When people talk about what Starcity offers, they usually focus on the communities of people who live together in any of our buildings. It takes a village of experts to build these communities — we need people who excel in real estate development, construction, hospitality, community building, and building maintenance just to open up a new coliving home. But it takes another team of experts working behind the scenes to improve the experience of those who live in our communities — our software engineering team.
Our engineers are working on software products that take the stress out of finding a place to live. They’re building a membership application that makes finding a new home as simple as booking a flight. They’ve crafted a member experience that lets members pay their rent online and get a little extra help when they need it. They’re continually looking for opportunities to use technology to help our members to feel more connected to the people in their home and in their surrounding neighborhood.
As Starcity opens more and larger communities, the software needs of our company become greater in both number and complexity. In order to meet this need, we’ve added a lot of faces to our local team. We’re also growing our team by adding a cohort of software developers overseas.
The challenges of working with a distributed team
Remote, offshore software development is by no means a new practice. Companies ranging from small startups to tech giants like Apple and Microsoft have relied on external partnerships with remote development companies for decades. But it’s not a perfect system — there are a number of challenges that make working with offshore teams difficult.
Many challenges boil down to the differences in time zones. It’s hard to coordinate projects when some of your team members are starting their work day while the rest of them are just going to bed. Unaligned working hours can also lead to poor communication, as asking questions and getting help, which should be instantaneous, instead turn into days-long processes. This leads to slower developer cycles, less shared knowledge of the codebase, and a sense of disconnection and distrust among the software development team.
When we made the decision to introduce offshore developers into our team, we knew we would need to figure out how to do offshore development in a way that minimizes these challenges while also staying true to our core values.
Our first partnership
For our first foray into offshore development, we partnered with Andela, a company that trains software developers throughout Africa and places those developers in working partnerships with companies all across the world. One of our investors recommended Andela to us, and we quickly discovered that it was a great match.
Andela shares many of the same core values that we have. They are keenly aware of the challenges many companies face with geographically distributed teams. Their experience in remote work has led them to develop practices and support systems that help the companies they partner with address many of these challenges and also enable their developers to do their best work.
Eager to start our partnership, we brought on Cecilia Wahome, our first Andela developer, in April 2018. Cecilia took ownership of the maintenance and development of our public website, which was written in Clojure and included a number of integrations that make it easy for visitors to check out our communities, schedule tours, and connect with our Starcity team for more info. Along the way, she learned Clojure and began sharing what she was learning with other developers in her Andela community.
What makes our offshore development partnership work
There are several factors that make our partnership with Andela succeed in ways that many offshore development partnerships falter.
- Overlapping schedules – Our partner developers in Lagos and Nairobi start their work day in the late afternoon/early evening, around the same time that our team in San Francisco arrives in the office. This overlap allows us to include them in company- and team-wide meetings, and it lets them have real-time conversations via Slack or Zoom with other members of the team. They are able to get help or clarification quickly and be treated as equal participants in important discussions concerning our team projects.
- Strong communication skills – Andela’s intensive training process covers more than just technical proficiency — it also trains people in communication and empathy skills. Because of this, our partner developers arrive with excellent written and verbal communication skills. They know how to give and receive feedback well, and they are able to articulate and defend their ideas clearly.
- Face-to-face time – Early on in each partner developer’s engagement with Starcity, they are able to visit our offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. They get to meet the rest of the team, see and experience our community members’ experiences first-hand, and enjoy some bonding activities with each other and the rest of the company. Our developers come away from this experience feeling a strong sense of connection to our members and our mission. Recently, leaders from our Engineering and Product departments were able to visit them in Nairobi, where they were gracious hosts. We learned a lot about their culture, their campus, and their day-to-day lives that we don’t ordinarily see in Zoom or Slack.
- Inclusion – Many companies look at offshore development as a way to patch holes in their team. We’ve chosen instead to have our partner developers woven into the fabric of our team. They own team projects, processes, and culture with the rest of our in-HQ team. They participated alongside the rest of the Starcity team in our most recent Core Values Offsite, offering their insights and perspectives as we formed our current set of core values. They’re more than just “contract developers” — they’re essential and beloved parts of the team.
We’re really proud of the partnership we’ve forged with our team both at home and across the world. Our engineers are collectively working together to build software that simplifies the coliving experience for our applicants, members, and staff. There’s still lots of work to do, though! We’re hiring more engineers to join our team in San Francisco. If you want to help us make great cities accessible to everyone, check our careers page and get in touch with us!