Paul Vallée of Tehama: “Technical onboarding”

Technical onboarding: Creating a technical environment that allows secure sharing of enterprise data with remote workers is difficult, especially when remote work must happen urgently (like what we saw happen at the outset of the COVID pandemic, or now as we attempt to scale up secure contact tracing capacity). As a part of our series […]

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Technical onboarding: Creating a technical environment that allows secure sharing of enterprise data with remote workers is difficult, especially when remote work must happen urgently (like what we saw happen at the outset of the COVID pandemic, or now as we attempt to scale up secure contact tracing capacity).

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Vallée.

Paul Vallée is the founder and CEO of Tehama and a serial entrepreneur who has spent his career at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies that enable the exchange of work over the Internet.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your backstory?

Absolutely. My career has been defined by a personal vision from the start: to enable anyone to work from anywhere. But I’ll start this story back when I was in my twenties, working with a Canadian satellite communications company called Telesat Mobile. They had a shared satellite control room and server room in the basement, and since I wasn’t certified on the satellite kit, I couldn’t enter unescorted — even though it was my job to manage the dozen enterprise servers within it. So, we figured out how to manage enterprise servers without physically being in front of them by leveraging Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) technology, which permitted me to work on these servers in the basement from the third floor of the building.

I soon realized there’s absolutely no difference between managing a server using TCP/IP from the third floor of the same building, as there is to doing it anywhere in the world. And in 1997 this led me to found Pythian, a data-centric services business with a focus on remote work. We were the first business to apply IPsec Virtual Private Networking technology to secure client/service provider relationships. This breakthrough led to an entire market segment for VPN companies: the extranet. But my remote work journey didn’t stop there. While looking for talent to operate the valuable systems and data infrastructure of Pythian clientele, the pool of candidates with the right experience in our geographic region was small. We needed to hire globally, and soon we had employed hundreds of engineers working from home in 34 countries. Pythian’s remote work tools evolved to become Tehama, a highly differentiated Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) platform that enables companies to create and orchestrate a virtual workforce of any size and scale. In 2019, Tehama spun out of Pythian to become a fully independent company, and I’m currently the CEO and have redoubled my commitment to remote work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My most interesting career story came in the early days of the design phase for Tehama, back in 2007. We wanted to build our virtual desktop on Windows, but the licensing costs for that use case were unbelievably expensive (this problem is resolved now and Tehama runs Windows, don’t worry!) We ended up having to go to our fallback plan — which was Linux — but before going straight to Linux I looked into MacOS. And I soon discovered you couldn’t virtualize anything on MacOS due to licensing restrictions. I called their enterprise sales team and had an extremely frustrating conversation with them. That led me to email Steve Jobs directly using his famously public email address, [email protected]. I voiced my frustrations and assumed it would go nowhere. But a half hour after I sent it my phone rang. I could not believe who was on the other end:

Paul, it’s Steve.”

“Steve who?”

“Steve Jobs”

We ended up talking for half an hour. We talked about how virtualization is the future and how it would be especially crucial in the enterprise. Although we disagreed on our stances at the end, it was a great and memorable conversation. About six weeks later Apple announced it had changed its licensing strategy, and that they were permitting Macs to be virtualized for the first time ever. I have no illusions that I was responsible for that change, but I must admit, I have wondered. This is no longer part of their strategy today, but it’s a very interesting point in my career history and an experience that I’ll always look back on fondly.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This may not be the funniest mistake necessarily, but the biggest mistake I made early on was founding Pythian without a partnership agreement. I founded the organization with a friend 50/50, which set me up for a lot of unnecessary volatility and legal battles. Another organizational mistake I made was bootstrapping Tehama as a part of Pythian, when it could have been a sister company from the start. We ended up having a large and ambitious venture-style business (Tehama) that was bolted onto this large services business (Pythian). They had completely different valuation metrics and business models, but most strikingly, they had completely different pools of capital and investment interest. No venture capitalist would invest in Tehama because it had a 50 million dollars services business attached to it, and no private equity firm would invest in Pythian because it had a venture-stage business unit attached to it. In the end, separating both businesses was an excruciating process. The lesson learned was that first and foremost, every business should have an innovation agenda. Innovation can’t be precisely planned, but you must be extremely organized for when innovation and rapid growth does happen. I also learned that it’s much better to spin out on your own in the startup phase, (with fewer than ten employees). We did it successfully (while fundraising, I should mention), but it was a stressful process that I wish we had started earlier.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Due to COVID-19, we’ve proven the viability of enterprises to operate in a fully remote environment. But there are problems that we must anticipate to avoid long-term corporate damage. First, remote workplaces can present difficult challenges for rookies: when a new hire joins a remote workplace it’s very difficult for them to get their bearings, build out their social network within the company, and connect emotionally with the company’s mission. Businesses must anticipate how hard onboarding new hires remotely will be and must put structures in place to help counter those feelings of disconnection. For example, organizations should assign mentors for new hires. The ideal mentor is a peer at the same career stage that joined the company 6–12 months prior.

It’s also great to assign new hires a major task that no one else in the organization has ever done as their first deliverable. This enables them to break away from the rookie persona and become a subject matter expert on something no one else in the organization knows about. A final piece of advice I would give CEOs is that fully remote positions carry increased turnover risk at specific junctures. This is something we noticed in my time at Pythian, when across our remote workforce, the average turnover would consistently spike between a year and 18 months of service. After looking into what was causing this issue, we found a few commonalities. Most of these people were working from home for the first time and appeared to have become disengaged and frustrated with the company. I discovered that you need a certain amount of social contact to buy into a company’s vision and make it through the inevitable tough times, and because this social connection doesn’t happen automatically, we sometimes lost talent around that 12–18-month mark. How we solved that issue was to fly employees all over the world to meet each other at conferences or other meetups. This obviously isn’t possible during a pandemic, but we’re experimenting with other solutions such as making expense accounts for lunches with colleagues, hosting virtual trivia and chess tournaments, and daily drop-in coffee-break meetings. Even if socially distanced or through video, my biggest piece of advice to CEOs to avoid employee burnout is to ensure your employees make social connections with each other beyond work. People thrive when they connect with their company’s mission, enjoy their work, and do it with comrades they admire and appreciate (and that admire and appreciate them back).

