November 19, 2020

Building Morocco's First Remote Working Platform

by:
TECH TOOLS :

The benefits to a company willing to let go of old work norms and embrace remote employees are extensive. It can increase a company's talent pool, provide cost savings and scalability, and drive innovation.

For many African techies, remote jobs allow them to gain access to global opportunities locally, receive more competitive wages, and control their schedule. Not without challenges, they must learn to work across time zones, build trust without human contact, and legally set themselves up. 

After becoming a remote developer and enduring the challenges of figuring it out on his own, Ahmed EL AZZABI created remote.ma, a blog that’s all about remote working. 

On remote.ma, Ahmed discusses topics applicable to techies across the continent, including how to market yourself online and resources to use along the journey; and tips specific to Morocco, including creating a legal entity, taxation, and health insurance. 

I spoke with Ahmed EL AZZABI, Software Engineer at Automattic, about creating remote.ma, the challenges of being a remote developer, and how he sees remote.ma evolving over the next 3-5 years.


Ahmed EL AZZABI’s road to software development

When I was 17, I got my first computer and internet connection, and on the internet, I discovered e-commerce. I built an e-commerce website with Magento using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Since I was only 17 years old, I had to use my parent's names on every legal paper. One day I asked my father to go to Western Union to get some money for me. When he came back with about $400, which is a lot in Morocco, he said, we need to talk about where this money came from. 

I explained that I was selling premium accounts for sites like RapidShare and Megaupload to people in Morocco. I would buy them on PayPal and sell them because at the time people didn't have international credit cards they could use on those websites.

Then, I went to university where I studied electrical engineering. In Morocco, you study for two years and then take an exam. I got a really good score, but at the time, software engineering was for the low ranked people. 

I had a lot of voices telling me that I shouldn't do software engineering so I ended up choosing electrical, which was a bad decision. One week in and I knew it wasn't for me. I tried to switch, but I couldn’t. 

So, I studied the bare minimum to get a passing degree, and on the side, I learned software engineering on my own. During the day, I tried to be as attentive as possible in class, so I didn't spend any time outside the classroom learning. After 6:00 pm, I learned programming by doing projects here and there.

In my last year, I  got a software engineering internship which transformed into my first job. Initially, accepting the internship was hard. My family wanted me to get an electrical engineering internship because if it didn't work out, I would have a degree in electrical engineering with software experience, which would make it hard to sell myself elsewhere. But in the end, it all worked out great.


How did your journey lead you to create Remote.ma?

I knew I wanted to work remotely from university, so I was familiar with remote companies like Automattic, Basecamp, and others. But I thought I needed five or ten years of experience to get a remote job.

Then, in 2018, I got into a disagreement with my manager and decided I would start applying to remote jobs. I applied to a bunch and got rejected many times, but then Automattic responded to my application. We had a few interviews, a few code tests, and I was offered the job.

Up to that point, I had no idea how to work remotely legally. I figured I would just go through the interview process and think about the legal stuff after. I also assumed that since I was not the first one working remotely in Morocco, there would be a bunch of information out there.

After accepting the offer, I did what everyone would do, which is Google, "how to work remotely from Morocco," and this is when I found out there was nothing out there. The first results were some generic responses. I couldn't find anything specific to Morocco.

This was when I decided that once I figured it out, I would write about it. So I started connecting with accountants and asking questions about how to work remotely legally. I learned how to pay myself. Then started writing articles, launched remote.ma and I discovered how much people wanted this kind of information.

What attracted you to remote opportunities and what are some of the challenges?

In my previous job, I didn't have a lot of freedom to organize my work and do it the way I wanted to. I also wanted some control over my working hours. I had to be there from 8:00 am until 6:00 pm. I'm not a morning person and I disliked the rigid system. I saw remote working as a way of taking back control.

The great part about working remotely is it doesn't matter when you work as long as you do your work, which for people who can do their work remotely, like software engineers, writers, and UX designers, it's a great position to be in.

As far as challenges, the education system in Morocco, like all education systems, does a poor job educating people about the legal side of work. 

Here all taxes are taken from the source, meaning your employer does everything for you. As a result, most employees don't know what's happening behind the scenes. It's like a black box. When you start working remotely you have to learn to do all of that for yourself.


What are some of the keys to being a successful remote developer?

When you work remotely, you are not obliged to work a set schedule, which is a double-edged sword. You're given a lot of freedom, which means you can either work all day or not work at all. 

It's your responsibility to organize your day. You plan when to start, stop, and take breaks. So the most important thing is being organized.

The second one, and we talk about this a lot in remote companies, is asynchronous communication.

