Do engineers prefer to work from home or in the office? One expert explains

Working at home has its advantages, but office collaboration is important, too. Here’s what engineers seem to like best.

TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Mark Kinsella, VP of engineering for Opendoor, a real estate software company, about engineers. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Karen Roby: This is interesting I think because the role of the engineer has changed some through the years, of course, and we’ve been living through a pandemic. So many of us are working remotely now, which has really changed things too. How have things really changed for engineers through the last couple of years, do you think?

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Mark Kinsella: Well, especially with a trend toward working remotely and working from home, a key thing that we need to focus on is keeping collaboration strong. Especially on the engineering side, it’s important to focus both on the technical collaboration, but also on the people collaboration piece. And so there’s been a huge focus on tools to enable collaboration over the internet, even though you’re not physically together. We at Opendoor rely a lot on GitHub, JIRA, Slack, Confluence, and there was a multitude of other things that we used to ensure that we’re building the best product together, even though we’re physically apart.

Karen Roby: That’s been a challenge, I think, regardless of the industry you’re in or the role you play is figuring out how do we keep that feeling of working together, but we’re not physically together. Mark, when you look at an engineer’s day and kind of carve out different pieces for different responsibilities and things that need to get done, percentage wise, how much needs to be spent in different areas and why do you think?

Mark Kinsella: Throughout the day, we should really try to focus on fewer tasks. Doing fewer things and going deeper in each builds a higher-quality product. But then when I look at throughout the quarter or even throughout the year, there’s three big buckets that I recommend engineering spend their time on, that’s immediate wins, big bets, and then technical excellence. Immediate wins are those shorter-term projects that ladder up to the company cares and company business needs. And so these are things that you’ll spend most of your time on, typically 50 plus percent of your time on it.

Then the second bucket is big bets and these are things you’ve probably heard a lot about, but these are step function improvements that could generate massive business impact, but it would probably take six plus months until we actually see the business impact, and it’s also OK to fail here every so often. They’re big bets. And then the last piece is technical excellence. This is like the foundation of a healthy team. You need to always improve. You need to fix those cracks that pop up every so often. And so this includes tech debt, process improvements, or even things like scaling up to support your business continuing to grow.

Karen Roby: When you look at the directions that engineering has pulled in, in any given day, where do you think it is oftentimes that you find yourself spending too much time here when you really need to be doing it? What kind of pulls people in that other direction instead of keeping them where they need to be?

Mark Kinsella: Yeah. The immediate wins is always going to be the thing that you’re going to be pulled into that direction of, and that’s completely fine. It’s also important to be flexible. There are times when teams need to spend a ton of time on immediate wins, and that’s completely fine, but they need to have the discipline to come back and work on the technical excellence or the big bet projects.

Karen Roby: Do you think productivity-wise, I mean, this has been something that, again, regardless of industry or position, that we’ve all been kind of trying to figure out how to stay productive when you’re at home and not get distracted or things have just changed in that way. How do engineers, how do they keep up that level of productivity, especially working remotely? And that may be the case for most for the foreseeable future.

Mark Kinsella: Yeah. I think a key thing here is you need to still have those personal connections, especially so then you can make decisions when not everybody agrees. And so one thing that we do at Opendoor is during our monthly engineering all hands, we introduce every new hire using two truths and a lie, and that’s a way to build a personal connection with every single person who joins to ensure that you see people as people first, and then you can make those tough decisions together as a team.

Karen Roby: I like that. When you look at the team as a whole, not just engineering, but in other areas of the business, do you think that being remote, having the communication channels has been tough to navigate between other parts of the business?

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Mark Kinsella: Yeah. Every different org operates slightly differently, but we’re really coalescing around using Slack for communication and then leading into written communication as much as possible in document form, and that allows people to review things asynchronously, leave comments and collaborate on their own time when they’re available.

Karen Roby: Mark, how have you come to this place in your career?

Mark Kinsella: I went to school for computer science. I was an engineer for many years at both very small startups and very large healthcare companies. And then I eventually focused on that series B, series C sort of company where I could learn a lot, was part of the roller coaster and then also hopped around and learned new things, new disciplines, new teams throughout my career.

Karen Roby: I’m sure there’s pros and cons to each, but as far as the type of work environment, when it comes to engineers, do you find your comfort level being more in the smaller startup? I mean, everything has its challenges, but is there one that works best for you?

Mark Kinsella: I think there’s pros and cons of every size of company. I care a lot about growing and learning, and I do that personally by throwing myself into an area that I have no idea about. And so companies at those smaller stages, there’s a mass amount of unknowns. There isn’t a playbook that you have. That’s been a great way for me to just learn in my own career.

Karen Roby: Looking ahead, Mark, what does the future look like for engineering? I mean, how do you see things really changing for the better, for the worse? What’s ahead?

Mark Kinsella: Yeah. I think the past year and a half has obviously forced companies to work on how you can work remotely, work from home and I think that’s better for everybody. It’s going to likely be a flexible work schedule going forward. Many of the engineers and folks that I’ve chatted with are excited to go back to the office, but probably only two to three days a week and then work from home two to three days a week. So, that’ll be a very interesting balance of how you can ensure everybody’s productive, still feeling like a team together, but then also working from home and working from the office.

Karen Roby: Does that surprise you at all, Mark? Talking to different engineers, would you suspect that more would have wanted to go back or more say, “Hey, I’ve got different things I’m balancing and home, so this works better for me.” Are you surprised by their responses?

Mark Kinsella: No, I think that’s right in line what I was expecting because engineers really crave both that dedicated time at home to put on your headphones, sit down and code for the day, but then also being in person and being on a whiteboard together with your teammate and solving a hard problem together. So, I think it’s a really good balance and good mix.

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