Thriving in a Distributed Environment: Advice and Encouragement from Elastic’s Janica Lee and Sophie Chang
When we sit down to interview Janica Lee and Sophie Chang about their experience working at Elastic, the company behind the Elastic Stack — that's Elasticsearch, Kibana, Beats, and Logstash — we do so over Zoom.
That's par for the course for us; PowerToFly is a fully remote team, and we're used to conducting business over video-conferencing software. In the last few months, we've talked to plenty of our partners and clients who aren't usually fully remote but have adapted to be so during this pandemic, and enjoyed hearing about how it's going for them and offering our guidance where appropriate.
But when Elastic was created by its three founders, each from a different country, it was fully distributed from the start. So this time around, we're the ones taking notes as Janica and Sophie walk us through their roles at Elastic, what they look for when hiring for remote-first jobs, and what they've figured out about thriving on a team distributed around the world and across time zones.
Finding coworkers all around the world
Sophie is the team lead for Elastic's machine learning team. She's based in London and works with 25 engineers who are distributed around the world.
Janica is a solutions architect, serving as the technical lead in sales cycles. She's from Toronto and now works out of London, collaborating with team members and customers all over the world.
"The company grew up with a distributed engineering team," says Sophie. "We've never been anything but. When COVID happened, we all had homeworking setups and the software and tools we needed." She notes that their "head start" in successfully working remotely means that they really know what values matter when it comes to finding people who will do well at Elastic.
"We're looking to find people who have an awareness of what it's like to be working in a remote and distributed organization," says Sophie. That doesn't mean they have to have experience working remotely, she adds, but they do need to show that they're aware of the challenges and can adapt their working patterns to best fit.
Successfully onboarding, training, and collaborating within remote teams
Janica started her role as a solutions architect right as the pandemic hit. (She'd previously worked as a business analyst, a cloud sales specialist, and a sales development representative, all for Elastic.)
Even though she was used to collaborating with coworkers located in various countries and across various time zones, Janica still went into a physical office pre-COVID and was hoping to have the opportunity to turn to her coworkers to ask them questions about her new role or organize a quick in-person whiteboarding session to dive deep into complex technical concepts. "At first, it was quite scary for me," she explains. "I had to be super diligent with making sure I asked questions when I had them, and not avoiding that learning path just because there's a screen in front of me and I have to Slack someone or email someone or jump on a Zoom."
Janica and Sophie have the following tips to share on how to onboard and work remotely successfully, whether you're the new employee or the manager of the team they're joining:
- Set up a regular communication cadence. "It's easy to lose [connection] if you're not seeing each other face-to-face every day," says Janica. Her favorite hack is having recurring one-on-ones set up with various coworkers—including and especially ones who aren't on her current team—to feel connected and build relationships.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions—and create an environment where they're welcome. "You've got to get over that internal hurdle [to ask something you don't know,]" says Sophie. "The great thing about the culture at Elastic," adds Janica, "is that everybody is willing to help, whether I'm pinging Sophie to ask her a question about machine learning or reaching out to someone based in the U.S."
- Set and encourage boundaries. When Janica worked on a team with coworkers who were based eight hours behind her, she struggled to set boundaries. "I'd often find myself working quite late into the evenings," she says. Sophie's advice: "You don't have to stay awake just so that you can speak to somebody in a different time zone; you don't have to cancel that dinner engagement just so that you can join a meeting. It's okay to be strict with yourself in order to be kind to your personal life."
- Get comfortable with asynchronous communication. That means recording video meetings so people can watch them later, when they're awake; sending questions to groups rather than just one individual whenever possible; and budget in extra time for decisions where you need everyone's input, says Sophie.
- Take advantage of the flexibility. "If you have a gap in your schedule and want to go for a run in the afternoon, just go for a run. There's no expectations that you're working a nine to five with an hour for lunch in the middle," says Sophie.
Reaping the benefits of remote teams (and avoiding the pitfalls)
"One of the advantages of recruiting globally is that you just have this enormous diversity of people that have come from very different educational backgrounds and very different working cultures," notes Sophie. "That really helps a team be creative."
Those diverse ways of thinking have a chance to really pay off at Elastic, explains Sophie,. "There are traditional engineering environments where it's very top down. When you are distributed, it makes a lot of sense—and it's a lot more productive—to think bottom-up. You're trusting your engineers to deliver and to make decisions on the ground as they're solving their problems at the keyboard."
For that structure to work, there has to be a lot of trust on both sides. Sophie notes that she struggled to be okay giving up control when she joined Elastic after working in a more top-down culture. But then she realized losing control wasn't quite what was happening: rather, she was gaining leverage. "The reality of it is you're building a team with great skills that can deliver more through trust and through empowerment than they would through the bottleneck of a small leadership group defining what gets done next," Sophie says.
Working together to set and execute on priorities allows individual teams to get to know each other, but community at work ideally goes further than that. A common issue among remote teams, including the fully distributed team at Elastic, is finding a way to expand upon that community despite not seeing each other in real life.
"[Team members] need to feel a sense of inclusion and engagement at work and this is harder to achieve in a distributed organisation. It helps if you are proactive in building connections with people who are in your time zone for example, who aren't necessarily in your team," explains Sophie. "That's quite an important thing to do. You can't just be focused on your own coding problem. You do have to have some "positive" distractions to give you extra energy in your day!"
Janica tells us that Elastic has a wide variety of Slack groups, from bicycles to breadmaking and bad jokes to hummus ("I highly recommend it!" she adds). Sophie chimes in with the fact that at one point, Elastic had more Slack channels than they had employees. It's clear, watching the two of them interact on our group Zoom via their respective home offices, that Elastic's distributed culture is strong and will continue to develop new bonds and strategies as the company grows into a (possibly) more distributed future.
If you're interested in learning more about jobs at Elastic, check them out here.
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