How Much Does Your Whiteboard Cost?

Critics of remote and distributed development teams will sometimes say that there’s nothing in the world like the feeling of a team solving a problem together on a whiteboard. They’ll say there’s ineffable magic to those moments, and they’re telling the truth.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because there’s also an ineffable magic to the bond you develop with a horse that you ride every day. Horses have strong herding instincts, a great capacity for affection, and sufficient intelligence for very distinct personalities. It’s also much healthier to ride a horse every day than it is to drive a car every day. Although both cars and horses produce waste, the waste produced by horses is organic, while the waste produced by cars is destroying the ozone layer, probably causes cancer, and has definitely been linked to a higher incidence of respiratory disease. Sitting in traffic jams is immensely more stressful than riding a horse even under the worst-case scenario. Even the stresses of interacting with an angry horse are stresses which human beings evolved for. The stresses induced by traffic jams are much less natural.

Yet horses remain a relatively defunct mode of transport. Cars allow more people to go further, faster, for less money. If you were present for the invention of the automobile, you might not realize right away how much it would change the world, but that’s what new technologies do. It’s a simple matter of economics. When new technologies completely transform every cost/benefit analysis under the sun, the whole world reorganizes around the new costs and benefits.

So consider the economic impact of the ineffable feeling you get when you and your team solve a problem together on a whiteboard. As is often the case, the most important costs are the hidden costs.

Most technology companies are united in the basic belief that the best thing you can do to make a tech project succeed is hire the best people you can. If you only hire locally, “the best people you can hire” means “the best people in this physical area, minus the ones that other companies hire.” If you can hire anybody in the world, “the best people you can hire” means “the best people in the world, minus the ones that other companies hire.”

Let’s imagine that we live in an alternate universe where remote work is the norm and physical co-location is the unusual thing. For the sake of argument, we’ll refer to this alternate universe as the obviously approaching near-term future. In this alternate universe, the obviously approaching near-term future, if you wanted to constrain your hiring pool to a physical location, you would have to justify it.

What would you say?

Maybe something like, “I want to constrain the number of great programmers I can hire to a tiny fraction of the available workforce, because I enjoy the ineffable feeling that a team gets when they solve a problem together on a whiteboard.”

It would be nice to say something like that. It would be nice to commute via horse every day, too, instead of by car. But you can’t do that, at least not in most metropolitan areas.

Few things are more expensive for a technology company than constraining the number of great programmers they can hire to a tiny fraction of the available workforce. If that mistake is the mistake that prevents your startup from becoming the next Google, we’re talking about a whiteboard which costs billions of dollars. That’s a lot to pay for a whiteboard. You might as well have your whiteboards made from solid platinum at that point.

And every once in a while, you can buy a bunch of plane tickets, rent a house on AirBnB, and have Office Depot ship a whiteboard to the house. You can have a remote team and occasionally splurge on the ineffable feeling you all get when you solve a problem together, in person — and it doesn’t have to cost you billions of dollars in missed opportunities. You just have to recognize that feeling for the luxury that it is.