Remote, hybrid, or in-office? Opinions are divided on what has quickly become one of the most controversial topics in tech: Should we return to the office and if so, how and when?

On this week’s episode of Dev Interrupted, we sit down with Duolingo’s Sr. Director of Engineering Fabio Lessa, to discuss how to successfully transition your engineering org back to the office - and why Duolingo has done it so successfully. [Hint: it all starts with culture.]

Fabio also discusses Duolingo’s training program for first-time managers, the transition from IC to team lead, and tips to roll out a training program at your company.

Episode Highlights:

  • (3:03) Returning to the office
  • (6:10) Balancing hybrid work
  • (15:28) What makes Duolingo's culture great
  • (18:38) Platform engineering
  • (21:28) New manager training program
  • (26:30) How to roll out your own training program

Episode Transcript (disclaimer: may contain unintentionally confusing, inaccurate and/or amusing transcription errors)

Dan Lines: Hey everyone. Welcome to Dev Interrupted. This is your host, Dan Lines, co-founder and COO at LinearB B, and today we're joined by Fabio Lessa, Senior Director of Engineering at Duo Lingo. Fabio, welcome to the show.

Fabio Lessa: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Dan Lines: Yeah, awesome to have you on with us today. I think a lot of people know, but if you don't know, Duolingo is a great company.

In fact, Some of our producers actually use the app producers of Dev Interrupted. So they were excited to have the conversation today. And we're going to get into a lot of the things that you're doing at Duolingo. You have some interesting training programs for managers, so we're gonna touch on that.

I think our audience will be really interested in that. But also we're gonna talk about some insights of how to create a great company culture that's not just a culture, but transform into a business value. But before we talk about those things, You are passionate about RTO, which for those of you who don't know what that means, I didn't.

I didn't know the acronym. So it's Return to Office, which is a really hot topic right now. Actually completely different than when we first started this podcast. It was during the pandemic, I think I was working out of a closet in my tiny. Apartment and back then everyone wanted to talk about remote work and how to make a transition to like working at home, But as all things in life that we've learned, it's about balance. So maybe the pendulum's coming back a little bit here with the RTO. So if we fast forward to today I think it's great. Let's just start there. You say, Duolingo has a strong belief in this in-person office culture. Why is that?

Fabio Lessa: Yeah, I think like it's something that, we've always believed in. I think our founders always made put explicit effort into making sure that we have had a nice office and we hung out together. So invested a lot on that. I think the, if you look at it, we don't do anything different in the office.

If you go to a Duolingo office, the things we have, there are things you'll find in like a lot of tech companies today, have good lunch. The setup is really nice, but I think There is something tangible about, that investment and how people feel about work as a personal experience.

I can share, like when I joined, I was actually, still at Spotify and I was looking for my my next opportunity. I was interviewing with a few companies and that's when Dualling reached out to me. And so I was like, I'm already interviewing, preparing for interviews. Might as well add one more to the list.

But wasn't really thinking much of it. So it was right before the pandemic, and I actually traveled to Pittsburgh where headquarters are, to do my interviews. And it was that day of interviews that I spent in the office and met everyone that I really got sold on the job. I don't know, I just felt tangible, like how that people were genuinely, were happy working here and enjoyed it.

It, it definitely bumped it to the top of the list.

Dan Lines: So how did the pandemic actually, because like pandemic, we went all remote Did that change your opinion during that timeframe about remote culture or then did you like get sick of it a bit and now like how do you compare like the pros and cons of each world?

Fabio Lessa: Yeah, that's a good question. I think one thing about the pandemic that is funny and. Complicates a little bit. The conversations that we have today about it is that I don't think personally it was a good experiment of remote work, right? Because although, like you said, we were all forced to be at home, and work, only through like without interacting with anyone.

It was a really weird time. Everybody was stressed out. There was so many things happening in the world that. Made that a really stressful time. I think one thing that today that things are mostly back to normal. If you're working remote, you can. You get the benefits of being able to, spend more time with people outside.

