We love working remotely, learn why Blackfire became a remote-first company

By Marc Weistroff, on Jun 20, 2019

Since our early days in 2014, we experimented with a lot of different team structures.

At first, nearly everybody was in the same office. Now, the team is distributed and we intend to keep it that way. The Internet is built to free people from the tyranny of geography.

Working remotely is far from being devoid of challenges though, but it has tremendous qualities for both people and the company.

Whereas the main challenge in an open-plan office is the ability for an individual to focus and be in the zone, the main challenge of remote working is communication and bounding between team members.

So, how do we put the focus on deep meaningful work, while still creating bonds between members? It is an interesting question, but before answering it, we need to answer why we chose to work remotely.

Going distributed

Blackfire has a special history. It was first incubated at SensioLabs (creator of the Symfony Project) and then became an independent company in January 2018, in order to give it more space and agility for growth. The team dedicated to Symfony also became an independent company at the same time, for the same reasons.

The people who worked on these projects may work for different companies now, but they are the same people who worked at SensioLabs since 2013, or even earlier before. We have team members who, even if they did something else in between, started working for SensioLabs in 2009.

Needless to say, it is a striking difference for some companies where engineers come and go every 18 months in order to max their salary. We are proud of this fact, and we want to continue having a very low turn-over and foster long-lasting work relationships. We believe that this way, we will have more impact on the long-term.

When you aim to keep people for this long, you need to adapt to their life. Maybe they want to travel the world, maybe they want to go back to where they’re from, maybe they want to move to another city. Who knows? People are people and their personal life shouldn’t be tied to the company’s office location. We’re not a factory with heavy-weight machines. We’re a SaaS company and the only tools we have are either on our computers, or online.

Plus, we are knowledge workers and happiness is very important to produce our best work. Commuting rarely makes people happy.

Given this, Blackfire naturally became a distributed team. We now have people in Lille, Clichy, Bourges, Nantes, Lyon, Istanbul, and Bonn.

By being distributed, we free ourselves from hiring on a very specific location. It means that we can hire the people we think will be the best for the team, and the project. In return, they will be able to chose their work environments.

What’s easy in remote work: actually working

A lot of people think that the challenge of remote workers is motivation and focus. It is wrong. Usually, remote workers tend to work more than in-office workers.  The downside can be that some people would tend to feel that you should be ‘always-on’.

Remote working means that you need to have the discipline to connect and disconnect when you need. Do you need to enter the zone and go deep for hours?  No worries. Just catch up with the team when you can.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport states that we can ‘Deep Work’ a maximum of four hours each day. It means that the rest of the day can be spent doing less cognitively demanding tasks. Unless you’re on call, it’s ok to shut your email and slack for four hours everyday. Freeing ourselves from the tyranny of geography means that we should also free ourselves from the tyranny of always being online.

What’s hard in remote work: communicating and bonding

The real challenge in being a distributed team is all about communication and bonding. By being remote, it means that we have to switch from a mostly oral and synchronous culture to a mostly written and asynchronous culture.

Our set of tools to achieve that is pretty classic: we use emails and Github for asynchronous communication. We write a lot of things in repositories or in Github issues. It makes it easier to find, and it makes it easier for everybody to change.

For synchronous communication, we use Slack and Zoom. It is super handy to start a video-call quickly thanks to the `/zoom` command in Slack. Video calls have an excellent bandwidth to communicate ideas quickly. Typing always takes more time.

Until recently, we had virtual daily stand-ups every morning. But we think it is a remote-work anti-pattern and are in the process of switching to more meaningful ways to share work information and create daily social bonds.

We would like to reproduce the serendipity of coffee breaks or hallway-bumps in an office-based company. We all know that sometimes, key information are not shared in scheduled meetings but in random encounters at the vending machine. Creativity and innovation spark from these kind of random talks.

Of course we still do regular video meetings. We tend to keep them short, focused, and with only key people invited.

We are mostly in uncharted territories and we have to find what’s good for everyone in the team. Being skeptic of cargo-cults and being pragmatic are parts of our core values.

Meeting IRL as much as we can

While we’re proud to be distributed, we always look for opportunities to meet in person with some or all of team. Fortunately, we achieve to do that several times a year.

  • We sponsor many conferences. That’s usually a great moment to gather. Somebody in the team would do a talk. Others would chat with attendees at our booth, or do product demos. It’s a good time to crack jokes and have dinner together.
  • When necessary and possible, we travel to a convenient location so that we can focus and work together on a specific topic.
  • Twice a year, we have a company gathering in a nice place for a few days. So called “seminars”. Trainings, yearly debriefs, roadmap work. And fun!

These time spent together means that we know each other better. Knowing each other better in real life helps us everyday when we’re in the virtual space. We’re not strangers, we’re people who shared meals, stories and activities together.

Opening up

Blackfire stayed small for some years, but we are now growing and welcoming new people in the team. Growing means that we will face new challenges in our organization, and that we will have to adapt.

It is an exciting time for us, and we’re eager to welcome anyone to join us.

We value openness, humility, respect, pragmatism, and quality. We try everyday to be a people-first and work-smart company, following the lead of other companies like Basecamp for example.

If you feel you want to join our adventure, please take a look at our open positions.

Marc Weistroff

Marc learned to code as a kid thanks to the AmigaBASIC demos shipped with the Amiga500. Fascinated with cracktros, he then continued his programming exploration in the PC demoscene. He discovered web programming with PHP 3 and has since continued developing for the web. From backend, to frontend, to infrastructure technologies, he is always curious about technological evolutions in this space.