In the second installment of our featured interview series, we share the experiences and insights of Virtana Inc.
Who is Virtana?
Virtana is a Caribbean-based robotics and software outsourcing firm that brings Silicon Valley’s curiosity, culture and world-class technology development to Trinidad & Tobago. They aim to make the Caribbean a major player in the global robotics ecosystem. The company works closely with universities, industry, and Virtana alumni to develop robotics curriculum, explore new commercial robotics opportunities, and mentor new robotics startups in the region.
In 2018 InvesTT facilitated Virtana’s start up in Trinidad and Tobago by assisting with the business registration process and work permit applications. We also developed and administered an IT Labour Survey to identify the local IT services labour pool.
V. In everything we do, we aim to be proactive. Prior to any national announcements, we paid attention to how the tech companies on the west coast of the USA were treating the emergence of COVID-19.
Internally, we had a discussion concerning how best to ensure the safety of our employees. We considered the employees that were at a higher risk (e.g. employees that use public transportation) and what would be the best course of action to alleviate their concerns. We then communicated our thoughts to the entire Virtana team and had a dialog with the team to answer any concerns. Lastly, we created a WFH (work from home) policy in the event that we had to be fully remote.
V. The main safety measure that affected most businesses was that, unless you were an essential worker, you were required to self-quarantine. Virtana is a highly collaborative company. The biggest challenge was facilitating collaboration while everyone was remote.
Prior to the pandemic, we had display screens and speakers setup in the office, with a 24/7 video chat, that allowed anyone working remotely, to participate in meetings and collaborate with the rest of the team. This meant all our employees are comfortable and productive when collaborating, while WFH.
V. Our previous creation of a WFH policy provided guidance on certain business decisions we had to make. Virtana is a robotics and software outsourcing firm and much of this work requires high-end PC workstations and virtual reality headsets. As such, we allowed employees to check-out Virtana computing equipment to work from home. We’ve created a culture of trust at Virtana and we trust our employees to do their best to take care of this equipment.
V. When behaviours change, new business opportunities will always be created. This is also a good opportunity for the local ecosystem to, not only look for new business opportunities, but to change the way we operate our businesses. Right now is an opportunity to move towards adopting a more digital-minded paradigm of work.
From day one, Virtana has strived to be paperless. For example, we use Google Drive for all our paperwork. In fact, we use the entire Google Suite of productivity software; Email, Google Docs, Google Sheets which makes sure that all our paperwork and documents are always synced with the cloud. We only use our office printer and scanner when interacting with other entities that require paper.
V. The most challenging situation was trying to reduce employee productivity. We are all so driven and excited about the work we do that it leads to employees forgetting to take breaks and accidentally working longer hours or evenings. As such, Virtana has been trying to figure out ways to make our staff work less during the lockdown. Often, people think that the fail case for WFH is inefficiency; however, to us, it’s burnout.
To prevent this, for instance, we've tried to encourage staff to take more breaks. We created a host of activities that we included in an Office Bingo game. This game has caused us to not only do team building exercises while remote but also take care of ourselves mentally and physically. We have activities that range from telling our employees to do a 10-minute workout or yoga; spend time with your family; meditate for 6 minutes and play with your pet.
We want to ensure that our staff maintain a healthy work-life balance, and don't burn out during this lockdown period.
V. Currently, we are thinking deeply about ‘what does reopening the office look like’. This is a great opportunity to have an open dialog with your employees and address any concerns they may have. More broadly speaking, it is still the case for us where we actively turn down clients, and we do not foresee that changing unless we can hire more software engineers. Our bottleneck for growth is access to software engineers.
We are always hiring. We encourage software engineers to not be intimidated by the role of robotics software engineer. We have three core values at Virtana: trust (as mentioned earlier), transparency and growth mindset. If you have a growth mindset and you want to be a better software engineer, then we recommend that you apply.
V. Best practice: empower your employees.
We expect employees to take responsibility for their own work, and figure out what they should be doing next. This means that we continue to be productive even without standing over everyone’s shoulder. Everyone at Virtana is self-directed.
V. This crisis is a good driver to move the local ecosystem towards a more digital-minded paradigm.
V. Narrowly speaking, as every industry is different, we can better prepare for any unforeseen situation by being proactive and creating an environment where employees enjoy their roles.
Our mission at Virtana is to make the Caribbean a major player in the global robotics ecosystem and due to the challenging problems we work on daily, our employees are constantly motivated and thus enjoy what they build here with Virtana.
V. Our participation in this interview series came about because InvesTT reached out to us to enquire as to how we were handling the WFH arrangements. We appreciated this. While we did not have any issues caused by COVID-19 that required support our main area for support currently, is in recruitment. We are actively hiring software engineers with a growth-mindset. We thank InvesTT for the support over the last 2 years.