Remote-First Engineering: What We’ve Learned One Year In

Remote-First Engineering: What We’ve Learned One Year In

By Manish Gupta, EVP, Engineering

When we announced last May that Coinbase would embrace being a remote-first company, we knew there was much we hadn’t yet figured out. How would we tap into a capable, international engineering community without losing the sense of culture and mission that drives us at Coinbase? There wasn’t a playbook for us to consult, and the challenges of growing during a pandemic were many.

Since that time, we’ve hired, onboarded, and integrated hundreds of new engineers, more than doubling our team year over year: we’re now well on the path to becoming a decentralized, globally distributed engineering organization. But ensuring that we could scale, and not simply grow, has been a constant challenge. We’d like to share a few of the things we’ve learned along the way.

  1. Great Talent Is Everywhere

The tech industry sometimes seems to forget this, but no one city or country has a monopoly on great talent. By looking across the US and internationally, we’ve been able to find extremely strong engineering teams that had no interest in moving to downtown San Francisco — no matter how interesting the opportunity. Since we started hiring anywhere, only 36% of our hires are in SF or NYC, and nearly one in six new hires is outside of the United States. As a result, we can assemble global teams with representation across diverse geographies and backgrounds.

2. Commit To A Regional Approach

Instead of defining teams by specific countries or cities, we’ve organized our engineering organization into a smaller set of much larger geographies that we call “Regions”. Each Region is laid out longitudinally and maps to a set of adjacent time zones. We plan to have only three such Regions at this time, mapping to the Americas, EMEA and APAC. As a result, teams get the flexibility to work on a broad range of projects, with interesting work distributed globally.

To maximize the common working hours for a given team, we try to keep managers and their direct reports within the same Region, even if team members are spread out across the region. Because the regions share working times but not artificial borders, they’re neither so small that they can’t draw on a rich talent bench, nor so big that they can’t collaborate effectively.

3. Autonomous Teams Are Effective Teams

Some companies try to outsource small slices of their existing work, like shared services or backend infrastructure, to their remote teams. It quickly became apparent that this wouldn’t work if we wanted to attract high-performing engineers. High performers want to be challenged, and they seek end-to-end ownership. Our teams at Coinbase have the flexibility of working on many types of projects, and over time they’ll cover a diverse range of domains. We’re also co-locating our product management, engineering, and design teams in-region to ensure that they can collaborate effectively in building cohesive product experiences. Whether supporting our global platform or internationalizing our products, we want to make sure regional teams can make progress in these areas independently.

4. One Size Fits None

Although we’re excited at the opportunities that being remote-first brings, we’ve also learned how important it is to tailor our talent approach to local needs. For example, we’ve (re)discovered the importance of working with local experts and partners to better understand what our employees and customers need; we found some of the conventional wisdom we first heard to be misleading. We’ve also built specially customized onboarding programs to help new hires acclimate, like our “Cikka” program in India. Cikka, which stands for “Coinbase Sikka” (“Coin” in many Indian languages) provides a US$1,000 crypto stipend to new employees that they can use to explore Coinbase’s range of products.

5. Culture-Building Is Everyone’s Responsibility

Finally, much ink has been spilled about the importance of culture-building in a remote environment. But for us, this isn’t a temporary pandemic adjustment, but a sea change in how we interact with our colleagues. As a result, we’re investing significant time and resources into continuously improving how we create a global Coinbase culture. For example, we rebuilt our engineering onboarding program, “Bootcamp,” with an updated curriculum, virtual social activities, and “lunch and learns” with global leadership to make sure people can integrate more seamlessly into our borderless organization. We’ve invested in scaling our mentorship program to provide new engineers with opportunities for 1:1 support. We’re experimenting with new communication mechanisms like video newsletters. And we’ve worked hard to ensure a global internship program can succeed with the right mentorship and infrastructure in place. (It seems to be working: of our class of 84 interns in 2020, 67 returned full-time this year!)

Naturally, we still have a long way to go and much to learn. But we’re confident that this approach is creating a stronger engineering organization and culture at Coinbase, and that we’ll continue to scale as we help to increase economic freedom in the world. If you’re interested in joining to help us do that, check out our open roles!


Remote-First Engineering: What We’ve Learned One Year In was originally published in The Coinbase Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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