Interview with The Founder and CTO of ScholarshipOwl: Bot Digging Communication Channels, Unlimited Vacation, The Power of Horizontal Growth, and Other Remote Work Life Hacks

Our latest guest is David Tabachnikov, an ex-senior Google developer who became the founder and technical director of ScholarshipOwl. David has been managing a distributed team of 35 people from 12 countries for the last three years.

David, tell me about your project. How does your platform work?

The platform connects students with scholarship companies. Most of our clients are from the USA because the education system there is very different from almost everywhere else in the world.

Almost all universities in the US are private, with average tuition fees from $20,000 to $40,000. If you take accommodations, food, and other costs into consideration, the cost is about $ 70,000 a year. For comparison: it would cost $5.000 in London.

Most students don’t have the ability to pay $300,000, so they either take out a loan or apply for scholarships. In the US, almost any private company can select students and give them a scholarship of $1,000–$2,000, but it isn’t easy to find these scholarships and apply for them. To even cover half of the tuition fee, you need to apply for hundreds of different scholarships.

Students create a profile on our platform, and we connect them with companies that provide the scholarships that best suit them. We also constantly monitor new scholarships and re-apply to them.

Let’s clarify, doesn’t your company have an office?

We used to have an office in Tel Aviv, but only one person worked there — my business partner. He had been renting an office for some time not far from his house and he could afford it because we allocate a budget for coworking to all employees.

How widely distributed is your team?

The majority of our employees are from Serbia, Ukraine, Latvia, and Russia. Also, there are employees from the United States and Bali.

How did you manage to gather these specialists?

In the beginning, we used recruitment agencies, then we switched to specialized remote searching platforms. Those pose a problem: agencies gather candidates from a particular location, but don’t know how to search for candidates outside of it. In addition, these candidates aren’t filtered properly.

The situation is changing right now; recruiters didn’t understand what a remote priority focused company or remote only company was two years ago. But, there are more and more companies that have been moving in this direction over the last few years.

It seems to us that remote work is still a new format in Russia, but what about awareness and attitude toward this format in other countries? What can you tell us about it from your experience?

I lived in Israel most of the time. When I tell my colleagues about having a distributed team, they don’t understand how I can work this way.

They often say, “I have to come in the morning and see my employees, see what they do”. And my favorite: “What would I do if an employee doesn’t get in touch?”. I usually reply, “What would you do if an employee doesn’t come to the office? What’s the difference?”. After all, employee behavior is the same, and the methods of punishment are the same. If employees don’t go to work online or in the office, then you report or fire them.

Also, they often say, “I want to see my employees work eight hours.” Well, they just go into the office and spend eight hours on Facebook.

Remote work is results oriented and that’s the main advantage of it. You can easily find out whether remote employees complete their tasks or not, but, in the office, everyone just sits all day long and pretends to work. However, many managers can’t accept that employees won’t be in their sights.

There has always been a closed IT ecosystem in Russia, so the situation is quite interesting. Local companies in Ukraine, Serbia, and Bulgaria don’t work, because developers and designers adapt quickly to working in companies in the United States, London, and Israel.

The sign of the industry’s development for me is GitLab with 400 remote employees and with $100 million of investments brought in.

Have you identified any features of successful remote employees from your time managing a remote team and through multiple interviews? Criteria that help you make the right hiring decisions. Maybe age (“not younger than…”), place of residence (not megalopolises) or other aspects.

Age and place of residence are definitely not a criterion. One of our team leads is from Moscow, marketers are from Las Vegas, and one mobile team lead lives in the suburbs of Riga. I can’t say there’s a difference in their work.

But there is a difference in hiring. It’s very difficult hiring specialists in Moscow, but at first, I was looking for employees right there. In 2016, I often went to, and even lived in, Moscow for six months.

Maybe it was too early. What do you think?

It seems to me that the culture hasn’t shaped yet. People who are used to working for a company all their lives are lost as soon as they no longer feel the constant pressure around them.

I was working in offices before ScholarshipOwl. Sometimes I even miss it: you come to the office, pour a cup of coffee, chat with your colleagues and, if it’s necessary, you gather everyone in the conference room.

In terms of remote work, everything works the same way except for the social element. But this problem can be solved easily. I work in a coworking space almost all the time. At least once a year, usually more often, the whole company gathers in one place: last year in Latvia, before that in Georgia.

Employees usually interact with each other from different countries and cities or the team discusses which place to travel to and work.

How do you conduct an interview when hiring a remote employee? What aspects are you especially attentive to?

It’s important for us that all employees speak English at a good level, so we give candidates the Cambridge test and demand a result of B2 or higher.

I also give homework from the area in which a person doesn’t specialize. I like to see how they can learn and build communication to solve this problem. This is an indicator of work in terms of remote work in the future.

So, you pay more attention to soft skills? How else do you test them?

It’s really difficult to check soft skills. During the interview, I look for some indicators from a candidate’s work experience, learn about communication with past team lead and tasks’ distribution.

The more independent and proactive employees are, the better the product will advance — no matter whether it's in an office or remotely. But the same requirements become crucial in a distributed team.

The habit of documenting the work process, initiative, and motivation are extremely important due to the fact that communication is slowed down.

Are there any red flags that would stop you from continuing to communicate with the candidate? For example, being late for an interview.

Definitely. Being late in terms of remote work is more critical than being late to the office. Because there are lots of ways to get in touch in any situation. A simple example: there are daily video calls in my teams to build work processes and such meetings are often led by the team lead being in traffic on the way home.

What is the advantage?

