Last week, Mandy Ross, Director of Community with Sococo sat down with Poornima Vijayashankar, the founding engineer of to talk about her path to working remotely leading an international distributed team. In part two of this series, Poornima shares her thoughts on individual engagement, time zone management and hiring on distributed teams.

MANDY ROSS: So, how do you keep your distributed team members engaged and motivated? What are the tricks to what you have as a business owner?

POORNIMA VIJAYASHANKER: This is kind of an ongoing challenge and what I have realized worked really well are hiring people who are consultants because they’re usually pretty self sufficient.  Consultants in that they have their own kind of service that they are providing they might even have their own business and they come in for periods of times. When I do all of my courses, I primarily hire consultants either in product, product design, engineering, marketing or what not, because it means they will have the bandwidth.

If I hire someone that’s an employee somewhere they might say I can’t get the time off in the day to come to teach the course but with a consultant they are like, yeah,this is part of my service offering and getting the word out about my  business and my expertise so it works out beautifully. They are just much better at self leadership. I don’t have to sit there and necessarily motivate them.

I think the second is finding people who are not just self starters but are good at figuring out things on their own rather than me needing to constantly be there to coach them.  I tend to not hire folks who are very junior.  We also have 1 or 2 interns that we are testing out but primarily people who are in their mid career or beyond and you don’t want to have too many senior folks but people who are kind of mid career, coach-able and are willing to try something out, willing to experiment. I think the other thing is staying with communication to balance out the grunt work versus what they truly want to be doing.  That comes down to communication.

The final thing I’ll say is at some point people just want to move on, for whatever reason.  I think it’s not the kind of thing we’re going to stick with for  5, 10 or 20 years.  In the times that they were there, did they make a significant contribution that they’re proud of, you’re proud of and if they decide it’s time to move on and do something else great.  I think that’s another key facet in trying to hire people is finding the folks who will get the sense of pride from completing a project. I know this is a learning process.  

In the 5 years since I had a real team, I definitely made a lot of mistakes, hiring people.   I’ve hired people who’ve been higher than market rate, and much lower than market rate, neither performed really well.   It’s not about if you pay someone more, they’re going to deliver better work.  It’s finding a happy medium.  I think a lot of it is, do they take their work seriously.  Do they feel like they’re making an active contribution, and are they going to feel proud of how they put their name on something that we have launched or we have pushed out.  That’s really critical and I’ve been looking for more and more folks like that.  People that don’t treat it like a to do list but instead they’re going to learn from having worked with us, they’re going to get their name out there, and they’re going to feel like they wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity somewhere else.  

MANDY ROSS:  The interesting thing that I’m observing about this is that you’re talking about the way that you select people and the way that you bring people in has very little to do with physical location.  It’s not like you’re saying you have to be with 50 miles of where I am or I’m not interested.  It’s more about your focusing on the art of working with people and getting the right hire in and it’s less about them being remote.  That’s not a factor for you, which I love.  It’s refreshing.  

POORNIMA VIJAYASHANKER:  I mean truthfully I’m all over the place.  This year in particular, we’ve been exchanging emails, two weeks ago, I was in New York then a week ago I was in Boston.  Then this weekend I was in Bordeaux.  So there’s no way I can expect them to be miles from me when I’m not going to be miles from them.  What’s really worked well is front loading a lot of the work.  

For example, I had a copywriter that I brought on about 2 months to do a lot of the work for an upcoming Grow-It course and we probably spent the first week that I had having a call maybe every day or at least every other day. Really ramping her up and getting her to understand our students, giving her assets, going through and answering all her questions and then after that she felt pretty set and then we would just do email check ins once a week or  we would have a phone call. I basically stepped away for a while and gave her direction solely through email.  

There were a few stumbles, but overall she caught up and understands what she needed to do so that when I was away this weekend, I’m off the grid. Work kept happening and I didn’t have to worry about it. Same thing with my designer; we’ll often send stuff over to her and we won’t hear from her for a week. That’s okay because I understand, we’ve been working together for a year or two.  Where I understand she’s doing work, she’s going to get back to me. Now if I don’t hear from her for a week and a half, then I’d be like, I hope Sarah’s still alive and reach out to her.  I understand what’s she’s doing and she’s educated me on her process.  You need to get me, this, this and this by this date.  I’ll take that and go into my cave and I’ll merge, I’ll have designs, You’ll give me feedback and we’ll riff on that.  It’s understanding how other people operate but also what we need to do to ramp them up so they can go off and do their work and you can focus on what you need to do.  

