Interview with a remote team manager: Dylan Fox (AssemblyAI)

I recently started interviewing fellow remote team managers for our weekly newsletter. This week I chatted to Dylan Fox, founder of YC-backed AssemblyAI, about his approach to managing the company’s 5 remote workers.

November 30, 2020

Hi Dylan. Why did you decide that remote is the best thing for AssemblyAI?

Hey! Our team is is made up of primarily deep learning researchers and engineers. As a startup, we found it was a lot easier to hire when being able to recruit from a national/global pool of people versus trying to compete to hire folks only in the Bay Area where we are based. As a team of engineers, we also value the time that we can focus and work without distractions, so a lot of us were already used to and preferred working from home where we could work without the distractions and interruptions of a traditional office.

How often do people meet up in person?

For people in the US, we try to meet up every 2-ish months. For people internationally, we try to get together twice a year.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a remote team manager?

There are a couple that come to mind. There’s definitely no getting around the fact that with a remote team — where people are working on different time zones/schedules — you have less interaction than in a traditional office environment where you see your colleagues every day, eat lunch together, etc. It takes longer to build relationships with remote colleagues, and requires more effort. If team members don’t have any overlapping work, there is a chance they don’t interact with each other much, which makes building that relationship harder. To mitigate this, we do team-wide video chats 3x/week to sync up all together, so everyone has face time with each other. We’re also really active on Slack — sharing updates with each other as we work, so that everyone has visibility into each others work, and can get excited about what other people are working on. These activities aren’t a panacea, but they have helped.

What’s the secret to a happy distributed team?

The honest answer is we aren’t sure yet! It’s something we’re still figuring out. One thing, though, is that I think hiring people who really enjoy their work is important for a remote role to be successful. Because if what someone likes about work is the social environment, brainstorming with colleagues all day/etc., a remote job might feel lonely. Compared to folks who love what they do and can get really focused on their actual work (whether it’s product design, engineering, machine learning, etc) — “work” for them is more focused on producing — which I think makes for a happier remote team member.

Thanks Dylan!

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