What would you say you do here? Core Infrastructure Leadership at Slack

Image for post
Image for post
What would you say you do here at Slack?

As someone in technology have you ever struggled to explain what you do to your mom, your friend, or even your dog? I started at Slack over a year ago and still find myself being very vague about what “Core Infrastructure” is. This happens more than ever as I am cooped up with my family and they now get to see or at least hear a lot more of “what I do all day”. It turns out just repeating “very nerdy stuff” isn’t really cutting it as an answer anymore.

So I decided to actually write down the answer to what it is that I and my teams do at Slack. I then asked all my peer leaders inside Core Infrastructure to do the same. They each picked the audience that asks them this question most frequently, explained what they do to that audience in 3–5 sentences, and highlighted how they are doing that same job remotely now.

While this may not help you explain your job to your mom, it should hopefully give you a glimpse into what we in Core Infra at Slack actually do all day. And maybe it sounds like what you would like to tell your mom/friend/cat you do too! If so here is a taste of the technical work we do or check out the open positions we have at the bottom of this post.

Who asked you “what do you do?”

My mom

What did you tell them?

I don’t do anything that you can actually physically see within the Slack product. Instead, I manage three teams that all help give other engineers at Slack building blocks that they can use to make the great features that users love. One team (Performance Infrastructure) builds tools that allow other engineers to figure out how to make their code faster. Another team, (Datastores) operates and develops our main database Vitess (lots more about that here). My last, but very much not least team (Language & Runtime) is in charge of keeping the language we use the most (Hack) and its runtime (HHVM) up to date. This is a new language that is changing fast so they are involved both in helping Facebook (who started the language) work on changing it (aka open source development) and educating Slack engineers internally on how to best use it.

What did you say when they said “well you never need to be in an office then right?”

All my teams are collaborating super well remotely and it has been fun to get to know people’s pets. One teammate wore her roommate’s snake during a meeting and until it moved we didn’t realize it wasn’t just a necklace. But that doesn’t mean I don’t look forward to collaborating in person in new ways once we can do that again!

Who asked you “what do you do?”

My neighbour.

What did you tell them? What did you say when they said “well you never need to be in an office then right?”

Me: I work for a company called Slack. They are a tech company that provide a communication and collaboration tool. It replaces the need for email.
Neighbour: Oh like whatsapp?
Me: Yes a bit like that but with lots more functionality. We also integrate company apps so you don’t have to log on to lots of systems to get work done.
Neighbour: Very cool. What do you do there?
Me: I lead our tech teams in EMEA. We work on the infrastructure that manages the databases and traffic.
Neighbour: That sounds complicated.
Me: It is : ) It is very challenging so we hire lots of clever people.
Neighbour: I suppose you will be working from home for good then?
Me: I could. But I am a people person. I will go to the office at least a couple days a week when we reopen. I enjoy the feel of the office and connecting with my team and teams outside my immediate working group.

Who asked you “what do you do?”

My sister, who is in real estate and comes across people from many different professions in her job

What did you tell them?

I help Slack achieve its mission of transforming work and collaboration by ‘bringing the right people, information, and tools together to get work done’. Core Infrastructure is the team that I lead and we are at the forefront of enabling Slack to scale for any customer anytime . As a team we are responsible for coming up with and building core lego blocks that when used help all engineers at Slack build features on top of those blocks in an efficient manner and can support many many users. Imagine a million+ users in a given company all trying to collaborate at once. The wonderful talented people on Core Infra are at the center of this all and a big part of my job is to help them achieve their goals whether it’s career oriented, project oriented or company oriented.

What did you say when they said “well you never need to be in an office then right?”

It is true that given the current landscape of tech capabilities such as internet speeds and a plethora of web based tools including Slack of course, I have been lucky to be able to to my job from home. In the long haul, optionality may be good as in my field we certainly can work from anywhere but for some people in person interactions help them thrive while for others a nice quiet space without many people around is more suitable. I like a bit of both and so when time comes to open up the office again I will likely be back in office on some occasions and working from home on others. I am also looking forward to traveling and spending time with team members in our offices in MEL, DUB and NY.

Who asked you “what do you do?”

My 62 year old mother who gets her Bay Area and Tech scoop from reading Indian newspapers :cool-cat:

What did you tell them?

We were having one of our regular facetime chats and talking about the pandemic, working from home, California wildfires, my job at Slack, and life in general. You know, your regular mother and daughter banter.

She said “I read in the papers that organizations these days are encouraging their employees to WFH until next summer, isn’t that amazing?”
To which I replied “Well, Guess What! They’re all able to do that because of Slack!!!”
And she exclaimed “Really? WOW! I had no idea. How’s that?

Bear in mind, until this point she just knew that I work at a company called Slack but didn’t quite grasp what it was. I went on to explain that using Slack, employees are able to communicate with each other in the absence of a real office, make “channels” for their projects similar to groups in whatsapp, call each other over Slack calls when they need to sync face to face just like I facetime with her, search in slack for previous conversations, etc.

I added, “I am an Engineering Manager for our Infrastructure teams. First and foremost, my job is people! I make sure every person on my team from interns all the way to the most senior engineers are learning and growing in their careers, are satisfied with work, and doing the best job of their lives. My teams make sure that Slack stays “up” at all times; they write software that can support not only a small organization with a handful of people but also gargantuan ones like Amazon which has 2 million employees. If my teams do their jobs well, you wouldn’t even realize because Slack would just work but if my teams don’t do their jobs well, it makes headlines because Slack stops working and businesses can’t function. No pressure :-)”

What did you say when they said “well you never need to be in an office then right?”

