Last month Stripe opened a new office in Mexico City. While they say they are focusing on building out products specifically for the LatAm market, I had an inclination on why they chose this massive metropolis to the south.
Hint: it’s not the tacos.
Remote work and dev offices are all the rage in the world of tech recruiting - but we are still figuring out what works.
It got me thinking - what are some of the factors that make an ideal remote office? What would the perfect setup afford?
Here is what I see -
A deep bench of talent: clearly you need actual talented programmers to hire. This means schools that teach them, and other companies that train them up.
A solid ROI: With cost of living through the roof in large American cities, a remote office would at least hope to offer the advantage of a good bang for your buck, without being exploitative.
A sense of belonging: this is perhaps the hardest to quantify but the most important. A second office should not feel all that different from the first. The employees should be connected, and generally sense that they are not just “resources”. How you create that depends mostly on your culture, but there are some advantages that geography confers.
I posit here that Mexico is by far the best place to set up a second office, or hire people remotely from.
Let’s look at the reasons point by point.
A deep bench of talent
Mexico is a big place. At 130 million people, it’s by far the largest Spanish speaking country in the world. Its capital, Mexico City, is the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere. Needless to say, there are a lot of people here.
And despite the image that Trump paints of Game-of-Thrones-style wall climbing hordes, Mexico is solidly middle class. That means large numbers of people who are university educated, US-travelled, and who have a strong command of English.
It’s also mass producing engineering talent. A Washington Post article from 2012 pegs the number of CS grads coming out of Mexican schools to be not far off of the number being cranked out by its neighbor to the north, despite the large population difference. I can imagine things have grown substantially in the past 7 years.
A quick search on Linkedin Recruiter confirms it - there are many, many engineers in Mexico
The higher education system is extensive and offers both private and public options.
Schools like UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) and IPN (Instituto Politecnico Nacional) are public and essentially free.
And you couldn’t talk about Mexican higher education without mentioning the famous Tec de Monterrey - the 5th best school in Latin America - and the best school in LatAm specialized in STEM.
The raw material is there. So who is training them?
Turns out, quite a few companies.
Oracle, Intel and HP all have large offices in Guadalajara. Accenture has one in Monterrey. Along with those, a veritable armada of nearshoring agencies, consulting firms, and devshops have all been thriving in Mexico.
There is a high chance that if you speak with a Mexican engineer, he or she has some experience in a devshop. Most of their clients are in the US, so you’ll find that the Mexican developers have the same office-space lingo that we take for granted. All the
If you are a product focused company, you can make a compelling offer to these candidates: leave the world of agencies, stints, and client management, and invest your efforts in building and shipping a product over the long haul.
So far, that selling point has worked well for my clients.
A solid ROI
Now that you know that there are the right people here, the question is - does it make financial sense to hire them?
In Mexico’s case, it's an unequivocal yes.
So far, it seems that an engineer in Mexico makes around 4x less than one in NYC or SF - or around 3x less than one in a smaller city in the US.
Here are some anonymized resumes with current salaries. Please note these candidates got offers or hired from US startups.
A MEAN stack developer with around 7 years of experience, in both agencies and US companies, making 62,000 pesos per month or around $38,500/year
Your budget will obviously go a much longer way down here. However, don’t take this as a cue to be cheap. Mexican talent for the most part knows their worth - if anything from having connections with friends and ex-classmates who now work in the US. Lowball offers will probably not get accepted.
However, if you can come in with a solid offer and an interesting job proposal, it's easy to pick up some great candidates.
A sense of belonging
A few weeks before writing this, Greenhouse posted an interesting role called Director of Communities and Belonging. Effectively they are looking for a community builder across offices - they have 4 now.
This is going to become a more popular role in the next few years. As companies figure out how to incorporate remote workers into their teams, issues around loneliness, belonging and connectedness will come to the forefront.
So what is cure to this? Obviously an intentional effort on the part of the company matters. Companies such as Greenhouse are setting the bar at the company level.
However, there are some undeniable geographical advantages. Not every place is equal.
When I think of an ideal remote team, here is what I would want -
A team that is working when you are, that participates in the same meetings. Where you could have a live stream of their office in your kitchen and it would not be empty. There would be more than a 2 hour overlap between work hours.
A team that is close enough to be able to come to your office regularly. And not just the management, but everybody. On a regular basis.
A team that if you wanted them to, could move to the US and join the main office - thus creating a seamless transition between the 2 locations. No insider/outsider dynamic.
No country has a better setup for this than Mexico.
For starters, almost all of Mexico is in Central Time (with a few parts in Mountain, Pacific, and Eastern times). That solves the issue of working at the same time.
As for flying in and out, here is a screenshot of the Mexico City - NYC route. As you can see, the prices are no different than most cities within the US.
In fact, there is a total of 8 airlines fly the JFK-MEX route direct. I cannot think of a more competitive air route.
You will find similar prices and availability on flights from Guadalajara and Monterrey to various points in the US.
At those prices, it’s easy enough for everybody on the team to go to HQ at least once.They can participate in the same conferences, or go to the same off-sites as everyone else. Team building, connectedness, and belonging suddenly don’t seem like such a daunting task.
Enter the TN visa
I learned about the TN visa as many do, by hiring Canadians. I was always astonished by how easy it was - get your diploma, have a lawyer write a letter - and voila! Welcome to America!
For those who don’t know, the TN visa is a NAFTA related non-immigrant visa that covers a few specific professions (including software engineers, and oddly, poultry specialists).
As long as you have the right documents, the process is very straightforward and inexpensive. For Mexican citizens, it’s a few weeks and $160. Compared to the hostile environment around H1Bs - its a walk in the park.
I’m no lawyer - so here are some links of people better versed than myself.
Here is some info about the TN visa from the US Government.
Here is a pretty extensive knowledge base from an immigration law firm.
Think about what you could offer engineers by using a program like the TN. Here are some examples -
Start in Mexico, move to the US as a promotion.
1-year rotationals in the US for Mexican engineers.
Start in the US, move back to Mexico to help train new devs there.
That sort of interconnectedness would only be possible with the TN visa. It essentially removes any impression of “other-ness” that comes with hiring a team outside of the US.
So despite what the media highlights or what Trump tweets about, I encourage you to consider Mexico as a place to find talent. It’s incredibly close, and deeply interconnected with our country. You’ll find lots of devs, a great ROI, and many different formats to make remote work work for your company.
And, yes, the tacos are as good as you imagine them to be.