What working at Pipe has been like
In September last year (2020), I started working remotely at Pipe, a Fintech startup that's helping companies with recurring revenues grow without debt or dilution. During the holidays I spent some time reflecting on how my first 3 months have been and decided to do a writeup on how/why I ended up at Pipe, how it's been, and what I've learned. Notable is that I’ve been working remotely from Finland while the rest of the team is spread around the US and Germany (with all of engineering in the US). In this post, I’ll focus on the remote part and write about a couple of areas that I feel have been important for my success at Pipe and where I think we’ve done a good job - asynchronous communication, meetings, infrastructure and the team.
In the spring of 2020 I graduated from Aalto University in Helsinki and was faced with the decision that most people have to face at some point - what do I actually want to do with my life. Having just spent the last ~6 months writing high-performance research C++ for my Master's thesis I was at least pretty sure that I wanted to work on something where the product was more nuanced than just is our algorithm more accurate than ARKit? - but other than that I hadn't really decided on anything.
Back at a Startup
I started my career at a 4 person startup in Helsinki and since then each consecutive company I've worked at has been larger than the last (ending up with a stint at BCG with 21k employees). Still, at some point I realized that I kind of miss the fast pace of a startup, the responsibility you get (or have) to take and the impact you can have. So after some contemplation, I was pretty sure that joining a startup was what I wanted to do. I was also looking at Fintech companies as ever since learning about (and interning at) Stripe a couple of years ago I'd been excited about the field.
With all that said you can see how it felt like a perfect match when @Peter reached out to me about Pipe. However, there was a catch - the Pipe team was spread around the US (one non-engineer in Germany) while I was 7 time zones away in Helsinki (and was planning to stay here for the near future at least).
I felt pretty confident that remote work itself wouldn't be a problem - my mentor at Stripe was fully remote as were many of the best engineers I worked with there. During the spring (of 2020) it had also become clear that even companies less set up for remote could make it work. At BCG our team wondered whether the client we worked for at the time (large, slow, industrial company) would be able to get anything done at all during the lockdown - but even they managed to be somewhat effective. The big question for me was the timezone - can I perform at my best even if the overlap between me and my teammates is just a couple of hours?
Working at Pipe
Turns out that my worrying was unwarranted - working at Pipe has been the highlight of my career thus far. In the right environment and doing the right type of work (in my case, writing code) time zones aren't as important as I initially thought. Next up I'll discuss a couple of things I've felt have been important in making it work.
In most contexts, remote work means asynchronous communication. You can still have meetings and talk with people synchronously on slack, just like you would working from an office, but for the most part, remote works best when embracing asynchronous communication. This can feel like a big change for some, but I think that for most people, especially engineers, it is quite natural. For me, working from a different timezone than the rest of the team, asynchronous communication is not an option - it's a must. Turns out there are a lot of advantages of communicating this way, here are some.
Asynchronous communication means fewer interruptions. It's easier to schedule blocks of deep work where you know you won't be distracted (this is especially easy for me as no-one else is awake during the day when I'm doing my best work). Asynchronous communication also creates documentation almost "for free". If someone makes a proposal asynchronously (instead of during a meeting) they need to write it down, and if people comment on it they have to write down their comments. All of this is then accessible later when you're wondering why something was done a certain way.
Because participants have more time to think through their responses, asynchronous communication can also lead to more thoughtful communication. Instead of saying the first thing that comes to mind during a meeting in order to get heard you can prepare a better response. It can also be easier to take into account everyone's opinion.
One final advantage of how we communicate at Pipe is that it's often more predictable. This is something I feel applies especially to me as I'm in a different timezone. If I've written a design doc, PR, or something else I'm waiting for a response to, I can be pretty certain of when I'll have a response to react to. As long as I finish something before I stop working in the evening, I'll have a response to it waiting for me the next morning. This makes it easier to plan my days as I can eliminate all the dead time spent waiting for responses.
Meetings / Calls
We generally try to minimize the amount of "formal" meetings that we have - there doesn't need to be a meeting for something that can be decided on asynchronously. We also try to be thoughtful about who needs to participate. If there's a meeting where I know I won't be having much input, I don't feel the need to be present - as long as what's been decided on is documented I feel confident I’ll be in the loop.
Being conscious about how you spend your time is a competitive advantage, not just for remote engineering teams - for teams in general. In general, my experience has been that engineering teams are pretty good at this (might be because engineers generally dislike meetings). My experience at BCG was that there wasn't necessarily a clear goal with every meeting - large parts of many meetings could have been replaced by emails.
Having a small number of meetings is especially important to me. If we have a meeting where someone on the west coast is participating it's going to be at 7 pm or later for me - which means that having 1 or 2 meetings/calls a day works perfectly fine - my day is shifted a couple of hours forward so I don't need to work after dinner. I've also already got all the important "deep" work done for the day so it's a good way to wrap up.
