Flow Diagram: Immigration Reform and a Distributed Workforce


There has been a lot of talk on two orthogonal but related topics:

  • Should we (where “we” == US but can be any country) reform our immigration program to make it easier for great engineers to get in?
  • Should we embrace a distributed work force?

Paul Graham lit things up again when he posted about how 95% of the great engineers are outside of the country, so of course we should have a better way to get them in!

Some people jumped in to pivot to the other question, and focused on how we should all lean into a distributed work force as the real solution to the “we need more engineers” problem.

Of course, the answer can be yes to both. There is much to upgrade about the immigration system in this country. Beyond the macro, as an ex-pat Brit, I have felt first hand how “modern” the system is. As a manager I have also felt the pain of getting great engineers into the country and taken care of. I think we all know that there is room for improvement ☺

As a fun thought exercise I drew up the flow diagram that has you thinking about the decision points for a company (or team) when it comes to going distributed and getting talent to be local.

I quickly saw that: there are a lot of factors involved, it is more complex than you think, behind every box there are many questions to ask about yourself and your own group.

For example:

“Do they want to move?”

If you believe that there are great engineers outside of your region, and that it is hard enough to get enough of them from within the region, then you quickly get to finding real people with real needs. If you find Wendy and want to hire her, and you have a preference for local working, then does she want to move?

Many American’s feel that it is quite obvious that anyone want want to move here! Especially “Silicon Valley”. I am a fan of the area myself and chose to make the move (and I am very happy I did so), but I am not arrogant enough to realize that others may have other preferences. Some may much prefer their culture. Others have family and friends that they don’t want to leave behind. Whatever the reason, although [your region] should try its best to have an amazing environment that attracts, even if we open up the immigration rules to allow for more folks in, some of the best engineers will very much still want to be “outside”.

“Is local best?”, “Would they work well remotely?”

These questions have many sub-questions. For one, the questions are not just about the person you are looking to bring in, but are also about your environment.

How are you setup for distributed working?

Before hiring someone in a distributed environment you need to be self-aware of if they will be setup for success. In my experience I have fantastic people who work in a distributed fashion. At this point we have multiple offices as well as folks who work from home. Everyone lives on Slack, and there is enough of a mix between locations that we normally don’t have a “I feel left out” type of feeling. That tends to happen when the bulk of the team is in one location and the exceptions are remote. You have to look at the shape of each team to make sure if there will be a fit here. Beware of a poor shape.

Most of the time teams are already working with tools that work well from anywhere (Slack, Google Docs, Github, Trello, JIRA, etc). You give up the same room tax, but you gain a lot too. For the role of makers, the flexibility and lack of distractions can be huge for productivity. I worked from home for over six years and I remember that feeling of flow at home.

Can *I* work remotely?

Of course, the people need to be able to flourish in that environment. Many can love working from home and the flexibility and focus. Others need personal stimulation in a way that you can’t fake through online tools. These people can get lonely and depressed, fast. If I am interviewing someone for a role and they have never worked from home…. I worry about the risk for both of us on being the guinea pigs. It is the type of thing that *sounds* good, but you have to live it.

I remember the time where I suddenly realized that I hadn’t left my house for over 3 days straight. I then made a point of scheduling at least one thing outside of my house a day ☺

Realize that in actuality, we are all working remotely

Let’s say your day job is at the HQ. Do you ever work from home, or a coffee shop, or when on vacation? Chances are you do.

Even though you are at the main office, do you work with other folks who aren’t right there? Maybe there are but in another building on a campus so you VC anyway?

You are a remote worker with respect to the other employees.

If you want to jolt that into the company a little more, how about trying an experiment. Institute a “Slack Week” (not about slacking off 😉 where everyone has to work outside of an office (home, coffee shop, whatever is fine) and see how it feels. You may be surprised with the results.

Are there multiple “local” offices?

We have seen many patterns for distributed work. The corporate standard for awhile was the “throw it over to India/China/Eastern/[somewhere cheaper]” which rarely did well depending on the context.

Then there is the subtle change to that approach with the “let those teams do maintenance” model.

Also, if you have created multiple offices, how will you structure the teams? Will an office have a shared mission? Is the office just a “hey there are enough talented people to attract in this area, so lets just try to suck them in!” and they work on projects with other teams? There are many pros and cons to these structures, and I often see them fall to the forces of entropy.

I was at Google when the SF office was announced. Anyone who lived in the city rejoiced and wanted to be able to work there. The messaging through was very much “teams stay together”. Over time, when you have some great people with certain constraints that often relaxes: “Bob is one of our best guys. He needs to move back to his home town to take care of a family member and I don’t want to lose him!”

It feels pretty obvious that we need to work hard to enable distributed working to become increasingly productive and fun. Already there isn’t an absolute “X is better” answer, and I hope we will add more to the nuance as we improve tools and processes.

My reality is that I have a fantastic distributed team, with some local focii, and I want to be attentive to that reality!

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