The Remote Show

Show Notes:

Michael's Links:




Levels Company Website


Tyler Sellhorn (00:02): 
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Hello everyone. My name is Tyler Sellhorn, and welcome to another episode of the Remote Show, where we discuss everything to do with remote work with the people who know it best. Thanks so much for listening. The Remote Show is brought to you by We Work Remotely, the largest community of remote workers in the world. With over 220,000 unique users per month, We Work Remotely is the most effective way to hire. Today, we are blessed to be learning out loud with Michael Mizrahi. Michael builds and scales operations and support teams. Michael is currently the head of operations at Levels. Michael has spent five plus years as an early employee at Uber where Michael was chief of staff for community operations and built a global support network to scale from hundreds to millions of daily trips in cities around the world.
Michael has led teams, specialized in product operations, outage management, help content and documentation, product development, migrations, social media support, and vendor tools and platforms. Michael has also worked cross-functionally with legal, regulatory, communications, insurance, finance, HR and product engineering teams. Michael, we're so excited to be learning from you today. I'm super curious to learn more about what you have built at Levels inside of the candidate experience and onboarding processes that you've built at Levels, and please tell us more about that. 
Michael Mizrahi (01:38): 
Yeah. Thanks, Tyler, and I'm happy to be here. Big fan of the space and the show, and I think We Work Remotely on the website many years ago, so have some familiarity. I think one of the first thing that is interesting about Levels that strikes people is a lot around our transparency culture. We share everything internally and almost everything externally. I'll use my own search as an example. Applying to the company, learning about the company and you have full access to all of the documentation, all of the strategy docs. The things that normally happen in some hypothetical back room or dinner where with a few founders where they're like deciding some crucial things, all of that is laid bare at levels.
And so we share all of our culture and our strategy and all the documentation that exists with candidates upfront. And so it really makes for an interesting recruiting process. And then that eventually flows into onboarding and just to how we run the company in general. But that's one of the first things that strikes people is just how open we are with them about how we run our business. 
Tyler Sellhorn (02:36): 
Okay, so you said the word transparency for us, and then you even kind of qualified it inside of the internal and external transparency, and then connected the dots to candidate experience. So what's it like to talk to a candidate that's been to your most recent board meeting in a virtual sense, at least? What's that like? 
Michael Mizrahi (03:00): 
It's so much easier on the recruiting and hiring side and just on the company side, because there's no games, there's no show that you're putting on. You're not acting because they've seen you interact in our actual most recent Friday forum, which is our team all hands on a Friday. They know what your latest update was. And so you can think about recruiting and all the time that you generally spend in recruiting, explaining what you're up to, explaining what the challenges are, explaining the team dynamics. They see that all for themselves before they even talk to you. And so your call then starts from a point that's so much more productive because you're starting from a higher point on the mountain. And so you can work together and really help guide the conversation in a helpful way. We generally say about recruiting that it's a matching problem, not a sales problem.
And so, so far I've been talking about all the benefits that we've had for us making our process easier, but this also makes the experience so much better for candidates because they get to look under the hood and truly, truly not only look under hood, they essentially get to drive their car. They're in the passenger seat. They're maybe not pressing the buttons and communicating with us, but they're along for the ride. And so they get to understand how we work, how we think, how we operate as a culture and decide if it's right for them as well. And so the benefits for candidates are really strong in both ways. It's kind of like, someone phrased it, we like to put out a magnet, not a beacon, right? And a magnet does two things. One is that it attracts people that are a strong fit.
The second thing is it also repels people that might not be a fit. And so people can self-select out of the process, which is totally okay. That is the point of the recruiting process. And so we've had great success with that approach. And of course, growing company, a lot of things still need work. And so this isn't like the best recruiting process in the world, but it's an intentional one that has paid dividends from a lot of other efforts that we've had. So I'll talk about that. You asked specifically about transparency. We put everything out there with very few exceptions. And almost in real time, some things are a little bit harder to come by. So like our investor updates get released on a one year delay, but it goes to our investor network and any candidates in real time. And so we post these medium articles, we do podcasts.
