What I Learned Joining a Company During a Pandemic

Jordan McDonald, Machine Learning Engineer, Allstate Northern Ireland

24th June 2020

Imagine you had access to a time machine. First you congratulate yourself for your ingenuity, carefully step into to the craft, then set the dial to March 2020 and finally hit "GO". Do you think your past self would believe you about what would transpire over the weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic?

If I put myself back into the shoes of my past self at this time, it became clear I would both leave and join a company during a pandemic.

Instead of shaking hands — I joined remotely.

Instead of seeing new faces — I would get used to building connections mainly through voice and test.

Instead of stepping into an impressive office building — I would turn my kitchen table into an office space.

At the time of writing, I have completed ten weeks at my new company (Allstate NI) in the role of a 'Machine Learning Engineer'.

The 'leap of faith' we all feel when staring the unknown in the face presents both opportunity and at times a valid sense of apprehension — A feeling very prominent in joining a new company.

In this article I will share the 'top tips' I can share that will help banish some of those negative feelings and aid in making an early impact. For remote hiring managers, interns, and seasoned professional who are part of this process in this chaotic time, this article is for you.

#1 — "Open Arms"

Imposter syndrome is phenomenon we all feel, for most, this is always amplified when entering a new environment. This can be mitigated by embracing a new team member with open arms.

In my first week, I had several calls both with my immediate team while being assigned a 'buddy'. Having direct access to someone who can appear as a fountain of internal knowledge is essential, from resolving confusion to cementing that delicate sense of integration within a team.

At times, the little interactions make the most significant impact. Demonstrating empathy, trust and understanding can act as that trampoline to propel your ability to start at a company with a bang.

#2 — "Grow Roots"

Relationships are the central aspect of a fulfilling life. This extends to the world of work. For me, being surrounded by inspiring role models and people with a growth first mindset is critical. My highest initial priority was to grow roots within the company, this is what I recommend as actions:

  • Setup one — to — ones with everyone in your team. Be proactive. A conversation discussing background, ambitions and skills is a catalyst for collaboration and understanding.
  • For teams, share your historical successes. Arrange project demonstrations and continue to foster the flame of excitement in a new hire, meet enthusiasm with enthusiasm.


#3 "Try Hard…But Not TOO Hard"

When joining a new company, you are hopped up with strong emotions and intentions. One of the strongest of these is…

Making a good impression. Repaying the faith shown in you.

This is positive. This fuel to make an impact. However, if this is an ingredient in the COVID-19 working-life cocktail, it becomes very easy to overwork.

I am guilty of this, what I advise is:

  • Trust yourself. The judgmental eyes you sense don't really exist. If you are in an environment of 'open arms', you should trust your team.
  • For managers, be wary of this. So far in Allstate NI, my time has been respected and a work life balance has been encouraged.

Man thinking hw wants to make a good impression

#4 "Make Your Voice Heard"

In any group there exists established power dynamics and ways of working. It is important, in general to ensure your voice is hard. Every opinion is valuable and adds to a discussion.

A mental note I had to make for myself was to push myself to be 20% more vocal than normal. Be an active participant. You might not have all the information (its a new company after all) but make the most of your what you do know, trust yourself.

Be proactive over passive. Make things happen.

#5 "Get Familiar with the Phonetic Alphabet"

When joining a company remotely, it is very common to exchange essential information like usernames and passwords for both systems and your physical machine.

Chinese whispers is a well known phenomenon, even between two people over a call. Losing information to the ether is very common.

Having a working knowledge of the phonetic alphabet works wonders. At one point when verifying the letter 'B' I used the word barracuda rather than "Bravo". Despite being somewhat humorous it got the point across… kudos to my manager at Allstate NI for her patience. It helped foster a Golf.Oscar.Oscar.Delta on boarding experience.

Phonectic alphabet.

#6 "Give Trust Freely"

My internal compass for working life encompasses two areas. Developing others & tackling fulfilling work.

Within my first days it was clear I was being aligned with a highly challenging and novel project, leveraging cutting edge computer vision techniques in an entirely custom business problem — This excited me.

For a company, having the ability to trust a new hire with a high priority piece of work is a catalyst for rapid embedding into a team. While I need to skirt around the details, think:

  • Application of state of the art techniques to drive image semantic segmentation.
  • Use of custom algorithms for optical character recognition.

#7 "Embrace the Scale"

Allstate is an ENORMOUS company. It was eye opening to encounter the host of systems, people and processes. It was frankly, something that could have been overwhelming, if your not used to it.

The scale of Agile / Scrum applied in my wider group was many times larger than my prior experiences, with agile release train based development — Essentially several scrum teams working towards a product increment, planning as a whole.

My default is understand it all. This not possible at Allstate, however there are people and structures and place to support these processes and to keep the gears spinning.

For me I had to accept an embrace of the scale, roll with the punches and adapt.


#8 "Live by Your Values"

Once I landed onto the SS Allstate NI I heard a continuous, recurring theme…

The Allstate Values

Each Other

Agility with Purpose

Freedom of Action

Being Change Catalysts

Leaving Things Better Than we Found Them

Allstate NI, in my experience lives by its values. Luckily for me, they aligned very closely with values that drive my own approaches to working life.

Company culture is THE most important thing for both an employees long term sanctification and a companies success. I firmly believe if I modify the dial on my time machine and leap 20 years into the future, the companies that survive will be those with a strong moral compass and employee first culture.

Advice for all companies hiring remote workers, or for any type of on boarding process is to define your culture and ensure its disseminated throughout all levels of the organisation.

At Allstate, this was the most impressive aspect for me — beyond tech, beyond projects it is culture that is the secret sauce that will help newcomers build a connection to the company.


Joining a new company is a leap of faith. It is a time of excitement, anxiety and change. If you are this as either a hiring manager or a new joiner, keep these tips in mind, like me, I hope you land on your feet.