How remote first hires work: Welcome to real.digital, Lex!

Remote first: A decision which is not only applauded by our employees but also offers a lot of new opportunities. Like hiring talented people from abroad for example. Said and done – Lex Holt currently lives in Scotland and he started at real.digital as the new Director Engineering in October. In order to get to know Lex, we decided to interview him via Google Meet.

Interview Lex Holt

Lex (top left corner) interviewed by Laura (HR), Elena and Lars (both editorial team)

Hey Lex, great to have you aboard! Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I’m originally from England. I’ve been living, however, in Scotland most of my adult life – I came for a one year course and… just stayed. I also spent time living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa. My wife and both of our children were born there – which makes me the odd one out in my family since I don’t have a strong South African connection. I also don’t have a whole lot of hair left, but I make up for that with hair from my two dogs.

I guess I feel that most of my life I’ve been helping make computers work for people – in a very broad way. I’ve done a lot of different things, but that’s been a bit of a theme. I did spend some time as an academic, researching and teaching, and I enjoyed that but ended up deciding that it wasn’t really the best path for me. I’m now very happy to be working on the tech side and increasingly in management.

How did you notice and why did you choose real.digital as a possible new employer?

Particularly post Covid, I’ve been interested in companies that have made an explicit decision to go remote first or at least are encouraging about remote work. I decided that, for myself and my quality of life, I was keen to have a bigger remote component. We see a lot of companies who have perhaps unwillingly been forced into that position, 

so it was particularly noteworthy to me that real.digital made a very explicit decision to go remote first.

Another thing is, that I‘ve worked for companies of different kinds and sizes and my best times have been in companies which roughly had the same size as real.digital. You might call it a scale-up tech company. I really enjoy not just making the tech work but also having a hand in helping shape the company as it grows, using the bits and pieces I’ve learned over the years – good ways to do certain things when an organization gets bigger. This seemed like a great good opportunity for me.

I also want to add that as soon as I got in touch with real.digital, I found a really open, transparent and enthusiastic culture. This is extremely important to me and not something which is just a nice-to-have.

Can you tell us more about your past experiences? What kind of positions did you have and what companies did you work for?

Once I moved away from my academic life, I started out with running the website and the interactive exhibits for the Natural History Museum in London. That was pretty cool and I have to say that one of the nicest parts of the job was being able to walk through the museum in the morning, just before they opened the doors.

I also worked for one of the UK’s largest cancer research organizations and I helped run the scientific computing for one of their research institutes. I got a kind of crash course in modern DevOps / SRE thinking from the 3 years I worked for Google. I worked for Google SRE, the site reliability part of their engineering organization, which was a fantastically interesting and useful part of my career. But I’ve decided that companies of that size are not my first choice at the moment.

I then worked for Skyscanner in Edinburgh and that was my first exposure to a scale-up tech company with a great culture. I was responsible for incident management and involved in DevOps culture, as well as broader engineering management responsibilities. And most recently I worked for Cloudreach which is a managed services provider that helps companies move to and stay in the cloud. I ran the organization that does the engineering for the managed services component. My team was split across Vancouver, Canada and Edinburgh, UK – so I’m well used to working with teams that are on different continents.  

What is your new position and what kind of tasks or issues will you be dealing with concretely?

In my new role my fundamental purpose is to make the engineering function of real.digital serve the customer experience as well as possible. At the end of the day we are here for our customers to have a fantastic experience – how that translates into engineering is a whole lot of different things, of course. I’ve learned over the past years that it is hard to overestimate in importance a culture of high velocity and good iteration. That applies both to product development and to operational production issues. 

The most important thing is to move fast and then learn from how things go – I am really keen to see how we can emphasize that.

Another thing, which goes hand in hand with that: Pushing as much autonomy and responsibility to individual teams. I’m a big fan of light touch management and very autonomous organizations. That’s something I’m really enthusiastic about.

In regards to your new job, what are you looking forward to most?

