Thriving in a Remote-First Culture with eXp Realty’s Steve & Imran

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Episode 7

Thriving in a Remote-First Culture with eXp Realty’s Steve & Imran

Synopsis

Steve and Imran talk about the lessons that eXp Realty has learned from being a remote-first company who manages an engineering team of 100+, how migrating their monolith mission-critical application to a microservices-based architecture increased departmental collaboration, how they measure success and productivity across their dispersed engineering team, and transition advice for companies impacted by COVID who have not yet adopted comprehensive WFH policies.

Transcript

/ Mark Manning /
Welcome to Make/Shift. Mark Manning here, Customer Evangelist at Mendix. We’re here to explore how your peers have adopted low-code, and the pain points they’ve addressed with the platform. We’ll take an authentic, unfiltered look at the solutions our customers are building to digitize their processes, to deliver much-needed solutions to market more quickly, and to cut down the cost of development.

On today’s episode, we chat with Steve Ledwith, Vice-President of Engineering at eXp Realty, and Imran Kasam, Mendix MVP. eXp Realty is a unique organization, a real estate company that owns practically no real estate. Since their very inception, they’ve operated entirely remote first.

Today, they’ll share their secret sauce, having built and operated a 100% remote IT team for years. We’ll talk about how migrating a monolithic mission critical application, to a microservices-based architecture improved collaboration, and supported meteoric business growth, and the lessons they’ve learned from being remote-first organization across an engineering team of more than 100 people globally. We’ll learn how they measure success and productivity across their dispersed engineering team, and finally, they’ll provide some transition advice for companies impacted by COVID, who have not yet adopted comprehensive work from home policies.

So Imran, Steve, thanks for joining. Let’s start with some introductions of yourselves, of your roles, and maybe eXp more broadly.

/ Steve Ledwith /
Sure, Mark, we can definitely do that. I’m Steve Ledwith, I’m the VP of Engineering with eXp, and we also have Imran with us. Why don’t you tell us about you, Imran?

/ Imran Kasam /
Yeah. Hi, my name Imran Kasam, and I was formerly the software architect and engineering manager at eXp, and currently I’m an independent consultant and I do architecture work with eXp still.

/ Steve Ledwith /
And to touch a little bit more on what eXp does. We are a real estate company. We like to call ourselves a technology company, but we only say that on the technology side. Because we have 37,000 agents, I think, that would all tell you that we’re a real estate company, but we are fully remote. So, our offices are in our houses or wherever real estate agents might be working from. But from a technology standpoint, everybody is remote. We’re a remote-first company. That’s the way we have always been. So, it’s interesting that everyone that’s trying to adjust for COVID and all of those things, that’s how our lives have been for the last three years. And it’s been interesting in that we can hire the people who are the best for the job, not necessarily the people who are best right near us. I live in Minnesota, I don’t have to hire people that are local to me. Imran is in Texas and our team is really all around the world at this point.

/ Mark Manning /
And it’s kind of funny, a little idiosyncratic that a real estate company would have essentially no real estate, that everybody would work remote. Could you dive into how that works for your team for you?

/ Steve Ledwith /
Yeah, I can. So, you’re right. It is a little strange in that we are a real estate company that owns no real estate. Obviously, we have offices in some places where it’s required. There are state laws that require us to have a broker office where an agent could walk in or a consumer could walk in. But for the most part, we work virtually, we work remotely, we work from coffee shops. We have eXp World by Virbela that is a digital workplace for all of us. But for us, from a technology standpoint, we look at the working from home really as a benefit. All remote. So, we have people in every time zone in the US, we have people in India, Germany, The Netherlands, and we use communication tools like workplace chat, we use eXp World, we use some Hangouts. We do a lot of different ways of keeping in touch and building a culture, and really emphasizing that need to communicate, to talk, so that we can be successful while we’re all working remotely.

/ Imran Kasam /
I was going to say, the sun doesn’t set on our development team ever. We generally have operations going on pretty much throughout the day and it works out well for us. The things that we build during the day, get QA tested at night while we’re sleeping, and we wake up and we fix them and we start all over.

