Artsy Engineering Radio

RFC: Building the Berlin office

April 07, 2022 Artsy Engineering Season 2 Episode 11
Artsy Engineering Radio
RFC: Building the Berlin office
Show Notes Transcript

While Artsy is originally based in NYC, the company has been making a lot of effort in the last year to hire a lot of people in Berlin in order to build up a big team in the German capital. Matt Dole and Kaja Santro talk about how that has been going for them and how they experienced the exciting process of the "Berlin Calling". 

Matt Dole:

Hello and welcome to another episode of Artsy Engineering Radio. Today I am Matt Dole. I'm actually Matt Dole every day, but I'm also Matt Dole today, and I am joined by Kaja. Kaja do you want to introduce yourself?

Kaja:

Yeah, I'm also Kaja today, as every day. And I don't know if you've heard me before on this podcast. I'm an engineer at Artsy and sometimes on the podcast, yeah. Hi.

Matt Dole:

Yeah, fabulous. I should also say that I am an engineer, I work on our Find and Explore team, we do a lot of searching, filtering, stuff like that. But that's not what we're here to talk about today. Today, we are going to talk a bit about the Berlin office. So Artsy started, you know, gosh, I guess 10 years ish now ago in New York, and for much of its life, as a company has had really only a New York office. But we now have a pretty large and well staffed Berlin office. And so we wanted to take a few minutes today to reflect on what's changed over time. What's different about the Berlin office and New York office, what we think could get better in the future, maybe how we think about the difference between, you know, time zones and collaboration. So there's a lot of interesting topics to dig in here. But maybe just to quickly, kind of wrap up the brief history lesson, Artsy has been New York based for most of its existence, but we did actually open the Berlin office in I think it was 2017. Before that time, we had a few Berlin employees working from, you know, home or co working spaces. And then we outfitted and set up this very lovely Berlin office. And in Neukölln, we didn't have very many people in it, though, I actually came and visited back in 20, I guess that was 2018, as hard to believe, as that is for me. And there were maybe I think, like seven full time employees in Berlin, and there were like four or five dogs. So it was like a pretty close ratio of like one to one human to dog in the office at that point. It was like a very, you know, like, pretty spacious, and like well decked out office. And I was like, wow, there's just not many people here. Yeah. So then fast forward a couple of years. And starting in 2020, we actually have big plans to like really ramp up hiring in Berlin before the pandemic hit, everything was kind of put on pause in March 2020. But we did then continue down that path of staffing the Berlin office in late 2020, and then all of 2021, to the point where today, we I think, have more engineers based in Berlin, than we do in New York or anywhere else in the world, we still have the majority of our non engineering teams are based in New York, or at least in the United States, a lot more folks are remote these days. But Berlin has a concentration of engineers, and then a few other fairs and gallery and other team personnel as well. So that's kind of the brief background that we went from this, we've had the office for a few years, but we really kind of expanded it in the last year and change. And during that expansion, we hired you and many other people as well. So Kaja, what has your experience been like? You know, you have a perspective on the Berlin tech scene that I don't so you've worked at other companies in Berlin, what was it like for you moving from another company to you know, Artsy, what did you notice about what was different, you know, company terms, in office terms, any of that stuff?

Kaja:

Yeah, for me, it was also the first time that I was hired by a company that is not only Berlin based, so that was definitely new to have a distributed work team. And I also remember that when I interviewed with Artsy, it was already mentioned, this whole transition was already mentioned. And I was like, kind of mentioned as like being part of it. So it was really interesting for me to also hear, for example, Adam Butler and Sam Rozenberg explained to me like this whole process of yeah, we're New York based but you know, we want to build this whole team up in Berlin. And and they also explained to me explicitly that they don't want Berlin just to be like this side thing, you know, but actually, it is its own entity that has impact and has its own like, environment and everything. And it sounded so interesting to me to also being part of that. Yeah, that's already a big difference for me, like so that the other companies that I worked for were only Berlin based and very local. So the first one was like not even being like any remote work. So we could work from home sometimes. But most of the time, we're all the whole engineering team sitting together in the office in one corner of the office and seeing each other and everybody was from Germany, almost everyone, I think we just had one person from Spain. Yeah, but the rest of the team was all very local Berliners. And then the next company I moved to was already a bit more international. And it was like, very remote friendly, slash remote first setup. So it was already a big change for me to have, like, all this, ideas of all meetings are online all the time. So even if you were in the office, you would like join with your own computer and your headphones, in order to have a good experience for everybody and have the same experience for everyone who's joining the meeting. So that already kind of set me up for this more remote way of working and more international way of working. And then Artsy was the next big step. And I felt like, that's, that's interesting for me, but I also was so glad to hear that there's an office in Berlin, and that there is the plan to have a huge group of people in Berlin that are also, all the story was told to me in the interviewing process. It was like, we also want to build a team here. So that for me was really important, because I love people I love hanging with people even in the pandemic. And yeah, so I was like, looking forward to that.

