In this episode of the Open Source Cafe, Community Classroom’s Kunal Kushwala interviews Sema’s Matt Van Itallie who shares his thoughts about communication best practices.
Community Classroom believes that every student, irrespective of their college or branch, can make it big. Community Classroom is an initiative built on this thought. The organization, founded by Kunal Kushwaha, provides free hands-on training and mentorship in an inclusive community.
- Why does Communication Matter?
- Communicating in Interviews
- Establishing Team Communication
- Asking Questions
- Why Feedback Matters
- Feedback Culture and Being Specific
This conversation has been edited for clarity, context, and annotations.
Kunal: Welcome back to another episode of the Open Source Cafe.This is our third session with Sema — we’re doing a nice little mentorship series formed around questions you ask us. If you want to have more sessions, keep asking more good questions!
Speaking of asking good questions, that’s what we’re talking about today. It’s an extremely important topic that will take you a long way. Matt from Sema is joining us again — Hey Matt! Thanks for joining us and welcome back to the channel. Can you reintroduce yourself for those who may not already be familiar with you?
Matt: Sure, thanks again Kunal. It’s such a pleasure to talk with you and get such great questions from the folks who follow you, and I always have fun doing this. I’m Matt Van Itallie and I’m the founder and CEO of a company called Sema. I live in Maryland outside Washington, DC, in the United States.
Sema is focused on building tools to help make code quality better and help developers improve their careers. We’re really passionate, I would say obsessed with making code better, and helping engineers learn more and be more successful and fulfilled in their careers.
I’ve had the good fortune to have some interesting professional experiences along the way. I coded starting when I was very little and then worked in technology, in governments, in school districts, and some really great software companies, and put together all of that to build Sema. We’re a global team with 45 of us around the world with incredible energy, and I’m extremely proud of our team and so proud of what we’re building together.
Why does communication matter?
Kunal: Amazing. If you want to hear more about previous conversations with Matt and me on some great life topics and career conversations, you can check out the page commclassroom.org/sema , where I’ve listed everything we’ve talked about so far. You can find transcripts and blogs for these sessions. But today, we’re talking about communication best practices. Why do good communication skills matter, especially now, when most companies are adopting a remote work culture?
Matt: Of course, being able to be good at “the work” matters, becoming a better coder, or other kinds of technologist, that matters. But the further you get in your career, the more important it is to be able to talk about your work, listen to others, receive communication and act on it. Even at the earliest stages, the better you are at communicating, the more successful you’re going to be.
Further in your career, for instance, as a manager, your role is mainly about communicating. This can be communicating to your team or communicating from your team up to other members of the organization. But even very early on being able to communicate well is a huge driver of success.
Exactly as you said, Kunal, that was always true, even if everyone was sitting in the same room being able to communicate together. But now with so much asynchronous communication, remote and distributed communication, the ability to speak and communicate clearly orally and especially in writing matters more than ever before.
Communicating in Interviews
Kunal: Exactly. We’ll talk more about async communication later on because that’s a question I’ve gotten quite a lot. I want to start digging in with the example of interviews. How do interviews tie into communication skills? Can companies reject you if you don’t have good communication skills?
Matt: Sure, the answer to that is definitely yes. It’s definitely yes, and that is even more important now when you’re going to be working in a different location in so many organizations.
If you’ll humor me, let me talk a little bit about one of Sema’s philosophies about communication and how it relates to interviews.
In particular, one of the first things we say at Sema is that our company values matter more than anything else. Second, comes communication. And third, comes the work. Values matter more than communication, and communication matters more than work.
For us, values are really about trust. If you think about situations like a school project, or in a job, if you can’t trust someone that’s on your team, it’s cancer that gets in the way of doing anything else. So if you don’t have a baseline level of trust, that’s more important than anything else.
