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Ep 406: A CEO’s Perspective On Remote Work

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Whatever form it eventually takes, remote working is here to stay. In the previous episode of the show, we explored the challenges and opportunities of building a global remote team; in this episode, I wanted to get the hands-on perspective of someone who has built a highly successful remote-first company.

Everett Harper is the CEO of Truss, a software engineering business that has been fully remote for ten years. In our conversation, Everett shares myriad insights on hiring, communication, retention, culture and diversity, which will be of enormous value to everyone who’s listening.

In the interview, we discuss:

• Building a 100% remote company

• Culture

• Maintaining and measuring productivity.

• Focusing on human connection and building systems to support that

• The danger of expanding work hours

• Exposing the fallacy of presenteeism

• Putting diversity at the heart of the workforce

• How to ensure you have the skills and talent you need

• Salary transparency and consistency

• Thinking differently about the things we are seeing

• Do we understand the real implications of global mobility?

• What does the future look like?

• Everett’s book – “Move to the Edge, Declare it Center.”

Listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Interview transcript:

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Matt Alder (1m 5s):
Hi there, this is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 406 of The Recruiting Future Podcast. Whatever form it eventually takes, it’s very clear that remote working is here to stay. In the previous episode of the show, we explored the challenges and opportunities of building a global remote team. In this episode, I wanted to get the hands-on perspective from someone who’s built a highly successful remote-first company. Everett Harper is the CEO of Truss, a software engineering business that has been fully remote for 10 years. In our conversation, Everett shares myriad insights on hiring, communication, retention, culture, and diversity, which will be of enormous value to everyone who’s listening.

Matt Alder (1m 52s):
Hi, Everett, and welcome to the podcast.

Everett Harper (1m 55s):
Thank you very much. I’m really excited to be here and thanks for inviting me. And I’m really looking forward to talking virtually to your audience.

Matt Alder (2m 3s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Could you just introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

Everett Harper (2m 9s):
Sure. My name is Everett Harper. I am the co-founder and CEO of a human-centered software company called Truss. We are a company that works with public agencies and with Fortune 500 companies to help them transform their technological systems to fix really complex problems. One of the things that put us on the map was helping to fix healthcare.gov for example, and we work with a lot of other companies to do similar types of works in different industries.

Matt Alder (2m 44s):
It sounds like you’ve got a very, very interesting business and there are lots of very interesting aspects to it. But one thing that has really stood out in terms of what we’re going to talk about today is the fact that your business is a 100 percent remote, isn’t it?

Everett Harper (2m 57s):
That’s correct.

Matt Alder (2m 57s):
We’ll talk a little bit more about how everything is changing and how everyone’s having to adapt to the new circumstances we will find ourselves in, but give us a little bit of the history about how you built a remote company.

Everett Harper (3m 11s):
Sure. So I think the core of it is we were trying to solve a problem. When we founded the company, we invited our third co-founder, myself, Mark Ferlatte, and Jen Leech. And when we invited Jen to be a third co-founder she replied saying, “Yeah, that sounds great except my spouse just won a fellowship and we’re going to be gone in Europe for the next 18 months. Can we make that work?” Not exactly the answer we expected. However, what we shared was we worked at a company called Linden Lab, which made Second Life. It was a virtual world in the mid-2000s.

Everett Harper (3m 54s):
And so we had the experience of working in a virtual environment and we’d all had teams that were spread around the globe. So we really came down to a very simple proposition, if she can get connectivity and we can make our work transparent to each other, and we make sure to say what we’re going to do a matter of integrity, let’s figure it out. Let’s do it. And that was really the start. And then we built systems to support that and we’ve kept scaling and scaling and now we’re a hundred and almost 40 people.

Everett Harper (4m 35s):
And the system really works well.

Matt Alder (4m 37s):
Tell us a little bit about what the implications are around working like that. So how’d you build culture? How do you maintain and measure productivity within the team? I think it’s something that for a company that’s been remote for so long, there are obviously lots of learnings that companies who are now on that remote journey could take from it. So I think it’d be really interesting to know a little bit more about

Everett Harper (5m 3s):
Sure. I think the core message is focus on connection. Even if you’re starting remote or you’re hybrid and making that shift, or you’re going from an office to some sort of system connection, human connection is really important. And building systems to support that is also pretty critical. So we use Slack for example and we have different channels, and these channels are work channels, but they’re also social channels. So there is a book channel, there’s a pet channel.

Everett Harper (5m 44s):
There’s a regional channel for people who live in similar regions. And all of those things serve to create conversations around topics that make people feel more than just two-dimensional objects on a Zoom call, but real people engaging in real lives. That’s an example of one of the many things that we do. I think the other thing that we focus on with regard to kind of remote or distributed work is from a cultural perspective, there’s lots of other things that I’m sure we’ll talk about, but from a cultural perspective is really respecting that the workday has its limits.

