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Building a Remote Data Team with Strong Community and Good BBQ

Accurate data is a requirement for any effective organization and is the foundation of modern enterprise business. In this three-part series, our Head of Data Operations shares how he built and scaled a 75-person team of highly-skilled data integrity analysts who are critical to training the algorithms that are the backbone of our data quality. In part one, Jonathan Rabinovitz shares his story of visiting with the remote data team in-person for the first time.

Visiting a remote team for the first time is a huge thrill

The most rewarding aspect of the job for remote team managers (whether amateur or professional or first time traveller or world traveller), is meeting the team you work with over skype and slack each day, in person.

Not long ago, I was an analyst poring over data in a SOMA basement, and suddenly I found myself gazing out of an airplane window at one bright tropical island after another as we made our descent into Manila.

I was hired at DataFox in 2015 to head the effort of making our algorithms smarter with human curated training data. Initially, I worked tirelessly to verify a constant stream of data points, establishing systems and workflows to optimize efficiency, and the data quality did improve, but slowly. I realized early on that to scale, I needed a team of Data Analysts.

Our platform uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to aggregate data from a variety of sources and compile millions of data points. In order for our algorithms to effectively gather and organize the data correctly, portions of the data must be human verified. This human verification process is crucial to ensuring the highest data quality. To grow our data team we leveraged Upwork, a platform to hire, work with and manage freelancers. The Upwork platform enables DataFox to build a remote data team by hiring the best freelancers from all around the world. For several years I have sourced, hired, trained, and coached a remote data team with freelancers on 3 continents.

The team started with just 5 data researchers and has grown into a team of more than 75 expert data analysts who support our data initiatives. After 2 years of remote collaboration it was time to meet the team that was so integral to our data quality. So I planned a trip, purchased the plane tickets and began a 20 hour flight from San Francisco to spend time with 40 members of our remote team in Manila.

The trip to Manila

The majority of our remote team lives in and around Manila, a timezone that is 15 hours ahead, and the remote team of data researchers works continuously to make our data better. Scaling the team from 5 to 75 team members takes patience, a love of Data Operations, almost 1,000,000 slack messages, and a huge amount of 1-on-1 training time. The journey to build the best set of business data possible began with a small data team that grew rapidly. Each team member we hire spends several months within our training programs to progress from a data researcher to a DataFox Analyst who has a solid understanding of data and especially business data.

The trip to Manila was to serve two main purposes: to meet the team in person and conduct comprehensive team trainings. The trip kicked off with the trainings, included dozens of 1-on-1s and culminated in a team lunch with 40 team members whose voices I knew well, but we had never shared a meal together.

Whether you are a full time manager or just managing a few remote projects, the excitement to work face to face with a remote team is significant. The opportunity to work in-person satisfies our basic desire to give or receive a warm smile from a co-worker. I still have an intense feeling of joy when I look at our team picture and see so many happy faces.

Initially the team began with our first data researcher hire, Zipporah, who still works with DataFox as a Senior Team Lead. Zipporah manages an incredible team of seven DataFox Analysts who work on auditing the results from our algorithms. Zipporah is an exceptional team member who now leads the team with help from her husband, Bob, who is an expert at QA.

One of the things I am most proud of about our Manila team is that all of those five original hires in 2015 still work as DataFox Analysts helping to manage our most important workflows.

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QA Team Lead, Bob Ocampo and Senior Team Lead, Zipporah Ocampo

Following the numerous 1-on-1s, training and delicious lunch, I still could not get over the reality that I was now sitting in the same room with this couple who helped me build so many important workflows that improve our data each day.

After our years of working and building a team together, I was finally able to meet Zipporah and Bob in person. We met at the first training I held in a business hotel in Quezon City (near Manila). The training time was focused less on teaching new skills, and more on extending DataFox’s extreme appreciation for the excellent work they perform each day. The first training started 24 hours after I arrived in Manila and included an amazing catered meal by a team member who is both a DataFox Analyst and an aspiring chef.

