Alex Gogan is the director of engineering at Sherpa, a tech startup that is making it easier for travelers to navigate the travel visa application process. We talked to Alex about his work, his company, and his experience with Commit.
Tell us a little bit about Sherpa. What does it do?
We change the way organisations and travelers think about border crossings by helping them move more freely. More specifically, we provide visas as an auxiliary service to airlines, which means that when you book your flight you can get all the travel documentation you need right then and there, in one stop.
At the beginning of COVID our airline partners were struggling, sometimes operating at just 3% of their capacity. At the time we understood that something was changing in the industry but we didn’t quite understand what that was.
We took a moment to step back and start talking to our customers. What we discovered was that there was an opportunity to help airlines specifically around entry requirements, which had significantly changed.
We started learning about all these new requirements and procedures that had emerged that restricted travel and added additional procedures to the process: COVID testing, quarantine requirements, additional health declaration forms, and very specific exemptions and restrictions. We started to accumulate and aggregate all that information, structuring and organising it to provide it in a convenient way through our own APIs.
Because everyone was operating at very low capacity, there was little room for developers to do anything complicated. A two line of code solution like the kind we were offering was extremely welcomed, and within less than half an hour airlines were able to integrate it and start informing travelers about these fast-changing regulations.
You’re the Director of Engineering for Sherpa. What was your path to Sherpa in the first place?
Back home in Germany I worked as a consultant, helping bring paperless services to the public sector, which was an extremely interesting experience. When you work with governments it’s very regimented, all of the software development cycles and procedures they go through. But it also wasn’t that exciting, especially when you had all these start-ups emerging in the tech industry. So I took the leap, came to Canada, did a Master’s program at the University of Waterloo, and then immersed myself in the start-up ecosystem in the GTA, trying to find that happy place.
I first saw (co-founders) Max and Ivan at a TechTO meetup, and back then were working on an ecommerce solution. A year-ish later Ivan reached out to me on LinkedIn, and we ended up having a really great coffee chat where they gave me a rundown of how the company had evolved, and I was immediately hooked.
I ended up joining Sherpa as the first engineer–I think I was number seven on the payroll. Two years later we’re close to 60 people. I am now managing an engineering team of about a dozen people, and we’ve started to split out into dedicated teams.
Speaking of expanding the engineering team, was there a particular role that you were looking to fill when you came to Commit?
Very specifically, lead roles for our front and back end. We tried to run extremely lean in terms of our tech stack. We have Angular on the front end which we are extremely passionate about.
When it came to Commit, I really saw the opportunity to get access to senior developers who want to find the right match, be part of a startup and enjoy working remotely. Commit had that focus on engineers who are remote because that’s what they love to do, who are experienced, are building out a community and helping individuals grow. One thing we focused on early was to grow for potential and hire for opportunity and help people grow as Sherpa is growing. We’ve been able to promote several people since I started.
We also focused on bringing in people with experience so that they can mentor and really provide guidance for junior and intermediate developers. Having that healthy mix is what I’m aiming for and I feel like Commit provides access to more senior developers while also filling in the gaps in terms of what growth and personal growth looks like for engineers.
What are some of the typical challenges in hiring for that type of role?
Experience is one, specifically: have you worked on something that made it into production, has that run in production, and how long? Is the core functionality provided, and as new features and functionalities fixes are being rolled out is that still given?
When it comes down to experience I often see gaps in fundamental knowledge of how the web works, understanding how browsers interact with the underlying services in the site, how refer headers work, and how security content policies affect the website. I see those topics as extremely relevant, specifically to work on the front end.
I believe you brought on Chris Nott from Commit, is that right?
Yes that’s right, he’s been great. That was a very interesting journey for him personally, I think. He had less experience with specific frameworks, but tons of experience in terms of his general career working on the front end. What I specifically appreciated was his mindset around the alignment on the impact we can make at Sherpa, and being extremely aligned with the environment that we want to foster and create for people to thrive in.
What was the process like of having this trial period both for you and the engineer? What’s your take on that?
I don’t think it’s any different from any of the regular onboarding we do on our side. Most people actually didn’t even realize that he was coming through Commit, he was just integrated right away with a specific area into the team and then just became part of the gang.
Ryan: One of the interesting things about Commit is the Commit community of engineers, who build community, ask each other questions and get guidance on various technical issues. What’s your perception of the value of that for engineers?
If you’re at a start-up, there are only so many people and there’s only so much experience you have in-house, and having that exchange with other peers is extremely relevant. Even now with this next growth phase for us, talking to the people who have been there and done that and learning from the common mistakes that they might have made is extremely valuable. I think the ability to throw out a question and get sound answers back is great, and I’d love to see how that evolves.
Is Sherpa currently entirely remote first?
Originally we were a little bit on the fence, but it soon became clear that remote was working pretty well. We put a lot of effort into making sure that people have their down times, that people have social time, that there’s activities that are still engaging. That really led to the decision to be remote indefinitely.
Since then we’ve onboarded people like Chris, who are not just in Toronto but also in Vancouver and span different time zones. We have people working out of Seattle, Dublin, New York and North Africa. We even have some people travelling through Mexico and doing a nomad remote work experience.
You’re really walking the walk when it comes to supporting travel. That ties in nicely with your brand story.
It’s working out really well. Our customer success team did a roadshow earlier this year through Europe and actually visited a lot of our partners and spent some time at their headquarters. They were travelling through Europe and documenting everything in Instastories, i.e. “here’s what you need to know and do, it’s all on Sherpa, this is actually how it feels like travelling right now,” which was very, very interesting to just see.
What would you say to other startups who are considering whether or not they should partner with Commit?
I personally put a lot of emphasis on learning, growth and finding the right people with the right mindset, and that is something that I see extremely aligned with the values that Commit has. Having that low entry commitment provides a smooth and easy transition into getting someone onboarded if it all works out. So Commit is a really good option for startups who are looking for full time employees to bring into the organization long term in a way that works for both sides.
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