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December Employee Spotlight: Adam England
Adam England, our director of engineering, is someone I don’t get to spend much time with here at the office. I’ve bumped into him a few times at our coffee shop and exchanged some casual conversation, which is always grand. I’ve also asked him for employee spotlight quotes and edited developer job postings. He tends to send me quotes no earlier than 9 p.m., and I always enjoy how he gives me freedom to, in his words, “wordsmith this around.”
What really stands out to me about Adam is the reputation he seems to have. Though I don’t personally spend a lot of time with him, I do hear a bit about him from coworkers in the engineering department. Whether they talk about how their team is approaching a problem or recapping one of their meetings, they always have positive things to say about their boss.
And considering that he is a manager, I wasn’t sure if I should pull quotes from our CEO, Dan, or from the people who work on his team. So why not both?
Eager to learn more about his development approach and listening skills, we sat down for an interview. Here’s what he had to say:
Amy: So, one of the first things I noticed on your bio is you said you’re a “veteran of the KC startup scene.” Could you explain what you mean by that?
Adam: I guess in the shortest sense it means I worked for a lot of companies that went out of business, right? Five years ago I joined a small startup called LiveOn and worked there until the company ran out of money. But after that I just couldn’t see myself going back to a large corporation again. So I kept joining small companies to help them try to get off the ground.
Amy: What do you like about working at startups?
Adam: You know, when you work at a smaller company, there’s no ambiguity about the problem you’re working on. You’re not going to get translated through layers of people, you’re going to actually talk to the customers, and you’ll work directly on the problem. That’s the fun part: Being at the heart of the actual business instead of being separated by several layers of management and paperwork.
Amy: I agree. Let’s jump right into the tough questions. As a veteran of local startups, is there anything you think the KC startup scene could improve upon?
Adam: That’s a good question. I think that one of the biggest pieces that’s missing is just enough people being involved. There are a lot of people who want to be founders and entrepreneurs, but there aren’t enough people who want to be that first hire. That’s an awkward spot to be in. You find a lot more engineers, testers, designers, and writers who are interested in doing that in the big startup markets and they’re harder to find in Kansas City.
Amy: Hmm, that’s a good point. When you started here, you were a senior developer, and then you transitioned into director of engineering. How has that ride been?
Adam: I’ve never been somebody who follows the titles or anything like that. I’ve been everything from an entry-level developer to a CTO at some startups, plus the roles here, and I always just see myself doing whatever needs to be done to get software out the door and working. At some places, I need to be the person who sits down and writes the code. Sometimes I need to take a higher level view of that, and as long as we’re accomplishing things and getting good software out, I’m just happy to be part of that.
Amy: That kinda segues into my next question: How would you describe your management style here?
Adam: Sure. Dan asks me the same question sometimes. I never answer him though. (laughs) You know, with managing an engineering team, you're dealing with a group of people who generally love what they’re doing. Most people in this field love writing software, so the best way to motivate people is not to give them more money and leave it at that. It’s really just about giving people interesting challenges. That’s always the hard part, ‘cause you know there’s also dirty work that has to be done. But I always want to make sure that everybody who works in the group, at least over the course of a given month, is doing something that challenges them and something that’s interesting to them. These are all highly educated, hard-working people, and if you give them something that motivates them, they’ll do more work than you could possibly get out of them by just cracking the whip.
Amy: Definitely. That’s a good point.
Adam: So it’s all about having fun and keeping people challenged.
Amy: Yeah, I agree. I think RNL does that in general.
Adam: I think in general that’s the way it works here. Not every company is so lucky. I think of my first job out of college. My boss came up to me the first week and said, “Did they explain to you that we have a 48-hour minimum here?” I was like, “Really?” He told me, “I’m not saying you have to work 48 hours, I’m just saying make sure your timelog says 48 hours.” And that’s kind of a miserable way to do business. If your employees from top to bottom are just faking their hourly logs every week, what was the point of the rule to begin with?
Amy: That reminds me of Office Space with the pieces of flair.
Adam: It’s just so much more common than you would ever imagine. That’s one reason I probably won't go back to big business anytime soon.
Amy: Yeah. I could see that. Here’s a weird question: A lot of the people who read these employee spotlights want to work here and are researching our company. Is there anything you’d want to say to someone who’s maybe thinking about working here and trying to creep on you by reading this post?
Adam: Sure. I’ll give the inside tip: The most important thing to do if you want me to look at your resume is do something outside of your day job. Whether you’re in school or in your professional career, I’m always impressed by people who contribute to an open source project, participate in hackathons, or do something to show that they love writing software beyond just the fact that they get paid to do it. Those are the people who will do the best and thrive the most, so do something to show that you like what you're doing.
Amy: That’s great advice. Similar to that, would you have anything to say to the people who currently work on your team? Other than “Keep doing what you’re doing. You're great.”
