Ushahidi: Good ideas and great talent can come from anywhere

Great technology doesn’t have to come from Silicon Valley or established tech hubs like NYC or London.

In case of Ushahidi (“testimony” in Swahili), their technology was born out of necessity and need for safety after the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. Emerging from Nairobi, Ushahidi now employs more than 30 people all over the world and helps global audience raise their voice thanks to crowdsourcing tools.

Chatting across eight timezones, we talked with their Bay Area based COO Nathaniel Manning.

Nathaniel, how did you join Ushahidi?

I was in a programme here in Silicon Valley which was all about how technology can solve big problems in the world, like poverty or water issues.

Juliana, the executive director at Ushahidi at that time, was speaking at the programme. She was the only one who was actually from the developing world at this swanky Silicon Valley event. The founders of Ushahidi built a tech company that was meant to solve this type of problems and were actually from the places where these problems exist. That was the big thing that inspired me to get involved.

What led the founders decide that Ushahidi was going to be a remote company?

It was remote from the beginning.

Back to the beginnings, the four founders wanted to understand and know what’s happening when their country broke into a lot of violence and civil war post election in 2009. One of them was in Kenya at that time, the others were elsewhere. They wanted to know what’s going on, where is the violence taking place, what’s happening in the neighbourhood where their families live. So they created Ushahidi.

We’re open sourced software and because of that, at the beginning there were a lot of volunteering developers and contributors, which is often a remote process. Our roots are in the open source world, it let us be remote.

How is the remote aspect reflected in your role?

I love the flexibility. I end up waking up early a lot. I live in the pacific time zone, in Bay Area, which means I’m kind of at the end of the world from this perspective. I usually get up pretty early, jump on the phone and spend there more or less all morning. Then I have the afternoon to focus on work, on writing, dealing with whatever needs to be done.

I tend to like working from home. Sometimes I drop in the coworking spaces but from the logistics perspective since I spend a lot of time on the phone with my team, coworking spots are a little bit hard for that.

What challenges and issues do you see in remote work?

One is definitely the managing of performance and expectations. The tricky part is that in remote work people can very easily fall off and you don’t really catch it that quickly.

If someone doesn’t show up in an office, it’s pretty obvious. In remote work when someone doesn’t show up it might take a couple of weeks until you notice that they are not doing anything.

You are really trusting everybody to put in a full week’s worth of work. We don’t ask people to count hours, you’re just really hoping that people are working. We have had it happen on occasion when people took advantage of that and it kinda sucks.

Secondly, sometimes you can’t get so much done. It’s a very different experience being on a phone call than it is being in a room with a white board. It’s hard to have a long, multiple hour conversation withouth the whiteboard, on the phone call people check email often... You do lose a little bit of that brainstorming capacity.

If you’re completely remote you have to put the effort in the culture and create that time around the time. You don’t get that water cooler aspect. People get pretty fun and goofy on chat but that’s not the same. And it’s always something good to work on so people can bond around that.

How does Ushahidi make sure that remote employees feel as a part of the company and company culture?

Company culture has been one of the things that is strongest about Ushahidi and one of the things I’ve just loved about it for years. There’s a couple of different themes to our culture.

We work extremely internationally. Thirty people come from eight different countries. If you look at our about page, there are people from all over the world, it’s extremely diverse. That’s a really cool part about our culture, bringing people together from all over and acknowledging that great talent and great ideas really come from anywhere. Tech companies don’t have to be from Silicon Valley.

We’re trying to change the standard, the norm of the development industry. Our mission is to change and revolutionize the way information flows and we’re trying to make the information flow from bottom up, not just top down.

All of our software developers are ninjas, all of our non software developers are pirates, we have t-shirts and goofy games we do at our annual retreat.

That’s a big part of our company culture. We have our values and culture dock we try to live by.

We’re in this interesting space. We’re mission driven as a non profit that tries to do good in the world and we’re also a tech company. On one hand we’re very geeky, we get involved a lot and we talk a lot about privacy and technology. On the other hand we talk about international development, human rights, freedom of speech.

At Ushahidi you have an interesting job perk - allowance for a coworking space. Are there any other benefits tailored specifically to remote employees?

The allowance for coworking is basically for anyone who is not in Nairobi. In Nairobi we built the iHub which is a local tech coworking hub. It has 16,000 members and that’s were our offices are. But even there, there are no expectations of nine to five, people are welcome to come when traffic allows. Some people get there mad early, some get in a little later as they try to avoid the insanity of traffic in Nairobi around the rush hour.

