Forbes

The Re­mote-Work Ab­so­lutist

- By Alex Kon­rad

Git­Lab CEO Sid Si­jbrandij built a $3 bil­lion de­vel­oper-tool busi­ness with­out main­tain­ing any offices. Now he’s warning com­pa­nies against do­ing telecom­mut­ing half­way.

Git­Lab CEO SID SI­JBRANDIJ built a de­vel­oper-tool busi­ness val­ued at nearly $3 bil­lion with­out main­tain­ing any offices. Now he’s warning com­pa­nies against do­ing telecom­mut­ing half­way.

SSid Si­jbrandij knows the per­ils of work­ing from home. In 2018, af­ter years of toil­ing ex­clu­sively from a small room in his 47thfloor apart­ment in a San Fran­cisco high-rise, the en­tre­pre­neur de­vel­oped foot prob­lems. So he moved in a tread­mill desk along­side his Zoom­friendly green screen and three mon­i­tors.

But Git­Lab’s CEO says the prob­lem isn’t re­mote work, but how it’s prac­ticed. Un­less you’re em­ployed by one of the hand­ful of com­pa­nies that have fully em­braced the new work re­al­ity, Si­jbrandij (pro­nounced see brandy) thinks you’re prob­a­bly do­ing it wrong. His rad­i­cal take on re­mote work: It’s ef­fec­tive only if you go all in. Partial mea­sures will cre­ate tiers of em­ploy­ees who will split the work­force over time, driv­ing away top-per­form­ing re­mote work­ers who don’t want to com­pete with lesser-achiev­ing on-site col­leagues. “We’ll see some com­pa­nies . . . go back [to the of­fice] and try to make the best of it, and I think they’ll strug­gle,” he says.

How Git­Lab does it: The only time staffers meet in per­son is for the com­pany’s an­nual all-hands

gath­er­ings, held (in pre-Covid times, any­way) in lively and rel­a­tively cheap lo­ca­tions like Greece. An­other pil­lar of Git­Lab’s re­mote-work ab­so­lutism: rad­i­cal trans­parency. It pub­lishes a pub­lic on­line hand­book de­tail­ing how it ap­proaches pretty much any topic. You won’t find in­di­vid­ual em­ploy­ees’ salaries, but you will find its ex­ec­u­tives’ strate­gic ob­jec­tives for the cur­rent quar­ter and the ex­act for­mula for cal­cu­lat­ing wages in the 67 coun­tries in which Git­Lab staff live, from Kenya to Morocco to Ser­bia. (There’s also a sec­tion on how and when to talk to Si­jbrandij, and one on his cat.) Any­thing not in the hand­book, which would run to 8,400 pages if printed, is likely in an in­ter­nal Google Doc. Every meet­ing at Git­Lab has at least one com­pan­ion on­line doc.

Si­jbrandij also re­lies heav­ily on doc­u­men­ta­tion to al­low Git­Lab staffers to work seam­lessly. Em­ploy­ees up­date docs and take notes, or share in­for­ma­tion asyn­chronously in Slack chan­nels and video mes­sages. Re­solved de­ci­sions or plans get merged into the hand­book, which tracks it all. “Every time you have to wait for per­mis­sion or sign-off for some­one else to do some­thing, that’s a prob­lem,” he says.

He has built one of the world’s most valu­able star­tups, val­ued at $2.8 bil­lion in 2019, with­out main­tain­ing offices for any of its 1,300 far-flung em­ploy­ees. It helps that Git­Lab—which pro­vides a suite of soft­ware tools that help devel­op­ers build, man­age and se­cure their apps—plays in a high-tech cat­e­gory that’s even more im­por­tant as busi­nesses push sales and cus­tomer in­ter­ac­tions on­line.

Even among other pre-pan­demic no-of­fice high­fliers—no­tably Au­tomat­tic, the com­pany be­hind Word­Press—Si­jbrandij has long stood out. “We are prob­a­bly not as ex­treme as Sid is,” says Dave McJan­net, CEO of re­mote-only cloud in­fra­struc­ture startup HashiCorp, val­ued at $5 bil­lion. To­day, though, Si­jbrandij’s rad­i­cal­ism is draw­ing a vast fol­low­ing. Down­loads of Git­Lab’s free e-book on re­mote work have ex­ceeded 70,000 since its March re­lease; em­ploy­ees are in high de­mand for we­bi­nars.