/ Mark Manning /
Digging in a little more there on the all remote model, the fact that you’re delivering software globally with it. Could you talk a little bit about the core you’ve built, how it’s enabling the company’s growth, the folks it supports. Because I think that work’s been quite impressive.

/ Imran Kasam /
Yeah, I’ll touch a little bit on that. The team that we’ve built is pretty big. I would say our engineering team is about 100 people and that includes our product team, and our QA team, and our development team, as well as the leadership teams that encompass all of those areas. And we support currently about 36,000 real estate agents around the world, the majority in the US and Canada. But we’ve been growing as we’ve opened in the UK and Australia, and in South Africa, and we have several more countries lined up for this year.

/ Steve Ledwith /
One of the big things that we’ve done in that space is we have really taken an iterative approach. We use the Mendix platform, and we built out our first version of our application. And it really did follow that model of, let’s deliver. Let’s deliver as quickly as we can deliver and make sure that we’re getting new features out there. Let’s meet the needs of our business as quickly as possible. And we did. That was our goal. And then we started to look at, how do we handle an ever-growing population? When I started over three years ago, we had less than 2,400 agents and now we’re at 36,000. So, we’ve grown from that one app into splitting it out into two or three apps, into now, we take a microservices approach with everything that we do, and we have 25 or more apps that support our agents. Whether they be US, or Canada or as Imran mentioned international.

We have multiple versions of our platform that we’re transitioning to meet those needs. So, we take a group in an international space, and they’re on brand new technology that we built last year for the most part. And they’re working in a new way for us to think about how we wanted to onboard agents or compensate agents. We built new technology to do it, again, in the Mendix platform, but it was a different version and even a different way of thinking, versus how we started three years ago or four years ago, I guess, with Mendix and that one app trying to always constantly deliver.

/ Imran Kasam /
Yeah, when we started, we did have one app and it was getting to be monolithic. And our second year we had broken it up into about two or three different apps. We started in 2017, and 2018 we had two or three apps out. And 2019 was a big year for us. We put out about 19 microservices that year, many of which were built from scratch. Some were pulled apart from the monolith, but a good amount of them were new technologies that we had built or new ways that we were thinking, and stuff that we had built from the ground up.

/ Mark Manning /
It’s pretty remarkable, technically sophisticated that you’re converting a monolith into microservices. You’re doing a heavy reliance on cloud. And I think most folks listening would do that with a whiteboard and post-its, all manner of in-person meetings. Could you talk about how you deliver on such a vast vision when folks are never in the same room, and the process of building consensus, and change management, and driving strategy when you’re an icon in someone’s desktop?

/ Steve Ledwith /
Yeah. It’s interesting that you bring that up. That is one of the challenges. We have a great, like I mentioned before, a great virtual workspace where people can get in, and all be together as avatars. So, it’s different than just jumping on a call. You’re actually immersive, you’re walking around in world. You get that sense of connection because you are an avatar. A lot of people play games, they’re used to being in that sort of a mindset. And it’s a little different than just being on a phone call. But then we do bring in whiteboards or we bring in presentations. There are a number of times where I would have drawn a picture on my whiteboard and said, this is where I think I’m going. Imran would have done something that was much fancier in an actual tool for doing diagrams, or UML or something like that.

And other members of our team might have brought something completely different, and we would all get together and present, and show each other what we were thinking, and talk through how we wanted pieces to be built. How we needed different parts of our infrastructure to talk to one another, or maybe not talk to one another. We had a lot of discussions about where’s your domain? What do you get to do? If you’re on the join app, what do you deal with? You deal with agent applicants who are joining our company, but not people who have already become agents. That’s a dividing wall. So, we had a lot of discussions that really started with a picture, we call them the back of the napkin or one of our product guys, his favorite thing is third-grade art. And as everybody around in our company knows, I’m really good at third-grade art.

My whiteboard will look terrible and I have to explain it and translate the words that are on there because my handwriting is terrible. But we walk through those kinds of things and say, starting with the third-grade art, how do we get to where we have a picture that everybody understands, we have a shared context? And I think that’s the same thing you would do if you were in an office, right? Everybody would be around the same whiteboard, but you can get a picture of what it is, and talk through it, and see it and really get a feel for where you’re trying to go even though you’re not physically next to that person in a room. It still works.

