Dear CTO, remote will change your company forever

It’s the new cool kid on the block. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone wants it, at least partially. Before COVID-19, all of us had some friends working remotely. Some of them were contractors. Others were working from all around the world for big Australian/American/Canadian companies. It seems that candidates are demanding this option more and more, and companies are reacting to that, trying to be competitive in this wild West.

Either we like it or not, remote came to stay. It’s OK if you believe that on-site teams work better. It’s lovely if your company is not pro-remote. But that will, inevitably, be at the expense of reducing your talent pool. Are you willing to make this tradeoff? 

As more companies start to be remote-first, two things begin to happen. You make a move and fight to be a remote-first company too. On the other hand, that might not be enough because you’re competing against giant tech companies with loads of money in their bank accounts.

Being remote-first

Great! You just increased your hiring pool! Now, you’ll have some challenges:

  1. How much “remoteness” will you tolerate? Same country? Countries in contiguous time zones up until a limit? Worldwide?
  2. How are you going to handle compensation? Paying the same no matter the location? Factoring in where your employees live? What about benefits? Will they vary depending on location? Will you handle this yourself, or will you have a couple of countries where you operate and hire contractors worldwide? Or maybe you’ll use global HR solutions to take this for you?
  3. Aside from remote-first, will you also be asynchronous-first? What does that mean for your company’s culture? Are your management and development teams prepared for the change? Do you have the tools to support this change? Does your organization have the patience and energy to make such a change?

For companies that were born remote-first, they took into account many of these aspects. Some of them were hard-coded in the company’s DNA from the very beginning. Other problems were avoided altogether from the very beginning too. Making a cultural change across a company takes at least one order of magnitude more than starting it from scratch. It gets worse as soon as you pass the 100, 1.000, 3.000, 5.000 or 10.000 employees mark.

Competing worldwide

Until now, your company was competing with 10, 20, 100 companies in the same city? If you’re a small digital studio in Porto, maybe the picture is the same. But if you’re a product-first company with a presence in several countries, you compete against big tech companies with deep pockets and cool projects. 

The next big question — being your company remote or not — is:

How can I compete with Silicon Valley/US companies and compensation schemes?

That’s a tricky question. I acknowledge that not each of your employees wants to work for a FAANG company. Actually, many of them would certainly not have the willingness or the skills to pass their hiring process. I certainly wouldn’t have. But, what will you start doing as soon as your employees start receiving offers that are 3-10x what they’re making now? Does your company have the financial muscle — and revenue per employee — to back it? I don’t know many of those. 

Revamp your company’s culture

Preparing your company to go remote with adequate tools and processes is critical. If people have a good work/life balance and rely on asynchronous communication to get things done, they can take their kids to school, take care of a relative, or attend a yoga class at 10 am. If your projects and products have a purpose and they’re well managed (a.k.a. no “the MVP is everything!“, late nights, or impossible deadlines), people will tend to stay more. Finally, if people feel like they belong to the organization, they will create a link to your company that will be more difficult to tear apart. When was the last time you implemented an idea from an employee in your product or company? Do you allow folks to try things, even if it ends up as a learning experience? Do you care about your employee’s physical and mental health? What actions did you take to improve those? Places that have a mission beyond their EBITDA and make employees happy will have a significant edge against companies with a helicopter full of euros. 

Build less, buy more

Over the last few years, I’ve seen many tech companies going on hiring sprees, throwing engineers into organizational problems. We have more features in the Product Manager’s head than we can ship? Hire. Our testing and CI/CD processes are broken? Hire. The list goes on. That seemed to work even with high local salaries. I’m not sure that will scale to FAANG-like salaries.

Are you saying I should not hire these many engineers?

That’s what I am saying! Prioritize ruthlessly. Connect with your Product peers to make sure they understand the challenges of running software. Explain to them that software costs don’t end when the features are built, but there’s a basal cost for them too!

I’ve also seen a pattern in many modern tech companies: the default is to develop in-house. Even when people are aware they shouldn’t reinvent the wheel, sometimes they fall into the trap of building things themselves. They have this unique problem that no tool in the market is solving. Even if it’s a chatbot or an internal tool. How many < 1.000 employees companies do you know running their own Kubernetes clusters or logging solutions? It’s madness! How many of the services and software that you run internally are already commoditized by the industry? Most likely, there are solutions that, when you started building, didn’t exist. Better yet: some are pay-per-use solutions!

I think that remote will shift conversations that you, your CFO, and CEO will have. They will need to leverage cloud services, third-party SaaS, and low-code tools. You’ll need to buy a lot more than to build. You’ll be forced to look at costs more holistically and look for compromises when it comes to 100% personalized vs. off-the-shelf tools. 

The good thing is that this won’t happen overnight. You’ll have some time to adjust and make the right calls when it comes to focusing on your core business. The bad thing is that if you wait too much to make difficult decisions, these will bite you. It may be your internal tools that are now subpar because your team can’t evolve them properly. It may be your internal platform rotting because you can’t keep up with the new standards and technologies created and provided by AWS, GCP, et al

Nurture talent

You might think that previous paragraphs are more accurate for more experienced folks, that might fly away to greener pastures and earn good money while working from Caminha. It’s astonishing to look at job boards and see that the vast majority of the offers are for seasoned folks. While I get where this comes from, I think we tend to overestimate how many senior engineers we need in an organization. Yes, hiring inexperienced people out of college or out of a boot camp comes with risks. It’s also a considerable investment. However, the reality is that most shops are making fancy CRUD applications with some sprinkles here and there. Usually, people come with a lot of hunger to learn, and they do it really fast. We also tend to underestimate how fast juniors get used to new ways of working, absorb the culture and start shipping actual work. It’s impressive to see it!

An indirect benefit of nurturing talent is that you’ll need to improve onboarding processes, make sure your senior engineers develop their coaching skills, and to better document your systems and practices. If you have the right culture and give them a chance to grow, it will also create a link with them. Maybe you’ll get better retention metrics. Or perhaps they’ll tell their friends that your company is a really cool place to work, and that will create a virtuous circle.

The end

You’ve read all of this?! You’re brave! While I can’t read the future, it seems natural that remote work will change how our companies are shaped. It will lead to a significant cultural shift. While some will be temporary due to the COVID-19 pandemic, others will stay forever. 

Although this blog post may look catastrophist, I think it doesn’t describe more than what the best companies out there are already doing: create a great culture; good work/life balance, leveraging remote set-ups; focus on what you do best, buy the rest; hire and develop junior folks, even if they don’t have a CS degree. Easy to say, challenging to do. The stage is set and the World is changing. Good luck!

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Engineering Manager. Software Engineer by heart. My main interest is to build and grow SaaS Products and Infrastructure teams. To do so, I believe we need to enable and empower companies' most valuable assets: People.