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

There are a few ways for me to answer that question. In 1997, when Pythian was well off the ground and had customers, we delivered services to those customers remotely and our primary client was remote. This was a big deal in 1997. To be a service provider and directly interact with someone you never see in-person was quite groundbreaking. But the real remote magic started in 2003 when we established our footprint in India, which led us to hire and onboard people we’d never met in person. In 2005, we hired our first full-time work-from-home employee in Australia to cover our evening shift. After that, we simply stopped advertising jobs by geographic location and only specified the time zone needed for positions. That led to a rapid expansion of our remote work footprint. So, I’ve been managing teams handling remote work dynamics for the past 22 years.

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

Technical onboarding: Creating a technical environment that allows secure sharing of enterprise data with remote workers is difficult, especially when remote work must happen urgently (like what we saw happen at the outset of the COVID pandemic, or now as we attempt to scale up secure contact tracing capacity).

Corporate culture: When you onboard a remote team, corporate culture becomes a challenge. You must create cohesiveness without the help of catered lunches, stand-up meetings, on-site events, drinks after work, and so on. Office politics can also become toxic in fully remote teams as the pressures and personalities remain, while social cohesion and friendship is harder to achieve.

Seamless connectivity to outside organizations (clients, customers, partners, etc.): Managing external relationships while working remotely can present challenges, especially when dealing with different work environments and systems.

Ensuring security: Organizations who aren’t prepared to facilitate secure work-from-home environments risk damage to corporate, mission-critical and data-sensitive apps and systems, along with potential IP loss and data breaches.

Employee retention: As I mentioned earlier, remote work can be isolating, and the risk for disengagement at that 12–18-month mark is high — even if employees are more productive working from home.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

Onboarding: Beyond tech implementations, ensure all new hires have a mentor, and that they have a unique task that enables them to become a subject matter expert on something no one else in the organization has done before.

Corporate culture: Managers should put a bigger emphasis on remote team socialization: think weekly, virtual all-hands meetings, company-sponsored team lunches from home, and socially distanced gatherings (when possible). Overcome toxic politics with constant public communication, permitting anonymity, and radical transparency.

Seamless connectivity to outside organizations (clients, customers, partners, etc.): Organizations must consider which long-term investments are needed to enable hybrid, or even fully remote environments that foster client relationships with ease, such as the cloud and workflow automation tools.

Ensuring security: To secure the remote workforce long-term, businesses must adopt a network and desktop strategy with built-in compliance controls, multi-factor authentication and zero-trust networking isolation to prevent breaches and abuse and reduce risks associated with lost or stolen devices. The enterprise desktop will soon live in the cloud as the cost and compliance advantages are too large to ignore.

Maintaining engagement: Managers must make sure to acknowledge employee wins, while keeping teams connected and motivated to ensure low employee turnover. Measure results not time, and celebrate results generously as remote workers struggle more to feel noticed, admired and appreciated.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

One of the promises I make to my team is that unless they’ve heard feedback from me that day stating otherwise, they should go to bed knowing they’re doing a great job. I want everyone’s baseline feeling to be that I really admire them. That creates a foundation of social trust. If you know I admire you, when I do have feedback, it will be received in that context versus a criticism. Make your feedback, criticism and appreciation all routine and normal, so that when feedback comes, they don’t feel threatened — they feel like they have an amazing coach and are receptive to the opportunity to improve.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Medium is not as important as the social context in which feedback is delivered. The main reason people struggle with feedback given over email is the lack of body language and eye contact that expresses your baseline respect and admiration for them in real time. You must create a cadence of admiration-based feedback, so that when you can’t meet in person to discuss performance, your admiration for them is still apparent. You also need to normalize feedback so everyone receives and provides feedback all the time. This makes the process of giving and receiving it much less dramatic, and less likely to wound anyone’s pride.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

A team just getting used to working remotely is at a greater risk for security compromises, because they’re not used to verifying requests received remotely as authorized. To stay safe, newly remote teams need refreshers on how to authenticate a colleague and warning signs for phishing attacks and social engineering attacks.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

A combination of a few of the things I’ve noted above: constructive feedback driven by admiration, a conscious prioritization of socially driven culture initiatives, and an onboarding process empowering new remote employees to feel a sense of belonging and purpose within an organization.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’ve been actively engaged in the basic income movement for quite some time. Basic income is a special kind of social policy that eradicates poverty, creates a more just society, and creates capital for entrepreneurs who might not be able to test out their ideas otherwise. I believe that a basic income can be an economic stimulus, simultaneously reduce income inequality, and also has the power to unlock potential entrepreneurship.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My father is the first person that comes to mind. His philosophy is that you should treat strangers you meet as if they’re already friends. When you do this, you have a lot more fun, and you end up with a lot of more real friends. I take this attitude into conversations with every new person I meet, and it really works. People can tell whether you like them or not. If you like them, they are more apt to like you back, which makes you like them more. It becomes a virtuous circle. This philosophy has served me well throughout the years and enabled me to build many of my strongest, most valued lifelong relationships personally and professionally.

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