ex-Google, current Coda Architect shares personal remote stories

1. Hey, can you please introduce yourself?

My name is Al, and I’m a solutions architect at Coda. Coda is an all-in-one doc that gives you all the building blocks you need to run your team’s projects. A little bit about my history: I was born and raised in Michigan, went to NYC to study finance, and started my career at Google in the Bay area. 

During my time at Google I fell in love with data. I know that sounds a bit extreme, but I honestly wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Excel spreadsheets, SQL, and the Internet. I’ve always had a fascination with computers and tech, and the last few years have experimented with multiple SaaS and cloud platforms. Before joining the Coda team, I was a freelance Excel consultant, and got really involved with the Excel community in NYC during my years as a freelancer. This photo is from the Modeloff Financial Modeling competition where Excel gurus from around the world “compete” to be the world’s best financial modeler. I’m proud to be a part of this community and encourage more Excel enthusiasts to participate!

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2. What motivated you to choose remote working?

It was out of necessity, really. When I left Google to pursue my own startup and work as a freelancer, I bounced around my apartment, co-working spaces, coffee shops, and even the public library. I chased good Wi-Fi anywhere I could find it in NYC. It was strange at first since I was basically thrown into the remote world and didn’t have a playbook on how to do it. Like many things in life, I learned to adapt to my new world by buying the right equipment, packing my backpack properly if I planned on being out most of the day, and got really good at e-mail and writing notes.

Over time, I realized two things about remote work that motivate me to continue a lifestyle of remote work:

  1. Productivity – Without unnecessary meetings and face-to-face time, I am extremely productive and am able to block off large parts of my day for deep work.
  2. Flexibility – By not having to go into an office every day, I am able to work from anywhere which means I can travel if I want to, run errands in the middle of the day, and do things that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to do if I was in a 9-to-5 job.

With my current role at Coda, I am still working remotely in NYC but there is a little more structure to my day (which I like). I definitely appreciate the nomadic lifestyle, but it’s not something I could do for a month or year. Having a weekly cadence to my meetings and projects does give me a sense of stability and also keeps me “plugged in” with the rest of my team on the west coast.

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My current workplace setup

3. What were your initial months like? Did it live up to your expectations?

I can speak to my first few months at Coda, since I started working remotely right after I joined the company. I didn’t have a physical office yet, so my first few months were spent at home. It was definitely hard to work from home because Wi-Fi in NYC is notoriously unreliable, and my apartment building is no different. My Zoom calls would be very choppy and other things would just be slow. Makes you really appreciate good Wi-Fi!

Nonetheless, my experience was really positive because I was able to adapt my schedule to that of my colleagues on the west coast. Since I knew they were generally still asleep from 9-12PM ET, I did a lot of errands and went to the gym in the mornings since there is less going on then.

Pushing all my personal responsibilities to the morning had a different impact on my life. Tim Ferriss has talked about morning rituals to win your mornings, and it can be something as simple as making your bed. For me, I’ve already gone to the gym, went to the doctor, fixed a leaky toilet, and wrote a blog post before my team has even woken up. All these activities allow me to “win my mornings” and makes me feel accomplished before my day has officially started. 

This is why I wouldn’t succeed as a true digital nomad. Having some structure and routine to my day means I can accomplish small goals and then work on the big projects with the broader Coda team. As a digital nomad, you are most likely jumping from project to project the entire day, and I feel that it may be more difficult to “win” the morning in these cases.

4. How did you find remote working roles?

The way I found my current role was through my friends and professional network. There are countless websites with job postings for remote workers, but I think if the company really values your skillset and more importantly, wants to stay competitive in the current business environment, they have to embrace remote workers.

Had it not been for some strong referrals from previous colleagues, I don’t think my current company would’ve been open to me working remotely. Having said that, I spent a lot of time the first 3-6 months traveling to the west coast to build relationships with the team since I didn’t want to be that one person who everyone just knows through a small Zoom window. Some people think that remote work means you can just hide away and never interact with colleagues who care about you more than just the work you produce. I think one of the most important aspects of remote work is putting in the extra effort to get to know your team whether they are distributed or not.

5. What have been the best, good and worst aspects of remote working for you?

The best aspects of remote work are flexibility and productivity as I mentioned earlier. I am currently in a WeWork co-working space, so another positive aspect is that I get to interact with others who are in a similar position as me. Many people here are also remote workers and we don’t get that intra-office feeling with people you share the same goals with. Instead, we can talk to each other about our experiences working remotely and it makes me feel like I have a trusted colleague right here in my office, even though they don’t work at the same company as me.

