Reflecting on 5 Years at Artsy

Time for a personal update! I’ve been off work the past week, and I was enjoying myself when my staycation was rudely interrupted by catching a cold. Boo. I’m nearly totally better, which is good because tomorrow, when I go back to work, I’ll be moving to a new team within Artsy as its tech lead. I’m very excited. In the week I’ve had at home, reading books on team management, watching edutaining videos about philosophy, and shotgunning neti pots, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on how I wound up in a tech lead role.

This blog post is the result of my week of reflections, so it really is a personal post. Feel free to close tab if you’re not keen.

This past week marked the fifth year that I have worked for Artsy. I have a hard time wrapping my head around just how long a stretch of time that is, actually. Five years

Artsy has changed a lot in five years – the company now employs over 230 people, but when I joined, the team was just 40. I’ve watched as new people join the company, help Artsy achieve its goals, grow as individuals, and then move on to something new. It happens – life is change. But it’s put me in the unfamiliar position of being one of the people who has been around the longest. Artsy is, incidentally, the largest company I’ve ever worked for.

I’ve changed a lot, too. I discussed in my last blog post how I’m no longer as motivated by personally getting to implement an elegant user experience as I am by helping others implement that user experience. That’s a huge shift, and it wasn’t entirely something I wanted. Part of this happened to me, but much more of it is made up of how I’ve responded to those changes.

Nowadays, I get way more satisfaction out of helping my colleagues be productive than I do when just writing code. Over the past year, I’ve repeatedly helped web developers (who had mostly never opened Xcode before) get up to speed on building Artsy’s iOS software in React Native. It has been so satisfying in a way that I didn’t expect. There’s an intrinsic sense of reward that comes with helping someone achieve a collective goal.

In the past year, I have helped our team build a new auction bidding iOS UI, a location-based guide for finding art shows and fairs, and an entirely new e-commerce system for art. In that process, I learned a lot about how to help manage projects, too. I developed a close rapport with several different product managers and tech leads, and got a sense for how they help teams be productive. I just kind of hit a groove in the last year.

Speaking of last year, in 2018, I flirted with the idea of moving into a management role. I spoke with a bunch of people about the idea but ultimately decided that it wasn’t the right time for me. Through this process, I figured out the skills that I’d need to gain if I ever did end up wanting to be a manager, and I’ve been working on those skills since. Though, at this point in time, I still don’t think being a manager is the right path for me.

Being a tech lead, on the other hand…

Like I said, I’m quite excited. My five years at Artsy gives me a level of credibility and, as I move into the tech lead role, I’m excited to get to apply that credibility. Let me explain. See, there have been times when I have felt… on the outside of important cultural discussions that Artsy’s engineering leaders are having. I was definitely getting my perspective represented by others, but I didn’t ever get to represent it myself.

It felt kind of weird. While I had cultural credibility of my peers, I didn’t have institutional authority of the business. It was a weird kind of cognitive dissonance. I did some reflecting and realized how inappropriate it would actually be for me to be in those discussions: an individual contributor is only responsible for representing their own perspective, but everyone having these discussions is responsible for representing others’ perspectives.

What I realized was that I had reached the perimeter of my sphere of influence, as one IC on a team of 30+ people. I took some time to get familiar with that perimeter and to learn how best to work within it as an individual.

(One way I did this was to create a “practice” of iOS engineers at Artsy to manage collective, cross-team efforts in Artsy’s iOS software. I realized then, in hindsight, that institutional authority was just kind of up for grabs. So the credibility-vs-authority dichotomy ultimately turned out to be false, though it was a useful model for me.)

A few months ago, my manager Eloy floated the possibility of me becoming the tech lead for the Discover team at Artsy. I expressed immediate interest and wasted no time meeting with Stephen, the product manager, to learn all about the team’s goals. I got really excited: the team’s job is to help people on Artsy to discover art. “Help people find art they’ll love” is a pretty kickass team goal, and aligns super-well with my reasons for even working at Artsy in the first place.

So yeah! I’m pumped. I have a great team supporting me as I become a tech lead, too, so I feel really set up to learn how to be a great tech lead. Maybe this will eventually end up being the precursor to my subsequent career as an engineering manager – I’m open to the possibility, but I’m honestly too excited about becoming a tech lead to worry about that right now!

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