A chef and a dancer walk into a startup: Why Fanatics hires devs with unique past jobs
When Fanatics says it hires developers from unique backgrounds, they’re not talking about people from fintech. At various points, the tech team has included a classically trained ballet dancer, a lawyer, a former chef and a one-time special education teacher and assistant principal.
There’s the obvious benefit: People with different orientations devise ideas that a group of similar thinkers couldn’t dream up. There are unexpected benefits, too.
“It encourages people to drop their egos and go with the best solution, even when it isn’t theirs,” said David Sudia, software engineer. “It also encourages collaboration. If we think the same, there’s not much point in asking for others’ opinions. If you know you’re going to learn something every time you ask for input, you’ll ask for input more often.”
We caught up with the team at Fanatics’ Boulder office to see how their previous lives influence their work today — and how diversity of thought benefits Fanatics.
FOUNDED: In 1995 as a retail store. First online sale made in 1997.
WHAT THEY DO: Sell officially licensed major league sports apparel; build e-commerce technology for retailers in event and sports venues.
PERKS: Company stock options, in-office sports bar, discretionary time off.
FANATICS ONCE OWNED: Clothing brand Zubaz (the amazing early 90s shorts seen all over NFL sidelines and still loved by New England Patriot's tight end Rob Gronkowski).
TECH STACK: The team doesn’t stay with one language or stack but has back end applications in Python, Java, Go and Node.js (both traditional server and AWS Lambdas). Front-end sites use the frameworks Mithril and Vue.
David Sudia, Software Engineer
Sudia’s group supports Fanatics’ wholesale and custom products’ business divisions. They make systems that move data from the inventory and manufacturing systems toward consumers, including internal salespeople or customers who order off the retail sites. On a given day, Sudia will create a component for the UI framework, write an API contract, fix a bug and deploy Docker containers.
PAST LIFE: He was a special education teacher and assistant principal.
Does your background in education translate to technology?
Both education and development require constant learning, so that’s a one-to-one transition of skill. A more specific example is that, in schools, I was a behavior specialist. I developed support plans for kids with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities.
When I learned about writing tests for software in coding bootcamp, I thought: “This is just a behavior plan for software. I basically have a master’s and half a PhD in this kind of problem.”
It’s rare in any industry, with any employer, to really feel cared about, but it’s true here.”
Has teaching affected your approach to engineering?
I tend to be a do-it-myself kind of person. But education is the ultimate in collaborative “no ego” work. Seven years in education straight up made me a better team member. Now, my instinct is to shop around ideas, build consensus, get multiple perspectives and then do the work.
What has influenced your leadership style?
I once worked for a principal who taught me a lot about leadership. She showed me how to consult with people on problems by guiding them through a series of Socratic questions, rather than prescribing a solution. This is an industry where everyone is incredibly smart, which makes this approach essential.
Does Fanatics help people shape their own career development?
At one point, I got reassigned to another team. I was miserable because it was remote, and I had specifically taken my job because its wasn’t remote. When I (politely) voiced that, no one said: “Deal with it.” It was: “Ok, we want to keep you, so where would you be happy?” It’s rare in any industry, with any employer, to really feel cared about, but it’s true here.
Tom Stephens, Senior Manager of Engineering
Stephens empowers teams to create software that improves Fanatics’ reach, impact and profitability. He and his team work on what he calls “wicked problems,” projects whose solution isn’t clear until the team actually creates it.
PAST LIFE: Stephens was a chef.
What does Fanatics gain by hiring people with unique backgrounds?
Most engineers aren’t perfecting low-level algorithms. We’re building tools to engage lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds. If we all draw from one type of experience, I’m going to get the same answers. I need different thought processes to find the most effective, innovative solutions.
Did you learn anything as a chef that translates to engineering?
Anyone who works in a kitchen learns a couple of things quickly: During a dinner rush, there’s no such thing as working fast enough, and there’s no such thing as work that’s beneath you. Everyone moves as fast as possible to put out the best possible product. You don’t have time to argue over who was supposed to do what or who made mistakes during prep.
That applies to engineering. Many projects are derailed by discussions of who is right, who had what responsibility and who made what mistake. That’s just a red herring. When a project needs to be delivered, we get it out the door in the best possible shape. We care about: “What is right, not who is right.”
