What I’ve learned as an engineer in Colombia working for a U.S.-based early startup

Written By

Jhon Cruz

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My Background

I got an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in computer science here in Colombia. While I was at university, I got a scholarship to study in Germany, and I got a job at a startup while I was there. That was my first taste of the messiness of a startup, and I was hooked. It was also my first experience working internationally, in a different language and different culture. I loved that too.

After two years, I returned to Colombia and kept working at startups, eventually starting my own company with some other people here. We developed a no-code solution for mobile applications, so that was my introduction to mobile development. Before that, I had worked primarily on backends in Java.

After a few years, it was time to move on from that company, and I got a job at a Canadian wellness company doing mobile development.

At that time, personally, I was also looking for new ways to make myself and my family more healthy. My wife and I started doing CrossFit. And we began to look for new food habits. After a couple of years at the Canadian company, I realized I wanted a job where my experience as a developer and my lifestyle matched.

Then Levels came along and not only fit my personal interest in health but also had a world-changing mission.

How I Became the First Engineer at Levels

When people ask me how I became an engineer for an American startup, the answer is pretty simple: I sent an email.

I saw a job posting on Hacker News for a generalist developer, early-stage startup (still in stealth mode), working in glucose control and metabolic fitness. So I knew it was a mission-driven health company, but there was no website to check out. I just took a chance and sent them a note.

I joined as a contractor at first, but I could tell right away that this place was different. From the beginning, I was able to propose new ideas, new ways of working, and Sam (CEO) and Andrew (head of engineering) took those ideas seriously. But we were creating things so quickly: not just the code and the infrastructure, but also the documentation and ways of working, constantly inventing.

What Was Unique About This Job

For example, I said things are always messy at startups? One of the unique things about Levels is that we’ve always been remote-first — this was a year before Covid — but we were trying to figure out how to get everyone in the company on the same page. At first, we tried daily 15-minute meetings, but they were unorganized and a waste of time. So we changed and iterated till we landed on our current Friday all-hands meeting. That kind of trial and error wasn’t frustrating here because as soon as something didn’t work, we changed it. We’re still improving every day.

The other unique thing about an early startup as an engineer is that being a small team; we don’t always have enough details with specs to know what to do next. That’s sometimes messy, but it allows you to propose ideas and iterate quickly as well. That rapid iteration is super important; I’ve learned a lot here about the value of minimizing the work you put into new features so that you can move quickly. We focus on incrementalism — how can we ship something small quickly, test it rapidly and iterate. Experimentation is key in all aspects of a company like ours.

Often, you have to make decisions that directly impact the company, and sometimes these decisions are barely reviewed by other people. That can be scary, but your judgment and experience play an essential role.

Things to Look for in an International Startup

Support for non-native English speakers. Language may be the biggest challenge of joining an international company. As a native Spanish speaker living in Colombia, where I speak Spanish in my private life all day, working in English can be challenging. Sometimes it’s frustrating when you know you could express an idea perfectly in Spanish, but you can’t find the English words, and you end up saying things the way you don’t want. You can feel a little dumb.

But at Levels, that’s rarely the case. All my colleagues are very open to teaching me new things and learning things in Spanish. We even have a Slack channel dedicated to that. When we played a company trivia game, they made sure to include a Spanish question. And Sam, for example, when he uses an uncommon idiom, he stops and makes sure I get the meaning. If not, he explains it. It’s hard to feel intimidated in that environment.

I tell people, look for a supportive environment but don’t be afraid of the language. See it as an opportunity to learn.

An established remote culture. Sometimes, remote just means not working co-located in the same place, but the traditional forms of working persist. Here, we take remote and asynchronous work seriously. Recurring meetings are discouraged. Implementing a feature is often asynchronous without blocking time from others. Iterating usually means getting feedback and making decisions in a document. It’s a different way of working, but everyone is working that way.

We also think a lot about how to build culture remotely. But we also have 1-on-1 calls with different team members every two weeks. We use Slack as a non-urgent way to communicate about work but also hobbies and chat. We have Friday meetings with everyone in the company where we share updates from all areas of the company.

Autonomy in your work. This is part of being remote. Autonomy is one of those soft skills you have to be better at every single day. At Levels, micromanagement doesn’t exist. You’re expected to take the lead on things your manager didn’t tell you to make and still have an impact. Professionalism and accountability are critical.

An advantage to that, however, is flexibility. In my case, being married and a father and having multiple hobbies, it’s important that I get to be the owner of my time. And I’ve found that you can be both super productive and flexible at the same time.

Openness. This is important for a remote company and an early startup. And it’s one of the values of the company that I see applied every single day. Everyone speaks in simple and open language. Acronym usage is minimized. People are always open to changes. You can always propose ideas, and they will be taken into account. Your thoughts are essential for the company.

Other Considerations:

  • Finding a similar time zone can be helpful. Even though we’re remote, it’s helpful to follow a similar schedule as my colleagues. Fortunately, in Colombia, there’s not a big difference with either the east or west coast.
  • Some companies will try to pay you less because you live somewhere with a lower cost of living. Look for companies that pay what you’re worth no matter where you live.