View from Pixlee office fire-escape. Photo credits to Miraj Mohsin.

The Power of Pixlee

I’m writing this following my four-month internship at Pixlee, a San Francisco start-up, as a Software Engineer. I have a very warm place in my heart for them. This collection of people is powerful, and through my own experiences with Pixlee I will share with you why.

1) Power of a Happy Team

I’ve worked at five companies at this point, so by now I’ve seen my share of cultures. Everyone you interview with will tell you the company has a great culture. Why wouldn’t they? Some of them may be genuinely convinced of this as well. I think the biggest testament to Pixlee’s culture is that the people who work there come back. Almost all of the uWaterloo interns who worked there have come back to Pixlee, even after working at other companies.

The most difficult hiring criterion

Good talent is both difficult to find and even harder to keep happy. Despite its small size (~50 people), Pixlee has three offices — on in San Francisco, Toronto and New York. The San Francisco office was the flagship office, but the Toronto office opened when one of the engineers insisted that he wanted to stay closer to home. Same happened with the New York office. For the right people, they will make it work.

The people I have met and the friends I have made at Pixlee have been incredible. They’ve developed fantastic ways to recognize and support the team. Members of the Toronto office engage in standup, meetings and technical discussions through a telepresence robot. They use Slack + Growbot to highlight wins and reinforce values: #everydaymatters, #consistentlydeliver, #neverstoplearning are the three core values. To keep a large group on the same page and working towards a goal, you must always reiterate the most important ideas in the exact same way.

My white elephant Christmas gift / going away gift — a 2017 calendar with photos of all the engineers. November’s looking sunnier already.

2) Power of an Empowering Manager

My manager, Jeff (who I briefly wrote about in How to get started with DJing) is a fantastic person. Whoever you ask at Pixlee, they will always have something comical or teasing to say about him. Sometimes during incredibly heated moments, we amuse ourselves with his (perfect) SAT score. Otherwise we make fun of him wearing camo (“Woah! I didn’t see ya there Jeff!”). Jokes aside, Jeff is smart, honest, and a good listener.

Jeff and I doing soundcheck at DOLOFEST

Over the next few months, Jeff and I (and other members of the Pixlee eng team) had numerous discussions about their software architecture and dev environment set up, which I went on to document meticulously. Jeff also went on to give me some of the biggest Scala projects (writing some of Pixlee’s analytics framework) even though I had no experience in it. He could have easily given it to a more experienced engineer. Instead, I was given the incredible opportunity (and resources) to learn and grow. Lastly, I had a chance to pick the brains of our machine learning engineer and be involved with how Pixlee is doing spam detection.

Truthfully, Jeff is a bit micromanagerial when stressed, but working on it. (It makes sense, though — this start-up is his baby and he built it from the ground up). A few weeks into my biggest project, a deadline crept up on me that I didn’t know about. Panicking, Jeff merged what I had over night while adding some stuff to it. The next day, I was mortified. I was capable and willing to finish my project in time but it disappeared before my eyes. With the help of a wise coworker, we got in a meeting room to talk about our feelings. We frankly spoke about what we needed from each other, and it changed the way Jeff and I worked together (recommended reading). Afterwards, he reverted my branch, and I continued to work on the features that needed to be shipped (spoiler: we delivered the project way before it was due). What was more important to me than the project itself was the fact that I could have such an open conversation with him. Afterwards, I tried to improve my communication with Jeff to make sure I didn’t give him a reason to stress out, while he continued to believe in his team and empower me by giving me meaty projects to work on. Regardless of the challenges he encounters, I’m confident that Jeff will continue to be an amazing engineering manager because of his open mindedness and his ability to talk about difficult things.

3) Power of a Level-Headed Product Manager

Melody had an incredibly systematic approach for collecting input from everyone on the team, a way for deciding which projects are to be taken on one quarter at a time, while also keeping her head out of the clouds and understanding what role Pixlee plays in the grand scheme of things. At our final product overviews, she evaluates each project on a 1–5 scale about the expectations we wanted it to have vs. the impact it did have, while considering engineering time. I’ve never seen it done this way before and it works spectacularly.

When listening to her talk about Pixlee in a meeting, all I could think was “This is someone who definitely knows what she is doing, everyone stand back! More firepower!”. I’ve never seen a product manager so in touch with customers and engineers while conveying priorities so clearly.

4) Power of the CEO

At a company of size less than 100 people, the CEO can provide a great deal of motivation to every single person that works there. Every week at 11:30am, Pixlee has an all-hands meeting. At this meeting, the CEO Kyle Wong, or another founder, ends the meeting with sobering insights to refocus the team. One tidbit of feedback that management gets is that the Pixlee team wants to have all meals and snacks catered (currently Pixlee has Tuesday, Thursday lunches catered). At my last all-hands, Kyle gave a sobering yet insightful explanation about why it is so:

Although I also want free lunches and snacks, we have to understand how it plays into Pixlee finances. Right now, for the cost of giving free lunches, we could hire another person to make Pixlee succeed. The money for ‘free’ lunches and snacks has to come from somewhere. Every dollar that we raise [from investors] limits our exit strategies and dilutes the company’s value. We can achieve what we want with as much organic growth as possible, when Pixlee can truly afford it, though it may take a bit longer.
Kyle, CEO (in blue apron) at Pixlee investor dinner pictured with me, in red.