/ Imran Kasam /
Yeah. Steve and I set up a pretty sophisticated system for when we’re brainstorming. Where we’ll get on a Google Meet, and then Steve will also call into the Google Meet from his phone and then he’ll point his phone towards the whiteboard, so that we can kind of both be there and looking at the same whiteboard and drawing. And that’s usually how things in the most raw way get done. And then from there, we’ll build them out. I mean, just earlier today, I was in a meeting with a group of people and I did some scribbles on a Google Jamboard just as we were talking, just to get that same effect.

/ Mark Manning /
Certainly makes sense. I’m curious about the people part of this. That you’re working remotely, but you’re not devolving into monitoring the green dot next to someone’s name, Steve, as I think, you’ve put it before. How do you measure success, productivity or even something as base level as pair programming when folks aren’t in the same space?

/ Steve Ledwith /
Yeah. It’s a really different way of thinking about things. When I was in a physical office, I followed the Sam Walton technique, right. I managed by walking around, I would go talk to people throughout the day and see where they were, and had a chance. I always made it a point to try to catch them doing something right. It’s a lot harder to do when you’re virtual. So, how do you know that people are engaged in getting things done? And Imran and I have talked about this a number of times, but for me, it’s very much a matter of, are they participating? Are the people who are on the team participating in what’s going on? If you’re in a standup, are you getting, oh, I worked on this one thing for about 15 minutes, and then I did this other thing. And they’re just kind of monotone and they’re going through the motions, that’s a sign that maybe they’re not engaged.

/ Steve Ledwith /
But if you get in there and like, oh, I did these three things yesterday, and I have these two problems that I need people to figure out. And what are we going to do about this over here? You can pick up on that. It just takes a little bit of understanding the person who’s giving their update or whoever’s participating in a meeting. If everybody’s quiet, there’s probably questions. And as a leader from whatever level, maybe you’re a team member, or you’re a team lead or whatever it might be, you need to help people feel comfortable to get out there and really express themselves in those meetings and participate.

So, you’re right, we don’t look at a green dot, that’s crazy. I want people to work whenever they want to work, whenever they’re comfortable. Imran, you can touch on that in a second about, when you and I first started talking about where that was, but I want to see your ability to ask questions or explain what we’re doing. And that tells me where you are and whether or not you’re engaged. And the time of day, I don’t need your butt in the seat at 8:30 AM, I want you to be there when it makes sense to you.

/ Imran Kasam /
Yeah. I mean, that’s always been Steve’s philosophy and I’ve been able to carry that over in my own leadership style. But it’s really about, we measure success, we measure productivity not by availability, but by delivery. And everyone has tasks to do, and we trusted people will be adults and do their job. One of the things that we’ve always talked about is like, if you couldn’t trust someone to do their job from home remotely, then why would you hire them in the first place, right? Is it because you want to be able to have control or feel control over someone that’s around you, and that’s your level of comfort, versus you actually know this person can do the job? We learned that really early on with a couple of developers. And when we had first started and we gave this one developer a project to do, it was just a simple proof of concept project, but one week went by, two weeks went by, three weeks went by, we were checking in with him.

How’s things going? We’d hear from him maybe every day, maybe every other day. And there was constantly this notion of, “I’m trying to figure something out, I’m stuck.” But never any communication, here’s what I’m stuck on. Can you help me out? But it’s like, yeah, I’ll figure it out. And after a few weeks we came to realize that there was nothing being done. And then right after that, we assigned the same task to another developer and that developer had the job done in about three days. And did he run into problems? Yes he did, but we talked about it. He engaged with me and we were able to work through it. So, it was more realistic to say, yeah, you’re having problems, but here’s what it is and here’s how I can help you. And that presence is really known.

