An Inside Look at How a Distributed Company Operates with Zapier’s Bryan Helmig

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Bryan Helmig ZapierAs the economy and various business sectors continue to evolve, many leaders are looking at how transitioning to a distributed company might be the best option going forward. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Zapier’s Bryan Helmig to discuss all the benefits and some of the challenges involved with running a distributed company.

Bryan co-founded Zapier in late 2011 with his friends Mike and Wade, and they were soon admitted to Y Combinator’s YCS12 batch. Zapier is a web automation application, with Zapier you can build Zaps which can automate parts of your business or life. A Zap is a blueprint for a task you want to do over and over.

In our conversation, Bryan and I discuss the crucial role of hiring, what that process looks like at Zapier, the three ingredients for running a successful distributed company, lessons he has learned along the way, and much more. I can’t wait for you to dive in and learn from Bryan’s fascinating perspective!

Get an inside look at how a #DistributedCompany operates with @Zapier’s @BryanHelmig on this fascinating episode! #Leadership #Leaders Click To Tweet

Outline of This Episode

  • [1:45] Guest Bryan Helmig shares his background and why he started Zapier.
  • [5:20] Why hiring is one of the most critical aspects of a startup.
  • [8:50] What does Bryan look for when hiring Engineering Managers and remote employees?
  • [13:20] Three ingredients for running a successful distributed company.
  • [16:50] The benefits of a fully distributed company.
  • [21:30] Bryan describes the challenges he has faced with running a distributed company.
  • [25:00] How does Zapier optimize their hiring process?
  • [31:00] What does the Zapier on-boarding process look like?
  • [36:00] Change is the only constant.
  • [39:30] Why you need to keep an eye on the mental health of your remote employees.
  • [43:00] Tools and resources that Bryan recommends.
  • [44:30] Why people should consider working at Zapier.

Why you need to pay attention to your hiring process.

What would you identify as the number one area that business leaders should focus on as they work to take their business to the next level of growth? Should they focus on big-picture strategies or less sexy aspects like their hiring process?

Looking back at the growth of Zapier, Bryan Helmig says that the hiring process is the most important area for businesses in general and startups, in particular, to focus on. Hiring can be even more complicated for a distributed company but, in Bryan’s view, it doesn’t have to be. At the end of the day, it all comes down to relationships – the people who you hire and trust are critical to your business’ health. Learn more about Bryan’s approach to the hiring process at Zapier by listening to this episode.

3 ingredients for running a successful distributed company.

Let’s face it, running a successful business is hard enough but the challenges can increase tenfold when you are operating as a distributed company. Thankfully, leaders like Bryan Helmig are leading the way and paving a path forward. In our conversation, Bryan was kind enough to share his three ingredients for running a successful distributed company.

  • Team – Focus on less “poster values” and emphasize behavior values like, “Default to action.”
  • Tools – Don’t be a robot; build a robot. Tools drive how your organization works.
  • Process – Be willing to revisit and change your processes as you go.

Which aspect of Bryan’s three ingredients resonates the most with you? Make sure to catch my full conversation with Bryan as he expands on these three ingredients and much more.

Want to know the 3 ingredients for running a #successful #DistributedCompany? Tune into this episode as @BryanHelmig delivers the goods! #Leadership #Leaders Click To Tweet

The advantages of a distributed company.

What is your knee-jerk reaction when you think of a distributed company? Do you have a positive impression or a negative one? Don’t assume you know all of the relevant information, get it from the source!

One of the unique advantages of a distributed company is the limitless opportunities it provides when seeking talent. You don’t have to limit your talent search to those in your geographical area; you can choose from qualified candidates all over the world. Connected to this unique advantage is another advantage – diversified points of view. With a distributed company, you have the opportunity to get a global perspective that can give you an advantage over your competition.

The challenges of a distributed company.

While it might seem like there are only positives, the reality is there are a good number of challenges that arise from operating a distributed company. One key aspect is pretty obvious, you don’t get to look your peers, employees, and supervisors in the eye – this can lead to a whole host of challenges.

People who tend to view their workplace as a key aspect of their social life would find working for a distributed company challenging. Clear communication can also be a barrier for many individuals as well – what may come off as curt and obtuse in an email might not be what the sender had in mind. These challenges may prove too overwhelming for some, but the evidence shows that many people find the freedom and flexibility of working remotely are too good to pass up. Get even more insights into how a distributed company operates by listening to this episode of SimpleLeadership with Bryan Helmig!

With every new form of #business, you are going to find unique challenges and advantages. On this episode, you’ll hear from @Zapier’s @BryanHelmig as he dishes on both - you don’t want to miss it! #Leadership #LeadersClick To Tweet

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Transcript Below

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Christian McCarrick  

 

This is simple leadership. Welcome.

 

Thank you to our sponsor Policy Room for helping make the internet a safer place by offering identity as a service and supporting this podcast.

 

We’re here to learn from new and seasoned technology leaders who all share a passion for improving the craft of technology management. Let’s take a deep dive into management and leadership challenges and best practices specific to Software Engineering and Technology teams. Do you want more engineering management leadership tactics and information? Subscribe at simple leadership.io to receive the latest updates from this podcast. Hi, I’m your host Christian McCarrick. This is the SimpleLeadership podcast. Welcome back. Today’s guest is Bryan Helmick. Bryan is the co-founder and CTO at Zapier, a workflow automation tool that connects all Bryan the apps you love and automates repetitive processes. Since the company was founded in 2011, Zapier is scaled to 200 employees and more than 19 countries supports over 1,400 app integrations and empowers millions of customers. Bryan worked in product development for Veterans United or he built products focused on bringing Veterans United to veterans on social media. He holds a degree in finance from the University of Missouri, Columbia. On today’s episode, we discuss growing and scaling remote teams, including the unique challenges of hiring, onboarding, culture, and employee mental health. Good morning, Bryan, welcome to the show. Thank you excited to be here. Awesome. And where are you calling in from today, Bryan?

