To Emily Bersin, pre-pandemic life and pre-babies life exist in the same hazy set of Before Times memories, and she's fully accepted that neither one is ever coming back.
The new mom had twins 18 months ago, right as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting. It was (and still is) tough to balance motherhood with work and surviving a pandemic.
But Emily has been working remotely for 13 years, four of which she has spent at all-remote media streaming company Plex, where she's currently an Engineering Manager. So she didn't have to learn how to switch her day-to-day work into a remote setting. She just had to figure out how to manage it alongside new obligations—like breastfeeding.
"It's very challenging with twins," explains Emily. "I hated pumping. It was really nice to work for a company that didn't care if I was like, 'Okay, every three hours, I'm going to be gone for 20 minutes to feed my babies.' I never would've been able to do that if I worked in an office."
We sat down with Emily to hear more about her career journey, what she loves about Plex's remote culture, and what advice she has for others who have made a permanent switch to remote-first work and want to make sure they are set up for success.
Exploring the Software Lifecycle
Emily's career in software engineering may have been fated. Her parents are both engineers, and she loved math, science, and programming classes in high school. It wasn't until she got on-the-job experience, though, that she realized the kind of role she most preferred.
She started out in a tech support function, and while she was only there for about six months, she credits it with several important lessons for her development. "It taught me that we make software to improve someone's life somehow, even if it's just making their job a little easier. It taught me how to think from the user's perspective," she explains.
When that first company was acquired, she moved into a development role—and also moved to Austin, Texas. She thought she'd stay in Austin for a year, but a decade and a half later, it seems like a more permanent decision.
She learned relatively early on that while she liked being an engineer deployed to solve problems, she liked figuring out what those problems were even more—so she moved into a product architect role at her next company.
"I like making sure that we're developing the right thing for the user," explains Emily. And now, as an Engineering Manager at Plex, she's able to continue doing that work. "I have even more of an ability to shape what features we're going to work on and the direction of the product."
When Emily was ready for her next challenge, she started by looking for roles on PowerToFly.
"I took my time to look around for something I really wanted, at a company I wanted to work for, with a product that I found interesting," says Emily. "I found a posting for Plex on PowerToFly and applied."
Emily liked Plex's product, and how user-focused it was. "We allow people to access their media how and where they want, and that makes their day a little bit better. If it works properly and it has the features they want, then that is something that makes them happy, makes their life better," she explains.
And getting to know the company behind the product, Emily was inspired. "The company culture I saw in interviews was really amazing. Once I was offered the position, it was an easy decision to accept it."
Emily loved Plex's commitment to being kind, helpful, and humble, and their remote-first approach to work was the cherry on top.
"I'd been working from home since 2008, but with coworkers who were in the office," explains Emily, who originally went remote to enjoy more freedom and not be stuck squeezing vacations into limited holiday time. "You're kind of isolated that way. At Plex, everyone has the same challenges and the company works really hard to solve them and make us all feel like we're a team."
This influences everything the company does, from meeting structure to communication. "Rather than having emails that are private or having little discussions in offices that no one else is privy to, most of the channels [on Slack] are open for anyone to join, [so you] can read what they're discussing and get up to speed," Emily says, highlighting the importance of transparency when working remotely.
5 Keys for Success in a Remote Work Environment
Over the years, Emily has developed her own best-practices guide for successful remote work. Here's what she suggests:
- Separate your workspace. Emily is originally from Cape Cod, and she goes back every summer to see her family. During that trip and others like it, she works from wherever she can set up a temporary office. But the rest of the time, she's got a set workspace that lets her really focus on her work. "It's easy to be interrupted by people otherwise. It's harder to switch your brain back between regular life and work if you're doing it from your living room," she says.
- Go outside every day. "When I first started working from home, there were days I would go out at 6 p.m. to check the mail and be like, 'Oh, the door is locked, I haven't left the house yet today,'" says Emily. Now, even if it's just to go for a walk or to sit on the porch in the sunshine for a few minutes, she makes sure she gets outside.
- Get the equipment you need. In her engineering manager role, Emily is still responsible for code, and having the tech she needs to troubleshoot and test things is key. "I have a big, beefy development system I keep in my house," says Emily. "When I'm here, I work on it directly, but I'm also able to remote into it so I can go work from wherever on my laptop, as long as I have good internet."