Adam: Hmm. Everybody wants their voice to be heard, and sometimes it starts with you. If you see that things are going poorly, you’ve got to be the one to stand up and come in with a plan. Most of the time I’ll say, “Let’s give it a try.” If you just come with a complaint, everybody’s got those. If you have a plan, you can probably get what you want pretty quickly.
Amy: That’s really good advice. Come with a solution, not just a problem. I didn’t think you’d have answers for either of those and you had really good ones for both, so thank you.
Adam: Sure. I do my best.
Amy: The other thing I saw on your bio that I, of course, got excited about is that you blog!? That’s awesome. What do you blog about?
Adam: It’s all technology. It’s on adamnengland.com. The topic I’m most interested in is called benchmarking. It’s basically doing measurements of different technologies to see what works the best. And the reason I do that is the industry is filled with conventional wisdom. As with most conventional wisdom, that’s usually wrong. So I like to use those benchmarks as a way to debunk or confirm some of the things that are out there. It’s a fun hobby and I think that the skill of explaining things to people succinctly is something that takes practice. You know this as well as anybody. I mean, writing is difficult, so it’s something you have to practice if you want to stay sharp.
Amy: Yeah. Yay, writing! Do you have readers that check your blog and interact with you on there?
Adam: I don’t think I have many regular readers. Most of the people who come there find it through Google searches on the topic. If I can get somebody to link to one of my answers from Stack Overflow, I get huge amounts of traffic on that. I get thousands of visitors per month, but most of them are people who are just looking for the specific topic I’ve talked about rather than following me personally. I still get the $2 a month in ad revenue either way, so I don’t care where they come from as long as I get rich on that $25 a year.
Amy: Oh yeah. Half of that pays for the domain I bet.
Adam: That’s right. (laughs)
Amy: You mentioned in your bio that you speak on programming topics, and I know that you spoke at KCDC. How was that experience?
Adam: It’s something that I really enjoy. Of course I get pretty nervous doing it. It’s a nerve-wracking experience and I’m always prepping at the last minute. But I would like to keep doing it in the future. If you get really good at it, most of the conferences will pay for your hotel if you speak there. So it’d be a nice hobby to keep working on.
Amy: For sure. Have you had any weird audience responses or anything strange happen during a presentation?
Adam: Before I spoke this year, I had some folks in engineering watch my presentation here to give me some feedback. We went through it and Ryan Troxler says, “You need more memes.” I'm like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m on the wrong side of 30 to be up to speed on that.” He’s like “Just put some memes on there. I promise, everyone will love it.” So I went home, put a Game of Thrones reference and a Batman reference, and there we go. It worked out great. But it just had never occurred to me before presenting to them that putting in a couple memes would make people like it more. And I think they were right.
Amy: (laughs) Adding memes is always good advice. Let’s shift gears a little bit. Kitchen recipes. Like what?
Adam: I think the thing I make that I’m most proud of is tamales. It’s such a fun thing to make during the winter, and since you can fill tamales with whatever you want, you can have a lot of creativity there. Pizza’s kinda the same way. You’ve got a blank canvas. A lot of cooking is like programming. You have to master some basics, essentials, and patterns, but then you're using a lot of creativity and varying the theme. In that realm, I’m actually a terrible baker.
Amy: Oh, because you have to follow the instructions?
Adam: Yeah! If you are off just a little bit on those, it turns out terrible. So I prefer cooking to baking, where I can be a little looser with my ingredients and make changes without it being a horrible situation.
Amy: True. Similar question: DIY projects. Like what?
Adam: Let’s see. I can do most general household stuff: building workbenches and shelves, doing some plumbing and electrical, obviously painting and regular repairs. That’s a lot of fun. And I just like to prove that I can do it myself. With most projects, I’ll at least try to do it myself, and when it fails I can call a professional. But it’s good to get started on my own.
Amy: Dang. You have very well rounded interests.
Adam: Well, I don’t like idle time very much. I don’t spend very much time out of the week just relaxing. I don’t watch many sporting events, I don't watch many movies, so most of my time is spent doing something.
Amy: Why’s that?
Adam: (laughs) You know, I’m not sure.
Amy: Deep questions.
Adam: With the kids and whatnot around the house, even if I tried to sit down, they’d be all over me wanting to do something. I might as well do something interesting so they can follow me around doing that rather than following me around while I sit on the couch.
Amy: That’s a really good way to look at it. They’ll probably pick some of your hobbies up.
Adam: At least they’ll learn something out of it. And it’s more fun for them than just watching their dad watch a football game.
Amy: That’s good. I like that you brought up your kids because that was my next topic. You have two kids. What are their names and ages?
Adam: Abel is two years old and Ainsley is three months old. They’re both very little and they get into everything.
Amy: Abel is a really interesting name. They’re both interesting names.