You'll go outside and, do go work from a cafe more often. And those options were not available. People were all just literally locked inside their houses for the whole day. So I think there's a, like that data is a bit polluted so to speak. but one thing that we did learn is that people really enjoy they're screwed real benefits to also spending more time at home.

I think, especially on some of the ways that we work today. Remote working alone in your office in a good office setup, ha has real benefits and people with like different life situations like, young kids and things like that or long commutes like I do have that, that makes a real difference.

We feel that like it changed our per perception more in that, like now we incorporated some of that, like what is the best of those two setups and I think. Now we settled a lot of other companies into a three to two. So we do Tuesdays, Thursdays in the office, and monitor credit's optional to come in.

Dan Lines: Yeah. So that's interesting. So now it sounds like you've settled into a hybrid situation. That's right. What are, and how strict is it like for the engineering team, and is it like, I have to be in these days or how do you balance the hybrid nature?

Fabio Lessa: We definitely encourage everybody to be in, and we've been having more and more events and things centered around everybody being there in those three days.

But again because, there is more flexibility with this. We, it knows if someone has. something at home I have this package delivery, I need to stay home. That's a more, an easier thing to do to just stay home. And that's okay because everybody's used to, like, when you set up a meeting, there's always a Zoom link in it as well.

And people are used to doing that, but I think wasn't such a habit, for everyone. Yeah.

Dan Lines: And what do you think. Is specific to engineering teams. So there's a lot, there's a, I had the privilege to be like, on the start, on engineering, then do the go to market thing of like sales and marketing some support.

Yeah. Then go back actually now to product. And I'll give you my experience and I'd love to hear yours as well. So another like life lesson. This is what my co-founder Ori always says to me. It's not black and white. Like full remote or versus like full in office. And it also, I think really depends on what you're doing.

So for example, in product and engineering we're creating something together. Usually we're innovating on a new feature or something new. And I think you can't really replace the acceleration that you get of everyone in the room. Like even whiteboarding together, doing ideas, laughing, joking, good ideas, bad ideas.

Now you don't need to do that every day of the week, but there's certain situations that you know you can really accelerate. Now, on the other side of go to market, I've been in situations where really I'm on sales calls. Or I'm on customer success calls and I'm really doing like a solo job. I'm not, it's more about, okay, am I in a comfortable environment?

Can I take a walk outside really quick? And I, and that's my and that kind of favors like a more remote atmosphere. I'm not collaborating. What has been your experience for your engineering team with that?

Fabio Lessa: Yeah, no, that's a great question. I a hundred percent agree with what you said.

But I do think also for engineering, there is like a lot of, work that we do that there's true value in also having that one set up where, you have dedicated focus time, where working from home is great for, and I think the. What's really funny one story I've been telling I think, before when we started going, open office, right?

Like the setup with no no cubicles and things like that. When I started it was all cubicles. And then we moved to that because that's when agile as a way to work was like really picking up. And we were like, everybody's oh, we're gonna pair all the time and we're gonna. Talk over, in the team room and everybody can overhear it and we're gonna have design decisions like all of that, right?

And if you look at it, we start, started shifting the tooling together. Okay, so now we have, everybody uses some version of GitHub and we review code through like pull requests, everybody chats on Slack. I feel like before the pandemic, the, I don't know, eight, 10 years before the pandemic started, I caught myself multiple times in like situations where I'd be like, see two people slacking each other, shoulder to shoulder, and I'm like, Look, you're sitting right next to, why don't you just turn around and have this discussion?

And or other cases where we'd be talking in a team room and people would be like, oh, you know what, we're trying to focus here guys. Can you please go over there to talk? And I was like, no this is open. Exactly. So we can overhear each other and collaborate. And I think that is the bit, if you're thinking like.

Hybrid, how do we come back to the office? You can't ignore the fact that today the way we operate in engineering needs a lot of that. We built the tooling around that to be able to work, and that's why people really leaned into remote when they started because they're like, yeah, the way we're doing the work.

This is totally like the tools we have already, are almost there. And I think the benefits of the office become more, we get to hang out, we have lunch together and we can go like to, social activities in the evening, but maybe we don't need five days of that. You know what I mean?

