattic – Slack is for synchronous discussion, P2 (our internal blogging tool) is for long form writing and roadmapping, and Zoom is for video communication (we never have audio calls). Here is a minimum set of tools you’ll need all functions:

  • G Suite: This is a no-brainer as you get email, calendar, storage, document and spreadsheet capabilities all easily shared in your organization.
  • Long form communication/collaboration: Basecamp, Notion, and Confluence are all good workplace solutions and the first two are more opinionated wheras Confluence is a bit more flexible and connects better with external tools but needs more set up and customization. Google Docs is also an alternative.
  • Chat: Slack is the most common, and works generally well. It’s not great when you have poor internet and I’ve seen folks use WhatsApp as an alternative given the speed and reliability.
  • Meetings: If you’re going to have meetings, choose a tool like Zoom that everyone uses. For recurring meetings or 1x1s, like to add a Zoom link to the calendar invite and a synced Google Doc for that meeting to it so that notes can be taken and shared more broadly if necessary.
  • Project management: There are lots of good project management tools but I like Asana the best. Trello is great for simple boards and many engineers like GitHub Issues as it’s close to the code but works less well for non-development folks. Jira is the most customizable and robust product for complex and established workflows but requires a fair bit of set up to be useful.
  • Standup: Many teams like to do asynchronous standups. I like the following questions and a tool like Geekbot is easy to use to administer in Slack:
    • How are you feeling? Colors (R/Y/G) or Thumbs (Up, Down) to give this structure.
    • What did you do yesterday?
    • What are you doing today?
    • Where are you blocked?

Async and written: Set up your systems to be “async and written first” and have clear escalation paths to notify your colleagues if something is urgent or you are blocked. Long form, written content forces you to think and communicate clearly and exposes the gaps in your own thinking. It takes more time to write, but ultimately the trade off is worth it especially at scale.

Public by default: Many companies communicate privately or in small groups by default. In reality, most communication which is not about sensitive topics (usually people/hr) should be public, especially if it about product or priorities. Defaulting to public first allows more people across the organization to learn from each other and to dive in and get more context rapidly if they require it. There is some risk of information overload or separating out what is important from what is not, but this is something that you get better at with practice.

Quality video and audio matters: I still think synchronous communication can be important, in particular 1x1s with your direct reports, managers and close peers. When you do have synchronous meetings having quality video and audio matters. Good lighting and a decent mic does matter when having video calls. I recommend a boom headset/mic combo like this Seinheiser USB Mic, over bluetooth alternatives.

Time zones are hard: Even if you set up good systems for distributed, asynchronous work, a very large spread in time zones can be hard for building a team’s culture, feelings of isolation and unblocking colleagues. If you can set up teams with reasonable time zone overlap, it’s easier.

Onboarding guide for new employees: Invest in a written onboarding guide for new employees with a checklist they can complete themselves. Ask each new employee to improve this onboarding guide for the next person.

When being in person is better

There are times where being together is superior to working distributed and asynchronously. It’s also worth trying out virtual meetups – synchronous and distributed versions as well (time zone permitting) which can be less expensive and time consuming for everyone.

New teams / new projects: For new teams working on new projects together, it can be helpful to have some time together to kick off the project, especially if it’s a substantial investment from the company. Group conversation can spark creativity and being in person helps accelerate the process of team bonding, creating alignment and hashing out the inevitable differences between vision, personality types or different working styles. It is be great to summarize this in a co-written document of priorities and team norms and roles.

Change Management: If the company or team needs a change it can be harder / slower a distributed environment. It’s more challenging to rapidly understand and improve the energy and output of teams rapidly as some of the feedback loops from in person real time communication do not exist in the same way. It requires adapting or replacing your mental models as a manger to a distributed working style (an area I where I personally need to develop).

Building human connections: When working with people, it’s simply easier to build trust and better human connections in person. Sharing a meal or a drink and laughing with them in 3D is much more engaging than a 2D Zoom call or Slack exchange.

Personal: Working from home can lead to feelings of isolation or lack of separation of work/life. I’ve personally enjoyed spending more time with existing friends and family (and being fully present) and shutting off your work notifications (closing Slack, Email etc) in pre-set windows.

Helpful resources

There are a lot of good articles and guides out there for remote work and here are a few of my favourites:

Early thoughts on distributed work

I recently joined Automattic which is a fully distributed company. We have ~900 people (in all functions) working in ~70 countries, with no central office. We are one of the largest, if not the largest fully distributed company in the world.

I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the advantages and challenges of distributed work after two months – both strategically and from a practical implementation/execution perspective.