We're just showing how we run the company, not with the intention of recruiting candidates. A lot of companies might structure employer brand or recruiting and have all these initiatives around telling employee stories. We're doing that organically for the sake of our own team, for the sake of telling our stories internally. And then the benefits are candidates get to see that and also get a clue in, and then drink the Kool-Aid, understand what we're doing and get excited about our mission and how we run the company. 
Tyler Sellhorn (05:31): 
So you talked about the strategy of sharing. Okay, so a shout out to the passengers and the Ubers of employer branding and candidate experience. We're mixing all the metaphors here with the magnets and beacons, but I'm so interested to hear you talk about the decision making behind choosing transparency as a recruiting strategy, but then also like you described it as a magnet, not a beacon, and that candidates are self-selecting inside of this process. What do you mean when you say we start further up the mountain? 
Michael Mizrahi (06:11): 
Yeah. So on those conversations with candidates, because they've... and quick aside, maybe a little bit of a meta note; I can share with you our strategy on transparency. It's a notion doc called The Levels Transparency Strategy, Why We Build in Public. I think we wrote this one about a year or so ago. We constantly refresh these memos. But that document has in writing. We obviously, as a remote company, understand the value of documentation. I'm sure the audience appreciates that as well. We have this memo that explains our philosophy on transparency, why we do it, what the definitions of it are, what does it mean when something's public, internal or confidential?
And then probably most importantly, why are we being transparent? Like what benefits do we think this has; known benefits, unknown benefits. And also on the flip side, what are the risks? What are the things that people at other more traditional companies might say, that's crazy, you should never share that because your competitors X, Y, Z, or your talent X, Y, Z, or you threaten your internal culture in a certain way.
And so we address all of those fears and thoughts that people might have head on in this memo. And then this kind of sets the foundation for how we build in public. So back to your question, when you're sharing all of this, a candidate has so much more insight into how you actually work. You skip the time spent on questions like what's your product strategy? What are you all working on? How do you guys think about building culture. All these kinds of questions that you generally spend a lot of time on in an interview that's just information transfer. We have memos for every single one of those questions and many, many more.
And so we can send that up front, they can do their homework, read the discussions that have happened, understand the philosophy and the thoughts and the discussion and conflict that went into it as well. And then what happens in the interviews is that you can actually dig into a person's working style, into their character, into their sense of self-awareness, into what they're looking for in work. Some of the deeper things that oftentimes you have to infer because you didn't have time to get to it in the interviews. We let that focus be the primary one. Something I'll add too that is just adding to the untraditional side of things, we record all of the candidate interviews. And so with permission, we ask the candidates if they're okay with that, but we make it upfront that that is generally part of our process, and we maintain that in most of the cases.
And what this does is that when you have a hiring panel of, let's say, three or four people that are going to speak to this candidate, the interviewers down the line can review the call notes, review the looms and the recordings of the previous interviews and come to their own understanding of what has already been discussed. And this avoids getting on the interview call, which many people do and say, so like tell me what you've learned so far. And if you've had a 30, 45 minute interview, you spend 10 minutes just catching up, just understanding what they've understood, who they've spoken to. And the interviewer is putting the work on the candidate. We take that work and we put it on ourselves. Of course, there's a lot of conversation around this. Does it introduce bias? Does it let people have their own opinion of the candidate without being impacted by what other people might have thought or reading other scorecards before they write their own?
And so we have controls and mechanisms for that. But what this really does is it lets us be really objective. We can quote in a debrief meeting or a decision meeting specific timestamps where a candidate said something in an interview [inaudible 00:09:21] person, then now we can make available to the group and bring up those clips and actually watch them in a debrief call and say, do we think that this person accurately captured what we think they did? Do they get that point? Yeah, I think we all do. Great. So that point is no longer a concern. And we actually get more objective and less subjective when we have this kind of experience.
And then on the candidate experience, I don't have to repeat myself over and over again. I've already met most of the, as a candidate, already met the interviewers, because I watched the team meetings and I've seen them in looms and I've watched their videos. So I understand their character. I understand how they interact and I can spend time asking questions about what I really care about, versus doing the performative interview thing. 