Remote work experience is a great advantage, especially working with the product. I often ask them to give an example of a feature that had improved the product and was initiated by the candidate, not by the team lead or product manager.

If I needed a specialist who only did tasks, I could hire a freelancer, but I’m looking for a team member to bring a benefit to the company, to be part of it, to believe in the product and make it better. So, during the interviews, I look for similar patterns from the previous work experience of the candidate.

Belief in the product isn’t only what “sells” a vacancy to an employee, but also helps keep them in it. How are you trying to hold onto your employees?

I really believe in the importance of growth within the company.

In some companies, specialists start in the position of a backend developer and then end their careers in the same position.

I always try to find out not only what the specialists are doing right now, but also what they might be interested in. I try to give people the opportunity to show themselves in other directions.

For example, one of our employees was Junior-QA in their previous place of work, and within four years he became the development team lead. He was gradually given development tasks, proved himself, and quickly grew in this direction. There’s always the opportunity to move horizontally in our company.

I used to be a senior engineer at Google, but I came here after being in a company in which I headed many projects and a department of 60 people. At Google, I was responsible for one project and didn’t relate to the business side at all, but I wanted to be closer to the product and make some decisions.

So, I started thinking about moving to the business side of Google. It turned out that there’s such a big gap between the engineers and the business inside the company that it is easier to leave the company and apply to another department.

I am convinced that specialists should have the opportunity to understand which position they are suitable for and could bring more benefits to. Many managers make a big mistake by not giving their employees a chance to change positions.

Of course, it’s a risk for a manager to hire employees for a position without work experience. But, on the other hand, the employees know how the company works and how the processes are arranged. They only need to be given the opportunity to get used to the new place. Moreover, they’ll express themselves if they feel trust.

I had a lot of cases where I noticed that employees were interested in something and tried to create a situation in which I could give them a chance to try it out, to show a new direction. It was usually very successful.

How do you organize the onboarding process for new employees?

We have documentation describing the processes and people responsible for it. On the first day, new employees are given this document to study. Then they’re attached to other employees who help them to get used to it, direct them for the first time. Also, daily video calls make it easier to immerse themselves in teamwork.

We organize a video call for all employees every three weeks: we discuss announcements, one of the teams tells us their results. Moreover, we present all the new employees. They always talk about themselves: who they are, what they do in the company, and it’s important to tell some awkward story in order to break the ice.

I, or the team lead, communicates with the new employee one-on-one for a couple of weeks to understand how they’re feeling and answer some questions.

Do you spend time on some aspects not related to work during your face-to-face calls with employees? Do you think it is important?

Usually, people try to focus only on work aspects during meetings because there’s only enough time for communication throughout the workday. But there’s the opposite situation in distributed companies. It’s quite normal to discuss something personal for the first 10 minutes. People talk about the weather or dogs.

It is very important to open communication channels in any company. If you need some help you should ask for it without a doubt. It can be difficult to do even in the office because you come to a colleague who you’ve met for the first time and ask for help. The situation is awkward, so it’s better to make contact in advance, after that it’ll be easy to ask your colleague for some help or share something.

We practice the following tools to bring together team members: we have a bot that randomly selects pairs of employees every week and they make face-to-face calls unrelated to work to talk about themselves.

This adds humanity to the work processes because you wouldn’t know anything at all about your colleague from the other side of the globe, so you get a little bit closer.

It is much easier when the communication channels are already open, so the manager doesn’t have to act as an intermediary.

We have faced the opinion that developers are often aggressive introverts and they don’t need all these “friendship” communications.

Working on a product requires a lot of communication in a team. In such a situation, total introverts remain outside the whole process and this is both uncomfortable for us and for them.

How do you build work communication? Do you prefer chats or voice calls? How do you deal with misunderstandings?

Offenses and misunderstandings are a serious problem. A task that can be solved in a minute by voice call, can instantly turn into an endless dispute in the chat. Int he beginning, we suffered from this.

It happened that someone wrote a message, not politely enough, as it seemed to another employee. But, in fact, he was just busy, was phoned at the same time and wrote it in a hurry. But the respondent answered the message aggressively. Then the first one responds with aggression, too, and everything falls apart.

Sometimes, they managed to offend each other so much that they addressed me with this problem. I forced them to phone each other and everything was solved in three minutes.

It often depends on the person. For example, my business partner likes to poke fun at people. It caused resentment in the chat very often. Now he tries to write simply. But, there was some tension even when he answered the specialist’ question in this way.

All of this wouldn’t have happened in a voice conversation, because he is a very gentle, caring person, but in written communication, it sounds completely different. Therefore, during the management of a distributed team, he even adapted himself into using emojis. So, it became easier and communication with him reached a new level.

I have often come across the fact that people are completely different in written communication than in verbal communication. It’s important to remember that emotions in the messages aren’t so easy to express. The same phrase with an emoji at the end of the message sounds completely different.

When communication channels are established, employees have a few reasons to feel uncomfortable in a distributed team. According to your experience, can we prove that there’s no turnover in terms of remote work?

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

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

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

But, it turns out that they’re doing a dozen different projects, but they don’t dive into them. Specialists want to understand it and the product can give it to them. Moreover, they get a remote work format and a strong team in which you can learn a lot.

You had been working at Google and then you moved to remote work. What didn’t you expect? What was new?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traits, that are especially important for a remote employee —

Curiosity and initiative.

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

If you do not believe in people.

At 6nomads, we help IT talent get remote jobs in the best companies and select interesting projects for their professional growth. We have decided to launch a series of interviews with the CEO’s and CTO’s of international companies focusing on the hiring and managing of distributed teams and to discuss their successful experiences with remote work, although it still remains unpopular.

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