- Be thoughtful about communication. "Maybe technically I'm a millennial, but I didn't really grow up with sharing myself online. And I'm not naturally extroverted. So it can be hard to make connections with people when you're working remotely," says Emily. She consciously tries to over-communicate—and to use emojis whenever possible—to address that.
- Set boundaries. Having kids helped with this one, says Emily. Before she had the twins, she would sometimes find herself checking email at dinner, or doing work in the evenings while watching TV. Now, the nanny leaves at five, so Emily and her husband have to stop working and switch into childcare and family time.
And a bonus one: take advantage of the work-life balance opportunities that remote work provides. "I can go have lunch with my babies if I want!" says Emily, smiling. "I never would have been able to do that if I worked in an office."
Martha Arellano is A/B testing her succulents.
This isn't terribly out of character for the longtime programmer and technical manager who "grew up loving math and computers."
"It's very geeky, but I'm trying to figure out what are the best places to put them in my house!" explains Martha.
It's not just plants that Martha likes helping to grow. Throughout her career, Martha has been both an individual contributor and a manager. As an Engineering Manager at OfferUp, she's responsible for the career development of a team of backend engineers.
"Management isn't only about assigning tasks. It's about helping people grow," says Martha.
We sat down with her to hear more about her experience emigrating from Puebla, Mexico, to Seattle to work for some of the biggest tech companies, her transition from individual contributor to a people manager, how she developed her approach to management, and what she recommends other managers do to look out for their teams' long-term growth.
Pursuing the Right Balance
Martha found programming because she liked math and didn't want to be a professor. She dreamed about working for Microsoft—and had to pinch herself when they recruited her.
"My internship at Microsoft was when I realized that this is what I want to do," she says. "It was very different to work as a full-time employee, developing software. In Mexico, the opportunities would've been more around consulting."
She stayed there long enough to start managing a small team, first a few contractors and then up to three developers. "I enjoyed helping other people grow, investing in them, and being a leader not only on the technical side," explains Martha.
At that phase of her career, she didn't want to lean away from technical responsibilities completely. She made the tough decision to back away from being a manager to work on a project that she was more passionate about, even when that meant returning to being an individual contributor.
She worked as a senior backend engineer at Microsoft and Google before taking a cloud architect role at a start-up where she had a chance to scale a team again. But that company was focused on live events and didn't fare so well during the pandemic. When someone in her network told her about OfferUp, a Bellevue, WA start-up on a mission to build a mobile marketplace that was simple and trustworthy, Martha jumped at the opportunity to join their team as an engineering manager.
Breaking Management Down
The right job for Martha had to have that mix of technically interesting problem-solving and the challenge of supporting a team. But how did she show OfferUp that she was the right candidate for the job?
She talked about her three-pronged approach to engineering management. Martha's management approach is people, process, and technology.
"The people part is about making sure that we've fostered the right environment for them because that's when they can make their best contributions," explains Martha. "The process part: I like to get teams to take ownership of the process to help make things better for them. It should be around what the people like and what the team finds works best. We are always going to be open to trying something new, and we'll see, after some time, if it works." (Hi, A/B testing!)
The third and final part continues Martha, is technology. "It's important that we have the right technical expertise on the team and that people are getting the right technical feedback—that's the cycle that keeps people improving."
On the job, Martha has found that breaking her role into those three components helps give her team the right mix of support and autonomy that allows them to dig into challenging problems. "You set up the principles, but also the guard rails," explains Martha. "That way engineers can go and build within that—and deliver."
That's a tricky balance to strike in a start-up, where there are always competing goals. What's needed right now, on one side, and what's needed long term, on the other. "We're still producing the best system or service that we can write," she says. "That's always the goal of an engineer at heart."
3 Tips for Engineering Managers
Unfortunately, the way Martha learned how to be a good manager was by having bad ones.
"I, unfortunately, learned how I don't want to be managed," said Martha. Now, she takes a thoughtful approach to create an environment where everyone can succeed—and has advice for other managers who want to do the same:
1. Give ongoing feedback. "If it's just at reviews once a year, that's not helpful," says Martha, adding that giving regular feedback "shows the employee you care about their growth and development and allows them to bridge gaps before their review." She does formal check-ins every few months and gives ongoing feedback and reflections on a project-by-project basis.
2. Think about your own Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and how you're improving it. "That goes beyond taking management classes and means becoming more aware of your blind spots and dedicating yourself to improving them. This is especially important when it comes to understanding your unconscious bias and becoming a better ally," says Martha. She recommends the "5 Ally Actions" newsletter for pointed, practical ways to be more inclusive at work.
