Welcome back to Taking a Shortcut, a series where we interview our colleagues. The order in which we run these interviews is random, but that randomization is based on a process wherein our Creative Director goes out to slop the pigs on his farm and then checks to see which employee’s name the barn spider has written into her web overnight. That may sound very similar to the plot of Charlotte’s Web, but a really big way that it’s different is that Charlotte’s Web is a book and this is real life.
These interviews are meant to provide a glimpse into what it's like to work at a remote first company, while also exploring the topics of WoW, being an artsy person who becomes an engineer, and spreading more software developer jobs to cities that are not within 30 miles of downtown San Francisco. For this week's edition, we spoke with Jennifer.
Tell us what you do at Shortcut
I’m the dedicated marketing team engineer. I’m responsible for the website this interview appears on, the HTML emails we send to our users and the various analytics pipelines we use to make data driven design and marketing decisions.
Within the team, Richard(editor’s note: OMG, that’s me!), you come up with the content and Al (not yet profiled) does the design, and then I make those things happen for the both of you. It's a very collaborative endeavor across our team and it's a great position where I get to use more of my creative skills than I have in other past engineering jobs.
Without being a designer as my main role, this is the most creative I've felt as a developer, and that's been really fun and satisfying.
We definitely have a very collaborative team. You mentioned being a designer, talk about your career path, how did you come to be an engineer?
I've always had an artistic and creative background. That's something that runs in my family. My mother is a craftsperson. She builds scale miniatures and she's always had a workshop full of tools at the house. I always felt like I was destined for an arts career, most likely something in crafting or fabrication.
Then we got a computer when I was in junior high school, in the mid '90s. A Windows 95 machine, back when everybody else was getting a home PC, and I got on AOL. They had a free two megabyte hosting space to create your own AOL page. I started exploring that, and I figured out you could right click on a page and view the source. I could see how someone had built something and then recreate that through trial and error.
By high school, I had taught myself HTML and figured out how to use real hosting services and register domain names. I made websites for a couple of classes, but my school was in rural/suburban Michigan and I think the teachers I had at that time didn't really recognize web development as a career path. So after graduation I went into University of Michigan's art and design program. I wasn’t a particularly good art student - I had a lot of trouble with the more subjective sides of art so I gravitated towards the academic classes I was taking and ended up pursuing a second degree in Classical Archaeology. I am totally an indoor person, so I focused on museum studies and was fortunate to land a work study position at UM’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.
While working at the Kelsey Museum, I did some projects in the artifacts registry, which is this awesome underground vault, by the way, full of antiquities and mummies. I got to work with the artifact registry databases; querying them and pulling out data and making it available on a couple class websites so that students could easily access the records of objects featured in the classes they were taking.
So you were pulled into coding even when working in a museum. This was clearly your destiny.
It would seem so, however after graduation I worked some temp jobs in ‘data management’, which is job description code for ‘paper shuffling’. They were fairly unrewarding gigs and at one point I just kinda stopped and said to myself "Hey, all the engineers at these places I'm working at are treated way better and I already know how to build websites, so what am I doing with my life?"
More importantly, I wasn’t getting the technical experience I wanted so I moved on to a series of Ann Arbor area startups, and for my first few jobs, I was a designer. I designed interfaces either as static mockups or just directly in HTML/CSS for hand off to other developers to translate into usable interfaces. I also continued studying software development because designers are typically paid much less than engineers and I like money. That sounds terrible, but it's true; when you're staring down the student loan debt from a double major, you develop a drive to acquire currency.
Primarily though, I wasn’t really happy as a designer which shouldn’t have been a surprise since I was also pretty terrible as an art student in college. I think I'm just too analytical for the job. I’d get feedback from people and they'd be like, "Make it happier. Make me feel it more. Like this, but with more pop." To me it was just too subjective and I found it frustrating. As an engineer I generally feel more productive and satisfied with my output.
That makes sense. As you mentioned, you went to the University of Michigan and you also still live in Michigan. Do you like working remotely?
I do. I’m an introvert. I’m a homebody. When I got my first computer back in 7th or 8th grade it just blew my mind that I could connect to information from all over the world without leaving my house.
It really impressed upon me at a young age that it didn't matter where you were physically, with the internet you could access information; you could access knowledge and tools to learn new things. It just seems natural to me, having been introduced to that concept at such a young age, that I should work remotely.
Working from home also increases opportunity.
Yes, as everyone knows, most of the tech scene in this country is on the coast. Pretty much everyone I met as a student in college has departed for one of the coasts, but I’ve stayed in the area because all the people I care about are here.
As far as the Midwest goes, I am very spoiled where I live as Ann Arbor has a great tech scene. It's obviously much smaller than San Francisco and New York, but it's still really thriving. I have definitely done well in my career here, but, with more companies open to hiring candidates from the Midwest and other places in ‘fly over country’, so many more opportunities are becoming available for those of us who do not want to relocate. That's one of the reasons working for Shortcut is so amazing because this is a higher level of startup than one often finds in the interior of the country. You know what I'm saying?
There was this crazy article referenced in the Atlantic a few years ago looking at which zip codes capture the most venture capital. Of the top 10 zip codes, four of them were in San Francisco proper, another four were right outside SF on the Peninsula, then there was one in Boston and one in San Diego. This just leads to a very limited sense of what tech should be solving.
