Small idea, big impact: Engineers explain their creative process

by Liz Warren
November 13, 2018

It can be daunting when innovation is part of your job duties. Even the most motivated engineers can find it difficult to constantly come up with new ideas and put them into practice. We caught up with four NYC engineers to see how they manage to do it all while keeping sight of the bigger picture. You might be surprised to learn that the greatest innovations often start with small changes.

 

policygenius
image via policygenius

The engineering team at insurance tech company Policygenius is no stranger to big ideas. While the day is spent developing code and solving problems, Data Engineer Lily Chang noted that most of the innovation happens outside of the daily grind.  

 

How does your company encourage you to try new things professionally?

We really take advantage of our time to be creative, which we call our “20 percent time” — it's not just something that has a nice ring to it. For example, we recently formed several guilds to facilitate cross-team learnings and collaborations. In the data engineering guild I am chartering, we are working on a streaming ETL proof of concept to see how we can go beyond our existing batch system. Outside of the 20 percent time, there are architecture design workshops and “brown bags,” where developers can share new things they're experimenting with.

 

What’s one piece of advice you have for other engineers struggling to stay innovative?

My advice would be to keep up with industry trends, read up as much as you can and see how you can use new technologies and tools to solve existing problems. I follow many engineering blogs, podcasts, Youtube channels and listen to them during my commute. I particularly like case studies where companies talk about the challenges encountered and the transformations made. Some of the stories I read are so inspiring and similar to our company that they help ideate some of our projects.

 

harry's
image via harry's

Men’s grooming company Harry’s is constantly evolving, and it’s the ever-changing atmosphere that Staff Software Engineer Neha Kumari finds most inspiring. She explained how it’s helped her take risks on new projects.

 

How does your company encourage you to try new things professionally?

The greatest trick to trying new things professionally is working in a company like Harry's where things are changing quickly. We are building infrastructure to support new brands, which translates to engineers learning and adopting various technical options.

 

What’s one piece of advice you have for other engineers struggling to stay innovative?

Do it as part of your job and do it together — it’s fun that way! Every other Friday, we get together for "Friengineering" sessions where we bring in interesting things we have learned and want to share.

 

stash
image via stash

Fintech company Stash has experienced explosive growth ever since it launched in 2015. Despite these major strides, Senior iOS Engineer Gino Wu says it’s thinking small that leads to bigger success. He said even the seemingly tiny innovations in engineering can have a big impact on the team as a whole.

 

How does your company encourage you to try new things professionally?

Stash places a high value in promoting a positive and driven engineering culture. Management encourages us to participate in the tech community by hosting engineering events and meetups, promoting publication in industry blogs, as well as regular internal hackathons. With the steady change in best practices, Stash allots an education budget, allowing engineers to pursue new programming concepts, attend tech conferences or teach classes. Whether it's a new framework, deployment tool, or something as simple as a code convention, the team remains open to sandbox ideas.

 

What’s one piece of advice you have for other engineers struggling to stay innovative?

One piece of advice I would give any engineer struggling with being innovative is to remember that innovation is a byproduct of being a good engineer. Innovation does not necessarily mean it has to be at a large scale. Being innovative can simply mean introducing a more readable naming convention for the team to follow or refactoring a function for storage optimization. Innovation may require you to break out of a routine and perform outside your comfort zone. Embrace unfamiliar tech, keep learning and innovation will come.

 

simplifeye
image via facebook

Software Engineer Brian Gapinski has learned a lot on the job, thanks to healthtech company Simplifeye’s encouraging and open culture. Still, he notes that it’s the tools he uses outside of work that often help him think outside the box.

 

How does your company encourage you to try new things professionally?

Simplifeye facilitates growth by providing opportunities. In the last year, I've had the opportunity to engage in various phases of our product development. At times, I've been able to play the roles of product owner and software architect — not just coder. It’s a great environment to expand your knowledge, grow your career and improve as a person.

 

What's one piece of advice you have for other engineers struggling to stay innovative?

Think of tools and apps you use everyday. What about those tools and apps do you find frustrating, and how can they be improved? Use this to your advantage when it comes to being a creative problem-solver.

 

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