Name: Andrea Zabala
Headquarters: Cordoba, Argentina
Superpower: Maximizing time anywhere
Andrea Zabala is an Information Systems Engineer from Argentina focused on business development and offshore projects. She went freelance after years of working at big companies. We discuss the challenges of being “always on”, how to develop trust with new clients, how to deal with cultural differences, and how to maximize your time working remotely and co-located.
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Lisette: I’m hitting record. Great! So now we’re live. Welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today on the line from Argentina, from Cordova, Argentina, Andrea Zabala, welcome!
Andrea: Hi, Lisette! Thanks for having me and hi to everyone watching us.
Lisette: And listening on the podcast both.
Lisette: So I have on your LinkedIn profile that you’re an information systems engineer focused on international business development and offshore projects. So we’re going to get into that for sure, and that you’ve worked in Canada and Argentina. We’ll definitely get into that for sure but the first question as I always ask which is “What does your virtual office look like? What do you need to get your work done?”
Andrea: Actually, my virtual office, I have a few virtual offices that’s why I like to call it not only work from home but it’s actually working from anywhere, right? I just take my computer as I did today and my headsets because I’m not only listening, speaking a second language so I really like to hear well and for the best, right? But I have like a circuit if you will so I have my office set up at my place at my house. It’s a very quiet neighborhood, kind of a neighborhood in the suburbs, and I really like working there, usually drop my kids at school and then I’m by myself. So it’s a very nice part of the day. And then I have other places. I move around probably kind of the same area of this city in the South of Cordova. As of today, I’m visiting a partner’s office so I thought it was a great opportunity to have this interview with you today. And some other times, I’m just working out of a café, a coffee shop that I really like. It’s close by and they know me already. They serve great breakfast and they have like a first floor, very quiet, and I can work there too so I love that. I love that diversity of places.
Lisette: Okay. And tell us a little bit about what you do. What does an information systems engineer do and how did you go remote?
Andrea: Yeah, exactly. So that’s the degree of my university here in Cordova. I studied at the technological university, and you do engineering with information. Probably they have changed that title now to Software Engineering but it’s how you architect systems to the best use of information to the service of human beings, right? So I had my degree. Then I started to look into other areas to improve or develop, right? So I had my post graduation in international marketing. And that’s on the studies side. And then I started working as an intern very young, well, I was starting, I was still at the university so that gave me a lot of knowledge and learning, and it was great. It was great to go outside the books and be hands-on. And I had the opportunity to work abroad three years in Canada, mainly in the oil and gas industry. So with all those opportunities, I kind of turned my career. From a software developer, I drove my career into a more functional analysis, and then a little bit of project management and I ended up probably the most for the past five, six years, doing product management. And then I decided to go freelance after years of working for companies. It was a big decision.
Lisette: I bet.
Andrea: Yeah. And it’s been very challenging and it’s nice to learn because it’s a new mode, working mode, a new world, and I’ve been meeting people and learning from others as well. And as an independent consultant or a freelancer, I help companies to develop and to reach other markets. That’s the example of this partner that I mentioned that is BizIT Global. I work with them to put their services and products, software products, into other markets. The fact that I speak English and I also speak Portuguese helped me a lot to bond and to create those relationships and cultivate and potentially meet new customers for the company.
Andrea: So that’s mainly what I’ve been doing for the past two years.
Lisette: And was it mostly the going remote when you went freelance or was that also working remotely. I mean I’m assuming if it was bigger companies like oil and gas, it was also some amount of working remotely.
Andrea: Oh no, yes. Good question. Actually I’ve been working remotely since I was in Canada so that was ten years ago. I lived in Calgary and sometimes you had minus 28.
Lisette: Oh my goodness!
Andrea: And streets were loaded with snow and not even the train would work so it was very common for us to work from home. And then in big companies, corporations, you usually have your headquarters somewhere else.
Andrea: Like here in Argentina, like big companies, international companies, they have headquarters mainly in the US. So you are remote even if you’re in an office, you are remote. I’ve used the phones so many hours in my life. And I love it. I think it’s a great way to connect and make people feel that you are there. It doesn’t matter if you are like ten hours flight far. And then I think it’s part of our job. And especially being in Latin America, it’s a reality that we have to embrace, right? We tend to seek or pursue different opportunities in different markets. And so for us being remote is something that we have to learn, we have to improve every day especially if you want to win new customers, that they feel a little bit afraid because you’re far. You are in a country that they don’t know much about. So there’s a lot of room for improvement there.