Git­Lab’s own glo­be­trot­ting setup got its start in Europe. Si­jbrandij had worked at a sub­ma­rine com­pany and helped run an on­line app-re­view startup on the side when, while man­ag­ing web projects for the Dutch Min­istry of Jus­tice, he came across an open-source project from Ukraine called Git­Lab with hun­dreds of vol­un­teer con­trib­u­tors.

In 2012, he reached out to its cre­ators, Dmitriy Za­porozhets and Valery Si­zov, telling them he was go­ing to build a busi­ness atop their project. A year later, Za­porozhets joined as co­founder and CTO; he is now an en­gi­neer­ing fel­low. Si­zov joined in 2014 and is a se­nior de­vel­oper. Si­jbrandij set about build­ing Git­Lab the com­pany—named af­ter Git, a pop­u­lar sys­tem for track­ing changes in source code—to sell sub­scrip­tions to soft­ware tools that help man­age projects built on the opensource tech. Si­jbrandij, Za­porozhets, Si­zov and six oth­ers got to­gether temporaril­y in Cal­i­for­nia in early 2015 to par­tic­i­pate in the pres­ti­gious startup ac­cel­er­a­tor Y Com­bi­na­tor—the only three months they’ve ever spent work­ing in the same space.

Most of Git­Lab went back to Europe after­ward. Si­jbrandij, en­am­ored of the startup scene and with an eye to fundrais­ing, stayed be­hind. To­day, Git­Lab has raised $476 mil­lion, most of which is still on its bal­ance sheet; it sells a suite of 10 dif­fer­ent app tools, from de­vel­op­ment to se­cu­rity, for up to $99 per user per month, bring­ing in over $75 mil­lion in rev­enue last year from more than 15,000 cus­tomers, in­clud­ing Nvidia, Siemens and Gold­man Sachs, which later in­vested.

The trend of com­pa­nies mov­ing their op­er­a­tions on­line, es­pe­cially since the start of the pan­demic, has pushed even more de­vel­op­ment to the cloud, mean­ing busi­ness is boom­ing. But cus­tomers are in­creas­ingly likely to call not for soft­ware sup­port, but rather a crash course in how Git­Lab runs its busi­ness.

“Ten to 15% of our en­gage­ment with part­ners is help­ing them see how we do things,” says Michelle Wood­ward Hodges, Git­Lab’s vice pres­i­dent of chan­nel part­ner­ships.

Not ev­ery­thing is rosy about re­mote work, es­pe­cially now. Si­jbrandij is quick to note that he has strug­gled with not be­ing able to travel; par­ents on his staff have faced ex­tra child-care de­mands. Git­Lab has sought to ad­dress that through Fri­day holidays and has en­cour­aged stay­ca­tions. “It’s im­por­tant for ev­ery­one to re­mem­ber that this is not work from any­where, this is work­ing from home dur­ing a pan­demic,” Si­jbrandij says. “This is not nor­mal times.”

One irony of spread­ing the re­mote-work gospel: More com­pa­nies fol­low­ing Git­Lab means its se­cret is out. “We’ve had an ad­van­tage where if you were out­side a metro area, there were few op­tions to join a fast-grow­ing com­pany. We’re go­ing to have a ton more com­pe­ti­tion now, and that’s go­ing to drive wages up,” Si­jbrandij says. “I think that’s a great thing for the world. I’m su­per look­ing for­ward to that.”

“IF YOU’RE NOT GONNA GO ALL THE WAY, WHY GO AT ALL?” —Joe Na­math

 ?? Evan­ge­list ?? “I thought we would spend the next 10 years con­vinc­ing the world how to do re­mote bet­ter,” says Dutch na­tive Sid Si­jbrandij, 41. “In­stead, Covid did it within months.”
Evan­ge­list “I thought we would spend the next 10 years con­vinc­ing the world how to do re­mote bet­ter,” says Dutch na­tive Sid Si­jbrandij, 41. “In­stead, Covid did it within months.”

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