Because of the small number of meetings, most of the time I spend on Zoom/Discord is talking to other team members one-on-one. Some of this is technical or product discussions but most of it is informal - catching up on things outside of work, trying to pitch the Nordics (we're the happiest in the world after all), or just discussing what we'll do once traveling is allowed again. Because our team is still relatively small it's possible for me to have these calls with everyone (on the engineering team at least) - something that I find important as it makes me feel like part of the team, even though I'm on the other side of the Atlantic. I often take these calls while going for a walk outside or for a bike-ride in Zwift.
Working at a startup (at least one where there's PMF) means there's a lot to do - building new features, fixing/changing old features, scalability, bugs, and so on. Requirements also often change mid-flight. What all this means is that it pays to be able to react quickly - feature velocity is important.
During my first three months at Pipe there's been a lot of moving fast but surprisingly little breaking things. At this point I can confidently say that it's no coincidence - the quality of engineering at Pipe is just really good. We've got quality logging, monitoring, deployments, test coverage, code, etc. - things you'd expect at a more established company, not at a startup (of course we're not perfect, but improving every day). As a remote employee in a different timezone - this is super important.
When deploying at Pipe I don't stress about unrelated parts of the code breaking. If something breaks it's probably something I've done, and more importantly: I'll be able to detect it and fix it quickly. If I wouldn't be able to confidently deploy when I'm the only one awake during the day my productivity would suffer. Because everything just works I don't find myself having to deploy everything all together at the end of the day when the rest of the team gets online.
There's no silver bullet to this, e.g. just choosing the right stack won't solve all of your problems here (although it can make it easier). In my opinion, the most important thing that makes it work at Pipe is us caring - when something is broken we fix it, when some process is inefficient we improve it, and so on. Everyone in our team takes ownership of our product, codebase, and processes.
Remote work requires discipline from the entire team. In order for everyone to feel included it is important that decisions are made in the open and that everyone is able to participate and contribute. This is especially important when the team is spread over multiple time zones. For example, let's say you're scheduling a meeting where some important planning is supposed to take place and you're struggling to find a time that works for everyone. In this situation, it can be easy to just pick the time that works for everyone but the one employee that's not in the same timezone as everyone else. This might be okay if it happens just once, maybe even twice, but it can become a bad habit. Which may make it harder for the lone employee to speak up - no-one wants to feel like they're being a nuisance. Avoiding these types of situations requires an explicit commitment from the team to accommodate everyone.
At Pipe this has worked well for me thus far; I haven't felt like I've been left out just because I'm in Helsinki. Sometimes I've even felt like I've had to remind the team that some meetings in the evenings are okay (due to covid I haven't been going out much so my evenings are free for the most part).
I also feel like all of this is easier to achieve with a smaller team. If you know everyone you're working with at a personal level it's easier to feel empathy for them and their situation - and thus also accommodate for their needs.
Remote work is not necessarily for everyone. There's less social interaction and there's no-one watching over you making sure you're doing what you're supposed to. From my experience, both of these things get amplified when you're also working from a different timezone. If I want to talk to someone about the weekend over lunch I can't do it with my colleagues (luckily there are lots of people in Helsinki I can go out for lunch with) and if I'm not sure what I should be doing at 11 am my time there's no-one else awake to tell me.
Due to covid-19 most people (knowledge workers at least) have been forced to do some remote work during 2020. Based on this you can probably get some sense of whether or not remote work is something for you. Did you miss the office or did you dread/are you dreading the day you'll be called back? Personally, I like the freedom of being able to choose when and how I work, being able to focus without the distractions of a busy office, and being able to e.g. go for a bike ride or go swimming in the middle of the day. It feels liberating to an extent.
During my first 3 months at Pipe, we've constantly been thinking about and improving our ways of working. If you're currently working on a remote team, even if it's just temporary due to covid, I'd encourage you to do the same. The topics I've talked about in this post can work as a starting point:
- Asynchronous communication as the default.
- Avoiding excessive meetings.
- Good infrastructure.
- Supportive and aligned team.
My suggestion might not be applicable in all situations (especially for non-engineering teams) but the best way to figure that out is by trying. A lot of best practices for remote teams can actually be useful for co-located teams working from an office as well - so even if you're planning to be back in the office soon it pays off to optimize how your team collaborates remotely now.
And for those of you who are thinking about joining a remote team, like I was a couple of months ago: there are both upsides and downsides to remote work, but for me, the upsides have easily outweighed the downsides. So if you have the opportunity to work with a good team on a good product - go for it!
Oh, and check out Pipe while you’re at it - we’re hiring!