Meet Emily Shenfield, Teacher & Theater Alum Turned Product Engineer
Emily Shenfield joined Lever in August 2015 as a member of the product engineering team. But it wasn’t always obvious she’d be a software engineer — Emily majored in theatre and spent time teaching in South Korea. We sat down with her to learn about her nontraditional career path, Lever’s Engineering culture, and dealing with job anxieties.
Tell me a little bit about how you got to Lever.
I had a roundabout path. I studied theater in college and I also did some teaching. Those might seem dissimilar, but they both require communicating with people and figuring out what makes them tick, which I’ve always really enjoyed.
After graduating, I taught English in South Korea. When I came back, I thought, What now? I kept returning to programming — I had taken programming classes in college and knew I liked it and was good at it.
Someone sent me an article about coding bootcamps that basically seemed to say: “get a programming job after just three months!” It seemed like a pretty good deal, especially given my existing interest.
I went ahead and took the plunge. The bootcamp was a ton of learning and a ton of stress, but good stress in that it was engaging and I could see evidence of my own progression. Two engineers from Lever came to a “speed dating” hiring day at our bootcamp where the students had a chance to talk briefly to a number of different companies.
What stood out about Lever?
Randal and Jon asked a couple of those, but they also asked things like, “If you had three months to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?”
That suggested they wanted to learn about me as a person. They actually cared about my motivations and what excites me beyond my technical chops. It was a very short interaction, but I immediately knew I’d love to work with these people.
“It’s pretty unusual in engineering to hear, ‘Hey, we’re not just interested in the skills or experience you’re bringing to us. We’re also interested in where we fit in in your larger career path and how can we take you to the next level.’”
What was the actual interview process like?
Interviewing is stressful and intimidating, but Lever’s process actually allayed a lot of my fears. Our process still consists of a couple of pair programming interviews, which feel much friendlier than whiteboarding interviews. You’re working with someone rather than explaining something to a passive audience.
I also went through the career trajectory interview, which is a hallmark of the Lever interview. It’s pretty unusual in engineering to hear, “Hey, we’re not just interested in the skills or experience you’re bringing to us. We’re also interested in where we fit in in your larger career path and how can we take you to the next level.”
The process helped me feel like Lever was going to be a supportive environment versus a performative one.
What fears did you have coming out of bootcamp into your first job?
So many. The fear of not being able to keep up was huge. With three months of really intense learning under my belt, I felt pretty confident I could learnthe stuff, given the right environment — I could sit in the classroom; I could do a small project. But once I’m on the job, what if I couldn’t keep up?
I was also nervous about working with more senior engineers. In the boot camp world, you’re primarily working with other new engineers and teachers. Now I’d be with people who’d been working with a long time. What if they thought I was an idiot?
How did you deal with those fears?
Well, Lever’s support system helped a lot. New team members are assigned an “eng-buddy,” or someone on the team who’s your mentor and guide for the first couple weeks. That’s really valuable, because even though we’re still a pretty small team, as we grow it’s hard to know sometimes even where to look to find the information that you need.
Having somebody who’s your point person who you can private message and say “Hey, I don’t wanna put this in the all-eng-team channel. Is this stupid?” makes a huge difference. It’s also someone who can become a quick friend, which is valuable to have in the workplace from day one!
“We put a huge emphasis on communication skills. We are organized into small project teams, and it’s up to each to decide how they work together.”
Can you describe your team’s communication style?
We put a huge emphasis on communication skills, which is somewhat unique for an engineering team. We are organized into small project teams, and it’s up to each to decide how they work together. We do a lot of exploratory work to find effective working methods — we’ll talk about our working styles, and we utilize something that another engineer on our team introduced called ‘Team User Manuals’.
‘Team User Manuals’ start with everybody on the team, including PMs and designers, filling out a short questionnaire about themselves. The questions are things like: “What did you want to be when you grow up?” “What’s the best way to give me feedback?” “What’s one quirk about me? What are my core working hours?” and so on. Then, we share these out with each other and talk about them.
Once I’ve read a user manual, I can tell you when I work with so-and-so, I know to expect this. I know how to communicate with them. It’s definitely prevented conflict and misunderstandings.
That’s super cool. What else should people know about the team culture?
What I love most about the team is that we are a group of really curious and empathetic individuals. The initial “Hey, I wanna help. I’m interested in what’s happening. I wanna make sure that I can support the people who are working on this” happens a lot. It’s so indicative of our interest in supporting each other and our ability to share knowledge. Because once everybody knows the basics of the situation, they can chime in with any domain knowledge they might have.
What is the internal mobility like? I feel like you’d have an interesting perspective coming in as a junior member, especially fresh out of boot camp.
There’s been a ton of investment in the past six months into defining roles and career paths — company-wide, actually.
Our managers did multiple small-group sessions to hear our thoughts and feelings about career growth. For example, one session was about technical growth. We discussed questions like: “How do you feel about technical growth? What do you value, what do you want?” and so on. Our manager didn’t talk, it was really just us having a conversation.
The managers took some takeaways from those sessions and are working on building a process from that. Just the fact that we as engineers and as individual contributors had so much input is really valuable.
Even before internal mobility was defined, our managers recognized growth. My manager would sit down with me periodically and say, “We’ve seen you grow in a lot of these ways, and we’re rewarding you for it in this way.” Whether that was a title change or a compensation change, it’s been really really valuable. Obviously it’s nice to get a raise or a promotion, but it’s also really nice to say, “I recognize this growth, and so did my manager, and so did my team.”
“Having a non-traditional background can actually make you a stronger employee because it provides you that perspective and that ability to think differently.”
What advice would you have for someone who’s earlier in their career and looking to come into an environment where they can grow?
I got really lucky with Lever, honestly, in that I found them so early and that it turned out to be a great place. But if I were to go back and interview again, I would take more ownership in the interview process. A company isn’t just interviewing me, I’m interviewing them. I’d ask the right questions to discover if this would be a place I’d thrive. Those questions are different for everybody, but I think recognizing what you value and need helps you hone in on the best possible fit.
How do you think your earlier experience helped you be a better programmer?
Teaching and theatre have led into this career where, maybe from the outside, it seems like what you’re doing most of the time is talking to a computer. Obviously that’s a different kind of communication. But really engineering is more like 80% communicating with other humans, because while you’re writing code for a computer, you’re also writing code that another human has to be able to read later. My experience in fields that are so heavily communication based gave me a lot of perspective on the value of clear communication. Having a non-traditional background can actually make you a stronger employee because it provides you that perspective and that ability to think differently.