And that’s something that I thought I was going to struggle with as I first came in and knew I was going to be managing a remote team was, how would I know people are being effective, right? But I would say to this day, I haven’t had to go and check on commits or do any kind of real digging in that sense to really know, hey, what are you doing? How many changes did you get done today? Because it really is apparent when someone’s present and available, if we have something going on and someone throws in a chat, hey, can everyone hop in and fix this out? It doesn’t matter where you are, and we have a whole slew of tools you can use. So, even if you’re away from the computer, you’d be able to hop in and help and respond. And that was one of the questions that Steve had asked as me.

Because I was very big on, I appreciate flexibility and I often do a lot of my own individual development work really late at night when things are quiet and still. Because during the day I’m working with other people and helping them out and making sure they have what they need. And so, I split my day up, but that was Steve’s first question to me was, “If you’re going to be flexible and if you’re going to be working like that, how do I know that you’re going to respond when someone needs you in the day?” Right. My immediate response to him was, “Well, if you give me this flexibility, I’ll be at my phone 24/7 if somebody needs me.” I’ve had calls from India late at night, early in the morning, whatever it is. But just being able to have that flexibility, get the work done when it matters to me, and being able to also balance my life and integrate my life in the day, oftentimes when I have things to do.

/ Steve Ledwith /
Yeah. And I think the other piece of that to take it a little farther from where Imran was mentioning is, we look for that too when we’re interviewing. We look for people who have that desire to work from home. I mean, now everybody does because they don’t want to go to the office with the current health situation going on. But for us, it was that person who could be a self-starter, who can motivate themselves, they don’t need someone looking over their shoulder. So, I think about the people piece of this, and it’s a mentality, but it’s also culture. And for us as a company, it’s obviously about the work from home or the work remote culture. But we do have to find the right people and they have to have that mindset where they can say, I’m okay with being on my own, and I know that if I’m really stuck, I have chat, or a phone call, or World or whatever it might be that I can reach out.

And I can as Imran said. I can be an adult and I can do my job, and I’m not just hiding away going, oh, I’m frustrated, and I’ll never get this figured out because nobody’s here to help me. I can’t go meet up with Joe at the water cooler. Because you don’t have to, right? Your water cooler is anywhere you want to be, and if what you need, for example, is to go take a walk to figure something out, go take a walk and then come back. It’s not like you had to leave the office, you just walked out of your house, but that’s a mindset for a person that we really try to instill early on. And again, the person has to have the desire. I’m sure you’ve all met those folks who need somebody to constantly remind them about everything they’re doing. And those folks would struggle here. It’s a much more hands-off, much more responsibility, your personal responsibility, environment and culture for us.

/ Imran Kasam /
Yeah. I think one thing I’ve had to compensate for in a different way when it comes to people is just getting to know people, right? In a traditional work environment, in an office environment, I would likely take my coworkers or my reports out to lunch just so we could have some time to connect outside of work, or maybe take the team out to a happy hour afterwards, right? And so those things went away. And I think for us, it was having to make an effort to have time with everyone during the week or at some point in time, the nature of my one-on-ones kind of changed, whereas a good amount of it was about career development and focus and paths. But I also had to include just some, let’s get to know each other time, and part of the one-on-one schedule is, let’s talk about anything you want to talk about that has nothing to do with work, right? Just so that we can have a way to connect and be able to get to know each other in a different way.

/ Steve Ledwith /
Yeah, it’s a very intentional way of interacting, and something that, well, I didn’t realize that early on, it has become much more important. You have to set that intent that you want to get to know someone. Imran was the very first person that I interviewed at eXp. I hadn’t even started with a company and I was already doing interviews. And I think, Imran, we met seven or eight months later?

/ Imran Kasam /
Yeah, eight months later.

/ Steve Ledwith /
But we were talking every day. So, when I actually finally met Imran in person, we already knew each other. It was already great. We had a relationship that was fully based on work interaction and respect, and spending time getting to know each other before we ever met. And it was an interesting dynamic having that, but then as we’ve grown and we’ve grown our team, it does become intentional. So, folks that are listening, you really do have to think about how you want to communicate and what you want to get out of the relationships with the people that you work with. Because you’re right, it’s going to be a little harder to go to the bar, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a meaningful relationship with the people you work with and really understand what they’re about and what motivates them.

