As the co-founder of San Francisco Bay Area-based Split Software, Adil Aijaz and his team have led from the front in building a largely remote workforce that has contributed to the company becoming the leading feature delivery platform on the market. Oddly enough, Adil wasn’t really on board when they first started to explore the idea of building a remote team. However, with another of the Split founders hailing from Argentina, they struck gold in finding a number of talented, and now cross-functional, UI engineers in a small Argentinean town that lacked competition from larger corporations. It’s been a true pleasure to work with all the Co-founders at Split, Adil, Patricio Echagüe, and Trevor Stuart. I have learned a lot from all three of them as an investor.
Later, Split realized it could hire – and maintain – talent wherever it wanted. One of the keys to successfully creating a remote workforce? Staying connected and making everyone feel like they’re part of a team. Making use of communication technology like Slack, flying remote workers to Split headquarters for a few weeks out of the year, and providing personal development opportunities are all strategies that leadership uses to strengthen the connection between teams and people.
Today, only 30% of Split’s workforce is located in the Bay Area, with another 30% spread out across the United States, and the remaining 40% based internationally.
I sat down with Adil to discuss why Split chose to create a remote workforce, the challenges in doing so, and why he thinks telecommuting is here to stay.
Q: How did the concept of a remote workforce start at Split?
A: It evolved out of necessity, simply because we were bootstrapping the company and we did not have money to pay anybody out. Here in America, we were not even paying ourselves anything, so, of course, how would we pay anybody else? So, it evolved out of necessity and some luck, the luck part about it being that one of our cofounders, Pato, is Argentinian and had some connections out in Argentina. So, we started off with your front-end engineering team, your UI engineers being out in Argentina.
In hindsight, the benefits of starting with UI engineering and with a small town were twofold. One was that you ended up having this thing where UI engineers know UI engineers, just like backend engineers know back engineers, sales reps know sales reps, and all of that. So, we ended up getting a little bit of a factory of referrals coming through, and so we ended up creating a center of excellence in UI engineering out in Argentina.
It negated some of the risks associated with remote work, such as having distributed teams where communication ends up being difficult. So, if you have UI engineers centered in one place, you end up having really good conversations between them that end up building a quicker on-ramp for engineers.
The second advantage of the small town was, of course, there was no competition with bigger companies like MuleSoft and Google. We have a monopoly for talent in that town because it’s a university town and people do PhDs over there, and then come and join us.
Q: How has Split’s remote workforce evolved today?
A: I found Andrew, our VP of Sales, out in Boston. He’s an amazing executive, and I’m lucky to have him. And so, we built a sales office around him in Boston, which is now about 12 people.
And so, again, the same lesson applied where, while enterprise sales is inherently distributed because you have reps in territory, and all of that, you ended up having a center of excellence where you have SDRs, and sales engineers, and ISRs, and enterprise reps all sitting in one office.
Now, the third evolution of this, is that we started asking ourselves, “What is the benefit that this has gotten us?” Well, the benefit is that we can hire the best talent wherever we want. And so, as people’s lives evolved with Split and they needed to move out of the Bay, they could still work for Split even if they ended up moving to Los Angeles, or Denver, or North Carolina, or whatnot.
Some of our engineers moved out of Redwood City, which is our original headquarters, and now we’ve got people in many places. We also hired two people in Edinburgh, Scotland, because they had incredibly specific skill sets that are very hard to find, specifically in data science. We’ve also hired people in Portland and Sacramento.
So, again, it gave us this lens of “hire the best and the brightest wherever they are.”
Q: If you look at a snapshot today, what’s the percentage of people based in your headquarters versus any other type of office?
A: I would say 30% of people are in headquarters. We are roughly 60% in America, and 40% international.
Q: Is there a certain stage at which you would recommend transitioning to remote work or is it all dependent on the circumstances?
A: It’s funny, because when I started Split, I was adamantly against remote work, which is why I said it was not out of choice that we ended up going with it.
But I would say, the best time to get remote work or remote offices going is on day one. The second-best time is now, because the longer you wait, the more difficult it gets. Once the company culture gets set, it’s very hard to introduce remote offices unless you’re a multi-product company and that’s a very different scale. But, if you’re talking about a typical seed, series A, series B sort of a company, which is not multi-product, I would say, do it as soon as possible.
Q: How do you maintain a strong company culture with a remote workforce?
A: I will treat Boston differently than Argentina in this answer. The thing about Boston is that with key sales leaders there, we have a sense of parity between Boston & Redwood City. So, the lesson there is that when opening an office within U.S., having some leaders there helps a lot in maintaining culture.