We also provide health care no matter where you are, that’s another key employee benefit.

Teams have annual budgets to do team meetings - for instance, product managers bring together their team somewhere in the world where they spend a week working. We also have an annual trip once a year. Last year we went on a ranch outside Austin, Texas, two years ago it was in Kenya.

How does remote communication look like in Ushahidi?

The stuff we’re constantly on are Slack for chat, Hangouts for calls, Google Docs for real time working, GitHub for everything that has to do with code and tasks and Dropbox for storage of finished documents.

As a tech company we’ve been testing all sorts of different things. We started on Skype but grew to be too big so we switched to Hipchat and a few months ago we switched to Slack, which is working great.

From a documents point of view we use a ton of Google Docs, it's a fantastic tool for organizations to collaborate.

Our dev team does pretty much everything on GitHub, we couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for GitHub.

Internally, we switched to Hangouts. It’s really nice to be able to just click and be on the Hangouts, that makes it very easy. We do our weekly all hands call, which has over 30 of us, on WebEx. And then we have a lot of client calls on Skype.

Project management software is the one where we haven’t really cracked it yet. We use Basecamp but we don’t use it well. I don’t think it really solves the problem we need, which is managing tasks.

The dev team handles that very well internally. They have been on Github with their own developer tools so they’re pretty much fine. But for the rest of us who are not doing the coding work it’s hard and it’s kind of all over the place.

Another tool we use is Pipedrive to manage all of our CRM.

We also use a tool called Know your company, which is very low-key but kinda cool. It sends three emails a week to the team - on Monday it asks “What are you doing this week?” on Wednesday it asks something that is company related, like “Do you understand and believe in the mission?” or “Do you think there are some benefits you think we can offer that we don’t?” and on Friday it asks something personal, like “What’s your favourite food?”

Every week it generates different questions. It’s really simple, it comes to your email inbox and it sends out all the replies your team answered. About a third of the team answers every time so you get to see people’s replies and it builds community.

Looking at your profile you look like a super busy person with lots of projects going on. What is your advice on productivity and staying organized?

I’m not the one to answer that, I always think I can do better.

I use the notes function on my phone, it’s very simple and low-key but it has worked very well for me over the years. There’s notes on my Mac and on my phone and they both sync. Each week I open up a new note underneath Ushahidi and I just create my to do list for the week, then I check things off as they’re gone and add new ones as they come up.

My advice is to document your tasks and prioritize them. I spend a lot of time on calls but I try to minimize them, I don’t like to have calls for calls’ sake. But it’s also very important that we do face time so I’m just balancing that all the time. I tried to do no screens after dinner, except when I have something to do for the next day.

Anther most important thing about working remotely is that documentation is absolutely essential. You really have to take notes on all your calls and be very clear on what the to do’s are and you have to record them somewhere, for the benefit of everybody.

Lastly, make sure to get outside. Take some walks every day, it’s good for the brain.

What are your views on the remote work trend?

It’s wonderful. I don’t think it’s for everybody and for every company. There are real pros and cons. In some ways it makes for a great lifestyle. We have a lot of parents on our team and they absolutely love it. You can spend time with your kids and work around that. But you really have to be a disciplined person. You have to work around the time, like grab a half an hour and do some work there and then you need to go somewhere else… It takes a lot of personal discipline.

It also lets an organization have access to way more talent. All the best developers in the world don’t live in Silicon Valley.

But it gets a little lonely sometimes. One of the most frustrating things is that when we all meet up for a week, we’re like “Oh my god, we have so much done, what would it be like if we were actually in the same room all the time. Wouldn’t it be that much more effective?”

Yes and no, it might be like anywhere else - you’re just a cog in the office. You really have to be inspired by the mission of your organization and be committed to it. There are days when there’s just no one there to check you’re working. You have to love what the company does. That’s important particularly in remote work. Otherwise it can only last so long.

One of the coolest benefits of it all is the diversity of a small group. You can get a very diverse company working at places like Google because they have offices and staff all over the world, but being in a company with thirty, forty people is different. People come from 10 different countries and it’s cool. So you get both, the small team and global diversity at the same time. That’s possible only in remote companies. But it takes a great leadership, leaders gotta lead.

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