For anyone who meets GitLab founder Sytse ‘Sid’ Sijbrandij (42) for, for example, an interview, a special page has been set up on the GitLab website. Complete with ‘coaching and context’ that should help to make the conversation with the CEO as pleasant as possible.
For example, it is good for Sijbrandij’s interlocutor to know that he sometimes lets an awkward silence fall. “Don’t bother with (apparently) unpleasant silences. Sid likes to have time to analyze and organize his thoughts,” the website reads. “Silence is not a sign of disapproval.”
Another tip: Sijbrandij “does well in unscripted interviews, but prefers questions that are first added to the meeting invitation per Google doc.” NRC, who spoke to Sijbrandij for twenty-five minutes via Zoom, announced three topics in advance: management style, working without an office and his relationship with the Netherlands. Deviating from the topics during the conversation was not a problem, but time was tightly guarded.
Sytse Sijbrandij and his company love efficiency. The interview tips page is part of what they call ‘the handbook’ at GitLab, a digital document that, in printed form, spans over three thousand pages. It is the beating heart of the San Francisco tech company, which is one of the largest open sourceplatforms in the world. Software developers use the platform to co-program.
In the handbook, GitLab documents everything that concerns the company under the company motto of ‘conscious transparency’. Much of it shares it with the outside world. From quarterly goals and strategic plans to the weekly and monthly meetings, as well as photos of employees’ pets. For all projects, GitLab keeps a record of every step in a document, and meetings are minuted by default. Many meetings are available for everyone to watch via YouTube.
GitLab (1,500 employees, annual turnover $152.2 million) was founded in 2011 by Ukrainian Dmytro Zaporozhets. In 2012, he came into contact with Sijbrandij from Hengelo, who had studied industrial engineering at the University of Twente and subsequently worked for a manufacturer of submarines and the Ministry of Justice. Together they started GitLab.com.
In 2015, Sijbrandij – “in the Netherlands my name is Sytse, in America my name is Sid” – moved to San Francisco, after he signed up with GitLab for the famous start-up accelerator Y-Combinator, a coaching program for promising young tech companies in Silicon Valley. That’s where GitLab took off.
In October of this year, the company went public in New York. That made Sijbrandij, who owns a fifth of the shares, one of the richest Dutch people. He has an estimated net worth of approximately $2.5 billion.
Read more about participating in Y-Combinator: ‘Growing course for start-ups: ‘Describe in fifty letters what you do’
Sijbrandij may be relatively unknown to the general public in the Netherlands, but GitLab is getting a lot of attention in the United States because of its atypical corporate culture. It has not had a physical office since its inception: all employees work from home offices, in dozens of countries. According to Sijbrandij, the almost religiously professed transparency helps to increase the effectiveness of working remotely and in different time zones.
The handbook lists eight of your weaknesses as a manager. For example: ‘Sometimes a suggestion can come across as an order. It’s okay to talk to me about that.” For what purpose are you doing this?
“I try to show the outside world how I communicate. If I didn’t, someone would have to find that out in a conversation with me. This is much more effective. Take those silences. I’m a bit more quiet than most people. This can make my conversation partner insecure and think: am I doing it right? If I can spare a few people that feeling through the manual, that’s a win.”
The higher your position, the more vulnerable you have to be
It is not very common for a director of a listed company to be so vulnerable
Sijbrandij is silent for a moment. He is thinking. “The higher your position in your company, the more vulnerable you have to be to compensate for that. The best top executives are vulnerable. The worst drivers are constantly reminding others of their title.”
Don’t investors get nervous when you share your plans and quarterly goals with everyone?
“One of our investors once nearly had a heart attack when he saw us posting our quarterly targets online. He thought we were doing it by accident and called in panic. By now everyone knows that we work this way and why we do it. You can keep everything a secret, but how do your employees know what your strategy is? Many employees feel completely disconnected from the strategy of the company where they work. Everyone should know what we do and what we stand for.”
Your handbook page states that you would like to schedule appointments of 25, 50 or 80 minutes. We’re talking 25 minutes now. How do you arrive at such a plan?
“I think it is very important that appointments start exactly on time. You need some time between appointments to get a drink or feed your cat, so scheduling meetings exactly one after the other won’t work. That’s how I get to those 25 minutes.”
Sijbrandij likes structure. His alarm goes off every morning at half past six, he says. He starts exercising from a quarter to six to a quarter to seven. Calling appointments start at 7:30 am and continue until 6:00 pm.
Sijbrandij has a desk with a treadmill – a treadmill desk – to prevent him from sitting too much and suffering from a sore foot, which kept him sideways for a while in 2018. He works with three computer screens, and behind him has a green screen, to which he during the interview with NRC projects a blue wall with a GitLab logo.
A comfortable home office is important, because GitLab has no headquarters. While many companies are only now experimenting with remote working due to the corona pandemic, GitLab has never done anything different. For the form, GitLab has listed Sijbrandij’s home address as correspondence address on the website: 268 Bush Street 350 in San Francisco. He recently moved, he says. “We’ll have to get that address off the website.”
What is it like to work without an office?
“Super easy. Working without an office is not difficult, but organizing collaboration between employees in different time zones. We have colleagues in numerous time zones. Then it is not easy to quickly ask someone something. That is why we record everything, so that you do not have to wait for an answer from a colleague who happens to be sleeping. You open a document of the project you’re working on and can see how it’s going, without having to think about what you need to know first.”
When do you miss an office or physical meeting?
„Before the pandemic, we all got together once a year [onder meer in Kaapstad, Kreta en Amsterdam] – also to get a sense of how big the company actually is. You go for a walk, have casual conversations and talk about everything with each other in a very informal way. We had to cancel that because of corona and that is a shame.”
In the Netherlands we see that people at many companies go back to the office as soon as possible. How do you look at that?
“For many companies, working in the office works fine. What I now mainly see as a risk: companies that will work hybrid, so partly at home and partly at the office. I think the people who always work remotely will then be left out and have fewer career opportunities.
„We are now seeing in the United States that more and more companies all remote go: without an office at all. We notice that: our employees, who are very committed to this, now have more companies to choose from. That means more competition for us.
“At the same time, the most important thing is that the entire world population is now aware of remote working. A lot of people say: that really works great for me. Some of them will choose to work for an all remote company. Then we are high on the wish list.”
Is it true that you left the Netherlands because things were not progressing fast enough at the organizations you worked for?
“I always like going faster than slower, yes.”
What you have now set up in Silicon Valley could you also have done in the Netherlands?
“Look at Mollie, look at Adyen. You can also build a great tech company in the Netherlands.”
But could you have done it?
“I need an environment where everyone wants to go really fast. I noticed that not everyone in the Netherlands always felt the urgency that I did. If I say here: this has to happen within a few days, then it will happen. So all respect for the entrepreneurs who manage to set up a large company in the Netherlands. Trust me, it’s harder than in Silicon Valley.”
Also read an interview that NRC had in June with Mollie founder Adriaan Mol: ‘I don’t like being the boss’
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on December 18, 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of December 18, 2021