One very important principle about Automattic is we are set up to be a distributed company and all of our internal process is designed with distributed teams as the default state. This way, folks that are remote are not ‘2nd class citizens’ but are the core of the company.

Advantages

  • Work from anywhere: Our people can live and work from wherever they want, which ultimately leads to happier employees that stick around longer.
  • Work when most productive: People can work when they feel most productive and manage energy, not time (one of my fave articles) taking into account their personal constraints (e.g. family) into their schedule. Managers, however, have a bit less flexibility.
  • Custom work environment: Some folks like others around, others prefer a quiet environment, others like to move around. At Automattic, people can set up their environment to suit their unique style which is very hard to achieve in a traditional office.
  • Everything is documented: We document everything using our internal blog system (called P2) and folks can always go back and find out the ‘why’ behind decisions. This is very powerful.

Challenges

It’s worth noting that these are currently a set of initial observations for challenges, and I’m sure there are a number of good solutions to them which I’ll be actively thinking about as part of my work at Automattic. 

  • Onboarding as a new employee: Onboarding requires getting to know the right people (and building trust), learning the right systems, and developing the right judgment to know where to focus. Doing this remotely can be a struggle.
  • Building relationships: It’s easier to build bonds with people in person. Nuance is lost over Slack and Zoom and there is no substitute for time in person together. At Automattic, we have meetups to help build relationships but it increases the amount of time and ‘deliberate-ness’ required to get to know your colleagues.
  • Finding product-market fit: In the earliest stages of finding product-market fit, iteration can be slowed down because of async, documentation heavy nature of our work especially if vision is shared among different people. This is an area where I feel there are lots of areas for opportunity to improve with more frequent synchronous interactions. 
  • Changing direction: It’s much harder to get alignment and inspire towards a different strategic direction via text and video. It’s harder to recreate ‘energy’ and velocity in a distributed environment.
  • Separating signal from noise: We are a large team (900+ people) and there is a lot of content that is created daily.I’m spending about 15%+ of my day parsing through posts and comments to figure out what I should read, participate in, or make decisions on and as a new person it can be difficult to know where to focus. More experienced distributed workers have similar issues, but they are less pronounced, which shows that this is a somewhat learned skill.
  • Time zone management: It can be difficult to run teams across different time zones but there are also opportunities to increase velocity by folks working over a 24 hr period.

Joining Automattic

Sharing some personal news: I recently joined Automattic (makers of WordPress.com, Jetpack and WooCommerce) to help build better products for our customers. I’m very grateful to Kinsey and Matt for the opportunity.

Over the last few years, I’ve explored entrepreneurial projects and also invested full-time in early stage African technology companies. Throughout the exploration process, I realized that I missed building products and my motivation for investing was the desire to learn about new businesses and to support entrepreneurs in their journey.

I joined Automattic because the company was a great fit in a number of areas that I’m passionate about:

  • Empowering entrepreneurs with world-class tools: The cost of starting technology companies has come down dramatically and access to quality tools has improved dramatically. Entrepreneurs now have access to services to allow decentralized, asynchronous product development, open-sourced products they can build on top of, cheap hosting of content, and tools that allow a deep understanding of their data. These products typically have low entry costs that scale up as the businesses grow. This allows entrepreneurs all over the world to solve problems during their early stages without a lot of access to funding and without sacrificing quality. Automattic builds products to empower entrepreneurs.
  • Distributed work: I believe that talent is roughly evenly distributed, and enabling employees to work when they feel productive and choose where they want to live will allow companies both access to better talent and improve retention of talent. I’ve seen this firsthand through investing in tech companies in Africa that have distributed engineering teams with technical architects from abroad who collaborate with local engineering teams highly effectively. Automattic is fully distributed with ~900 people working in ~70 countries – check out https://distributed.blog/ (and Matt’s podcast) if you’d like to learn more about how we work.
  • Decentralization of creators: Creators all over the world are able to express themselves and find audiences that are interested in their content. They now have the tools to express their voice and discover, grow and engage their audiences. Bloggers are the new authors, YouTubers are the new tv producers and Podcasters are the new radio hosts. Automattic builds tools for creators.
  • Mobile-first internet users: There are billions of people in emerging markets who will experience the internet primarily through their mobile device, both as creators and as consumers. It’s a fundamentally different way of experiencing the internet compared to our reference points as adults in developed markets. There is a gap in high quality tools for mobile-first entrepreneurs and a significant opportunity to build these tools from first principles. Automattic is well placed to create this mobile experience.

I’m really looking forward to building products for entrepreneurs and creators all over the world at Automattic. 

Thanks for reading 🙂