Everett Harper (6m 32s):
And we’ve seen with the pandemic that people start to work above and beyond, and the natural barriers of, “Oh, I got to catch a train and go home. I gotta beat the traffic,” those things are gone. And so we see that people were expanding their work hours. We made a concerted effort to stay within those work hours. And repeat that message. So as a CEO, one of my jobs is to repeat messages and really kind of create that environment and lead in that way. And I think there’s a lot of habit around working longer, but we also know from research that there’s a limitation to effective and high-quality work.

Everett Harper (7m 16s):
And then the number of hours it’s roughly between 40 and 50, I believe is what some of the research shows. So those sorts of initiatives, I mean, there’s many. Those are two that I’m thinking about from a cultural perspective.

Matt Alder (7m 32s):
It was interesting about that is as lots of employers have had to adapt to remote working over the last two years, it seems that many companies have struggled to move away from this sense of presenteeism that people have to be online. They have to be observed. They have to be kind of working all the time. As a remote company, what’s your sort of view on that? How has what do kind of evolved, and how do you look at things like productivity?

Everett Harper (8m 7s):
Sure. This is a great topic. So I remember coming into my first job in the late ’80s and there’s a thing called FaceTime, and FaceTime was making sure that you came to the office at a particular time to make sure that your boss saw you either working late or working early. It didn’t matter whether the work was good. It doesn’t matter whether you were effective. It mattered whether you were seen to be a hard worker. Now, a lot of that shifted, but there’s still a lot of that dynamic. What remote and hybrid and distributed work does is expose the fallacy that face time matters.

Everett Harper (8m 58s):
And instead, challenges to say what actually is productivity at our business. It’s not the amount of time that you are on screen. It’s not the amount of time that you’re logging or that you’re tracking your computers. There are very few things that kind of operate in that way, particularly if you’re doing knowledge work. So I don’t think there’s a direct answer. It’s a direct challenge to leaders and to, you know, development professionals to say, “Well, what is it in our business? What is a core member of our team need to demonstrate? And how do we make that evident so that we know that that person is doing great work and how do we then take that example and make sure other people can see it and follow?”

Matt Alder (9m 48s):
One of the other things about your business is the amount of diversity that you have in your workforce, particularly for a technology company. Is being a remote business something that’s driven that or what is it that you do as an organization to make sure that you’ve got such a diverse workforce?

Everett Harper (10m 8s):
Well, first of all, as an African-American CEO, my co-founder Jen is a white woman technical leader. My other co-founder is a white male, a technical leader, Mark Ferlatte. So right from the jump, we are a diverse team. The second thing we did, and I forgot to mention this when it comes to culture, we set down a set of values and practices from our early days. And one of those was around diversity and we connected it to the quality of our business. Those two things were some of the better decisions we made as a business. We made plenty of mistakes, but that was a really good one.

Everett Harper (10m 50s):
And what it did was say if we’re committed to having a diverse workforce because we know it will make for better products, it will make for better decision-making, it will lead to better outcomes, then we have to figure out how to overcome the obstacles to getting that team that is diverse. From a remote perspective, that was an advantage. I’m from Oakland, California. It is diverse in some ways, but for African-Americans, it’s not. However, if you go to Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and the same as repeated for other ethnicities, you will find different networks.

Everett Harper (11m 35s):
Being remote, enabled us to engage with those different local networks and bring in much more diverse talent than many of the other companies in our industry. So for example, we have 53 percent, she/her heard identifying folks at a technology company. That’s incredibly rare. Similarly, when you add up African-American, Latino, Latinex, Latina, Asian Pacific, and Middle Eastern MENA, we have 35 percent of our workforce that it comes from those groups collectively. A lot of that is because we can recruit in different places. So I strongly encourage folks to say, oh, wait, this is an opportunity to engage people where they live and be able to reach in and get a more diverse workforce.

Matt Alder (12m 25s):
And what advantages has that brought you as a business?

Everett Harper (12m 30s):
Well, first of all, we have incredible talent because we know that, and that means if we have incredible talent, we can deliver on solving problems. Second, there’s tons of research about problem-solving that a more diverse group of people trying to solve problems means much better decisions, means much better outcomes, means much better solutions. There’s tons of research on that. And so when we approach some of our clients, we can come up with a wider range of options and a better solution to their challenges in ways that they can’t themselves.

Everett Harper (13m 10s):
You know, that’s why they hire us. So that’s a second advantage. I think third is we have a very, very strong culture that is continually pushing to make a better human-centered work team, as well as a better human-centered software. So all of those things are really concrete advantages for us.