Like two, three days of that is more than enough. And so I think if we, if you ignore that reality that for engineering work, there are lots of situations where, That focus time is important. You're not gonna be able to design like your office time and your office space also to leverage that.

Dan Lines: Yeah I remember that.

I was a developer during that, so my first job was cubicles, but I did that for one year and then the open office thing hit. So like my core developer experience was in the open office world. And then I remember, slack came out and all that, and I was that developer that would Slack someone sitting two, spaces away from me.

Now I'm thinking, why am I doing that? I'm doing that because was locked into coding I need, and I, maybe I had a question. That's right. But I didn't wanna leave my bubble. Of, I don't really wanna be bothered. I need information, but I don't wanna get out of the zone. Yeah.

I'm like in, in the matrix. I'm locked in. And it makes me and that whole open like office era was like insane. I remember also when it was like, okay, we're gonna put sales next to engineering. We did that at one of my companies. Go, at all. Cause the engineers couldn't focus and then the sales guys were like bugging them all the time.

It was crazy. But yeah, I think it is a about balance. One of the things, if you're listening to this pod. Because I do think there's a lot of benefits also to going back in, into the office. But I saw convincing engineers to do so at some companies. It I saw a lot of pushback.

Yeah. And I, my, my advice would be if you have like certain days of the week, I think you said you're doing two days, right?

Fabio Lessa: That's right. Yeah. At home, two days at home. Two days in the office. 

Dan Lines: Two days at home. Two two in the office. Three in the office. Three in the office, okay. Yeah. Five days.

Yeah. For the ones that, okay, here's the days that we're gonna be together in the office. What I would say is make sure those are the days that you're doing the things that are better for collaboration. That's a good, okay. It's not just you're gonna come in and then zone into your computer like otherwise.

Why? Why do I need to be, so like my, my, one of my advices would be when you're communicating a return to the office. Make sure that those days that you're coming in, it's like, Hey, we're gonna do like product collaboration. We're gonna do our retrospective meeting together, we're gonna, whatever it is.

I was wondering if you had any other tips of how to do that communication to an engineering team of getting people to come back for a few days? 

Fabio Lessa: Yeah. I think we, even throughout the pandemic, we kept. The message, like everyone we hired during those times, we still ask people to relocate to one of our, the cities where our offices were.

And there was more flexibility, right, like we didn't have to ask people to relocate immediately, but we, it was definitely an expectation that, you would be in one of our offices. In that sense, it was easier, even though, obviously there were people who asked, to continue remote for a while.

Some people asked, we had an exceptions process that. Was in place for people to be able to, ask to stay remote. But we didn't, it wasn't that difficult for us because we focused on what we're thinking. This is gonna end and we're gonna return in some shape or form. So let's make sure that we find people who see that value who still wanna have that in some capacity.

So the push doesn't get too difficult.

Dan Lines: Okay, cool. Yeah some great insights there. Now, in the, in, in our intro, I mentioned that you were really proud of the culture at Duo Lingo. And of course, we just talked about like your in-person experience all of that.

Can you, now catch up our audience on your role at Duolingo. The work you're doing there  even like size of the engineering team, and then let's get into the culture around that.

Fabio Lessa: So my role, I today I'm one of the engineering leads for the platform area at Duolingo.

The platform covers like what you would think of it and most other orgs like the infrastructure, on our, on the cloud providers that we have, services in. It also covers like all of the data side The data ingestion and making that data available through the internal consumers, our testing framework, it's all, produced by those teams.

And then we have other teams like security, it are also part of platform. The company is around 600 people. Engineering is roughly half of that. 

Dan Lines: Nice. Okay. And you talk about this great culture, but what makes the culture so great at Duolingo?

Fabio Lessa: Yeah. That's something that I think a lot about, to try and get to the bottom of the answer.

Because again, similar to the office. The things I would point out, you can say that for a lot of companies as well, right? Like I think, people in general are very nice. There's a very supportive environment. So in that sense, I guess there isn't a lot of difference. My take is that I think like this a more than average number of people with a really strong connection to the mission and what we're doing.

