Marc Oliver Pahl interviews Àlex Rodríguez Bacardit (Digital Entrepreneur)
Àlex Rodríguez Bacardit is the founder of Marsbased, a fully digital company with literally no physical office. He is also the regional director of Startup Grind Barcelona.
Marc-Oliver Pahl: Àlex it’s a great pleasure having you today on the interview. We are running the symposium “Being Human with Algorithms” “Mensch-Sein mit Algorithmen” as you know. You are a perfect fit for the interview series because I know you as a very digital person – in the personal life and also in the professional life as you are running a digital business. You are even coordinating multiple digital businesses all over the world. It is a great pleasure having you here and maybe you can briefly present yourself to our audience today.
Marc: Wow cool! I am very happy to see -as I worked with you as a student- how you found your way in doing exactly what you wanted to do. With all this cool business going on you are definitely experiencing this Digital Transformation on a daily basis. What are the most important or most striking effects of the Digital Transformation that you perceive in your daily life?
Àlex: In our company we develop products for other companies. A big percentage of the products are so to speak Digital Transformation products. Processes that the companies have been performing manually and logically, they want to somehow automate, speed up, or improve them. All our products definitely have an impact on their business. We try to focus on the excellence of the development of the product but also we make sure that these products can have an impact on the business, improving the KPIs performance-wise or speed-wise, or conversion in case we are developing marketing tools, or marketing campaign tools, or other tools. We take a look very seriously at the performance of the products. Not only on the technical side but also on the business side.
Marc: This is like the fully digital life I would say. Could you have imagined founding Marsbased fifteen years ago. Would that have been possible?
Àlex: Being an entrepreneur and a business owner was never my dream. I always said that I want to work for Google every time somebody asks me this question. So I don’t know. Fifteen years ago I think I was not even in university. So I couldn’t imagine that. I sort of freelanced a little bit before going to university and throughout my years at the university just to raise some money that I could save up. That is definitely what allowed me to spend almost two years in Germany. Otherwise I would not have been able to do it with being solely on an Erasmus grant. So that is why I worked back then.
It would have been great and I think there were definitely some tools to do it but the way we would have created the company would have been completely different. It would actually have been significantly different because our company is 100% remote and it has got no office. It is an office-less company. That means that our team is distributed around the globe quite modestly. They are only in Spain right now but we have had people working from Belgium. For one year we even had some people working from Mexico.
I travel all the time, so I work from Germany or San Francisco, whatever. Fifteen years ago with the broadband was not so wide spread in Spain. Collaboration tools existed. There were chats obviously. There was IRC messenger. There was also Skype. But tools like Basecamp or Trello or even GitHub they were not around back then. So definitely developing remotely a hundred percent it was there, it was definitely possible because there were teams doing it. Like telework was something that some companies already had implemented like HP for instance or IBM. But they were super pioneering in a very early stage way more complicated. We wouldn’t have been able to develop probably as efficiently as we do today because some things are just one click away.
Marc: You already started like going into two aspects that are very interesting. The first is having a fully digital team. You are also writing a block that I am loosely following. It is very interesting. The second is having tools that tie everything together. Let’s stick with the tools first because they are probably one of the things that keep the team together. So what would you say is the most important tool that you use today? Maybe also describe what it does because some people in our audience may not yet know the tool.
Àlex: We are using about fifteen different tools. We use a lot of Software as a Service (SAS), which back in the day was not so popular. It was very rare. I’m talking about tools like Trello, GitHub, and things like that, or Basecamp, or video chat platforms like Appear or Hangouts. With the tools I would highlight a couple of them. The first one is obviously GitHub, which is where we store our code repositories. Our developers when they develop, they just push their code there. They comment their documents and they organize the projects. They sort of coordinate the technical aspects of the of the task management and the project management themselves. We do it through GitHub.
I fail to remember when it was founded but it is around for a while. It has become one of the standards in the industry. There are a couple of competitors like GitLab and Bitbucket but for most of the projects we use GitHub. And definitely without this we would be using one of the competitors. With none of these three around, it would be much more complicated. We would have to revert back to SVN and FTP.
Marc: Your product is software and so of course you have to collaborate in developing the software. The most interesting thing for me is always how to bring the people together? How to make them communicate? How do you establish that? What is running on your employees’ desktops? What is running on your desktop? Which kind of software are you using for team communication? Which style of interaction is happening in your virtual company when you compare it to a traditional offices that you also know?
Àlex: That is the second tool I would have highlighted here. It’s probably twofold. We coordinate with clients and we need to coordinate with ourselves. Being a remote company does not mean we never speak to our client. On the contrary it means we speak more often just because we need to show communication. We need to show responsiveness and we need to make sure that misunderstandings do not happen.
We use more tools than that, but I think that we can narrow it down to is Slack chat – kind of what IRC it used to be back in the old days: channels and interactions and mentions and this and that. All of our communications happens in Slack – even with our clients. With most of our clients we set up a Slack channel where we invite them.
We can have one-on-one communication and real-time communication through a chat. We enforce and actually advocate for communicating through public channels so that everyone can see.