Matt Alder (13m 40s):
One of the big issues of 2022 is the craziness in the talent markets at the moment, particularly in technology. There’s shortage of skills and there’s the sheer competition that employers have to find the talent that they need for their business. What are you seeing in markets at the moment? And what is it that you do to make sure that you have the skills and talents that you need?

Everett Harper (14m 6s):
I concur with everything you said as a technology company, it is particularly volatile. There are certain positions where when we look at different salary ranges, for example, when we’re trying to map those, and we do that quarterly, we will get data one quarter saying one thing, the next quarter says something completely different. And in between, we find out when we’re trying to hire people that we are off by, you know, 10, $20,000. That’s crazy. I’m sure anybody listening is nodding their head. So how do we deal with that? I think the verse of it is we are redoubling our efforts to make sure that we are trying to keep on top of the market, not just from, you know, paid sources, but through a lot of conversation in more private networks and just seeing what the market is saying.

Everett Harper (15m 3s):
I think the second, and this gets to back to culture, we have to be clear on what are the things that are attracting people to our company. If it’s just salary, that’s not enough. It’s what kind of work environment, what quality of work, what is it quality of my team? Is this something where my colleagues are engaged or are they distant? What kind of benefits obviously is a clear one? And does it have and does our company live by our values? Do we have a larger purpose?

Everett Harper (15m 43s):
And I think those are the types of things that any company can really take a look at and say what are the other things that are core to us, despite the changes in the pandemic that we can quote-unquote, “sell to a new employee or recruit an employee”?

Matt Alder (16m 6s):
Obviously, as you say, salary isn’t the most important thing, but obviously, with the salary inflation, that’s out there and also the move towards salary transparency in lots of different directions, what is salary transparency mean within your organization?

Everett Harper (16m 24s):
Yeah. So thanks for bringing that up. So we decided to make our salaries transparent also to solve a problem. And the problem was how do we make sure that men and women across ethnicities and across backgrounds are being paid the same for the same work? I think it’s still about 70 percent women to men. It might be a little nudging higher, but some industries are much worse, some are better. The same is true for ethnic diversity. So one of the things that we noticed when we did a lot of research is back in 2017, is that even well-meaning companies can have very different outcomes when it comes to salary.

Everett Harper (17m 13s):
Let’s say you enable somebody to negotiate 5 percent higher than the person that came before them even though they’re doing the same work. They could be equally great performers and get a bonus or get an increase of 5 percent each year that diverges over time. So you could have a massive divergence in salary, even though it’s being treated fairly, each person is being treated fairly. So what we decided to do is say, let’s make a transparent. It took us 10 months. We worked with our organization. We did a ton of research, and then we announced it and they got really no controversy, mostly because people were engaged in the process and it’s had incredible benefits.

Everett Harper (18m 4s):
One it’s really clear what to expect. And for some people, it doesn’t work, but for employees who really appreciate transparency, this is a very strong statement and they can expect that it’s true for other parts of the org. The second is that if we get off a little bit, we can correct it. So we look at this if not monthly, quarterly. So if there’s any divergence, we can fix it. And I think the third is as unexpected benefits because we can model our work better because we know what the salaries are. So you put together a team, we know what people’s salaries are, you know what the costs are. I mean, all these sorts of things are accruing because we decided to make salaries transparent.

Everett Harper (18m 48s):
Yeah. So that’s a big one. And I think frankly, in a hybrid environment, I think one of the competitive advantages that might shake out is we also pay San Francisco salaries. So we say, we anchor on it doesn’t matter where you live. What value you bring is the core of why we want to hire you. And so we will pay you anchored on San Francisco. Well, there are companies that do that, and there are companies who pay regionally. That can make some really big advantages for someone who lives in a low cost of living area.

Everett Harper (19m 27s):
So we think that’s actually something we will continue to do.

Matt Alder (19m 33s):
Well, it’s really interesting talking to you is because you’ve been running a company remotely for 10 years and dealing with a lot of these challenges from diversity to salary difference and all those kinds of things. It really strikes me that a lot of employers are facing all of these problems all at the same time right now because everything has kind of changed. I suppose my question is about change. It’s kind of pretty clear from the people that I’m talking to on the podcast that, you know, these aren’t short-term fads. This is a long-term change for employment, for work, for organizations. What do you think the future looks like? What is it that that’s changing and for other employers listening, what is it that they’ve really got to kind of stand up to and address?

Everett Harper (20m 20s):
Great question and something I think about a lot. So I think in terms of perspective, I should just remind the listeners. So I come from a leader perspective, a CEO perspective and so I’m trying to take into account a variety of different forces that are happening right now. And in fact, I decided to write a book called Move to the Edge, Declare it Center because I wanted to explore how leaders need to make decisions under uncertainty and complexity. And I think uncertainty and complexity are like the watchwords for this era that we’re in.

