Have you Herd?

3 reasons why I became an engineering manager at The Zebra

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When I first started at The Zebra in the winter of 2017, I wasn’t thinking about becoming a manager. Joining one of the fastest-growing startups having just celebrated its Series B fundraising, you’d think I would have been thrilled by the prospect of career growth. But initially I was just excited to dig in and bury myself in code as an individual contributor.  

I assumed my value would be in writing functions and connecting services. Indeed, I was a senior software engineer; it was my job to solve complex technical problems.

A few years in, I had a surprisingly clear revelation. The Zebra was, hands-down, my best opportunity to develop new skills as a people manager.

Here are three reasons that led to my revelation and are why I chose to become an engineering manager at The Zebra.

1. My impact extended beyond code

In my first few months at The Zebra, I had great success writing foundational code, which simplified how we organized the tech behind our marketing pages. Writing code was as fulfilling as ever. 

After my initial months of refactoring, I found that I couldn't improve the codebase much more. I arrived at the company too early to solve performance-scaling problems, and too late to work on early-stage engineering products.

But, I did have the chance to collaborate with engineers across our teams. Here and there, I had a hand in shaping opinions on how to write web software. It was a unique joy watching others achieve success without touching the keyboard myself.

I was feeling more fulfilled mentoring others than writing my own code.

I felt that my best contributions were outside the code I wrote. I was most impactful when refining processes, advocating for technical improvements or overseeing improvements to web performance.

2. The company was growing fast

The insurance industry was ready to evolve beyond the accepted consumer norms. Who wants to spend their night calling different providers and comparing quotes by phone? The Zebra can make the comparison for you online or with our licensed agents.

I was interested in the company because the product simplifies a common need, which has served to attract great engineering talent over the years.

At the time I joined, the company was growing horizontally; staffing up to branch into more lines of insurance beyond our initial auto offerings. We had to build out new teams to facilitate that. We grew from one devops engineer to a full-fledged platform team. Where we once had a single designer, we expanded to a larger team that was matching the pace of our engineering growth. Our product department was similarly growing fast. 

Scaling the company meant scaling our processes and communication. The need for additional managers became clearer as we grew organically.

3. A people-focused environment

Beyond the workplace awards and glowing employee reviews, I’ve personally seen countless success stories here. Colleagues over the years have made monumental career shifts without leaving the company to do so. Those who do leave often reflect on how they’ve grown during their time here.

The Zebra invests in its people, and it shows.

I felt safe to try, and possibly fail, as a manager at the company. Why? I was given multiple opportunities to try, fail and do better as an engineer.

Engineering at The Zebra has a blameless, problem-solving culture that I didn’t know could exist. Managers like Melissa Biles and Michael Hide care about their people, and consistently back up their words with action. Company leadership has done their utmost to pass along company values, and I’ve grown to understand those values better as they’ve been practiced by managers.

I have memories of Manijeh Noori, our SVP of Engineering, owning up to her mistakes, channeling them into lessons learned, and sharing them with the rest of us. It would have been easier to make excuses for the process or the circumstances.

It’s inspiring to see core tenets of servant leadership applied with grace every day.

I feel lucky to have developed new people management skills here at The Zebra. This has been the best environment for me to develop my thoughtful and context-heavy management style. I’ll work to carry forward the people-focused approach I experienced at The Zebra. If you’re considering a career leap like mine, I’d argue that there’s no better place to learn.

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John ApostolEngineering Manager

John Apostol is an engineering manager working on the accounts product at The Zebra. He loves to connect engineers across the company through shared goals on improving the codebase. Outside of work, you can find John writing on his software blog, mentoring frontend engineers, trading cryptocurrencies, or laughing at his own jokes.