In pursuit of air mobility, Voom’s Seattle office blazes a trail for working remotely

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Voom helicopter serviceVoom, a subsidiary of Airbus, offers on-demand helicopter booking services in Brazil and Mexico. (Airbus Photo)

Add the Airbus subsidiary Voom to the list of tech startups with engineering centers in the Seattle area — and to the list of pioneers in co-located and distributed workplaces.

Both of those talking points are highlighted in a blog posting on working remotely, written last month by Robert Head, a senior software engineer at Voom. The posting was brought to light today by the Puget Sound Business Journal.

The California-based startup has been offering its app-based, on-demand helicopter taxi service in Mexico City and São Paulo, and last month it stealthily expanded its trials to the San Francisco Bay Area in league with Coastal Helicopters.

In his blog posting, Head, who works remotely from Ashland, Ore., talked about software development rather than flight plans. “When Voom decided to grow our own internal team of developers, we chose to locate the office not in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, but rather in Seattle, which has a similarly booming technology scene and an ecosystem of great talent,” he wrote.

Today LinkedIn lists 16 Voom employees as working in the Seattle area, and the company’s careers webpage has seven openings for Seattle workers, including a spot for a vice president of engineering. But the point of Head’s posting wasn’t how Voom conducts its operations in Seattle. Instead, he focused on how the Seattle office serves as a springboard for a far more widely dispersed team.

“For the first year, all new hires were local to the Seattle office and the rest of the team was ‘on the big screen,’ as we say,” Head wrote. “After a year, recruiting was getting tougher and we were at a crossroads. We knew we wanted access to a wider, more diverse range of experienced colleagues, but it’s tough to find that within one city.”

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Voom’s solution was to go to a blended pair programming model, facilitated by screen-sharing and videoconferencing. Co-workers can pop into a virtual shared space and pair up with colleagues.

“A good pairing session gets into a rhythm, a give and take,” Head said. “In typical pairing terminology, one person is ‘driving’ (using the mouse and keyboard) and the other is ‘navigating’—holding mental context, noticing opportunities, making suggestions. It’s important to a healthy, egalitarian environment that these roles are switched frequently.”

Thanks to pair programming, Voom no longer limits its job pool to local hires, Head said. Additional details about the workplace model are laid out in another blog post by software engineer Annalee Herrera, and on KeyValues.com.

Does Voom’s Seattle presence suggest that its helicopter ride-hailing service will be swooping in anytime soon? We didn’t immediately get an answer to that question from Head or from Voom’s HQ in San Francisco when we contacted them, but we’ll update this item with anything substantive we hear back.

In the meantime, it’s worth considering that a lot of companies tap the Seattle area’s software engineering talent even though they put their products and services through real-world tests elsewhere.

GM’s Cruise subsidiary, which is working on ride-hailing services that make use of self-driving cars, serves as a good example. Even though LinkedIn lists 55 Cruise employees as working in the Seattle area, and has 14 software job openings here, the company says it has no immediate plans to test-drive its cars in the Emerald City.

For now, you’ll have to travel to San Francisco, Phoenix or Detroit to see Cruise’s cars in action. And unless we hear differently, you’ll have to go to Mexico City, São Paulo or maybe San Francisco to see the results of the paired programming work that Voom is doing in Seattle.