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July 23, 2020

Remote at Plaid

April Goldman-Sims

Updated on July 23, 2020

Engineering Manager April Goldman-Sims Shares Plaid Engineering’s Approach to Remote Work

COVID has forced us to reimagine what "work" means to us. I've been working as a fully remote engineer for over five years and want to offer my perspective on what I’ve seen work well. At its heart, remote work isn’t that different from being colocated: after all, we’re all people. Like my teammates who are usually colocated (but are remote for now), I drink too much coffee, wrangle git, and have a love/hate relationship with Jira workflow configurations. But, most importantly, we’re all passionate about growing, teaching and learning from each other, and building impactful tools for our users and customers.

Creating Our Remote Office

Why did we hire remote engineers in the first place?

We saw several opportunities:

  • Retention: talented team members who had to move away from San Francisco for personal reasons, and we wanted to keep them as Plaids.

  • Culture: we celebrate an autonomous and impact-focused culture and saw that as a natural fit for remote work.

  • Diversity: there’s amazing talent everywhere - and we wanted to hire amazing engineers all over the world to help us build world-class products.

When we decided to embrace remote engineering teams, we wanted to be intentional in creating a culture that would set our remote team members up for success. Since our remote engineers tackle the same kinds of problems as our colocated teammates, one way to help them feel engaged as a fully distributed “office” was to establish its own culture, management team, design, product, and support partners, and the power to shape its own ways of working. To that end, we created core surface areas per office/remote team so that they are all invested in the same north star. For our remote team, that surface area is the consumer experience, which focuses on building products like Plaid Link SDKs on web, iOS, and Android, and our consumer portal. We focus on everything that enhances the end-user experience with Plaid-integrated apps.

Because each of our offices is responsible for core aspects of our business, our teams work together to overcome friction across geolocations: this can manifest as more async collaboration, or scheduling meetings mindful of timezones, or remembering co-workers across offices when sourcing technical input. We didn’t want to create a remote island at Plaid, we wanted to create a cohesive remote culture made up of people who support each other, enjoy working together in a different kind of way, and rely on and are relied on by the rest of our engineering team.

About two years into our experience with remote work, we hope sharing our approach will be helpful to others who are starting their own remote work journey. In light of the global impact COVID-19 has had, with many teams transitioning to remote work for the first time, we hope this can be a useful resource to our community.

Creating Our Remote Values

When it comes to describing our remote culture, we’ve identified five pillars that have helped us grow.

Take Advantage of the Good
There are challenges to remote work (we’ll get into that), but there are so many upsides, and we want our remote team to fully enjoy them.

  • Keep flexible schedules - Our remote team sets our own hours, which means we are online for the hours that work best for us. Parents can start the day early and leave in time to pick up kids from school. Night owls can shift their work to the wee hours. Personally, I love to go on a family trail run around 3pm and catch up on work in the evening. We encourage our team to enjoy flexibility and create the work life balance that enables them to thrive. Each team designs a team schedule for efficient synchronous and asynchronous work, with a set of committed overlap hours to be online that the team revisits when a new member joins.

  • Make relocations low-friction. When a member of our team needs to move, say for their partner’s work, or to be closer to family, or simply to start a new adventure, we support them on the next leg of their journey. Our remote team has work options across the US, Canada, and Europe, and our managers and People team are here to help manage logistics around relocation.

  • Bond over the wfh stuff. I know that my teammate Andy’s cat likes to go outside during our 9am Wednesday meeting, and my teammate Jan is growing a tiny avocado tree in his kitchen. I know who has a Peloton! I know that all of our Designers have beautiful home offices, which is definitely not a coincidence. Remote bonding can go deep, and that’s part of the fun of getting a peek into each other’s homes, and lives, each day.

  • Celebrate together. We share and celebrate the things that make our work arrangement special. Slow cooking a brisket all day? Getting into homemade bread? Fostering a kitten? We use Slack channels and lightning talks to encourage everyone to share; we think wfh fun is awesome.

  • Highlight our diverse pool of people. We know that there are many people who can’t move to a tech hub city, and our remote team enables recruiting to reach out to great talent across broader geographies. We believe our diversity makes us stronger.

That’s some of the fun stuff, but there are also real challenges to remote work, and our culture includes the ways we support each other through them.