Matt Dole:

Yeah, there are a few really interesting things, you just said that I want to dig into more. So you mentioned that in your previous Berlin companies, you know, the vast majority of released your first experience was was with people who are in the office, right? Like everyone is kind of physically together in the same space, it's mostly people who are from Berlin, from Germany. And that sounds a lot like my experience with Artsy in New York a few years ago, right, that we were a primarily New York based company, we did at that time, have a few individual remote engineers. So we had, you know, people in we've one person in Amsterdam, and one person in, like, in, I think Washington States, like West Coast, United States and a few other scattered people. And then there were, I think, two to three engineers in Berlin. So you know, very, very kind of small mini team, but most things revolved around the New York office. And most people, you know, in the New York office were, were collaborating in person. And that was, again, vast majority of our staff was, you know, American, they were mostly living in New York, you know, there wasn't this kind of more hybrid approach that I think we have now. So, as we think about moving from that environment, where there's kind of one central Artsy office, there's the New York office, and now having, you know, two offices that really do have their own physical space, as well as their own culture, their own people, you know, real teams that are not just like a couple people over here, right. I think that was something that was a problem for the Berlin office in the past was still feeling very sort of sidelined compared to the New York office, we've had to do a lot more remote collaboration get a lot better at working across time zones. And, and, you know, not just having it be New York plus, oh, there's an additional person, but like, Okay, if half of our team is in New York, half of our team is Berlin or something like that? How do we make sure that we're still connecting, that we're working together? So I know, you've worked on a couple teams that are split that have members in both Berlin and in other offices in New York or remotes? Do you feel like you've found some effective strategies for that kind of remote collaboration? Are there things you've brought with you from previous roles that you think have really helped Artsy you know, are you succeed at Artsy?

Kaja:

Yeah, I think just being aware of people being in different times is one thing that I find like is the best strategy. So I really love that my colleagues in New York or over in the US are always like, when it's kind of evening. For me, they are always very aware of it and saying, like, oh, maybe it's too late for you now. So I don't want to bother you, you know. And like, even like one hour before I finish they already start kind of like slowing down on coming up with things and are suggesting like to do this tomorrow or asynchronously, and trying not to load me up with work on in the evening, which is kind of super nice. While I'm also trying not to schedule things too early. for them on the other side, I don't, yeah, you know, I don't want my fellows over there to be like to have to really wake up so early, and they should get their amount of sleep as well. So I think this kind of awareness is really good. And what helped me actually was to just add on my Google Calendar to add both times on the side, you can just add both time zones. And so whenever I look at meetings or schedules, I can see like, and compare at what time it is for the people in the US. So that has helped me a lot. And I think it's also just some of the people that are creating this kind of culture of still being a team, for example, my manager, Christian, when he was doing PX, he was always making sure to have like this kind of team building events. For me that really helped a lot, you know, like having some kind of hang out together or party coffee call, like, he even celebrated the launch with us online. And it was super funny. Yeah, I think this, this helps a lot. Plus, you know, actually having physical contact with people from the US sometimes that helped me also, like, when, when Steven, when he came over to Berlin, that was so so cool. Like, for me, it was like, oh, you know, it's not just, I'm not just imagining

Matt Dole:

that you're not doing a very advanced AI, you're actually living breathing human. Yeah, exactly.

Kaja:

I'm not imagining things. He's real. And he's like, there, and he has a full body. And it was just so so nice to see that. Yeah, I always appreciated whenever someone from the US came over, I was really happy to meet them. I think it also helps that you're here, for example, and Devon, you know, you kind of like you're building this bridge between the two entities. So it's, it feels more like, oh, there's someone who experienced working in New York, but also is in Berlin now. And it can help implementing maybe some of the cultural things here and bridge the whole thing a little bit more.