 

Bryan Helmig  

I’m in Mountain View. So here on the west coast.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Oh, excellent. I’m over in the East Bay of San Francisco. So we’re, you know, pretty close. So this time of day, it’s probably a bit longer than then in the middle of the day with traffic and whatnot. Right. So as I asked all my guests, Bryan, little background, you know, how did you get to where you are today? Kind of the highlights of what you’re doing?

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yeah, so the bulk of my working life has been at Zapier, which does a lot of automation for SAS apps. But my background kind of took a little bit of a path through certainly not a quite technical background, def had the financial sort of schooling, kind of business background and university and starting just tons of I don’t know if you can call them startups. They’re like small, like little businesses that were enough to pay for like beer and stuff like that, sure. But started like dozens of those little things and learned a lot and worked at kind of a mirroring of finance and tech, there was a company in Columbia, Missouri, which is around where I grew up, that did VA mortgage loans, which were VA backed loans mortgages. All their sales motions, everything was done online, which was kind of novel a little bit. This was during like the “Great Recession,” right, where one of the few things that was still like alive and growing was the internet based mortgage loans that were also backed by the Federal government. So it was kind of a weird lucky spot to kind of be that was like just growing through this giant downturn. And that’s where I learned just a ton about tech and about like marketing and about how to build some of these sales motions for different kind of segments, even more specialized segments. So that was kind of the foundation of what got me into Zapier eventually, for that.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Sure. And now, give me a little bit of overview of Zapier, like just a highlights how long you’ve been around. What is the pitch for the company?

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yeah, we’ve been around, it’s crazy to say it’s like slow little over seven and a half years now. And Zapier is a way to make yourself more productive at work, generally. The way you do this is through automation, you can hook up triggers and actions, and when you get a new row and a spreadsheet, you know, look up something else in the different spreadsheet and then send a text message, or add them to email marketing list or when someone fills out a form on your website, whether that’s a type form or gravity form, or Whoo hoo, add that to your CRM, you can add little rules and pieces of logic in there. So it just really helps you move data between services and build like automation, which you would traditionally need to hire an engineer, right? Like an engineer to build this out and fire up your API’s and hosted somewhere and maintain it and pay them bunch of money to do that, and now with like something like Zapier, you know, for less than $50 a month, you can kind of create these little robots that run around your business and do a bunch of stuff for you. So that’s kind of Zapier in a nutshell.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Yeah, awesome. And to all my listeners, there’s like one zap that I use that makes my life bearable dealing with Slack today, you know, so I shout out for that I use on a daily basis awesome tool. I know a number of people at all, also use different pieces of Zapier and there’s apps so your company makes my life easier and better. So it doesn’t get much more better than that. Right?

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yeah, we say Zapier makes you happier. That’s our mnemonic.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Excellent. It helps you pronounce your name. Yeah. Now, Zapier is interesting because you were part of YC? Is that correct?

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yeah, we went through the summer of Y Combinator, which is when we moved, I mean, I had mentioned we were in Columbia, Missouri. That’s where way Mike and I had met, we got into YC. And we just moved out to the west coast that summer. So that was the summer of 2012.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Interesting. So you’re one of the co-founders of the company, and the CTO, the company, any major mistakes that you’ve made running teams, especially kind of you came in to Zapier, you’re probably didn’t have a ton of management experience and that’s kind of common for a lot of people who are starting and running their own startups. But anything that you look back and say, Wow, yeah, I could have done that. Or I might have done that differently.

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yeah, I mean, I feel like often the common thing, I remember hearing this advice from folks that were running startups before, like when we went through YC, I heard it so often, that it almost became wallpaper, but it was like actually ended up being just utterly foundational is just how important hiring is. You hear it all the time. And I almost feel like you hear it so much. Yeah, like I said, it kind of turns into wallpaper a bit. But when you live it, and you maybe make a couple hiring calls that you regret, or you have to like work on or you have to fix, it becomes very real. And it makes like your life so much easier when you surround yourself with really, really talented folks. So as I look back on any of the mistakes that hurt the most or spent the most time on fixing or whatever, I feel like they all come back to people and the quality of people that you hire, how you handle situations around feedback and performance. And how you work through those, those stick in my mind more so than I don’t know, like a technical decision you made that you had to roll back or, you know, some of those things, they seem pretty significant at the time, but they just kind of fade away. But the ones that really I just looked back in like, man, we could have done a better job there. I feel like they’re all people hiring, coaching, handling that sort of situation feel like they all come back to that.

 

Christian McCarrick  

I agree to I think as I’ve gone through my career in different companies to even coming up as a technologist, it sort of evolved into coming that you know, the people after you can get that, and you really take care of that the other things just sort of happen, right? I mean, you you hire the smart people you trust, you take care of them, you put the right processes in place, right? And then you can really enable them to build whatever you really need them to build, right and product value.