Early in my career when I first became a leader I was very much a micro manager because I was an engineer. It’s a thing where you’re so attached to doing a certain thing and you feel like you can do it better than anybody else. But my co-founder at the time, he recognized this, and he actively said we need to work remotely because I think it’s going to help you get out of this micromanaging thing.  He was 100% right.  It not only benefited my employees and my teammates, it also benefited me because I started doing the work that I needed to do, rather than overlooking everybody else’s work.  Today I’ve gotten to the point that I let other people check other people’s work and I’m only there if there’s a big concern or if people don’t feel confident or if they’re brand new.  Other than that, I’m just like, go talk to this person, they’re the editor, they’ll give you what you need and have things flowing. I don’t want to be the bottleneck.

MANDY ROSS:  Wow, so it sounds like going remote was actually a tactic in this case.

POORNIMA VIJAYASHANKER:  Yeah, Both my husband and I work remotely and we talk a lot, he’s got a much bigger team, his team is about 40 people, and they’re distributed from Africa to Western Europe and they have like an interesting way of managing.  We talk about this a lot.  It gives us a lot of freedom in our lives.  And also made us much more productive in the time we are working. But a lot of times people think you’re not going to have a deep relationship with people and I don’t feel that at all.  I feel like I know what’s going on and I’ll make time if I’m in a city with one of my teammates, we’ll go out to dinner or we’ll meet up.  So they’re still time for those things.  Maybe on a day to day they’re not sitting next to me and we’re going getting coffee but that’s okay.

So, let’s wrap up with your compelling back story.  What is your compelling back story, what’s the thing I think people can relate to you about you, that makes you sort of unique in your profession.

POORNIMA VIJAYASHANKER:  I was definitely someone who was on the fence about remote work. I was taken aback in 2011 when my co founder had said I want take our company to a distributed model, because I’m tired of a two hour commute either way. I was adamantly against it – I told him, you’re going to come into the office, this isn’t how startups are run, this isn’t how engineering teams are run, you need to be sitting right next to the person and that’s all I knew because that’s all I had experienced.

I remember in my first job ever we had one guy in France and it was a pain because I had to get up early to get to the office and call him up and be able to ask him questions that I had been saving up for the day before. I told Alex all this and he said it’s going to be better, trust me.  I said you have three months and after that we’re going back to the original way of doing things. That’s when he really took the reins – he first streamlined the development process, implemented pair programming, and put in a system for asynchronous communication.

We decided on what customer support hours were going to be and defined an escalation path.  Over that period of time,  things were running pretty well and I could do more: I could travel, I could talk to customers, I didn’t have to be in an office at a particular time, and so there was a lot of freedom that came out of that. I have a really hard time now when people tell me I need to be somewhere at a certain time; having to physically be somewhere becomes a challenge.  

I think the other thing is connectivity. Can you still develop relationships with people, can you stay connected to people? I’ve noticed it’s becoming a lot easier to do that just because we’re not limited by location so we have the freedom to hire from anywhere, the freedom to connect to our students. We have a lot of students at this point that are outside the San Francisco Bay area and even international and that’s been great.  In the last course we taught, the Confident Communicator Course, we had two students from China and English was not their first language, it was their second language. They went through the course and their presentation style and their manner of speaking was so transformative that I was impressed myself.  Wow.  We’re impacting people who are thousands of miles away.  Like that’s a great feeling, you know.

MANDY ROSS:  At Sococo, that’s the feeling we are always going for!

POORNIMA VIJAYASHANKER:  The key for us is remote with high touch.   It’s not like we do things remotely therefore we don’t have to connect with anybody and everything can be done via email, no, it’s like you still have to show up, you still have to be live and meet with people but if you do those things and if you develop that process that’s going resonate with others than you’re going to see an impact that comes out of this.  I think that’s been great. and even Matt had employees who were able to go on Maternity leave and just all these different things that might not have been possible in a more traditional like you have to show up for work type of setting.

POORNIMA VIJAYASHANKER:  We are primarily focused around entrepreneurship and leadership.  We have a couple courses on entrepreneurship, one is called Ship it,where you’re looking for ideas for a prototype, the other is called Grow It, where you’ve already built something, software, product, you’re some product and then looking to develop further so you’re trying to attract customers you’re trying to generate revenue all of that good stuff so that’s the focus of that.

MANDY ROSS: Thanks for joining us today, Poornima! It’s been great connecting with you.

POORNIMA VIJAYASHANKER: Likewise! It’s been great to be here.

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