Matt Dole:

Yeah, thanks for reminding me of that. I had meant to mention it. But I've talked about this before on the podcast. But for any new listeners out there, I was a engineer in the New York office before moving to Berlin last year. So I actually first I was on the marketing team in New York, and then engineering and then moved to Berlin, in 2021. And our colleague, Devon, also made the transition around the same time, you know, again, working on engineering, but moving from New York to Berlin. And I think that was, yeah, I agree that, you know, part of our kind of mandate in moving here has been help to share the engineering culture that was established in the US. And while I think that we are really lucky to have a lot of amazing tools for remote collaboration, things like, you know, zoom, or slack or even email, right, there's so much there's possible to do with remote communication. But it does also make a difference to have someone you know, here in person, and when pandemic has permitted we've been able to get together for for coffee, or for meals, or for drinks, or just to be in the office and you know, have a little chat as you pass someone. And I feel that it's been helpful to establish a sense of continuity, right? That it's like, oh, Berlin office is not just this island that, you know, didn't exist yesterday and exist today. And suddenly, there's, you know, 40 people all kind of trying to figure out what Artsy is like, it would have worked either way. But I think a lot of what I find myself doing is providing history and context, right? For someone to say, you know, whether it's a technical problem of like, why is our you know, API is structured this way, or a personal thing of like, you know, how long you know, what happened when we changed from like, Carter, Cleveland, our old CEO to Mike Stipe, our current CEO, like, what, what changed what's different, you know, like, all of those kinds of things that are kind of just hard to get a sense for and that you don't always get an opportunity to talk about in a meeting or in a Slack channel that just happen a little more organically when you have kind of downtime together. So I put this question to you though. What do you think myself and Devon have done well, so far that we've been able to kind of share and boost and what are some things that you're like, um, that we really should touch on? You know, this topic or like, Could you do a knowledge share on you know, some other thing like, what is some stuff that you wish maybe the Berlin office could be brought up to speed on or could have shared from our past experiences.

Kaja:

I mean, first of all, like, as I said, I think you're kind of building a nice bridge. And I don't know how to explain it. But I mean, you are living and breathing US Americans. And I can feel that when I meet you. And it's just, I don't know, for me, it's just great to have some of that culture over here. And you know, the way you speak the way you were like, so out there and like, yeah, I don't know, great with people. And, you know, bringing people together, I think that helps a lot, also to implement this kind of vibe in the Berlin Office group. And yeah, I'm so happy also, for example, with the podcasting and stuff like that, I mean, we are recording now, it is like 12pm. Berlin time, we couldn't do that. If you were sitting in New York right now.

Matt Dole:

Or at least I'd be very sleepy. Yeah.

Kaja:

And, yeah, and I think, you know, there are so many times where I'm so glad to have you and Devon, here in my early mornings, where I need some, you know, Artsy, history context. And then you're one of the people who often is like listening to all kinds of questions that are posted on Slack, and are jumping on with like, some historical context. And it's often like this tiny, helpful hints that get you unstuck and stuff like that. So I'm also really happy about this.

Matt Dole:

I think that's a good point about the sharing of technical domain knowledge and context, that are the kinds of things that you build up over time working anywhere, right? And that you're right, that it's, it's maybe just kind of helped to, like, help the Berlin office feel more like an independent entity. And like, there is more support just that you don't have to wait for a US engineer to come online 100% of the time, if there's like a question that has to do with a legacy system, or, you know, just like some some unclear, you know, domain code. Yeah. And I think that, obviously, Devin and I don't know everything, sometimes a question will come up, and we'll be like, Oh, if we got to, you know, wait for Matt Z, or, or like Chris, or Damon, or someone to come online who can explain this better. But I do think that by sort of providing some of that, like, technical unblocking, it helps to keep it from feeling like Berlin is kind of dependent on the US, right? There's still like, actually, no, we can figure this out before the US has even woken up.

Kaja:

Yeah, exactly. Especially in my first few months, like this onboarding phase, you know, when you're still new at Artsy, and you don't know, what's the deal with this, or, like, all this services, how they work together, and, and then you just mentioned things and I'm like, oh, Matt, you know, he always know some context, and it always gets me unstuck. So that was helpful. And I don't have any wishes, like from your Devon, I think you're doing great. I was so happy actually to also see that you're learning German. That was like a big thing for me, because I'm always...yeah, I feel like Berlin sometimes gets a bit overwhelmed with people coming here, you know, international, especially the ones who don't call themselves immigrants, but expats, you know, the difference there? You know, a lot of them live here for a while, but never fully open up to the culture here. And, and just keep, you know, very, yeah, living in their own little expat, bubble. And, you know, and that, for me, that's always a bit sad, because there's like, invisible wall there. And I wish more like, interaction between, you know, locals and people who come from other countries. And just, you know, you can learn a lot from each other by by just opening up to the culture. And so I was so happy to see that you're studying German and being interested in the local stuff, you know, and like, asking questions, and I was like, That's so great. You know, I'm, I'm so thankful for this openness and curiosity. I know that German is not the easiest language to learn, and also that German culture and Germans don't have like the best image in the world, you know, and it's not given that people are interested in it. But I think like I'm so grateful when someone is curious, and open and wants to learn stuff about what's going on here. And yeah, thank you for that.