After 4 full days of trainings and 1-on-1s with the different teams it was time for the team lunch -- an opportunity for the team in and around Manila to bring their families and meet their coworkers. The smell of barbecue -- a powerful aroma of a home cooked meal for 40 -- surrounded us we discussed upcoming projects and their families. The local food excited my taste buds and the buzz in the air continued to build as we prepared to share stories and a meal together.

“Not so fast”, I said to the team leads. Before we can start the fun stories I need to make sure that we know everyone’s name. We sat in a circle and each team member introduced themselves, beginning with my name is , I live in _, and something you might not know about me is that I enjoy __. After more than 40 introductions and lots of smiles I turned to the team and welcomed each team member by name and expressed my gratitude to each person for their hard work, trust, and dedication to the projects we work on together.

I enjoyed sharing stories with the teams about our progress over time, why they are amazing, and what we are going to learn together next. It has been a powerful experience working with all of the team and especially the team leads and senior auditors.

The Team

At DataFox we are fortunate to have amazing team leads working on our most important projects.

Each week, I work with a newly married couple who are both team leads. Eula Coleman and Evan Rolle manage our data deduplication team and have helped to double our pace over the past two years by finding clever ways to detect companies that appear unique, but are actually the same entity.

I listen and learn from the mother/daughter team leads of the conference team, Raquel Canete and Marienne Astillo, about their ideas to expand our conference team size and weekly output by giving them more control over the sequence of their workflows.

I am grateful for the time I spend with Damian Noriega and Rogielyn Yabis who lead our team of auditors working on signals from tweets to incorporate their ideas about quickly understanding the deeper meaning of tweets. It is a wonderful opportunity to work with our List Building team lead, Michelle Chebat to process and augment lists of companies for our most important customers.

I treasure the time I spend with our Project Managers: Jo-An Victorio, Emily Francisco, Reginald Belarmino and Dona Minas who co-manage our team leads and who analyze the weekly reports to make data driven process improvement suggestions. Even though our incredible Project Manager, Tetiana Lerokhina (Warsaw, Poland) was not able to attend the team events, she made a powerful video with words of support, encouragement and gratitude for the opportunity to work with her team.

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Reginald Belarmino and his wife Grace Belarmino with their daughter Hannah Belarmino

Each day we work together to build and perform highly efficient workflows to improve, augment, and update the DataFox dataset. The daily QA process enables the team to share feedback about best practices and quickly integrate new team members while maintaining extremely high accuracy.

This team was built from the ground up in less than 2 years, and has gone from a handful of DataFox Analysts who processed thousands of data points each day, to a high output team of 75, that manages our daily data research, data augmentation, and customer support requests from their homes in the Philippines, Ukraine, Spain, and Poland. Managing a high impact team is a challenge with an incredible feedback loop.

Post-trip reflection and results:

During the trip I spent 5 hours with each team to review what is going well, what is not going well, and how can we make the tools they use each day even better. I had the opportunity to do 1-on-1s with each team member to learn about what is most important for them and to help me to identify new team leads and rising stars. The in-person team meetings enabled me to connect on a deeper personal level with each team member and also resulted in a 200% improvement on a core data improvement initiative.

The team was not built in a single day, and neither have the relationships we’ve cultivated. I started building this team more than 2 years ago and have forged wonderful relationships with each member over that time. Meeting each of them face to face was an intense and wonderful experience for me.

After 2 weeks of trainings, 1-on-1s, mini adventures to the beach, island hopping and lots of amazing conversations it was time for me to return to San Francisco and continue building the team to achieve our next set of quarterly goals. Managers will tell you that the best thing about a team is the gratitude you feel for them when they do better than you could have ever expected. Months of work are now done in weeks and you smile with pride as you realize that your team is more like a family than simply a group of people all working at home on their individual projects.

To my family in Manila and around the world….thank you.