Originally published -
Ah, where to begin?
Every year, tens of thousands of people head to law school. While the common path leads straight from undergrad, many people will leave their professions to attend. Some people hate their jobs, and the ability to cut and run is painless, if not exhilarating. For me, leaving Sovrn, my current employer, will be harder than passing the patent bar was. I won’t go as far as to say it doesn’t have to do with the work. Indeed, AdTech and the tech industry in general has captivated my attention, and it is not a space I intend on abandoning in switching career paths. But at the end of the day, the people that I work with and the day-to-day interactions with those people is what I am going to miss so dearly. While I am not ordinarily a “sappy” person, I can’t help but shed a tear of nostalgia thinking back on my time at work.
I had been in many internship roles in different industries from electrical design to robotics, but my only full-time experience after school was a year and change at a very small startup. While I didn’t have unpleasantness with my coworkers there, everybody worked from home 3 days a week, and there were only 3-5 other people at any given time. So, when I got to Sovrn, all the introductory training, the team lunches, Friday happy hours and such were enough to make me feel a greater sense of comradery. But over time, I learned more about the people I worked with, and the company culture that we all helped to create, and I realized that this has been one kick-ass experience.
Personally, I think that all the signs companies hang around the office to try to inject culture into the business are bologna. Don’t get me wrong, I get it, you want to clarify the message expressed to your clients and new hires to be explicitly defined to ensure your employees are delivering a consistent message, but the “working culture” is defined by the people, not rhetoric. For instance, one of the core values at Sovrn is candidness. But the slide in the onboarding presentation means nothing without management that genuinely expresses an openness to different working and personal styles and methodologies.
For me, it was not the onboarding material, but the team lunch we went on my first day that I first saw the openness with how the other members of my team (Operations Support Engineering) interacted. And it wasn’t just getting a drink expensed. It was the hilarious conversations, the jokes about telling clients that our factory ran out of 728x90 ad tags, and we were waiting for a new shipment. Some coworkers were joking about another’s fascination with The Weeknd’s “Starboy”, a hit radio single at the time. That’s the kind of stuff that gives me gut-wrenching “feels” as the kids say these days.
One cool thing about work that is different than school is that other people have cool past work experiences. My first team lead was a particularly rad individual who had lived in San Francisco for some time. She had worked at CNET when the tech boom was going on out there. With so many start-ups transitioning to full sized companies in that time, the industry was even more unconventional. Hearing about that kind of stuff is not only entertaining, it is formative to understanding the world and the current state of things.
One of my best friends here had a long career before switching to tech. While he is going through a vastly different experience outside of work raising kids and considering school districts and housing markets and Costco shopping excursions, we are constantly talking about the local sports radio hosts’ takes on the Denver QB situation, or the latest YouTube video going viral. We hit the basketball courts at lunch and then grab tacos from the food truck by the office. That kind of joviality creates a higher level of understanding, which can be pivotal when you are helping someone troubleshoot a hard problem, and you need to offer them some constructive criticism or honest feedback.
I think that the culture of Boulder, where Sovrn is located, ironically facilitates a respect and understanding for people of all types, that tears down the barriers that you will generally see between even people of different ages at most companies. I say it’s ironic because many people think that Boulder promotes the kind of thinking that there should be 30-year old's sitting in the Supreme Court. While there is truth to that, the underlying dynamic of Boulder is acceptance of everyone’s unique views and beliefs. While I love Golden, CO, my hometown for the last 8 years; Boulder’s general understanding toward all types of individual expression has continued to impress me during my time working here. I have met some of the most unique people and feel that I have become more of an individual as well.
At Sovrn, I have always felt that “points on the scoreboard” were valued more than time on punch card. I think that it makes people a lot more productive than when they think their worth is determined by the number of times “the boss” sees them at their desk. In my specific area of the business, my workload is dictated by the website publishers that we work with. Publishers are a quirky bunch, and I’m allowed to say that because I am a publisher now (of this site). Activity on Friday afternoons declines quickly after the morning rush of people trying to get their work done before the weekend. One of the core activities since I have been here has been the 4 PM Friday happy hour. This reaffirms the idea that it’s not the time you spend between 9 and 5 grinding away, it’s the value you bring when there is work to be done.
