by Tigran Hakobyan

Reflections on being a remote developer

My wife and I in Nusa Penida (Indonesia) a couple of months ago.

Introduction

It was the winter of 2016 when I opened my phone and saw the job offer from Buffer. I remember I was in an Uber with my wife driving back home from the JFK airport.

So many things have changed since then. I’ve grown as a person and as an engineer. This article is a story where I openly share all the lessons and challenges I’ve experienced throughout my journey of working remotely as a software engineer.

Some background

My name is Tigran and I’m a software engineer at Buffer. I’m also the creator of Cronhub, a tool to help developers to monitor cron jobs. In the past, I’ve created other other side-projects as well and written articles about my journey of building a side-project while having a full-time job.

I get a lot of questions on Twitter about my experience at Buffer and how it feels to work remotely. Most of the questions are about time management, work and day structure, and the tools that I use daily to stay productive. Even though these are very good questions, I’ve decided to step back a little bit and share my story from the beginning — when and how I started my remote work.

I hope to share all the good and challenging parts of my experience. I know remote work culture is rapidly growing across the world, so I hope this will be a useful resource for beginners who’re considering going remote.

I’ll be honest and tell you that I also wanted to write this article for myself to look back and reflect. That’s why it may feel like I’m writing in my diary. I hope you don’t mind that style.

Starting a remote job

It’s interesting that I never thought about getting a remote job. It kind of didn’t matter at the time that I was applying for new jobs in February 2016. I was living in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is very close to Manhattan. I knew that if I had a job in New York City, the commute wouldn’t be an issue (especially with audiobooks).

However, at the time, the top company on my list that I wanted to work for was Buffer. It was, and still is, a fully remote company with employees spread across the world. I heard about and used Buffer before joining the team and read so much about their culture. I also really admired Joel Gascoigne (the founder of Buffer) and enjoyed reading his Buffer story and all the lessons he was sharing on his blog.

I applied for a back-end engineer position. Lucky for me, this position was open at the time and it really matched my previous background working with back-end technologies and services.

I knew that Buffer had many applicants for the same position (if I’m not mistaken, we had around 1500 applications for this position) so my hope was quite small. But only a couple weeks after applying I received an email from Leo (the co-founder of Buffer who’s not with the company anymore) offering to chat. He wrote that he really liked my background and wanted to get to know me better in a call. I was beyond happy and excited for the opportunity, and was really surprised — because, quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting to hear back from them.

After my chat with Leo, I started the interview process. Buffer makes sure that whoever joins the team is a great fit. So apart from technical aspects, the interviews were also focused on the culture. When I joined Buffer, I had to go through a 45-day boot camp.

Boot camp is like a date where both of you take your time to figure out whether you’re a good fit for each other. While in boot camp, you’re considered a contractor until you become a full-time employee. At this time, however, don’t have boot camp anymore.

As I said, I wasn’t necessarily looking for remote opportunities. It just so happened that I’ve become a remote worker because I really wanted to work at Buffer, and I was excited to explore what remote work would offer.

Initial challenges of working remotely

Working remotely is very different from working in the office. I don’t think you fully grasp the difference until you actually start being remote. For someone like me who never worked in a remote environment, the beginning wasn’t smooth and it came with challenges. Eventually, I got better at most of those things but it’s worth looking back now and reflecting on my early days.

I can clearly remember my very first day at Buffer. I woke up, had breakfast and coffee, then started my day with this question: “So what now, what should I do?” It was a valid question, really. There wasn’t any office that I had to go to, and I used to associate the start of my working day with arriving at the office. I felt confused and lonely for a moment.

Communication

In the office-based environment, we rely so much on in-person communication that it feels really odd not to have that commodity anymore.

The remote environment is the complete opposite, because it’s primarily based on asynchronous communication. Actually, current remote work-spaces are more of the combination of both synchronous and asynchronous communication and each one completes the other.

There are some tasks for which synchronous communication is more time effective. Later on, you start learning when and what type of communication is better for each situation.

Communication is still a big issue in remote teams, but I think at Buffer we have found the good balance over the last years.