I’m really looking forward to meeting people from real.digital. It’s funny how you start out in tech and you’re concerned with the mechanics but the people always end up being the most important thing. I already met a lot of people during my interview process, I’m really looking forward to developing those relationships. I’m also excited about coming to Cologne for my first visit, and to improve my high-school-level German which may not be so much fun for my colleagues because the technical term for my German is schrecklich. 😉 

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Which of your skills and experiences will take us to the next level together?

Perhaps one thing is a belief that data and metrics are really important, and my experience translating that into priorities and actions. For example, as a B2C internet company, we kind of live or die by metrics that are related to the behavior and satisfaction of our customers.

On the engineering side, there are also metrics which are internal but still really important guides to whether we are moving in the right direction. Things like metrics for velocity, but also metrics on the production side around reliability, performance, and so on.

Also, there is a difference between having metrics to observe trends and having metrics that are the things you’re explicitly trying to move. In my experience, you have to be quite careful in picking those target metrics – because you can’t move them all at the same time. It’s important both to have a sharp focus and to make sure that the metrics are aligned to the right level or team within the organization. There is nothing worse than being responsible for moving a number that actually you don’t have the power yourself or within your team to move – it’s a recipe for failure and disappointment. Metrics can be really powerful – but you have to take care with how you turn them into objectives.

What is your daily motivation which brings you to your desk?

New Director Engineering: Lex Holt

I think there is a lot to be said about that Day 1 idea by Jeff Bezos: It’s easy to feel like you’re buried in a lot of work or that everything in your past is a weight on what’s possible in your future. But it’s really valuable to have a mindset which is

The rest of my work or my life starts today!

That’s really what matters. There is an amazing amount that you can do in one day if you put your mind to it – every day is a genuine opportunity to make things better.

 

What will be your biggest challenge concerning your new job at real.digital?

Although I’m an advocate of remote working: I think that many companies which started this concept this year have had success because the people they are working with have already built really strong connections due to working within the same building or the same city. And that is not going to be true for me or any other remote hire that we make in the future. So we have to make sure that there are these opportunities to make such connections. This is why I’m going to Cologne less than a week after starting. It will remain very important to give people the opportunity to make face to face connections – that‘s what allows you to build trust that makes remote relationships then work, in my view. You have to have opportunities to get people together. This is not only a challenge of pure logistics but also in terms of the current situation the world is in.

What is your strategy for managing your team remotely?

I think it’s something I gradually learned: You need to have different kinds of interaction. It’s not enough to just take the meetings you would have face to face and move those remote. Sometimes you have to do things that feel a bit artificial in order to reconstruct that kind of connection you need. In a fully remote situation, you need to make opportunities like a lunch or a talk by the coffee machine explicitly. So for example, as a senior manager, those so-called skip-level meetings should happen somehow – but my job is to make them informal and let people know that it’s just a good way to drink coffee together even though we are hundreds of kilometers apart. I’ll add one more thing here: One should be open to different modalities of remote interactions – whether it’s a video meeting or just a phone call – it’s about whatever is best for the people involved.

One question on our behalf: How would the perfect onboarding process at real.digital look like to you?

I’d wish for enough time with all the people I will be working with in order to make connections – not only on an operational level. The other thing for me that I like to see in an onboarding process is to cover the fundamental philosophy and story of the organization. So for example:

What makes the company work? How does it make money? What are our major challenges and risks? Everyone should be part of that conversation, in my view.

What I also really value in onboarding is the history of the company. You come into a new organization and don’t know anything about what has happened before. I like to know the story on how we got to where we are now and what roles people used to have before they got to their current position.

Last one just for fun: Is there anything else we should know? Any special super hero powers you want to tell us about?

I don’t feel like I have a super power, but perhaps I can tell you one other thing I do when I don’t do my job — I do quite a lot of things around the house and garden like DIY projects. I quite like doing that since I learned from my dad to have a go at doing things around the house. I do know when to hand over to professionals though! 

 

Lex, thank you so much for your time to take that interview. We hope you had a great start at real.digital!

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