Lisette: And what is the remote market like in Argentina? Are a lot of people doing it? Is it still relatively new?
Andrea: Yeah, I think it’s still new but I’m always into this type of topic so I talk to people, I learn from other people doing it, working remotely. Just to give you an example, I live in a neighborhood that we are 30 families, right, 30 houses, and from those, there are 8 people, 8 persons that work remotely in different areas.
Andrea: And I found that interesting so I asked them. I said, “Well, I’m going to be interviewed about this and I wanted to have the numbers.” So I found like there’s a couple that they both work from home. That’s in the neighborhood. And then as you said, there are some companies here in Cordova like Hewlett-Packard, we have Intel, we have Globe, and Motorola that was acquired by Ares. And they actually have some working models of remote people as well. And I think I’ve heard that in probably a previous interview there are some challenges when there is an office, a facility in your city, and you are the only one working remotely, it’s challenging. But I’ve known other models as well that everyone is remote so there’s no office.
Andrea: So they are all equally…
Lisette: That’s definitely an easier model when everybody’s equally remote.
Lisette: Because you’re all struggling with the same thing and that yeah, I hear that a lot. It’s true. I hear that a lot. Why are people going remote? Why are the people in your neighborhood going remote? I don’t know if you asked them that but that’s a lot. That’s a third almost of the people in the neighborhood.
Andrea: Yes. I give you my opinion and then what I guess, right. I haven’t asked them directly but I think it’s you like your place. I mean in my case, I don’t know, I just open up my window, I have a large patio, and then the trees, and the birds. It sounds corny but it’s amazing. I think the context, it’s really good, it’s really quiet. And then I think when you have a family and you have kids, and you want to do other things also, the fact that being trapped in an office for so many hours is not probably the choice for everyone. In the same ways, not the only choice or the best choice to be remote for some people as well.
Andrea: But the fact that I can change context, I like that. I don’t know if I could like work all the time from my home office. I really like what I mentioned before right, that I can kind of rotate and go around. And I also work also from my cell phone like today, communications are great. So I think you can work anywhere. And the other aspect I wanted to mention, I think there’s a change. Back in the days where I was an intern or a young engineer, everything was so formal, right? So okay, from this time to this time, it’s work, and then from 6 and then on, it’s life. And I’ve learned throughout these years that everything is mixed because you end up bringing work to your place and probably finishing some things while you’re fixing dinner.
Andrea: I don’t think there’s a point of separating that because sometimes you just go out of the office, you’re driving, and you’re thinking about something amazing, and “That’s what I wanted to do,” and just record a voice note, or maybe I’m with my kids in the park and I’m thinking, “Oh, that’s what we should do” and just taking a quick note. So I don’t think there should be just a separation of those walls. So the fact that you can work remotely, it’s like “Okay, yeah, I have time now and I want to do it now and here, and why not?” right?
Lisette: Right. Yeah, I mean I hear a lot and also I know for me, I have the same. I love where I work and I love to be able to switch the context when I need to switch context because it’s when I’m running where I have all the ideas. I mean I’m constantly stopping like “Okay, note to self: When you get home…” You need that space sometimes.
Lisette: So I feel really boxed in by offices. I think you’re right. And with the technology, there seems to be no reason why we couldn’t do it. But of course, I’m on the extreme advocacy side of things so I’m very passionate.
Andrea: Yes, yes. We kind of take you seriously all the time.
Lisette: Exactly. I’m too extreme. Somebody has to fight for it.
Lisette: But let’s talk about, instead of just all the great things though, what’s really hard? What are some of the things that you struggle with personally?