I started in the boom of the Header Bidding era in AdTech. I will not even attempt to explain Header Bidding, but all you need to know is that it is,
As you can probably imagine, this created a situation in which every publisher and their mother wanted to implement it but were not always technically capable of doing so correctly. Whenever they knew they couldn’t, or tried and messed things up, my team was called upon to get the client to greener pastures. As a result, we all saw a lot of messed up header bidding set ups, and there was no kind of formulaic problem-solving method for each individual case, because the code on all these sites is so different.
We often needed to rely on collaboration, and what we found is that if you get a group of people in a room and complain about a problem enough, someone will eventually say “oh, wait”. This was so different than other engineering environments that I had been in, in which everyone would work on their own thing in their own cubicle most of the time. This team aspect of the job gives it a collegiate kind of vibe that has been fun to be a part of. Additionally, if you manage to fix a bug on a big news site, the yield can increase by hundreds or even thousands of dollars per day. Seeing that actualization of your worth, both to the company and the client, is what makes those hard problems worth figuring out.
I specifically remember a call from one of my favorite sales guys on a Friday afternoon from the Denver office. He was exuberantly talking about how this one was “inches away from big money” (in a Philly accent) so I looked at the web page. In an instant, I realized that instead of leaving out the values that we had specified as NA (not available), they had included them with that value, breaking the ad request. We called them up and got the issue fixed before happy hour.
My first ever implementation of “our tech” was also with the same sales representative, and that was one I’ll never forget. I had barely gotten the stuff to work on my test blog, with a ton of help from my coworkers. Now this movie review site would be relying on my skills to roll out an 8-ad partner header bidding set up, and this was a pivotal piece of their financial puzzle for the next fiscal year.
I got the code done and sent it to them to put on the site, but instead attached the code for my test blog! It was my first bite at the apple, and I had already made an irrevocable mistake. After spending a couple minutes trying to find out how to unsend an email, I told the sales guy. He sent them an email letting them know that there was a “bug” in the code I sent and attached the right code. I remember it was right before Thanksgiving because he came up to Boulder and brought me a case of craft beer. That kind of teamwork is what facilitates greatness. When you know that a teammate has your back, or that a manager will go to bat for you when a client puts you in deep water, then you can focus on the actual work and not the dreaded outcome.
Moving on will be difficult. As I stated previously, it will be harder than the hardest exam I have ever taken. I’m glad it’s that way, and for a couple reasons.
First, it shows me the passion that I have for Patent Law that I would make this sacrifice for reasons beyond my full grasp of consciousness. So many people, particularly fellow alums, take me to task as to why an engineer would go back to law school. To me, the best tangible answer for them is that it is “a way to work in a broader technical scope” which is true, but nowhere near complete. While it is not easy to put into words, I know that the thousands of emails that I have sent to clients in my current role have been instrumental in my decision to take this path.
Since I started engineering school, my personal slogan has been facilitating innovation. See, I’ve always wanted to be an inventor of something, but that is just not the way I think. Therefore, the closer I can get to innovation, the more fulfilling I find the work. Support Engineering got me even closer to this by facilitating the client’s ability to sustain positive revenue, therefore allowing them to innovate their site. Intellectual Property Law and specifically Patent Law will allow me to leverage my engineering education and experience to literally facilitate clients’ ability to invent, the mother of innovation.
Second, it shows me how great the last 22 months of my life have been working here. I have made so many friends that I have had such embarrassing moments with. So many conversations over a burger at lunch or a beer after work that have widened the scope of how I view the world.
I have also learned to live for the moments minutes before a call with a big client in a tense, pivotal moment of the transaction.
After hours combing over the data like it’s the night before the exam and setting up test page after test page, you are back at work and it’s 8:58 AM before a 9 AM call. Oh yeah, the client’s CTO will be joining as well, to make sure everyone is “on the same page”. You discuss the tactical points of the conversation with the sales person. Then, you get technical information from the client’s engineers on the call that totally flips the script. You are now solving a pure technical puzzle in real-time.
That’s the situation and problem-solving that has helped me find my voice so to speak, and I’m so grateful for this opportunity, and all the awesome people that I have gotten to share it with.
-Rudy, signing off