Cristina Buenahora of Cortex: “Team cohesion”

Team cohesion: It’s important to make the teams feel like one team, rather than two teams a thousand miles apart. The best way to do this is to do projects together by pairing people between the two teams. Working together, in the trenches, is where trust and camaraderie is established. Holding weekly demos or architecture syncs with everyone creates a culture of collaboration as well and can help force communication.

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

Cristina is a Founding Engineer at Cortex, the Reliability-As-Code platform for engineering teams to effectively manage and scale their microservices, funded by Sequoia Capital and YCombinator. Before joining Cortex, Cristina led an engineering team at Bridgewater Associates, where she developed a portfolio analytics platform for the largest institutional investors in the world. Cristina graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a double major in Systems Engineering and Computer Science.

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”?

I was born in Colombia and moved to New York when I was 7. I studied Systems Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, I spent three years at a large investment management firm where I led a team working on the client facing digital experience. I left that firm to join a YC & Sequoia backed startup, Cortex, as a founding engineer & the second employee.

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

I’ve been fortunate the teams I’ve worked with both onshore and offshore have included incredible senior engineers who have been great technical mentors. At my first job, I was leading an offshore team based in Europe. I didn’t expect to be in a leadership position so soon out of school and one of the things I love the most about the working world is you’re often given opportunities based on what you can do. It’s critical to get to know your teammates in person, it’s where great mentorship happens and relationships are built.

I traveled often to meet with my team abroad. On one such trip I found myself passing through Wroclaw, Poland. Needless to say, Wroclaw is not on most tourist itineraries, but it should be! This small, charming European city is filled with little pint-sized dwarf statues. There’s over 400 statues in the city, all doing day to day tasks. The history behind them is incredible actually, they’re a nod to the Orange Alternative, an anti-Soviet resistance movement that used the dwarves as a symbol by painting them onto communist propaganda. There’s a map if you want to go dwarf hunting or you can just walk around the city looking for them. I found over 100 dwarfs going about their business while I was visiting and the team there loved sharing their local history with me. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this article.

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?

About a year into my engineering career, I was working on a customer-facing application. I hated manual testing and was not the most detail-oriented person so I caused brief outages a couple of times. I did this enough times that my manager eventually put a whiteboard next to my desk counting the number of days that had passed since the last incident I had caused.

I needed to get myself out of this rut — so I took over automated testing for the team and made it a priority. I also grew up some and began to better understand the importance of these applications, uptime, and the clients and analysts who relied on them. I committed to not only delivering code quickly but also high-quality code with low defect rates.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Like most engineers, I find that I’m happiest when I have time to code. Leaders running engineering organizations need to focus on setting up engineers for success by having few disruptions during the day and flexible work hours.

The flip side of that is, I am also motivated by people and by understanding the broader context of my work. So leaders should look to align the engineering teams to the product and design organizations so that they have a visceral feeling for how their day to day work is connected to the broader priorities, and ultimate success, of the organization.

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?

I managed the offshore team for several years and now work in a fully remote environment. There are certainly advantages and drawbacks to each approach but on net, I think it’s worth it. Building teams unconstrained by geography enables you to hire the best people.

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

There are many challenges and here are a few key examples:

Time difference: Europe is 6 hours ahead of New York. By the time I log in the morning, my team is halfway through their day. If they are blocked and unsure of what work comes next, I’m wasting their time and our money.

Language barrier: English is my second language so I’m empathetic to the challenge, it’s absolutely incredible watching someone translate back in their head from English to their language and respond in English, but it’s not easy and patience and understanding is needed to work through that together.

Business alignment: There’s always a risk with offshore teams that they become a “code factory”. To avoid this, you need to bring them into planning early, create relationships between them and product managers and designers, and give them opportunities to demo their work to business stakeholders. They need to be connected to broader goals just like everyone else.

Emotional awareness: One of the key advantages of being in person is it’s easy to get the pulse of the team, the sixth sense “feel” when you walk into the room. It’s almost impossible to do this over Zoom. There are two methods I’ve used to alleviate this:

Build a strong close relationship with the manager on the other side so that they can do that with you and be comfortable bringing issues to you (which isn’t always easy if they’re a consultant).

Travel and build personal relationships with the team.

Team cohesion: It’s important to make the teams feel like one team, rather than two teams a thousand miles apart. The best way to do this is to do projects together by pairing people between the two teams. Working together, in the trenches, is where trust and camaraderie is established. Holding weekly demos or architecture syncs with everyone creates a culture of collaboration as well and can help force communication.

Before I started working with the offshore team, they were facing many of the challenges I mentioned above. How that manifested itself is that the team was siloed, working on its own project, and engineers on the onshore team were reluctant to merge code from the offshore team. Pull requests were piling up, the offshore team was frustrated, and the code was not providing any value to our users. I dove in to try to figure out what the problem was and learned a few things:

The onshore team was too disconnected from the work the offshore team was doing, there was a product manager but no one on the engineering side working with them, making it extremely difficult to review, test, and release their code.

The two teams didn’t know each other and this fostered unfamiliarity.

First, I handled the backlog of code, reviewed it, refined it, and shipped it, so we could start with a clean sheet. I put the time in to create a relationship with each person on the team and got to know them as individuals. I started attending their daily scrum and reviewing all pull requests the day they were opened. I held a demo and architecture sync meeting to align the two teams. Fast-forward six months, the offshore team was handling releases of their code as well as the onshore team’s code.

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?

When giving feedback, it’s best to use concrete examples that both people understand. The epitome of this is the code review. It’s a great place to leave comments directly on the work product in a way that’s mostly unobjectionable.

Use the manager on the other side to help land the points. If there’s a trip coming up, use that as an opportunity to evolve the team.

Finally, don’t keep poor performers around, if you’re confident it’s not working out with someone, move on. You’re doing your team a favor as well as the person, no one is happy in a job they can’t do well.

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

Frankly, I would avoid this altogether, it’s best to give feedback face to face. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable. In those situations, I like to make sure the messaging is clear and direct and there’s no room for the person on the receiving end to interpret the feedback incorrectly.

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?

The key is having a schedule and sticking to it:

Have daily standups at the same time every day.

Create a weekly meeting to go through the week — what went well, what went poorly, and what can be improved.

One thing I love that Cortex does is we get together every Friday for a weekly recap and afterwards, we do a team “cooldown” where we play pictionary and do personal wins for the week. It’s been a great way to know the team given that we haven’t met each other in person.

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?

Celebrate the wins. Make time for each other. Embrace the chit-chat at the beginning and end of meetings, let that run longer than you usually would. This is another form of the desk and lunch conversations that we all engage in naturally in the office and needs to be made a priority on video conferences too.

When Cortex landed a big customer that the whole team had worked hard for, our CEO, Anish Dhar, sent everyone on the team a bottle of champagne and we all drank it together over Zoom one Friday afternoon. Small gestures go a long way.

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 would ban cars from most city centers in the world. On an average weekend in New York City, there are 100 people on the sidewalk with 10 feet of space and 4 people in cars with 30 feet of space. We need to give public space back to the people, not polluting, loud, and dangerous automobiles. Electric cars are not the answer either. Public transit is.

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

“You can disagree without being disagreeable.” — Ruth Bader Ginsberg

I’m in an industry that’s predominantly male and something I’ve noticed that women often bring to the table is the ability to work through things constructively in a way that brings others along and keeps people feeling good about themselves.

Thank you for these great insights!

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