Fantasmo is a spatial data platform for capturing, storing, and managing anything from images to 3D data. Ryan Measel is the CTO and co-founder of Fantasmo. They are a small company with 7 employees in Venice, CA and 4 employees in Munich, Germany. We sat down to chat about how Ryan effectively manages an overseas team and helps all of his employees work at their full potential.
SwiftEngine: What was the first big challenge to having an overseas team?
Ryan Measel: Time zones is usually the first issue that comes up with an overseas team. Germany is 9 hours ahead of us. So they’re ending their day as we are starting ours. Finding time to communicate with them on a daily basis is something that has to be a priority. The first part of my day has to be portioned around talking to the team in Germany. Any sort of meetings or collaboration we schedule with them is first thing in the morning. It’s about managing your schedule and being flexible to accommodate the availability of your team. You can’t be unreasonable and call a meeting that puts your overseas team in the office at 10pm. Our sprint planning meetings and stand-up meetings all got shifted around to accommodate our distributed team.
SwiftEngine: Have any unexpected off schedule issues come up for you or the overseas team?
Ryan Measel: Our German team is mostly research and development. So none of our production assets are being run out of the overseas office. That helps alleviate any middle of the night emergencies for us. This is partially from design and partially from opportunity.
SwiftEngine: What roles does your Venice team take on separate from the Munich team?
Ryan Measel: The kind of workers we are targeting over in Europe are more of the academic type. So they tend to do a lot of the prototyping work and algorithm development. Whereas, our team in Venice is more focused on how we productize and get to market.
SwiftEngine: How were you able to achieve having no developers overseas?
Ryan Measel: The reason we have an office in Germany in the first place is because my co-founder, Jameson Detweiler, and I went to Drexel. While there, we connected with someone who went to Temple University nearby. This person was working on a project similar to the company we wanted to start. So the student put the two of us in touch with his advisor, Rolf, who happened to be from Germany. He agreed to work with us from Germany and head up a team over there. Which worked out well because TU Munich is a premiere engineering institution. There’s an incredible amount of talent coming out of that school. We’re using that as our pipeline to attract researchers who want to stay in Europe and work for something a little more future forward.
SE: As the team and company grows, how have you adapted as a manager?
RM: I came right out of an academic setting as well when I started this company. It wasn’t until about a year ago that we really started to scale up the team. Initially we didn’t have a lot of procedures in place because we didn’t really need it. We didn’t want to have a bunch of structured meetings and processes in place to feel like such a structured environment. But as the team started to scale, I very quickly saw the value in establishing some of those normal managerial practices. I see how beneficial these processes have been to bridge communication gaps that come from not being in the same physical location.
SE: What are some managerial practices that have changed the game for you?
RM: We have something almost everyday of the week that forces us to catch up with each other. We use Daily.co for these meetings, which is an incredible video conferencing service. And we’ll catch up outside of these structured meetings also. But having a central meeting point that brings us all together is great. For instance,
- Monday we do an All-Hands stand-up for the week. This way, everyone knows where people are travelling to and what’s happening within the company.
- Wednesday we have Journal Club. We take turns presenting to the team about work we’re doing, a new paper we find exciting, or a future topic we might be interested in. Since half of us come from an academic background, it’s a great way to keep up on current research and where everyone’s headed.
- Thursday we do all of our sprint planning meetings, which I break up according to each project. We have a specific sprint planning meeting and tracker for each project.
- Friday is One-on-One’s. I do this with everyone on the technical side, and Jameson does this with his direct reports as well. We take a half hour. The first 15 minutes is for the report to talk about whatever they want. The second half is for the manager to talk about whatever they need in relation to that person as well.
SE: What has been the most beneficial process out of these?
RM: The One-on-One’s. People are surprisingly candid when you give them that platform. It’s a great way to nip problems in the bud. Especially having a physical divide between the two offices, it’s very important that we are communicating where we are running into issues or having problems, and even praising wins that we have as well.
SE: How do you divvy out responsibility to your employees?
RM: We have a different lead for each project. So the leader on each project is in charge of running the sprint planning meetings and maintaining the tasks associated with each one. That way I’m not lording over every single project. I’m just there to assist and remove barriers when they arise. I also think it’s important to have people feel a sense of responsibility and ownership. We want to encourage our early employees to grow into their roles. They’re not just hired help.
SE: How have you seen these processes improve teamwork?
RM: We don’t have a long history of corporate work in our company. Most people are coming from school or an academic setting. So the journal club has been helpful to teach each other about what we’re each doing. And giving everyone the opportunity to be a project lead and dictate workflow has helped immensely. In the last 4-6 months that we’ve spent implementing these processes, we’ve seen a huge improvement in how our team works and operates with each other. We really just want to make sure we are not letting people work inside of a bubble. It’s not only about what they’re working on in a project, but sharing information about how we personally work is helpful too. Sharing things like how you navigate through your terminal or a cool new plug-in you found, is equally insightful. We try to make sure everyone has a good self process in place.
