Jan Fex
CEO of DotDee Digital
March 31, 2020

Company Interview with Jan Fex, CEO of DotDee Digital

A three-hour work commute motivated Jan to establish a full-on remote work arrangement for his company. What have been the benefits & challenges? See his takeaways!

What made you develop a remote work policy for your company?

I used to live in Sweden and work in Denmark. Every day I had to spend about 3 hours commuting back and forth between the two countries by hydrofoil, train, taxis, and bicycle.

At that point, I was group head for Carlsberg's global web development account at DDB in Copenhagen. I figured out that I spent roughly one entire month each year just traveling to-and-from work.

Though it became very tiring after a while, my bosses were still reluctant to let me work from home for a couple of days per week.

I decided that if I ever came into a position where I could maximize my developer's output by using remote work, I would devise a strategy to make that happen.

Nowadays, with Dotdee Digital, where most of our devs are Vietnamese, it has become a necessity since we recruit from all over Vietnam and may have some guys in Hanoi and some in Saigon.

In order for us to stay competitive and keep costs down, we decided at an early stage to run an office-less environment.

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What has been the benefit of allowing remote work?

As mentioned above, one benefit is lesser operational costs like keeping an office with equipment and supplies and salaries to non-production personnel. Another benefit is, of course, the relative freedom of working from your home workspace and being able to have more control of your daily schedule.

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What have been some of the challenges?

Vietnam has a dominant family structure where they believe that the welfare of the family as a whole is more important than individuals. The most elderly have the strongest voice.

Family members are expected to contribute to the whole family income, and each may have a designated role. If you have been sponsored by your family to obtain a university degree, you are expected to use these skills to support your extended family.

Since the Vietnamese are very hard-working people, it is not uncommon that they work two jobs simultaneously. This means that many developers might face pressure from the family to crack on a few extra freelance hours every night after they finish their day job.

This is not constructive from our point of view. We need devs who sleep well and take their mind off programming in their time off. If you work 12-14 hour days, the quality of your code suffers, and efficiency declines.

We found that by paying people properly, treating them with respect, and having a firm but fair attitude, this cultural variation is negotiable.

We implemented a scheme where we try to give our devs short-time, interesting tasks, and a focus on producing working software from every developer task iteration. These are all agile procedures.

This made it easier to measure individual developer's lead-times during the iteration as to spot when a dev's output was changing and what could be the reason for this.

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Do you have a hybrid or full-remote team?

All our teams are full-remote.

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What are your company's most popular tools?

We are using Teamwork Projects for team objectives and business processes and Skype for communication. For development, we use whatever is right for the project i.e. Eclipse, Xcode, Visual Studio Code.

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What does a typical day look like for your remote teams?

  • A daily meeting is held every morning at 9 AM with the team where the day's activities are set up

  • A one-to-one daily catch-up between project lead and each dev (5–10 min) at around 1.30 PM

  • A close-of-business meet-up is held every day at 5.30 PM with the entire team. At this point, the devs have to share their screens and demo what they achieved during the day

  • All devs have to commit and push to the Master repo at the latest after evening meet-up

  • Every Friday the close-of-business meet-up also includes a review of the week passed

I blogged about this on Medium, where our Agile approach and GitHub Builder regime also are discussed.

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How do you support or train your remote managers?

While all our devs are Vietnamese, all our team tech leads are Westerners living in South East Asia. The Western tech leads all come with strong developer backgrounds but have, for various reasons, branched out into tech project management.

Initially, they have to sit-in with a team and observe the daily activities as to get familiar with the routines and then are eventually given their own team after they (and we) feel confident about the proceedings.

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Do you have a formal remote work policy?

Not really apart from what is described as our 'typical day' above. Everyone has to be reachable on Skype at all times during working hours and have to ensure that they are on a good connection (no working from noisy cafes with poor WiFi i. e.).

If they want to take a gym break, they need to make us aware the day before, do it in the morning immediately after the morning meeting, and make up for it later on.

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How do you build trust and camaraderie among your remote workers?

By being honest, fair and treating everyone as equals. Another thing is worth mentioning. Vietnamese devs are as good as any other nationality, but their knowledge of English might fluctuate. Therefore, the Western tech leads have as one of their duties to assist in research on Google and Stack Overflow.

But the individual devs are also encouraged to help each other with this. We found this to be a good bonding procedure that quickly builds up trust among the team.

Our policy is that a quest for knowledge may include failure, and there's no such thing as a stupid question.

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Do you facilitate opportunities for face-to-face interactions?

As long as it is practically possible, we try to meet-up IRL monthly or bi-monthly. Most of the time, this occurs in Saigon, where we meet to greet and eat. Domestic flights in Vietnam are very inexpensive, so it is easy to gather those who live elsewhere.

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How has remote work impacted your company's productivity?

As I mentioned earlier, we continually measure the individual developer's lead-times and have found no less productivity compared to an office environment. Rather, as a whole, our research into this suggests that our developer's productivity translated into task/day, has improved steadily.

I would say we are roughly 20% more productive than if we had worked in an office environment.

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Biography

Jan Fex

Jan Fex has been a professional software developer since 1995 and has been managing Vietnamese, Indian, and South African remote teams full-time since 2015. He has been working in Scandinavia and the UK for more than two decades as a developer on a string of large-scale projects based in London.

About DotDee Digital: DotDee Digital is a vehicle for digital producers to achieve their objectives by using top class remote developers for a fraction of the costs when compared to the United Kingdom or the US. Our sales team is based in London, and our developer teams live in Vietnam.

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