One year ago I joined GitLab as a Solution Architect. In this blog post I do not want to focus on my role, my daily work or anything pandemic related. Also, there won’t be a huge focus in regard to all remote working. I rather want to focus on my personal experiences in regard to the work culture. I’ll focus on things which I certainly did not think about before I joined GitLab (or any other company before).
Before joining GitLab I worked for four German companies. As a German with a Sri-Lankan Tamil heritage I was always a minority at work. Most of the time it wasn’t an issue. At least that’s what I thought. At all those previous companies there were mostly white male and with very few (or even none) non-males especially in technical and leading roles. Nowadays, I realize what a huge difference a globally distributed company makes with people from different countries, cultures, background and gender.
There were sooo many small things which makes a difference and which opened my eyes.
People are pronouncing my name correctly
Some of you might (hopefully) think:
Wait that was an issue!?
Yes, yes it was. And it was super annoying. Working in a globally distributed companies means that the default behavior is: People are asking how to correctly (!) pronounce the full (!) name. It’s a simple question, and it directly shows respect even if you struggle to pronounce it correctly on the first time. My name is transcribed from Tamil to English. So the average colleagues simply tries to pronounce it in English, and it’s perfect and that includes the German GitLab colleagues. In previous jobs there were a lot of colleagues who didn’t ask, and I was “the person with the complicated name”, “you know who” or some even called me “Sushiwahn”. One former colleague referenced me to the customer in a phone call as “the other colleague”. That was not cool. If you wonder on how to pronounce my name: I uploaded a recording on my profile website on sujeevan.vijayakumaran.com. I should’ve done that way earlier.
The meaning/origin of my name
I never really cared about the meaning of my name. So many people have asked me if my name has a meaning or what the origin was. I didn’t know, and I also didn’t really care. My mum always simply told me “Your name has style”. My teammate Sri one day randomly dropped a message in our team channel:
If you break down your name into the root words, it basically translates to “Good Life (Sujeevan) Prince Of Victory (Vijayakumaran).
That blew my mind 🤯.
#BlackLivesMatter and #StopAsianHate
So many terrible things happened in the last year in the world. When these two movements appeared it was a big topic in the company. Even with messages in our #company-fyi channel which is normally used for company related announcements. While #BlackLivesMatter was covered in the German media, #StopAsianHate was not really covered in the German media at all.
Around the time of #BlackLivesMatter my manager asked in our team meeting how/if it affects us even if we - in our EMEA team – are far away from the US. I had the chance to share stories from my past which wouldn’t have happened for the average white person in a white country. This never happened in any other company I worked before. When the Berlin truck attack at a Christmas market (back in 2016) happened it was a big topic at lunchtime with the colleagues. When a racist shot German Migrants in Hanau in February 2020 it was not really a topic at work. At one of the attacks Germans were the victims in the other it were migrants. Both shootings happened before I joined GitLab. When there was a shooting in Vienna in November 2020 colleagues directly jumped into the local Vienna channel and asked if everyone is somewhat okay. See the difference!
We have a #lang-de Channel for German (the language not the country!) related content. There are obviously many other channels for other languages. What surprised me? There were way more people outside of Germany without a German background who are learning or trying to learn German. It’s a small thing but it’s cool! There were many discussions about word meanings and how to handle the German language. Personally that got me thinking if I should pick up learning French again.
Meanings of Emojis
There are a lot of emojis. Specially in Slack. At the beginning it was somewhat overwhelming, but I got used to it. One thing which confused me right after I joined was the usage of the 🙏🏻 emoji. Interestingly the name of the emoji is simply “folded hands”. But what is the meaning of it? When I first saw the use of it I was somewhat confused. For me as a Hindu it’s clearly “praying”. The second meaning which comes to my mind is use of it as a form of greeting – see Namaste. However, there are so many colleagues who use it for some sort of “thanks”. Or even “sorry”. Emojis have different meanings in different cultures!
