In early February, I moved to New York City and was on the job hunt. But though I was lucky to receive and accept an offer just before the coronavirus pandemic began to shut down the entire city, little did I know that all the new, exciting, and nerve-wracking prospects of starting a new job were soon to become an entirely different kind of challenge.
I had what seemed to be a solid plan: live in temporary accommodation for a few weeks while looking for a job, then find an apartment and get settled into the city. At the time, the coronavirus was making headlines in distant parts of the world. I felt no urgency or concern about it.
A month later, as I was in the middle of on-site interviews for software engineering jobs, concerns around the virus suddenly loomed larger. A Google office in Zurich had a confirmed case, and was shutting down. Twitter was encouraging employees to work from home. A friend tweeted that he had learned about a Facebook conference being canceled—as he was midair on the flight to that conference. The virus had not reached any significant levels in the U.S. or been declared a worldwide pandemic, but it was knocking on the door.
I managed to complete four on-site interviews in person, but each of those offices closed just days after my interview. My last one, with the language-learning app Duolingo, took place in Pittsburgh, on Monday, March 9. The company still sponsored the travel even as it offered the possibility of a fully remote interview. Because I strongly prefer to see offices in person, I decided to travel to Pittsburgh. The airport was noticeably empty and relaxed, and I had a free seat next to me on the plane. Some travelers were wearing masks, but they were definitely in the minority.
Before interviewing, I knew and loved Duolingo’s product, which made me more excited about working there. However, it was the internal culture that really sold me: Each day, 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. was a sacred hour reserved for lunch, which many employees spent together in the dining area. Everyone I spoke with had a story of how Duolingo’s CEO and senior leadership were present, accessible, and highly respected within the company. The people I encountered were friendly and warm, and it seemed like they really enjoyed working there too. I was sold. I accepted the offer later that week and was scheduled to start on Monday, March 16, in the still-open New York office.
I wondered what it would be like to start work without a friendly open-office environment and face-to-face interaction.
Just a few hours after I signed my offer, I learned that my new office was closing as well and that I would have to onboard remotely. My consolation prize was an invitation to an engineering dinner that night; my last chance to see the team in person. Jameel, the onboarding coordinator, rushed to send me my laptop and a remote care package overnight from Pittsburgh so I would be ready to go Monday morning. I was daunted by the thought of onboarding without having anyone nearby to whom I could ask questions. I wondered what it would be like to start work without a friendly open-office environment and face-to-face interaction.
Despite these concerns, I was thankful to be starting a job at all during such a turbulent time, especially with the growing unemployment rate across the U.S. The coronavirus has forced many businesses that depend on in-person service to close, leaving millions out of work. Luckily, Duolingo was one of the companies that has been very well equipped to continue most work remotely. Moreover, to meet its hiring and growth goals for the year, it had to continue bringing people on and onboarding them, even remotely—leading to situations like mine.
Before my first day, I spent time over the weekend configuring my laptop, Slack, and email. Come Monday, I unceremoniously logged on to attend my first meeting at 10 a.m. Due to a last-minute change to be online 15 minutes earlier for introductions, I adjusted by eating my last pancake with my laptop on the couch instead of sprinting from the train.
Everything went very smoothly that morning; Jameel had worked overtime that weekend converting in-person onboarding sessions to Zoom ones. But the awkward differences between in-person and remote work became especially clear once lunchtime came around. Our biweekly all-hands meeting at noon ran as scheduled on Zoom, but afterward, instead of grabbing a plate from the buffet and eating lunch with my new colleagues, I stared at my half-empty fridge and realized I’d have to make an alternate plan. Fortunately, Duolingo had planned for that already by adding a lunch allowance to each paycheck and encouraging employees to support local restaurants. Further, that all-hands meeting was the first remote one for the whole company, which meant that we were all adjusting together to this new reality of remote work. We listened as our CEO called for increased empathy and understanding for others, especially parents and caregivers.
While the company kept a lot of the traditions going digitally, it definitely was not the same over Zoom.
Other team meetings and one-on-ones also went on as planned. But with the backdrop of an otherwise quiet apartment, each felt like a jarring context switch from my other work. I missed the informal open-office banter that I was used to, which was usually slightly distracting but ironically important in getting me into a productive mindset. I really value the opportunity to get to know my team and the office culture, and while the company kept a lot of the traditions going digitally, it definitely was not the same over Zoom.
The lack of office collaboration was especially apparent anytime I had a simple problem or question that I would normally turn to my neighbor to resolve. Now, I had to spend 20 to 30 minutes on Google trying to solve it myself, or post on Slack for help. That’s partly a software engineer-specific challenge: Joining a new company means learning a new code base and architecture, as well as a new set of engineering practices such as how to merge and deploy code.
Adjusting to working from home presented some challenges in itself. It was easier to get distracted, and with no one around I sometimes worked later into the night than I normally would. Our employee experience team did their best to bridge that transition by sending out helpful tips, such as setting an alarm at the end of the workday, and “commuting” by taking a walk before and after work, but admittedly, I did not follow many of those consistently. To make matters worse, as a new employee, I felt less productive than I otherwise would, and worried constantly about not meeting my team’s expectations. My manager did his best to reassure me that I was doing great, but I couldn’t stop the nagging feeling that I wasn’t keeping up.
At the end of my first week, Duolingo’s NYC office got together for a Friday afternoon Zoom happy hour. After being cooped up at home for a week, everyone had a lot to share. It helped that people’s thumbnail displays were labeled with their names, sort of like a virtual name tag. Personalities still shined through, and it felt comforting to be among a group of people who seemed to know and like each other. Given the circumstances, I was thrilled with the connections I had made with my coworkers that week. It felt good to toast from behind a computer screen, knowing that we were keeping our community safe while still enjoying each others’ company.
As the weeks have passed, I’ve adjusted to Duolingo’s work processes and culture and settled into a remote work rhythm. But while I’m getting to know the team slowly over Zoom, I can’t wait to get back to a real office and finally meet everyone in person once the pandemic is finally over.
Sean Scott is a software engineer at Duolingo.