Assuming you have the trust, the next most important thing is communication. In fact, communication for Sema and many other places is more important than the work, and here’s why. Kunal, you’re an incredible leader, an incredible coder, an incredible teacher. If you and I were working on a project to build a new curriculum, I would have very high confidence that both your technical skill at building curriculums would be second to none.
However, if you were hard to talk to, or you were not willing to have a conversation, or you were difficult to get a hold of, you might be doing what you’re doing correctly, but we would be veering off course. Because anything we do as part of a team requires the ability to iterate, to learn from each other, and to make changes based on new information.
Someone who is great at work, but not great at communication can be put off on an island, so to speak, but then they start separating from the direction of the team. At Sema communication is a larger requirement than technical skills. Of course those matter, but communication is critically important. So when we’re in an interview we’re absolutely looking for folks, to talk, to share their thought process, and to show what they would be like to communicate with at work.
I know that early in your career interviews are so stressful and you’re thinking so much about making a good impression. Now, not every company is like this, so take it with a grain of salt. But what I know now is you really should behave in an interview as if you were talking with your friends, And the reason for that is you want to be relaxed. You want to be authentic, and you want to show what you are like to work with.
Good organizations celebrate and recognize that “This person is going to show me what it’s like for us to be working together”. Frankly, if they want you to be formal in an interview when the place is not formal, that’s a warning sign. So really try to channel: “I’m in this interview, yes, I’m trying to get a job, but I’m gonna behave like I’m talking to a friend that I’ve known for years”.
Kunal: What most people don’t realize is that folks want you to succeed during an interview. The people who are conducting your interview want you to succeed. If they have given you an opportunity, then they want you on the team and you just have to make the most out of the opportunity.
What about when at the end of the interview someone asks, “Do you have any other questions?” How should one go about that as a candidate?
Matt: Assume in every interview, they are going to ask you that question. For every interview, do some prep. If it’s important enough for you to have the interview it’s important enough for you to do some research in advance. So I would spend 30 to 60 minutes doing some research and coming up with a set of questions that you actually want to know the answer to. People can tell when you’re making up questions, you do not want to do that.
You can ask about the product roadmap for instance. You can ask about competitors, and how they see themselves as different from other folks in the industry, you can and should find their bio, and ask them questions about how they made their career choices.
And my favorite question, or favorite set of questions, given how you heard how culture really matters to Sema, is I love asking questions about culture. Tell me about the cultural values of your team.
I’d love to hear a story or two about where people follow those values and what happened because of it, but also what happened when they didn’t follow those values. For values to be valued and be used correctly, there have to be positive consequences if you follow them, and negative consequences if you do not. And those questions I love because they’re a real indication of what the organization truly values.
Kunal: I agree, and thanks for sharing. One thing I’d suggest though is trying not to ask very personal questions to the interviewer that you have never met before. Some people don’t like, going through their Instagram or whatever, before the meeting. Not cool. Someone told me once about an experience they had and they were like, totally freaked out.
Matt: Look at LinkedIn on their bios, on their website, or something like that, and only ask about questions that are visible on public sites. Definitely. I haven’t looked in a while, but in my LinkedIn profile, I said I did improvisational comedy, which I did a long time ago. You can ask about that. But do not ask me about my children or whether I have children because they’re nowhere on any of my professional sites.
Establishing Team Communication
Kunal: Exactly. I couldn’t agree more. We touched upon async communication. So a question I’ve gotten quite a lot is when working remotely, it’s sometimes with people around the world, right? People ask “If you’re working for a company in the United States, do you work in the US time? Do you sleep all day and work all night?”
Obviously, no, you have to take care of your health and work in your own hours. But a follow up question is how do you communicate when team members are around the world?
Matt: It’s very, very important, as you are doing an interview with an organization that is in a different timezone, or when staff is in different time zones, being very clear and upfront about asking “What are the working times?” That is a super professional question. If anyone gives you a hard time about it, you should not take that job because it is incredibly important.
