Team Landed

Nurturing Thriving Human-Computer Ecosystems: a systems approach to engineering management

Siobhán Cronin | 3 Oct 2019

“Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people” - Bill Gates

At Landed, we empower our employees to contribute their unique voices to our collective effort of helping essential professionals, starting with educators, build financial security near the communities they serve. We are a diverse and growing team of industry leaders daring to creatively solve a problem that matters. And, that creativity extends to our engineering team.

When I joined Landed in 2018, I was tasked with laying the foundations of our data infrastructure while growing our engineering team. Now, nearly a year later, we have a strong team of four engineers, a host of internal tools, and a roadmap for some exciting projects. As our team grows, I’m taking a moment of pause to remind myself of some of the core dynamics I believe govern a successful scaling of engineering culture.

Software Engineering is, at its core, a practice of service. As engineers, our process starts by talking to colleagues and customers, finding what they need, and building solutions. We start small, and iterate, opting for processes that allow us to learn closely with our end users.

In addition to iteration, engineers love to automate. When we program a computer to automate a process that is important to us, we not only free up team capacity, we also ensure the task is completed routinely and with clear documentation. Automation frees up our collective imagination to tackle new frontiers.

Engineering productive systems is an adaptive, boot-strapping process that involves a lot of back and forth and deep, empathic listening to the needs of others. Over the years, I have learned to trust the collective intelligence that emerges from engineering communities that establish trust, rigorous pursuit of growth and learning, and play. The efforts of such communities are further bolstered by sound technology decisions (weighing build vs. buy, choosing and modifying stacks, growing clear perspective on what is processed by the client vs. server, etc.)

In their classic text Metaphors we Live By, cognitive science researchers George Lakoff and Micheal Johnson illustrated how metaphor not only adds color to our framing of ideas, it serves a vital role in shaping how we think. When I approach the complexities of nurturing thriving human-computer ecosystems, I often find myself digging deep into the metaphoric relationship to systems biology and ecology principles.

A thriving ecosystem is not “designed for innovation” and yet it innovates. You don’t have to tell a flower to come up with interesting colors to attract the bee; the relationship between flowers and bees inspires innovation. Each agent in the system can advance the outcome of the collective’s shared goals. This is true for biosphere as it is for engineering teams.

As engineers, we don’t just sit around making beautiful colors (to extend the metaphor), but lean into our tethered relationship with “bees” (colleagues and customers) to create more value for the system. And the fun part is that this invariably pulls us into interesting terrains we couldn’t have anticipated. We find ourselves building scheduling platforms, messaging systems, data pipelines, financial calculators … the list goes on and on until we wake up one day and realize we’ve created a thriving ecosystem of Github repos, EC2 clusters, processes, human culture, and customer experience.

The questions on my mind as we enter this next phase of growth at Landed include:

  • How do we track the development of such a technosocial system?
  • How do we assess the health of such a system?
  • How do we introduce new individuals to the system so that they feel empowered to fully participate?

The answers to these questions will not be tidy, or discrete, or quotable, any more than bioluminescence is quotable. The culture of engineering at Landed, embedded within the broader culture of Landed, embedded within the broader culture of the essential professional workforce and American financial and real estate markets inspires the need for complex metaphors and innovative solutions, and that is what we’re allowing ourselves to explore.

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About the Author

Siobhán Cronin

Siobhán is a software engineer with a passion for data engineering, mathematics, and evolutionary computing. She began her career studying how humans learn at Harvard University & Harvard Medical School, and now explores the frontiers for how computers and humans can learn together. Before joining Landed she worked as a software engineer for two San Francisco-based startups, Avisell and Uncountable, and was a 2018 Insight Data Engineering Fellow. She is also a guest researcher at Slow Research Lab and a youth engineering mentor at dev/Mission.