He’s A Company Man
Tuesday June 23, 2015
Why a former Tesla and Blackberry intern chose to work at a startup
When mobile started eating the world, the transition gave birth to hundreds of interesting companies. As the Internet of Things (IoT) makes its move from theory into reality, there is a similar change taking place. I worked with one such company looking to lead the IoT pack.
For the first four months of 2015, I worked with a Toronto-based startup called Connected. Previously I had worked at Blackberry and Tesla Motors, both much larger organizations than Connected’s 15 people at my time of joining. But I was curious about how a smaller organization felt and how the size of a company affected it’s culture.
Operating out of a co-working space that supports both hardware and software companies, Connected is immersed at the bleeding edge of technology. It is positioning itself to be a major product development shop for software and embedded devices.
An Intern Travels to China
Right from the get-go, I noticed the immense amount of responsibility Connected’s leaders gave to all members of the team.
Team leaders were openly committed to initiative, and encouraged everyone to contribute ideas to the team. Engineers, designers and management were not siloed. They seemed to be like different parts of the same well-oiled machine, working to accomplish a unified goal.
In my interview, Mike Stern (CEO) and Damian McCabe (VP Product) asked what personal learning goals I had for my internship and worked to fulfill these objectives throughout my term there. I mentioned my passion for entrepreneurship and desire to learn about the business/client-facing side of the company in my interview and as a result got to travel to China for a client meeting, which proved to be an invaluable learning experience for me.
Despite being a student, I sat in on meetings with VPs of organizations like Facebook and Telus. I was continually surprised (and half-scared, half-impressed) by the responsibility and confidence Connected was willing to place on an intern.
This leap of faith drove me to work hard and diligently, to take ownership of my place in the organization and work to move things forward. I never knew what to expect coming into work, where casual conversation about travelling to China in the morning results in a request to fill out a Visa application before lunch.
High Velocity Execution Leads to Rapid Learning
The pace that Connected moved at was none like I’d seen before. It seemed to be getting faster with each passing week.
I never knew when a new project would be pop up, or when I’d have the opportunity to redesign an existing project. Mike said he hoped to build a sort of learning hyperloop at Connected through the pair programming and Agile development process. Veteran engineers would be paired with co-op students and recent graduates, like myself, and were encouraged to learn from one another.
This kept new ideas and user experience concepts circulating within the company.
In combination with the pace of the tasks, this pair programming process created an environment where a new engineer could hone a variety of skills in unprecedented amounts of time.
Athletes keep their muscle development from plateauing by aiming for variety in their exercise routines. Similarly, rapidly shifting between different thinking styles at Connected contributed to a deeper understanding of the full software development stack. When building a server-side feature in Node, I could anticipate the impact it would have on a mobile client and how the experience would differ for varying mobile clients. This kind of experiential insight was an invaluable take-away of my experience.
Over the course of my four months I worked on six different projects spanning the mobile, web, embedded firmware, and design areas over four different languages/frameworks, occasionally for the first time.
The pace of this startup environment also meant that I wasn’t confined to the technical roles denoted by my Firmware Engineer job title. As an employee at Connected, I found the role to be adaptable and highly learnable. The environment is not fit for someone who wishes to find a single set of tasks to iterate over for years; you have to be willing to be on the cutting edge and to continuously learn from the smart pack of people around you.
That being said, Damian made sure to meet with all employees on a regular basis for one-on-one’s to ensure that people were doing work that they found fulfilling and valuable. This created an elegant balance of active learning and teaching in the organization, pushing the team closer together and increasing productivity.
Teach, and Learn from, Each Other
The engineers, designers, and operations people at Connected compliment the company culture perfectly. I found everyone willing to spread their knowledge to all curious members. Senior team members encourage self-driven learning through prototyping.
Reading material and interesting technology news is regularly proliferated through the team. I asked questions on a daily basis and invariably, someone explained new concepts to me. Similarly, designers involve the entire organization in the their process, actively requesting and encouraging input.
There is a distinct feeling that no one was hired at Connected for a specific skill, but rather to fit well with the culture that Connected is built around. Weekly demos encouraged people from all parts of the company to share and critique each other’s ideas, with the tone of collective and constructive improvement.
Culture is a huge priority. I distinctly recall a number of conversations with Damian and other senior members of the team aimed at ensuring that Connected had an environment that welcomed objective and constructive feedback. Continual improvement is a way of life at Connected.
My internship at Connected was a great learning experience. I would recommend the organization to anyone looking to challenge themselves and work with a passionate and talented group of people in the Software and Connected Devices industry.
I hope to work with Connected in the future in any capacity that I can, and am thankful for the experience I had there.