Before I joined Proton, I was someway into a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. After many nights in the lab, I had realized this path wasn’t for me. When I got a call from Benj, our CEO, one evening and he told me I was being offered the data scientist position at Proton, I didn’t have to think twice. I took one week, which also coincided with spring break at my university, to figure out the logistics of leaving a PhD program and set my start date for the coming Monday. Little did I know that day would also be in the middle of a global pandemic, and the company’s very first day of work from home.
I had been to the office once before, for my interview with Joseph and Olivia, our CTO and head of infrastructure. I knew where to go, so I was up by 6:30, out the door by 7:30, and arrived at the office around 8:00. I wanted to get in early for a good first impression. I wasn’t sure if Proton had gone remote. Call it first day nerves: I was worried about asking and so I didn’t. I arrived at the Harvard Innovation Lab to find the doors locked. I thought to myself, “Maybe I am just very early.” A gentleman came to the door after I rang the doorbell and asked me who I was looking for. I explained that I had just joined Proton. “Oh, didn’t you know they are all working from home?” I remember his response almost word for word.
I quickly checked my calendar, saw that I had my onboarding meeting with Joseph in 30 minutes, and suddenly my plan to make a good impression was crumbling right in front of me. No choice, I called an Uber and hoped I would get home in time. I made it in the nick of time, and here I am, almost a year later.
I still haven’t worked in an office. Last March, I was the only one at Proton who had come on board remotely. Very quickly as the company kept growing new people joined, and this has become a common experience. I am sure many people now can relate — perhaps even you, dear reader.
There are definitely a lot of perks to working from home and I’m sure many of us already know what they are. There are also some, not necessarily downsides, but differences worth mentioning.
One such difference, that became apparent to me within the first couple of months or so, was how friendships are formed when you’ve only met people via Google Meets calls. I noticed this when answering a company-wide wellness survey. While I had friends at Proton — basically the entire team — I could not help but feel that until I actually hang out with people in person, the friendships may not live up to their potential. It is very hard to explain a feeling in a text document, but what I can say is that as someone who never really had friends online, since I never played online games or did anything similar, there is a noticeable, but subtle difference in the friendships that are formed.
Having said that, what I’ve been very impressed that the e-friendships I’ve formed so far have been stronger than those I had in the lab where I used to work. I would attribute that part to the wonderful team we have, but also to the effort that the more management-oriented people at Proton have put in to make the work-from-home environment as close to an in-person environment as possible. An example of that would be how through determination and with many health safety policies, I have met a couple of people thanks to some small outings, once outdoor dining was allowed or events like Poker nights. Nothing helps break the ice more than winning the pot at on a Wednesday night in your first two weeks at the company.
The second noticeable difference I would describe as the onboarding question, for lack of a better term. Naturally there is a period of time where you need to figure out what goes where, how this model works, or how the data are stored. In my past experience, I would just walk up to someone and ask. If the person has time they take the five minutes to explain some things to you, and they point you in the right direction. When you first start those questions come up very frequently, or at least they did for me. When this phase of your job is remote is that it’s not quite as easy as walking over to one of your colleagues’ desks. Slack is great basic questions — “Where can I find so and so function?” — but not so great for more complicated questions. That’s totally fine: you schedule a call, you ask your questions and you go about the rest of your day. Until another question pops up. Or you realize you didn’t quite understand something. You can schedule another call, but there is always that quiet, but still noticeable thought at the back of your mind saying “I should probably not waste people’s entire day with my questions.” When I first joined, some Elasticsearch queries looked almost as cryptic as the famous Kryptos statue.
It took some time to get through that, and I think that everyone was (and still is!) as helpful as they possibly could be. So here I am today, writing Elasticsearch queries at the speed of light. Looking back, I think having less of that crutch, of just asking someone all the time, pushed me to spend more time figuring things out on my own and as a pleasant side-effect helped me build a deeper understanding and occasionally find some bugs.
For the sake of having three things, I will mention one more difference. I don’t think it’s as big as the previous two, but it’s a difference nonetheless. Water cooler chats, or rather their absence. Nothing quite beats standing around a coffee machine laughing with friends for 10 or 15 minutes before going back to work. For whatever reason that’s the place where your energy reserves are boosted, you feel like you slept eight more hours, and are then ready to take on the world. To try and re-create that atmosphere, we’ve been doing short “Coffee Chats,” an unstructured chat one-on-one with someone from the company. Those have been nice little breaks from work to catch up with other members of our team. They also come with the added benefit of being able to supply your own beverage, which is great for me since I don’t drink coffee.
To end this rather lengthy blog post, I will preempt the question that some may be asking: Does this mean that starting a new job in the middle, or possibly the end-ish part of, a global pandemic is worse than starting a job in a regular setting? Most certainly, not! It’s different, as one might expect, but it isn’t worse by any means. My two cents on this issue: it’s crucial to pick a company that will do things similar to what Proton is doing, that’s adjusting to a new reality. As long as you do your part, I think it can open many new, and most importantly, interesting-looking doors. On this note, it’s not yet clear what the future holds, but I am eagerly awaiting for the day that I can meet more people in person. In the meantime, we’ll continue this crazy experiment.