Everett Harper (21m 1s):
Previously, if you’re a CEO, you’re a leader, often you had very clear problems that you were expected to solve, but those solutions were known. Could you execute on those? Now, and this was something I observed in the middle of 2020 in response to the forest fires, in response to George Floyd’s murder and the worldwide protests, as well as the pandemic, many leaders were faced for the first time with not knowing the answer. The reason I wrote the book is to say not knowing the answer is actually the first step to being creative and to moving forward into thinking differently about a different set of problems, complex problems.

Everett Harper (21m 48s):
I think talked about it in one of the podcasts recently. The thing is that what we’re seeing, it’s hard to predict what we’re seeing, but what we can do is think differently about the things that we’re seeing. So how do you make decisions under complexity? How can you learn that’s Part One, Move to the Edge. Declare it Center is about how do you create systems to sustain your work? Because one of the aspects that we’ve seen during this is burnout. If you’re trying to rely on heroism, then you’re going to burn out. And as a leader of a company, if you are saying, in my opinion, if you’re saying, oh, we’re just going to deal with this.

Everett Harper (22m 32s):
We’re just going to buckle down. We’re gonna, you know, redouble our efforts and really toil through this. You’re going to burn out your folks, if not yourself. Instead, I think thinking differently about how to deal with an uncertain situation is much more effective and much more sustainable over time.

Matt Alder (22m 53s):
What’s the one thing that has surprised you most in the last two years?

Everett Harper (23m 4s):
Two things. One is that people are more willing to deny what’s actually happening to their employees than to engage and even reach into what they may know as potential solutions. So, for example, the recent going back to school for kids, we have an Omicron spike happening right now in the west coast, and people, some folks are saying, oh, let’s just go back to work or let’s just put the kids into school. And the likelihood that that isn’t going to increase transmission of the virus is minimal yet it’s as if this isn’t something that people want to deal with.

Everett Harper (23m 57s):
So that surprised me, especially when there’s opportunity to come up with different solutions. I think the second thing I’d say is, as a leader, one of the things that I’m surprised by is how much people bring in from their old organizations and even that they’re in a new context, that history actually matters. So, for example, when you say to folks, Hey, we really want you to anchor on 40 hours a week. Or if you have to go over, make sure to take some search time. Search time being like take half a day off or whatever after the big push. And how many people you have to encourage people to say we want you to take care of yourself.

Everett Harper (24m 39s):
We want you to be here for a long time, not just push through and burn out. And I know for myself, I have to do even more of a job of doing that, but it’s surprising me how much that lingers. So we keep trying and I keep trying to put that message out.

Matt Alder (24m 57s):
Its a closing question, what does the future look like for you, for your organization, for work? If we were having this conversation again in two years’ time, what would we be talking about?

Everett Harper (25m 11s):
I love that question. Well, we would be talking about for myself and my company, how we’ve scaled to probably about 200 people. We’ve gone through the challenging part of the organization, which goes from sort of through a teen, awkward teenage date. I think we’re talking about a new generation of thinkers and problem solvers who have engaged in new solutions to uncertainty and new ways to think about problems. I think from a perspective of talent, we’re probably talking about how it’s settled between in-office, hybrid, and remote.

Everett Harper (25m 58s):
And there’s a much greater percentage of the latter two than we predicted at the beginning of this pandemic. And finally related is how that affects global workforces. Because I was just in Mexico, for example, for Dia de Los Muertos in Wahaca, and the number of people that I met who were digital nomads of all different ethnicities, really surprised me. And so I asked them and they were from finance, they were from design, they’re from engineering.

Everett Harper (26m 38s):
They’re from a variety of different industries, but they were living in different places from Columbia to New York, to Taiwan, to Mexico. And I thought this is very different. This is very different. And I think that’s something that we’re going to see more of and we’re going to have to figure out what that’s going to look like in two years.

Matt Alder (26m 59s):
As a final question, where can people find you and where can they find your book?

Everett Harper (27m 7s):
So Truss is at truss.works. I’m on Twitter @EverettHarper. I’m on LinkedIn as Everett Harper. Those are the two sort of best professional places to find me. And as far as the book, it is out for pre-order now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, all the different places and it will be available on March 22nd. So pre-orders are available. Check it out. It actually helps a lot. And I really appreciate you, Matt, for asking.

Matt Alder (27m 31s):
Everett, thank you very much for talking to me.

Everett Harper (27m 36s):
Thank you and have a great start of your year.

Matt Alder (27m 41s):
My thanks to Everett. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at RecruitingFuture.com. On that site, you can also subscribe to the mailing list to get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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