More so than I've seen in other places. And if you think about it also, I think something that's related here is a lot of people have that draw to kind of consumer space products, right? It has that kind of, if you're, especially for an engineering, it has that thing of oh yeah, I work on this app, and you can show people and they, I love the product.

So people really enjoy that. And I think if you look again industry wide for tech, things are like, we're in a bit of a weird. Phase right now. You know what I mean? There's a lot of people, like tech has a bad rap in a, for a lot of, good reasons. And I think if you look at consumer space, there aren't that many products that you can like firmly stand behind and say what we're doing genuinely help people here.

There's no buts or ifs or and I think Duolingo falls a little bit into that. I think people see that, like we get a send of that feedback obviously from learners that you know how much they love the product and that it's like, How much it helped them. I think that really helps too.

People feel that they see that they're helping and that helps kinda the whole thing.

Dan Lines: that's a good point. Like the product, the mission certainly helps if it's something that's really like justifiable and, it's not something, I don't know that you can see between the lines of oh, you're just trying to get advertising money or like selling people's data or that's right.

I'm sure there's billion dollar companies that are super successful that do that. But when you really think about the mission, you might say that yourself. Yeah. And I think when you reach, wanna do that.

Fabio Lessa: Yeah. Exactly. And I think like we reached a size, a certain scale that, like now it has also the technical kind of challenges that people usually look for.

You know what I mean? There's a ton of data, there's a ton of traffic, and you have to build like, like big services and like a very consequential type of operation. That, a lot of, for a lot of people in engineering, sometimes, if you chase just that, that side, that's when it gets complicated, right?

Cause I think that most companies offer the same thing. And then you know if, but if you have, if you find that connection with the product and what you're doing and that it helps that side, then it really becomes something like special.

Dan Lines: What's cool for you is you're on the platform engineering side, right?

You said you have like about That's right. 300 developers and usually at least at LinearB b, when we think about platform engineering, And I'd love to hear like the goals that you have for your team or organization. But it's a lot around empowering the rest of the developers that are within your organization so that they can do their job more efficiently with higher quality streamlined.

Yeah. But what, throwing like a different question at you. Like how do you think about platform engineering and what are the goals of your organization?

Fabio Lessa: Yeah. I think the, you touched on that already. The kind of empowering the rest of the teams to do their jobs and we wanna build a platform that basically lets you do without us getting in the way, if all of our requirements when it comes to reliability, security that get, they get built in more than, you having to come to us for help. It's a journey that we're on. There's a ton of work that we need to get to fully realize that vision, but that's how we've been thinking about it.

And also Platform today at Duolingo, I feel like covers a lot of space, because we have the data side that I mentioned, and I think. There's different like customer groups today that we serve. So there's all, the data side is really not just engineering, but it serves like product heavily uses that marketing.

So the, that's like almost like an org on its own. Then we have like teams like security and it, like I mentioned, that serves the entire company. They cover a lot of things that, we need to interact with everyone. But then there's the kind of the core. Platform side, which is more engineering facing, and that's when we are providing tools like CI/CD and yeah.

Libraries for you to build your services and, observability, things like that.

Dan Lines: Yeah. Going back to like your, what you were saying about like mission of the company and stuff like that. I think also in the platform engineering world, there's a really. nice mission as well. So like for example, some of the stuff we're doing at LinearB B in our product gitSteam is all about allowing developers to merge poll requests faster and not let them get stuck with higher quality.

That's a really good, feeling with that product. And I'm sure you probably get the same sense just being on the platform engineering team. I don't wanna put words in your mouth, but like how does that feel to be leading, like that type of organization that's helping developers?

Fabio Lessa: Yeah. Yeah. I think like the people to who gravitate usually are really passionate about, like they're tooling and how we make this more efficient and really getting in the weeds of. like how things work and providing the best experience possible. Because I think like a lot of times it's like they felt frustrated with what, they were getting before, and they're like, you know, I wanna go build that.

