How to Manage a Team of 43 Developers in Different Time Zones
In this interview, CTO of Scentbird Andrey Rebrov told us why leaving large, successful companies for the sake of uncertainty could be a good idea, how to attract 43 serious IT specialists to a beauty project and going about organizing the work of a remote team scattered from Belarus to Hong Kong across time zones.
At 6nomads, we help IT talents to get a remote job in the best companies and select interesting projects for their professional growth. We decided to launch a series of interviews with the CEO's and CTO's of international companies about hiring and managing distributed teams to talk about their successful experiences with remote work, although it still remains unpopular.

The first interview with Andrew Rebrov, CTO of Scentbird — a service selling perfume by subscription. This curious New York startup with Russian roots grew from 400 subscribers to 250 thousand and received $24.4 million of investments with 43 employees from nine countries in Scentbird's IT department today.
— Andrew, tell us first about yourself and how you got involved in Scentbird?

— A pretty popular question: how. after Aerospace University, did I start pouring perfume samples. The story is simple. I lived in Samara, where I graduated from University with a degree in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science.

In my third year, I started working in IT companies. I worked in Magenta Development, where I dealt with logistics services for taxis in England, collectors in Russia, and trucks in the United States. I was developing, and I really liked it, but I wanted something more.

I've always been lucky, surrounded by smart, talented people, and I was looking for those with whom it would be possible to grow. My first boss introduced me to Habr, the second introduced me to open source and Linux, and I wanted to keep going.

Therefore, when I graduated from University in 2011, I began working in Moscow at Luxoft two weeks later. While there, we dealt with a giant bank named UBS. Again, I was with a good team and project managers.

But, when you work in a big company, you realize that you can be as cool as you want, do cool things, and still, somewhere five levels above you sits another "Director of something", who decides how the product will look in the end. As a result, there is no feeling that you benefit people.

We did corporate-level projects for the bank's employees, so, there was never a goal to make a successful commercial product. This created certain questions; I wanted something different, I wanted to work on a faster team.

I had already become interested in Agile technologies when I was living in Samara. I met the guys from Scrumtrek, they invited me to join their team, said there were two big contracts, and I needed to decide if I was ready or not. I said, "Yes", and I have never regretted it.

When I left Luxoft and joined Scrumtrek, it felt like I got to "Star Wars", like supersonic speed was turned on and I could only see the flashing lights around me. The team was small, all decisions were made very quickly. But, what I liked most was the opportunity to make mistakes that were helping you learn, to understand what was wrong.

We were engaged in consulting, implementation, audits… At one point, I was naturally beginning to get questions like, "If you teach people how to develop software, why don't you do it yourself, start your own startup?" Quite a reasonable question. I began to study what was happening in this arena, incidentally got to the hackathon, the organizer of which turned out to be my future co-founder, Sergey Gusev.

Two months later, he wrote me a letter: "We are looking for a technical founder for our recommendations-based startup that will sell perfumes online. We need a mathematician-programmer who will be able to do both— write the algorithm and support the development."

These were huge options to weigh: on the one hand — a stable job in Moscow, a good salary, the opportunity to become a Junior partner, on the other — an unknown startup in the States about perfume. I chose the latter. I didn't look back.

That was more than five years ago, and since that point, all have been moving forward.
— How fast did you start growing?

— For about a year, we tried to start but had not yet been registered as a legal entity. It was 2013, in 2014, we found an accelerator in New York; we were still just four founders. it took money to hire a team, but there was no money.

The accelerator gave us $40 000. We spent this money very safely for a long time, then received money from our first investor — $100 000. First, we hired one employee for marketing and one for support. We, ourselves, received a minimum wage, just enough to pay for rent and food.

The first developer was hired in December 2015. I found him on a social network through acquaintances. He still works with us. A year later, we hired two more developers. Then, we began to grow rapidly, and now there are 43 people on my IT team.

— Did you hire the first developers for the New York office?

— No, remotely from the beginning. To some extent, this was due to savings, because hiring in the CIS is much cheaper. The second reason is cultural. I needed people, who would understand me quickly, to whom I could say very clearly what I needed, including passing on obscene lexicon for a quick explanation.