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yeah, absolutely. It’s kind of like inexplicably kind of it doesn’t happen automatically. So it’s not that far, but it like it feels closer to that then it does on like great hiring is not automatic. But if you get great people, and you kind of give them direction, and the very, like even high level direction of this customer has this kind of a problem. That’s usually enough for really solid folks that just like dig right in and do some amazing stuff. So that feels more automatic. The thing that’s not is the hiring side of stuff like that, you have to be really, really thoughtful and careful about and that kind of goes back to I just remember hearing everybody say that so many times that it just started floating past me. And it didn’t hit me with like, the magnitude of which it mattered to some of the other things that felt more, I don’t know, more immediate, right? Like, especially in those early stages, those things feel more immediate, you’re trying to like fix bugs that are blocking customers from upgrading, and you’re trying to maybe you’re trying to close like an investment round or whatever, like all those feel so like, you know, do or die kind of a feeling that you know, those longer term things just get neglected. And that’s the one longer term thing that if I could like pick a time machine back like that would be like or write a letter to myself, I guess like that would be that would be top of the stationary.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Sure. So for all my listeners out there anyone thinking about starting companies, you know, advice here from Bryan is hiring, you may hear it a lot. But it absolutely is so important. And I agree. And we’re going to talk about hiring a little bit and specifically hiring and remote companies and remote teams a little bit later in the show. So I want to make sure we get into that too. Now speaking of hiring, you started off small, you’ve grown, I looked at your website to your hiring for engineering managers now, what are you looking for in engineering managers at your company, especially for remote managers, right, especially if they’re coming to first time managers, any tips you have or things that you specifically look for, for people now they’re going to be running your teams?

 

Bryan Helmig  

One of the things we found is really well correlated with success in a remote organization, some sort of background, communicating in an asynchronous manner is like a default mode. And the way I would describe this is classically, in places where you’re maybe more of a consulting relationship or a client based relationship, that doesn’t need to be the predominant background. Infact, it’s really great to have more product focused experience, longer term, product focused experience, that’s really important. But sometimes just having that default mode of, I wanted to communicate with a client, I had to write a really thoughtful email, or well articulated email or get my thoughts across in that manner, or over a call, or something that’s not in person as the default mode is really, really important. So we often look for stuff like that, in the absence of Oh, I’ve just done remote before in the past, which of course is like kind of a gimme, that’s a big one. When it comes to management, we also think of places that have, if it’s a mixed environment, I think that’s always like pretty informative, because in a mixed environment where you have some folks who are remote, and some folks who aren’t, those sort of structures can kind of get a little bit leaky and messy, especially if you have cases where let’s say management is local, and some of the workers are remote. And how’s that managed. And those sorts of reflections on that are really, really important to us. So we really want to dig into those if someone’s like, Oh, I was in a mixed sort of remote local environment, we always like dig into that. Because those, that person is generally going to have a lot of nuance, and like thoughts around what works well in one or the other. And how does that mixed culture sort of work. It makes them think at a higher level at that. So we often ask about that sort of stuff. Those are all big things that we like, look forward for managing, I mean, beyond the classic stuff of, Hey, we care that engineering managers were engineers and their past life, it doesn’t mean that they need to be the greatest engineer right now, that is not the goal. But to have empathy for engineers and be like, yeah, that’s a tricky problem. I know, that’s a tricky problem, I trust you on that is really, really important. So we look for things of that nature, as well, along with just the lifecycle comfortable, being comfortable with the lifecycle of employee recruiting, interviewing, performance, coaching, letting folks go, like if you’ve seen all that stuff, maybe you experienced it firsthand, you’re probably going to be a pretty seasoned manager.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Perfect, thanks for that. And given your experiences as a CTO and a fully remote company, I want to spend the majority the rest of the show also discussing growing and scaling remote teams, I think it’s one thing to start them right? And then it’s a completely other thing to how we grow them up from 20, 30, 50, 100, 200 people

 

and there’s a lot of inflection points along the way. And to kind of want to get into some of those, for myself, personally, also passionate about this Remote VP of Engineering myself, I sit remote, like I’m at my house right now leading the distributed team. So and I think, you know, I want to point that out. It’s, as you mentioned, not everyone at Auth0 is remote, but I would say about 85% of our engineers are. And I thought it was very important. As you mentioned the leadership, right for me, I’m not sitting in the in the central office, and the rest of my team is remote. And I’m actually eating the dog food. And I think to your point about empathy that goes a really long way for your teams.

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yeah, 100%. And I think that line between managers and our executives, to just the folks who are traditional, like I see, having a mix there is really, really important. I feel like you get these local and remote sort of things, or at least I’ve heard certainly, I’ve heard from folks that we’ve talked to that whenever conversations just happen automatically, locally, you just lose so much of that awareness at some of these really key conversations, they just kind of exist in one realm rather than the other. And I think there’s companies that do it really well, I’m sure, there’s probably thought put into it for Auth0. I mean, 85%, being remote is a huge portion. I know, Fog Creek used to do something similar, where it was like everybody had if you’re going to do a call, even if one person was dialing in, everybody walked to a different room, right and would hop on the video call. And the those sorts of fundamentals are really really key, like holding a culture together, whenever it’s space across remote in, in person.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Absolutely. And I can go into a whole nother episode about the the mixes and how to do that. But it’s a very interesting conversation, ah, You know, feel free to reach out – to anyone wants to DM me to talk about that I’d be happy to. Now, I was going through a number of the things that are on your site, and one of the things you had talked about three ingredients to running a successful remote company and you talk about team, tools, and process. Now, do you want to spend a moment a little bit talking about kind of the team, you talked about a couple things like doers and other things and kind of go through some of the thought process that was behind those three items that you singled out?

