I am back in sunny California, and it’s great to be back! This trip was a great experience - I built some good relationships and shared some of the excitement and optimism that all of us feel about oDesk.
I have some advice based on what worked well for me throughout this experiment:
Make a work schedule and stick to it. The folks you are visiting will want to show you a good time, but it’s our job to make sure that we stay productive. Stick to sightseeing on weekends.
Bring an entire team in one location. I felt my trip was most effective in Macedonia - where I was working with a team I normally work with out of redwood city as well. In Kyiv I felt a little less connected, while it was great to be able to have insightful conversations about oDesk with the team there, we weren’t deep into projects together.
Airbnb apartments make great working spaces, especially when there is no local office. You can find an Airbnb with good working space in the living and dining rooms - which gives you an option to create a workable “office” for when you don’t want to be in a cafe.
Prepare to be a little less “productive”. The first few days can be a little less productive, as you get to know each other and acclimate to new timezones and people. The benefits of building relationships will last beyond the 2 weeks you are together.
Be prepared to handle the drinking culture in Eastern Europe: There is a huge drinking culture, and it may feel like your hosts will be offended if you don’t drink. Know about it, and set boundaries and expectations about your drinking habits early.
Bring an unlocked phone, and buy a local sim card. It’s the best way to keep in touch with the team.
Have fun - immerse yourself in the culture - learn some local pop songs :)
I was lucky to be in Kyiv for one of the world cup qualifier games between Ukraine and England. Before you ask - no Rooney didn’t play, and England was quite lackluster. The stadium had an electrifying atmosphere with a crowd of almost 70,000 - but the 0-0 draw made it so that there weren’t any crazy victory marches later. It was pretty awesome though - thanks to Evgeny, Aleksey and Igor for helping make it happen.
p.s - I am taking the next few days off before I head back to California, and I won’t be updating this blog. See you on the other side of the world.
More than the language, I found knowing the cyrillic alphabet supremely useful. It was important to be able to read street names, or names of stores, read menus, etc. I was surprised at how prevalent the alphabet is, and it’s rare to see stuff translated into English.
Here’s the lesson I got from Darko my first day in Macedonia. Of course Macedonian cyrillic is different from Ukrainian cyrillic and so forth, but this was enough for me to get by. I highly recommend anyone coming here to learn the alphabet — not the language, just the alphabet.
We visited the QA office in Zhytomyr. As is normal for this part of the world - the visit included a gigantic home cooked meal - and it was the best meal I had in Ukraine by far! There’s nothing like mom’s food :)
We spent a couple of days hanging out at and working from the Kyiv office. It’s a very social place, everyone goes to lunch together at 4pm! It was cool to see their mini-fridge with magnets from all over the world, a real “stand-up”, and Vitaliy’s Nescafe container re-purposed as a tea brewer.
Thanks to Keith, I have my own little spot at HQ! Super shout out to him - my true friend in need :)
Here’s how it works - Keith put me on a “google hangout” on a standing desk in one of the corridors. People who walk by see me, and stop to say hello. I have one screen, and am usually working on a different browser window, so I can’t see folks when they wave (no peripheral vision). I have to rely on someone saying “Shipra”, or that serendipitous moment when I cmd+~ to the hangout browser window at the exact moment that someone is walking up.
Unlike being in the office, I choose when I want to be interrupted. I try to not start a deep design task, but catch up on my reading while I hangout. That way, when folks interrupt it’s actually fun. Also, I get 4-5 completely productive hours a day, so having a couple of disruptive hours is fine by me :)
I have missed random conversations that only folks in California can identify with - the new bay bridge, labor day weekend, restaurants in SF neighborhoods, does Philz actually make a better cup of coffee than ‘x’ cafe, what it feels like to eat a burrito under a tree, etc. It’s been cool to get to get some casual conversation time in the office.
I also love that my perch keeps getting new decorations - and how did they know it’s actually my birthday this month? Thanks team!
There are two ways in which my attitude to internet problems has changed -
1. Money can’t necessarily buy reliable internet
When I was coming to Macedonia, I really wanted to understand the reasons behind the internet problems I see and hear about. In my (unfortunately Americanized) mind I thought that it’s probably about money - one can probably pay more to get better internet. That’s not true - when the internet in your apartment goes down, it goes down - and there’s not much you can do about it.