Adam: Yeah, we intentionally looked for names that weren’t in the top 100 of popularity. We didn’t want anything too weird, but also nothing too common. So that’s where we ended up. It’s kind of crazy to have two kids that young. They can be a lot of work, but it’s nice to have them growing up close together. I think it’ll make them closer as siblings.
Amy: Do you think you’ll have more kids?
Adam: I don’t think so. My wife and I both work full time and it gets hard to keep up with too many kids. Though Dan tells you that after two it gets easier. So we’ll see.
Amy: Yeah. He says it’s basically the same, so I totally believe that.
Adam: I don’t see how that’s possible, but…
Amy: Well, your kids pretty young to have their own defined hobbies, but surely they like doing things with you and your wife. What kind of hobbies do you all have together?
Adam: Abel loves being outside any way he can get it. You take him around when you need to do landscaping or any work like that. You can always put him to work carrying tools and moving leaves. One of the things that kids always really like, and for whatever reason I always liked too, is going to the zoo. Zoos are always one of my favorite recreational places to go. I always liked them as a kid and I still love them now, which is great because kids love them, too. There’s no better day for them than going to see all the animals. And I could go to the zoo ten times a year and not get tired of it.
Amy: Wow. That’s awesome. I hope you have Friends of the Zoo passes?
Adam: We do, definitely. It’s a good way to burn off some energy and see something fun.
Amy: They’re pretty young, but you’ve been a dad for awhile now. So what’s your biggest piece of advice for dads, or maybe people thinking about becoming dads?
Adam: I think what I’d say is that it requires a lot more patience than you expect it will. You have to remember, when these kids are driving you nuts, they aren’t doing it because they want to drive you nuts. It’s just the way kids are. It’s like having a puppy dog. They’re always going to be into something and you’ve just got to relax and deal with it, because there will always be more the next day.
Amy: That’s good perspective to have. It probably keeps you a little calmer than otherwise.
Adam: At the same time, it is exhausting. But there’s a good reason why so many people have kids: It's a lot of fun and it’s very rewarding. If everybody hated it, it wouldn’t happen. For all the lack of sleep and everything else, you really love every minute of it. It’s well worth the amount of time you spend and the amount of sleep you lose.
Amy: Aww. That’s sweet. You’re probably pretty busy with them daily, but do you have some moments you’re looking forward to as the kids get older?
Adam: Oh yeah. I love having the kids around the house, but I'm always somebody who’s ready for the next phase of my life when it comes. We’ve started looking forward to all the vacations we can do with our kids as they grow up. Then once the kids are older we can probably start traveling internationally again.
Amy: Did you do a lot of international traveling before the kids?
Adam: Not any long trips to Europe or anything like that. I’ve been to a lot of places in the western hemisphere: Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, as well as a lot of places in the US. I’d really like to visit Africa. There are several places in Europe that I’d really like to visit as well.
Amy: That’s interesting Africa is one of the top places on your list. Why's that?
Adam: Seeing the animals and actually being where these animals live in the wild would be amazing. I want to see some of the natural wonders: the waterfalls, the jungles, the savannahs… There’s just nothing like it in our hemisphere. If you want to see that, you’ve got to go there.
Amy: Yeah! So you really, really like animals then. What’s your favorite animal?
Adam: I’ve always liked the big cats. When I was a little kid, I had an aunt who bought us zoo memberships where you adopt an animal. She’d always get me an adoption for one of the big cats. But there was a real problem in which the cats would always die after I adopted them. And the zoo would send you a letter that said “We regret to inform you that Tulip the Cat has died.” I must have received dozens of these throughout my childhood. Every cat I adopted would die.
Amy: Kiss of death or something.
Adam: Now, as an adult you realize big cats just don’t live long in captivity. But I got made fun of by my siblings a lot for killing all these poor jaguars.
Amy: Aww. That’s what siblings are for. Well, we’re kind of in the territory of random, weird questions. So speaking of that, Megan had a requested question. She told me to ask you about your favorite karaoke song.
Adam: Oh, good. (laughs)
Amy: And I asked, “Does Adam sing karaoke?” And she said, “Just one song. Just ask him about it.”
Adam: Generally when I do karaoke I’ll sing “It’s Raining Men.” It’s always a real crowd pleaser. People like it, everybody knows the song, I do a pretty good performance. So…
Amy: Is there a video of this anywhere?
Adam: I don’t have one. I know videos have existed, but I hope that they’ve just been lost to time. That would be best. It’s one of those things you have to see live to really appreciate it.
Amy: We can make that happen. That's really funny. Do you have choreography to this?
Adam: You’ve got some hand motions that you can use, some rain motions, things like that. Some light choreography.
Amy: It’s probably not too late to get a karaoke machine at the holiday party.
Adam: Maybe we’ll save that for next year.