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yeah, 100%. So for team and it’s kind of comes back to hiring, we tried to really make our values more behavioral, more real, less poster values, right? “Be excellent,” you know, as like a value doesn’t feel often actionable. Our first value, for example, is “Default to action.” We’d rather people just kind of make a call and an educated guess, obviously, but move forward, especially in a remote environment, that’s really important where the person who has the definitive answer is not going to be awake for another six hours, you can’t just like hang up your keyboard, and you have to kind of move forward and you had to be comfortable with that. So that’s something that you can ask in an interview, when it comes that. Tell me about a time where you sought forgiveness rather than permission, right? Like, that is another way to frame so that stuff. And you can kind of really dive into some of the behaviors there. And I think that’s really key when you’re talking about a team that can work in a remote environment, super important. So that’s number one. Tools, was the second one. I mean, this is back to values. Again, one of our values is, “Don’t be a robot, build the robot,” which is obviously very aligned with our mission as a company. But the tools themselves kind of drive, how your organization works. Of course, we use things like GitHub and Slack and all those amazing tools for working and those are the space you work in, it’s your office, right? A lot of people even with true physical offices still have that as their office. So you’re kind of working remote already. But you’re just kind of doing it with this extra physical 3D space as well. But we look at things like there’s all these robots running around Zapier, all these zapps that are doing all kinds of stuff at all hours of the day, automating all kinds of different things. So it always feels like Zapier is like humming, like the sun never sets sort of on Zapier because we have people everywhere. But we also have bots doing all kinds of stuff all the time. And that’s just a part of our culture. And that comes back to tools that enable that. And then you look at things like process. We’ve had to change process, and I’m sure you guys too, like just as you grow, things that work before just don’t work anymore, they just fall apart. And we have to be able to revisit those pretty regularly. Not be really dictatorial about the process, but still try to have some consistency. And we try to do this through interfaces. So a classic interfaces deadlines, like just let us know when this thing is going to get shipped. And if it’s not, we want another interface to be some sort of feedback so that we know that this is changing. That’s something that can stay fundamental. It doesn’t matter if you do Scrum or Cod Bon or which tool you use or whatever. But you should let other people know when you’re going to deliver on something. And if you’re not, you should let them know what’s changing and why. And that is the sort of primitives that we’re looking at when we look at team, tools, and process and how those kind of flow together.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Yeah, they’re all good points. That’s excellent, too. Now I do want to run into go into something we started talking about. And we’ve kept coming back to already in this conversation, hiring. So important for any company, right? Whether you’re remote or co-located or whatever, now, Zapier, 100% distributed, what have you found are the benefits of being able to hire from a fully distributed company.

 

Bryan Helmig  

I think the biggest benefit, by far is the quality of folks you have, you are now able to pull from anyone in the world, if you have a Core Python contributor that lives in Johannesburg, you can hire them, like, as long as your culture can support it, you can hire anyone, you’re not bound by geographic radius of within 30 kilometers, you know, 10 miles or whatever you have that is limited by a commute an hour or two of the day, just like eaten up by this time. So in and of itself, not only is it just a great like lifestyle thing, but it also helps you hire the best people as a result. So for us, we’re able to pull in these really great folks, I get so excited whenever there’s an amazing engineer, that’s I don’t know, in a small town in Ohio, like, that’s really exciting to me, versus there’s obviously amazing engineers in the Bay Area. But it’s so cool, that opportunity can be spread out. I mean, we believe that that that maximum that talent is kind of everywhere, but opportunities not. And we feel like we can kind of invert that a little bit and actually provide opportunity a little more widely and get great people who are everywhere haven’t had a chance to maybe work in an environment like ours, and we can pull them in and make them really successful. And that’s I don’t know, that just that’s really exciting. And when it works, it feels really good.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Yeah. And we found, at least myself personally too that, it really I think helps to offer opportunities to say other groups and some underrepresented groups that might not have the opportunity to live in the Bay Area, or have grown up or be able to afford it or have another job here.

 

Bryan Helmig  

100%. And you see this, like you see this diversity in culture, you see this diversity, and language and experiences that is worldwide rather than American centric, or a US centric, which is in itself, like, certainly I’m not a monculturalist, that’s not what I’m getting at. It’s just, it still has that kind of Western view on stuff. And if you can pull in other viewpoints and other perspectives, it has tons of even business, like if you’re going to try to spread, do internationalisation or go into different markets and you have people who live and breathe and they’re like, it just feels so much more natural. So it’s it’s not just like a moral good. It’s also a great thing for business as well. It just makes you more present in the places that you want to be as well. So it’s just great all the way around. We’ve seen it, it seems like you guys have seen it as well. So we’re kind of like preaching to the choir here.

 

We found it important.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Something that we struggle with a little bit too. And this is a question that comes up a lot is around timezone and timezone preferences, especially around teams and working together. What is you know, Zapier’s view on time zones you hire specifically for time zone instead of geographic region or, you know, how do you handle that?

 

Bryan Helmig  

It’s definitely a consideration. We’ve come up with different processes that help manage time zones, but we haven’t cracked the case, I guess, or cracked the nut for that. There are places where time zones work in your favor, you can take advantage of them. A classic example is infrastructure on call carrying a pager, you should just do it during your normal hours. And that’s that’s a really nice quality of life thing. Carrying a pager, and waking up at 3am is never fun. Like, no one’s ever excited to do that. Yeah. So the fact that you have someone who’s just like, “Hey, I got this, you know, I’m awake, like this is just part of my day” is a benefit, right? That’s something that’s great. When it comes to folks on teams, like within a team, I don’t know how you guys do it. But we try to, we try to really make sure that everybody has, you know, one or two hours on a team. And maybe this has two or three front end engineers two or three backend engineers, a designer data and the PM. Maybe those people all have one or two hours that they do have together. And we find that that works pretty well. The default mode for most, let’s say engineers, is to be heads down and like building stuff, right? Maybe not all your time, but a good chunk of your time. So actually having a little bit of timezone diversity there so that you could go a little bit deeper, well, things are a little bit quieter, can be a positive thing, too. So for us, we’ve just tried to find ways to sort of manage it and use it to our advantage where we can, you can’t do it everywhere. But in the places you can, we found it to be pretty effective.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Yeah, I agree with that. I think a minimum of you know, because you do have to get some people together, whether it’s for a stand up or sprint planning or retro, like it does help to have some time where everyone can get that quote unquote, Zoom face time, right? Too to get that now, lots of positives. What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve seen with having the such a distributed team and hiring specifically?