Work Structure

Getting back to my initial challenges, the biggest one I was facing was confusion over how the work was done and structured. When I joined Buffer, I got assigned a role and cultural buddies who were there to support me throughout my boot camp. Having them by my side was a huge help. I used every opportunity to ask questions, and it helped me a lot to understand the work process.

In the beginning, I was mostly working from home in order to manage my time more efficiently. Plus I was nervous about having video calls in coffee shops, because of the noise and poor wifi signal. Wifi speed has become such a big part of my flow that I’ve bookmarked FAST (a network speed measuring tool developed by Netflix) on my browser and moved it to the beginning of all bookmarks for easy access.

Working from home really worked out for me in the beginning, because I got a lot of things done with zero distractions. But then eventually it made me feel more isolated.

Timing

Another challenge I was facing in the beginning was not being able to switch myself off from the work. I was constantly online. I’d end up starting my day at 8 am and signing off around 8 or 9 pm. It didn’t last long, but working long hours really did become problem.

You have to be very strict with your working hours, otherwise mental exhaustion can easily take over. You don’t want that. You want to set your working hours and stick to them.

Of course, you can be flexible when and how you work depending on your lifestyle — but time management is key. Think about what time of the day you’re most productive and construct your day accordingly.

For instance, I’m a morning person, so I do the most important tasks first thing in the morning. With no distraction and 2 to 3 hours of focused work, I can get a lot of things done. I try to schedule my calls in the afternoon when my mental energy is not too high but I can still concentrate and focus on the conversation.

I’ll continue talking about my work routine a bit later. In the meantime, let’s talk about how I’ve become better at remote work after my initial challenges.

Getting better at remote work

The first couple of months of working remotely were the most challenging for me. But working at Buffer was great, and I think they helped me find ways to overcome these challenges.

With the help and advice of my teammates and the lessons from my experience over time, I’ve become better at working remote. I have become more productive and have found my place.

Now when I look back, I think there were a couple things that really contributed to that success:

Co-working

Two months after joining Buffer, my colleague Dan Farrelly and I decided to find a co-working space in NYC where both of us could commute a few times a week. I was super pumped and lucky to have a co-worker based in the same area as I was. Dan, who is now the director of engineering at Buffer, has become my best pal whose advice and help really shaped me as a developer and remote worker.

I was fortunate to find a friend and co-worker who also worked remotely and had enough context in the remote environment to understand my challenges. We started to co-work a couple times a week, have lunch together, and discuss a variety of topics including our work at Buffer. As of now, we co-work 2–3 times a week in New York City and the rest of the week we work from home.

Going to meetups

Finding someone who you can work with is a great way to stay social. One of the other things that I’ve tried that’s been very useful is attending meetups in NYC on the topics that interested me. I met like-minded people with whom I had lots of common things to connect about.

Online communities can be helpful too, and there are many remote work-based communities you can be part of.

Working on time management

I started to better manage my time. Every day I dedicated time to prioritizing the next day’s tasks by setting specific goals. I usually set 3–4 tasks for a day, and typically don’t go beyond that number.

Prioritization really helped me with time management, and it also made me more focused on things that mattered. The tricky part of remote work is that you fully control your time and you have to be very cautious how and what you spend your time on.

Of course, distractions can happen. But finding ways to improve your focus is such a key element of productive remote work.

Upping the communication game

We use Slack at Buffer. I heard about Slack in the past, and knew it was very popular among tech companies. I think it is a great tool, and it has many benefits for the workplace including bringing the team together.

However, it’s focused on synchronous communication. For some remote teams like Buffer, asynchronous communication is very important and it has become part of our DNA and culture.

We are very mindful of our teammates’ time, so we want to structure our communication in a way that at least some portion of it can be handled asynchronously.

Working asynchronously

Another reason why we are inclined to communicate asynchronously is the time zone difference between our teammates. We are spread all around the world, and it’s not always possible to jump on a call or get an immediate answer to your direct messages. Buffer is also very supportive of each team member’s lifestyle, and we respect the working hours of everyone on the team.

Prioritizing my time better helped me to get better at asynchronous communication. I’ve started to rely more on tools that enable asynchronous communication like email or Dropbox Paper.