Tend to Relationships
We don’t see each other nearly as often. Nowhere. Nearly. As often. We spend a lot of time looking at our computer screens, and, if we’re lucky, maybe one of our cats. It can be lonely, so we build in ways to nurture our relationships with each other. And this is true to our core principles at Plaid, it’s extremely important that we grow, together and to do that, we want to foster a culture of communication and feedback so that we’re always learning and growing together.

  • We have daily morning talk time, which runs 30 minutes, longer than the usual stand up, when we talk through decisions and share updates.

  • We start almost all our meetings with team “vibrations,” checking in on how everyone is doing before getting down to work.

  • We have virtual events: online game nights, get to know you questions, virtual lunches, and holiday gift exchanges via the actual mail, to name a few.

  • We use peer 1-1s to build relationships within teams.

  • Our in-person off-sites, which we hold twice per year, are one of our favorite ways to bond as a team. We spend five days developing the next evolution of Plaid’s consumer experience, playing board games, and cooking food together. We look forward to resuming our off-sites when gathering together becomes safe again.

There’s no one way to build relationships, and we’re always trying new ways to get to be humans together.

Choose the Right Tools
We can’t grab a whiteboard and talk things out, and we can’t lean over someone’s desk to see what they are pointing at on their screen. We can’t ask someone over string cheese in the micro-kitchen whether they are planning to pick up that bug ticket. There are a lot of great tools out there for remote work, and they help us fill in the communication gaps.

  • The most important tool of all is just remembering the remote truism: You can’t over-communicate. But please try. That said, we have all kinds of tools we use to help us try to over-communicate.

  • Tuple is our favorite for remote pair programming.

  • We live in Slack.

  • We prefer the Standuply Slack integration for async stand-ups; handy across timezones.

  • Even things as simple as leaving daily updates in our Jira comments go a long way for cross-time zone communication.

  • Another favorite? The phone. We love taking meetings while we go on walks together.

Any tool that makes communication easier and more pleasant, we’ll experiment with in our team toolbox.

Practice Self Care
The worst version of wfh is when life and work blend together. We look at our clock and it’s 7pm, then 8pm, and we’re still working. Our meetings are back to back, and hours have passed since we last stood up. Blood is pooling in our legs. What day is it? This is not what we want for our remote team.

  • We encourage our team to put bounds on working hours and block off on the calendar the start and end of their days - and their lunches.

  • We model as leaders and celebrate when people take breaks.

  • We are serious about our unlimited PTO and we remind people to take time off.

  • Company-wide meetings are scheduled to becross-time zone friendly, and we use AMA forms and recordings so that remote team members can contribute to and experience company-wide events without stretching their work hours.

  • We make sure team members have time zone neighbors so no one has to stay online late to get help.

We expect our team members to be with us for the long haul, and that means creating sustainable practices and having open conversations about how we can continuously improve.

[For Managers] Commit to Growth
A common question we hear from candidates is what the upper limit is for growth on our distributed team. There’s no upper limit to the contributions you can make at Plaid Engineering, no matter where you work.

  • We have executive buy-in and support all the way from our CEO Zach, our head of engineering Jean-Denis, to all the engineering managers who know our remote team members are crucial to the success of our business.

  • We know our remote engineers need opportunities to grow just like their in-office peers. Our managers advocate for the avenues by which remote team members can contribute to company-wide work. They connect their people to opportunities and sponsor them for projects.

  • Some of Plaid’s most senior technical contributors are on our distributed team today, modeling for all remote engineers what leadership and impact can look like as their careers grow.

  • We hold a twice annual, in-person off-site for senior technical contributors across offices to gather for discussion and direction setting. Because our technical leadership isn’t geographically centralized, this gathering creates a technical vision inclusive of all our offices and product domains. This is another tradition we look forward to resuming when travel and meeting up become safe again.

We bring the Plaid growth spirit to our distributed team and want to see all technologies, regardless of which office they are in, shaping Plaid’s future.

What’s Next?

First, we hope this is a helpful resource to anyone supporting their team through remote work due to COVID-19. We know that going remote is a journey, it takes practice, and defining your own remote culture is a task that’s never really done; you’ll always be learning and improving. Plaid’s remote team is growing, and we’re excited for the new team members who will help shape our remote culture’s next iteration. Apply for one of our open remote roles on our Careers page.