Future Leaders: Stefan Avanessian, Engineer

‘Future Leaders’ is a series of blog posts by the Financial Times in which we interview our team members and ask them how they got into technology, what they are working on and what they want to do in the future. Everyone has a different perspective, story and experience to share. This series will feature colleagues working in our Product & Technology teams. You can also connect with us on Twitter at @lifeatFT.

Stefan at the annual FT rounders game

Hi Stefan, what is your current role at the FT and what do you spend most of your time doing at work?
I’m currently a Developer for the Editorial Technology team, building tools for the newsroom. Since joining a year and a half ago my primary focus has been on ‘Spark’, which is the Editorial team’s upcoming digital CMS.

Do you know why it’s called ‘Spark’?
I believe it’s because prior to Spark we had ‘Lantern’, so they’re all light themed. There was also ‘Nightingale’ which was ‘Fast Charts’ first iteration. So, they’re all related to light.

That’s cool. So, stepping back for a moment, how did you get into the technology industry?
I graduated from university with a degree in General Engineering but found I want to do something more computer related. I put all my eggs in one basket and I did an internship in ‘Information Systems’, which is a suitably vague title given that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. They gave me 3 months to build a voting website, and when I finished it didn’t work, the calculation page took around eight seconds to load and gave the wrong result. However, in the process, I found that this was a career path which would face me with a variety of challenges, and finding out how to get around them, which is the main reason I went into engineering in the first place, so it was that internship which helped me decide what I wanted to do. Later that year I moved back to London and started an internship at a marketing agency.

Stefan briefly considered a career as a bunny but soon grew out of this

How did you get from the world of marketing to here?
I used to work with Dora (a Tech Lead at the FT), and when I started at the marketing agency the tools we used were very basic. There was no framework or anything. That was where I built the foundation of my knowledge. Then they decided to invest in the development team to bring us up to scratch with the latest skills and knowledge. Whilst there I realised that I wanted to be surrounded by brilliant and knowledgeable people which is what attracted me to the FT after Dora’s recommendation.

What’s the project you’ve worked on at the FT which you are most proud of?
I would say that I’m most proud of Spark. It is the project I’ve primarily been working on, although I have done a couple of other, smaller projects. The reason I have the most pride for it is that when it started it was more like a discovery project, sort of proof of concept. Looking back on it now and how far it’s come, it’s incredible to compare the things we’re doing now to things we were doing at the beginning. The latest thing we’re working on is a new text editor which will allow us to have intricate and complex components in articles, which is a very exciting technical challenge, and will provide a lot of value to the newsroom.

When do you think Spark will be complete by? Or is it ongoing?
It is ongoing. I believe that by the end of this year we want it to be used by the majority of the newsroom.

The Editorial Technology team enjoying some sunshine of the office rooftop

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in recent years?
I’ve learned a lot but one thing which I think is really important is asking the ‘stupid’ questions. No questions are stupid and if you don’t know the answer, you’re not going to learn it by not saying anything. I love it when you’re in a room of people and someone is talking about a concept or an acronym and everyone is expected to know what it is. Sometimes I’ll ask the question that no one wants to, and say “What’s that?” and I can see three or four people listening in more closely because they also wanted to ask it. That’s the biggest thing, to stay curious and ask the stupid questions, because there’s no such thing.

Final question! What would you like to do in the future?
I’ve been asking myself that question! I’m not entirely sure what it looks like specifically, I don’t have a strict plan mapped out in my head but what I do think is that my skills lend themselves to speaking to people, articulating ideas and discussion. I would like to manage people. Although I do want to maintain my technical skills and want to be writing code in some capacity, I can see myself going down the management route and really utilising my interpersonal skills.

That’s great, in terms of communicating more broadly, could you ever see yourself speaking publicly?

I am in the process of writing a talk about service workers. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially at the last conference I went to. I think I just need to submit an abstract and that’ll give me the push I need to do it. It is something that makes me scared but it’s that fear that means I have to do it. That’s why I want to do it. I know I won’t like it when I’m up there but it’s important to do. When faced with five or ten people I’m more comfortable, but when its a large group, that’s when it gets frightening.

If you could go back in time and talk to your younger self, what would you say? Besides ask more stupid questions..
Ask more stupid questions! I would also say if you get into a position where you’re managing to do the work comfortably, although that is satisfying and gratifying, you’re not being pushed and if you maintain that level then you’re not going to progress. So constantly challenge yourself even though it will feel like you’re going uphill, always go uphill!

Thanks Stefan, I’m off for a steep hike!

Interviewee: Stefan Avanessian
Interviewer: Georgina Murray

FT Product & Technology

FT Product & Technology

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FT Product & Technology

A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology department.

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