What is a typical day like for a Flatiron Engineer? There has been no simple answer, not before this pandemic, and certainly not during it.
At Flatiron, our engineers help build many different internal and external products: an electronic health record system, de-identified cancer datasets, a patient portal application, ETL tooling, the list goes on. Some teams' tech stacks and processes appear like distant cousins, while others appear more like sisters. As such, across these diverse teams, engineers at Flatiron usually have very different day-to-day experiences. With a culture that promotes internal mobility, many engineers get to experience the differences if they choose to move between teams. And even for those that do not switch teams, the typical day inevitably changes as teams and roles evolve and grow. As I transitioned from individual contributor to tech lead to tech lead manager on the same team, my answer to "What is your typical day like?" has never stopped changing. Any answer to the question was only ever a snapshot of a typical day.
Beyond role switches, a recent catalyst for change in everyone's day-to-day was Flatiron's transition to fully remote work in March. The list of ways Flatiron has prioritized a smooth transition is long: the centralization of resources for working from home and mental health support, engagement-boosted onboarding for new employees, flexible hours for parents, remote-friendly fitness benefits, and a steep discount on cold brew — to name just a few. As new benefits and new challenges slot into my every day, I feel like a polaroid of the present is starting to develop. So while this is merely just a snapshot, I hope my present, WFH-adjusted answer gives some insight into what one engineer's typical day working at Flatiron looks like.
My Typical Day: A WFH Snapshot
- Prioritize technical work. Myth: software engineers spend most of their days writing code. Years ago, I believed this. But as a tech lead, I can spend more time prioritizing what to code than writing code. Day-to-day, this might look like team meetings to prioritize short-term sprint work or a longer-term roadmap. It might be strategizing with our team's users or other teams whose tooling we rely on. Prioritization is a daily effort because it keeps watch of dynamic variables like user needs, the team's capacity, individual growth opportunities and a backlog of tech debt. It's often a proactive exercise, but sometimes can be reactive, as it was during Flatiron's transition to a remote engineering team. Through this transition, even more rigorous prioritization was needed as the company was expecting (and accepting of) engineering velocity being compromised by a pandemic and WFH. We needed to adjust the cost threshold for tech debt that would be addressed. We needed to share clearly and broadly which projects were negotiable and which were not.
- Invest in the team. Investing in employees is a way the company lives out our values to "Do the Right Thing" as well as "Learn, Teach and Grow." We often say our employees are our competitive advantage, or our "moat," and engineering managers are responsible for growing that moat. While our teams work from home, the day-to-day of professional development, unblocking, empowering and holding others accountable is different. For example, Zoom 1:1s can feel less engaging than in-person, and there are fewer ad hoc encounters where I can get a pulse for how things are going or whether teammates are blocked. Navigating such new challenges has been made possible by Flatiron's community and new company initiatives. Our People team is offering a "Managing Remotely" training session. In Slack channels for managers, I've found support and timely advice, learning to ask questions that matter, to over communicate, and to emphasize that I am available and just a call away for support. I also find comfort in leadership's guidance to managers that the company is committed to prioritizing employees' personal needs, whether that's taking the time to home-school children or to process the deluge of information at our fingertips.
- Solve technical problems. This is when I do a lot of writing and reviewing. Not just code, but also design documents, project plans, product roadmaps, and other documents relating to technical project management. Like with prioritizing technical work, solving technical problems is sometimes proactive, and sometimes reactive, as with troubleshooting user problems and system downtime. Solving technical problems as teams decentralized to individual home offices was definitely unprecedented, but I've been humbled to see Flatiron Engineering thrive. The company ensured we could order IT equipment for our homes; our team found a whiteboard substitute in Jamboard; we've had productive, high-level design discussions through Zoom and live Google Doc editing; we've successfully debugged nebulous production issues together. In this department, definitely WFH: 0 and a resilient team: 1.
- Contribute to Flatiron culture. A role shared by all engineers! Interviewing, which I'm now well adjusted to conducting over Zoom, is the most common way engineers make cultural contributions. However I'd estimate there are ~100 other roles and responsibilities that can be taken on, ranging from presenting at our annual Engineering Summit to planning our quarterly hackathons to organizing Women's History Month events. Thanks to the resources available to us, many of these initiatives are now piloting remote versions. For instance, the company hosted our first ever remote hackathon, and the ML Research Reading Group continues to meet over Zoom. Personally, after helping organize Flatiron's internship program last summer, I'm happy that Flatiron is providing remote internships this year, and that I can continue to contribute to the new iteration of the program.
There are other things outside the four categories I've shared above that I try to slip into the description of my routine. Some of my favorite things about Flatiron are hard to categorize into a daily snapshot, but still deserve mention: the opportunities to learn about healthcare, the many small ways our values unite such a diverse organization, communities on Slack, and our team's traditions. These are things that I treasure even more now in their changing, remote iterations.
It's hard to say when we'll be back at 233 Spring, eating lunch together, conducting our daily stand-ups, sharing a cold brew coffee. It's a challenging time where many things can start to feel repetitive: the environments we may be isolating in, the daily headlines, the subset of activities we can manage indoors. Among the many things I'm thankful for, I'm especially thankful for the things that feel dynamic among the repetitive. Though my description of a typical day at Flatiron can only ever be a snapshot, whether pre-pandemic or during it, I'm very thankful for the constant change.