Matt Dole:

Yeah, it's, it's been a pleasure and a struggle, you know, I think it's, it's hard to learn any language well enough to kind of connect meaningfully with people there. And, and that's still something that I am struggling with and will probably continue to struggle with for a long time. But I have also had, you know, really gratifying moments where just to look back on, like, how much I knew when I arrived versus now to be able to, like, go through a meal at a restaurant and like, do everything in German and have that be, you know, not a super stressful thing. And there have been nice moments to where like, I've been able to, you know, connect with, with people, even over just small, you know, transactions or everyday things, like someone, you know, trying to get too much stuff through their front door, and, you know, just being like, 'Kann ich ihnen helfen?', and you know, and not trying to like, you know, just being able to do stuff like that. So it's a long process. And, and I am also like, very, you know, happy to be to be like learning more about German language and culture and want to continue doing that. So thanks for the support. And I'll continue to lean on you for more.

Kaja:

Yeah, that's also one very Berlin specific thing here are that we have this German Learning lunch group, and people kind of struggling together. Yeah, I really love that like seeing people motivated to help each other out. Also, we have like this Berlin channels of like, kind of Berlin's local support stuff. And people helping each other out when like searching for an apartment here, or having some kind of questions like, How do you do this and that here, and often, I feel like because I'm a local Berliner, people assume that I know everything and think like, I don't need to know this. But actually, I'm also listening to the answers and like reading and finding things out there, because it is sometimes hard. And you cannot know everything here. Even though you live here for a long time, you never know everything. And it's just nice to have like this kind of local support group of like, you know, where to find this, or where to find that, or how to do this. And then it's just super helpful, especially, you know, having a husband who's also immigrating to Berlin and needs to go through the whole process, and kind of like, oh, yeah, my colleagues already did this, you know?

Matt Dole:

If you've got questions that I can help with, please let me know, I owe you a lot after you know, the many helpful things you provided me. So just say the word. You know, you just reminded me too, that one of the questions that we you know, talked about, as we were planning out this episode was kind of the sort of Berlin vibe, but you know, you raise this question of, like, how to describe the the Berlin vibe among our team here. So how would you? What do you think it

Kaja:

It feels like it's, it has a little bit of, you know, this, feels like? like, expedition vibe, you know, a group of young people moving to this new place, like a lot of people are from different places in the world. And so, there is this general vibe of like, exploring stuff together. And it kind of also built the team a lot. And I also think that like, so it's like a very specific, weird time right now with a pandemic. So this whole thing just happened during the hardest time, you know, like, it's just so weird that I joined when it was like, just very, like strict lockdown phase. And when I joined, it was like, all remote. And I did the office walkthrough remotely. So like the office manager was showing me like pictures of the office and floor plan and telling me like, this is your office, you know, and I was like, oh, it looks so great on the photo. So I'm wondering when I can see it in real life. And when I joined there were not so many people. And then the moment where we first met in real life, this what was like a beautiful summer day, we all met in front of the office building. We were still not allowed to get in and we were like, look, this is the window of our office up there. We all gathered—

Matt Dole:

It exists! I promise!

Kaja:

Yeah. And we all gathered and went to this park and had like, beers and pizza and were sitting down on the on the lawn together and talked and it was so great. Like it was like the most beautiful atmosphere. And I was so happy to see everyone. It felt like...I don't know, it just felt very special. And I feel like this is also what formed us as a team, you know, like that we, we all joined in this really hard times, under really hard circumstances and everybody being so like keen to meet and keen to mingle and keen to get to know everyone you know, and then felt even more precious when we met in real life. And it felt like so special. And I think that also bonds us a lot. And I feel like this is also part of the Berlin vibe, of course, because of the times that we just live in. How would you describe it?

