Essential tools for our remote engineering team
Building a top-notch product requires teamwork and collaboration. For Curology’s distributed engineering team, we’ve carefully selected tools through trial and error to encourage a team-centric, collaborative culture. In this post, I’d like to share our current set of tools we use on our team. For each tool, I’ve also provided more context on other tools we’ve used and why we migrated away from them!
I also believe in a concept called “tool fatigue,” where your team can have so many tools that either productivity is reduced or information is forcefully fragmented. We intentionally narrowed down our portfolio of tools, and think carefully before adding any additional ones.
Tools that encourage asynchronous collaboration
As a remote team, having an “async first” mindset is critical. We’re spread over 6 timezones, which means we only have 2 hours of overlap per day. In addition, we try our best to protect uninterrupted focus time for our engineers. Here are some tools we use to encourage the async mindset.
The product engineering team’s primary role is to write code for our web application. Not only is GitHub our version control system, but it also facilitates our code review process. Read about all their features that help the code review process here! We love using GitHub so much that we also use their code review process to facilitate architectural discussions on it in a dedicated repository.
Hot tip: I highly recommend having your team use Pull Panda‘s Pull Reminders feature to get individual notifications on outstanding code reviews. Each person gets to control how often and under what condition they are notified:
Since product engineers are embedded in cross-functional teams, we use Asana for our task management system. It doesn’t quite have everything an engineering team needs, like a tight integration to GitHub and burndown charts, but we figured out that having our entire product team in Asana has tremendous benefits.
Archives: In the past, we’ve used Trello and Pivotal Tracker. Trello felt too basic and was limited to kanban boards, whereas Pivotal Tracker felt too engineer-y and coupled too tightly with an agile process.
As engineers, we don’t use Figma too often, but it allows us to easily collaborate with the design team and see up-to-date designs.
Archives: We used Sketch, but navigating DropBox to find the latest version of the design was a nightmare. In addition, trying to ask questions about a specific part of the design was difficult. We would have to screenshot the design, send it over Slack, and then use a different tool to collaborate. Figma solved these problems and our design team loves it.
On a remote team, documentation is key. Luckily, most of Curology has adopted Notion as their go-to Wiki. Notion has a lot of flexibility in how you organize your files, links & references between documents, and a robust search to find that one document you wrote 3 years ago. On top of that, you can collaborate on a document with either their web or native app. In Curology’s Notion space, you can find feature documentation, team rosters, onboarding checklists, brainstorming notes, postmortems—the list goes on and on.
Archives: We used to use Google Docs as our documentation. However, as the number of employees grew, this became unwieldy. We still use Google Docs when it makes sense to, but we definitely default to Notion.
Pretty much every startup in the Bay Area uses Slack so I won’t get too into it. I think the real power of Slack comes with apps that you can install into your workspace to better integrate with the other tools listed here.
*I’d also like to point out that Slack is an async communication tool (excluding their “call” feature). Some people would have you believe that you must answer Slack messages immediately, but the truth is, you should respond to messages only when they don’t disrupt your workflow.
Archives: We tried out Tandem for a bit. I think the tool has a ton of potential to bring seamless collaboration to the remote space, but we didn’t get a critical mass on it, so it ended up being a failed experiment.
Direct communication tools
We use Zoom for our meetings. It connects us, it’s stable with 100 people in a room, and it has a touch-up feature that makes my skin look like I’ve been using Curology since I was born.
Hot tip: One of the biggest gripes I had with team meetings is that the webcam was mounted on top of the TV and everyone looked like an ant. I highly recommend Owl Lab’s Meeting Owl. The Owl has a 360 degrees camera that will intelligently focus on the speaker.
Another hot tip: Add the Zoom integration to your calendar tool. We use G Suite, so having Zoom for Google Calendar lets us attach a Zoom room to a meeting invite with a click of a button.
Archives: For the engineering team, we used Tuple to do remote pair programming. While Tuple worked great, we felt that you could get similar results using Zoom’s screen share functionality. I also liked that whoever is sharing is driving while the other navigates, whereas Tuple lets both engineers drive fluidly.
Since our organization runs on top of Google’s G Suite, we use Google Calendar. One super useful tool we’ve found is Clockwise. There are a ton of settings you can play with, but it basically optimizes your calendar to block out focus time. When there are chunks of free time, it will automatically create a calendar event—appropriately called “Focus Time”—which results in fewer people breaking up your day into small slivers of heads-down time.
They have more cool features like meeting “auto-pilot” and weekly reports of your meeting vs. focus time. I highly recommend this free tool for your team!
With most of our team being remote, we need to give people an excuse to schedule time with each other to get to know one another. Donut is a Slack bot that can facilitate random pairings amongst teams. Ultimately, it’s up to the teammates to schedule a time to meet, but Donut helps our team connect for casual “coffee” chats as well as pair programming sessions. And yes, you can grab a real donut during a Donut pair!
Here at Curology, we believe that providing the right tools can make a big impact on a team and help shape that particular team’s culture. I hope you were able to gain some insight on our journey of selecting useful tools. I would also love to learn about tools that other teams use. Please get in touch with me through LinkedIn!
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