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Duretti Hirpa

Formerly Staff Engineer at Mailchimp

April, 2020 blog, twitter, linkedin

Tell us a little about your current role: your title, the company you work at, and generally the sort of work your team does?

I’ve recently departed Mailchimp, where I was a Staff Engineer and tech lead for Mailchimp’s transactional email product. I left to start and found my own company. Working for yourself is really quite distinct from being a staff engineer at a company, and is relatively well discussed. So, I’ll talk about what it was like to be a staff engineer at Mailchimp.

I was working on a team that had a strong mandate to stabilize and extend an underloved product. When I joined Mailchimp the team was more infrastructure focused, and later a product team was formed, and I was chosen to lead that. Since it was a new team, I did a lot of table-setting (roadmapping, setting up channels, team norm discussions, and collaborating on a tech spec template). It is one of my stronger beliefs that a good leader is a kin to a good host: it’s about making room for others, making them feel welcome. If we want to grow as leaders, we need to learn to get out of the way of the people we lead, and give them a chance to participate.

What does a Staff-plus engineer do at your company? How do you spend your time day-to-day?

The days vary -- it depends on what my team needs. It’s a lot of communication, and clearing the brush. It might be talking to an adjacent team, it might be chasing down requirements, I’ve even written product briefs. Whatever my team needs? That’s usually my first priority. I’ll often pair with an engineer on my team, talk through possible solutions. I’ll also work on cross-org initiatives. It’s a lot of relationship building, lots of getting to know people, and being known - so that when the time comes, conflict is easier. I also like to inject a little levity, so there’s a lot of jokes and meme creation, not going to lie. Work is also a community, if you let it be one.

What’s something that’s changed for you since becoming a Staff-plus engineer?

Honestly? Being listened to and being treated like I have expertise. The title carries weight, and I’m taken more seriously from the jump.

Do you spend time advocating for technology, practice, process or architectural change? Can you share a story of influencing your organization?

I’m a big fan of anticipating needs; it tends to be practice and process based. Those are the squeaky wheels of engineering organizations, and tend to be things that people complain about but don’t fix. After I had been assigned a product team, I started looking for technical specs and examples of product briefs. It turned out that Mailchimp didn’t have a unified technical spec template. I gathered 5 other staff-plus engineers, and we did a spike. We created a template, refined it, asked for feedback, and rolled it out. I personally am pretty impatient, so I didn’t want it to be a working group. Working groups have a time and a place, but without a strong directive can drag out for many months or even years. Since we had an explicit deliverable (a tech spec template), we had 3 meetings, and worked asynchronously (Mailchimp is distributed across North America), and rolled it out. I count that a win.

How have you sponsored other engineers? Is sponsoring other engineers an important aspect of your role?

Sponsorship is the name of the game. I believe that it’s the job of senior engineers to make more senior engineers. Otherwise, we’re just gatekeeping.

More transparently, I’m a Black woman in technology, and I finally got a seat at a table. I made it, and I’m actually senior, and it’s not a success to me unless that room looks more like me. Otherwise, I’m just evidence of structural exclusion - the exception that proves the rule.

How did you first get your Staff engineer title?

I first got the Staff Engineer position at Mailchimp, and I was hired in.

What two or three factors were most important in you reaching Staff? How have the companies you joined, your location, or your education dramatically impacted your path?

I’ll be honest, reaching staff was the combination of my reputation, sponsorship, location, and working at a popular, successful company. I was an early-ish hire at Slack, and while there, I was encouraged to give conference talks. Giving talks raised my profile, as did some spicy tweeting on Beyoncé’s internet, about the other half of the work we do as software engineers. So, I have some public profile, and when I was job searching last year, I reached out to Marc Hedlund about joining Mailchimp. He framed my interview internally at Mailchimp as a Staff Engineer interview, and I aced it. Without that intervention? I would still be underestimated. Tiny interventions can have big ripples.

There is a popular idea that becoming a Staff engineer requires completing a “Staff Project.” Did you have a Staff Project, and if so what was it?

I was hired in at Staff, so no.

Can you remember any piece of advice on reaching Staff that was particularly helpful for you? What about a piece of advice for someone who has just started as a Staff engineer? Looking back, is there an easier path to Staff that you could have taken?

How do I say this delicately? The easier path would have been if I wasn’t me. I definitely think a combination of my personality and identity made it such that it took longer for me to get here. According to the Harvard Business Review’s report on women in tech, The Athena Factor, 41% of women leave the technology sector after 10 years of professional experience, and I really understand that statistic. This statistic haunts me. I feel that statistic in my bones. I’d be lying if I said my fantasies of leaving technology weren’t slowly approaching a plan.

But, I stayed, and I got the staff title in my 11th year of professional experience.

In terms of advice, it’s this: Staff engineering is a completely different job. It’s no longer about your technical expertise. The job isn’t computer anymore, as I’m fond of saying. You’re now an agent of the organization, and you have to take a longer view. Sure, technical chops are important, but realistically you’re not going to be spending that much time coding, if you’re doing it right. You’re basically a manager sans reports, and your directive is to lead without formal authority. It works because as an engineer, you inherently have more time than managers do, and you can fix things that managers can’t.

Did you ever consider engineering management, and if so how did you decide to pursue the staff engineer path?

I did consider engineering management: I’m an extroverted, charismatic, people person. I’d be a damn fine engineering manager. However, I didn’t want to be a first-time engineering manager and experiment on someone else’s career. Time is a non-renewable resource, and we act like it isn’t. I couldn’t stomach taking a year to get good at a job and possibly rob someone of career progression. I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t a theft, and I wasn’t willing to do that to someone. Additionally, I know that it’s a completely different job, and it’s one that would require sponsorship and mentorship -- something that’s already difficult to get as an individual contributor, let alone a manager.

What are some resources (books, blogs, people, etc) you’ve learned from? Who are your role models in the field?

For mouthy folks who want to be change agents, I can’t recommend the book Rebels at Work by Carmen Medina and Lois Kelly enough. For people struggling to understand office politics, and how you can learn & exploit human biases, I highly recommend Jeffrey Pfeiffer book, Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don’t.

I’m still hoping to find a role model that looks like me, but the odds aren’t likely, so I’m trying to “be who I needed when I was younger.” That being said, every person of color, woman, and gender minority I’ve gotten to know in this sector has taught me something essential about heart, spite, showing up, and joyfully being yourself in a world and profession that isn’t carved for you - and that’s what keeps me going.

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