Matt Dole:

Welcoming. Yeah, I, it's funny, you mentioned that that park hangout, because I think that was my second day in Germany, I think that I had arrived like maybe one day before that. And so it was, yeah, and part of what was so funny, it was, like, talking with a lot of people who, you know, had worked at Artsy for like, a week or two, but had maybe lived in Berlin for a few years. And I was like, I've worked here for five years, I've been here for like, 24 hours, you know? So having these kind of like, okay, like, I'll tell you all the things about Artsy, you just got to tell me all the things about Berlin, right? Together, we'll be a great team. But I agree that the combination of having a lot of people, like you said, we have a very kind of like international team, we have a lot of people from, from South America, from Africa, from other parts of Europe, from North America too you know, as I prove here, but you know, it's, it's from a lot of different places. And a lot of people who have moved to Berlin within the last, you know, year or two, right? So, there's, I think a lot of people who are kind of looking for community, and part of where we're finding that is with our coworkers and making new friends at work. And also, I think it, you know, makes people have a lot of sort of empathy and sympathy for people who are, you know, starting new jobs or living in a new country, right, we're all kind of trying to figure it out together. So I felt like, especially when I had first moved here, that it really feels sort of like a startup within a startup in some ways. That small, you know, early stage startup where you've got, you know, less than, say, 50 employees, and you kind of know, everyone, right? You at least like recognize them, and you probably know their name, and you've probably had a conversation or gone out for drinks or coffee or something. That's kind of what Berlin feels like, to me is that, yes, we've already grown a lot, even in the past year, I think we're around 50 employees total in this office. But it's still, you know, smaller than Artsy's total of, you know, 200 plus, and much smaller than, like, a big company that has, you know, a few thousand, right; a Microsoft, Google, Amazon, whatever. And so it does feel a lot like a little mini startup where we all you know, do know each other, and we try to hang out and as you said too the pandemic has made that, you know, varying degrees of hard, and I really hope that this year will be simpler, and will be easier for us to find time to connect in person and, and spend time together. But I also agree that it's like sort of a bonding experience to like, try to figure it out and try to learn how to, you know, be remote but still, like, connect with each other and do all of these different things. So yeah, fingers crossed, thumbs pressed that this year will be a good one.

Kaja:

Yeah, yeah. Fingers crossed. And I think we're on a good path. And I think the you know, the overall Berlin vibe was great. There are so many people that contribute to that culture a lot. And I just want to also make a little shout out to Sultan's apple pie. I think that's like one of the most bonding things. Like when everybody can just eat like really good apple pie together. I think there's not so many things that can go wrong, you know. And yeah, I think just yeah, just like this group of very lovely people and yeah, I think Artsy is also great at like hiring cool people. I just like I would love to, you know, have just like this kind of like class field trip experience together go for like a road trip with all of them or something.

Matt Dole:

Yeah, yeah. If anyone is wondering what Sultan's apple pie is, our coworker Sultan has been on this podcast before. He's also an engineer. He a few times now has has brought in apple pie for the team. He just like decided he wanted to know how to make apple pie. And so he's like, brought them to a couple team events. We had a really nice one just a couple of weeks ago where we all sat out in the sun out in front of the office in the courtyard and he brought pie and we like you know, had coffee and ate pie and enjoyed ourselves. What you said about you know, taking a road trip together or like hiring people who are you know, kind or just good people generally, something that a former Artsy coworker actually, who I met when I was visiting the Berlin office, Maja told me was that "Artsy manages to hire people who I would invite into my home". Yeah. And I think about that a lot, because I do think it's very true that they're the kind of people where I'm like, yeah, like, you know, even if we're never going to be like best friends. Like, I still think you're cool. And like, we should hang out. You know. There's a lot of a lot of really lovely people on the team.

Kaja:

Yeah, we're so lucky.

Matt Dole:

Well, Kaja, thank you so much for getting together to talk about the Berlin office, the Berlin dynamic, the vibe, and yeah, I'm excited to hopefully get to see you in person soon and eat more apple pie in the future.

Kaja:

Definitely. Definitely. It was lovely. Thank you for the great, great talk. All right.

Matt Dole:

Bye, bye.

Kaja:

Bye.

Steve Hicks:

Thanks for listening. You can follow us on Twitter at Artsy open source. Keep up with our blog@artsy.github.io This episode was mixed and edited by Alex Higgins. And thank you Eve Essex for our theme music you can find her on all major streaming platforms. Until next time, this is Artsy Engineering Radio