That’s right, I don’t need to. In fact, even before the pandemic some of my colleagues were working out of Dublin, Melbourne and Vancouver so we’ve built a really good muscle around using our own product (Slack!) to get work done. It’s also nice to not spend an hour commuting in a crowded bus every day and I get to spend so much more time with the kids which is nice. Mostly. However, I terribly miss the in-person human interaction and sitting in front of a screen all day is exhausting. I miss catching up with people over lunch, brainstorming ideas on a whiteboard, and walking to the SF Ferry building for 1:1s.

When things go back to “normal” I want the flexibility to go into the office a couple of days a week so that I can have the best of both worlds.

Who asked you “what do you do?”

Friends from my previous team

What did you tell them?

I told them that if they are able to access and use Slack, then that’s due to the work the team I manage does directly. I also shared that the “Demand Engineering” team is not only responsible for ensuring that Slack is securely and highly available to the Internet, but also ensures that the flow of traffic into and between services within the Slack infrastructure is speedy and resilient.

My day-to-day however is focused on ensuring the well-being of my team, sharing context with them from the broader org on initiatives as it applies to my team, communicating the work my team does externally, and prioritizing the work they do for it to be sustainable and impactful to the company. I am lucky to have a very smart and humble team, so every day is both learning filled and joyful.

What did you say when they said “well you never need to be in an office then right?”

I agree with them but I quickly follow up with anecdotes of where being in an office is deeply missed. E.g. I onboarded remotely due to COVID and at the end of week 1, I still didn’t have a chance to meet all 14 members of my team which was an odd feeling. Being remote, building a relationship with people takes intentional effort since there is no face time opportunities in passing or as a group outside of a meeting with a preset agenda. White boarding sessions on architecture and systems in person, I think, are the most fun part of onboarding to have good conversations which remotely is not as effective.
Our team is special in that, half the team works out of Dublin, so we already had the processes in place to work well with each other and share the sense of community.

Who asked you “what do you do?”

My (somewhat) tech-savvy Aunt

What did you tell them?

I look after the health, happiness, roadmap and day-to-day for three teams that power some of the foundations of Slack. All three of my teams are under the ‘Cloud Infrastructure’ umbrella meaning they work very closely with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and build the underlying technology all our systems use on a daily basis. Our “Demand Engineering” team is responsible for getting traffic into, around and out of Slack networks (securely & efficiently). The “Cloud Engineering” team enables other teams to handle HUGE amounts of traffic by provisioning new servers as needed and are building out a new technology platform that makes the lives of all our engineers better (by automating away all the hard bits). Finally, our “Cloud Economics” team is responsible for reducing our spend and are the experts in AWS’s cloud.

What did you say when they said “well you never need to be in an office then right?”

I said “you are not wrong!”. Except, being 100% remote is hard as it’s important to have face time and build relationships. My role is spread across three continents right now (with offices in Dublin, Melbourne and San Francisco) and spending time with these individuals in person is critical to my, and my teams’ success. That said, I’m much happier now that I get to work from home and love that I can take time for myself as and when I need it — even if I do miss the free Avocado toast every day.

Who asked you “what do you do?”

My therapist

What did you tell them?

I told them I facilitate and support four really smart folks as they make sure Slack functions as a product every day. My team handles asynchronous services, which means we are like a very fancy postal service with packages zipping around the globe. We make sure these packages get delivered big or small, rain or shine.

What did you say when they said “well you never need to be in an office then right?”

Working from home is definitely something I enjoy, and did for years before I worked at Slack, but there’s something wonderful about sitting the same room with people who are very smart. Once we’re able to be in the same air, I’d love to see my team a few times a week, but luckily just like our packages from the previous metaphor, much of our work and discussion happens asynchronously as well.

Who asked you “what do you do?”

University students during a guest lecture I delivered for their master’s degree

What did you tell them?

I lead the Cloud Engineering team in Melbourne. Our goal is to make the experience of releasing and operating software at Slack easy and safe for all our engineers. We do also manage Slack’s worldwide cloud ecosystem and drive the adoption of emerging cloud technologies. I’m responsible for assembling and supporting a team who can effectively drive towards these goals . This may take many different shapes: shaping a competing roadmap together with product, creating systems of work for the team to be as effective as they can, collaborate with other areas of the business to ensure we are aligned, and to coach the members of my team on how to progress in their career goals. Sometimes it simply requires me to listen to my team mates when they are having a hard time or to make sure we all celebrate when we have a good win.

What did you say when they said “well you never need to be in an office then right?”

Initially my response was that we, as a team spread in two different timezones and continents, were really well prepared for working in a distributed manner. On the other hand I personally miss the buzz of the office, chatting with my colleagues, brainstorming in front of a whiteboard, going out for lunch/coffee or just chatting about technology. My ideal preference is a 50/50 split between WFH and working from an office and I’m hoping that this will become possible some time not too far away.

Image for post
Image for post
A collaboration space at a Slack office

We are hiring! Please check out our open roles:

Engineering Manager, Datastores

Written by

Engineering Manager @ Slack. From the Bay Area, adoptive Minnesotan, current New Yorker.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store