Tyler Sellhorn (09:58): 
Okay. So you've gone pretty deep on the piece where everything turns into something that can be accessed later, right? It doesn't have to be at the same time. Each person gets to have their own opinion of something that is separate from the moment that it was documented. I feel like we're talking around the big $10 word, 15, $20 word of asynchronous. Right. And I'm curious to learn more about the way Levels does meetings. And when we were talking beforehand, you had mentioned memos, not meetings and that being a way of operation at Levels. Can you tell us more about how that works in practice? 
Michael Mizrahi (10:47): 
Yeah. So we have a memo called memos over meetings, which explains our philosophy of why we believe in documentation. And a lot of these things might be obvious to folks who are in the remote space who've worked for a remote company. But big distinction, which I think you've probably hit on a million times, remote does not mean [async 00:11:06]. With COVID and companies going remote, that means they use a lot of zoom, they've taken the workday and put it onto the internet and just do it from the comfort of their own living rooms, but they're still a synchronous company, they just happen to be remote or distributed. Async is the next level, which is to say, we don't run on a synchronous schedule. Everyone can work when it makes the most sense for them, and we truly mean that by not having meetings where you had to be there by letting conversations take time, so that you can interact with them on your own time.
And obviously there's bounds on that just to keep things moving. But all those kinds of principles of documentation and async culture come into effect, and that's a lot deeper conversation with plenty to talk about there, but that's a big part of our culture. And something to keep in mind is that it's really important to design intentionally for this. I think on the surface, if we're talking about recruiting and especially given it's 2022 and the world has changed a little bit for this kind of work, people think that they have worked remotely. And so we have a question on the application, have you worked remotely before? And if you were [inaudible 00:12:10] two years, most people are probably like, no, or maybe, and now it's like, yep, everyone's worked remotely before. Do they really understand what that means and what that feels like in a truly remote distributed async company?
Because it's not all comfortable. Like it sounds great to have autonomy and to work from whatever city you're in and to run and schedule your own day and your own week. But unless you truly internalize that and build your life in a way that supports that, it's nice in theory and can be uncomfortable in practice. And this gets into our onboarding process where we have folks who are very well experienced, who've worked at the greatest of the big tech companies who have 10, 15 years of experience, but they haven't really worked in an async fashion, haven't structured their own days. And so they show up on day one and we use G Suite Google calendar. They open their calendar and it's blank. There's a Friday forum on Friday mornings that's totally optional, and maybe one of them with a manager or somewhere in between, but there's nothing on the calendar.
There's no meetings to show up to like do the work. And so there's this moment of pause, which is like, what do I do now? Like there's nothing on my calendar. Like how do I structure my day? And the answer is, well, you do work like we hired you to do the work. So, find it and do it and structure your day in the way that makes the most sense. Build your schedule around your communications, build your schedule around your life, your bike rides, your kids, your significant other, your commitments. Find the blocks of time where you really need to do deep work and focus deeply on writing a strategy memo or building a project plan or executing on something. And so that abyss of having to do that on your own is difficult for a lot of folks.
And that's what is really hard to communicate until someone feels it. And that's the role of a strong remote onboarding program, which is where we follow up with the recruiting processes once someone's in, and they think they're excited about this culture and they might have even worked remotely before. We really need to, I'll take a step back and retrain a lot of the habits and assumptions about how work works and how work happens because you can't assume that people understanding it in theory means that they know how to apply it in practice. 
Tyler Sellhorn (14:06): 
I think that's maybe the thing that I'd like for us to continue talking about is, how do we move as workplaces broadly, not just Levels, right? You guys are some astronauts on the async rocket, right. And at some point, we would like to invite you back to re-entry into our atmosphere. And maybe the thing that we want to know is how do we do that too, right? How do we make that leap from not just clicking the box of remote; yes, I worked remote. I was alive during the pandemic. Right. And horrible outcomes that [inaudible 00:14:49] there, right? Like we did survive. And now what are we going to do with that experience? How are we going to move beyond just not only location, independent work, but also time independent work? How do we make that leap? 
