Life@AppNexus: Caring About Developing vs. Being a Developer

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Jack Lenehan is a software engineer based in our AppNexus Portland office. When he’s not busy crafting a seamless UI, he’s bouldering, playing ultimate frisbee, or lost somewhere in the Gorge. This blog post comes in response to a request from Silicon Florist’s Rick Turoczy on Switchboard for engineers to describe the culture at their companies. You can learn more about Jack by visiting him on LinkedIn.

As I entered the start-up world, I quickly learned that “culture” was a euphemism for “stuff.” When someone asked, “what’s your culture like?” they really meant, “What kinds of beer do you stock?” or “Do you guys have ping-pong or cornhole?” or “They buy you Nerf guns, right?” Over time, I became more and more embarrassed about this aspect of my chosen field; compared to the vast majority of working men and women around the world, developers have it so good, in so many ways, that bragging about how much time you spend shooting each other with foam darts seemed like the height of arrogance.

That’s not to say that I was immune to the allure of free booze and oversized versions of my childhood toys. Even as my misgivings about start-up “culture” grew, I came to expect those perks whenever I considered a position at a new company. “If my peers have it, why shouldn’t I? It’s only fair.” It was so easy to evaluate companies on what trinkets they could give me rather than what I would actually accomplish. And while I’m obviously not blameless for that, neither were they: when the face you present the world is “keg’s right next to the Xbox!” that’s the scale they’ll judge you on.

When I first interviewed at AppNexus, the difference in tone was hard to pin down at first. There were the usual mentions of beer, family lunch, team laser tag outings, and weekly gaming nights (and I’ve enjoyed all of those in my year-and-a-half here). But the main thing people wanted to talk about was the project that would make their customers’ lives easier, or the old, crusty parts of the codebase they were working to clean up, or a new design pattern that someone had convinced the whole team to adopt. I’ve come to realize that this is no accident; we tend to attract, hire, and retain developers who care more about actually developing than the trappings of “being a developer.” Almost everyone I’ve met here has three values in common:

1. Pride in our craft and serving our customers > hype, recognition, and TechCrunch

Let’s face it: AppNexus exists in a fairly non-sexy part of the startup ecosystem. We’re B2B, not consumer-facing, which means that working here won’t make you a hit at cocktail parties. Your hip artist friend probably hasn’t heard of us. You won’t find TechCrunch columnists breathlessly describing us as the Uber of anything. And it gets worse: we’re an advertising technology company. Advertising! That’s literally the worst thing ever, right? Well… sometimes. We think we can make it better. But more important, thousands of other companies need advertising in order to succeed, in one way or another. Whether it’s a newspaper that’s trying to stay alive via digital ad revenue, or a new coffee shop that’s trying to spread the word, or a marketing firm that knows the rock–climbing community really well, we provide tools that enable people to do their jobs better and help their companies thrive.

We work hard, we ship frequently, we talk to our customers constantly. We build things that people need, and we build them well. To me, that’s way more invigorating than being the Uber of cupcakes or the Airbnb of dog-sitting.

2. Learning and teaching, without ego

I’m one of the more junior developers on my team. What I have yet to learn about JavaScript and application development could literally fill a book. By contrast, many of my coworkers have been doing this for years; they have a grasp on this stuff that, for now, I can only aspire to. At another company, that disparity would be a source of frustration for them and embarrassment for me, but I’ve yet to ask one question that was met with anything but enthusiasm and thoughtfulness.

3. Flexibility and healthy restlessness

We’re a big company (and growing – see below!), but we’ve managed to avoid the bureaucracy and siloing that plagues so many tech firms once they hit a certain size. That means that working on a different part of the codebase, tackling new business problems, and meeting and working with new people is easy and even encouraged. I’m a perfect example: I worked on a team focused on direct ad-buy deals for a year, and when I felt like I was ready for a new challenge, I switched to a team dedicated to helping publishers get the most money out of their inventory. Controlling your own destiny within a large, successful company is a wonderful feeling.

Our culture isn’t for everyone, but if you value the same things we do, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better place to work. And here comes the shameless recruiting plug: we’re hiring like crazy, across all kinds of positions and experience levels! Visit http://careers.appnexus.com/open-positions/ and take your pick.

Jack Lenehan

UI Software Engineer, Portland

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