Nortal HQ, July 8, 2021
One Nortal family spread across 18 offices around the world. To shed some light on the work experiences of our colleagues across the Atlantic, we would like you to meet Robert Väljur – Delivery Director, operating in our U.S. office.
For three years now, Robert has been leading development teams in Seattle. But rewinding to the beginning of his journey at Nortal, Robert joined the company in Estonia as a software developer. By this point in his career, his previous experience shaped a clear aspiration to work in a client-facing company and pursue project management positions.
At Nortal, he was met with a workplace that encouraged this career progression, allowing him to eventually take on leadership roles. By 2018, when the company was expanding its U.S.-based team, Robert had positioned himself to receive the proposal to relocate to the excellent tech scene in Seattle.
At the time of writing, Robert’s portfolio holds six different projects of varying scope. Reflecting on Nortal’s work in the U.S., he underlines a great diversity in clients and projects.
From the perspective of technologies in use, there is no stark contrast between the U.S. and Europe. “Cloud services mainly involve the diversification between AWS services, Microsoft Azure as well as Google Cloud,” Robert notes. “Besides the cloud, our projects involve various back-end and front-end technologies such as Java, Python, and .net,” he outlines.
When it comes to clients, one of the most significant benefits of the Seattle location is working alongside world-class players. “Most of our clients in the U.S. are Fortune 500 companies across industries – ranging from cloud engineering to telecommunication, tourism, and healthcare,” Robert brings forth.
But the other side of this coin entails competing with giants in procurements. Robert shares that a big challenge has been getting the chance to prove that we can build high-performing teams. And on top of that, show that we have the know-how to adjust teams as necessary – to detect potential shortcomings on time and make changes accordingly, scale up and down quickly, and showcase flexibility in adapting new technologies.
The expectations of such clients are high, but with Nortal’s track record, global perspective, and ambition, this is the type of challenge we seek out. We have learned to match our collaboration models and teams with the specific needs and expectations of the client. This requires adaptability and a wide-ranging skillset from our project teams.
In addition to the straightforward technological capabilities, Robert underlines that, especially in a team located on opposite sides of the Atlantic, the most essential skills relate to fostering successful teamwork.
“For example, with distributed delivery, documentation skills are crucial,” he says. “Our team members need to track what they are doing – what is the architecture they are building, how the business flows work, what are the transactions or dependencies involved etc. This is especially vital for other stakeholders involved, such as the customer and external partners that need this information,” he continues.
This goes hand in hand with excellent communication skills. To keep the wheels of any project turning smoothly, each team member must communicate what they are doing, why they are doing it, and why it is all necessary. With complex projects and huge enterprises, there could be hundreds of individuals working on the same initiative. Effective communication is paramount to navigate such collaboration successfully.
To seamlessly connect the moving pieces in any given project, each team member is also expected to have a level of independent troubleshooting capability. While help is always available, work tends to flow smoothly when people can identify the problem or root cause by debugging their blocks independently. It is much easier to pair up, communicate a mitigation plan, and work on a solution or problem area when the faulty code is identified. This is especially the case on critical production issues, where problems are raised in a large audience, often in virtual triage meetings.
From his experience, Robert notes that clients in the U.S. expect vendors to independently grasp the bigger picture of the project with minimal input. More and more, this reflects the need for continuous skills development, which Nortal’s organizational structure and culture strongly supports.
Robert shares that the company’s teams are encouraged to refine their skillsets in line with the demands of oncoming projects and personal interests and ambitions. Nortal provides a variety of learning opportunities to support its people. For junior-level employees, Robert highlights the Nortal Summer Academy and Winter Academy – as well as various training sessions – for the improvement of technical skills, including certification opportunities.
Employees in any position can also join Nortal’s specialized Learning Hives. For example, project managers or analysts are welcome to jump into a programming hive. Robert notes that cross-training is especially important in the U.S., where it is expected that everyone understands the different aspects of their project. To ensure there is always someone to turn to for help, each team member has a designated mentor.
Most importantly, Robert emphasizes that skills development – even in the “soft skills” department – is a natural part of career progression and self-improvement. “People should definitely not feel awkward if they are taking lessons on how to better communicate, how to better read the audience in a specific meeting, or how to present themselves. It is important to ensure that the customer feels you are an expert, not just on paper – and these are the skills you can always improve,” he explains.
Providing a glimpse into the daily life at the U.S. office, Robert estimates that 50% of the workday is allocated for collaboration activities – including daily stand-ups, grooming meetings, retrospectives, demo meetings, and other presentations – and 50% for the actual development process, which in the U.S. falls into the second half of the day.
Development methods in the U.S. tend to be familiar – with the most popular being Scrum. Nevertheless, Robert admits that the reality is rarely perfectly planned. Navigating distributed delivery across continents requires flexibility and a shared understanding around set working routines. The daily workflow is primarily guided by the various time zones teams are spread across.
“You need to have shared timeframes in which you can communicate and collaborate with the other continents,” Robert explains. Nortal provides their offshore from Lithuania, Estonia, and Serbia, which have a 9- to 10-hour time difference between the U.S. West Coast. This means that to find overlapping times, the U.S. team starts work at about 7 or 8 a.m. and finishes at around 4 p.m., and teams located in Europe start between 9 and 11 a.m. and work until 5 to 7 p.m.
But besides mutual collaboration slots, people have the flexibility to take breaks during the day, should they need or wish to do so. In addition, these working slots depend mainly on the person’s position and the given project. Importantly, Robert emphasizes that work–life balance is an absolute priority at Nortal and encouraged in the way we work.
“That is why flexibility is key. We don’t want people to overwork, but we need to achieve these overlapping collaboration timeframes to ensure the projects flow smoothly. Everyone needs to communicate their availability and make concrete agreements around that. Once all team members are on the same page, problems are less likely to occur,” he says.
Regarding developers’ tasks, expectations vary across projects. “We have projects where people need to do everything. Starting from analyzing what needs to be done and how, providing the proposed architecture and implementing it as well as presenting it to the customer,” Robert outlines.
“In bigger projects, tasks tend to be cut down to functionality,” he continues. “But technical analysis is embedded in all responsibilities. Regardless of the size of your piece, you need to understand how it fits in the larger picture. More and more, this also applies to operational support activities because companies are trying to set up the mindset for developers to control the whole lifecycle of the project.” he concludes.
Naturally, relocating across the Atlantic provides the opportunity to experience an entirely new business culture than in Europe. One of Robert’s observations concerns the role of vendors, which in the U.S. can often tackle bigger projects as opposed to receiving smaller “leftover” gigs. As a vendor in the U.S., it is therefore common to build up your own systems from scratch or take on product ownership.
From the customer engagement perspective, Robert has observed a greater sense of urgency in the U.S. when comparing to Europe. “Things happen very rapidly, and you have to adapt to that tempo because the customer will never adapt to your tempo,” he says.
“Working abroad, you become a part of a different culture, witness new ways of thinking and acting,” Robert reflects. When asked to summarise his experience working in the U.S., he describes it as highly agile, continually changing, and endlessly interesting – on a personal and professional level.