How Teams Work: Beau Lebens, Head of Engineering for WooCommerce at Automattic

Robin Johnson,Yellow Squiggle
Beau Lebens -- WooCommerce Automattic

Leading a team, especially a distributed or growing one, can be hard. Oftentimes the best advice and ideas come from other teams just like yours.

That’s why we launched Lead Time: How Teams Work.

This blog series profiles real teams, how they’re structured, and how they communicate through meetings and other touchpoints.

Plus, each article features a top-notch leader who's got proven tips and real stories to learn from.

Meet Beau Lebens — head of engineering for WooCommerce at Automattic

Beau Lebens leads WooCommerce's engineering organization—they’re part of the Automattic company along with, WPVIP, Tumblr, and more.

Automattic’s team has been fully distributed since the company launched in 2005.

On WooCommerce, Beau’s team consists of about 230 people across product teams, platform teams, quality, and testing.

They’re responsible for everything from the business’s open-source ecommerce platform to specific commercial products and services built to supplement it. They also operate a marketplace where people can buy third party solutions to help customize their WooCommerce presence.

Key facts:

  • Beau Lebens, Head of Engineering for WooCommerce at Automattic
  • Team of 230 people
  • Automattic has been fully distributed since inception (2005)

The team’s meetings and async touchpoints

Since they’re globally distributed, Beau’s team optimizes for as much async communication as possible. He says it’s not uncommon for many ICs to have just 1-2 video meetings per week.

“We treat synchronous time as the most valuable (and disruptive) time that we have. Because people are spread all over the world, and most teams are also spread across multiple time zones, defaulting to synchronous meetings just isn’t a good option for us.” — Beau Lebens, Head of Engineering for WooCommerce at Automattic

Team meetings

Each of the sub-teams in Beau’s org have somewhat different meeting schedules depending on their needs.

Here’s an example of what that might look like.

Weekly meetings

  • Team meetings: Most teams have a weekly general-purpose meeting to cover ongoing work, team check-ins around priorities, and personal check-ins to see how folks are doing.
  • When discussing in-flight work, they keep conversation focused around blockers and problems, rather than reporting progress—they cover those via written updates instead.
  • Leadership meeting: During this weekly business review, leadership tracks current performance against forecasts and plans. They also use the leadership meeting to discuss major blockers in cross-functional work, so the whole team can work together to get them back on track.
  • 1:1s: 1:1 meetings between managers and their reports are held either weekly or bi-weekly, depending on the individual's needs. It’s a space for coaching and mentorship—Beau encourages managers to use the time to get to know their report and what motivates them, and discuss their growth and goals.

“We expect all team leads to have regular contact with their direct reports, but don’t specifically dictate the cadence, duration, or format.” - Beau Lebens

Bi-weekly meetings

  • Product review: Product groups meet with leadership to review progress on key metrics, work through blockers, and share demos.
  • Sprint planning: During sprint planning, eng leads and product managers meet to review backlog items, decide what to focus on, and refine scope so the rest of the team knows what to focus on in the coming weeks.

Async touchpoints

Being a distributed group, Beau’s team leans heavily on async communication over meetings, as it tends to be more inclusive across time zones and is a more effective way to communicate things like progress and updates.

“Everything we do is optimized for async communication. If something is more of a status update, we move it to an async format unless there are actually blockers or problems to discuss.”- Beau Lebens

The team’s async toolkit:

  • P2: A collaborative workspace and knowledge base—for documenting important decisions, context, and updates, and collaborating on work in real-time.
  • Slack: For real-time back-and-forths and team connection
  • Google Workspace: For sharing docs and collaborating on them together
  • GitHub: For tracking and communicating around specific code-based tasks
  • TeamRetro: For facilitating meetings
  • Figma: For design and prototyping
  • FigJam: For collaborative brainstorming and ideation
  • Geekbot: For async daily standups
  • Email: Used very sparingly, mostly as a notification system for what’s happening across other tools

“We’re a writing-heavy culture, which means we expect things to be written down in a public place, and documented properly and ‘officially’.” — Beau Lebens

Beau’s top distributed work tips

1. Treat meetings as extremely high value

Being hyper-intentional with their use of meeting time (and keeping it to a minimum) has helped Beau’s team build more quickly and feel less drained from Zoom fatigue. It helps them get more out of the meetings they do have too, because people see the value of the time together and come ready to engage.

When you treat meetings as high value though, Beau says you’ve got to make sure you frequently check-in to see that they’re actually providing that value.

“Always question meetings—especially your recurring ones. If they’re not providing value then look for ways to either convert them to async processes, or eliminate them entirely.”Beau Lebens

2. Prioritize in-person meet-ups

For distributed teams, meeting physically plays a key role in team-building and cohesion. As much as Beau’s org works to prioritize connection remotely, in-person meet-ups still reign supreme when it comes to building empathy for one another.

For that reason, Beau encourages sub-teams to get together on a regular cadence for a mix of work and fun time together. They switch up locations each time to make sure it’s inclusive for teammates in different locales.

“Because we are a 100% distributed organization (and always have been), we’ve always actively included a bit more social time in our schedule to reinforce team bonds and cohesion.”Beau Lebens

Outside of these gatherings, the team also works to build smaller team-building activities into their daily and weekly rhythms. This helps them stay connected and continue to strengthen their relationships in between those bigger meet-up moments.

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How Teams Work: WooCommerce & Automattic
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