— 43 people on the team — and all Russian-speaking?

— Yes, we communicate in Russian on Slack. The whole team is distributed: from Belarus to Hong Kong — 9 countries, 27 cities.

Initially, Slack was used only by developers, but then the whole company switched to this tool, communication speed greatly increased.

The team communicates directly with stakeholders. Now, for example, we are implementing a warehouse management system. I have only one person from New York City on the team — a business analyst. She's in the warehouse now, the team stays connected through Zoom to communicate and help.
— What was the most difficult thing about hiring these people?

— Hiring by itself. I had to communicate a lot, and communication takes a lot of energy, especially if you are an introvert.

More importantly, the hiring process involves a lot of writing communication. You need to understand how people perceive you when reading the text. Only after a long communication with a person can you begin to understand their mood from the way they write.

The most difficult thing about remote communication is feedback. If your staff is nearby, it is easy to go to the person and say: "Sasha, there is something wrong. Let's pay attention to this." In remote communication, you need competent feedback to become a habit.

Now, I give most of the hiring to the team, because I am sure that they understand what the team needs, including communication skills. In this chain, I come at the end, for the final interview, and make an offer.
— When communication channels are established, employees have a few reasons to feel uncomfortable in a distributed team. According to your experience, can we prove that there's no turnover in terms of remote work?

— We fired only a few people and only two have left us themselves.

People appreciate remote work and the freedom it gives. This allows you not only to change your location but your whole life too.

Also, we are a product company and this is our main advantage, we have a clear direction. Developers are constantly involved in new projects and perform new tasks in outsourcing projects or freelancing.

But, it turns out that they're doing a dozen different projects, but they don't dive into them. Specialists want to understand it and the product can give it to them. Moreover, they get a remote work format and a strong team in which you can learn a lot.
— You had been working at Google and then you moved to remote work. What didn't you expect? What was new?

— I have a slightly different story, I didn't move to a remote position, I brought it to the company. Because I was not ready for the vacation issue.

Laws in different countries are so different. There are 38 days of vacation per year in Austria and 21 days including all holidays in Israel. How can the team collaborate in these conditions? Will someone take vacation for two months and someone else barely a week?

As a result, we don't limit employees' vacation if they have planned in advance and coordinated with the team lead and me. Without any restrictions in the number of days, employees, on average, take about 20 days of vacation a year.

— It sounds utopian: complete freedom on your side and consciousness on the employees' side. How did you come to this?

— Frequent separation from work affects productivity and no one wants that. Also, any vacation or sick leave is shown in the company chat. So, there's no place for abuse.

Moreover, I've noticed that it's easier for employees to take a vacation on national holidays, it seems to them that it's more justified.

People are interested in their work and it keeps them. Therefore, employees often look at chats and work documents on vacation, trying not to miss out on the process.

— What lifehacks have you developed over your years of remote work in order to get into tasks from home? In other words, can you work productively naked?

— I don't work naked but often do it in pajamas.

In 2013, no one really heard about the concepts of remote first and remote only, Scott Berkun wrote the book "The Year Without Pants", which even became a bestseller on Amazon. The author just tells how he suddenly realized that he was sitting without pants in a video conference and no one cared about it.

What I have developed for myself: I use the timer throughout the day, fixing how much I worked and what I've done. At the end of the week, I can clearly see how I spend my time and I can optimize it. The timer helps to discipline oneself, build a better schedule.

— Despite the obvious advantages, why is remote work still so unpopular?

— Employees are ready for this format, but there's a problem with employers.

Psychological barrier. If you develop a company and come to an investor and tell them that the whole team is remote, then the investor might not appreciate this idea, the chances of attracting investment is reduced and no one really wants to be in such a situation.

In addition, new managers often learn from old ones, who don't want to change their habits and learn other control tools.

— Traits, that are especially important for a remote employee — ...

— Curiosity and initiative.

— Complete the sentence: don't even try to manage a remote team if …

— If you do not believe in people.

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17 July / 2019

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