Scrapinghub Remote Company Q&A
Pablo Hoffman, Director - Interview with Remote.co
We help people and companies get data and information from the web. To do that, we provide a group of tools for developers looking to extract information from the web, and professional services for companies looking to get data extracted for them. Our clients range from freelance developers hosting their crawlers to Fortune 500 companies looking to get massive amounts of data collected and analyzed for them. It all runs in the same secure, scalable infrastructure.
We started remote and never looked back. It’s in our DNA. We could not run Scrapinghub otherwise.
Remote working is not just something we embrace, it’s how we work. Rather than having an office and offer people to work remotely, we hire remotely from day one and suggest them to gather around in co-working spaces, for those who prefer to work in the company of other peers.
The main advantage is that we are able to hire top talent not otherwise available in any single location, be it Montevideo, Cork or even San Francisco. Cost saving is also an important factor at the beginning but as you grow attracting and retaining talent is more important. Our strong technical team and embracement of remote working have allowed us to keep turnover rates very low. I could have never imagined assembling a world-class team like Scrapinghub here in Montevideo and I am convinced that the level of engineers we have in Scrapinghub well exceeds most companies of the same size (even in San Francisco or any other real-world tech hub).
Scrapinghub was built around the success of a very popular open source project (Scrapy) and we constantly apply things learned managing a large open source project, one of them is managing a fully distributed team. From that point of view, it felt like the natural way to run Scrapinghub.
Before starting Scrapinghub, I ran a dev shop in Uruguay where we offshore development to companies in Europe and US. I had to commute 2 hours a day and sit down in an office just to work remotely, something I could do from home to begin with. I realized how absurd this was and promised myself to address this problem on my next company, and so I did with Scrapinghub where everybody works remotely by default, and only attend coworking spaces if they prefer to work in the company of other people.
Good communication and proper English is a must. If the cover letter or CV are badly worded, your chances to move forward in the hiring process decrease a lot. Being strongly technical, we pay a lot of attention to code. This is how programmers express themselves, and you would be amazed at how much we can tell by just looking at people’s code. However, this is not related to remove working per-ss. Having worked remotely in the past is a plus, but too many freelance jobs isn’t. Having switched jobs too often raises doubts. Freelancing is often attached to poor routine and work schedule. We want people that are looking to keep a consistent work routine, and be available when they’re expected to be available. This, of course, doesn’t mean working fixed hours every day.
We only hire remote workers and use a similar process for all positions. We advertise job offers on StackOverflow Careers, Github Jobs and a few other prominent job boards, clearly highlighting that it is a 100% remote job. People apply through a form in our website that creates a Trello card in a big board that we use to track candidates during the whole application process.
Nobody works alone at Scrapinghub. Everybody reports to a manager that keeps track of their work and this feedback moves up the chain, as it does in any standard company. It doesn’t need to be different for remote working companies. If you need to keep your employees close to check on them and make sure they’re not on Facebook, then you should not consider building a remote working company. Remote working companies need to build on trust. Productivity is fueled by motivation. So, rather than asking how to keep your workers (remote or not) productive, you should ask how to keep them motivated. Motivation varies a lot per person. Whether it’s their professional development, contributing to open source projects or working on challenging tasks, you need to know the priorities of your employees and strive to align their work to them, within your company’s constraints of course.
We give everybody 20 paid vacation days per year (they generate 1.66 vacation days per month worked) and the local country holidays wherever they happen to live in. We’ve found that having local holidays off reduces friction. Most people prefer to enjoy their own country holidays off and we are OK with that. It is a bit harder to manage, but it’s worth the effort. We have also made time off management completely distributed.
The company culture is something that exceeds the office boundaries, it should drive what you do and how you do it, at all time. So figure out your culture, and apply it to everything you do. People will notice and follow you, weather they work with you in an office or remotely. Having a good HR team or person is important to keep the culture aligned with team members, that’s how we do it. HR should regularly reach out to the team, discuss and understand their needs. This becomes more important in a remote working company deprived of watercooler chats, where this type of feedback takes longer to flow and escalate.
Start small and scale. Keep clear goals and communicate them well. Good remote workers should pick them up and work accordingly. Self-management is a key discipline for good telecommuting, so build on that. Don’t be afraid to delegate. Focus on results, not working hours, but do highlight the importance of being responsive and available. Good communication and self-management, are key factors in the success of a remote working team.
Probably the biggest challenge is having to deal with multiple time zones. In our case this is as worse as it gets because we have people all over the globe, from California to Tokyo. You need to iron out many processes to avoid unnecessary delays due to timezone mismatch. Simple discussions can otherwise take days because of back and forth communication between people that miss each other over multiple time zones. This can be solved, for example, by taking everybody on a call, where everybody is online, and force to make a decision there, one of the few effective ways to use calls. These cases should be constantly monitored and addressed early, to prevent frustration.
If I had to pick one, it would be group chats. We have always used group chats (a la IRC) since we started. At first, we had our own ejabberd server, then we moved to HipChat and now we’re using Slack. The business world is finally catching up on the advantages of group chats, thanks to Slack and its impeccable product execution, but we (as many other tech-driven teams) have been “slacking” (group chatting) since 2007. This is, by far, our most efficient way to communicate.
I rent a coworking space two blocks away from home, where I come to work every day. It used to hold 12 people in my previous company, but now it’s just me, an executive assistant and a couple of other Scrapinghubbers from Montevideo that pop by every now and then. It has been often referred to as Scrapinghub’s Montevideo office, but it’s no more than a coworking space. We never receive clients here. All our client communication happens by phone, Hangouts or Skype.
I’m a father of two lovely daughters, and that imposes me certain work/life balance that I gladly welcome. I typically start at 7am and finish at 6pm, with one or two breaks in the middle to drop my daughter at school and have lunch. Every now and then I connect at night and work a couple of hours. All in all, a fairly standard work day. This is another myth to debunk: remote working doesn’t mean working at crazy or unusual hours.
I’ve worked remotely pretty much since I started my professional life in 2000. First fixing computers (that I brought home to repair), then managing servers, then programming, then managing a local company, and finally here at Scrapinghub where I took the best of my previous experiences to build the remote working company I always wanted to work for.