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Willem Wijnans for Aula Education

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13 crying engineers: a remote culture of care

At Aula, our engineering team perhaps isn’t as outspoken about our feelings as other teams.

Yet, two weeks ago I was part of something magical: my 14 engineering colleagues (including Oliver our CTO) stood all teary-eyed in a circle and shared their appreciation for each other and their commitment to our cause.

As a fully remote team, many of us had never met before. Some of us had met once.

This was a huge personal turning point. ‘Despite’ being remote, our engineering team had built deeply caring relationships with one another. As a company building a communication platform to foster community between students in digital space, this also validated our mission: “it is possible!”.

Here are 3 things we have done to foster an egoless culture of respect and care on our remote engineering team with engineers from 10 countries:

1. Create async spaces for care

Care for each other is not an add-on. When it’s there, it is woven into the fabric of how you collaborate.

Recognising each other as human beings is sometimes forgotten in chat. We encourage everyone to actively do so — even a “Good morning!” at the start of the day with no requests works wonders.

We have also created spaces dedicated to being vulnerable, warm and appreciative, through self-care related topics and non-work jokes. These spaces serve the purpose of making our existing colleagues feel ‘safe’ and constantly remind us that building trust and care is important.

Fredrik sharing some care for his team members in an internal chat group focused on self-care.

Fredrik sharing some care for his team members in an internal chat group focused on self-care.

Low-quality jokes are welcome 🤓

Low-quality jokes are welcome 🤓

2. Hire the unsung heroes

People need to feel safe to be vulnerable and show care for each other. The best way to build a safe place: don’t hire big egos.

Yet people who are mindful of people around them are sometimes shy, sometimes nervous, sometimes not great at giving an impressive spiel of why they ‘deserve’ to be part of a company. This has two important implications for how we hire.

Firstly, we do most of our interviewing asynchronously.

Async interview takes away a lot of unnecessary pressure that can make shy candidates underperform. Plus it mirrors how we work, so it’s a better test.

You’d think that async communication would make it harder to tell if people are full of care. Here are some screenshots that beg to differ:

Example of chitchat in our interviewing Slack channel.

Example of chitchat in our interviewing Slack channel.

Interviewees making friends during the interview process.

Interviewees making friends during the interview process.

Our async interview process in Slack lets candidates get comfortable with several Aula engineers, outside of interviews.

Secondly, we are diligent about creating an interview process that filters for the underlying skills, not the most visible proxies like brand names on your CV or self-assuredness.

All engineering candidates take the time to build a small app using our tech stack as part of the interviews.

There are real downsides to this: we have had to let go of candidates with stellar CVs where other companies cut their interview processes down to 1–2 sync interviews due to the brand names on the candidate’s CV. This meant that the candidate couldn’t be bothered to do 6 hours of coding to interview with us. We aim for very short turnaround times during the interview process on our side, but rigorous testing still takes time from the candidates.

But there are also a real upside: we can hire excellent people that aren’t on the radar of big tech companies. We can give offers with high confidence. We think that’s a competitive advantage.

Read more about our interview process here — it’s public:

Async engineering interviews at Aula

3. Spend your in-person time bonding

Remote work doesn’t mean you never see each other. But the time spent together is all about bonding.

Our development team

Our development team

Bonding is obviously not an obscure thing; our engineering team spent a week together deeply focused on a full migration to Lambda. Meeting around the kind of technical challenges that brought us all together is a great way to do it.

On our retreat this spring, we also tried something weird and fun: an appreciation session.

We took time out to write out a note of appreciation for all our team members and then took turns to share them with each other. After the initial awkwardness, we unleashed an enormous amount of vulnerability and explicit care for each other. Our team has never felt so ready to build something incredible together.

We’re hiring! If this is the kind of place you’d like to work, check out our open roles.

PS. I am eager to hear how other teams build a culture of care and ensure psychological safety.

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