Michael Mizrahi (15:02): 
A lot of it is workplaces and people giving themselves permission to rethink how work is done. I think we have so many vestiges of the old way of working. You can attribute it to industrial era. You can stop anywhere along the way, and there's all these different appendages and structures that we've implemented of bureaucracy, of process, of policy. And you have a lot of really innovative companies doing really interesting things today and writing books about it and doing podcasts about it. And so there's the far end of the spectrum as well, but I think in openness to acknowledging that work can be different and still be insanely productive and value producing and impactful. And that means in the culture itself, the way you fight that is being explicit about how you perform and how you do certain behaviors. And so when we talk about culture and you've got the values in the lobby, on the plaque, there's that, but there's also the actual like, how does work get done here?
What does it feel like to work here. And explicitly, how do we use certain tools? How do we structure our days? How do we work on calendars? So if I want a meeting with you, do I throw time on your calendar? To use a euphemism, is that acceptable? How do I schedule a meeting if I actually do need some sync time? Making those all really, really explicit feels like a funny exercise, and it feels like something that should be an afterthought like, we're hiring people that have worked for years. They know how to use a calendar. They know how to schedule a meeting, whether it's an outlook or Google suite, they'll be fine. But no, we have a doc that explains how you schedule a meeting. What's acceptable, what's not, why the rationale is always as important. That's not to create a culture with a ton of policies, because these aren't policies, they're documentation of culture, documentation of how we get things done.
And then that extends most importantly, this is one that's personal to me, to the tools that you use because those enforce certain behaviors. So if you turn on Slack and you turn on sync chat, you're not going to have an Async culture. You're going to have a culture where if someone sends you a DM, you have to get back to them, otherwise it's clear that you're not at your desk. And so you probably went for lunch. That's not cool during the day. I don't know, whatever it might have been. And so the tools that you choose to use impact the culture that you build and the way in which you use those tools also matters. And so we do all these YouTube videos and explainers and productivity series internally and externally to explain how we use tools. So like we have a video on how we use superhuman reminders, how we use Loom, how we structure notion documents, every single tool that we use, text expander, whatever it might be.
There are internal sessions where people have actually recorded themselves, going through a podcast style episode or a tutorial explaining best practices and practices in general for using these tools, notification settings, when to actually check your communication tool. So, do you do it in the morning? Do you block it for yourself? And we give guidance, people make their own decisions on what works for their lives, but we're really, really intentional about certain things like push notifications or avoiding sync chat, or not falling into bad habits on some of these tools, which are built to embrace those bad habits and get that engagement. And so keeping an eye on the work and building the tools and structure and process around it that supports it. And so back to earth, we're on the far end of the trajectory here, and what can I do really, really be intentional and explicit.
And this looks different at different sizes of companies, right? You might start doing this on a team and get that team working in a certain way. You might change your own practices and just let that be accepted. But if you're starting a company early on and it's early days, there's so much opportunity to build this into the DNA early on and to get it right. And it's not a top down, someone decides this is important, that is important, that does help, but everyone has to be on board with that culture. And coming back to the recruiting thing, one of the things that we check, we ask about work style, we ask about obviously skill set and feature set, teamwork, career trajectory, but also a willingness to participate in building an innovative remote work culture.
That is a key part of what it means to be on our team. And so someone joining has to be on board with understanding that we're going to experiment with some things, we're going to be a little bit wacky on some tools, we might go too far and need to over-correct, but we're expecting participation in that process. And that is part of the job and part of what it means to be a productive culture carrier at Levels. 
Tyler Sellhorn (19:21): 
Well, I think it's interesting for you to use a brick and mortar example to say that the values that are stamped on in the marble lobby, right? Is that invitation to be just as explicit in our digital spaces as we work remotely, right. Don't forget to say, this is how we work and these are the things that we're going to use and we're going to use them in these ways and to be intentional. And you mentioned instant messaging and particular brand of that being spoken of. But what I've heard is that you all have mostly gotten rid of Slack at your company. In fact maybe gotten rid of it all together at Levels. Maybe I'm curious to learn, pull that apart for us, which tools we choose and how we choose them and how we use them. Tell us more about why you guys are operating in this way that says, no thank you to Slack. 