Now for an international workforce like Argentina. I’d give more to Trevor and Pato, my cofounders, than to me because they have always focused heavily on Argentina.
One problem with remote locations is that they often have a contractor mentality. They don’t feel like employees of the company. They think of themselves as outsiders. You have to fight that mentality through your actions.
So, what Trevor and Pato did phenomenally well was that they fought hard to make those teammates feel like employees. They would regularly travel to Argentina, about once every four months, and then we would regularly have the Argentina team fly to America. Every Argentina teammate flies to America twice a year. In doing so, they spend about two to three weeks here each time they come to Redwood City.
On top of that, when you have a remote workforce, you want to make sure that there’s at least one event, if not multiple, where the entire company gets together physically.
So, we take a physical trip once a year, where the entire company – Boston, Edinburgh, Argentina, Redwood City – all come together and do an activity, whether it’s floating down a river or going on a yacht trip. And those trips make people feel connected.
The last aspect is thinking about people working out of home offices all across America. We’ve got folks in Sacramento, Portland, Charlotte, Denver, Boulder, Salt Lake City, and Atlanta to name a few places. They are not in an office so they are not close to any leaders. Understandably, they can lack a sense of community and connectedness in their work life.
To give them that, one of the things that Trevor does is that he has created this culture of taking pictures to document the journey of Split. He would regularly take selfies or take pictures with teammates. Whether he was out with a customer or working on something, he would take pictures of people and post them on Slack to make everybody feel like, “Hey, I actually see these people’s faces and I see them doing activities.” This tradition then gradually spread to other teammates, whether in home offices, Boston, Edinburgh, or Argentina. Trevor then took it to the next level where he’d collect these pictures and do a slideshow with narration in our weekly company meeting. As trivial as this may sound, this ‘workplace Instagram’ is one of the most beloved traditions within the company as it helps bind our people and gives a peak into who we are as people.
Q: Do you use any other communication tools or processes that you wish you had used from day one?
A: One is getting the team into the habit of writing things, because when you’re all together in one office, you don’t need to write a lot of stuff. You can just hop onto a whiteboard and talk about things, but there’s value in the Amazonian idea of “no slide decks” and preference for written memos. We are not there yet, but I wish we had implemented this rule earlier.
The second is to try enforcing a rule of everybody being remote in a meeting. So, put another way, when you have a meeting, say through Zoom, everybody should log in via Zoom, even if they’re in the same office, as opposed to people sitting in conference rooms, because oftentimes, there’s side conversations that happen and that other people are not aware of. I wish I had implemented this rule from day 1, though now with COVID-19, this has become a reality. And you know what, it has made our team meetings far more equal and productive.
The third thing is the company gives employees a certain amount of money a year to spend towards your own personal development. So, pretty much every engineer in Argentina is taking classes to improve their English. I wish more companies did this from day 1.
Q: If you had to pinpoint one kind of risk or pitfall in setting up this kind of remote workforce, what do you think it is?
A: One risk is this idea of hiring a country manager. Finding the right person to lead the office and making him or her feel like they’re part of the company, that they’re an equal leader is incredibly valuable because it can easily create a lot of mistrust, and that mistrust spreads very rapidly when its remote. That’s one of the significant downsides of remote work, because people have a lot of natural fears, and when they pick up on anything, then they might start talking amongst themselves, and you’re not there to correct their perception, so they just get into this loop of getting extremely scared. Finding the right person to lead the office and getting that right is important.
The second is that if you’re working on something that’s highly specialized, having a remote workforce makes that more difficult. What we found is that, the more distributed that work is, the slower it goes, and the more bugs we encounter. Like if you’re building Databricks from scratch or AWS from scratch, doing that with a remote team is risky. But commodity work like application engineering, UI engineering, DevOps, etc. for a general purpose application could be done in a distributed manner.
The third biggest risk is once you start telling your investors that your remote workforce is working nicely, then they’ll pressure you to invest more remotely because, of course, they want to show that you can stretch your dollar as much as possible.
But then the worst problem ends up being that your headquarters end up being pretty bare in terms of engineers, because anytime you’re thinking about engineering, you’re like, “Oh, I could hire three engineers at the cost of one over there.” So, you end up having too few elite engineers in your headquarters, and that becomes a churn problem, because people feel disconnected from their coworkers.
The one other issue I would point out is diversity. We have diversity problems in America, but diversity problems internationally are even worse. You must work hard to hire a very diverse set of people in America, as well as push diversity internationally.