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Building an effective remote-first team during the pandemic

Building an effective remote-first team during the pandemic

7 Jan, 2022 8 min

I’m an engineering manager at Grafana Labs serving on the Grafana Enterprise Operations team. I joined Grafana Labs in December 2020 and I just celebrated my first year at the company. 

The last 12+ months have been filled with the most exciting and rewarding experiences in my career, full of new opportunities and learnings. More importantly, I am lucky enough to meet and work with the wonderful people at Grafana Labs.

When I started at the company, the engineering organization was around 150 people. We have been actively hiring (and continue to do so) and have doubled our ranks to more than 300 since then. 

Joining a company in its hypergrowth phase comes with its own challenges, and looking back, I’m extremely thankful for the support I’ve received from Day 1 — especially with building a new, remote-first team amid a pandemic.

Why did I join Grafana Labs in the first place?

First, I’ve been using Grafana since its early days, and I don’t need to think hard when it comes to why I love of the product. 

What fascinated me more was the team behind Grafana — the way they executed the business and the extraordinary culture which spoke to my heart. I’ve been following Grafana Labs’ journey for a couple of years already. During GrafanaCONline 2020, I joined a session where the Grafana Labs CEO and co-founder Raj Dutt and VP of People Alice Farrell talked about the people and business of the company. The amount of transparency shared during that session was the final validation I needed to make up my mind and apply for an open opportunity.

After talking and interviewing with the team, I learned about the challenges and opportunities ahead, and it did not take long for me to decide to join the Grafana Enterprise team.

How it started

Starting a new job during the global pandemic is not easy. Joining a remote-first company adds its own unique flavor to it. 

While my onboarding plan gave me general guidance for acclimating to my new work environment, my team, and my responsibilities, I was also able to tailor my first few weeks to my own needs and capabilities. 

My advice to engineering managers starting in a new team is to decide whether it would be best to be onboarded as an engineering manager or as an engineer. There are trade-offs in both scenarios and a lot depends on the needs and opportunities at hand. 

Onboarding as an engineer gives you a chance to gain technical knowledge and credibility very fast, which helps you understand technical challenges better and support the team from the very beginning. On the other hand, onboarding as an engineering manager means prioritizing management responsibilities first, for example thinking and maintaining the long-term vision for the team, setting and providing clear context so people could be successful, connecting the dots between the company needs and the individuals needs, and so on.

At Grafana Labs, what worked best for me was to dive into both roles simultaneously, so I jumped in to support the team on the roadmap by contributing to the issues they have been working on. Meanwhile I also had the chance to meet my peers, listen, observe, and plan the next steps.

Back when I started, there were two teams supporting each other to build the Grafana Enterprise product: One team focusing on Enterprise Plugin development, and the second building the core Grafana Enterprise features. 

With the growing number of customers and our ambition to deliver the highest value to all of them, we decided to revisit the existing topology of the teams. To maximize each person’s impact, we aimed to have around 8 to 10 engineers on each team — and we realized it was time to start a new one.

Building a new team

We considered a few options for the new team, including:

  • Starting the new team with new engineers only
  • Splitting the current team into two teams
  • Seeding the new team with current team members

There are pros and cons to all of these scenarios. Given the circumstances and the projects ahead, we decided to seed the new team with myself and two Grafana Enterprise team members, Alexander Zobnin and Emil Tullstedt.

Thus, the Grafana Enterprise Operations team was born. Our mission is to build capabilities and functionality for Grafana Enterprise so that Enterprise customers can better operate, administer, and manage their Grafana Enterprise instances in a secure and reliable way.

Scaling the team

After working together for a couple of months, the three of us were lucky enough to have our first new hire join the team. We were a new team ourselves, and we knew it was critical to ensure a smooth and happy transition for our new Grafanista. So we prioritized the onboarding experience accordingly. 

David Kaltschmidt, Director of Engineering at Grafana Labs, described general onboarding practices in his blog post, where you can also find a skeleton for the onboarding plan that we adopted for our team. 

On my first day, I received a specialized onboarding plan which outlined all the information I needed to succeed during my early days on the job. I had everything I needed to self-serve, from setting up my workstation to learning about Grafana Labs’ engineering principles. 

On top of that, the People Ops team runs a series of virtual bootcamp sessions each month for all new hires. That’s where I had a chance to learn more about the company and its culture as well as meet Grafanistas from all over the organization and all around the world who were also coming into the organization. In addition, Grafana Labs also pairs new hires with “buddies” (a.k.a. current employees in different sectors of the company) who support them with any questions they might have. 

Thanks to these helpful programs, I instantly felt like part of the Grafana family by the end of my first week.

As part of the introduction to the Grafana Enterprise Operations team, we also make it a point to cover the first few weeks of work responsibilities and goals in depth, and we outline high-level objectives for the first 60 days and 90 days, respectively.

Our ultimate goal is to help new hires navigate the various operational tasks as well as manage expectations within the team from the start. After the first two months, we ran an onboarding survey with the newly hired engineer and received invaluable feedback. This helped us significantly improve the experience for future recruits.

Since the team was established last year, we have added to our numbers every two months. We are now a 10-person team distributed across 5 countries. I am celebrating the progress we made! 

Hosting a virtual retreat

At Grafana Labs, we try to meet in person once or twice a year. With the ongoing global pandemic, we did not manage to bring together the Grafana Enterprise Operations team in 2021. Instead, we organized a virtual retreat. 

The purpose of the retreat was to reflect on the challenges we went through as a team, celebrate all of us, and deepen the relationship between team members. Additionally we wanted to come together and establish a shared understanding of how we want to function as a team.

One of the challenges in remote work is the amount of time we stare at our monitors, and a virtual retreat requires a significant commitment to do even more sitting and staring at a screen (this time with the camera always on). To balance that out, we decided to make the retreat a 3-day event, spending 2.5 hours each day with each other. 

The retreat overall was a success and gave us a chance to learn more about each other. We also ended up making a few important decisions, such as aligning and agreeing on ground rules moving forward. 

On a personal note, the virtual retreat was a valuable experience and validation for me as an engineering manager to see the results of the work we have been doing to build a cohesive, remote-first team from the beginning. We have established effective relationships and communication between each other; there was a trust in the team; and everyone felt comfortable and empowered to lead and contribute.

Looking ahead

Last year we faced many ups and downs as we grew. With every new team member, we went through the cycle of Tuckman’s forming-storming-norming-performing stages and continue to improve incrementally with an eye towards growing the team, building the trust, and learning how to perform together. 

In one of my favorite books about building teams and organizations, Team Topologies, authors Matthey Skelton and Manuel Pais would describe our current team as stable (long living), stream-aligned (with a continuous flow of work), and interdisciplinary (aligned to business goals). The path to where we are today has not been not straightforward — and we still have yet to overcome some challenges — but I’m convinced that we succeeded in building the foundations for an effective and strong team.

This year, we are looking forward to understanding our customers and users’ needs better, working more with the Grafana community, and adapting accordingly so that we can find the optimal ways for delivering value and having an impact — all with a united front. 

Want to join us? We are continuing to hire at Grafana Labs! Check out our careers page to learn more about our open positions.