Leadership   //   October 5, 2020

‘You’re never putting this remote genie back in the bottle’: How GitLab’s head of remote Darren Murph spends his day

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Remote-work veteran and software-collaboration company GitLab has now grown to over 1,300 staffers across over 65 countries, with a valuation of nearly $3 billion. The company — and its Remote Playbook which has had over 30,000 downloads of the since the coronavirus crisis hit — is rapidly gaining more attention.

Darren Murph, the company’s head of remote, says his role is cross-functional: A change in compensation structure impacts marketing, which then impacts recruitment, then on boarding, finance and real estate. Murph, a 36-year-old former tech editor and communications adviser, has led the life of a remote worker for 15 years, earned a Guinness World Record for the most blog posts written (north of 17,000), and joined the company in July 2019. He reports into marketing.

“[Working remote] has a cascading ripple effect through the entire organization,” said Murph. “The head of remote exists to make sure that none of those re-architecting decisions are looked at in a silo or in a vacuum.”

To get under the hood of what this role really entails, we caught up with Murph, based in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of N.C., to resurrect Digiday’s the “day in the life” story format. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Before work: I love being outside, so I wake up, have breakfast with my toddler and my wife. If the weather’s good I’ll go outside for a run or a short hike. I usually start my workday a bit later than the average person would in Washington D.C. or New York. GitLab has no set working hours and we embrace asynchronous working: If your team doesn’t need you online all the time to be able to move their projects forward, you could stop and start your day optimizing for whatever you wanted. For me, I love being outside in the morning, which doesn’t really jive well with an 8 a.m. local time meeting. 

10 a.m.: I’m sitting down for work. I meet with the executive team about the high-level company priorities that are in consideration, whether that’s pricing changes, compensation changes, setting up a new legal entity in a country that we haven’t supported yet. Whatever decisions are being voiced at an executive level, the head of remote is there to make sure that the decision is made in a remote-first way.

We have to think about every decision assuming that no one is in a physical space. What would informal communication look like if you could not guarantee that everyone would be in an office? What would a wellness perk look like if you couldn’t guarantee that everyone would be in an office? What would taxation look like if you couldn’t guarantee that everyone would be in an office? 

There’s this sweet spot between roughly 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Eastern time. That wraps around the entire U.S. and most of Europe. Asia Pacific is its own thing. If we have to meet synchronously we make sure there’s always a compromise. 

11 a.m.: I spend this time interacting with team members. We have a remote work Slack channel where people ask questions about how to optimize their workspace or where they should relocate to. Our evp of engineering —who has been in the company for many years — just got an itch to redo his webcam setup, and he wanted to get a mirrorless camera. It’s a bit of a complicated setup, but the image quality is very good. So he reached out to me on the public channel where we talk about home audiovisual gear and I helped him get it set up correctly. 

12 p.m. My third hour is usually synching up with people operations. We are continually iterating our onboarding because it has to be unique, it has to be prescriptive, it has to be well documented. We’re continually looking at feedback from people after they onboard, looking at what didn’t go quite well, what areas we can improve. 

The second part is learning and development. Things change, new technologies, tools and ways of communicating come out. Last week we launched a partnership with [online learning platform] Coursera about how to lead and manage a remote team curriculum. This aligns with GitLab’s open-source ethos of sharing all of the knowledge that we’re gaining for others to benefit.

We use GitLab to communicate, not just for software engineering but for legal, finance and marketing. We can start an Issue, give it a title, tag relevant people to get input and feedback. It’s asynchronous and transparent. But we also leverage Zoom and Google Docs. You cannot have a work meeting without having a Google Doc agenda attached to the meeting. Everything is documented, it’s very inclusive and people can ask questions in the agenda who can’t attend the meeting.  

1 p.m.: I dive into documentation. When I arrived at GitLab we had five to seven different guides within the GitLab handbook dedicated to how we did remote work. Now it’s up to over 40 [the guides have had a 430% year-over-year increase in total views]. I look to see if there’s something trending in the world that we need to publish that will be useful for our internal team as well as our external team. If you print the GitLab handbook it’s over 8,000 pages. We say if it isn’t in the handbook, it doesn’t exist. 

Since Covid-19 I’ve written guides on what not to do (I saw so many companies doing this the wrong way), what are the top five things I should do as a leader, as a remote worker what can I do to make my experience better and how to be a great manager.

2 p.m.: The next two hours are spent in meetings, advising or consulting, or sharing with the press our learning.

[Two months ago] I started working with Harvard Business School about how they could teach remote management as a case study to business students. We also collaborated with [global business school] INSEAD, who is teaching the case study to execs and students. Now they are both being taught in real-time. This week, my CEO and I joined a live course with over 200 students over Zoom all over the world that are now being taught how to start, found and lead businesses with no company-owned offices.

There’s this incredible democratization of remote now. You’re never putting this remote genie back in the bottle. Probably only five to 10% of the world’s companies in the next five years will go all remote. The bigger societal impact will be on the other 90% of companies [that will have some remote workers]. We call that hybrid remote and that will explode massively.

4 p.m.: I usually have a break mid-afternoon, have some lunch and go for a walk.   

5 p.m.: The last couple of hours I take a cross-functional look at how we do remote and what can we do better. Right now I’m working on an initiative called “async 3.0” It’s our third major iteration of what we want asynchronous workflows to be at the company. I have to meet with leaders across all cross-functional groups, figure out how asynchronous workflows are being used right now, how the leaders wish they were used more. What pitfalls they’re seeing when they’re trying to use it. Everyone has a different view: Sales look at async very differently than engineering.

Usually, I will pop off for dinner and bath time with the kiddo, and then once the kiddo is in bed, I generally pop back on for a few hours later. That’s my favorite time of the day to work — it feels like the whole world is quiet.