SmartNews Software Engineer Discusses His Remote-Work Systems and Routines
With amazing generosity and candor, Bohdan gave us an inside look at what it’s like to work remotely from Ukraine for one of Japan’s hottest unicorn startups.
Whether you’re a newbie at the remote-work lifestyle or you’ve been at it for years, this conversation is a master class (there, we’ve said it! 😄) on the topic.
Bohdan not only introduces tools, apps, and books to get you going, but also provides a systems-thinking approach for smoothing out the rough edges surrounding remote work challenges.
If this weren’t an interview, we’d relabel it “Your Everything Guide to Nailing Your Remote Work Job,” because his tips are precisely said, time-tested, and far-reaching.
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Tell us a little about yourself and your journey to your current role as Senior Software Engineer at SmartNews!
BOHDAN TERETA: So the journey to my current role took around 10 years. Since the time I got a Master's degree in Economical Cybernetics I’ve been working as a full stack software engineer / tech lead at various companies: from small agencies to Fortune 500 giants like Ericsson and ABB.
Over that period of time, I’ve accumulated knowledge in different areas. While at the beginning of my career I did more backend-related work, recently I do mostly frontend. I also worked on video games, business intelligence systems, machine learning, devops tasks, did some project and team management and so on. I like the synergetic effect of the skills. When the skills from different areas complement each other and allow you to better understand the client's needs and the system as a whole that you’re going to build as a software engineer.
I was always interested in Japanese culture and wanted to learn the language and relocate to Japan.
Another thing I am always looking for is “to work on meaningful projects which will have an impact worldwide and define how our world will look like in the future".
I’m not entirely sure which website I discovered the Smartnews job at. It might have been japan-dev.com. What matters is I decided to apply.
For those who don’t know what kind of company Smartnews is, here’s the short explanation. Smartnews was founded in 2012 by Ken Suzuki and Kaisei Hamamoto. So we are a 9-year-old startup. Our valuation reached $1 billion in 2019. And it exceeded $2 billion this year. Which is pretty impressive, I’d say. Couldn’t be done without a talented team behind it. We can call ourselves a news aggregator. And we are very popular in Japan. Our ambitious mission is to “deliver the world’s quality information to the people who need it”.
So the main decision factors at the time when I thought about joining Smartnews were:
1. Desire to have an impact.
I am always looking to “work on meaningful projects which will have an impact worldwide and define how our world will look like in the future". In a small agency, your impact is quite limited, you usually can’t do big enough projects simply because you don’t have resources. In a big corporation, your impact will most likely be limited again but because of a different reason. When the size of a business is so big (unless you are a high level executive) no matter your effort, your impact will be limited to a very small part of the system. And coordinating efforts between departments becomes too complicated. So companies like Smartnews are somewhere in the middle: big enough to influence the millions of users but small enough to have good communication and support innovations.
2. Desire to grow and work with talented and motivated people.
Our hiring process is considered quite hard. I went through it myself. But it allows us to select the best engineers. It’s during the interviews where I learned a lot about the people I was going to work with, their knowledge and motivations. The better the people around you, the bigger the goals you can achieve as a team. And the faster you will all grow as there’s no end to learning. I like sharing what I know and learning from others.
3. Interest in Japanese culture.
I was always interested in Japanese culture and wanted to relocate to Japan. Well, I’ve been trying to learn the language a little by myself and I’ve just started to study it at Coto academy this month. As for the relocation part, we will get back to it later in this interview.
4. Overlapping cultural values.
This one is simple, our mission and our corporate values, “for the common good”, “have appreciation”, “be the owner” resonated with the values I had. Also, the news aggregation industry is interesting by itself and allows using a lot of machine learning, data processing and data presentation principles. I also like how we manage things in a “silicon-valley” style which allows the initiative to flow from the “bottom-up”. And I like that while having around 500 employees, we still have a kinda “startup” feeling.
5. Brand, popularity and reputation of the company.
I did my fair share of background checks and research to understand the company I was going to work for. And I was satisfied with the results.
So we understand that you work remotely from Ukraine. Was that originally the plan to work remotely, or were you going to come to Japan but then things got in the way?
BOHDAN: Right, I work remotely from Ukraine. Let me explain how it happened.
So I got an offer in January 2021. And we decided I will join Smartnews in May 2021 which would give me enough time to finish the projects I had at the previous company and hand over things. And the idea was I will go to Japan. But with the COVID situation worsening and Japan closing its borders in January, we figured out it wasn’t possible for me to get to Japan in time.
So we decided I will work remotely from Ukraine instead. I’ve been working remotely for around 5 years before so this is nothing new to me :)
Now, 7 months have passed since that time, and I am still working remotely from Ukraine. Hopefully, borders will reopen around the beginning of next year so I can finally relocate to Japan.
Actually, as a response to COVID, as far as I know, most of our personnel at Smartnews work remotely now. And we managed to make the processes work completely fine.
So I think even after relocating to Japan, I will continue to work full-time remotely. We have a good policy on remote working. And I think that’s simply a more effective way of working in regards to the things I do. Although I may visit our cool offices in Tokyo when I feel like it.
What has been the most challenging aspect for you with working remotely as a software engineer?