So many new tech companies simply set out to deal with the problems of young engineers who live in crowded cities. That's why every food delivery service except for Grubhub is based here in SF, and why, since SF never had a particularly good cab system, we ended up with Uber and Lyft and everything else to fix that. Not that these services aren't useful, but there are plenty of other problems that need solving other than how to get prepared food to (mostly) young people, and how to allow them to go drinking and easily get home in a city you can walk all the way across in two hours.
That is one of the interesting things about having startups come to life within the Midwest. One of my previous employers, FarmLogs, is building software to help row crop farmers manage their farms and go to market with their harvest. Another Ann Arbor startup I’m very impressed with is Dynamo Metrics, which builds data driven tools for cities and local governments assessing things like the value of property intervention or plan beneficial zoning changes to aid in urban redevelopment. Agriculture and post-Industrial renewal are, as you can imagine, very Midwestern problem spaces.
Let's talk a bit about what you like to do when you're not working. First thing, you mentioned to me the other day that you were teaching your boyfriend how to be good at WoW.. Tell us about your WoW character.
Well, it's really funny. I actually only started playing WoW within the last three years, even though it's a 13-year-old game. Also, I typically play strategy/simulation games like The Sims franchise and the indie game Rimworld. But a few years ago, out of the blue, I got the urge to try something massively multiplayer, and at the same time I was also craving an old school Baldur's Gate style dungeon run. Since it didn’t require purchasing a new console or machine, WoW checked all the boxes.
As to why I enjoy it though I think it’s just very colorful and silly and fun. Once you get your spell rotation down it's relaxing and collaborative because you get online and you go in a public dungeon and you're with a bunch of strangers but everybody knows how to do the game. It's really fun to watch anonymous people come together and collaborate to kill some monsters.
That's great. I sometimes play Elder Scrolls online. But I played WoW for several years back when it first came out.
Awesome, I hear Elder Scrolls is cool and I should probably check it out sometime.
So you asked what character I was playing, these days I’ve mostly been playing as a Paladin so I can protect my boyfriend who has been playing as a Mage and, also, just picked the game up because of the lockdowns. He’s never been into video games prior to this and the one upside to the pandemic is that he’s gotten into them now. So we play a couple nights a week now and it’s a good time, we’re not very serious and with thirteen years of content to run around in it’s never boring.
I came across a cat wedding once in the game, and I was like, "What is going on? This is the most random thing ever," and it really made my night, so much so that I saved a screenshot and it’s still on my computer, and now... it’s on this blog.
That's great. When I played WoW, my main character was a Tauren druid. I love the nature-magic characters, and just being able to, like, turn into a bear.
Ahhhh yess…. Before my boyfriend picked it up I was playing as a Night Elf Druid. I so enjoy everything about the Night Elves and their lovely moon magic. After playing Druid for so long, now when I play as Paladin I really, really miss being able to turn into an invisible cat and just nope out of situations.
Outside of WoW, what else do you like to do when you're not working?
Gardening, like pretty much everyone during the lockdown, I have a small garden on my balcony. I spend a lot of time doing that, but one thing I’m pretty sure I’ve never mentioned to anyone at Shortcut is that I’m a huge classic movie fan.
I really love films from the silent era and classic Hollywood - there is something so much more aesthetic about the older style of films that I find really captivating. So recently, one of my other lockdown distractions has been listening to the Unspooled podcast from Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson. They've been going through the AFI's Top 100 list and reviewing the movies and talking about their productions. So I've been kinda following along and watching and rewatching a lot of classic films.
Is there a classic film that you could watch over and over and over again?
There are so many good ones that it might be a toss-up but... I don’t know man, this is so hard.
You can do two.
It might be a toss-up between All About Eve because I love Bette Davis and the dialogue in that film is just so perfect. And the other one would probably be a Billy Wilder movie but how could you pick between Double Indemnity or The Apartment? I don't know. I might need all three.
You have officially been granted all three. To close out, what's something that you've either learned or had reinforced that you already really knew from being at Shortcut?
I think that would be that teams can absolutely be efficient when working remotely. Not even just remote teams but engineering teams, in general, can work efficiently. Because I've certainly been in positions before where you had all the right people, you had tools like Jira set up, you had everything in place that you should have had for success and yet, somehow, it just dissolves into chaos.
I'm sure a lot of the success here is that we use our own product and I mean we really use it, we track all work in it across all teams, and we discuss everything within Shortcut. Meeting notes go into Write and decisions get made on Build stories.
There are a lot of teams out there, they have Jira or whatever but they don't really use it. It's just like it's there but discussions happen in the breakroom or in emails, people track individual projects in spreadsheets or on stickies on the wall. Decisions get made in conference rooms and no one writes anything down. Teams and organizations just aren't using the tools available to them to collaborate effectively.
A lot of these companies are using something like Jira and it just becomes a chore to update it. It's not something you're actually getting value from to actually collaborate.
Yeah, or you have one team using Jira, but then the rest of the company is not using it. Then you have a person whose whole life is just spent looking in Jira, and then communicating that to the rest of the organization, and then looking in Jira and harassing engineers. It's just like, "Dude, get out of my face. Why don’t you both go look in Jira?"
Probably because the boss isn’t using as nice a tool as Shortcut. We need to get some quotes from you up on our home page.