So let’s say I’m working for example, in the India time zone, and I observe that the product leadership is in the United States. It’s really important for me to really excel at this job, and I want to make sure I’m setting myself up for success and there’s no surprises. Say something like “My understanding is that I’m going to work from nine in the morning, India time, to five in the afternoon. Does that work for your organization?” And then listen to their response. Or “I understand you’re in a different country in a different time zone and I’m prepared to work, noon to 10pm”
Whatever that time period is if that’s your preference, or in deference to the organization, you should know with 100% certainty what time zones they are expecting you to work before you accept the job. It’s right for you, you deserve to know. And it’s right for them that there are no surprises.
At our company, which is global, there are some folks who have adjusted their time zones by a couple of hours. We made it very clear upfront that was part of the job. And they had to decide if they wanted to do it or not. Some people like sleeping in and it worked out well for them. But for us, we would never ask people to work overnight. Because it just doesn’t lead to their best work, and we have ways of working around it.
So the first principle is absolutely known in advance and does not be surprised coming in that the hours are different from what you were expecting.
So that’s part one. Part two, in a world where you’re going to be working sometimes on your own, or not at the same time as the rest of the team, you should want to know as clearly as possible the best practices for communicating with your team.
Now as a junior, what you can do to influence this can only go so far, but I would really recommend asking each person on your team, and especially your boss, “I’d really like to know, how do you like to communicate? When do you like to do a Slack huddle, a Slack message, or an email? When would you like to have a meeting? How should we figure this out?” Be sure to ask them, because that’s a perfectly appropriate and useful question to ask.
For executives, for managers, you should do more. You should assert and actually write down everyone’s preferences. You can have a document, and one of the first things you should write down for each person is how they like to communicate. It can be a reference guide for every person and what their preferences are. You can’t always meet those preferences, but you should know.
So any managers listening to this, write that document and publish it so that people know what other people’s preferences are. Hopefully, you can match those preferences, but at least you’ll know when you’re overriding someone’s preference.
For us, almost everyone loves slack as their first method of communicating. I actually prefer email. I’m a little bit older, that’s part of it. But what I really like about email is it serves as a to-do list. And I really like people to send me individual tasks, even if they have 10 Different things they want me to do. I don’t want one message with 10 things, I want them to send me 10 different messages, because then I can check them off. I try for a zero inbox. It’s much easier.
You may not know that about the person you’re working with. So figure it out, ask them how they like to communicate. And if you’re a junior, do your best to match their preferences because it’s going to make you more successful.
Assume that they are going to read it — actually, this is real advice — assume they’re going to read your message on a smartphone before they read it in an email. Write it as if they’re going to just read one sentence. They’ll say “Okay, I have one sentence, that’s what they’re asking me about. I got it”. So the bottom line upfront is really important.
Another thing that may sound a little bit weird, but I really recommend it, is don’t use pronouns. So why is that? I’ll give you an example. Kunal and his team use JIRA, and you say something like “I have a question about that story that you were working on”. What story? We have 1000s of stories! It’s incredibly complicated! And even if you think the person knows, sooner or later, they’re gonna have to go back and look at it. “Kunal, I have a question about East 1136”. And so always being specific helps make the writing right.
And then the last tip, I have a lot to say about communicating and writing effectively, before you send something, read it out loud. Early in our careers and early and perhaps in school, or otherwise, we think the fancier words we use when we write, the smarter we are, the more useful it is, but the opposite is true. Have the confidence to write as clearly as if you were talking. And to literally say it back to yourself and think “Would I actually say this out loud?” And if you wouldn’t, don’t write like that.
Kunal: Couldn’t agree more. When we were in high school we learned about rigid letter formats. Now in reality when I talk even to CEOs it’s much more casual. It’s almost the opposite of what we were taught.
