Short Toes: How GitLab's Values Shape Company Documentation

Darren Murph, Head of Remote, explains how GitLab's values influence the company's approach to documentation.

by Rebecca Acree May 27, 2021

While many companies are navigating the challenges of remote work for the first time, for GitLab, it's nothing new. The company has been fully-remote since its inception, and has over 1,300 employees in 65 countries around the world. As the San Francisco Chronicle puts it, "GitLab was remote before remote was cool."

Darren Murph has been GitLab's Head of Remote since 2019, and perhaps unsurprisingly, is now a wildly in-demand resource for advice on navigating the brave new world of remote work. We sat down with Murph to learn how his team has shaped a culture of documentation to match their company values.

A Single Source of Truth

According to Murph, the first thing to know is that companies need a single source of truth to operate effectively. What they do and how they do it must be written down, and it can't be stale or stagnant. Company documentation should be a living, breathing thing, something that employees are motivated to actively invest in, beyond just looking up information when they have questions. "It can't be just this reference thing," Murph says. "It has to be the heartbeat of where work happens."

Now that so many companies around the globe are working remotely — and many plan to do so indefinitely — the need for this kind of deeply-ingrained documentation is stronger than ever.

“You need a single source of truth. If you have multiple sources of truth, organizationally, people will have less faith and understanding that [the information] matters and they can trust it.”
Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab

CREDIT Where Credit Is Due

GitLab has six core values: collaboration, results, efficiency, diversity & inclusion, iteration, and transparency (CREDIT). Each of these values drives the company's approach to documentation and ensures that every employee is empowered to do their best work.

Collaboration

Every employee at GitLab is encouraged to contribute. This applies to everything from small daily tasks all the way up to the CEO's work. Team, title, and tenure are all secondary to the spirit of open communication. As GitLab puts it, its employees have "short toes" — meaning it's not possible to step on anyone's toes, because collaboration is always welcomed. Being able to contribute to high-level projects like the company handbook gives employees a sense of ownership and buy-in from day one.

Results

GitLab's commitment to results extends to every aspect of its work, including documentation practices. The team keeps a close eye on when the various sections of the company handbook were last updated, and page maintainers receive regular pings to remind them to keep content fresh. This way, the handbook adapts alongside the company in real time.

GitLab's CEO, Sid Sijbrandij, worked on the earliest versions of the company handbook, including a section that explained how to use it. This section was shown to all new hires — they came in with no deep understanding of the company culture and processes but still could follow the steps in the handbook to start contributing right away. As Murph says, it's helpful to have documentation be a single employee's job, but it's better to be able to make it everyone's job.

Eventually, though, the company grew to the point that an official role was needed to support its dedication to remote work, and thus the Head of Remote role was born. Together, GitLab and Murph pioneered the role to adapt the company's workflows to be remote-first.

As the company's documentation on the Head of Remote role notes, working remotely is too important to leave to chance. For large companies, the benefit of this role is clear, but Murph recommends hiring a chief documentarian for companies that aren't yet ready for a Head of Remote. A chief documentarian will codify the ways the company works, which is essential for a successful remote culture. This person needs strong editorial skills and journalistic thinking, so ex-editors, publishers, or internal communications managers have ideal backgrounds, according to Murph. After all, "a company is a series of stories," he says, so companies need someone who understands those stories and can document them accordingly.

“A company is a series of stories.”
Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab

Efficiency

Sometimes, employees don't want to take the time to write because it feels inefficient and slow. This can be true on a micro level, but on the macro level, the value of documentation is hard to understand — it has a "compounding interest," according to Murph. So GitLab spends time helping its employees understand how documentation helps them to share knowledge and "pay it forward."

This is especially true in today's increasingly remote environment — "writing well just went from a 'nice-to-have' skill to an absolute business essential skill in a post-COVID world," says Murph. But what does it mean to write well? Murph identifies effective communication as a key challenge that companies must overcome if they want to invest in documentation. He recommends utilizing a learning and development team to create writing curriculum. In the absence of a dedicated L&D team, an existing employee who demonstrates strong writing skills can lead the way. Resources like Udemy's Better Business Writing Skills or Stephen King's On Writing can serve as a starting point.

Diversity & Inclusion

GitLab's commitment to diversity and inclusion drives the company to hire across the globe, and this makes documentation all the more important. Asynchronous communication is used whenever possible in order to be inclusive of employees in various timezones and on different schedules, and everyone is encouraged to default to documentation above all else.

"People at GitLab are resistant to changes that aren't documented," according to Murph. Decisions and changes may occasionally rolled out via Slack, email, or other communication tools, but they're not real until they're officially documented.

Iteration

Iteration has been key to GitLab's success with documentation. The company handbook is one of the most thorough and high-quality in existence, and that didn't happen overnight. "It's a journey of iteration," says Murph. He recommends starting at the most basic level of company information — mission and values. Investing in this first builds a strong foundation for documentation to come. Then, each team writes down how they work and what they do. This is, and will always be, a work in progress. According to Murph, nothing is assumed, and therefore constant input and iteration is necessary to success. "You want to do all you can to empower people to update," he says, so that "everyone's bought in."

Transparency

From the very first day of their tenure at GitLab, employees opt into a working environment in which everything is written and read. This is clearly communicated throughout the hiring process, so it tends to already be the preferred MO of new employees — like attracts like. As Murph explains, "If it's not in the handbook, it doesn't exist." This ensures that every employee is operating from the same well of information, thus leveling the playing field and making teamwork and decision-making far more efficient.

“If it's not in the handbook, it doesn't exist.”
Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab

In fact, GitLab takes transparency so seriously that it publishes its handbook for anyone in the world to access. "Everything we do is public by default," the handbook reads. By documenting everything and being highly transparent with that documentation, GitLab reduces barriers to feedback and contribution not only internally, but externally as well.

Handbook-first documentation is key to GitLab's success

As a company grows, as does the need for formal documentation, along with the cost of avoiding it. GitLab scales by documenting, and the results speak for themselves — their handbook is over 10,000 pages, and the company is one of the largest all-remote organizations in the world.

This achievement requires constant attention and commitment, but it pays off. As Murph says, "The work has to end up in the handbook…if you tie the work to the handbook, it becomes easy. You don't have to force people to do anything. It is where your work happens."

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