During a dinner rush, there’s no such thing as working fast enough, and there’s no such thing as work that’s beneath you.... That applies to engineering.”
Describe your management style.
In a word, empowering. Ultimately, I want people to not need me. I give them tools and guidance to be effective without me. My hope is that they’ll learn the skills necessary to take my job, or do whatever they want. I assign stretch tasks, then I provide support so no one ever feels like they are drowning. In my experience, most people need a cheering section to help them be confident in skills and knowledge they already have.
What do you look for in prospective hires?
I look for curious, driven and humble. Curiosity is crucial because, at Fanatics, if you aren’t comfortable learning all the time, then you won’t be comfortable here. Drive is important because we want people who are trying to grow, and we do all we can to make sure they’re given the opportunity.
Laura Streb, Software Engineer
Streb builds infrastructure that supports Fanatics’ systems, from the front end to back end. Her team helped execute the company’s wholesale offering in 2017. This year, it will build tech to support a project that’s critical for Fanatics’ financial reporting and contractual obligations.
PAST LIFE: Streb was a dancer; she grew up studying at Giordano Dance Chicago, then danced 30 to 40 hours a week with her university’s pre-professional company before performing professionally in Chicago.
Have you benefited from Fanatics' hiring approach?
The fact that I work here is a testament to the company. They didn’t look at my background and think: “We can’t hire her. She doesn’t have a CS degree.” It’s heartening to know that some companies not only look past that, but they thrive as a result of the wide range of perspectives they bring in.
Is dance similar to engineering in any way?
In both cases, you’ve got a highly collaborative environment, and the team is only as good as its weakest link. I also feel like there is a certain spatial awareness and visualization that enables me to recognize and repeat patterns in code. It’s got a rhythm to it.
Dance also teaches you to be humble. You learn to accept sometimes harsh feedback without letting it tear you apart. This has greatly contributed to my growth as an engineer.”
Did dance help you succeed as an engineer?
Dance requires an incredible amount of dedication and repetition to perfect the movements or emulate what the choreographer wants, but it’s not mindless repetition. You pay attention to the minutiae of every movement to always extend a little bit more, always be a little more expressive. As an engineer, I always work to improve and take lessons from people around me.
Dance also teaches you to be humble. You learn to accept sometimes harsh feedback without letting it tear you apart. This has greatly contributed to my growth as an engineer.
Share a meaningful learning opportunity Fanatics offered you.
This year, the company sent me to Amazon’s Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas. Cloud infrastructure and architecture was something that I hadn’t worked on. I voiced my interest, and before I knew it, I was drinking from the firehose.
Jacob Selig, Front End Developer
Selig writes internal web apps for business users, giving them absolute custom control over Fanatics’ websites.
BEYOND WORK: He’s got a passion for gaming.
What’s unique about your background?
Fanatics is actually my first “real” job. I started a biology degree at CU, but I took a programming internship and fell in love with software. I took off each following semester to do an internship full-time or used it to explore different subjects like discrete math, creative writing or sketching.
I left my last internship on a prayer in 2015, and landed a position with Fanatics soon after. Later, I was moved out of my first role onto a different team when my managers suggested I try something bigger. I am learning and growing so much.
How does your passion for gaming influence your work?
I like solving puzzles. Development is multiple layers of puzzles: What will be performant, what will be maintainable, what is available, what are the business imperatives? Dissecting a problem into digestible parts is engineering bread and butter.
What does your tech stack look like?
On the back end: Go and MySQL. Front end: Typescript, React and accoutrements to help accelerate prototyping.
Dissecting a problem into digestible parts is engineering bread and butter.”
What’s an interesting project you worked on?
I was asked to write an A/B test that would add a sale banner to the top of the page. At the time, only devs could go in, copy the source code, modify it and paste it into our A/B tool for use. I generalized this, and added it as a tool to the main code. Now, business users can do it.
How does your team have fun?
We’ve done retreats, hackathons, dinners, and lunches. Our team is split over Boulder and San Mateo, and the Boulder team is four, so we’re usually hanging out all day and joking. The office has a great atmosphere.