Andrea: Well, the fact that you can’t separate sometimes can be good and sometimes can be bad, right? Just a few tips if you want that I can share like I think there was a time that I worked from home a lot. And so you get up and take a shower, or fix breakfast, and then you jump into your computer. So my tip is dress. Dress like you were going out of the house, not dress up but dress at least, right? So it makes you feel that you are to start something that is different from your domestic life, right? And have a separate office. So we have an extra bedroom that was set up as an office so that’s good because you enter there and you are like “Okay, yeah. This is an office,” right? And then I think that when you work remotely or from your home, you have to do the things that you are always wishing you could do while you are at the office. Go for a walk if you want, go for a run, go outside, maybe have breakfast in your patio, and then start your day. So I noticed that I was so into my computer and then it was like I was exhausted because I didn’t change air or didn’t go outside because you don’t realize an hour’s passed by because you’re at home, you don’t have to drive, and everything is cool so it’s like endless.
Lisette: Right. You’re super comfortable, you’ve got everything you want and need, and yeah. I love this advice of taking advantage of the perks of remote working.
Lisette: You’re right. We forget.
Andrea: We forget. Then I used to take breaks because at the office, you take breaks because you are with people and say, “Let’s go to the cafeteria and talk about the meeting or talk about the presentation.” So when you’re at home, you keep skipping those breaks sometimes, right? So here in Argentina, our coffee is the Mate, so I go to a kitchen, just prepare my Mate and have it by the computer, and probably, I didn’t even stand up just for a few minutes, right? So you have to emulate the office in some way that makes you feel like better. So if I’m in the office and in the middle of the morning, I go to the cafeteria and have a coffee with a colleague, I used to do the same but probably call. So let’s say we just finished a conference call like an hour ago, half an hour, an hour-and-a-half conference call, long phone call, and at the office, you would go, “Let’s go for a coffee and talk about how it went or what’s our next steps.” So I would call that person kind of informally, and probably have my Mate at the patio.
Andrea: So you don’t miss that because you still talk to people and you humanize it a little bit. So “Do you have a minute? Okay, let me prepare my Mate and I’ll call you so we talk about how it went or what should we do next.” Those are some tips that I actually wrote down about that. And also, when you work in a mixed model like you work from home or virtually, and then some other days, you go to the office, something I noticed or learned actually is that when you come in to the office, just maximize the face to face time because I noticed that people are so much into the computer that they are not even talking to others even at the office. So while I was working in that mixed model, in the days I was in the office, I tried to arrange my agenda to set all the face to face or workshops or innovation workshops, design, brainstorming sessions, even workrooms so you interact with people, and do all the visual part like whiteboard and stickies, and drawings. So I felt that “Okay, I’m really maximizing the time that I’m spending at the office with my colleagues, right?” And when you are virtual, you don’t want to lose that. I like doing scratching, and sketching, and writing like I show you kind of this, or stickies, or taking notes. So if I’m at home, I could do the same like in the office. Probably, I was thinking about something, did some sketch, and then take a picture, and send it to my colleague and say, “Okay. Look what I did” or just put on the camera and still not lose that human interaction.
Lisette: Right. I really like that idea. It sounds like you’re saying you should maximize your time at the office when you have access to your colleagues but then also maximize the time when you’re at home.
Lisette: And you have all the great perks of being able to sit in your backyard and go for coffee and yeah, super important.
Lisette: Super important. I have to say I hear from a lot of people that they are always on, and I myself am absolutely guilty of just waking up, turning on the computer, and just getting going right away like you just dive in. And all of a sudden, it’s noon and I haven’t even like gotten out of my pajamas yet.
Andrea: Exactly. Like when you go to the office, you have the commuting time just to put your brain to wake up at least, right?
Andrea: But if you’re at home, you jump into your computer and then it’s like the evening. And so maximize that possibility to. Yeah.
Lisette: Do you have other tips before I move on to something?
Andrea: I think I went through all of them but I might think about some other one.
Lisette: Those are good tips though. I’m like “Oh these are good reminders for me.” But in terms of working with other people and with clients and managing the work, how do you gain the trust of those people that you’re working with?