Michael Mizrahi (20:27): 
Yeah. The first part of that question, the brick and mortar example of being explicit about the values, I came across your episode with Darren from GitLab, and Darren's obviously a close friend of Levels and an advisor to us in a bunch of ways, especially on the remote side of work. And I think in that episode you do with him, he explains that the same way in which you have someone structure an office in a physical space where like [beta cyber 00:04:48], the lobby, is it a cyber where the water cooler is, they physically design the floor plan. It's very easy to not do that in a digital space because you just assume everyone knows how these tools are used. And maybe you assign someone that leads the knowledge based documentation project, but that's an appendage. It's not the core workflow.
And so a lot of this being explicit is defining how work is done, what tools we use, why we use them, how we use them, all these things. On the Slack conversation, we could do a whole conversation about sync messaging. What it came to for us was like any company in 2022 in the tech space starting up, you spin up G suite, you spin up Slack, you maybe have notion or G docs or Dropbox or whatever your stack is. But generally a messaging tool is in one of those and being a proficient knowledge worker these days means you know how to use Slack the same way that knowing how to use a word processor a few decades ago was a skill, right? So knowing how to Slack is a thing. We had this beautiful notion doc, I can share the memory with you.
Again, example of how we use Slack at Levels. We have notifications off. We default to public channels. We don't use DMs. We don't set up fire hoses that are likely to just get out of control. We don't do all these things. We're going to be better. We're going to fight the system. We're going to use this intentionally. And I think in principle, that was great. And then over time as the company grows and you add people that used Slack or a messaging tool teams, whatever they were on at their previous company, they come in and they got the tool in front of them. And maybe they even have multiple instances, so they're in some affinity groups, some communities they use Slack in a certain way. And it just promotes a certain way of working and fighting that tide when they click into the company slack and start working there is nearly impossible.
They're going to bring old habits. They're going to have a quick thought and be like, oh, I'll just DM that person. Quick question, [inaudible 00:22:36]. And all of a sudden you're training the behaviors that we want to avoid, that interrupt the deep work and focus and space that we want to create for our team. And there's almost no way to fight it unless you really just pull the rug out and call it off. And so that's the situation we found ourselves in. It just all entered a state of entropy and we ended up right where we started and we defaulted to sync slack, but not everyone was on it. And so we took a step back and decided to reassess what we were doing, why we were doing it. And this is a part where it really takes an intentional and thoughtful culture to be open to having those conversations and to consider these important enough part of the company strategy to spend time on it.
And so you can take an early stage startup and to spend time arguing and discussing which communication tool we should use sounds like a futile and waste of time, but it's not because it impacts your employee retention, your employee happiness, your work product, the future of your company, because changing it at 50 is going to be very different from changing it at 200. And even if that's the size that the company stays, the more people, the harder it is to change these things. And so that was a little bit of our approach on why we moved away from sync messaging. And quick caveat just so, we do maintain the instance for, I'd say like 5% of work, which is outage coordination and outage management. We tried some alternatives, but in the case that engineers need to convene in one place, everyone knows how to use this and it's good enough for that. So it's there, but it's not part of the core workflow whatsoever. 
Tyler Sellhorn (24:10): 
Well, thank you for encouraging us to consider different tools to promote a different context in a different contextual way to even approach our work, right? Opening a different app invites our minds to think differently and to operate with a new set of rules and norms and ideas about how we're going to collaborate and how we're going to communicate and when we're going to communicate. Okay. So let's bring it home here, Michael. I want to just, first of all, shout out to the OG head of remote, Darren, for connecting us for this episode. It's really, really fun to be connecting across the distance. And maybe that's the thing to say to all of our listeners is that this podcast episode is an example of the asynchronous communication that we're being invited into as a remote work advocacy community and job seekers and hiring managers.
And all of that is to say, hey, if you want to read this conversation instead of listen to it, you can go to our website, we've got the transcript there for you. And if you'd like to listen to it faster, right, I'm sure your podcast player of choice is going to give you the opportunity to listen to it much faster than we talk. Right. But I think that's one of those things that we didn't ever realize is that some of the things we've been doing have promoted a certain way of doing things together as we work. And other things are set up in the way podcasts are, is to be intentional and to listen to this episode because Michael is on it and I'm really interested about what is happening at Levels. And I heard they don't even have meetings, it's all memos and stuff.
