Improbable Defence

#IBelong: Jim Smith, Principal Engineer

Q: What’s your role at IO?

A: I’m a principal engineer focused on our baseline synthetic environment product line in the US. I also help look after our infrastructure as code effort and provide general engineering guidance.

Q: How did you get here?

I was an engineer with the US Digital Service and starting my final year there. USDS hires engineers (and other software professionals) for tours of duty that can last up to four years. Moving on is part of the USDS culture. After four years, we need to have our next job lined up.

I knew the head of engineering in the US office from prior times we had worked together, including at USDS. I enjoyed working with her, so I reached out to see what Improbable was like. After talking with her and doing my own research online, I was excited to join. The interview process only helped. I left my interviews impressed with the people.

Earlier in my career, I tried to find ways to bring the humanities and computing together. That led me to the digital humanities, the academic field doing this in humanities research. I still teach a couple of summer workshops at University of Victoria as part of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute. This foray into digital humanities showed me the importance of understanding the human side of things in computing. Without the human element, what’s the point to anything we do?

Improbable is a great place to work on problems that impact people, bringing them together in spaces or protecting the liberal democratic world that we enjoy.

Q: What’s the most important piece of career advice have you been given?

In high school, I participated in an independent study program that paired us with mentors in the community. I worked with a few people at Southwest Research Institute’s Space Sciences division. At the end of the term, one of the physicists took me aside and said that I might not be the smartest person in the world, but that I was pretty good and could have an impact.

The flip side to that came during my first year at university in the physics program. The comment that stuck with me most from the seminar covering the field was that “there’s always room at the top.” This was in 1991, so in the middle of a recession. Together, the two comments made me work hard to be the best I could be knowing that I might not always be the best person in the room or in the field. There was always room for Improvement.

Q: What’s been the toughest moment of your career and why?

The toughest time for me was going through a round of layoffs as a manager and someone being laid off. I had to decide who we were going to let go while knowing that I would also be laid off. But I got through it and vowed never to participate in that kind of situation again. It’s not fair to anyone. But if that hadn’t happened, I’d probably not be at Improbable today.

Q: How do you unplug from work?

There are several ways I unplug from work. One night a week, some of us get together to play cooperative video games like Seven Days to Die. This lets us unwind from work while building team cohesion. It’s also a way for some former employees to stay in touch.

I used to do a lot more programming in my free time, but that has given way to looking for ways to have a more long-term impact. I’m interested in how society can gracefully degrade, for example, as climate change takes hold (or how we can progressively enhance our standard of living). I’m reading a lot of history, such as David Graeber’s books (The Dawn of Everything and Debt) and Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle. As Bill English (former New Zealand PM) has said, we don’t need a 100% solution, but 100 1% solutions. I’m interested in solutions that maximise agency for everyone, not just the well-off. I’m aligned with the mission and  vision of the Long Now Foundation, but we must get through today before we can survive tomorrow.

Q: How do you balance life and work responsibilities?

My husband and I take a two-week (more or less) cruise each year to celebrate our anniversary. It’s two weeks away from the internet and work responsibilities. But I also try to take a long weekend each month, either because of office holidays or because I take a Friday or Monday off.

Since we work from home most of the time, I can also spend some time in Texas with my mom and siblings as they care for her. Occasionally, I work from Texas knowing that if I need some extra time to help with family, I can do that.

My colleagues are great people and there’s a lot of communication, so I don’t have to worry about them not knowing what’s going on. I trust them to carry on when I’m not there.

Q: What book or podcast would you recommend to anything thinking about a career in tech?

The first book that comes to mind is Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. It’s a great introduction to user-centered design that every engineer should read. If we aren’t building for the human experience, even if several steps removed from the lines of code we’re staring at, then why are we building anything?

Q: What does a supportive work environment look like to you?

The best experiences I remember were where I could be wrong, and it was okay. Where we could have a heated discussion and know that nothing was personal because we kept the arguments at the proper level (see Paul Graham’s essay, How to Disagree). If someone resorts to ad hominem attacks or disagrees with the tone or rhetoric used, then they’re just unhappy that they aren’t right about the substance. I try to replicate that freedom here: I’m happy when people question my thinking, and I try to do my best to make sure they feel comfortable doing so. I’ve learned a lot because of that.

Beyond that, having PTO that fits where I am in my career, flexible schedules, recognition of life outside of work. Those all make the workplace humane.

Q. Have you faced any barriers in your career? If so, how did you overcome them?

I haven’t faced recent barriers. Moving to the east coast helped a lot. When I was in university in Texas, I was interviewing for a student position to manage a department website. I was asked if I was Christian. Since I was recently out of the closet, I knew instinctively how to code switch and answer in the affirmative. Code switching couldn’t stop there, or I would risk discrimination, so I had to maintain that fiction of a white, Anglo, straight (and Christian) person while I worked in the department.

Now, I am up front and honest about my personal life. I’m happily married to my husband. If the people I will be working with can’t handle that, then they aren’t people I want to work with.

Q: What advise would you give to someone trying to break into engineering and technology fields?

Don’t chase the money. Follow what interests you. Computing without the human element doesn’t do anything useful. Understand how technology impacts people. Try to make that a positive impact. That requires having interests outside of computing. So be open to a wide range of interests. If you’re in university, take a lot of humanities courses. They will help you understand people better than any computer science course will.


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