We try to speak only during office hours because working remotely does not mean that we are working around the clock. We operate during office hours. We try to coordinate if different time zones are there. We have got clients in the Emirates or somewhere out in the US. So we always try to overlap a couple of hours.
The other tool is Basecamp. We use it to sort of consolidate some of the decisions. If we need to report to the client we need to send some documentation. We want to aggregate all the communications and have it in a single platform. We use Basecamp for that. If we need to decide on “Hey, let’s implement this over that, or let’s change the scope of the project,” it needs to be reflected to Basecamp. Otherwise it did not happen. Slack is too volatile. It is a chat. It is easy that things get lost there whereas in Basecamp it is much more for formal communication.
Marc: When you recruit new people do you meet them in person or do you also do that online?
Àlex: Never! As a matter of fact, because I said our team is right now scattered around Spain, our latest hire was from Seville. We met him first after two months. So we hired and then only met after two months.
Every month or every two months we do a get-together. We bring everyone to Barcelona so we can have a company day and workshops. We update them, have a hands-on session with the founders, and share strategy. We also do some other off-work activities.
As new employee this is the first time you actually meet the team in person. So it is very likely that if we hire you then you will be working for a while before you actually meet us in person.
Marc: How important are these physical meetings? Are they something nice to have but not necessary? Or would you say it is vital to have them in order to really hold the team together?
Àlex: I think it is necessary. Being a remote company sounds really cool, but it does have a lot of challenges. Some of them being, it is easy to get distracted and to lose focus.
One of the hardest challenges to overcome is the feeling of loneliness because you work isolated from your small town in the mountains for example because it is your decision after all. There you do not see the office mates every day. You probably even get to socialize with a lot of people outside of your significant one or the people you are living with such as the people you interact with in on a daily basis. But you definitely do not meet the people from your work.
When we meet -just because we never meet regularly, or we seldom meet regularly-, when we meet it really creates a drastic impact. It motivates people. We of course do have a lot of communication. We do also off-work activities like online hackathons and we’ve got like casual conversations on Slack. We even got a music contest, and a drawing challenge! We foster all sorts of activities there to dynamize the team, and to have them participating in different social initiatives.
Whenever we meet every 2-3 months we always have got the same feeling that time has not passed. It feels like we were every day at the office! As one really short story from this summer about one of our developers. When we all go on holidays we always try to have one or two people to stay so that there is always somebody in the company. So the developer said: “I really felt like there was no one in the office,” and we said like, “Dude we’ve got no office.” That means that throughout the year he does not feel like that! He felt especially lonely during that week where he was the only one working. It feels like in a way it is a virtual office.
Marc: I find the most amazing thing that you highlighted this social component! It is very interesting to see that there’s all this cool technology and digital stuff, and still the key is this social component between the people. I really love that our interview went here. Before the interview I knew Alex is doing really digital stuff. But know I have the impression that especially for the older people looking at the video it will be very insightful like a view from a totally different world.
What would you say are the properties of people like you living this kind of life, this very digital life? What is characteristic for someone working in your company? I especially think about this loneliness you were talking about. But also, is it a faster life? What would you say? Is it at a higher pace? Is it more flexible because you are working at home so you can also take care of your kid or go out shopping during the day or something like that? Are you basically more free to balance work and life as you do not have to be in the office as there is no office?
Àlex: There are a lot of misconceptions about working remotely. I really recommend reading one of our favorite books. It is called “REMOTE: Office Not Required”. It is written by the guys who created Basecamp. They have got these amazing books “REWORK” and “REMOTE”. They are basically the foundations of our company culture and the way we run our company. I would say we agree about 95% with what they say in these books. In “REMOTE: Office Not Required” they explain a lot of these misconceptions and how to solve them.
I would like to describe the people working at our company: first of all we only hire senior developers. It sounds a little bit shocking but it is very difficult in a 100% remote environment to be able to teach both, the technical skills to a junior developer, and the remote working skills. That is why by hiring senior developers we can focus on people who already are capable of managing themselves, who are good at communication, who are good at handling the client and talking to clients, and obviously they have the technical expertise. So we can we can focus only on them learning the basics on how to work with us and our company culture, so that they can hit the ground running.
I would not say it is especially a fast-paced world. It is just very focused because you need to be very responsible. You are also required to meet deadlines that we have got – even though we are not especially straight on this, we are not specially pushy. Our company is a very chill company I would say because we want to focus on quality.
To deliver high-end solutions and a good maintainable code we can only do it if the developers, our employees, work with the best conditions. That Is why we give them the complete flexibility of working from wherever they want, whatever time they want, and using the tools they want. Most of the times they take most of the positions in the project. Obviously they have to deal with the client or with our CTO but definitely they have a lot to say. They are not just monkeys being told what to do and how to do it and what is best.
Marc: So your employees have a lot of (self-) responsibility. As employee at a virtual company you seem to need maturity in all actions and things you do.