Andrea: That’s a great question. There’s a very first phase in the relationship, right? I help companies to search for potential clients that at the very beginning, they are leads. And probably, your first contact is an email, kind of out of the blue email, or a phone call. So the very first contact is how you talk to them, how you show, how you sell what you have to offer, right, so how you can be transparent. I’ve learned also from them that they are a little bit reluctant because they feel like “Oh, you’re far away. You’re going to hide things from me. I won’t have control.” So I’ve learned through working in this work model that you have to put all the cards on the table. So this is who we are, this is where we are located, and then show. And that’s another tip I forgot, and it’s related with this and it’s related to humanize it. And here in Pilar, use a lot about that word I think in one of the interviews, and I used to separate a lot like if you are working from home and your dog is barking, I mean it’s okay. I mean you don’t have to just go and kill the dog because it’s barking. It’s okay because I’ve learned that from other people too like okay, let me just close the window, give me just a second and it’s okay to say, “Yeah, I’m at home” or I don’t know, “My kid is sick today so I will be working here so sorry if you hear some noise.” It’s the same situation when you’re trying to win a new customer and you are remote. This is who we are, this is what we offer, these are our challenges, and this is how we will be working and partnering with you, right?
Andrea: Transparency. You will have access to the information. I usually invite them to come, not all the time as possible but they love it. They love to come to Argentina because they think it’s an exotic place and it’s far away and the culture is amazing, and they learn how to drink Mate, and they learn that we drink that we don’t smoke that.
Lisette: There’s a difference.
Andrea: There’s a difference. But if it is not possible, I try to show all that, right? So this is our office. And don’t be afraid of the camera like we are doing, right?
Andrea: Because it’s totally different. You are seeing my gestures, you’re kind of seeing my mood. And we do that. We open up the camera, we present people, “Okay, this is our project manager. This is the development team. We have people to talk to the potential customers, and we pilot.” So we build the trust. Okay, we’ll do a pilot so it’s both ways, both way relationship. The customer needs to know the company and also the company needs to know the customer because there are different ways of working so the teams need to assemble and it’s a first stone in that relationship. And then once they feel they can trust you, then they start growing with you and there’s a partnership born.
Lisette: Yeah, you know, I have this situation actually just this morning where a new client I’m giving a workshop to, I was emailing and she sent an email back and says, “Oh by the way, I’m at home today because I may have Rubella” which is a new thing like one of the five breakouts of Rubella in Finland and you’re like “Whoa! Interesting.” But immediately I felt bonded somehow.
Lisette: Because I felt like that’s an interesting information that we can share like I don’t know what it was but it’s the same like it’s immediate like “Oh, you shared something personal. I feel a bond.”
Andrea: Personal common domestic part of your life.
Lisette: It’s weird and she’s a brand new client and it’s like “Oh.” I can imagine it doesn’t work with everybody and different people need different information.
Lisette: But I think as a sensitive savvy individual, people can feel out what’s a good thing to share and what’s not.
Andrea: Yeah. And also show a little bit about your culture because it’s a cross-cultural relationship as well, right? So I remember I was working in one of the big corporations and there was a Soccer World Cup going on. And I have to tell you it was just crazy like it was hard to take a phone call. And I was in a conference call with one of the top managers in the US and Argentina almost scored and it was like all this noise and I had to stop and say, “Well guys, yeah know we’re crazy about soccer.” So you will hear something because it was all over the office.
Lisette: Yeah. Nothing you can do.
Andrea: I couldn’t hide anywhere and they were like “Oh, that’s fine.” They thought it was fun. And it wasn’t like an everyday situation. It was an exception, so every four years probably.
Lisette: Right, right. Let me actually ask you about culture because it comes up a lot but I can’t seem to get, I mean it’s a hard thing to nail down. It’s such a big topic and people deal with it in so many different ways but when you have different cultures on the team, how do you start about dealing with it?
Andrea: Especially if they’re all remote, right?
Lisette: Yeah, or even on a colocated team, I would think that the techniques would be the same whether you’re in an office or whether you’re remote I think. That’s my theory.
Andrea: Yes, yes, exactly. So there’s always a learning curve for everything. And I think you get to know about the people you work with. I have examples that I can recall that I’ve worked with that person for almost two years and I didn’t know she was working from home all the time in the US. And I got that information probably, I don’t know, after a conversation, a presentation, a debrief, I don’t know why because I asked or I found out and so then okay, she’s here, she’s colocated but then she also works from home. I have another team. I think it’s very important to have a map of your people, right, that you’re working with. And that comes to an area that I like a lot and it’s called, well, the stakeholders management. And probably, they are not just stakeholders; it’s just people, mapping people, where they are, how they work, and how you can get the best out of that. One thing that gives you and gives companies all over the world, the fact that you can work remote, it’s probably unlimited pool of resources. Why limit your company just to have resources in your area where you can reach out so many talented people? But then as you mentioned, it comes with challenge of cross-cultural thing, right? I personally love learning about other cultures and I think that’s something that helps you a lot. What time to work or it’s okay if I ping you after work because I have something to ask, or just share and probably take in the first step. That helps a lot.
