Section Engineer Interview Series - Glenn Slaven

October 23, 2019

In this interview, Section Engineer Glenn Slaven chats about building cool stuff, taking time to enjoy sunsets, and life out in the country with his wife, four kids, two dogs, a cat, two guinea pigs, and two alpacas.

Glenn Slaven, Software Engineer

Why did you decide to become a software engineer?

It was really the one thing I was good at in school. There wasn’t any question from the beginning. Computer science was the one subject I excelled in, so it was really clear that this was what I was going to do.

What keeps you motivated?

I mean, really it’s a multi-faceted thing. What keeps me motivated to get up, go to work and do the job is a combination of wanting to do something interesting, wanting to be able to feed my family, wanting to work with interesting people and do interesting things and keep building stuff that’s unique. There’s a part of it that’s doing a job and getting paid, having income, all that sort of stuff. There’s a part that drives me to do any job, but then there’s the part that drives me to do this job and do it well, and that’s more about the people and the cool stuff we’re building.

You hold the title as Section’s first employee. What keeps you at this job?

Yes, I think it’s been seven years. So, this is the longest job I’ve ever had. In software, we move around a lot. It’s always the way I got advancements and pay raises, was to go find another job. That was just the way it worked.

What keeps me here is a combination of the people and the convenience. Working from home is awesome. I know it’s becoming more common in the industry, but there are still a lot of places that expect to see you face to face all the time otherwise they don’t think you’re working. So this work from home first thing is fantastic. It allows me to see more of my family. It allows me to live out here in the middle of nowhere, which I couldn’t do if I went and got a job in an office. I could, but I’d have to commute for two hours each way. The flexibility, the people and add on top of that, the fact that we work with technology that’s so cutting-edge, there’s blood on the floor. It’s pretty cool.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

My kids.

What’s it like having four kids?

Once you’re outnumbered, you kind of lose track after a while. It’s pretty full-on, although it’s funny we used to live out of suburban Sydney, which I imagine is like the suburbs anywhere. We were the large family with four kids and it was very weird and you get all the jokes. Then we move out here to the country and suddenly we’re the small family. There are people with eleven kids, eight kids. I don’t know what the right answer to that question is. How do you cope with four kids? Maybe the right answer is you don’t and you just go crazy.

What do you guys do for fun as a family?

Take my kids to their activities! At the moment, we’re getting together and introducing the kids to Firefly - it’s a sci-fi TV series. There’s only one series and it’s pretty awesome. It’s been great fun introducing my kids to old stuff that we enjoyed. We all sat down and watched Stranger Things while my wife and I geeked out on the nostalgia of the 80s. We introduce them to all the old music and everything.

What soft skill or personality trait do you attribute most to your success?

That’s an interesting one. I don’t know. I think flexibility probably. You know the old axiom that change is the only constant. Never truer than here. So being able to just go, “You know what, that didn’t work, we’ll try something else.” It’s hard because you get invested in the things you do, but being able to just go OK, that didn’t work, let’s move on. I try to do that.

Adaptability is important in this industry. I can’t imagine that electrical engineering changes as rapidly as software engineering does. I don’t know. Maybe it does. I’m not an electrical engineer.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

Constantly having to learn new things. I joke, but that’s probably it. I walked into this job because Dan [Daniel Bartholomew, Section Co-Founder & CTO] thought I could do it, and I’ve spent the last few years trying to prove him right. I was a Microsoft shop guy before this, and I’d only worked in .net. I dabbled a little with PHP (I shouldn’t have said that with the recording on as I try to pretend I don’t know PHP…), but prior to this job, I’d worked for years in .net. I was very much part of the Microsoft mothership and ecosystem.

I come over here and it’s Apache and Varnish and command line. What’s command line? Having to learn all this technology is challenging. And it hasn’t stopped. Every couple of months, we turn around and pick up something brand spanking new that I haven’t heard of before and suddenly we have to not just be able to know it, but run and deploy it a thousand times and have it run properly.

I think the most challenging part is definitely picking up brand new things that are often challenging, like M3DB, that are often not yet supported with mature documentation, and make them work. We haven’t always won, but by and large we’ve succeeded here, which I think is a testament to the fantastic people we’ve hired.

What do you like most about working at Section?

While it is the biggest challenge, being able to work with the new stuff is very cool. Also, I know Mani said the same thing, but it’s true, the people here are great. It’s a great company. We’ve managed to hire some really great people. I mean everywhere I’ve worked, there’s always been people who are difficult to work with. I just don’t see those people here. I don’t know how we’ve managed to achieve that. I don’t know whether it’s just because of the type of company it is. I don’t know whether it’s because Dan and Stew [Stewart McGrath, Section Co-Founder & CEO] are just really good at screening people, but we’ve managed to avoid hiring people that I don’t want to work with. Over on the engineering side, I hired the first 4-5 people, so that probably helps too.

What single piece of advice would you give fellow engineers?

Go to bed. Seriously. It’s the same thing I tell every person who starts here. Don’t push it. Don’t work overtime. If there’s a crisis, sure, deal with it. On a day-to-day basis, stop work, have a life. Getting that right. Part of the problem with us as software engineers is that we’re mostly nerds and we love it. We love what we do, even if from time to time what you’re working on is frustrating, we’re doing this because we enjoy it, so it’s often hard to stop. I have family. They want to see me. You have friends. They want to see you. Go have a life outside of the keyboard. I know I sound like an old man when I say that, but it’s important. I’m better now, but I used to be terrible at going to bed. I’ve always been a night owl. It doesn’t make for a happy person the next morning when you’ve stayed up until 1 or 2am.