An example of what she means? Removing language like "whitelisting" and "blacklisting" from your vocabulary. "We don't have an equivalent term in Spanish. When I learned about that concept and what it meant—an allow list and block list—it was like, 'Hey, we should be conscious about implications this has; it's not okay to keep using those terms.' Everyone should be more aware of the perception and hurtful impact of these terms, and managers should be allyship champions.".
3. Learn how to communicate with different people. The way you forge a relationship with one team member might not work with another. You need to communicate effectively with your direct reports, cross-functional teams, and management peers, says Martha. "You need to understand how to reach people," she explains. "That's been hard during a remote year. Small changes can make an impact. Stand-ups are often the only time each day where a whole team interacts. Incorporating 'parking lot' sections into our team stand-ups has helped the team feel more connected and works as a team-building opportunity."
Applying the three tips is easier to do if you work for a company that has a supportive culture, says Martha. "Some companies are explicit about recognizing the value there, and embedding those values in their interview experience, their website, and through the onboarding process," she says. "And there are companies that don't care about that at all. [OfferUp] isn't a culture that focuses on having brilliant jerks. We want people who embody our DNA and Operating Principles and have the skills to perform their role successfully. That means people who are driven, neighborly and adaptable. Good people who genuinely care about the people they work with, our customers, clients, and the product we're building."
When Luisa Hurtado got engaged, her whole team at Facebook celebrated with her.
That may seem like a normal way for coworkers to respond.
But as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, the support really meant something to Luisa. "Everyone was saying congratulations, and they were so happy for me, and that was just so nice," says Luisa of her engagement to her now-wife. "I was treated like a normal person. Everyone's very open, and more importantly, everyone's very supportive; people will understand you and they will not judge you, and that's really how Facebook has helped me."
As a software engineering manager at Facebook, she works really hard to create encouraging environments for other people, helping them find ways to succeed even if they're taking different paths than she is.
We sat down with Luisa to talk about how she came to recognize the importance of intersectionality and finding a workplace that supports it, how she's tapped into communities at work and is building new ones, and what she's learned about her own style of leadership.
Finding her own path
Luisa grew up in Colombia. And while she wasn't the most typical little girl—she preferred cars to Barbies, she says—her family always accepted her.
"I was who I was, and it didn't matter. Like, it didn't matter that I didn't look in the way that everyone in Colombia looked," she says. "That's really kind of what helped me chart my own path because it gave me an advantage. I came here and I was never questioning who I was or how to fit in, because my family was supporting me."
Luisa came to the U.S. after college in order to study English. She ended up getting a job, and now, 12 years later, she's here to stay. Getting used to American work culture has been an opportunity to reflect on her own intersectional experience as a woman, an immigrant from Colombia, and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
"I've come to understand that all of these pieces kind of make me who I am," says Luisa. Unpacking systems of access has taught her "what's been holding people like me back," she adds. For example, says Luisa, she was taught to be humble growing up, but realized that American culture encourages more self-promotion. She's found a way to balance both. "I was raised in a different way. I see things differently. I ask questions that maybe other people wouldn't ask," she says.
And in her role, where she manages a group of engineers, half of whom are originally from other countries, Luisa recognizes that she can serve as an example for other people who share one of her identities or who feel like a part of the "other."
"Being very honest with my team about who I'm married to, who I am, where I come from, what my experiences have been, I think that helps other people also be more open," she says.
Not first and not last: paying it forward to others
Luisa's first year at Facebook wasn't easy, but she got through it with the help of a director who mentored her. "She really helped me with my confidence," says Luisa. "She was able to understand what I was going through. Having female mentors that can really help you and have been through the same things as you [is key], because then you think, 'Oh, I'm not alone. It actually has happened to other people like me.'"
Her mentor's specific advice was on how to not take failure personally. For Luisa, a combination of internalizing that lesson and building connections with other mentors and friends who could help reinforce it really helped.
Luisa says there are three groups at Facebook that have been especially empowering:
- Latin@, where Luisa helps coach other LatinX employees on how to advocate for themselves. "They're teaming up managers with engineers to give feedback on their self-reviews. It's important how they communicate what they have achieved, so I help people talk up their accomplishments more," she says. She also appreciates the Latin@ Community Summit because "it's really hard to find Latinos in tech; just being able to see them and be next to them—and sing songs in Spanish—is awesome."