Lisette: I like the idea of taking the first step for asking the questions.
Lisette: I think that’s a really proactive.
Andrea: Being proactive.
Lisette: And you’re also leading by example there.
Andrea: Yes. And another thing that worked and it’s kind of informal, I’m not saying that’s the golden rule for all the cases, but I’ve received many, many people visiting on business, Cordova companies searching for partners, and we take them to a house. We do a barbeque and we open up the doors of our houses. And I’ve heard so many times “Thank you for doing that. Thank you for doing that. That’s not common everywhere.” And it’s a way of a relaxed environment to get to know each other, for the teams to get to know each other, and then they learn how you live, they learn about some social norms if you want, and I think it’s also a great way to complement building that relationship. But I don’t think it’s common everywhere probably. But I think it’s a biggie part of humanizing the relationship.
Lisette: I can imagine. I really love that idea. In fact when I was in Vietnam, one of the people took me out to his favorite local café.
Lisette: Where they just have this one dish and it’s all they have, this one local dish, and you learn how to make these spring roll wraps. And I just thought that was my favorite meal of the whole conference even though they’ve taken us to five star restaurants and things like that.
Lisette: I mean I’m not a fancy schmancy person anyway so I always feel a little uncomfortable in these places but the local experience was so cool.
Andrea: Yeah. Yeah. And I keep sometimes imagining okay, I’ve been in conference calls where someone is driving to the office which I think is a little bit crazy here in Argentina because of the way we drive but I think it’s okay in some other countries where the traffic is more organized. Anyways, I asked, “So okay, how long do you take to the office?” and I started learning about the place because “I’m in California and I live here outside of the city, and I drive but sometimes I just stay at home.” And I don’t know. It’s just asking. And if you feel that the other person is uncomfortable, you stop asking, probably that’s it.
Lisette: Good advice.
Andrea: Exactly. But people are responsive. I mean I remember having a whole team from China. We were doing a transition of the project and they’re here in Cordova for like a week and a half, and we did this big barbeque. They were amazed about the place, and the houses, and they were asking about construction and, “Okay, and you guys do this?” and this and that. “Yeah, what did you do on Saturday?” “Well, we just stay home or we go to the hills, or we take kids to the park, and just normal life, right, and domestic life.? I don’t know. I think that brings people together.
Lisette: And it gives such insight into why people do the things they do. It’s always just “Oh, I didn’t know that.” It was common to insert whatever.
Andrea: Exactly, exactly. Like share Mate at the office.
Lisette: Yeah, exactly like that’s not something that happens in The Netherlands at all so things like that would be really fun to know.
Lisette: When you know something. So we’re getting to the end of our time but there are so many questions I still what to…
Andrea: Oh sorry.
Lisette: We haven’t done activity and personality. No, it’s okay. We might have to do a round 2 at some point sort of dive deeper into these things. But do you have advice for people who are just starting out? More tips for?
Andrea: In their careers, you mean, young people?
Lisette: Yeah, yeah. Like for instance, I had a freelancer come up to me in Vietnam and he says, “Okay. I love the style like what would you recommend?”
Andrea: That’s a good question. When I was brand new at the work market, I couldn’t think about working remote. I was starting to think about that, to think about other ways of working but we didn’t have the tools like no one was prepared for that. So I was in an office and I don’t think it was bad. I think I learned a lot and you’re young and probably you stay long hours at the office, and it’s okay, and you go for a beer after the office like everything is around probably the office or most. So if you’re a young professional and you’re going to enter the freelance world, just try to emulate that. Connect with people like very similar to what you’re doing. Like I go through your page and I see many interviews of people from different parts of the world that are doing the same, probably struggling with the same, facing same challenges, doing the same learning, so reach out and talk to people that has probably have been doing this for a long time or ask for advice, and maximize any opportunity of networking. I mean if you’re not going to have an office at all, that’s what I would say to a person that is starting like full freelancing mode like remote. Okay, connect, go out, reach out even if it is not your colleague, read about new ways, learn new ways of working, new tools that could bring benefit to the way you work.
