The world we lived in and dreamed of changing when we first started Eskwelabs in May 2019 looks a lot different from the one we've been forced into now. COVID-19 was brutally impartial, meaning no person (regardless of age, health status, or socioeconomic background) or place (regardless of geographic location, climate, or population) was left undisturbed. In these past few months, each of us had to deal with the pandemic in our own way. For Eskwelabs, our commitment to redesign digital and data skills education to equip people for the future of work had to be fulfilled in other creative ways since we made our operations fully online. We've been working remotely since the first lockdowns in the Philippines back in March 2020.

Interestingly, the concept of "remote work" has been around even in pre-COVID times. It was in the early 1970s when Jack Nilles, a NASA engineer, first coined the term "telecommuting." Now, almost half a century later, the world found a common enemy to fight—one that was invisible to the naked eye—and this battle forced us to stay indoors and adapt to working from home. The Eskwelabs team has been working remotely for 11 months now, and in this time we were able to launch new programs, new courses, train aspiring data analysts and data scientists, introduce thousands of people to the world of data, create bespoke trainings for companies and organizations, and grow our small team via virtual onboarding.

In the New Normal, we have three basic recommendations for startups looking to become remote-first or remote-friendly, whether that's in the short or long term.

Team

Never underestimate the power of a dedicated team with great chemistry. You can be a team of three or ten but considering your ways of working together is just as important as the actual amount of work to be done. Is the team harmonious? Are the team members aware of each other's working styles? Do they respect one another's working styles? With no physical place to report to, do you know when a team member's work day starts and ends? When are their brains most fresh for their own deep work time? When are they most creative and ready to collaborate so that meetings become fruitful? With no concrete boundaries in a digital space, how can we respect the personal time of each team member? Finally, given the unprecedented chaos in this post-COVID world, what are the other commitments vying for each member's attention?

Due to the lack of a physical official space, it may seem like the concept of remote work would go against the need to answer these questions—after all, we don't see one another in person so there are less cues and considerations, right? Wrong. In fact, the wider the geographic distance and the more remote the set-up, the importance of addressing these questions only increases.

Tools

Aside from working on team members' chemistry with one another, it's also important that we have basic and uniformed channels to make collaboration possible. If our previous questions were more holistic, then these questions related to teamwork and collaboration are more strategic. How will we sync our schedules? What tools are we using to meet online? What project management apps are we testing out? Which ones are we committing to? With internet access being unquestionably essential, have we made considerations for team members with less stable connection? Finally, do we have contingency plans for when people become paralyzed by laptops or desktop computers that have broken down?

The tools and systems used will vary per team. And it might take some time as well before the team finds its groove. What matters is that all team members are on the same page. Sometimes knowing the "why" and really internalizing it can motivate any team to do disciplined experimentation, before eventually finding their sweet spot combination of productivity tools and workflows.

Tech

So far, when talking about "teams" and "tools," we've presented only questions. This time, as we focus on the topic of "tech," we can share real-life applications in our own edtech startup. Eskwelabs is an online data upskilling school in the Philippines with the mission of driving social mobility in the future of work through outcome-oriented data skills education—in the form of bootcamps, learning subscriptions, and corporate training. Prior to the pandemic, we employed the blended learning approach to our learning experiences, conducting these trainings partly in-person and partly online. But times have changed. For 11 months now, we haven't met a single student face-to-face, and yet we were able to reach thousands of them. We welcomed learners from new cities and countries that we previously couldn't reach due to geographic limitations. Removing the trickiness of transportation has allowed us to deliver learning experiences to new audiences.

But there's more to "edtech" than the education component. Designing learner-first curricula and having expert instructors is only part of it. For the bootcamps, learning subscriptions, and corporate trainings we offer in Eskwelabs, we need tech that can keep up. We need tech that will empower us and fuel our ambition to fulfill our mission. In terms of tech, Eskwelabs' secret sauce—which is now not so secret anymore—is our use of Amazon Web Services (AWS). This is the cloud computing service we trust; after all, it has been serving millions of customers globally for about 14 years now.

AWS has over 175 featured services and Eskwelabs has benefited greatly from the ones we've begun to explore.

Aral-Aral+, which is our on-demand prep-course for aspiring data scientists, allows learners to code-along and watch walkthrough videos at the same time. AWS' flexible infrastructure—using tools like Elastic Kubernetes Service—is what helped us make this experience possible. Aral-Aral+ learners enjoy the ease of having the experience all in one place with a self-contained learning environment using Jupyter Notebooks.

To the audience, it does seem like magic. But behind the scenes—or behind the screens—we see AWS' services are unmatched. Their wide selection of features has given us all that we need to not only provide an enjoyable and state of the art education experience, but also materials that keep our students in touch with reality. For example, through AWS, we are able to access live cloud databases for our data analytics students. We've given them the freedom to experiment with products like Amazon RedShift and RDS for them to gain insights on real-life industry tools and best practices. Providing learners with a sense of autonomy becomes easier when we know we can trust the products that they are exploring.

We're excited for what the future holds for Eskwelabs; it's exciting because we know that what we dream of can become a reality. We're looking forward to building our platform to scale, with our Learning Management System (LMS) utilizing Amazon Kinesis to stream real-time user events and making big data processing available with Spark. Our learners who are using our LMS right now will be delighted to hear "But wait! ... There's more!" and witness the power of AWS through all the dynamic features we will be adding in the LMS over time.

The training, mentorship, network, and services we have access to as a member of the AWS EdStart Accelerator Program is one of Eskwelabs' most precious resources. The marriage between a compatible team and collaborative tools is one thing, but you also need great tech to keep this union strong and healthy. Getting this component right can help teams achieve their goals in a more efficient, economical, and dynamic way.

There's no denying that the New Normal is scary, but we at Eskwelabs know that we are not facing it solo.