 

Bryan Helmig  

I think some of the challenges are probably not a whole lot different from kind of a physical location. But I think you hit them sooner, right? So especially for us, I know that we had to formalize the way we communicate a lot sooner in the lifecycle of Zapier. I’m not sure how your experience played out. But it seems like for us if we didn’t like lay out what some of our expectations were, it was easy to kind of get a little bit lost. a specific example is whenever new engineers are brought into Zapier, like, the advice I often give them is you’re going to feel like you’re a pest. And that could not be further from the truth of like the reality of this. If you don’t ask like a dozen or two dozen questions a day on Slack, you’re not asking enough questions like that’s the default failure mode, for folks in a remote environment is they are too quiet or they think they’re being annoying, or there’s just this thing about chatting on Slack or something that can kind of feel that way. Whereas maybe if you’re in a co-located place, and you look over and you see someone like scratching their head, or kind of visibly frustrated, or you can kind of like, Hey, what’s going on kind of a thing, and that feels more natural. But somehow it it doesn’t feel as natural, bringing that to purely digital. So you have to work at that. We had to had things like that brought into our culture and the way we communicate, that just help grease the wheels there. A classic one as well is we’ve tried to train people on when they need to raise the bandwidth, I think the classic thing you hear is you have a big thread in Slack. It’s like 100 messages. It’s like, Okay, it’s time to just raise the bandwidth, hop on a Zoom call and hash this out, right? Those are just some of the things they seem a little bit funny, they seem a little bit obvious, in hindsight, but you have to lay that out. And you have to be specific about that in a remote environment. Otherwise, people just kind of keep defaulting to those behaviors, and they may not be the most optimal behaviors. That’s something that we found. And we see a little bit of success and trying to kind of formulate that communication pattern.

 

Christian McCarrick  

I definitely was chuckling when you said that because you see that behavior of the, you know, the hundred Slack channels and everything, the threads, you’re going insane. And it’s hard to even keep up. And then sometimes you notice that the threads of that on each other over right with 12 hour window when someone started waking up and then participating in right. So yeah, I like that kind of knowing when and codifying so as a good expectation of when it’s time to jump on that higher bandwidth, like get on a call again, on a Zoom. I think that’s, that’s a good point for all the people out there.

 

Bryan Helmig  

Definitely, we also so have people, when you do hop on a Zoom, we try to have folks recap and summarize when they get back, like when they wrap it up. And just try to say, Hey, this is what we kind of decided, so that folks don’t miss out on that. Or we record a lot of stuff and upload them to things like Wisteria. And then we often recommend people like us like the there’s some Chrome thing that you can extension that lets you like speed up your videos. And then we have lots of people talking and chipmunk voices at like at two or three x. So that’s really helpful to get context if you want to. And it keeps people engaged no matter kind of where you are in the time zone spectrum.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Absolutely, yeah. We do a ton of recording too. But it’s like anything, the speed up things. Interesting thing. I’ll have to take that tip back too. Now, one thing I want to I want to get to right is how do you optimize for remote interviews and getting the proper signal? This is something I deal with in our company deals with every single day. How has Zapier sort of optimized for getting that remote signal properly?

 

Bryan Helmig  

Well, I think a lot of its stuff that is is not unique to remote. It’s things like having a consistent rubric, having consistent questions, trying to compare apples to apples as best as you can. We do stuff like take homes, we think that kind of matches the reality of the work. It’s not perfect. We’re constantly grass is greener on the other side sort of thing when it comes to hiring processes. So some of that stuff, I think is kind of table stakes. You know, some of the things that are unique to remote? Are you emphasize a bit more. Again, the default mode of communication. How did they come across in their emails? What was their internet quality like? Did they find a quiet spot to get on the call? Were they in a loud like coffee shop and you could barely hear them? Or were they distracted on the call? Clear like messing around with something, those sorts of things matter more, right? Like they matter a lot more in a remote environment. So those things are things that you would think of that are I think unique to remote. When you think of the default modes, how you going to communicate with this person day to day, how did they come across in those mediums? How much effort do they put in those? That matters a lot. But beyond that, I feel like a lot of the standard hiring things still hold right? Be able to have consistent interviewers try to treat people fairly, all that stuff is still top of mind as well.

 

Christian McCarrick  

So I want to talk about something I know that your company does. And we do at Auth0 and it’s polarizing a little bit. And I know you have to take homes and we have an exercise. We have people who love it. And they think it was really they enjoyed it. They enjoyed interacting with the teams first. And then I go on Twitter, and I have people that are saying, well, you’re getting free work and your exploitation and you’re paying them. How do you feel about that? How do you handle some of that, if you’ve seen that on your side?