Make the best it can be. It touches even like on that culture side and the product side because I think the, that is again, a case in platform more than other. In product engineering, we really need to spend more time the leadership ar group on remind, reminding people like what we're doing and what's important and what's happening on the product side and how the work that they're doing supports the teams that are building those features.

And yeah. So you don't get just stuck on the kind of tech side.

Dan Lines: Now if I'm moving us into our last topic, which is maybe like the meat of the discussion. You have something that you're doing with. A work training, program. I think it's for newer managers.

But can you give us like an overview about this training program?

Fabio Lessa: we have I mean we have a leadership management training program, right? And I feel like we invest a lot in that first phase of. First transition right from my ca to management. And there's a few reasons for that.

Like the main one actually is that we almost have to, because we have a very successful internship program at Duolingo, we have, we hire a ton of people that come through that program. So probably like our pyramid, probably like the base looks like we have a lot of, like people more on the junior side or people whose job here is their first job.

And so that means that like we have a lot of people who a needs coaching, but a lot of, we have also a lot of people who are stepping into management for the first time because they've been here since they joined. So there's that side. And also because, like I was saying, that transition, is always the trickier one, the first time you do management. there's like focus on like, how do we support those folks better?

Dan Lines: So what are the elements of that program that you have?

Fabio Lessa: So there we have the sessions, right? Like we have a kind of a week long, round of sessions. But I think like the biggest thing that. That helps is that we, you need a strong. Coaching support from that because again, it's like you need to have both the managers who manage those managers, be properly trained to support them going forward.

and also like peer support is something that we believe a lot in. And we have structured like programs for people who go through that week long program to then after they finish that get together to do support groups and talk about things. Because I think one, one of the things about management is that, It's something that you can't just get from books.

I think a switch that happens for engineers is that if you read, you, you're used to a world where like you can, you wanna learn something new, you're gonna use some new technology or whatever it is. Like you learn about it through books and videos and whatnot, and you're ready to go and you do it and it will work, right?

Because there's some deterministic aspect to it, but like with managing is the kind of like complete opposite. If you go with that approach. One thing that happens all the time people, is that you go and you're having this issue with someone on your team and you go and you find this book and you read it and it's okay, tomorrow I'm gonna come in and I'm gonna say this and that, and it's gonna be great.

And it goes completely different than what you expected. Someone else in the team that you didn't even think of reacts really poorly to it and you're like, oh my God, I dunno what I'm doing. This is terrible. And so it does take a lot of. Time and experience to, of doing, like you really have to do it multiple times, different teams, different people, and that's really when you start finding a footing as like, how, what's my style here?

How do I approach these problems for different people in different situations? How do I need to respond? And things like that.

Dan Lines: Specifically going from an individual contributor on the engineering side to a manager. What are some of the aspects of like the training program that. It touches on.

And what are some of the common pitfalls going from individual contributor to new manager that you see?

Fabio Lessa: The only thing that's different in the program itself is like we, we have a session dedicated to just talking about that transition and these pitfalls, It's more of get people in the right mindset as they approach it. Approach the role, because I think like some of the things that are difficult, like there's the classic one that always gets talk about is the fear of losing your technical skills, right? It's like, how much time should I spend coding versus management stuff?

And you're exposed now to new responsibilities and situations that if feel incompetent again. I think that plays a factor. I think the biggest thing that trips. Folks is that I think even though they understand what needs to be done, I think people still approach it from a I do what I used to do before plus these other things, and now I have to have these one-on-ones.

And I think it should be completely like I have a new job here. I used to build products. Now I build teams that build products. And you might feel like I'm just playing with the words here, but like I think that's a fundamental shift in how you approach. Things going forward, right? So a request comes into your team, you need to pause immediately and be like, okay, should I've picked this up?

Cause the reaction, especially if you're a strong, I, we're a strong IC, is to like, just go and do it. Cuz you're like so good at it. That's why you're, like you're senior. but like you need to now take all these other things into consideration to be like, I'm trying to build a team here.

