Blog

November 20, 2018

Career Path: Gabe Mulley, Engineering Manager at edX

What does the career path and day-in-the-life for an Engineering Manager at edX look like?

We connected with Gabe Mulley to find out!


Where did you grow up?  What did your parents do for work?

I grew up in Norwich, VT. I affectionately refer to it as a rural suburb of Dartmouth College. Many of my fond memories from that period of my life are of time spent in the forests and rivers of Vermont. There are some great swimming holes there. Not sure why there isn’t a swimming hole culture in Massachusetts, I definitely miss it!

My parents are both educators. One of my parents is an autism specialist who has worked closely with schools throughout Vermont and New Hampshire throughout her career and has taught in the education department at Dartmouth. The other is focused on early childhood education and teaches kindergarten at the Upper Valley Waldorf School.

As you might expect, education is a big deal in my family!

Where did you go to college?  What did you study and what were some of your first jobs out of school?

I studied computer and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). I knew I was interested in computer programming and was drawn to the intersection between software and the physical world. I retain that interest to this day. I love hacking on hardware.

My first job out of college was as an electrical engineer at Design Continuum. I was primarily writing firmware for medical device prototypes. From there, I did a stint at Vistaprint and then jumped into a database startup called Hadapt. Hadapt was an incredible experience; in 18 months I learned an incredible amount. Since we didn’t have a big team to lean on, I had to learn a little about a lot of different things -- DevOps, databases, distributed systems, automated testing, package management, etc. I’m a generalist, so this was a dream come true! Hadapt was also the first company to take a risk on me and put me in more of a leadership role. It was a great opportunity to learn and grow.

After I left Hadapt, I joined edX as an entry-level software engineer and have happily been learning and growing here for the last five years.

What has contributed to your success thus far and has helped propel you to the position you have now?

I think one of the biggest factors has been a willingness to take responsible risks. There have been a couple of key moments in my career at edX where the company took a big risk on me, and I leaped into the unknown, trusting that I could figure it out. I then tried my best not to mess it up and contain the blast radius of any damage I caused making mistakes while learning. In each case, a great team patiently helped me learn and together we did some incredible things!

That said, I don’t just blindly try out new ideas. I try to take calculated risks that have low cost and high potential upside. In order to figure out what to try out, I have often relied on finding good ideas generated by other people. I’m not brilliant - but there are lots of bright people out there sharing their insight with the rest of us! This includes both my direct mentors at edX as well as authors, bloggers, and other idea publishers. I do go out of my way to read a fair amount and find great mentors. It’s really hard and time-consuming to learn it all from scratch by yourself, it’s a lot easier to learn from the best!

Ultimately, I think I had to trust that fundamentally I was good and valuable, and even if I failed, I would still be good and valuable. Once I was able to truly believe that, I was able to take some bigger calculated risks and try different things. Sometimes they were failures and I learned something. Sometimes they succeeded. As long as the cost of the failure is relatively low, that’s a win-win.

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as an engineering manager at edX?

I’m the engineering lead for one theme at edX. We have aligned our staff around particular groups of business problems that we call a “theme”. To solve these business problems we built cross-functional teams composed of staff from marketing, data science, product management, user experience, education services, the executive team, and engineering.

My primary responsibility is to ensure engineering is able to do our part to enable the team to solve the business problems. I am responsible for making sure we have the right staff, that we have the right tools, that engineers are aligned and that we can rapidly deliver prototypes and production-ready features. I focus a lot on process and people, but ultimately I do whatever it takes to solve the problems. One day five of us stopped what we were doing and did manual data entry for an hour since it was faster than writing a script and it needed to be done immediately!

To me, it’s about creating an environment where this cross-functional group of humans can build incredible products. How do we create a team that feels inspired and excited to solve the problem, is proud of their work, is more effective together than apart, has a big impact, and feels valued as individuals and as a group? It’s a really hard problem. Much harder than any engineering challenge I’ve faced!

Any tips for someone considering a career in engineering?