 

Bryan Helmig  

We’ve gone back and forth. We’ve done live whiteboarding ones we’ve done, take homes, and I don’t think there’s one perfect solution to this stuff. We’ve done stuff where we’ve kind of allow people to choose your own adventure sort of thing. And then you get issues with not being fair and comparing people. So it’s a really, it’s a really hard thing. Anytime you’re trying to judge another human’s skills or whatever, you’re only getting a tiny snapshot, it is very lossy, we just kind of have to acknowledge that it’s imperfect, really from top to bottom right, like just going to be very, very difficult. So if you start from there, you’re just really choosing at least I feel like you’re kind of choosing from the lesser of two evils here. We found that a take home test lets people work in a more natural environment with what the work will be. I just don’t see people hopping on calls and whiteboarding their code on a daily basis. And if you excel at doing that, I can understand why you’d want that in your interview process. But that’s not how we work on a day to day basis. So it would be disingenuous to present it as such, and I don’t think it like measures what we care about. So we do have a portion after the take home, where we try to recap a little bit of how they approach the problem. And a lot of times you actually get more signal from this, I often tell people that are interviewing that sometimes it’s what you don’t decide to add to the take home and your reasoning for it, that might put you over the top. So if you say well, I could have done X, Y, and Z but because of the time reasons I decided not to. But here’s what I would have gotten out of it as a result and be able to talk in depth, because that tells me you’re able to make trade offs, that’s really important. So these sorts of things can be like really instructive, not just on the take home, but also in how you review it and how you have a conversation about it afterwards. We definitely don’t have people work on the product or do like a week of work ahead of time. We did try that before. And we tried paying people for that, like, Hey, take a week, we’ll pay you and just kind of work with us. And we found that that was highly disruptive too. I mean if you got a family or you already got like a job, it was a big ask, it was really big ask for folks. And we found that that just didn’t work either. So some people liked it, some people didn’t. I think it’s really hard. And it’s, it can’t please everyone all the time, right? It’s really difficult. You just do the best you can and you just recognize that it’s kind of imperfect, but you keep working on it.

 

Christian McCarrick  

You made a good point, I think though, is making sure that the work and the type of work and the situation you’re going to be in matches what you’re actually going to be doing on your job. It’s like a sort of going into a an engineering position or developer position where all you’re going to be doing is crud work. And you know, you’re doing red black trees on board, right, it’s just it’s not quite exactly the work you’re going to do. And for us, we want to optimize for asynchronous because that’s the majority of the work that we do.

 

Bryan Helmig  

Right. And the thing I often ask is, especially when we were reviewing because we review and try to have a consistent rubric and like intro and project, like read me and everything. The things we asked, What’s the narrative for how this is applicable to Zapier. So if you have a question about database design, how is that going to matter to them? If they’re on the front end, you’re gonna have to spend a pretty good yarn. But maybe if they’re on the back end, and they’re talking about distributed Well, you know, if you looking at range keys, and how you query that across, like a shard, it matters. Oh, okay, I buy that. I think that’s a valid question as a result. So I think your point of like, could you design a red black tree is just kind of like signaling between engineers that know that kind of deep information. And maybe it’s not trivia, you could get to trivia like, you know, tell me about this particular API and the jelly it’s like, that’s not, again, not important. So those things, we try to really curb, just like straight out and just get back to the meat, like, what’s the first project you’re going to put them on? Think of it through that lens? Like, are they going to build a component or higher order component and react? Okay, maybe that’s the thing that you should be asking about. That’s more fruitful conversation to have then, like you said, red black tree. And then you come in and you build rest API’s? You know?

 

Christian McCarrick  

Yeah, exactly. So after hiring, you made an offer, candidate starts. How do you as a remote team, or remote company? What are the things that you do from an onboarding process at Zapier and has it changed at all as you’ve scaled?

 

Bryan Helmig  

Oh, it’s changed a lot. We used to do a thing where we would get everyone every month, we would have all the new folks fly out to California, we’d meet them. And that was fun. That was really great. We enjoyed that. But we also thought maybe not perfectly aligned with wanting to run a fully remote company. So we thought maybe we could try doing remote onboarding. And the first two weeks, we have really structured so we kind of follow this graduated autonomy style thing where the first week you have almost no free time, right? The second week, you have a little more free time. And maybe you’re spending a little more time with your manager, talking more about team stuff. That first week was fully company immersion, learning about like the history of the context of stuff we’re working on that second week. A little less of that third week, you’re almost all over to your manager at that point, maybe a little bit of lingering stuff, you need to like wrap up, we use things like Lesson Lee and a couple different courses. So you could like work through this stuff at your own pace. And then by that fourth week, you’re diving into a project, you’re building all that stuff. And we try to do this in a very like graduated autonomy style thing where we’re just very structured, to more loose to more, you’re guiding yourself, you’re kind of handling this stuff. Always within obviously a framework, you’re going to land on a team, you’re going to have specific work you want to work on there, we try to get engineers to writing their first bit of code as fast as possible, we try to get support folks to answer their first ticket as soon as possible. And we try to make it really easy, just so you learn the motions, right? You should learn the emotions of the job before in the environment before you have to really apply brainpower to the problem, it just reduces the number of things that could go wrong. I often tell people, the best thing you can do as an engineer on your, you know, first week is ship a typo fix, right? Because like, it can’t mess it up, right? There’s no, there’s no confusion about am I doing this, right? You’re learning everything about the motion of how things get into production. That’s like the best thing. And then yeah, add in about face, then move on to working with someone else on a feature, then owning your feature, kind of, again, graduated autonomy at that point. So those are the ways that we approach onboarding. And it’s gotten better, I think, as we’ve gotten more structured, and more thoughtful about this, we do a lot of internal surveys of new folks. And, you know, existing folks, and the scores say that people are pretty pleased with the direction of it. So it seems like the more support you give people in those early days, the better they do, and the faster they feel like they’re, I don’t know, like, they feel like they’ve been around for a while because they’ve got extra context. And they kind of know where everything’s, everything’s at.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Sure. That’s great that structure, I think is really important to there’s some other information on your, on your website too that. And I want to bring that up for a second. If you’re a remote manager, or you are a remote worker, go to kinda Zapier.com, I’ll post them stuff in the show notes, there’s a lot of good material around working, remote working, they published something called, “The Remote Work Survival Guide,” I think just all good tips. A lot of the stuff you get is like, change out of your pajamas and you know, set boundaries and like that’s it. And there’s 100’s of those articles. Right? Yeah, but I think your team certainly has put out some great content. So you know, thanks for doing that helps the community so appreciate that.