What’s your favorite part of your day?

There’s a really cool part of the day around 4pm in the afternoon. The window on the other side of the room looks out over mountains, which is just awesome. The sun is going down and the sky lights up, and that’s a cool part of the day. I enjoy that view quite a lot. It’s one of the benefits of being able to live out here. This is a pretty cool part of the world. We’ve been here now for five years at the end of this year, and it’s just magic.

Living out in the country, do you have animals?

Yes. In fact, my tagline used to be, “He has more animals than children, and he has a lot of children.” Let me go through the list. I’ve got two dogs, a cat, two guinea pigs and two alpacas. We did have more animals, but we’ve lost a couple.

The alpacas get shorn about once a year. There’s a guy who comes out and does it. They’re the weirdest looking things when they’re shorn. I think I posted a picture the last time it happened. They’re very cool animals. They have a lot more personality - I thought they would be like long-legged sheep, but they’ll actually come to you. My wife trained them to come when you click, and it’s pretty cool. We don’t do anything with the wool. Not yet. That was the idea, but time is the one thing we don’t have a lot of. I’ve got bags and bags of it sitting here. The plan was to do something with it but we just haven’t yet. We didn’t have precise ideas, just make something. It’s more my wife’s field. She’s very talented with all the handy, crafty stuff.

What are you currently reading?

Hahaha. I’m a voracious reader. I was banned from buying any more books a few years ago as we ran out of space, so I had to switch to Kindle and audio books. I resisted for the longest time because I have a great affection for paper books, but we ran out of bookshelves. My other great failing, however, is that I am a perennial multi-book hogger. I’ve actually been reading the same books for quite a while. I’m still in the middle of The Lies of Locke Lamora. I’m also in the middle of Rivers of London, which is more of a modern fantasy comedy by Ben Aaronovitch. And I’m also reading Made Man. So I’m in the middle of three books at the moment. One of these days, I’ll finish them. I’ve done it all my life. I have two different ways of reading. I either sit down and read a book in one sitting. I did that with The Magicians. That was a mistake, as that was a big book. I sat down to read it one afternoon and I finished it at 4am the next morning, which was a very bad idea, but I couldn’t put it down. I read a lot of fiction. I love novels.

What are you listening to?

Most of my music listening happens in the car. I tend not to listen to music while I’m working. It actually distracts me. I know some people find it helps with focus, but I find it distracting, so most of my listening happens in the car. One of the things about living out here is that you do a lot of driving because everything is a long way away. So you know, the kids activities, you drive into Cooma - half an hour away. Go to church on Sunday - half an hour away. Take the kids to drama in Canberra- two hours away. It’s what you do. The upshot of that is that you listen to a lot of music, and Spotify has been fantastic because I’ve been able to introduce my children to the joys of the music I grew up with. What’s more, I don’t know why, but they actually like it. Our playlists are these strange mishmashes of Jack Stauber and FEiN, and these weird artists that I hadn’t heard of, but my kids are introducing me to things that they’ve discovered through YouTube and stuff. And David Bowie, Queen, They Might be Giants, Crowded House, and all the stuff I grew up with. We get this mishmash. My kids are now finding the old 70s and 80s playlists on Spotify, listening to them and bringing me songs, asking me, do you know this one? I’m like, yeah, I know that one! My son started playing Yes! songs a while ago. I was like, how did you even find this? Apparently, it was on an anime.

Name an interesting fact that most people don’t know about you.

When I first got married, I practically didn’t know which side of the hammer to hold. It’s not something I did growing up, and I was very much a typical nerd who sat at the computer. I horrified my father-in-law, as he’s a very talented builder who can do anything. So he forced me to help with a deck he was building. Since then, I have actually taken on a number of projects and built all sorts of interesting things. Some of which I haven’t finished. (At some point, I’ll finish the number of sheds being built in my backyard.) It’s become something I enjoy doing more, and not something I ever thought I would enjoy. It is actually quite satisfying to think we- the whole family - built a pergola outside our back door. It’s satisfying to look at it and think you built the frame, screwed it all together - that’s pretty cool.

Do you do a ton of planning before those projects?

Yeah. I like to have an idea of where I’m going first. It’s something I started doing more recently. It still terrifies me. There’s no undo button. You cut the wood wrong. You have to go buy new wood. Where’s the ctrl-z button? That feeling of satisfaction crosses over into software engineering. It’s cool to be able to look back and think yeah, I built that. It’s the same energy.

Standing or sitting desk?

Sitting.

Early bird or night owl?

Night owl.

Favorite morning beverage?

Black coffee.

Favorite happy hour beverage?

Kosciuszko Pale Ale

Favorite movie?

The Princess Bride

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Come on, flying would be pretty cool.

Favorite vacation spot?

We’ve kind of moved to it (Berridale). I love the bush. When we lived in Penrith, we used to go up to the Blue Mountains. I don’t know if you know the geography of Sydney at all, but Penrith is the outer western fringe of Sydney. It’s in this sort of basin and it’s surrounded by this line of mountains called the Blue Mountains. It’s part of this great climbing range that Mount Kosciuszko is part of that runs across the whole eastern coast of Australia. The Blue Mountains are beautiful. We often went up there for bush walks. When we were looking for somewhere to get out of the city, we picked the bush. We now live in a place where we can go for walks just down the street. There’s a creek I can walk around. There’s bushland. We can go up the mountains to go skiing. Yeah, we moved to a vacation spot. It’s pretty cool.