Distributed Everything: Work, Companies & Socializing

image of author Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy


4 min read

Two people putting together lego pieces

The Frustrating New Normal

If you know me, you know I don’t like this new normal. I don’t like being told I can’t travel, eat out, or even have in-person interactions with friends and co-workers. There’s something profoundly inhuman about these restrictions. Most people agree, whether or not they believe the restrictions are justified.

I happen to belong to an extraordinarily privileged group because I work in software. In fact, by almost any measure, my professional life has gotten better thanks to Covid. And that’s true for all my peers. Most of us, I think, are happy for our work to continue being organized as it is, and some of us have been driving towards this for a long time, despite a lot of resistance.

Distributed Work

I haven’t worked in a proper office since 2003. Almost 20 years. I hired my first remote developers in 1995. I was working in New York and the banks were absorbing all the tech talent. We only had a few recruiting advantages:

  • we let our developers wear anything they wanted,
  • had an open-plan workspace, and
  • had a pull-out couch

in our library. At the time, even developers had to wear suits if they worked for a bank, and a lot of them hated it. And if they slept at work it was under their desk, not on a pull-out couch.
Despite our “perks”, we still had a difficult time.

One day I ran across a brilliant developer in Spain, and hired him. Our CEO thought I was nuts, and to some extent, he was right. This was before the existence of any software to support remote work. SVN – nevermind git – didn’t exist. Skype hadn’t been invented. We talked by telephone, and ftp’ed our work back and forth. We made it work.

A few months later I hired a developer in Australia, and another in New Zealand.

Since we didn’t have universal weather apps most of our phone calls started with a weather update. In the dead of New York winters we were always jealous to hear about the mild weather in Spain and the beach weather in the antipodes.

Distributed Companies

Over time the idea of distributed work caught on and stopped being so controversial, but most of the distributed work was either technical or low-skilled. Conventional wisdom said that a company could only be effectively run if the core team was in the same place.

Until a few years ago most VCs wouldn’t fund a company that wasn’t centralized in that way. As recently as last January a friend of mine, who happens to be a VC, took to Twitter to denounce the silly idea that distributed companies could ever be efficient. I like to remind him of this when he tells me about the deals he’s considering today.

Thanks to Covid, Toucan is at the extreme end of this trend. Not only do the five founders live in four different countries, we all live in different timezones. We founded the company almost a year ago. In normal times we would have gotten together in person at least three or four times by now.

But these aren’t normal times.

Distributed Socializing

We haven’t met in person since we incorporated. In fact, two of the founders I’ve never met in person. Not once. I couldn’t tell you what they look like below the neck. By now we know each other well, but I’m sure we’ll all be surprised when we finally meet. If we ever meet.

It’s odd that that’s even a question, but given the state of the world, it is.

We know we have a lot in common. We all ski/snowboard, play tennis, and love to play games. We play charades and other games on Toucan whenever we need a break from work. Like most founders, we know a lot about each other’s day-to-day circumstances as well as our likes and dislikes. A year ago I would have told you this wasn’t possible. Although we had a lot of remote work tools, we didn’t have a platform on which to comfortably socialize. Now we do.

Working distributed is painless now. But I will always miss heading out to Chinatown at 4AM with the team after getting a new release out the door. Nothing will ever taste as good as that first Tsingtao toasting another accomplishment, together.

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About author

image of author Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy

Toucan co-founder.
Rabbi, driving instructor, and acrobat in parallel universes.

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