Mission possible: how Canva engineering works across borders
Ben Sebastian

Mission possible: how Canva engineering works across borders



Season Opener event in Manila


Frontend engineer Ben Sebastian shares how we streamline work despite having the team spread across different continents, and how he is able to contribute to a product used worldwide – right from his office seat in Canva Manila.

My last 3 jobs were all in the Manila offices of multinational companies. This often meant video calls with colleagues overseas in place of face-to-face conversations, chat messages instead of tapping a teammate on the shoulder, and announcements being relayed through emails.

With cross-country communication and virtual correspondence, things can easily go wrong – unstable internet connections, misinterpretation of messages, and the difficulty of finding a common time where everyone is free for calls, among others.

What I knew of cross-country collaboration, however, was challenged when I started working in Canva. I was pleasantly surprised by how a company with a team spread across different continents is able to foster an environment of seamless cooperation, and maintain a consistent experience across its locations.

In this blog, I’ll share how we work hand-in-hand with other engineers based oceans apart - and why it’s not where you work from, but how you work that makes all the difference. As I’ve found, it comes down to two factors - investing in communication, but also fostering autonomy.

Investing in communication

Manila and Sydney based frontend engineers catch up'

Manila and Sydney-based frontend engineers catch up

In a normal remote work setting, there’s just not enough of a personal relationship with colleagues overseas. One of my previous jobs was in the marketing department of a mobile communications company, and our engineers were all in Korea. However, I was the one generating reports and analyzing the data for our product, remotely from the Philippines. It was very difficult to communicate, and I didn’t really know who the engineers were - I’d never seen them before!

Because I had no idea of their personality, I didn’t know how to approach them. I didn’t see them for four years until I was finally sent to Korea for a convention. It became a lot easier to talk to them after that experience, and we were able to work together more effectively.

On the flip side, Canva understands the benefits of personal connection. Manila-based engineers fly to Sydney once a year (or more if necessary) to undergo training, align with other project stakeholders, and get face time with the people whom we work with but usually only get to interact with virtually. While we chat everyday, there is a different rapport formed when we’re together in person. I’ve learned here that getting to know people on a personal level allows me to rally the team and get our best work done.

Using tools the right way

While it’s easy to schedule regular video calls to align, it’s also easy to get sidetracked with stories, comments, and unrelated conversations during meetings. One thing I learned from my colleagues at Canva is the deliberate effort to maximize time. For me, this stems from the sense of ownership and accountability that each person has with their projects.

This means that time in calls and meetings are spent efficiently, and there is an unspoken rule against dilly-dallying. This doesn’t mean that we’re not friendly - on the contrary, I’d like to believe I’ve built very strong personal relationships here. It’s just that we acknowledge that there is a time for work and a time for play.

Collaborating'

Everyone invests a lot of effort into communication. In terms of engineering communication, ‘Take the time to teach each other’ is one of our core engineering values, so the need to invest in communication between engineers is recognized at a whole team level. That goes even for small things, like responding to messages as soon as possible. Another example - in some companies, HR can be very difficult to approach, but at Canva our Team Happiness colleagues are one of the friendliest and easiest teams to reach out to in the whole company.

I find it impressive how communicating has gotten so easy here, so much so that Slack chats and Google Meet calls with my Sydney counterparts feel like a tap on their shoulder or a slight nudge. Because of the efficient use of time, it almost seems like they’re seated at the desk across me, and we can meet, discuss, and clarify things more quickly than I would think. Recently for example, there was an issue that came up which required me to communicate with colleagues across 3 different continents all at the same time. Because of everyone’s make-it-happen mindset, we were able to solve the issue that same day.

Our tools'

How we boost engineering rapport across offices at Canva

Fortnightly
Wordpress Engineering Standups Frontend Forum

Monthly
One-on-one with my Sydney coordinator

Quarterly
Sydney coordinator flies to Manila for our Season Openers (Canva’s version of general planning assemblies)

Annually (or more, depending on the need)
Manila engineers fly to Sydney

Season Opener event

Me and our Sydney-based team lead, Didier Sibellas, presenting at a Season Opener event



We’re given the support we need

'Celebrating my birthday with the team'

Celebrating my birthday with the team

Communication doesn’t happen on its own. Unless people are already in the same room, someone needs to set up the video conference, arrange the room, organize the meeting and book flights for the big Season Opener event in Sydney or Manila. That’s where Canva’s Vibe Team and Team Happiness come in, doing the legwork so communication and collaboration can happen seamlessly, whether it’s between floors or between countries.

In so many ways, we are provided with what we need to do our best work. As I mentioned earlier, this includes access to great tools.

Our office, located at the heart of Makati City, has an open-space setup so we can work and collaborate in an environment that suits us best. This means we can work in our well-lit pantry, right next to the coffee machine and snacks table, or our own standing desks next to our teammates, or in a quiet room all to ourselves.

Snacks at Canva Manila

Snacks at Canva Manila

Autonomy

What has autonomy got to do with working across offices? Autonomy is like the flip side of communication - communication helps you get things done together, while autonomy lowers the communication overhead and empowers individuals and small teams to get things done, regardless of how many offices and employees there are.

There are a number of ways that Canva empowers its teams and engineers to work autonomously, including:

  • Our team structure of small, empowered teams
  • Team ownership of projects
  • Promoting independence with the right tools
  • Empowering individual employees with continuous learning

Big teams and small squads maximize impact

Members of the Digital Design team

Unleashing the inner tiger with my Digital Design teammates

Autumn Season Opener at the Manila office

Autumn Season Opener at the Manila office

The company is at hyper growth, but effective coordination and high-quality conversations are being preserved - if not enhanced - as we expand. As teams get larger, we’re split into squads that allow us to be more hands-on with projects, and consequently, contribute to the product with more impact. These squads also allow us to know who the stakeholders of the project are, therefore giving us direct access to them, and encouraging us to have direct and confident input into the direction of a project.