Staying healthy

I started to pay attention to mental health as a top priority. I work better when I’m less stressed. I’m lucky that Buffer is an amazing place that supports mental health in every way possible.

I started to work out in the mornings, play soccer, and track my working hours which drastically improved my mood and motivation. I stopped working late hours, and tried to get a good 8 hours sleep every night.

Living my best remote life

I finally started to take advantage of my remote work lifestyle. I started to travel more, going to Buffer retreats and visiting my family in Armenia for month long trips. It’s really incredible to have the flexibility to spend a month with my family and friends in Armenia.

I think that being able to work from anywhere is the most awesome advantage of remote work. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve traveled to Canada, Mexico, Bali, Singapore, and am flying to Armenia in a month. We are planning to visit more destinations in the future.

My typical workday

People ask me this question a lot on Twitter, so I’ve decided to dedicate a separate section to writing about what my typical workday looks like.

I wake up at 7:05 am every day. I have an alarm set, but rarely need it. My body has its own alarm that is quite precise. I wake up, and the first thing I do is make my morning coffee and have it with my pre-workout meal. In the summers, I’m usually having an espresso with an ice cube which makes the coffee more refreshing.

At 8:10 am I’m at the gym to work out. I’ve been doing weight exercises for a year now, strictly trying to follow Bigger Leaner Stronger: The Simple Science of Building the Ultimate Male Body program to gain muscle and lose fat. It’s been working out great for me, and I see the difference in my body and general health. I highly recommend this book if you’re unsure what workout program you should follow. It’s a great book for beginners in particular. I’m tracking my workouts using Strong, and very recently hit my 100th workout.

I spend an hour in the gym and right after it, I try to have my protein-rich breakfast. Usually, it consists of eggs, cottage cheese and a piece of whole wheat bread.

After my breakfast, I get ready to start my working day. I usually ping Dan to decide where we want to work from that day. We use Croissant to find and book a co-working space. It’s a great app and has many spaces available in New York City. We usually stick to the ones in the Financial District because it’s relatively close to both of us. It takes 12–15 minutes door to door for me to get there. I’m in the co-working space around 10–10:30 am.

I’m done with work around 6:30 pm on a typical day. A couple of times a week I have evening soccer games, so if that’s the case I try to get home a bit early to have a light dinner before my game. Playing soccer is probably my most favorite activity in the universe.

I’m a huge soccer fan, although my wife doesn’t really like the idea of me paying $140 for authentic soccer jerseys. However, last year she surprised me by arranging a meeting with Henrik Mkhitaryan in London. He is my favorite player.

Unless I’m mentally very tired, I spend most of my evenings working on Cronhub and trying to grow it. I’ve written a couple of blog posts in the past about Cronhub, and how I’m trying to make it into an online business. I’m very lucky that my wife is very supportive of this and she is rooting for me. I’m a big believer of side-income, and that’s why I try to spend at least 2 hours every day working on my side-project.

If I’m very tired, I just crash on the couch and watch a Netflix show with my wife. On the weekends, I’m mostly trying to rest and do something with my wife and friends. There are weekends where I work on Cronhub, but not that often. I know how critical the rest is.

Remote tools

What tools we use and rely on plays a huge role in our productivity and work life. At Buffer, we are generally open-minded to experimenting with different tools that we think could benefit the team.

Here are some of the tools that we use daily at Buffer.

  • G Suite — From the G Suite family, we use Gmail and Google Calendar. We use email a lot, and that’s why I have auto filtering and labeling setup so I can easily go over my inbox. Setting up filters and labels is not that fun, but it’s worth investing your time just once and forgetting about it later on.
  • Slack — We use Slack for sync communication and direct messages. We have a general channel, engineering, etc. I like Slack, and I think there are situations when it’s hugely beneficial.
  • Zoom — We use Zoom for video calls. We are so dependent on Zoom and it’s such a great tool to bring the entire team together. It handles the calls with many team members quite well, which happens in our all hands.
  • Dropbox Paper — Probably one of my favorite tools. Even now I’m using it to write the draft of this blog post. We use Paper for collaboration and note-taking. It’s a big part of our asynchronous communication.
  • Discourse — We use discourse for announcements, promotions, or sharing general learnings in the team. I enjoy using Discourse and I find it very intuitive to navigate.