Another example we’ve been asked to discuss is the habit of saying things like “Hi” and that’s it. Nothing else. The person they’re talking to maybe a 10 or 14-hour time zone difference, and then they’ll say “Hello, I’m good”. And now an entire day has passed and the question that needs to be answered is still not resolved.
So this question is in two parts. What are communication best practices when you’re talking with a stranger in the community, asking for help, or just to make a connection like you and me? Second, what’s the best way to connect with your coworker for more technical questions?
Matt: You should say “Hi how are you?” when you want to know how they are and only then. Sometimes that makes sense. You may have friends or coworkers that you want to know about how they’re doing, but in any other situation say the thing that you actually want. In a face-to-face or real-time conversation we could have a lot more of “How’s it going” or “How’s your day”. We’re going to have a minute of small talk or two and then we’re going to get to the real conversation.
In asynchronous and written communication, skip that step, or include something simple like “Kunal, I hope you’re well, I need advice on these three options”. Don’t have an extra step for exactly the reason you said. If the person’s online or not it’s going to slow down the communication and its fluff that doesn’t really matter. Everyone already knows that you’re working together to achieve a goal, just go ahead with your request.
If you wrote me something like “Hey man, how are you?” I might actually just wonder what you want. Do I owe you something? Am I in trouble? It’s weird, asynchronous communication is really different. Just skip that step and jump immediately to it so you don’t have two separate messages.
So I’m really getting into this and we’ll come back to the other parts, but right before this, we were talking about having empathy for your audience and how important it is. It’s important when you’re communicating as part of a community or as a team.
One of the tips I really recommend that plays into that empathy is to write your messages in a way to make it as easy as possible for your audience to respond in 5–10 characters. Not 10 words, but 10 characters. This is the best method especially if you’re communicating with your boss who is very busy and has many things to worry about to enable them to respond in 3 characters or less.
Let me talk about how this is possible through an example. You could say something like:
Now you’ve set it up like a multiple-choice question, and you’ve started with that Bottom Line Up Front, that your boss needs to select one of these. You’ve made it so that all they need to write back is A, B, or C, and that really makes it so much easier. Your boss could respond from a smartphone if they needed to, or they could ask for more discussion.
Earlier in my career when I heard advice like this I thought “That is so insulting. I’m treating my boss like an idiot! Of course my boss can take this information and handle it and respond”, but that’s wrong, don’t think like that.
Instead, think about how many things your boss may have on their plate and how you can make it easier for them to get you the information you need. They already have to think about what you’re trying to say, so let me not add the extra step of making them write a lot about it. Making your boss’s life easier and your colleagues’ lives easier through communication makes it simpler for them to respond and is so helpful. It goes a long way to being a great teammate.
Why Feedback Matters
Kunal: Thanks for sharing your experiences there Matt. I’ve gotten emails like this around KubeCon from sponsors where they provided 3 options just like this. It’s good to be straightforward and saves a lot of time, it’s a great option.
Let’s talk about feedback now. Before we talk about best practices, you mentioned earlier how it’s very important for a junior to look for feedback since it can help them grow.
Matt: When it comes to career advancement and looking for new opportunities, whether it’s in your current organization or another one, what you do and how successful you are in actually doing the work is sometimes less important than the subjective opinion of other people around you. It’s not necessarily fair, but it’s definitely true. I believe in giving people career advice based on what’s true even if it’s not fair, so understanding what people think about what you’re doing is incredibly important to know how they view you and how they might view potential advancements.
That’s maybe a transactional reason, but it’s also important to get better at what you’re doing. I highly, highly recommend maintaining an incredible sense of curiosity about how you can improve and learn from every person around you.
I actually learned this when I was a very young man. I used to play the double bass, that large instrument that’s bigger than a cello. I was very bad at it, but I had the advantage of both having the bass and having a car big enough to fit it in. So I got to play in orchestras that had way better violinists that were incredibly hard to get into because I had a bass and could drive it around. Remember, I was in high school playing with a bassist who was extremely good. The two of us were in this orchestra together. And I knew I wasn’t very good at it. I remember saying to her “What am I doing here? Why am I playing next to you when you’re so much better than me?” And she said “I can learn from everyone. Every single person I meet can teach me something.”