Lisette: Yeah, I love that. Also it’s don’t reinvent the wheel, right? Lots of people have done this before you. So I think that even more important to reach out in network and learn because you don’t have to do everything from the beginning.
Andrea: Yeah. There’s a big change. I feel that there are many venues of people, companies, and teams kind of exploring these new ways of working. In a week, I’m going to be giving a talk, a Balestra in Portuguese, to a big bank in Brazil. And they have like this project management day and they have speakers that would be there face to face in a big room with hundred people. And I will be the only one doing it remotely. So I’m very excited about that. And I love the fact that they have opened up to that possibility and they bring someone from outside their country to speak.
Andrea: So I love that. And I think people are kind of exploring new ways. So thank you for the opportunity, Lisette.
Lisette: My pleasure. My pleasure, yeah. No but I think it’s true. I mean the reach is now so much wider. Think of the things we could do if we just get the right people in touch with each other.
Lisette: I think that the people that don’t see that potential are really holding themselves back. And I’m sure there are lots of value to working together in the office but oh I just can’t help but be excited about like “What could we do if we reached just a little further?”
Andrea: Yes. And one little thing, and it’s not that little. I think social networks have helped a lot.
Andrea: For building those virtual relationships like I’ve worked with people in a very formal environment but I could see in a Facebook invite request and they could accept right away, and then you get a little window to that person’s life. And probably that’s one way to humanize it or to complement that if you’re 100% virtual, right?
Andrea: So Twitter, Facebook, any kind of social network, you get to know the person.
Lisette: Yeah, even LinkedIn, even when it’s just purely professional, you still get a taste of things.
Lisette: Yeah, I agree.
Lisette: I love the social networking aspect of it. It’s so fun. And I like seeing the slices of different lives. I’d say that that’s one of the biggest benefits for me was just seeing the world a little bit and realizing like “Oh my gosh! It’s so different in different places and nobody’s wrong. We’re all just different, just seeing.”
Andrea: Yeah, yeah.
Lisette: It’s so intense. I mean you can hear it but it’s something different when you see it and experience it.
Andrea: Yes, yeah like I know you love hiking and we’ve never met.
Lisette: That’s true for Facebook and Twitter, and yeah.
Lisette: That’s true. It’s funny. And I know you have children.
Lisette: We never met.
Andrea: Yeah, that’s my sport. That’s my hobby, play with kids, run after my kids. They’re five and three. Actually, I had to fill some personal data for my conference in Brazil and they asked me, “Okay, what’s your hobby?” and I said, “Well, I used to play volleyball. I play once in a while but my hobby and my sport now is to like jump in the elastic bed with my kids.” It’s like working out. I’m like exhausted after that so it’s fun.
Lisette: Yeah, they have a lot of energy, don’t they?
Andrea: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Lisette: Especially three and five.
Lisette: I mean that’s “Woohoo!”
Andrea: Yes. Yes, you have to keep up with that, yeah.
Lisette: So final question which is “What’s the best way for people to get in touch with you if they want to know more and learn more or just talk more, what’s your preferred method?”
Andrea: Okay, here.
Andrea: That’s Twitter.
Lisette: On podcast, what you’re not seeing is, if you want to hold it up again, @andzabala for Twitter.
Andrea: Here, that’s Twitter, and then my gmail account.
Lisette: @gmail.com. Great! Awesome! I love that you have the visual component. For all those listening to the podcast, you have to go back and at least watch the last five minutes of the video to see that it’s great because it also shows there are so many possibilities with video.
Lisette: In terms of showing other things and sharing information. So I love that you did that.
Andrea: Yeah, yeah.
Lisette: Great. Well thanks so much, Andrea! I really appreciate talking with you, some great tips there. As you can see, my notebook is full, absolutely full with information, so thank you.
Andrea: Cool! Do we do this?
Lisette: Yeah. Until next time, yeah, fist bump, be powerful.