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November 12, 2013

Digital omnipresence: an interview with GitHub’s Luke Hefson

While researching mobile mastery for our ebook every once in a while we’d be lucky enough to meet a real mobile master in the flesh.

One such example is Luke Hefson of San Francisco-based code-hosting website GitHub, who sat down for a cup of coffee, and like so many of us, asked for the WiFi password before even asking for his drink.

The first thing that people notice about Luke’s role with GitHub is that he’s rarely in the office…in fact, he doesn’t even live in San Francisco. He lives in Shoreham-by-Sea on the south coast of the UK.

I opened our chat by asking him about exactly this:

Were you concerned about working remotely before you joined GitHub? Being separated by not just an ocean, but a time zone too, is quite a tricky proposition.

Yes, definitely. I was concerned that I’d feel isolated and out of touch with everybody else in the main office, but in reality it isn’t like that at all, thank goodness. We use Campfire instant messaging to collaborate on work and talk constantly. (Campfire is available for Windows Phone via the Ablaze app.)

The only problem with the Campfire system is that the communication is in real-time, and at GitHub we use the asynchronous (explained in more detail in our collaboration article) model for our workflows.

That’s why the main piece of software we use, more than anything else, is our own software, the GitHub system. It’s built on asynchronous collaboration, so it suits our needs perfectly.

What advice would you give to people looking to work remotely?

Most importantly, I’d say this: use as few different tools as possible. Find a good project management system that is right for you, and learn it really well.

There’s no point spreading yourself over lots of different types of software, as each additional system is one extra piece of friction between you and actually getting work done.

What would you say are the challenges of this working style?

The time difference is the largest hurdle. It does mean that people in the San Francisco office do all of their work just as I’m going to bed, so the first part of every morning for me is spent playing catch-up. It’s quite a feat, as I get about 150 internal emails a day at the moment.

That’s OK though, I just needed to adjust my workflow to an asynchronous frame-of-mind. That fact that I don’t have a commute and can work wherever I already happen to be helps too.

Are there other remote workers like you within the organisation?

Yes, maybe 50% of the GitHub workforce in fact. Even the employees in San Francisco don’t go into the office everyday, they’ll spend maybe one or two days a week at home. So if there was a GitHub Shoreham office, I still would be working from home!

If I fancy a change of scene, I might cycle to a cafe and take my laptop with me, and it’s good to stay mobile. In general my rule is: my laptop is for writing on, and my smartphone is for reading on.

You probably travel the world more than anybody else I’ve spoken to recently. What gear do you take with you on work trips, and what can’t you do without?

Well, before I had my daughter I would take very little! If you don’t count the baby’s things, then I still take as little as possible.

When travelling for business I’ll just take my smartphone and leave my laptop at home. On a business trip I won’t be sitting down typing, I’ll be talking to people, being strategic, having meetings, and planning. All of that is about talking and reading, not writing, and my mobile covers all of that.

I recently attended a two-day conference in Berlin and just brought my smartphone, my passport, and my credit card. Everything else I need is stored digitally, so I can access it anywhere in the world.

Has the remote, non-real-time workflow style changed anything about the way you work, even when you’re on your own?

Oh, so much! I really love working asynchronously. For me, so much of the actual “chatting” that you get from a traditional office environment is really about your own personal wellbeing as opposed to the work itself. We do come up with great strategic and creative ideas when we talk in real-time, but I think ‘asynch’ just works better for actually getting things done.

Having enforced time periods between conversations gives you a chance to really formulate your responses. It wastes less time in the standard back and forth. Because our teams are so scattered, the time zones mean you might be working on a string of code and waiting for review that you may not get until morning. When you can’t get that instant feedback, you need to move onto something else in the meantime.

This isn’t really ‘multitasking’; this is more like focusing on one or two major projects that run concurrently whilst maintaining a few side-projects to keep your brain from melting when you work on just one thing. I’m all about focus.

On the subject of focus, how well do you deal with periods of disconnection? Can you cope?

I must admit, I work every single day, even when on holiday, so I don’t know if I’ve ever really been disconnected. I’m planning to go ‘away-from-keyboard’ next month, to explore working offline…the truth is that everywhere I go has such good connection these days it’s hard to avoid!

Thanks very much for your time Luke, I’ll let you get back to work now.

It’s fine, everybody in San Francisco is asleep right now…we’re drinking coffee in the sun.

This article is part of Nokia’s Smarter Everyday programme, which aims to inspire you with the latest ideas on productivity, collaboration and technology adoption. To download our latest ebook Mobile Mastery visit