That Idea, that I still get goosebumps thinking about, has stuck with me forever. Whether it’s a boss, a colleague, a customer, or a friend, you can learn from everyone. The moment you think you already know all the answers you’ve stopped having the ability to grow beyond where you are right now. So maintaining a sense of curiosity and going out of your way to getting feedback, without being annoying, is a great way to advance your career, a great way to advance your skills, and a great way to just be engaged in the world. It makes the world a lot more interesting.
Feedback Culture and Being Specific
Kunal: Couldn’t agree more. This helps you grow and learn about what you may be lacking. You won’t know what you’re missing out on unless you ask good questions. Let’s talk about the good kind of stuff too, like giving people shout-outs. I’d love to hear your views on it. When working in teams I like to give shout-outs in public and give criticism privately with some action items. How do you give shout-outs and good feedback?
Matt: There’s one thing that’s really important that I want to say first. The advice I give to juniors about giving feedback, positive and negative, is different from the advice I would give to mids or seniors and especially managers or managers of managers.
As a junior, you may observe that your organization is not great at dealing with feedback. It’s really hard to do, right, there are lots of reasons why. You may observe that it could be better. You have very little power, almost no power to modify that culture of feedback. So there are great resources on how teams can run systems of feedback. But you, in your individual capacity, need to match yourself to how the feedback system works at your organization.
Because at some places (which is incredibly sad, but not that uncommon), trying to give or receive feedback is a bad thing for you if it’s outside of the way that your organization works. So that’s really important for juniors. Seniors and managers, if you want advice on how you should set up feedback for your team, write to me. I have written a lot about this. I have great templates and do right for your team. But juniors, follow along. That’s very important.
Step one, when you get to a place, watch, watch all of the communication you can for at least a week, perhaps even two weeks. Folks who’ve heard me talk when we did a discussion about open source, it’s the same concept for potentially being a contributor. You want to soak in how the place works already so you can understand the ebbs and the flows. The way that people talk, is almost the dialect of this community, so you understand the norms from the way that people behave. Once you’ve done that, we can go to step two.
Kunal, you’re exactly right. Positive feedback can be can and should be in almost all circumstances, be in public channels, while private, constructive feedback should be in private channels. Never, ever, ever assume that an organization or a person can handle negative news publicly? No matter if they say, “Well, I’m always open to feedback.” Never trust someone on that. Do it privately first until they really make sure it’s okay.
So public or private, in all circumstances, try to make your feedback as specific as possible. Kunal, as you mentioned for negative feedback, it’s really important to give out “Here’s what you should do differently”, or some specifics. I really encourage you to make your positive feedback specific as well, because it’s much more memorable, and it’s much more impactful than just a general statement.
One of my favorite stories on this: I went to visit one of my current colleagues, an amazing human being. And he shared feedback with me after my visit and said, “You know, Matt, I think you’re a great communicator.” It was really nice. It was really nice for him to say that. I actually asked, “What do you mean? Can you give me a specific example?” And he said, “After we had our work meeting, my parents stopped by, and you spent an hour drinking a cup of tea with them and talking with them and listening to them.” And I was really touched by that.
That is such a very particular example of what good communication means. It’s so much more memorable when you can give it to people at that level. We’ve learned that negative feedback should be specific, so you’re not stressing them out by being too general. But positive shouldn’t be that either, that’s better when it’s specific too.
Kunal: Thanks for covering both points about good feedback and constructive criticism. Well, we’re about out of time. Thanks so much for joining me, it was great. Always a pleasure talking to you and looking forward to more such conversations. Thanks Matt.
Matt: Really, my pleasure. Thanks everybody and have a great day.