I have so much respect for Kyle because of the way he distills complicated ideas to a large group of people, while persuading them that he has their best interests in mind. The delivery is key, and if done well it can go a long way. It is incredibly rewarding to work at a company where your ideals align with the CEOs, and you agree with their mission.

5) The Power of Structure

Pixlee’s core (engineering) hours are 10–6. If you arrive after 10am, you provide the engineering group with an of explanation about why you are running late/when you expect to be in. If you are leaving before 6, you should let the engineering team know that you are heading out early. At first, I was baffled and annoyed by such rigidity! However, with time I saw the value behind it. Having these core hours meant that everyone was reliable and responsive during this time. It also meant was that there were clear beginning and ending hours. It became much more clear whenever someone came in early, or someone was staying late.

However, the most valuable part of this is the structure. When life gets busy and other non-work commitments come up (we are humans after all, our lives do not revolve around work) it is clear what my priorities are for part of the day. On personal busier days, it’s reassuring that I’m not neglecting my work responsibilities and I stay accountable to what I do. On personal free-er days, it reminds me to stop working, go home and pursue activities outside of work. Simultaneously, flexibility is easily granted — all you need to do is communicate about it. The semi-rigid schedule is probably the best system I have seen for keeping people accountable while maintaining a work-life balance. I’m not even sure Pixlee fully realizes its power yet. I think it will become especially useful as members of the Pixlee team get older and have more commitments outside of work, or as Pixlee hires more diverse people (with respect to age, gender and/or priorities).

6) The Power of Inclusion

When working at a company as an intern, it’s common to feel some sort of intern/fulltime divide, regardless of how much a company touts “we treat all our interns just like full-timers.” At Pixlee, one event in particular had me puzzled. An event was scheduled at Pixlee titled “Investors dinner”. Several members of the Pixlee team could come join Kyle (the CEO) to prepare and enjoy a dinner at the house of one of Pixlee’s first investors. I was interested in going, but didn’t get my spirits up. This sounded like a big-kids-only event. To my surprise, I was invited along.

Throughout the evening, we worked with Pixlee’s investor to prepare a ‘Mexican Fiesta’ dinner. Everything was cooked from scratch (even the pupusas). Everyone was working together, sipping cocktails, baking cake and mashing beans. It felt so cheery, homey and familial. They could have easily said, “this is a position for full timers only, you’re not important enough to come with us”. But they didn’t. It made me feel like I belonged.

Dinner at investors house with part of the Pixlee team

There are two more topics I want to discuss in this Pixlee post.

They are: a list of what I worked on while at Pixlee, and a list of what I learned.

Projects

Ramp up:
-
Design for Instagram Analytics (HTML/CSS)
- UI changes for direct messaging, albums (Backbone)
- Implementing accessibility customer requests (Backbone)
- Accessibility & Pixlee presentation (Prose)

Main Projects: 
-
Improvements to a service that handles authentication for other Pixlee services (Scala)
- Adding new analytics functionality (Python, Keen.io + Scala)
- Endpoints to retrieve user’s Time on Site, Rate of Return (Keen.io + Scala)
- Documenting dev workflow and technical choices (Prose)
- Machine learning with ML engineer, Mo (Python)

Ramp down: 
-
Adding price, currency to Product pages (Ruby, Backbone)
- Some more accessibility customer requests (Backbone)
- Refactoring some Scala work after learning more (Scala)

Things I’ve learned working at Pixlee

1) Keep a notebook
Almost all engineers at Pixlee keep a notebook. I started keeping one at the start of my internship as well. Whenever I learned something, I recapped the issue and the solution that worked for my own understanding. This meant that I asked coworkers for help less frequently. When I did they were not repeating themselves. Doing this has helped me retain information better and also pushed me to write more documentation for Pixlee.

2) You get what you ask for
Coming to Pixlee, I really wanted to learn Scala, so I kept asking for it. As a result, I started getting the majority of Scala issues in our backend codebase. Then as soon as a bigger project came up, I got that as well. I was incredibly interested in it, so I worked more efficiently and rarely got distracted. It was a win-win.

Octocat says hi feat. Pixlee tshirt

On a more comical note: one day Jeff was feeling very helpful and my mentor, KB, asked for pizza (jokingly). It ended with Jeff taking people out for pizza after work. Also, at the end of my term, I fell in love with the Github octocat. I talked everyone’s ears off about it. Then I asked the CTO, Awad for it. He got it for me as a going away/Christmas gift. Unexpected things happen when you ask for what you want.

Pixlee’s not perfect, but they’ve got some really powerful things going for them. I’m sad to be leaving this amazing team, but I’m wholeheartedly rooting for them. Thanks for having me.

If you’re interested in applying to work at Pixlee, you can find more info at: https://www.pixlee.com/team, or message me directly.

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