- DuckDuckGo, a privacy-first search engine, is fully remote and plans to remain so.
- Engineering director Cate Huston says remote work helps working parents juggle and women developers stand out in a male-dominated field.
- The Houston developer team has grown nearly fivefold since June 2020 as DuckDuckGo expands its user base.
Even as Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft permanently shift to a hybrid working model, some tech executives believe their workers are better off in an office.
“We spent decades having these conversations about people being together … the coffee table discussion and going out for coffee,” Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, recently told CNBC’s Make It. “Remember all that? Was that all wrong?”
The woman who heads engineering at one of Google’s main search rivals disagrees.
Remote offices promote transparency and help ensure engineers in male-dominated fields are promoted based on merit rather than a “brother culture,” according to
Ireland’s Director of Engineering, Cate Houston, who previously worked at Google.
“One of the things I really like about distributed work as a woman in a male-dominated field is that everything is on paper, so I always have my receipts,” Huston said.
DuckDuckGo, founded in 2008, bills itself as a privacy-first search engine. The company was remote-first before the pandemic and is sticking to the model. Others, including DropBox,
and Spotify, have also gone remote-first indefinitely.
Google called workers into the office three days a week and implemented pay cuts for remote workers in cities cheaper than San Francisco or New York. Former CEO Schmidt has become an outspoken advocate for a return to office.
“If you miss it because you’re sitting on the couch at home while you’re working, I don’t know how you build great management,” Schmidt said in his CNBC interview.
Houston, who worked at Google from 2011 to 2014, believes attitude can cost a company talent. DuckDuckGo has positioned itself as the antithesis of Google, which has proven effective in attracting tech workers.
“I literally never met anyone I worked with, for a year and a half,” Houston said. “But we were still able to build a really nice team environment, even though most of the team was in that position, but that requires a level of care and intention.”
DuckDuckGo says it compensates equally based on position and regardless of an employee’s location or time spent at its Philadelphia headquarters.
Employees are spread across the globe, with many only syncing up for a video team meeting once a week.
“One thing I hear constantly in interviews is wanting to work on something that is a net asset in the world,” Huston said, “which I don’t think is true of every tech company.”
Remote work can be harder for junior developers
An important difference between Google and DuckDuckGo’s work strategies is that DuckDuckGo only hires experienced developers. Meanwhile, Google is hiring hundreds of junior developers and offering internships.
Schmidt, in his CNBC interview, may be right when he says younger employees are better off learning professionalism and management skills in an office setting. “
“In terms of their age, that’s when they learn,” he said. “If you miss it…because you’re sitting on the couch at home while you work, I don’t know how you build great management. I honestly don’t know.”
JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani have made similar comments, with data indicating younger workers feel less productive at home. Airbnb just told employees they can work remotely forever, but acknowledged some jobs are better in person.
Houston says young people can be successful remotely if they cultivate good work habits and ask for help when they need it.
Working from home doesn’t offer the same free breakfast and dinner communal structure that Silicon Valley campuses offer, but junior developers who can learn to establish consistent daily rituals and stay motivated even when their code has bugs can succeed remotely.
In the office, “you would sit your junior developer down next to you and notice when they were struggling, and help them out,” Huston said. In remote workplaces, there is more than one “pull culture”.
Junior developers “have to learn how to get the help they need,” Houston said, but added that it can be done.