SE: What are some ways you achieve sharing more than just project information?
RM: We try to encourage that as an ad hoc manner. When we’re working as a team, I try to make it a point to bring those things up. I may ask “Oh I see you have this browser extension, can you show me what that does and how that works?”
SE: Are there procedures you went through when you were coming up that you found helpful?
RM: We went through an accelerator program when we started the company, Techstars Cloud 2015, and they had a tools meet-up. During this, each person had 5 minutes to describe three tools that were the most helpful to them, which could be anything from a calendar app to a syntax highlighter. I want to add one of these to our next All-Hands meeting.
SE: Has the team ever all been in the same place at once physically?
RM: We try to make sure we are seeing each other at least once a quarter. At the very least. Some of us will go over to Germany every so often or they will come here. We have yet to do a full on, everybody in one place, meeting since September. So we are due for one of those.
SE: Do you find that certain people learn in different ways and how do you accommodate that as a manager?
RM: We are certainly cognizant of the fact that people do learn in different ways. We make an effort to give people whatever platform they need to be the most efficient. One of our developers here likes to lay everything out and heavily document before he starts working on a project. He really likes to whiteboard and lay out all the pieces. So we went out and got him a large whiteboard and a magic pen for his ipad. That’s how he feels the most successful. So we want to encourage him to do that. Whereas, the guys in Munich are deep thinkers and they like to take academic papers and read them and sit with it for a few days to percolate. There’s nothing specific I need to give them for that other than the time and space to do it. I can’t keep poking them during that time because that doesn’t make them successful. I have to learn to give people what they need and not become a micromanager. And we can actually turn out a lot of work in a week without churning out a line of code. Partially in part to the nature of our work as well. It’s about being malleable enough to give people the opportunity to work optimally within their own environment.
SE: To you personally, what does it mean to be a good manager?
RM: I’m not bashful at all to say we have an excellent team. They are extremely skilled and intelligent. With that said, you don’t have to find the way for them. They will do that for themselves. The role of being a manager is being able to effectively set the goals and expectations for your team, and letting them find the best path to get to that point. That even extends down to how we write up project plans. We don’t do a very detailed, user story type approach. We go about one step higher on the abstraction. We try to say “here’s generally what is trying to be accomplished with this feature. Spend some time and figure what you feel is the best approach for you to reach that goal.” I feel like I’m doing my job when I’m the stupidest person in the room. I want to hire people that know more than me in each of their disciplines. We’re doing stuff with web, mobile, computer vision, sensors, etc. Every person we have on our team knows more than Jameson and I about their specific area. Being a manager is about trusting your employees to exercise their abilities.
SE: Are there tools you use that you find helpful with managing?
RM: Slack. We’re a Slack team. For one-on-one’s we will screen share over Slack. We don’t do any internal emails at all. If we are talking or leaving notes, it has to be through Slack. But we’ve also developed a culture where, using Slack doesn’t mean you have to respond right away. If you’re working on something, ignore the Slack notifications. The work is the priority. And then Daily.co for our video conferencing. We use Pivotal Tracker for our task management.
SE: How did you choose a task management tool?
RM: We looked at a few different tools for task management: GitHub Issues, Trello, JIRA, but settled on Pivotal Tracker. It’s the right mix of structured but not overbearing. There’s no perfect management tool. Is more about just being decisive. Just pick something and stick to it. That’s more important than what it is.
SE: What are the must-do’s as a Manager/CTO?
RM: One-on-one’s. I can’t recommend that enough; in tech or any field. If you have a report, you should be having a one-on-one with them on a regular basis. I will probably do that for that rest of my career. You thought your employees were smart enough to be hired, so be sure to give them a platform to voice their thoughts. Sometimes the meeting has to move, things happen. But always make sure the one-on-one takes place.
With regards to having people overseas, you have to find ways to talk to them. Document everything. Our team puts a lot of effort into documenting our code and developing requirements and specs when starting a project. It’s really important since half of our team is on a complete opposite schedule. We’ve certainly had weeks where client meetings or travel have gotten in the way, and I suddenly realize I haven’t talked to the Munich office in 3 days. That’s when it gets bad because then you can start to diverge. So I keep track on my computer of who I talk to each day. That way I know who I need to touch base with. And that check in is more of a chance for me to see if I can be helpful. I want to be able to remove roadblocks and make sure we are all moving in harmony. Communication without the micromanagement is key.