Àlex: Exactly. And a lot of accountability. So you are free to take a lot of decisions, but you need to be responsible because there are a lot of distractions. Working from home does not really mean that you can take care of your children every day. It just means that you might, or you will be able to do it if an emergency arises or a week you need to do it or something like that. But if you are permanently putting things over in the scale of priorities, if you put things on top of your work and you keep piling up all these things like, “I’ll play guitar from 10am to noon every day then I will go pick up my children and then I will take care of my mother.” Obviously somebody is gonna do that but that means that you are not really good at prioritizing. You can do it sometimes but if you do it every day probably you are getting it wrong.
Marc: Did you have that with some of your employees?
Marc: You found out that they do not focus enough on the work and then you said, “okay, doesn’t fit?”
Àlex: Exactly, that is one of the challenges and it looks difficult to spot. One of the questions we get most often is, “How do you know whether your employees are working?” Well, because we speak a lot with them. If our employees are not good at communicating there is strongly something wrong.
Because there is a lot of communication going on with all of our employees and inside the company, we found a couple ex-employees in the past who probably had different priorities and they were just not delivering what they were expected to. They will be the ones communicating it. If you see that somebody is every day, every week consistently and constantly saying: “Hey now I’m out for two hours,” and “I need to take this break,” then “On Friday morning I will not be working. I will catch up on the weekend.” If it happens always, that person has got probably a prioritization problem that needs to be addressed. Sometimes we were able to correct it and we have helped these people and we have solved the situation. But in a couple of cases it was not possible. It was just not the right people to comprehend. Coincidentally it happened that they were the least experienced developers because they did not have the discipline and the self-management that you acquire over years of experience.
Marc: As time is advancing maybe let us come to two questions regarding the challenges and chances that come with the Digital Transformation. What would you say is the is the biggest challenge that comes with the digital transformation?
Àlex: I think that most people, most companies are now willing to invest in it. It might be really hard for a company to find out that they are deprecated, that they are outdated, and their tools with whom they have been running the company or their projects or whatever for so many years like 10, 15, 20 years they need to be replaced.
That replacement will come with a cost. They did a major investment in the past and it probably took a lot of time for them to rewrite, or to hire somebody to build all these tools. They just do not want to do it again. It is a lot of responsibility. What happens if it goes wrong? Big budget. It will change the company. It will definitely impact on how you run the organization for better or worse.
I think the biggest challenge is to make people understand that businesses as pretty much everything in life need to evolve. And everything has got a time. We have seen some companies that are running on top of systems. For instance one of the big multinationals we are talking to right now, they are running on software that was built in 1989.
The worst part is they haven’t even changed the front end. So the front end has been only a little bit updated. This is surprising because I don’t know how these things can still run. I think this is one of the biggest challenges: making people understand that this is not just a nice to have. It is probably something you really need to do.
Marc: That is a very interesting perspective. Talking about chances, what is the biggest chance you see coming with the digital transformation?
Àlex: I think there are a lot of them. By running Startup Grind and then and also this company you get to see lots of trends and tendencies in the market. One of the things I am really fascinated about is how tools can be interconnected nowadays. It was not possible before SAS.
Tools like Zapier for instance allow you to integrate your GitHub to Trello, to send an email to these clients, and then publish or push a commit here and then save something to Dropbox. You can automate things with just one click and for a fraction of the price that it used to be some years ago.
Definitely one of the disadvantages or one of the things I’m most excited about is to see these advances because you know we are saying that the algorithms every year increase significantly in performance and in speed and then machine learning is also allowing us to go to unprecedented levels of image identification and things like that. Or in terms of cybersecurity having unbreachable systems. Things like blockchain coming over so definitely there is a lot of things I am really excited about.
But the one that really affects me the most is how we are able to interconnect these things so rapidly and so efficient and this at a fraction of the costs that it was some years ago.
Marc: And now to the last question, our motto is “Being Human with Algorithms”. What does this slogan mean to you? Being a human in a world that is full of algorithms?
Àlex: That is a very tricky question. I am an engineer and I tend to see the world as it is full of algorithms and things we probably don’t perceive as such. I think most of the things we have built in society are already algorithms. Maybe not automated but the way people perform some workflows as in predicting the weather for instance. There has always been something like that. Or even how the planets move around, and how to predict the season changes, and the calendar.
There have always been algorithms up there. They just changed in the shape and they have been improved. I think nowadays people are getting more and more acquainted and familiarize with the fact that technology is changing our lives. Some generations ago it was just for a certain elite; for people working in the industry, or politicians, or technologists.
Nowadays everybody is using applications like Uber, like Tinder, Deliveroo, whatever. These people are able to perceive that technology. Even Amazon they know that through technology they are able to order something and have it in 24 hours at the door, or to order a cab and anticipate the cab will be waiting downstairs.
Probably with the education or the lack thereof people from some generations ago they would not understand how that works. It is important to realize this global change, to know and acknowledge that technology is the cause or base that will eventually bring many benefits for the generations to come.
Marc: Wonderful. It is really a pity that you cannot make it next week on September 20 and 21st to our symposium. It would have been really great having you there. I am happy that we did the interview! You brought up some very nice perspectives!
Thank you very much for the interview Àlex. All the best! I hope we will continue speaking soon again.
Àlex: Thanks it has been my pleasure! Whatever I can do to help just let me know. Good luck with symposium.