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I didn't always know that working in software is about people

Interview with Andrew Sveikauskas
May 17, 2021
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Andrew is an Adjunct Professor at the University of San Francisco, who is passionate about sharing his wealth of knowledge and experience with Computer Science students and those beginning their careers in tech. He started out his career as a Software Engineer at Microsoft in 2008 but left to join WhatsApp as the first Engineer to build the Windows Phone app. He worked on voice messages and video transcoding, and started the On-device Media team, in charge of all media across Android, iPhone, and Windows for the messaging app used by 1+ Billion people around the world.

What’s your favorite thing about teaching?

I like the idea of passing on what I've learned to the next generation. I can tell that my students appreciate my perspective on the industry and my commitment to helping them "get there" too.  I think a lot about my own student days and what I would have wanted to know.

Students also ask very good questions, and I really like the way their questions can steer the class, or inspire me to work harder at a better explanation. This is one thing I miss about pre-pandemic teaching; I liked to "read the room" and see which part of the lecture isn't quite landing, so I can spend more time on something, which is harder to do over Zoom.

Tell us about your first job out of school.

My first job out of school was as a Software Developer in the Windows organization at Microsoft. I really liked C programming, and I did well on interviews with people working on operating systems. I started out fixing random bugs in Windows Setup, or sometimes in the code that runs on the first boot of Windows. Eventually, I was the main contact for the file format that Setup uses to store and compress the OS. I maintained a couple of filesystem drivers used when booting from the DVD or network, or for PC OEMs to patch OS images, and the code that does the heavy lifting for the "Expanding Files ..." step when you install the OS. Right as I was leaving, my "magnum opus" was to re-design the format to save about 1GB of download size. It was the result of a great collaboration with a team down the hall from me.

What got you interested in Microsoft?

It was a tough decision to join Microsoft. I had a competing offer in San Jose to work on Unix stuff, which was much more in my comfort zone. I felt that the Bay Area was better for career growth, but I knew that Seattle was cheaper to live in and Microsoft represented financial stability, so I opted for that. I still ended up in the Bay Area later, though!

What made you go from Microsoft to WhatsApp?

I really liked my work at Microsoft and making it work as well as I could for the billion-plus people running Windows. I felt accountable to those users, and I wanted to do a good job for them by making my small piece "not suck". It also gave me important experiences around how the software industry works in practice.

At the same time, I was finding myself seeing a lot of the downsides of working at a big company. The giant organization around me was building the Windows 8 tablets, which I felt suffered from a "too many cooks in the kitchen" problem, where not everybody agreed on what was being built or were able to keep the whole thing in their heads at once. This is often what happens with large teams. I felt the product was suffering as a result and as just one individual, I wasn't empowered to help fix that.

This is when I started reading "The Mythical Man Month" about the perils of large teams and how to structure a team more effectively.

I was really lucky to find WhatsApp, which really nailed a lot of this. It was pretty serendipitous: one day I just randomly saw a job posting on Stack Overflow. WhatsApp was not well known in the US at the time, but I knew people with overseas friends who used it, so I was familiar with it.  I had written small chat apps as a teenager and I felt like it’s something I would enjoy working on.

What was the biggest risk you’ve taken in your life?

At one time I thought that leaving big, established Microsoft for scrappy WhatsApp was a big risk. With 20/20 hindsight, I now have difficulty seeing it that way.

What's one thing you wish you had known when you got started?

I didn't always know that working in software is about people

- their motivations, teamwork, good communication, relationships, etc.

When I was a teenager hacking away in my bedroom, I was building things because I thought the technical details were cool. I expected many technical things to have the "right" or "wrong" answers, without a lot of nuances, and maybe as a technically-minded person I expected that to extend to other things in life. But a lot of the problems at a tech company are social.

Sometimes, being seen as a "top performer", isn’t always about pulling a lot of weight through what they bring to the team, but more about their reputation or appearance. It’s a tough problem for companies to solve - how to foster and encourage collaborative work and balance it with individual achievements.

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