Thoughts on building with purpose from an Uplevel dev

A conversation with our dev, Stewart Spencer, about pivoting from grad school, self-improvement as a team exercise, and solving the eternal problem of miscommunication.
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Stewart Spencer, Senior Software Engineer

Stewart Spencer graduated with a Physics degree. His plan for grad school didn’t come to fruition and “it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he says with a smile. He soon set his sights on becoming a programmer, which came with a decent work-life balance with a healthy income.

Given the accessible entry point (at least, for a self-described “fast learner”) and the relative career path flexibility (unlike, say, the multi-year track to become a doctor), he pivoted from physics to software development. He initially worked with data entry and data engineering, eventually growing as a junior dev in back-end data analytics engineering, and now, full-stack.

“I like how it’s part problem-solving, part creativity,” although he doesn’t quite agree with the common description that coding is like a puzzle. “It’s more like Legos. You follow the set of instructions and build.”

HIGHS AND LOWS

What is Stewart aiming to solve for engineering orgs? “Broadly, all kinds of communication.” Many have worked to address this common stumbling point for teams of all sizes, but at a company dedicated to empowering teams for more effective conversations, he’s in the right place. 

To be a successful engineer, he says, you need “a combination of understanding how businesses operate, so you understand what leaders mean, and an ability to use that to effectively prioritize and communicate costs to stakeholders.” Those working with that balance of understanding business goals and engineering capabilities can achieve more than either on their own. “Engineers who go far might be best in their class, but most often, it’s people that can navigate the business component.”

This multilingual fluency is a clear advantage, but it’s not available to all. One of Stewart’s hopes is that Uplevel can help fill in gaps: “How can you get people on a level playing field?” His work is often guided by that question.

What does a great workday look like? “Having a giant project with known pathways through.” His best coding days focus on one large task, rather than numerous smaller ones. While that’s generally done independently, he does enjoy days that are more collaborative. “Negotiating with product and design can be very rewarding,” he says. “Those discussions are fun, even if they’re not immediately productive. In those, as well as code, he prefers that “the focus is on the outcome, rather than hours.”

What does a frustrating workday look like? “Conflict with no immediate resolution, or people being unwilling to compromise.” Getting caught in limbo between decisions is understandably challenging, as “either you’re doing busy work, or nothing.” As many devs can relate, he also grumbles about situations like “upper management giving unrealistic deadlines or not considering downstream impacts.”

WORKING AT UPLEVEL

Stewart joined Uplevel remotely in August 2020 as a full-stack engineer. 

What drew him to Uplevel? The thought behind the product felt substantive and necessary. “We’re not building rockets. We’re doing a meta thought exercise of ‘What is work and how do we do work?’ There is a lot in that space to be discovered, and to actually help people.”

He thinks deeply about what Uplevel is presenting. The product organizes and visualizes impactful data for engineering teams, but what story is that telling?

“When you’re building a product around data, there’s a hierarchy of things you get out of it. The foundation is data; data infers information; information creates knowledge; knowledge builds wisdom. You have to work your way up that ladder. You start with what we can gather and then decide what that tells you about real life.”

To illustrate this input-output relationship, he gives a metaphor of geography: “You can have a map of a city or a globe of a world. They’re different tools for different goals. It’s about understanding the purpose of the tool you’re using.”

He finds this immensely valuable for devs like him, especially when it comes to opening conversations. “You start from a qualitative mindset. You’re feeling a certain way for a certain reason, and then find if the data supports it. Data helps give full context. It can describe how you have felt, in a detached kind of way.”

What recent Uplevel feature excites him? “We just launched Team Builder,” he says proudly. “We filled a customer need. It’s helpful for getting large teams organized and very helpful for managers.” He also notes that the team had completed a comprehensive overhaul and was able to use a new test environment with success.

THE NEXT CHAPTER

If there’s one thing that Stewart wants the world to know about Uplevel, it’s that “this is a collaboration tool, not a self-improvement tool.” He adds, “if it is self-improvement, it’s through the lens of a team exercise. We can help teams look inward and be truthful about what it is they’re doing, then use that to more effectively negotiate and problem-solve together.”

From here, he’ll continue his work toward just that.