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Tandem Values: Opening the (Remote) Door

Nora Harris Engineering

In early March of 2020, I found myself one of millions looking for a new job. Luckily, my job wasn’t lost due to COVID-19 and the wave of shutdowns: at the time, I was working for Senator Elizabeth Warren on her 2020 Presidential campaign and she had dropped out of the race a few days prior.

And there it was, glowing in my inbox (*cue chorus of heavenly voices*), an email from Mercedes Bernard, a Tandem engineering manager. She invited me to finish applying for a software engineering position that I had started to apply for in late 2019 before pausing the process to work on the campaign.

I knew Tandem was the right fit. It was exactly what I was looking for: a small (but mighty), talented, and diverse group of individuals focused on creating quality products. This is a company that truly lives by its values — and I found that one of those core values, Open the Door, was especially important during this new time.

On my first day at Tandem in early April, I had never met a single Tandemite in person or stepped foot inside the office. Four months later, and I can attest that my remote-only onboarding and day-to-day experience has not suffered at all. I feel fully integrated into the company and that is due to Tandem’s inclusive and inviting culture.

Day 1: Hit the Kitchen-Table-Turned-Desk Running

I was impressed with Tandem’s speed and efficiency in getting me a new laptop and a few desk essentials, but more pleasantly surprised to be integrated into important team announcements even before my start date. Before my first week, I joined an internal company overview meeting where I got to (virtually) say hi to everyone, get an update on each client project, and hear an overview of Tandem’s COVID practices.

On my first day, I met several Tandemites: I had a check-in with our office manager and my direct manager, an introduction with JC Grubbs, Tandem’s founder and CEO, and a lunch with everyone! Everyone went out of their way to introduce themselves and make me feel welcome. Many of my new colleagues, even Harry Schlough, our COO, spent one of their free evenings attending a virtual talk I had been scheduled to give for Women Who Code Portland in my first week. I was touched by their support.

From my first meeting with my direct engineering manager, Kate Donaldson, I felt welcomed to the team. She set expectations well and we got to know each other personally and professionally. Kate encouraged me to contribute right away:

  • First, I introduced Team Contracts, a way for small teams of developers and designers to get to know each other and collectively agree on team practices. Team Contracts are now used widely across Tandem teams.
  • Within days, I was pushing code to in-house managed apps and pair-coding with colleagues.
  • Best yet, I was added to an exciting client project within a few weeks.

Where to sit in the virtual cafeteria?

Arguably, one of the most important steps of joining any organization is getting to know your colleagues. The transition to work-from-home seemed to be no match for Tandem’s social life. Every week, a Slack bot called Donut randomly matches a trio together to meet for remote coffee. Without these fun get-togethers, how would we have known that we had enough singers at Tandem to create a full chamber choir?!

Often, what starts as a small conversation in the #general Slack channel will evolve into a new special-interest channel as soon as the threaded conversation is too clogged. A few great examples:

  • #personality-tests where we share our Myers-Briggs and Enneagram results
  • #wash-your-hair-less was created so that I could share the wonders of the #NoPoo movement
  • The #music Slack channel BLEW UP on July 24, the day Taylor Swift dropped her surprise hit album, Folklore. And the die-hard Swifties ended up in a separate group chat that lasted for days comparing favorite songs.

But by far, our most popular Slack channel started with the rise of the home-renovation trend during COVID: #retailtherapy. We talk candles, sunscreen, kitchen knives, Apple products, furniture, and so much more. I recommended a desk foot stool and so many colleagues purchased it that I think I need to be promoted to “Office Influencer.” My manager and I even coincidentally bought the same couch from a local boutique, District Chicago.

Screenshot of post in #retailtherapy Slack channel

Home Is Where the Office Is

Like so many offices around the country, ours is currently empty, but there’s one feature of many empty offices that you won’t find at Tandem: dead plants. Katie Beeks, our office manager, cared for the plants diligently for months when she stopped by to pick up the mail.

But there were a lot of plants! So in early July, product designer Amy Johnson and I went to the office — with masks! — and initiated the Tandem Foster Plant project. We triaged all the plants, split up several giant birds-of-paradise palms and snake plants. We photographed each plant and put them in a spreadsheet, complete with a fun name and a “Tinder bio” for our colleagues to request to foster. I’m happy to report that all of the plants have found good homes.

Screenshot of plants with names, 'tinder bios,' and other details


As far as actually working from home, software engineering is by nature a job that can be done anywhere. And while Tandem normally offers one optional and convenient work-from-home day a week, one of the traits that sets Tandem apart from other technology consulting agencies is a high emphasis on teamwork, especially in person. Tandem has a pairing culture, where software engineers work together to deliver a single feature or fix a bug. Even the office is set up for optimal pairing: open seating arrangements with desks that feature one monitor but two chairs, two mice, and two keyboards. I was initially concerned that this pairing style would be difficult to do remotely, but it’s been a breeze thanks to tools like Google Hangouts, Screen, and VSCode Screen share.

Bottom Line: We Take Care of Each Other

Finally, Tandem has done a wonderful job to humanize us during this difficult time. While it has been wonderful that our social and professional experience has not suffered too much, this pandemic has hit everyone hard. Adjusting to work-at-home life with all the added distractions — kids, pets, and the political and social climate — has been difficult. The Tandem leadership team has taken special care to ensure that while work goes on, our benefits may need to adjust for our human experience:

  • To account for mental health hardships, Tandem has added several paid “COVID personal days”.
  • Tandem also offered a generous home-office budget, an internet stipend, and even a monthly budget encouraging us to order local take out (in place of our regular employee benefit of twice-weekly catered lunches).
  • I was completely surprised one day to receive a surprise care package full of tasty snacks!

And crucially, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the Black Lives Matter protests, our CEO spoke with the team openly about how Tandem wanted to support. We were encouraged to take time off to protest or process. Tandem ended up sending sizable donations to Black Lives Matter and the Equal Justice Initiative.

While this year looks nothing like I had planned — I did start the year out hoping to elect Senator Elizabeth Warren President after all! — I’m feeling very fortunate and grateful to be working at Tandem, albeit completely remotely.

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