Different People – Different Mindsets
Since GitLab is an all-remote company our informal communication is happening in Slack channels and in coffee chats in Zoom calls. In the first weeks I scheduled a lot of coffee chats to get to know my teammates and some other colleagues in other teams. The most useful bot (for me) in Slack is the Donut Bot which randomly connects two persons every two weeks. I don’t have to take care to randomly select people from different teams and department. And honestly I most likely would be somewhat biased when I would cherry-pick people to schedule coffee chats.
So every two weeks I get matched with some “random” person. This lowers the bar to talk to someone from some other department where I (shamefully) thought: “Oh that role sounds boring to me.” But if it sounds boring to me that’s the first sign that I should talk to them. Without the Donut Bot I would’ve most likely not talked to someone from the Legal department, just to give one small example. And there were also a lot of engineers who didn’t really talk to someone from Sales, like I am part of the Sales team. Even though we do not need to talk about work related stuff I generally learned something new when I leave the conversation at the end.
However, the more interesting part is to get to know all the different people in the different countries and continents with different cultures. There are many colleagues who left their home country and live somewhere else. The majority of these people are either in the group “I moved because of my (previous) work” or “I moved because of my partner”. The most surprising sentence came from a Canadian colleague though:
I’m thinking of relocating to Germany for a couple of years since it’s easily possible with GitLab. All my friends here are migrants and I really want to experience how it is to learn a new language and live in another country.
That was by far the most interesting reason I heard so far! Besides that my favorite question I ask those people who moved away from their home country is what they’re missing and what they would miss if they moved back. This also leads to some fascinating stories. Most of them are related to food, some to specific medicine and some reasons are even “I like the $specific_mentality over here which I would miss”.
I left out the more obvious parts of a globally distributed team like getting to know how life is in the not-so-rich countries of the world. Also, I finally understood what the difference between the average German is compared to the average Silicon Valley person. The latter is way more open to a visionary goal while the average German wants to keep their safe job for a long time (yes, even in IT).
Mental Health Awareness
We have a lot of content related to Mental Health which I still need to check out. It’s a super important topic on so many different levels. At all my previous employers this was not a topic at all. I might even say it’s generally a taboo topic. One thing which I definitely did not expect was the introduction of the Family and Friends day which was introduced in May 2020 shortly after I joined the company and it happened nearly every month since then and was introduced because of the COVID-Lockdowns. On that day (nearly) the whole company has a day off to spend time with their family and friends. My German friends reaction to that was something like:
Wait didn’t you join a hyper-growth startup-ish company? That doesn’t sound like late-stage capitalism what I would have expected!
In addition to that, there’s also a #mental-health-aware Slack channel where everyone can talk about their problems. I was really surprised to see so many team members to share their problems and what they are currently struggling with. I couldn’t have imagined that people share very personal stories in the company and that includes people sharing their experince with getting help from a therapist.
As someone who is somewhat an introvert who struggles to talk to a lot of people in big groups in real life this past year (and a few more months) has been relatively easy to handle in this regard as I only met four team members in person so far. However, the first in-person company event is coming up, and I’m pretty confident that getting in touch with a lot of mostly unknown people will be easier than at other companies I’ve worked for so far.
Things which I totally expected
There are still things which I expected to work as intended. Here’s a short list:
- All Remote and working async works pretty damn good and I really don’t want to go back to an office
- Spending company money is easy and definitely not a hassle
- Not having to justify how and when I exactly work is a huge relief
- Not being forced to request paid time off is an unfamiliar feeling at the beginning, but I got used to it pretty quickly
- Working with people with a vision who can additionally identify with the company is great
- No real barriers between teams and departments
- Values matter
For me personally GitLab has set the bar for companies I might work for in the future pretty high. That’s good and bad at the same time ;-). If you want to read another story of “1 year at GitLab” I can highly recommend the blogpost of dnsmichi from a month ago.