When you work from an office, generally, everyone works simultaneously, so if you have an issue, you can ask someone for help in real-time. But when you work for a remote company, people are all over the world and usually in different time zones. 

So you can't just ping someone and expect an immediate response. You have to adapt yourself to asynchronous communication, which means when you ask someone a question, instead of waiting, you work on something else until you get a response.

Asynchronous communication also goes for meetings. When you work from an office, it's easy to meet with ten people and spend one hour doing nothing. It's hard to get everyone together at the same time in a remote company, so you spend less time having meetings and more time working.

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Can you share some success stories of how you're helping remote developers?

Remote.ma isn't only for software developers. 90% of the articles apply to remote professionals in all fields. I think because I'm a software developer and people know I'm the one behind remote.ma they assume it's only for software engineers, but it's open to all disciplines.

Three months ago, I released a free e-book called "Get that remote job," because there are a lot of articles on remote.ma, but they are scattered around different categories and are different lengths. So I summarized them and put the lessons into one e-book which gives a clear step by step process to land a remote job. 

For example, in remote companies, your main form of communication is written; voice and video are secondary. So you have to get good at writing. One of the tips I discuss is how to develop your communication skills by writing blog posts.

Since the e-book came out I've gotten two random emails from people in different parts of the world and they say that some ideas they applied from my e-book helped them get their first remote job. It's a good feeling helping someone, somewhere you don't even know just with the Internet.

And for Morocco specifically, a lot of Moroccans have read the legal posts and reached out via email and DM's saying thank you and how helpful my posts are. Also, the good thing about these legal articles is they don't go out of date in two weeks, some articles I wrote a year ago are still useful, and people still read them. 

How do you see Remote.ma evolving over the next 3-5 years, and what impact do you hope to make?

Remote.ma started as a blog, but I want to transform it into a platform. 

Jobs board:

There are a lot of remote companies, but most don't hire from Africa. So for the ones that do, I had the idea of creating jobs.remote, a jobs board for remote opportunities available to Africans. 

Community building:

One of the problems with working remotely is loneliness, and it's been ever harder during the pandemic. Before, you could at least go work from a coffee shop, but now we're stuck at home because of the pandemic.

The next product I am working on is a closed community for remote people working from Morocco. I want to organize meetups and create a slack group where we can connect. 

App idea:

Another challenge with working remotely is finding a quiet place to work from. People go to coffee shops or co-working spaces. But finding a coffee shop with good internet and electrical sockets or a co-working space well maintained and quiet can be challenging. 

I wrote an article that curated the best coffee shops to work from in Casablanca, and it's one of the best-performing. My idea is to transform it from an article to a small app where people can share the places they're visiting.

Ultimately, I want to create an ecosystem where people working remotely can go to remote.ma not only for information but also to meet other remote professionals, find opportunities, and discover places to work.


Built In Africa. What does that mean to you?

I think we have a lot of potential in Africa. From my perspective, what we lack is maybe two things. The first is access to opportunity. As I said, there are a lot of tech companies that hire remote talent, but not all of them hire from Africa. And that's true for all disciplines and in all parts of the continent.

The second one is trust in ourselves. I speak from my experience in Morocco, but I think it applies to other African countries. We are born and raised in an environment where we give more praise to outsiders. So foreign companies are building our buildings, and we give less importance to our local talent.

I'm not saying foreign companies are bad. Maybe they have the experience it takes to do the job, but when you are raised in such an environment, you start questioning yourself and questioning your skills. 

I sincerely believe that we have a lot of potential in Africa, and I encourage you all to continue Built In Africa because it shows The Best in Africa and what people are doing here, which gives hope to other Africans. I've been following the news with Paystack, getting acquired by Stripe for 200 million dollars. It's mind-blowing, and it shows Africa has potential.

Thoughts on tech in Morocco

I think all countries have one city which is the center of things and in Morocco it's Casablanca. The majority of startups are in Casablanca, and there are many software developers and opportunities here.

The biggest challenge for Moroccan startups is the mentality of investors. Most investors prefer to invest in tangible things, things they can touch and see, like restaurants and buildings. We still don't have many investors that are ready to invest in apps or technology.

The second challenge is getting access to opportunities. We have a lot of seed investors, but they don't provide any value other than money. And when you are a company that's just starting, you don't really need money; you need knowledge and access to information. That's why many startups don't reach their potential.

In Morocco, we see a lot of people giving advice who've never run a startup in their lives. They just read books, but there is a big difference between books and reality. Also, most of these books are from the US, which is a different market. 

Today, we still don't have the right people in the right position yet, but I know we'll eventually get there.

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