Is it the best move for me to do it? Like, When does this need to get delivered? Who are the people who I have in the team who are looking for opportunities, right? Should I try to coach someone on that and on doing that work? And so I think that is the kind of shift that needs to happen, for you to like really start hitting the right notes

Dan Lines: Now that you're at 300 developers, it probably means that you have dozens or tens of new managers, right? If you know they're managing team of 10 or less or something like that. How do you roll out a like a engineering training program like that at scale?

Fabio Lessa: Yeah, so that I mean I, I can't take credit for that one cause it's mostly driven by our people team, but it's done in like strong partnership with engineering.

we work with them. I run, one of the sessions and other engineers, leaders in the company do as well. So we can like really that, for example, this session that I talked about, for new people in the, that doing that switch. Was exactly because we felt that need. That happens so often and people have this like first set of questions that happen all the time.

So let's like just address that from day one and talk about it. Tell them like, what what's gonna happen and the things that they're gonna feel and how to address that. So we designed the program, together. then the follow up is, like what I was saying, I think it needs the strong coaching side, once you're done with those five days.

Because again, there's, like I was saying about the books, there's no training program that you can do five days, that you're gonna have someone fully prepared to be a manager. It's what you do after that will really ensure the success there.

Dan Lines: What have you seen? To be the impact of having this program and that, and what I'm thinking about for our audience is do you think it's worth the investment to have a training program for new managers and like how big of a team do you think you need to get through where you actually get like good roi, like return on that heavy investment?

Fabio Lessa: Yeah, if I had to say a number. I think like when you start having six, seven managers in the company, right? I think at that point you, you start, you need to start doing something. Even if it's just more informal than this, than a formal program. Around that size is when you really wanna start thinking about that.

Because I think, like historically what I've seen happen more often is Okay, we need a manager. Hey you're like the best engineer here. You're the manager now. Go. And that's all you have. And you have, that's what happened with me at least. And then you kinda have to figure out, it's ok, what do I do in this new role?

And so I think like giving people the space to talk about like the transition, what that means, what the expectations are. We here at this company think management looks like at least that type of chat you could start having even from less people than what I.

Dan Lines: Is there anything that we didn't touch on that you'd like to bring up or anything else that we should know about the training management program?

Fabio Lessa: No, I don't think so. I think the peer support group I mentioned that's something that we've seen a lot of people, because I think one thing, one aspect of management, that you need to address is that it's a role that's more isolating, I guess would be the word.

Because, when you're, I see you, you're stuff you're having issues with at work, you can talk to like most people around you yeah, I'm struggling with this and this has been a problem, and you have your team already to talk about it. But when you're the manager for the team, some of the conversations, you really don't have anybody in the team to share that with.

So it's really important to build connections, inside the company, even outside, to have a group that you can have this type of conversation and share issues. Talk about what you're, how you're approaching and see how other people approached situations before and try to get to your style, I guess with management quicker.

Dan Lines: We always like to ask What is it that you want engineers and engineering leaders in our audience to take away from this conversation? What's the most important takeaway?

Fabio Lessa: I think the one thing that Duolingo really drove home for me these last three years is this idea of starting from the people, right?

And from hiring to training, all those things, spending as much time as you can afford to find the people who really believe in what you're doing and get. Investing in the work environment as much as you can. Like those things really pay off. And it's funny because it might sound like I'm saying that management should almost like optimize to make people feel happy.

And actually I've been in roles where it. It was, management was like purely people management. They were not even part of the teams where people were doing the work. and I really didn't like that. I think that tension between, we have things to deliver and we have people with aspirations and goals like that really forces you to, both understand the business, the product, and what you're trying to do and what people.

People like what their interests are, what they're trying to do, their careers to be able to fully marry that. So I don't advocate at all for a, that way, the way I like to think about it is more of it's not do I deliver on the goals or do I make people happy? I don't think this, it's like the way we deliver on the goals we believe is by having a happy, engaged team, right?

So it's almost like you need to have that to be able to deliver effectively. So I think that's kind the big lesson I would, I got from you working here.

Dan Lines: Well, Fabio, thank you so much for all the insights that you've brought. It's been awesome, having you on the podcast. Yeah, this is great.

Fabio Lessa: Thanks for having me.

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