/ Mark Manning /
Maybe just to flip it a little here. It seems like you built a great departmental culture, that you’ve got a good command of the IT team and how they operate, who you hire. What about business collaboration? Folks who you didn’t hire and don’t necessarily answer it to you. Could you maybe talk through an anecdote of something you’ve delivered, some response to the business you were able to accurately capture, build, and release?

/ Steve Ledwith /
So, we’re fortunate. Real estate agents, for the most part, are very entrepreneurial, and they are all about making things happen. And that’s true across our business as well. The majority of the folks who are in any sort of leadership role are real estate agents first and foremost, and then they’re also doing other things. So, we touched on it a little, one of the microservices that we’ve built is our transactions processing app. And it was something that was built into the monolith and it was rolling along, and we were doing all sorts of things. The desire from the business was really to do more, and faster and without being constrained by other things that were going on. So, when we had three distinct teams all working, so we had our joint app, our operations and our transaction teams all working in one app, we were finding that there was a lot of challenge between who’s getting what feature in or when, and how does it impact our ability and our timeline to deliver.

And so the business said, do us from a transaction processing side, where we’d really like to be able to go faster and do all these other things. And so we had already been down that path, Imran and I had spent a lot of time. I gave a presentation about this at Mendix World, but about the aha moment, we knew we needed to make a change, but part of that input was about our business saying, we need to be able to do more faster and really what we want. So, we started on this path of, how do we take this huge piece of the monolith out and make it its own standalone microservice that does all the same things? The functionality is all there, that all the pieces are there, but now it’s standalone and we can iterate on it where we want to go.

So, we actually got together with the business, Imran, and myself and Kirk, who’s our product guy, I believe it’s our product team. And said to the business, listen, here’s what we’re going to do. We’ve heard you, what we need is from here at the beginning of August until the end of the year so that we can break out transactions, we’ll roll it out, it’ll be good to go and be its own thing. Starting the new year, mid-January timeframe, we will be ready to rock, brand new, right? It’s all there. You’ll have same, same functionality, then we can move forward. Everybody, yes, this is awesome. We are good to go. Two weeks in and we started getting requests for, hey, we need this feature, oh, boy, we need this other over here. And we kept saying, well, no, we heard you, but we need to put those on hold because we’re doing this piece, we’re breaking it out. We’re refactoring.

And they’re like, right, right, but this is important. And so from an anecdote standpoint, instead of doing that four months or five months of work, it ended up taking us a year to roll out TRX, and we added more than 200 features to that. We heard the business, we knew what was important. We were working with people who said, “Here are the table stakes that we need, or here’s the opportunity we want to go after. And while we want you guys to break this out and we really want this to be amazing and standalone in its own service, we’re behind you on that vision. We just need you to be here with us and we need you to work with us as we go forward.”

So, we added a brand new microservice and we wrote 200-some odd features, and we broke it out and we made things happen. But in the end, we were able to deliver what the business wanted. We had to collaborate, and all come to an agreement that, our vision from a technical standpoint wasn’t what the business really needed. They had to have that iterative approach where we were constantly building while we were breaking it apart. And while it took us longer, I think it got us to the place we wanted to be that much better.

/ Mark Manning /
I’d be remiss if I didn’t pivot into the pandemic given your work from home culture, and how eXp seems uniquely prepared for this moment. And perhaps it’s a broad question, but what can other organizations learn from you? What do you think the folks listening could do to make their lives a little easier and their teams a little more effective?

/ Steve Ledwith /
You know, I think Imran hit it right on the head. if you hired someone to work with you in the office, why wouldn’t you trust that same person to work from home? What were you missing? What was the need where you had to have them in the office? I think the biggest thing that’s come out of the pandemic is that willingness to embrace the change and the possibility. I’ve heard a lot of people, everybody’s probably seen all the memes and the stories about how terrible this year is, oh, 2020 is terrible on and on and on. But it’s not. It’s the year that’s happening, it’s what we have. And I think the biggest thing that people could take from it is to say, this is the challenge that I have. This is the obstacle that is in my way.