Tell me more about that. So maybe the thing to invite you to bring it home is to say, what is the reason why you all have chosen to show up together in these ways? Why remote work, why async first? Why is it bring us up a level past operational stuff. Like thank you for giving us the notes and bolts too, but tell us why we're doing it this way. 
Michael Mizrahi (26:25): 
Yeah. On the why remote, that happened somewhat organically. The company was founded before COVID so 2019 or so, and a few of the early founders were not in the same city. And so you start playing that relocation game and it just made sense to be able to hire people regardless of where they lived, regardless of what life decisions they had made for their talent. Right. And I think that's where a lot of companies start with remote is it's really, really great to be able to have access to the talent pool of the world. And there's plenty of conversations that we can then have there about global versus local pay rates versus benefit systems versus employers of record. That's a whole space of its own, but that's benefit number one is you have access to talent regardless of where they live and you don't require people to uproot their lives or change their lives to contribute meaningfully to a company's objectives.
So we say we're a remote at Async first company. The Async first part, the only way we've found to do remote effectively is to be Async first, right? Because now you have people around the world in different time zones, as far as New Zealand, as far as Portugal, across the US, north and south Canada to Mexico, to Columbia, right? On our small team of 50 or so, we already spent a bunch of countries, and if you're expecting everyone to overlap for some portion of the day, there are benefits to that in some specific functions for some amount of time, but at some point that breaks down. And so if you want to build a culture that maintains people and cares about people in their lives and realizes that the work product actually doesn't change that much, there's still a ton that gets done.
We're not slacking by any means. When you build for it, the kind of work that you can do in this structure makes a ton of sense. And so if you're going to build a remote company to me naturally thinking from first principles and just being super objective about it, it makes sense to do it in an async fashion and to be really intentional about the tools, the process, the norm setting. And a good example of this, I was having a conversation with a friend recently, and they work at a traditional large company, not in tech, in a different industry. They were griping about how this company celebrates hard work, but doesn't celebrate results. And the example of that was like, and this one person sent an email on a Saturday morning just to show that they were doing the work on a Saturday morning and they should have waited to schedule it until Monday morning.
And in that culture, I understand that sentiment, we've taken the completely opposite approach, which is to say, people should do the work when they are most able to do the work. We're not watching to see how many butts are in seats during what hours, structure your work, structure your life, don't work on a Wednesday morning if you're doing something else, but you can put in the time at another time, it's not the job of the sender to be mindful of the norms. It's a job of all of us to just work when we work best and to not read into the timestamp on a message, because if it's scheduled, did the work really not happen on a Saturday morning? Or was it just scheduled for 8:24 AM on Monday? Right? And so you start playing all these games where it's just like, let's put these games aside, let's focus on what matters, which is, are we doing good work?
Do we have a healthy work and life balance and conversation of its own? We're chewing these up. And that's what's important here in building a remote company is just resetting the norms, being really just logical about setting a new way to work and being intentional about how we go about that and thinking through the pros and the cons, because it doesn't work for everyone. And each of these needs to be adjusted based on the group of people that you've got. And that's totally okay. So what works for one company might not work for another, but what's important is that each company's being intentional about how they're approaching this. And that's, I think most of what I would advocate for. 
Tyler Sellhorn (30:01): 
I want to say thank you, Michael, for this invitation to be more transparent, especially inside of the onboarding and candidate experience moments of time and the idea to be explicit, right? And to be very intentional about which tools and how we use them. Right. And the idea that maybe it could be a memo instead of a meeting. For those of you listening, we will, of course, be linking to all the resources that Levels has been transparently sharing. And we just want to say thank you to all the remote companies that have been showing us the way, that have been those astronauts, right. That have been around the moon and back. And thank you for showing us the way to do it too. So thank you, Michael. 
Michael Mizrahi (30:44): 
Awesome. Thanks Tyler. This was great. 
Tyler Sellhorn (30:47): 
Thanks so much again for listening to the show and be sure to check out weworkremotely.com for the latest remote jobs. And if you're looking to hire a remote worker, We Work Remotely is the fastest and easiest way to do so. As always, if you have someone we should talk to, any advice you have, or if you'd like to advertise on the podcast, please reach out to us at [email protected]. That's [email protected]. Thanks so much for listening and we'll talk to you next time. 

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