Be persistent. I was never terribly good at math, or at least, I thought wasn’t very good. It wasn’t until I took calculus in high school that a great teacher showed me that I wasn’t actually bad at math. I looked around me and saw people for whom it came naturally to, they were taking math courses at Dartmouth while still in high school. I was always comparing myself to them. This teacher helped me see the beauty of calculus in a way that I could appreciate independently. It wasn’t about being good or bad at math, it was just learning something amazing. It became clear to me that I could be successful at something even if I wasn’t naturally talented.

This was true throughout my college and professional careers. I really struggled in my first data structures and algorithms class, while it came much more easily to others. I still ended up with a very good grade because I realized that just because it was harder for me, it didn’t mean I couldn’t do it.

To this day, I know that I’m not the most talented computer scientist. I will never be the next Donald Knuth, however, I can leverage my other natural talents and I can compensate for my weaknesses with willpower and still provide a lot of value.

My advice is: when it gets hard, that’s when you get to show off -- show the world how strong and persistent you are, embrace the challenge, and problem solve!


Day in the Life

Coffee, tea, or nothing?

Coffee for sure! Followed by a lot of water. I realized I had been dehydrated a lot of the time, felt great to be properly hydrated once I figured that out!

What time do you get into the office?

I usually get in around 8:30 AM. I do some of my best work in the mornings.

What are three things that motivate you in your role?

  1. Having a big impact
  2. Being on a team that is executing effectively
  3. Learning!

Every day is different, but can you outline what a typical day looks like for you?

I usually do a chunk of deep work in the morning. Right now this often communication and coordination, sometimes I do data analysis or programming during this time. At 11 AM every day we have our team stand-up. I then typically have a mix of meetings and free blocks in the afternoon. Lately, it’s been a lot of recruiting related activities (interviews etc). I also have a number of 1:1 meeting with the staff I manage, mentees, and upper management.

I try to avoid taking mission-critical programming tasks since I don’t allocate that much time to that type of work. Most of my contributions to development work are code reviews. I also will take quick, simple, tasks that I can do quickly and would require a lot of context switching. I try to save the big complicated work for engineers who have bigger chunks of uninterrupted time.

What time do you head out of the office?

I try to leave by 4:30 PM every day so I can catch an hour or so with my daughter before she goes to bed. She charges my batteries for the next day!

Do you log back in at night or do you shut it down completely?  

I usually log back in around 10 PM and work for a bit before going to bed.

Any productivity hacks?

  • Take handwritten notes.
  • Don’t use devices with screens in meetings, instead take notes by hand. This dramatically increased the value I could add since I was actually paying attention to the whole conversation. I generally feel that if I have something that is so important that I have to do it during the meeting, I should probably just not go to the meeting and do that thing instead.

  • I use an adapted bullet journaling system - this has made it a lot easier to keep track of lots of different things I need to do and prioritize my time. I take my notebook everywhere!

  • Suppress interruptions.

  • I try to mostly ignore Slack and email and respond when I’m between meetings or deep work blocks. Most things can wait!
  • Figure out what time of day you are most effective and do your highest priority work then.

What are the 3 tools that you can’t live without?

  • Google Docs - Collaborative editing and version control are killer features

  • Email - My go-to async communication tool

  • Git - Version control all of the things!

What tools are overvalued?

  • Slack

    • I prefer face-to-face for synchronous conversation since there is a lot communicated nonverbally.

    • I prefer email for asynchronous communication because it encourages more thoughtful, fully formed responses.

    • I find it to be more distracting than helpful most of the time.

What professional accomplishment are you proudest of?

One team, I was on found and implemented a change that resulted in a ~30% increase in overall revenue for edX. That was a huge impact!

Who do you admire or call upon for professional advice?

Mark Haseltine, Ed Zarecor, Alyssa Boehm and Katy Willemin are my go-to resources. All are brilliant leaders, managers, and thought partners!


Keith Cline is the Founder of VentureFizz.  Follow him on Twitter: @kcline6.

Images courtesy of Gabe Mulley