Breakdown of the infra and data teams at Canva

In her blog entry on ‘Working with global teams’, Canva Product Manager Georgia Vidler talked about maintaining a minimum viable structure within these teams and squads, and how they help us get things done as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Multi-disciplinary teams

Multi-disciplinary squads, including a PM, designer, frontend and backend engineers

There is a sense of ownership for projects

To be honest, when I was new here, I thought I would just be coding a bunch of landing pages. But as we started assessing the performance of our pages, seeing the impact it has on our design community, and gaining more understanding of why we do what we do, there was a deeper sense of purpose with each page and each project.

The Color wiki, in particular, was one of my most challenging projects to date. Programmatically working with colors was tough, but I am proud to have seen that through and how it came out, and am happy with the great feedback it received. The thought that a professor used it to come up with a social media graphic, a digital marketing professional learned about his brand colors, and a learning designer got color ideas for her presentation fuel me with the thought that a project I worked on got to help someone in one way or another. The Color and Sizes wikis, and the Support, Print, and Learn pages are not just tasks I had to accomplish. They are pages I helped build that is now empowering people from all over the globe.

Regardless of which office I’m working from - I know that what I’m doing matters. The mindset we have at Canva is not that we’re doing things for someone, and working just for the sake of it. Each engineer is autonomous, so when I merge to master, I can say that this is my work, my contribution. There is ownership, confidence, and the thought that what I’m doing today contributes to something unimaginably bigger. This means that every squad and individual is empowered and encouraged to do what needs to be done, even when projects are coordinated between teams and countries.

Portrait exhibition of Canva employees

Portrait exhibition of Canva employees

We’re given the tools and people we need

Having autonomy as a team also means having the right tools to do your work, and the right people when you need them. One of the things I appreciate most about Canva is that we’re given access to the resources we need, from new programs to new hires when necessary. For my squad in the Digital Design team, this includes being able to access and test out a multitude of tools like Yoast Premium, Advanced Custom Fields Pro and Gravity Forms Pro.

Access to these make me feel like a child at a toy store. I value that there is a great degree of trust given to each of us in determining what contributes to our productivity and effectiveness, and this is something I always want to live up to.

But it’s not just the tools to do your core job, it’s also the tools to track how you’re doing at that job. When I first started we were growing quickly, but as an engineer I didn’t have much insight into our metrics, like how pages were performing. Now, it’s very different. We have many channels to access analytics, experiments, and all kinds of tools to track how we’re doing. We’re not just on our computers, typing code, we’re actually assessing the performance of our code. That’s made a huge difference to autonomy and ownership - if you can see the scoreboard, you’re empowered to make adjustments in real time.

Learning is a high priority

Portrait exhibition of Canva employees

Fortunately and/or unfortunately, the industry I’m in is ever-changing. Even if I were to spend years perfecting theories and memorizing languages, I still wouldn’t be considered an expert in my field. At Canva, there is a genuine understanding of the concept of continuous learning, and the acknowledgement that development practices evolve over time. Languages, environments, structures, and processes change, and it is essential to keep up.

What does this have to do with collaboration and autonomy? Of course to collaborate effectively as an engineer you need the technical skills, and the skills needed are always changing, especially with a fast-growing product. But beyond that, if engineers aren’t empowered to grow and learn new skills, we’ll always have to rely on other people who already have those skills, making our teams slower and less flexible.

For instance, I was first brought in as a Wordpress Developer, but was eventually given a project in Ruby on Rails. There was naturally fear and nervousness in learning a new framework, but I couldn’t feel luckier to be given the opportunity to expand my skill and receive mentorship from my fellow engineers. Learning here, I noticed, comprised of the perfect mix of being taught and being given the freedom to learn myself. If I had questions, I will be pointed at the right direction of people who could help me.

As our Head of Engineering Joel Hynoski mentioned in a recent blog entry, “We want our people to be able to continuously learn— the company is always growing, and as such we want our people to be able to grow with it.”

Our engineer count is now at a whopping number of 120+, and that number goes up by the day. Slack channels have been created for languages we want to explore, and there are after-work meetings for knowledge sharing. There is indeed a wealth of knowledge available when there are over a hundred brains to pick.

We are also given an annual professional education allowance for skills-based training courses, seminars, as well as books, journal subscriptions, and magazines. As the solid code base of our product is ensured, engineers are also enabled to stay at the top of our game.

Final thoughts

Canva’s tagline, empowering the world to design anything and publish anywhere, may sound ambitious, but it’s happening in real time. Social media posts and real-life stories told by friends or shared by colleagues help me realize that magic is happening. The product we’re working on is helping job applicants get noticed because of resume templates, students get their work done easily and quickly because of its ease of use, NGOs get to easily design and publish social media content because of our non-profit program, and many more. As an engineer, I feel that I really understand the goals and the product itself, and what the product can serve to the users.

In a way, this understanding is the secret ingredient of collaboration. We own the product, which means that we’re motivated to make communication efficient, invest in communicating and connecting with the team, and working autonomously to make our part happen. Add to that the right tools and the right support, and collaboration between offices doesn’t seem so daunting any more.

I don’t need to move elsewhere to change the world. I’m contributing to a product used by over 10 million people, and I can do my fair share of empowering the world from right here in Manila.



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