The worst aspect for many, I presume, is loneliness. I get this question asked all the time by my friends but also my colleagues as well. I don’t feel lonely since I have been proactive about meeting others in my co-working space, attending meetups, and joining online communities that have similar professional interests as me. 

Personally, the worst aspect is not being able to have a casual coffee with my co-workers where I can get to know them on a personal level. While Zoom and Slack help with bridging the gap, nothing beats the 1:1 interaction you have when you can look into someone’s eyes and notice non-verbal cues. This is why I value my trips to the west coast so much to see my team!

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Picture of a meetup at my co-working space where I can interact with humans, yay!

6. What tools do you swear by while working remotely?

I am biased here, but Coda is my main tool for getting work done. The way my Coda docs have evolved and grown over time is a direct result of my team’s projects, culture, and cadence for getting work done. More importantly, everything we do internally is well documented (and I contribute to this documentation whenever I can) so that I can work asynchronously. Tools that allow you to work asynchronously are a big discovery for me as a remote worker, and I’m glad that Coda is part of this family. 

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Do you have a sea of Google Docs and Sheets tabs like this? If yes, you need to use Coda 🙂

Coda has replaced all my Google Docs, Google Sheets, and some Google Slide decks so those are no longer tabs that take up space in my Chrome. As a remote worker, most of your time is probably spent in Chrome or Firefox where you’re building, writing, and creating in various online tools (unless you are working with specialized software like video editing software). Other digital tools are Slack and Zoom for communication and meetings with my team. One of the reasons I don’t feel lonely as a remote worker is because I have numerous Zoom meetings with my team out west so I have a lot of chances to catch up and engage some banter with my teammates. 

A physical tool I cannot live without is my headset which I bought for $20 on Amazon. Having a wired headset with a stick mic ensures good audio quality for my Zoom meetings and calls. Everyone hates being on calls where one person forgets to mute their mic, or there is a ton of static on the line. Don’t be that person when you work remotely! Invest in a good headset with a mic.

7. Your most exciting/ hilarious experience since you started working remotely.

This is more of a logistical issue that led to a hilarious experience, but when I first started working remotely from my apartment the first few months, the air conditioner in my living room broke. It was the middle of a hot NYC summer and the living room is where I get all my work done and do all my Zoom calls. My bedroom has an AC unit, but it was too difficult to get work done there so I just stayed out in the humid living room.

Inevitably, I would start working without a shirt on and would be constantly wiping sweat off my body. I dreaded Zoom calls while my air conditioner was getting fixed because I had to put on a shirt for the call, and my teammates could tell that I looked uncomfortable over video. I made it pretty clear that if it wasn’t for the Zoom call, I wouldn’t be wearing a shirt!

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8. What is your golden advice to a new remote worker?

Main advice is to be a good communicator across all channels. This means e-mail, Slack, Zoom, online forums, etc. A lot of people say they have good “communication skills,” but it’s a whole other ballgame when it comes to remote work. If you are freelancing, some of your clients may have strict guidelines on project updates, check-ins, and coming on-site if necessary. Other clients may not have experience with hiring remote workers, so you have to establish the expectations and rules on how often you will communicate with your clients.

When in doubt, over communicate. Log every decision, thought, idea, and mistake you make so that your colleague or client know exactly what went through your head as you complete your work. Then send regular emails and Slack messages with those updates so that your counterpart never has an excuse for missing your updates. 

9. How do you see your career shaping up and your goals?

I don’t have a 1-year or 5-year plan, since I think career paths are a bit too rigid especially for remote workers. Who starts their career knowing that they want to be a remote worker by year 4? It usually is a result of your personal circumstances and situation, rather than being driven by career aspirations. Having said that, my only goals as a remote worker is to continue building relationships with my teammates and helping our users succeed with our platform.

10. How do you expect remote working to evolve in the future?

I believe remote work will be more commonplace in the future and more co-working spaces will pop up to support these digital nomads and distributed teams. In the most extreme case (and this may not be that extreme in say 5 years), companies will have 100% distributed teams and we’ll all be connected through virtual worlds. The best example of this is this virtual real estate company that has 13,000 agents and staff but no physical office. They all stay “connected” through browsing around a virtual world like the Metaverse from Snow Crash.

11. Where can we follow you online?

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