In our various apartments/ hotels - the internet was pretty good when it was there, but it would go down for no apparent reason for periods lasting a few minutes to hours and there wasn’t much we could do about it.
2. I felt like it was my fault when I didn’t have internet
The internet went down in our Skopje apartment, and I was in a meeting. I felt awful, I could feel the frustration of folks back in the office, I could feel my frustration - but also a weird sense of guilt. I felt like I should be able to control my internet here, but I was too incompetent to do it.
I had the same feeling when the internet sucked for a meeting while I was in Ohrid. Jeff called me on my Macedonian phone using Skype credits - which was cool, but since the other meeting had multiple folks in the office - they basically asked me to send my feedback offline.
The icing on the cake was when the electricity went out in our Kyiv apartment. We have a really nice place in the city center, and the lights just went out. I found a cafe, and then worked with the other engineers - but it was difficult imagine going to our late night design meeting if the lights hadn’t come back on.
It has been a process to get used to the fact that I can’t really rely on having great internet or power - and that there’s very little I can do about it.
Yesterday we had our first full working day in Kyiv. We hung out at the office, “went” to our meetings and headed to Piv-bar afterwards. On a side-note - it’s cool how everyone is on a different standup come 7pm local time :)
My first taste of beer in Ukraine lived up to it’s promise, and they have the weirdest tastiest beer snack - a dried salted fish called taranka. In the states you eat chips with beer, in India you eat pakoras, and apparently in Ukraine people are constantly chewing on taranka with their beers.
We also had an “unlimited meat” dinner, which reminded me of the Brazilian BBQ places. There’s a bunch of condiments, servers come around with the tastiest grilled meats, and if you make it to the grilled spicy ananas you win!
I never realized how ubiquitously google translate was used by our remote team, and just how powerful the combination of google translate + a smartphone can be.
Some of the guys were telling me about their early skype conversations with a new client. Before pasting a reply on skype, they would check it against g-translate and also spell check everything. They thought it would be unprofessional to have a lot of errors in their typed messages. Slowly, as they became more comfortable with the team, they would stop doing it. It was quite the eye opener for me - this cannot be easy.
However, when we are together in person, we don’t have much trouble chattering away in English. In most conversations - the flow of ideas and thoughts are quite rapid, interrupted only by the quick consultation of g-translate when we come across a word that needs it. This usually happens once every 3-5 minutes - usually for words that convey complex ideas - like ‘ambition’ or ‘risk’.
Also, when a word is difficult we don’t give up. There were a lot of instances which went something like -
“You mean power?”
“No, not exactly power - hold on let me check the word”
“You mean - like he was strong?”
“No, not strong.. ”
“Ohh - well, does it mean … “
…and so on. We kept meandering around words and definitions until we found the correct language to describe the idea. I thought this was extraordinary patience, but it’s probably due to the engineer’s tendency to be very precise. It would have been easy enough to say “It doesn’t matter” and move on, but we rarely did.
Another thing that always has us pulling out our smartphones is when we talk about food, and we talk about food a lot! This is easily the most difficult thing to talk about across languages - there are many foods that I know only the Hindi words for, I don’t even know what they are called in English. Here, when g-translate doesn’t work, and describing the said food doesn’t work, we resort to image searches.
Before this trip, I had probably used google translate a grand total of 10 times. I have been fascinated by watching, and slowly adopting, this g-translate way of life.
Here are the books I borrowed from SFPL and brought on this trip to read! A little plug for our public library, you can get almost any book imaginable here. I requested all 4 of the below books, and they were ready for me within 3 days!
Think of this as an illustrated history book. The illustrations didn’t add much, and it may have been better as an essay rather than in a comic book format - but it gave me an understanding of the recent political history of Macedonia.
Absurd, insightful and absolutely hilarious. If it’s this good translated into English, I can imagine that it’s a brilliant piece of work in it’s native Russian. Ilf and Petrov are geniuses - and they are from Odessa which I will visit on this trip! I cannot put it down!