Career Path: Jesse Whitworth, Engineering Manager, Software at Piaggio Fast Forward
Also, Piaggio Fast Forward is hiring! Check out its BIZZpage for all of the company's openings!
Where did you grow up? What did you parents do for work? What was your very first job?
I was fortunate to have grown up in Andover, MA and had two loving and hard-working parents. My father ran a family business, Whitworth’s Sporting Goods, and my mother worked nights at a local hospital in the call center. They encouraged me to get a job early, so my first job was delivering the Boston Globe to about 100 houses near my home, rain, shine, or snow. Once I was old enough, I upgraded to busboy and dishwasher at a local restaurant The Best of Thymes.
How did you get into the field of software engineering? It looks like you were working in this field before you went to UMass Lowell and earned a degree in Computer Engineering?
My first programming was writing DOS batch scripts on my home computer so I could play video games with friends over terribly clumsy acoustic modems. In high school, I took my first two programming classes (C++ and AP C++), where we developed desktop software on Microsoft Visual Studio. During my senior year, I took a Java course at our local community college. During that class, I had a short mentorship with an engineer working at Sun Microsystems, but ultimately I decided to take up a life of snowboarding and communal living instead. I continued coding by modding video games like Warcraft 3 and Half-Life and always stayed up-to-date on industry trends by reading websites like Metafilter and Slashdot. After moving to Boston, I had an opportunity to join a lab at MGH working with The Broad Institute and pursue software development with a small team of bioinformaticians.
While working at the Center for Human Genetics Research, I honed my programming skills and helped to improve and maintain a few Java applications used in disease and genetics research visualization. I also assisted my labmates, most of which were finishing their post-doctorates, helping them hack their Perl and Python scripts together. It was during this time that I uncovered a desire for more knowledge of algorithms and data structures, so I enrolled in an electrical and computer engineering degree at UMass Lowell. I jumped in with a full course load and commuted to Lowell while doing consulting work for Zipcar and Dicerna Pharmaceuticals.
You have worked in a variety of organizations - from research labs to startups to mature corporations. How does the experience at different size companies differ?
The biggest thing that I have noticed is that the size of a business matters less than the vision, direction, and social cohesion of your team. When everyone aligns with a clear direction, and your leaders are making good decisions, it doesn’t matter whether you are ten people or an army. When everyone is working towards the same goal, and they have a clear sense of what needs to be done, things fall into place. While this is a simplification, and it requires that you hire excellent people, I think it is the most glaring difference.
One notable challenge is that as a company grows it needs to add additional control systems to ensure predictable results. If those systems are not carefully crafted, they can lead to lower communication between teams, people placing themselves in silos, and systems that reduce autonomy.
As a language-agnostic software engineer, how do you stay current with the latest technologies? How do you decide which technology is a fit for the project at hand?
Bottom line, there is no way to have a deep understanding of all the changes in our field, so we need to pick and choose where we spend our time and energy. I generally choose a technology based on ease of development, community support, and maturity of the underlying language. If I cannot get a basic application of a technology working in half a day, it’s usually the wrong choice.
In the last few years I have stopped consuming feeds that are managed for you, like what you get on Facebook, and instead focus on actively managing the sources of articles and news that I follow. This allows me to get updates from Hacker News, MAKE, Wired, Kotaku, xkcd, and many more when I have downtime. This is extremely helpful in keeping up with trends in our industry and increasing my exposure to alternative ideas.
Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position at Piaggio Fast Forward?
Piaggio Fast Forward is a startup environment, so we all take on a lot of roles that we might not normally do in more traditional work environments; for me, this includes managing our IT infrastructure and security policy while also architecting our software platform. I have also been helping to ensure that communication is strong between our design and engineering teams.
However, as a manager, the most important thing I do on any given day is removing obstacles that keep my team from getting their work done in a collaborative and encouraging environment. This often means I am writing less code, but having come from a development background, I know that the less our workers are blocked, the smoother things will run. In practice, this means communicating long-term vision so the team can make decisions without me, that they readily share both praise and issues with each other, and that they have the tools they need to get their jobs done.
I am also on grill rotation with a few other grill-masters.
Day in the Life
Coffee, tea, or nothing?
We have a serious-business espresso machine in the office, made by an Italian company called Rocket, which becomes a huge rallying point for myself and the team. It usually results in morning coffee-tastings before work begins. We also have the most impressive tea selection I have seen in a workplace, with green, red, white, black, and herbal options in equal parts.
What time do you get into the office?
I usually arrive between 8, and 10 am, depending on how late I was up the previous evening and whether there are meetings scheduled. I do my best work later in the day, so I let my flow dictate when I leave and when I get in. We do not have a strict company policy, and I make it clear to those that work for me that I don’t care how they get their work done, just that it gets done properly and timely.
Every day is different, but can you outline what a typical day looks like for you?
In the time I have been at PFF, very few days have been easy to categorize. If I were to create a generic template: it would begin with espresso and checking in with my team, then move to uncovering any blockers and questions, then getting them answered or follow-up meetings scheduled, and then getting to work on architecture, code reviews, and then finally writing code when everything else is quiet.
What time do you head out of the office?
Everyone here works hard, and we stay late when we need to, but we want people to avoid burnout and to have time to reflect on their work. I leave when I finish what I set out to do for the day, and I trust my team to make that decision on an individual basis.
Do you log back in at night or do you shut it down completely?
I think it is important to leave your work behind, and that you context switch off what you have been doing all day. Of course, there are times when we need to work on the weekend or have vacation embargoes to get something out the door, but that is a rare event.
In general, when I take a vacation or go home, I can be reached on Slack or mobile, but I am not actively working unless I am blocking someone.
Any productivity hacks?
The single biggest issue I deal with is focus. I have an actively wandering mind that provides equal parts ideas and hurdles. At PFF, I use standard issue Bose noise-canceling headphones to listen to instrumental and electronic music, which becomes especially important in our open office.
My focus hack for my team is that I try to minimize meetings, and to group meetings together on the same day whenever possible. While it might be more painful in the short-term to have lots of meetings in a single day, I think it is superior to spreading meetings out over multiple days. As a developer, I know that having completely free, uninterrupted days is critical to doing your best work.
What are the three apps that you can’t live without?
Feedly, LastPass, and Spotify.
What professional accomplishment are you proudest of?
I am very proud of all the projects I have worked on. But having taken part in the creation of the online platform at HBX/Harvard Business School, from the first line of code, is the one I am most proud of. The platform and featureset we built is, even today, the envy of significantly larger development teams.
Who do you admire or call upon for professional advice?
The people I admire the most are those that fight to fix the world, or those that simply inspire others through great adventures. My favorite people are Phillip K. Dick, Muhammad Yunus, Joseph Kittinger, and Jane Goodall.
I have been fortunate to have worked with people at every job in my career that I considered a mentor, whether they were direct managers or coworkers. At PFF, all of the senior leadership have amazing insight and advice, and I look to them for inspiration and guidance when I uncover new challenges.
Images courtesy of Piaggio Fast Forward.