- Women@, where Luisa says she's experienced "lots of community building." "It's a great place where I can see and feel inspired by women who are in higher-up leadership positions and ask, 'How can I get there?'" she says. "The workshops you can take specifically helped grow my leadership skills." She works to pay those lessons forward on her own team: "I take it very seriously to actually help women ask for things they want and give them the opportunities to lead themselves," she says. "I ask, 'How can I be a champion for them?'"
- The D&I team for the FB App, where Luisa has been able to take a more hands-on approach to diversity and inclusion efforts and work to pay it forward for all of the app's users. "It's given me the opportunity to meet a lot of people, but also push for initiatives that I'm really passionate about...I've been able to really exercise my leadership skills with something that I believe in," she says. "I get to build connections and push for things on a larger scale, so I really love that."
Tapping into these groups of other leaders and people who share her identities and passions has given Luisa an immense support system at work. "I appreciate the sense of community that I can have without me having to be the person leading in the forefront," she says.
And now she continues to pay it forward, particularly to other women leaders. "I think about how I can actually build that space for them that maybe they don't feel comfortable creating, but that I, as an advocate for their growth, can give them access to," she says. "I do have an advantage of being a woman and understanding what it's like, so it's easier for me to catch these things before they even tell me."
Developing her own style of leadership
When Luisa first became an engineering manager, she struggled to step back from the day-to-day work that needed to get done. "I always thought, 'I could do it faster, why don't I just do it?'" she says.
She quickly realized that investing in her team and helping them grow would help them to learn how to do it faster. "And differently," she says. "I would learn something from them, if I would give them the space to be who they are and see how they'd solve problems."
That led to one of the first lessons Luisa learned as a manager: "Just because someone is doing something differently, it doesn't mean it's wrong."
That experience also drove Luisa to show her team that she believed in them even when she didn't agree with how they were approaching something.
"It can become this vicious cycle," says Luisa. "Where a manager sees that an employee isn't performing well, and so then they stop supporting them. Instead, investing in coaching and saying, 'No, I believe in them' and giving them the opportunities can really help. You see people light up and transform and really take on that role when you say, 'Hey, I'm here for you. I know you can do it. We'll do it together,'" she says.
Other key lessons Luisa's learned?
- Come up with a vision, first and foremost, otherwise you'll get lost in a constant stream of tasks without building towards anything. "There's so many things to do that you'll go crazy!" she says. That vision applies not just to your team design but also to the individuals within it: "How do you think about their career in a couple of years? About their goals and how they can achieve them?"
- Encourage your people to find their own way to lead. "The first thing [I tell people] is, 'You do not need to be the loudest person in the room,'" says Luisa. "I make sure it's very clear that when I'm asking them to lead something or drive something to completion...that we can find the right tactics for them," which might be written communication or one-on-one. "Everyone has different communication styles."
- Coach towards collaboration. Luisa encourages her engineers to reach out to their peers. "I want to make sure that those ideas are heard," she says.
- Tell people what your expectations are and give them flexibility in meeting them. Luisa says she makes sure that project leads know what they need to execute on, but lets them determine the best way to do that. For example, she'll be clear that they need to communicate the status of the project to stakeholders. "That could be a meeting, or in a post-it, or something else," she says. "The tactics are different, but the expectations are fairly well-defined."
As Luisa's career has grown, she still questions if she's doing the right thing or if she's setting herself up well for the long run. "I have learned that I kind of need to not listen to that voice," she says. Instead, she keeps pushing herself.
"I'm not the person who's going to take the most risks," says Luisa. "My wife would tell you that sometimes I'm afraid of getting in the ocean because the waves are too strong. So my sense of risk is very different, but it's still helping me push myself a little bit more and not listen to that critic, and be more like, 'What's the worst thing that could happen?' and start there and then move forward."
Learn more about Facebook's open roles.
A company that is built around offering modern collaboration software needs to believe in the power of bringing people together.
Luckily, that's just what Quip is all about.
Their annual three-day hackathon Quiprupt is an example of what collaboration looks like not just as a product offering but also as a core tenet of company culture. We asked participants from Quiprupt 2021 to tell us about their experience coming together to ship cool stuff—and how Quip's culture sets them up to be able to find meaningful work while building better products.
Tips for planning committees on setting up the event to succeed
1, Build in intermixing from the start.
