B12 Bishkek: How we built a home in Central Asia
Earlier this summer, Meredith and I had a chance to visit beautiful Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the home of B12 Bishkek. We now have seven teammates in Bishkek, and we had a delightful week meeting them in person. The week was filled with live 1:1s, family lunches and dinners, and side-by-side debugging sessions.
31 October 2018 · 9 min read
By Adam Marcus, who would love to work with you in Bishkek or NYC.
I wanted to spell out how we came to start our presence in Kyrgyzstan and what we did to ensure the Bishkek team is every bit as core to B12 as our headquarters in NYC. I’ll also cover some of the challenges we’ve had to address along the way. To start, I’ll share some fun details from our trip!
A hallmark of hospitality
The first thing that struck us as we landed in Bishkek was the beautiful Tien Shan mountain range, which is visible from pretty much anywhere if you face south. The view would change with the weather and the day, but would invariably awe us every morning. On our next trip, we hope to take a little more time to explore Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty.
Far eclipsing Kyrgyzstan’s beauty, however, is its strong sense of hospitality. Halfway through our trip, Chyngyz invited us to his family’s home for an amazing Iftar meal that included a tasty Turkish lentil soup, delicious Kyrgyz Samsa, an amazing Kofta, and a wide array of desserts that followed our challenging-to-accommodate dietary preferences. We ate for hours while his daughter taught us the alphabet in English, Kyrgyz, and Russian. We were so grateful for the days of preparation that Chyngyz’ family put into an amazing feast, and Chyngyz was quick to highlight that Kyrgyzstanis take great pride in their culture of hospitality.
This welcoming mentality extended beyond the dinner. From the first day to the last, Edil was excited to take us on a walk downtown with his daughter, grab lunches and dinners, and save us from some confusion at a pharmacy. Nazar and his wife selected an amazing restaurant for dinner, and stayed with us to make sure we had a taxi back to our hotel at the end of the night. Murat opened up about our shared passion for computer science education, and after meeting his children and wife, we saw how big a source of inspiration their future played in supporting this passion. Adina helped us understand the skill set and tooling differences between designers in the region and designers in the west. Pavel asked all the right questions about our approach during a tech talk, and a few months later joined the team. On our final night in Bishkek, Gleb warmed our hearts with so many toasts, pushing even our shyest teammates to share in the camaraderie. And without Kainar, neither our trip nor B12 Bishkek would be a possibility: he made sure every aspect of our stay in Bishkek was the best and warmest experience it could be.
Despite wanting to spend more time in nature, we were grateful for our final day at the base of the Tien Shan mountains. The team spent Saturday at a picnic in a beautiful park, which was capped off by an amazing walk through downtown Bishkek and a final send-off dinner at one of the wildest America-inspired restaurants I’ve ever seen.
Kyrgyzstan’s hospitable culture has laid the groundwork for building an inclusive, welcoming place to work in Central Asia. For the rest of the post, I’ll cover how we’ve built a home for B12 in Bishkek.
How B12 Bishkek came to be
Kainar Kamalov is a founding team member at B12 and was B12’s first engineer. We worked together at Locu, and after some travel and a move back home to Kyrgyzstan, he joined B12 in week one. Kainar’s always been passionate about bringing his lessons in startups and entrepreneurship back to Kyrgyzstan, and about 1.5 years ago, we decided to conduct an experiment in recruiting more team members in Bishkek.
One at a time, we’ve grown our Bishkek office to seven B12ers. Along with two other distributed team members, they make up a little more than 25% of the B12 team that works outside our NYC headquarters.
We’ve always been opportunistic about distributing our team. While we didn’t set out to build a distributed company, we’ve always been open to bringing on impressive people wherever they live, including places like New York, Bishkek, Madison, and Toronto. Our Bishkek office is the natural extension of this philosophy: Kainar wanted to be in Kyrgyzstan and help contribute to startup culture in Bishkek. Along the way he brought on six incredibly talented team members, and we’re excited to share our lessons in how to best offer them a career growth-rich environment despite their physical distance.
Our guiding star: B12 Bishkek is B12
When Kainar began to grow our Bishkek office, we identified two models for collaborating: 1) A tried-and-true loosely coupled offshoring model where our team in North America would identify secondary tasks to send to Bishkek to have solved overnight, or 2) A less explored model for startups in which each team at B12 focuses on some core problem B12 faces, regardless of where its team members live. As a company that’s focused on building a brighter future of work, we opted for the latter model. It didn’t hurt that we had already established this working model with Kainar.
We’ve never viewed our Bishkek office as distinct from B12: B12 Bishkek is B12. Below we’ll cover a few of the details of our setup.