BOHDAN: The most challenging aspect for me is to transition the onsite team into a remote working one. Set up all processes and tools. Make sure communication and knowledge sharing works fine. Make sure that all the team members are comfortable with it. People need to better manage their own time and rely on asynchronous communication more in remote working which can be a challenge itself, depending on the person.
After the transition is done, it’s much easier. Just pay some attention when a new team member is onboarded.
Now, I can even ask myself the opposite question: “What is the most challenging aspect for me to work in the office?”
Oh, and with Smartnews I have one more small challenge: my timezone is 6 to 7 hours behind the Japanese one. So I deal with it like this: I start work early in the morning. My local time is midday Japanese time. So I use the first half of the day for meetings. Which is quite enough if we plan it wisely.
Was there anything new you have discovered about yourself, your personality, or the way you think about work since you started full-remote work?
BOHDAN: I’ve been working full-time in the office during my early career. Then I shifted to half-time remotely and finally to full-time.
I noticed that I can work remotely even more productively than while working in the office. That was quite the discovery.
Of course, not every job can be done remotely. But for software engineers particularly, I see no limits.
I learned that I can efficiently communicate with the team and stakeholders without needing to be physically present in the office.
That I can concentrate on work without being present in the office as well. In fact, there’s even less distractions and noise while working from home.
Furthermore, I don’t need to spend time getting to the office. I think remote work gives much more freedom and makes you stronger in self-management skills.
Any favorite remote work tools/apps or processes or routines that make your day-to-day life easier/more convenient?
BOHDAN: As for the apps, I recommend:
Slack - all the communication
Notion - for knowledge database and asynchronous meeting
JIRA - for tickets handling, backlog, boards
Interactio - if you can organize a meeting translation service using this app, that helps
Kiara translation bot for auto-translating Slack messages
Any kind of notes application you prefer for taking quick personal notes
As for tools:
Fast macbook (if your company uses mac os mostly) or any other fast laptop otherwise. Get the best one you can.
At least one big screen (recommend 27 inches 4k screen), working all the time on a laptop screen is much less comfortable.
Separate room for work, if possible. This helps to divide work and non-work time. E.g. you leave the room, you change the context. That’s really important for work-life balance, don’t underestimate it.
(Optional) Good external mic, webcam for better meeting audio/video quality and graphical tablet at desk to draw things (still working on those).
Clockwise shows when your team members are busy and helps schedule meetings.
Make sure all the people in the meeting have received an agenda and invitation beforehand. Basically, any offline meeting can be done remotely.
If you need a quick answer, know your Slack channels and use them appropriately.
And here goes a cool practice from Smartnews. We do asynchronous meetings. That means for some meetings we have a corresponding document with agenda, announcement and discussion sections. While doing a meeting, we write notes and decisions there. So people from other time zones which didn’t attend the meeting can read them later and write a response. Which I can read and respond to again. We do video recording for the same reason as well.
One important thing is to learn good planning of your activities with the assumption that there will be a communication delay. So ask questions beforehand. And have alternative tasks ready for while you’re waiting for the answer.
As for routines, I recommend having a todo list of tasks for each day. And lists of tasks for longer periods. So every day you end up dumping the things not finished into tomorrow’s list. And every day you start from opening the list and setting priorities. During the day, you remove/add things to your list as you finish things.
As simple as it sounds, it serves two purposes: 1. Organise and prioritise your tasks; 2. Free your memory/conscience from remembering all the things and so increase work-life balance. As you end work, you don’t need to keep work tasks in mind as they’re safely recorded in your list.
This goes down to the “getting things done” methodology; I will share a link later in the interview.
What has been your favorite part of working for a startup like SmartNews?
BOHDAN: Maybe the most favourite thing is feeling that the project / feature you’ve been actively working on is in production, works and looks as expected and that millions of people enjoy using it.
Any resources/books/podcasts episodes you want to recommend around the topic of collaboration or remote work or working with a Japanese company that you’ve found helpful?
BOHDAN: I read quite a lot of books, but maybe I’ll mention these two for now:
“Getting things done” by David Allen - universal insights into how to be more productive, applies to remote work as well.
“High output management” by Andrew Growe - if you’re interested in a managerial career, that covers a lot of topics you will need.
What’s your favorite piece of advice either that you’ve received or that you like to give to those in your industry who are considering a remote work opportunity?
BOHDAN: Maybe this one? I learned that it’s “better to overcommunicate than undercommunicate” and that “good news can wait, bad news can not”, I believe, from Mike, the CEO from my previous company, TGA Digital, and these principles can’t be underestimated in remote working.
If you ask for extra advice from me, I’d simply say, “If you’re thinking about working remotely, just do it. Most likely you will really enjoy it." Hope this interview will help people to choose new remote work opportunities.
Biggest work/life learning in 2021?
BOHDAN: I can successfully work for a Japanese company (Smartnews) without knowing the language (but I will learn the language anyways).
Sometimes it takes more time to get a visa than to get a job ;) (waiting for 9 months already).
Most interesting eye-opening business news you’ve read in 2021?
BOHDAN: Smartnews raises $230 million (think I am repeating myself).
Facebook announces metaverse (future possibilities are amazing).
Any questions we did not ask you that we should have?
BOHDAN: Nothing at the moment, we’ve discussed quite a lot today. Thanks for the interview.
Connect with Bohdan Tereta on Linkedin here.