Mar 26, 2019

Building a Distributed Team


I recently saw a post on Twitter that claimed something along the lines of “Remote work is mostly BS”, which inspired me to write this blog.

When we started Apstra, we stated an explicit goal to provide the ability for remote workers to join our team, and be productive, happy, and successful — even in a startup environment. It was a bet because we had mixed success in past experiences in achieving this. In those situations, most of the work still happened at headquarters, and while some team members worked well remotely, many remote workers felt disenfranchised and ultimately either left or did not deliver to their full potential.

We believed we could do better and achieve the goal of enabling remote work, and having a truly distributed company. I thought two factors would have a determinant impact in accomplishing this:

  1. Having the right practices, rooted in the right values and culture
  2. Using the right technology

Looking back over these past few years, I’m proud that we have largely succeeded in our goals. We have team members in various states in the US, as well as Canada, Europe, and Asia. From individuals working from home, to groups collocating at coworking spaces, it’s worked quite well across all departments, including Engineering and Marketing, and job functions, including managers and executives. It has helped us tap into the best talent, wherever that talent happens to be, and to scale the company.

In this blog, I’d like to dig a bit more into the two factors that helped us achieve this.

Having the right practices, rooted in the right values and culture

We have found that to enable quality remote work, it is critical to have a culture that embodies a set of practices, enabled by the right set of values. Here are some examples of such practices:

  • All team members, including those working remotely, have to explicitly block the times in their calendars when they’re unavailable; and make it clear when they are available. This makes it clear to others when they can schedule meetings with them, or reach them for questions or queries.
  • When team members make it clear through their calendars that they are indeed available, then they should make themselves available for when their colleagues reach out to them, e.g. on messaging tools, or for a video session or a phone call. Done well, this is even more efficient than having to walk to someone’s desk or to a conference room to meet in person.
  • When remote employees join Apstra, they usually start spending a few days at our headquarters, for onboarding. During that time, they’re assigned a coach or a set of coaches to answer any questions that they may have, to show them around and to introduce them to the rest of the team. This way, the new employee gets immersed in the company and feels part of the team before they get back home away from headquarters.
  • We recognize that there is a human element to meeting and interacting in person, and personal connections need to be maintained. To achieve that, the company encourages, and pays for all the travel expenses for remote folks to spend time at the Apstra headquarters at a regular cadence, usually every month.
  • Every meeting includes a web and video conference link along with a physical meeting room. In the same vein, all meeting rooms include a video/web conferencing system. That is, meetings are “location” agnostic — team members can participate from wherever they choose: they can choose to join the room in person, join from their desk at home, or a coworking space close to their home. The result is that all team members, independently of location feel like “equal citizens” and participate equally independent of location.
  • At Apstra, we have developed a clear development process so everyone knows where we are in developing a feature and what the priorities are without having to hang around the water cooler. As part of this, design, implementation, test docs are compiled from all the design decisions into a coherent whole, to keep everyone aligned, whether they are in the next office or the next continent.

There are other more subtle rules that we put in place to improve the experience of folks working remotely. One such rule is that in meetings that include participants that are remote, remote folks are given preemptive priority when they speak. This gives confidence to the remote employees that their voices will be heard even if they’re not present in the room.

Using the right technology

These practices depend on having the right tools. Indeed, using the right technology is critical in enabling remote work. At Apstra, we’re big users of collaboration tools. One can reach anyone, at any time using our messaging tools. Messaging tools are available not only on team members’ laptops, but also on their phones. These technologies enable us to video call anyone, or video conference any set of people at any time.

We also heavily use collaboration tools that enable folks to collaborate, in real time, over documents, spreadsheets, or presentations. In fact, the level of collaboration over these documents has become so powerful that meetings are no longer necessary to finalize a plan or any type of collateral.

Apstra also uses project management, wiki, and group chat tools that are built to enable collaboration. We did also try other tools, such as the robots that remote workers can control remotely with less success, except for fun and as a recruiting tool!

Note that many companies use those types of tools. What is critical here is to tie the use of these tools specifically to support our best practices. So we are thoughtful about the reasons why we deploy the tools. Otherwise, we run the danger of being “tool-happy”, and deploy tools for the sake of deploying tools, which could create confusion and negatively affect productivity. In that same vein, the tools we deploy are just there to enable collaboration and cooperation, and are not allowed to interfere with connections between team members.

Building a Distributed Company

As an Intent-based networking company, our intent was to build a distributed company where remote employees can network with other employees wherever they are. As with the intent-based networking we provide to our customers, achieving this intent required instituting best practices in the company to allow efficient distributed operations; and using the appropriate tools for the job. As a result, we are well on our way to build a company where remote employees can contribute from wherever they are.

Also, the same tools and our company’s culture have also paid dividends and benefited our employees who are based in headquarters. They can enjoy the same flexibility to easily work from home or temporarily from a remote location when needed. So our efforts to strive at being a great distributed organization have significantly helped us achieve our goals of being a great company overall.

So independently of where you are located — if you’re interested in joining the company that pioneered Intent-Based Networking; if you want to be part of our mission to radically automate infrastructure; and if you believe you have the intellect, values, and skills required to join our talented team, then please contact us, we’d love to hear from you!

Mansour Karam

President, Founder