Whatever I thought my goals were, where I wanted to go, how do I turn them into resolving this obstacle, right? That obstacle becomes your path forward. Instead of being something that you’re blaming, you’re looking at that and saying, this is clearly where I need to go. This is what I’m supposed to be doing and be willing to take that chance. We’ve all heard Google talk or people from Google say, we fail fast. Are willing to take a chance? People at Google are, we are at eXp, we’ll take a chance if it doesn’t work, we’ll pivot and we’ll go a different direction. We’ll try something different. But I think that’s probably the biggest thing is, be willing to invest in yourself and take a chance on yourself that you’re probably going to do something right. But if you never take that chance, how will you ever know?

And I think that for me has been one of the bigger pieces that I have seen across our company. Is it in every group, every value stream or business unit? At eXp is like, hey, here’s what we’re going to try. We’re going to go do this because we think this will matter, and we think that this will make a difference. And those are the kinds of things that you have to be willing to do, especially when your external circumstances have just so dramatically changed.

/ Mark Manning /
It’s a little stoic philosophy to round out this podcast interview, Steve. Music to my ears.

/ Steve Ledwith /
Just a little.

/ Mark Manning /
Imran, any thoughts from your experience for folks listening, what they should be doing to make their lives a little easier and make their teams more effective?

/ Imran Kasam /
Yeah. I mean, Steve made a great point there. This may not have been the year we wanted, but it was the year we were given. And I think everyone in every situation, you can choose what you want to make of it. I think for those who are building a new team, one, make sure you can trust the people that you hire and make sure that they have the resources that they need to do their jobs. We talk about failing fast and I think the role of a manager is to be a safety net, when people fail to help them get back up, and then learn the lesson that was needed to learn in that moment, right? Not someone who’s going to berate you or punish you for failing, right? If people have this fear of failure, then you’re also going to stifle innovation.

And I think in order to really promote creativity, you have to allow people to take risks. We mitigate those risks as much as we can, but we always have to be able to go out there, put ourselves out on a limb and then be willing to be able to have a good reflex and to say that, okay, this didn’t work. Cool, let’s try something else. Even if that’s a 180 degree turn, right? It can’t be a slow ship trying to turn it around, we have to be kind of fighter jet nimble in that sense. And Mendix, the platform does allow that because we can be really rapid in what we do, and we can try out new things and experiment with different architecture types, see them live, see them how they go even through the battery of tests that we put through. But really the most important thing is trust your people, allow them to fail, be that safety net and make sure that we’re learning from everything that we do and that we’re constantly growing.

/ Mark Manning /
Forgive me. I’ve got to police car going by.

/ Steve Ledwith /
See, that’s one of the joys of working from home right there. You never know what’s going to happen. The first Wednesday of every month and I forget about it every time, but we have tornado sirens. So, I was in a meeting the other day and the tornado siren test went off and my dog immediately starts to howl. And everybody’s like, “Are you okay? What’s going on?” I’m like, I’m just going to mute for the next six minutes while this happens, I’ll be right back.” But again, those are the kinds of adaptations that you have to do when trusting your people, but you also have to believe that they’re doing the best that they can given their circumstance, or maybe it’s kids walking in or wanting to be part of meetings. You have to take those things and roll with them. It makes for a more fulfilling day when you’re not trying to berate yourself over those sorts of things happening.

/ Mark Manning /
Well, this has been absolutely fantastic. Thank you, Imran and Steve, both for joining, thank you for your perspective. I think it’s an immensely valuable story for the folks listening. Thank you very much.

/ Steve Ledwith /
Thank you so much.

/ Imran Kasam /
Thank you for having us.

/ Mark Manning /
If you want to learn more about some of the topics discussed in today’s episode, then check out the digital execution manual. It expands on driving better collaboration between business in IT, and how that can accelerate your digital strategy. Check it out at Mendix.com/RemoteFirstCulture. That’s one word, Mendix.com/RemoteFirstCulture. Thanks for listening and be sure to check out Mendix.com/MakeShift to subscribe and stay updated with our latest episodes.