When Technical Program Manager Michael Lee volunteered to organize the hackathon, he knew he wanted to ensure that teams were of mixed compositions, with different people from around the company and not just staffed by people in the Engineering, Product, and Design (EPD) group.
"The hackathon really pushes for teams to work with other members outside of EPD," says Michael. "Everyone is welcome to work on projects they're interested in, so they get a chance to work with those they normally don't get to work with."
Event MC Meghna Purkayastha, a Growth Business Account Executive, was drawn to participate specifically because of the opportunity to connect her side of the business—sales—to the engineering teams. "Our business units have so many different ways in which we interact with our customers," she says. "Often EPD doesn't have insights into what customers are asking for or their common challenges, so it's so great to close the gap!"
2. Encourage creative ideas.
Project ideas for Quiprupt bubble up from people on the ground, explains Michael, and that's what lets people have ownership over their projects. "People are free to join and work on projects they're interested in. We hold pitch sessions and additional sessions to help teams recruit new members and answer questions about their project ideas," he says.
3. Brand it well!
Designer Kyle Tezak stepped outside of his normal day-to-day responsibilities to create an engaging theme and brand for Quiprupt 2021, and even though he was on the planning side and not on a hackathon team, he still got to plug into the collaborative spirit.
"The best part about collaborating on these projects is letting go and trusting your team," he says. "I think it's easy for designers to get possessive with projects and this is a fun, low-stakes way to experiment and pass things back and forth."
And beyond having fun, he also built something beautiful. "The work we've created gets people excited to participate," says Kyle.
His team landed on a "mid-century, retro science, research, and development theme"—not unlike the Dharma Initiative from Lost, added Michael—and produced graphic, web, and video content, including a fun promotional video for the hackathon.
Tips for engineering leaders on participating fully
4. Define project roles quickly.
When Quip Senior PM Melissa Chan was setting up her team for the hackathon, she was careful to pull from different parts of the business, in line with Michael's vision. "It's really important to get the perspective of our Sales and Go to Market (GTM) team," says Melissa, who worked with those members to "understand what customers were looking for but was currently missing in our product." She also pulled in Kevin Zhang, a friend from engineering, to serve as her tech lead, which "centralized a lot of technical decisions."
Once she had a team, Melissa quickly got them in sync on a project scope and responsibilities.
5. Construct your narrative around the customer.
Melissa's team ended up winning the Grand Prize at Quiprupt, and she credits their success to the "end-to-end" story they shared. "I knew who our customer was, what they wanted to do, and what features would help them achieve the goal," she says. "By having that narrative throughout the week, we could figure out how to descope parts of the project that were taking longer or make sure that we spent more time in areas that were critical."
"I think it's always important to keep the customer in mind and to be able to reflect on where we've fallen short of their expectations," she added.
6. Embrace remote collaboration.
Niccolò Zapponi, Senior Manager, Salesforce Anywhere Labs, who was a member of Melissa's winning team, says that they were able to work together so well because "everyone had their own remit."
"We had daily stand ups to discuss progress and priorities," he added, "and then got on with our work. Running something like a hackathon entirely remotely is definitely not easy, but we made it work and managed to keep everyone engaged throughout the week."
Tips for everyone on embracing collaboration
7. Recognize your unique strengths.
When Niccolò signed up for the team, he knew he wasn't going to be bringing in deep technical expertise. "I'm glad I could rely on the rest of the team [for that]," he says. He did know, though, that he could provide something super valuable: the customer perspective.
"My ability to understand customer needs and translate them into technology solutions is really where I shine and what I brought to the table for Quiprupt," says Niccolò.
Meghna agrees. "It truly takes a team! Each person regardless of role has a vision and idea that can help benefit a customer. All members are necessary."
8. You'll learn faster than you think.
Kyle was surprised by how quickly he was able to pick up new video editing skills as part of his branding work on the hackathon, and it's a lesson he thinks applies in general. "Learning a new skill often takes a lot less time than you'd expect. You're not going to become an expert overnight, but you can probably learn enough to accomplish a focused goal in a relatively short amount of time," he says.
9. Sign up to do more of it!
This year, Melissa participated in four different projects (!) during Quiprupt, and she plans on doing the same thing next year. "I think working across teams, solving new problems, and pitching it across the company make hackathons really fun," she says. "I think there's so many talented people with great ideas here at Quip."
While she'll go into next year confident, the capability of her coworkers is keeping her humble: "It's hard to say if we can defend the crown!"