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yep, we’ve put a lot of thought into it. We create a lot of these things internally. And it just feels like it’s not that difficult to clean them up and share them more widely. And we’re big believers in this, it sounds like you guys do a ton of remote and are big believers there as well. There’s just not a lot of examples out there that do remote, well, there’s a few and they’re starting to pop up more and more. But I mean, I just feel like this is kind of the way the world’s going to work in the future. There’s no real reason why we all need to be co-located in one spot or the other when we have this medium by which we’re working through already, like a turn when even when you’re in a physical location, like you’re chatting over Slack if your code lives in GitHub. So it’s inevitable. I feel like that’s the way the world is going to work and another decade or two.

 

Christian McCarrick  

I mean, that brings up a good point that there aren’t a ton of companies. But there’s more companies starting and the companies that have been in existence, yours is one of them are starting to grow to some level of scale now. And there’s even much less information about that, right? So I mean, companies that are greater than 100 people remote. I mean, I can talk to you maybe Envision, I think is Buffer there. I think at this point, some of those companies, Automatic is certainly one that’s sort of one of the pioneers of that, but are any things that as you’ve grown and scaled? There’s a lot of stuff in your website and different things. What are the biggest things that you have had to say change, specifically from being a remote organization over the time as you scale that just don’t scale as well anymore? I mean, off sites, retreats, anything like that?

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yeah. I mean, the onboarding thing was one that I think was changing. That’s a big one. It’s funny, you say this, because I’ve always thought there was a big dearth of information of around even just growing an org from 50 to 250, something like that. There’s a lot of people telling you about how to start a company from scratch, lean startup kind of thing. So there’s no shortage of that. And then there’s a lot of people writing kind of, you know, retrospectives of or memoirs of like, their giant corporation that they, right, but in the middle of Coke, right, exactly, or Apple or whatever, right? Like, okay, neither one of those are really useful when you’re in this middle area. And it kind of feels like a no man’s land. I wish there was more if people have great recommendations, like, I’d love to hear about them. It just seems like there’s not a lot of information out there for this, especially for high growth companies. So the things that we’ve saw, if I had a number one thing is like a takeaway is that change is the only constant, if you can embrace the idea that the thing that you slave over and like sweat over. And finally, land on a solution that you’re happy with. It’s going to break in another six months and be useless. If you can get comfortable with that you kind of have a zen like approach to handle this, because there’s no, it’s maybe a bit paradoxical. There’s no like one solution size fits all. But the one thing that I’ve never heard is like, Oh, yeah, nothing’s changed for us as we grew really fast. So just getting comfortable with that, you’ll probably be ahead of the pack, because you won’t hold on to things that just don’t work anymore, that are broken. A lot of the things that we did wrong, as I look back, probably fall in that camp of just holding on to something that wasn’t working anymore, whether that’s someone in the org that wasn’t really feeling their position anymore, or, you know, a process that kind of broke, or maybe even something really, particularly like a technical choice that no longer was working, but we were banned dating, it’s still and like, all these things. They’re all in that flavor of Yeah, things are changing. We’re not addressing the change as fast as we need to be, or we’re not as comfortable addressing the changes we ought to be. I feel like that’s kind of the fundamental thing. But above that there’s like a million, there’s like a million cases of it.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Yeah, no, the changing is so important. And even when I talk with rolling out different things to my teams, and I talked to other peers and other companies, people get that emotional or whatever safety attachment to things. And it’s much better to be proactive, if you can, right, you don’t want to be so much premature optimization that you’re scaling for things going to happen 18 months in the future. But if you can get a little bit ahead of the curve, I think with seeing the wall that you’re going to hit and maybe making some slight changes, right before you hit it, I mean, perfect, because once you have to deal with it, and retro, like you said, it’s a lot messier,

 

Bryan Helmig  

Definitely a lot messier. I mean, it’s kind of like the old maxim, like, if you don’t like the weather, just wait a day, it’ll change kind of a thing. Often, that’s how startups sort of feel, right? So you’re not happy with how the process is working, like given a month or two in, it’s gonna probably be a new process. So just being more comfortable with like, hey, everything’s an experiment, everything’s going to change, it makes sense to think a little bit ahead and try to get maybe an extra month or two out of something, but don’t obsess over it either. So there’s, there’s a very Zen balance to it. And just kind of like working the problem sort of thing is kind of at the heart of it. But yeah, it turns to tricky one.

 

Christian McCarrick  

One thing I do like to talk about, and not just with remote employees, something you know, that every manager and every leader needs to be more aware of, I think it’s employee mental health. And I think the challenge in with remote employees makes it even harder. What are some of the things that your leaders and you coach your leaders to kind of be on the lookout for specifically, and tips on how to do that with remote employees?