Cross-geography teams. When we consider a team’s composition, we don’t consider geography. We instead identify the best set of teammates based on skills and interests. As a result, we have teams that are primarily Bishkek-based with a small number of North American team members, and teams that are primarily North America-based with the exception of a Bishkek team member. By building around skills and interests, the resulting teams have a pretty good sense of mission and cohesion. The teams are relatively autonomous, establishing their own schedules for standups, 1:1s, and planning around childcare, sleep schedules, and preferences.
Management and mentorship in all directions. Individual contributors are managed and mentored by the team lead (i.e., a tech/design/product lead) on their team. Given that we have team leads in every geography, individual contributors in the US are managed and mentored by Bishkek-based team leads, and vice versa. Unlike a traditional offshoring model, geography doesn’t dictate management and hierarchy.
Core contributions. Our Bishkek team has contributed to many recent technical investments. For example, engineers in Bishkek have led our move toward React from Angular, gotten us on the path toward more frontend testing, and spearheaded our maturing design system. The team has also made core contributions to our website editing experience, our recommendations experience, Orchestra, and our algorithmic design engine.
Narrowing the gap. Depending on the season, Kyrgyzstan is either 10 or 11 hours ahead of the East Coast. Without thoughtful planning, such a gap could be insurmountable. We’ve masked the distance in several ways. First, every few months, a team member from North America will visit the Bishkek office. There’s nothing better for building a shared sense of purpose than sharing an office and a dinner. While we encourage our Kyrgyzstani teammates to visit us in NYC, it’s currently quite hard for Central Asian residents to get a US visa. We look forward to a day where this is no longer the case. Second, we moved our demo day from Friday afternoons in New York (late at night in Bishkek) to Monday mornings to increase cohesion and hear updates across the company. Finally, we’ve introduced randomized 1:1s, where B12ers are randomly paired for a 30-minute 1:1 to get to know one another better.
While we’re proud of the decision to build a team of equals across geographies, it doesn’t come without its challenges. I’ll highlight two that we’re thinking hard about.
Time zone coordination and working hours. Given our desire to have cross-geography cohesion despite the 10–11-hour difference, we require a delicate dance to ensure work time overlap. Spending a week in Bishkek highlighted the challenging work hours the team runs. Bishkek team members go to the office around core hours of 11 AM — 4 PM in their timezone, and then sign on again to be available for meetings and coordination on East Coast hours between 8 PM and 12 AM. Similarly, team members in coordination-heavy roles in North America sometimes catch up with Bishkek teammates very early or late relative to the North American workday. Given the tightly connected teams, such overlap is helpful.
We’ve also been experimenting with various timezone-aware expectations for latency on feedback (pull requests, design/product reviews, etc.) to balance turnaround time and work schedules. We’re always searching for approaches that add sanity to our teammates’ workday, and are accepting of workarounds and asynchrony to facilitate childcare and other family obligations.
Diversity and inclusion. In North America, we’re proud of the fact that we have more team members who identify as women than men in each of our product, design, and engineering organizations, including leadership roles. In Bishkek, we’re doing far worse: 6 of our 7 team members identify as men. Knowing that we have to own our imbalance, we are exploring ways to build a more diverse and inclusive team. To start, we’ve created a B12 Bishkek internship program for women and underrepresented minorities. In Kyrgyzstan, these internships are typically the first position a fresh college graduate has on the way to a full-time opportunity, and we’re excited to build a stronger mentorship culture for team members that join through this program. We’re aware that the internship is one of the many actions we’ll have to take to improve the diversity of our Bishkek team.
Expanding our ambition
As the team in Bishkek has grown, so has our ambition for the team. Our goal is to make B12 Bishkek the best place to work in Central Asia. When people think of startup hubs like Berlin, Boston, New York, or San Francisco, they think of the networks of successful startups that led to one-another. The original employees of PayPal started companies like LinkedIn and SpaceX. Blogger’s co-founder started Twitter, whose co-founder started Square. Like Kainar and I met at Locu and hope to build many wonderful things together, we hope that B12 helps spark a network of amazing startups in Bishkek based on the relationships that our team builds along the way. All aspects of a company’s culture spread to subsequent companies formed from its early team members, and we hope to leave a positive mark on the network emanating from B12 Bishkek.
As the tech scene in Bishkek grows, staying the best place to work in Central Asia will be a moving target. We’re proud of the community-building talks and events we’ve already contributed to, but want to grow our contributions as B12 grows. In areas like salary/equity competitiveness, equipment, and social perks that we offer, we try to exceed the standard that the best local companies set. Seeing how excited the broader Bishkek startup community is about growth, creativity, and self-investment, we know that other companies will give B12 a run for its money. We’re heartened by that growth, and can’t wait to expand B12 Bishkek!
Thanks to Chyngyz, Daniel, Daniela, Kainar, Katelyn, and Meredith for their early feedback. Thanks to the B12 Bishkek team for being amazing hosts. Thanks to Kainar for starting B12 Bishkek :). Please apply to work with B12 Bishkek (Software Engineer, Web Designer)!