Part III: An Interview with Brian Hamman, VP of Engineering for News Products at The New York Times
By Marc DaCosta
Hiring, Culture, and Early Career Development
On Hiring and Job Advice
Enigma: When you think about hiring, and interviewing, and adding people to the team, what sorts of things do you look for? How do you approach that process?
Brian: I definitely look for people that care about the mission or have an interest beyond just technology. That are passionate about something and generally curious and interested. Being comfortable with uncertainty is really important. The New York Times evolves so quickly as a response to the world we’re in, and I don’t think somebody who is coming in looking for like, "Here is my job and it will be this shape for 12 years and I will be engineer level one, and then engineer level two," will be successful.
People who are really good at collaborating—particularly with people that are different than them, because all of our teams are a mix of different disciplines, different kinds of people, different skill levels, different seniority, different knowledge of technology. We need people who are good at communicating and collaborating in these uncertain environments.
Enigma: We’re curious how you would describe the engineering culture at The New York Times and to hear your thoughts on building an engineering culture that's innovative and productive while remaining healthy and inclusive.
The first thing I would say about the culture at The Times is that its very mission-driven. 99% of engineers are here at The New York Times because they care about the mission of The Times and they want to be here.
Brian: The first thing I would say about the culture at The Times is that its very mission-driven. 99% of engineers are here at The New York Times because they care about the mission of The Times and they want to be here. People here would generally not be happy working on an abstract technical problem for its own sake. Instead, they want interesting technical problems, but they want ones that have an outcome they care about. As a result of that, we have people that will happily sit through a two hour design review about the product without doing any coding because they want to better understand the direction of where it's going, or would want to debate with the product manager about the direction of the product.
We have people that stretch beyond just the engineering role in a lot of ways, and feel pride over the direction of the products. You see that in things like the hack week we have once a year, and we do hack days. Engineers often have ideas for products and other things that they want to see happen.
The other thing about The Times engineering culture is it's an engineering department that thinks a lot about culture. Within The Times, actually, a lot of the ways that the overall culture has been pushed forward have come from engineering. We have an updated parental leave policy from about a year and a half ago that started out of engineering and product. We started a mentorships program, we started a 360 review program for managers, we started a sponsorship program. Within engineering there is a strong Women in Tech group that, in particular, made many of these things happen.
Enigma: Can you talk a bit more about the sponsorship program?
Brian: Having a more diverse group of senior leaders is a priority for us at The Times, so we have been choosing a more diverse group of junior leaders and making sure they get more direct mentorship to grow into more senior roles. We basically, in engineering, have created a bunch of docs about things like our career ladder, we have a code of conduct policy, we have a meeting culture policy. We've written all these things, put them on Google Docs as just open documents that anybody can comment on. We have a process that these are kind of living documents that get updated. All of these are ways that the engineering department has embraced culture as a thing that needs to be cared for and managed that are now starting to kind of expand out into other parts of the organization. The engineering team is super proud of that. That's something that's a big piece of what we do.
Enigma: How is that organized internally? The way you're talking about it, it sounds like a very organic process.
Brian: There is definitely a healthy amount of it that's organic and grassroots and one of the main drivers of both the mentorship program and much else came out of a really strong women in tech group that was formed here. It was not an official thing. They formed this group. The mentorship program came out of that. They just ran it. They proposed the idea for the sponsorship program that then got put in. Then, our CTO, Nick Rockwell really believes in this. Some of the things have been more top-down organized like our career ladder, the code of conduct policy, the meeting policy. A lot of things have come out of Nick and his director reports of course. We've taken on several projects—there's probably about 15 things that we've done—either created a policy or an initiative, and then we have a sounding board of a cross-section of people in engineering that we bounce these ideas off before we roll them out. It's both top-down and bottom-up.
On Starting Out
Enigma: What advice would you give someone graduating from high school or college right now who is really committed to working on interesting technology issues, but perhaps unsure about how to think about professional development, career trajectory and things like that?
Brian: I think the best advice I would give is don't not take an imperfect job because you're looking for the perfect job.
The reason that I am here is that I took two or three jobs that weren't something I was sure I wanted to do, and which actually seemed like they may have been a step away from what I wanted to do, but there was part of it that was in the right direction.
Brian: The reason that I am here is that I took two or three jobs that weren't something I was sure I wanted to do, and which actually seemed like they may have been a step away from what I wanted to do, but there was part of it that was in the right direction.
When I came to The New York Times, it was not to do journalism, initially. It was to do these internal admin apps. I did that for about a year. I was very nervous about that—it's not what I thought I wanted to do. In fact, I definitely could have gotten a job at a much smaller news organization doing journalism right after I graduated, but I figured it was worth the chance to come to The New York Times. After being in interactive news for about six years, I took a job that was out of the newsroom when we started the new products team creating NYT Now, and cooking, and launching all these new products.
Again, I was not sure I ever wanted to leave the newsroom, but I wanted to learn about product development—and so I took that chance. That worked out great. That was part of the engineering team, formally. Then, I took another job after that, which was basically my current job, getting away from new product development into more the kind of core technology. Each time, the reason I did it is because it would sort of open the door, and because I would learn a lot through the process. I figured learning things would open up the number of jobs I'd be able to do and be qualified for. It's worked out for me every time. I often find people are hesitant to take a job because it's not exactly what they think they want to do.
Enigma: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Brian: Yeah. Look, sometimes you just take a chance. If it doesn't work out, you can always go find something else. Usually you end up surprising yourself and learning a lot.