 

Bryan Helmig  

Yeah, it’s great question, we try to talk about it a little bit, we have rooms where we can like talk and dive into some of this stuff as well, just being open about it can kind of be helpful that, hey, you’re not alone and feeling maybe a little isolated, or a little lonely when it comes to a remote environment. And of course, this is people different, everybody’s different. So some people are like, thank God, I don’t have to interact with people, right? Like, thank you. And other people, like I could use a little more interaction. Everyone’s different. So there’s no one size fits all, either here, you know, some of the advice we often give folks is, if you have a habit and your past roles of using work as kind of your social structure, that is going to be more difficult at Zapier, or a remote organization. It’s going to be a bit harder to do, it’s not impossible, but it is going to be harder to do. So you’ll want to set aside some time to touch base with friends or local friends or whatever. Like if you’re the person that kind of needs that stuff. Or maybe it’s family, maybe, you know, friends that you have that are local, that might be what you have to lean into a little more. Those are just little technical things that are going to be top of mind. For folks who who kind of need something like that. When it comes to a more remote environment that has how are people communicating how are people handling, it’s easy to read into. The example I often give is like if someone just says like, response to you write up a big thing, like with a passionate thoughts and like really articulated and they respond with like “K,” you know what I mean? Like, it can kind of feel dismissive, or maybe you misread some signals or whatever, like that can sting more right? In a remote environment, because you miss out on the physical cues, right? Maybe that person was just like, in the middle of a call. Maybe they’re in the middle of a podcast, right? And they’re in they couldn’t like respond, but they wanted to acknowledge you, right? So it’s often useful to take a step back and say, Hey, what did you mean by that? Are you are you not happy with that thought, or you’re not and get more clarity and seek that clarity is really important, can really help on that front, that’s often like a source of friction, that can directly impact sort of mental health, because it’s easy to ruminate on those sorts of interactions or feel rejected as a part of those interactions, when there may be totally valid reasons outside of that. So seeking that clarity, I think is something that can be really helpful for folks. I think remote has a lot of good stuff. But it also has a couple things just kind of keep in mind you have to like actively manage.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Yeah, you made a good point earlier to you can’t be lazy, and you can’t be lazy with documentation. You can’t be lazy with communication written or verbal. You can’t be lazy with management. So there’s a lot of things, I’d like to say that all the things that you should be doing even at you know a co-located office, right? Sometimes you can get away with not doing them all and be lazy, right? But you really can’t do that remote.

 

Bryan Helmig  

Lazy is not the word I would use. It’s just Lazia Fair or just kind of being like complacent a little bit with it. Like I said, especially when it comes to social cues and interactions. Humans are so finely attuned to that, right? And it’s easy to overemphasize them if you don’t have the rest of the context. And just being able to recognize that I think is like step one be like okay, I’m maybe I’m just misreading this, I don’t have enough context here, I’m just going to seek a bit more of it is like usually just stopped zero for some of this stuff. But it can be a little bit trickier. When you’re doing that.

 

Christian McCarrick  

One thing Bryan, I ask all of my guests on the show, if you have any recommendations for my listeners for resources on either leading engineering teams and or remote teams, anything you’ve read recently, or it stands out for you that you would recommend to my listeners?

 

Bryan Helmig  

It’s funny the podcasts that we really recommend managers specifically listen to. It’s funny when you listen to it. It’s like just so like, so straightforward and makes a lot of sense as the Manager Toolkit. Yes, it’s great. It’s just no nonsense, straightforward advice on this stuff, which I always I always recommend that for folks who even want to get into management. I think a lot of the stuff there holds and remote. Some of it doesn’t like I think there’s some funny stuff like awkward situations like how do you deal with body odor? and then

 

maybe doesn’t apply as much so you get to skip over some of those but a lot of them is still really, really hold. So I often recommend things like that. I really recommend if you’re into remote, there’s a lot of great I think 37 signals, wrote some stuff on remote. I think some of the early stuff there. Check out the companies Auth0 included like writing a the leaders there. Zapier as well get labs of the Automatic folks. Open Source I think has especially really well run open source organizations things like Elastic, Get Lab I guess is open source as well. Mozilla a big one, very remote forward. Think of how they approach that stuff can be very instructive.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Yeah. Excellent. And I’ll post some of those on the show notes as well on SimpleLeadership.io. I know that Zapier is hiring. So Bryan give me like the 90 second elevator pitch. Why should people work at Zapier?

 

Bryan Helmig  

At the core of Zapier, we try to automate stuff, and we try to help everyone automate everything that they do in a daily work life, predominantly. This is classically required people have tons of capital, right? Hire engineers and do all this like complicated work. But now you can just kind of string stuff together. It’s kind of giving engineering abilities to non engineers. I mean, you’ve seen like attempts at this through stuff like visual programming, things of that. But the way we’re kind of approaching it is like from just like, Well, what do you want to accomplish? And like, how do we really like bake in a great experience there. So we’re just trying to bring automation to more and more people are trying to make it a lot simpler to get started with Zapier, we’re trying to like get Zapier in front of more and more people. So everyone can kind of be their own engineer and work on all this stuff without being technically minded. If you can snap together a couple of Legos, you should be able to use Zapier and that’s really what we want. So if that excites you, if you think everyone should have that ability, that’s something that you should definitely chat with us at Zapier. We’re hiring, you can check us out Zapier.com/jobs tons of stuff up there. Like I said, we share a ton about how we work. So you can really kind of interview us before you interview us if you’d like. You can see how we do stuff.

 

Christian McCarrick  

Excellent. And they want to want to reach out to you, Bryan with any questions, what might be the best way to reach out to you?

 

Bryan Helmig  

Of course, all of our emails are on the website. So if you go to Zapier, our emails are up there, but you can hit me up on Twitter, I’m usually on there as well. Feel free to ping me. I’m always open like as you guys can. I love talking about Zapier, so I’ll never turn down an opportunity to nerd out on the subject. So

 

Christian McCarrick  

Excellent. Well, we’ve been speaking with Bryan from Zapier, and I really appreciate the time you took this morning. Really great conversation, and I’m sure my listeners will get a couple of great points out of it. Thank you. Thanks Christian. Thank you for listening to this episode of the SimplerLeadership podcast hosted by me, Christian McCarrick. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please subscribe. And don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes. Full show notes and additional information can be found on SimpleLeadership.io. If you know someone who would be a great guest for the show, or you want to share your own experiences, please drop me a line. We’ll see you back next week for more technology leadership tips and advice as I interview more top software engineering leaders.