Jani is the latest engineering leader to chat with us about their journey in tech and what their typical workday looks like. Read on to find out about the challenges of being VP Engineering, the impact of moving from an IC to management and more.
What has been your journey in tech so far?
I made my first “professional” website in 1999 using the equipment at my school’s computer lab. I spent the criminally small sum of money I made on my first PC, and for the last two decades I’ve been ceaselessly building products, teams, and most recently the European business for Formidable here in London.
Like always, there’s a Drake quote for the occasion: “Started from the bottom, now we’re here!”
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced moving into your current role?
I don’t really know what a “VP Engineering” does elsewhere, but for me it’s been a full-body experience of learning how to scale up a team, maintain a healthy engineering culture, acquire new business, keep our clients happy and quality of our work high, all while making sure every employee at any level of seniority is constantly learning and growing.
The biggest challenge has been to find the balance of these equally important activities when most days all I really want to do is jump into code and hack on something cool!
This year I’m focusing on building up the management team in London — I’ve got too many hats for one head! We’ve promoted a few of our early employees to Engineering Managers, which has already ensured my team members get the personal attention they deserve from their manager.
We are also hiring for Director roles on engineering and operations side, which should leave me time to focus on long-term strategic vision on high-impact projects.
Briefly describe your stack and workflow
Right now we mainly work with React, Node, GraphQL, Flow/TypeScript, and cloud platforms, because these tools enable lean teams ship huge amounts of value across web, mobile, and backend. The landscape is constantly changing, and we’re very excited for ReasonML, Rust/Wasm and the next evolution of serverless.
What does your typical day look like?
Every day for me is different, which is a blessing because I never grew up and can’t really handle routine. Some days I visit our teams at our clients’ offices and help them facilitate important projects or solve trickier issues. Other days I roll in just before lunch, hang back at the studio, listen to trashy trap music and try to push our internal initiatives forward between job interviews, pair-coding mentoring sessions, and 1-on-1s.
We’re an international company, so the second half of my day starts at 5pm when my U.S. colleagues start their day. At that point I often bunker myself in a meeting room or dash off to the pub and hang out with them on Slack for a few hours to make sure we’re synced on company-wide matters. Impactful work doesn’t always need to look like hard work!
How do you interact with your team?
I believe in informal communication structures, which is a very formal way of saying that I try to make it easy for people to speak to me. There’s a thing or two I may be able to teach them, but I also learn every day from team members 10 years my junior, and that’s reflected in how we interact.
I sit together with the team, we have lunch together every day, joke around on Slack, and I feel like most of the time we can speak to each other as peers. We also play games in the evenings, watch movies on Fridays, and sometimes even hang out on the weekends — though all of these activities are strictly voluntary!
In our 1-to-1s I try to ratchet the formality up a little bit and to make it easy to differentiate when we are being serious. We usually grab a coffee at a nearby cafe and walk around when the weather’s good, creating a different space for our “official” interactions.
Which tools or processes you use to organise yourself?
If someone saw my working process, they’d probably describe it as barely managed chaos — and they’d be right! I rely heavily on Slack for communication and Notion for my notes, to-do lists and workflows, but my email inbox is a lost cause and I should probably burn it to the ground and start over again.
There’s absolutely nothing you can learn from me in this regard! Next question!
What’s the best and worst part of your job?
My favourite part is building the team: hiring talented individuals and helping them grow as people and professionals. One day when someone leaves the team, as long as they go do bigger and more ambitious things than they could have done before they joined Formidable, I’ll be happy for them.
My least favourite? Sales.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
One day many years ago, my manager sat me down and told me:
There’s only so far you can go by just being a stronger and faster developer. The only way to keep growing your impact is by mentoring and teaching others to make them stronger and faster.
It took me a while to digest that feedback, but that was the advice that made me break past the individual contributor stage of my career, and although I sometimes miss my IC days, I can’t argue that my work is now wildly more impactful, which is the only thing that matters.
What is your most useful resource?
Twitter.com. Being on top of the latest industry trends, problems people are experiencing and solutions they are experimenting with is key to being an effective technology leader.
There’s a lot of noise there too: keeping up to ‘dev Twitter’ is like plugging yourself into the collective brainwave of the internet — it’s up to you to find the signal!
What’s one thing you’d like to learn, develop or work on in 2019?
As my team grows and I no longer directly manage every engineer, I’m pivoting from mentorship to sponsorship, and I want to learn how to become more effective sponsor to people’s ideas and an enabler to their ambitions.
I also really want to learn Rust, Wasm, and WebGL properly. Some of my team members are experimenting with these technologies and the possibilities look incredibly cool. Also, when I hear them talk about these topics, I feel like an impostor!