Apart from these tools, I have my own tools that help me to be more productive. I’m a happy Todoist user where I log all my daily tasks and check them when they’re done.

I track my working hours with Rescue Time. It’s a great tool that helps me understand how I spend most of my time and where. It also monitors the use of social media that I’m actively trying to reduce.

In a remote team, you usually end up creating and sharing screenshots or screen-casts to show something to your teammates. We use CloudApp for this purpose and it’s so worth it. Highly recommend.

Finding a remote job

If you’re looking for your first remote job, then this short section will probably be useful for you. Remote work is quite trendy nowadays, and many companies introduce remote work as an option for their employees.

You can either work in a fully-remote company or a company that has an office but has also remote teammates. There are also the freelancers who can be considered as remote workers too, but it’s a bit different I think. My experience is only based on working in a fully-remote company that has no office.

If you’re non-remote right now, but are considering to switch to remote so you can travel or spend more time with your family, then there’s good news: it’s getting easier to find remote opportunities. The field is growing and companies are starting to realize the benefits of going remote. Remote companies have the big advantage of hiring talented people from the large pool of candidates because the location is not important anymore.

I know a few companies apart from Buffer that are fully remote. They are Automattic, GitLab, InVision, Doist and Zapier.

You can always go to their career pages to see if they have any open job opportunities. Another great resource to consider is Remotive . Remotive is a community that helps you to find a remote job. If you already have a remote job, then you can connect with other remote workers, get tips, or start a discussion on any topic. Another great website that is more focused on helping you to find a remote job is Remote OK.

Remote vs. Non-remote

Before joining Buffer and working in a fully remote company I worked for office-based companies. While I was doing my masters at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I interned at the Parametric Technology Corporation for 7 months, and 3 months at Twitter. After school, I joined YCharts and stayed there for a year. I’ve experienced both working remotely and working in the office. I think both work spaces have trade-offs.

In remote work, you’re not tied to a location so you can potentially live in a cheap place and earn enough to have a good life. In fact, I have a couple of Twitter friends who’re currently living in Bali and working for a remote company or trying to start their own thing. Their expenses are quite low compared to mine in the New York City area. A couple of months ago when I was in a co-working space in Bali, I saw many digital nomads living and working from there. Nomading feels like a movement now.

When you work remotely, you also have the option to choose your working hours. So if you have a family, you can spend more time with them by working from home. However, you have to be a self-motivated person and eager to stay focused most of the time.

Loneliness can be an issue too, so finding different ways to stay social can be helpful. Of course, it also depends on your personality.

In an office-based job, you’re tied to a specific location. You have to commute to your work which sometimes can take a lot of time. But I think developing personal relationships with your co-workers is a bit easier in-person when you all are in the same space.

At Buffer, we have annual retreats where the entire team gets together for a week. It’s probably one of my favorite times of the year, because I get to see my co-workers and spend time with them. It makes such a big difference, because it brings us together and helps us develop better relationships.

Conclusion

To summarize, working remotely as a developer for almost 3 years has been an incredible journey for me. Years full of professional learning, travel, connections, and new experiences. This reflection is solely based on my own experience, so it can differ from someone else working remotely.

I often get asked — but I don’t have the answer yet — whether I’ll ever go back to be non-remote. It’s hard for me to tell, because it really depends on the opportunity. I like the lifestyle and freedom I have, but it could change in the future.

Right now, I’m focused on my work at Buffer and growing Cronhub as a side-business. My eventual goal is to become financially independent so I can spend my mental energy on things that I deeply care about. It has become the north star that guides me forward and gives motivation. I see the path that I can take to achieve that goal and I’m doing my best.

If you’re new to remote work or looking for one, feel free to reach out to me with your questions. I’m always available to help and share more.

If you like my writings, then you may want to subscribe to my personal newsletter so I’ll email you when I write new articles. I plan to do it at least every month. Thanks for reading.

I’m also active on Twitter if you want to say hi.