In January 2018, there were 3 engineers at Simprints. Now in September 2019, our engineering team has grown to a headcount of 20. With this growth, our team decided it was time to start an engineering blog to share our learnings, both in solving technical challenges and in other areas such as hiring, organisational design, and agile methodologies.
As the VP of Engineering, I am often asked by prospective candidates about our engineering culture, so for this first post, I wanted to paint a more detailed picture of what it’s like to work as an engineer at Simprints.
What we do
First, let me explain what Simprints does:
Our mission is to transform the way the world fights poverty. We build technology to radically increase transparency and effectiveness in global development, making sure that every vaccine, every dollar, every public good reaches the people who need them most.
Working primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, we partner with some of the largest NGOs and funders in the world, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, and Mercy Corps. We work to help our partners demonstrate proof of impact. Whereas in the past, organisations would only be able to talk with certainty about their inputs, such as how much money they’d spent to solve a specific problem, we instead want to enable them to talk about the outputs. Whether that’s drug delivery in Ethiopia, cash transfers in Nigeria, or maternal services in Bangladesh, we empower our partners so they can say that the millions that were spent resulted in exactly how many individuals treated, beneficiaries given payments, or pregnant women visited by healthcare workers.
Simprints’ core product is a biometric fingerprint scanner paired with an Android app. Since we work at the last mile, these are both quite robust. Our scanner is built to be waterproof, dust-proof, and is over 200% more accurate for the worn and scarred fingerprints of individuals who have spent decades labouring with their hands. Our Android app is designed for front-line workers who can go weeks without a reliable internet connection and who may be using a mobile phone for the very first time.
The precision data we provide enables our partners to maximise the impact of the resources they’re committing. For example, in a recent project in Ethiopia, we noticed that drug delivery was taking place outside of the designated focus area, so we were able to alert the deployment team to correct the issue.
While we started off small with a few pilot deployments, as our partners developed confidence in our biometric approach, we have scaled up quite quickly. We’re now on track to deliver services to over 8 million beneficiaries by 2022.
Our engineering culture
There is no universal, perfect work culture, but having one that fits your own values makes a huge difference. Culture includes everything from a team’s values, approach to feedback, and even its sense of humour. Culture is what it feels like to work on a particular team. It’s not easy to explain the culture of an organisation, but having been part of a few teams myself, it helps to have a baseline for comparison. Before joining Simprints, I worked in a variety of roles in US-based organisations that all had very different cultures, including as a data analyst in Google’s San Francisco office, as a partner in a boutique web development agency based in DC, as a digitally nomadic cofounder of an edtech startup, and as a strategy consultant at The Boston Consulting Group’s New York office. With this frame of reference in mind, I’ll highlight three of my observations of the culture at Simprints based on the 10 months since I joined the team.
Observation #1: Never stop learning
Oh boy, I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much. Continuous learning is embedded in our culture. In fact, continuous learning is one of the core values we look for when we hire engineers. It impacts the way we think — when faced with a problem, one of the first things we do is look to understand how others have approached it. Whether that’s adapting Spotify’s organisational structure, leveraging Clean Code principles to set our quality bar for production-ready code, or incorporating Mikey Trafton’s advice on recruiting a bad-ass team, we experiment with best practices from other high-performing teams to determine what works best for us.
In practice, we encourage learning by providing employees with an Eduprints budget of over £1,500 per year to be used on learning (e.g. buy books, enroll in classes) and wellness (e.g. yoga sessions, dance classes). We also try to stretch the money to squeeze out as much value as we can. For instance, rather than pay the full retail ticket price, I’ve attended three conferences at no cost:
Once as a volunteer…
…another time as a sponsored guest…
…and finally as a speaker!
Working at a not-for-profit has definitely influenced me to think more creatively about getting things for free.
Observation #2: Robust as fudge
The conditions in which our technology is used demand a lot from us — sensitive data, poor connectivity, and low digital literacy. In many cases, we can’t afford to take a reactive approach, only dealing with problems when they arise. We have to work proactively to protect the privacy and security of our beneficiaries and ensure our technology will still be effective in the field. This is where one of our company values originated: Robust as Fudge, or RAF for short, captures the idea of completing a task to the best of one’s ability and not merely to check a box.
Our cloud team is a great example of this, working proactively to ensure our backend will be able to handle the increasing load of our upcoming project pipeline. Recently, they built a load simulator to assess the impact of artificially increasing the intensity of requests hitting our backend. They also implemented a tracing system to break down an individual request and see exactly where bottlenecks were occurring.
Another example of RAF in action is our approach to hiring engineers. Whereas in the past, we relied heavily on CVs as our initial candidate screen, we took the time to study industry best practices and redesigned our entire hiring process, developing a blinded approach with standardised assessments to reduce bias, allowing candidates to shine based on their knowledge and experience rather than the brand name of their employer or the prestige of the university they attended. Not only does this allow us to identify the best candidates more easily, but it has also made candidates happier by shortening our hiring timelines.
Observation #3: Collegial atmosphere
Fun fact: up until last summer, our office was in a 14th century English castle. Yes, seriously!
While we’ve since moved into a larger, more modern space, Simprints has kept its quirky, fun-loving roots from our days working in the castle. A great example of this is our annual company offsite. This year, 31 of us spent a week living together in a Georgian manor in Wales. On the one hand, team members prepared many sessions beforehand to make the most of the valuable, uninterrupted time together.
On the other hand, we had plenty of free time to play football, have saunas, and have deep conversations in front of the wood-burning fireplace.
Another example of our fun-loving, dynamic team environment is our approach to LEGO Day. Every quarter, we have two LEGO Days where people get to work on any project that interests them. While I chose to help my novelist wife by writing a Ruby script to take any ebook and calculate its word count by chapter, others worked on filming an Office-style mockumentary, building an electronic keyboard, and constructing a battery-powered flying plane. Here’s a video of the plane on a test flight.
Overall, we strike a fine balance by taking our work seriously but rarely ourselves.
Join our team!
Hopefully, you now have a taste of what it feels like to work at Simprints. We are lucky to have our current diverse and talented team, and are always looking to hire the best. If you’re interested in joining us, you can check out our open roles here or reach out to us directly by emailing email@example.com. Otherwise, follow our journey on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram.