A Day in the Life: Zeh Fernando (Director, Technology, Work & Co)

In the next post of our series speaking with technical leaders on their journey into tech and their work life, Zeh Fernando tells us about starting out as a designer, working in cross-functional teams, and learning to use Flutter.

What has been your journey in tech so far?

Growing up in Sao Paulo I loved drawing and wanted to be a cartoonist. I’ve always been a visual person and enjoyed making things with my hands. When I was 10, my dad brought home our first computer. The features were limited. All I could do was write BASIC programs to run semi-useless things. But I realized it was a new medium to draw on, and a new way to bring things to life. It also taught me accountability early on — if something didn’t work, it was on me. And I needed to fix it.

I started working as a programmer during high school, developing database management systems through the early 90’s. I wanted to maintain my visual roots, so I chose to get a design degree instead of studying computer science. Around the same time, ad agencies began hiring digital talent to make CD-ROMs and “multimedia” products. Then, with the explosion of the Internet, I started creating websites. That began my final transition to a career making digital products for the web, mobile, and other platforms. I’ve been a Technology Director at Work & Co for nearly four years now.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced moving into your current role?

Beings hands-on — at every level — is one of the company’s core values. From my perspective, there’s a balancing act that’s tricky to master, and it’s about finding ways while you ascend in your career to still keep actively creating, even when managing. I haven’t yet mastered the balance myself but it’s a priority.

Lately, I’ve been monitoring how much time I’m coding and how much time is spent in technical leadership, mentoring and other activities to set broader direction at our company. Both are critical and not mutually exclusive. I think being a practising developer will make me a better leader long term. But as a discipline, the industry broadly needs to find more ways to allow for both paths, and even allow for fluidity for people to move between them if they so choose.

Briefly describe your stack and workflow

At Work & Co, we’re focused on bringing new products to life for everyone from Lyft to Apple to Epic Games. Because we’re always creating something new, our stack is constantly evolving.

On the web side, we have reached a common stack that is mostly React-based, usually with Redux and Webpack, and different solutions for CSS. On the mobile native side, while we’ve done a lot of OS native work, we’ve been using React Native mostly, with a few notable exceptions. In both cases, we tend to keep our project’s dependencies up-to-date during the duration of its development.

What does your typical day look like?

Heading to my desk in the morning means joining a cluster of several colleagues from different backgrounds who are all focused on bringing the same project to life. We sit together from concept through launch. The group typically is made up of designers, product managers, strategists, engineers and QA. We try not to enforce a hierarchy.

It’s unique that development as a discipline is so integrated into our projects from Day 1. Sitting in project teams facilitates more informal ongoing conversations and fewer formal meetings. We are averse to endless keynotes and formal presentations and would rather put that time back into the actual work.

Our day normally starts with standups to make sure everyone knows where the project stands. We tend to follow a kanban-style development workflow, with two-week sprints in general. Because we’re working for clients, we start projects with a tentative schedule and a good sense of where we’re going based on a roadmap, so we don’t pivot too strongly during the middle of development.

I always have a notebook in front of me, it’s much faster for me to use as a daily reference. My best days are productive but quiet. I’m at my best without audio distractions. I love concentrating for two to three hours in focused spurts on a problem.

What’s the best and worst part of your job?

The best is the work. We’re able to bring amazing design and user experience to life, and for me, it’s hard beating that. Creating things at scale and knowing tons of people are using these products every day — whether it’s for an airline, a coffee-ordering app or a gaming platform — is rewarding. I also thrive on constraints. A recent project of mine had some seriously challenging requirements and I didn’t know 100% if we could do it or not. Then being able to pull it off, overcome things and look back and say “we made it work” is a good moment.

On the opposite end is the reality around meetings. They can fragment your day if not focused and time-boxed.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

I didn’t actually have a lot of mentors early on so the best early advice I got was from my uncle as a teenager. He suggested that I explore WordStar, Lotus 1–2–3, and DOS. It helped steer my interests and my career to where it is today.

What is your most useful resource (book, blog, newsletter)?

There’s no single source of truth for what developers should be learning every day. I check Reddit, HackerNews and StackOverflow. I read and recommend lots of technical books. I also have an inspiring group of people I follow on Twitter, and then internally Slack helps me stay connected too, and learn from my colleagues.

What’s one thing you’d like to learn, develop or work on in 2019?

Currently, Flutter (Google’s framework for cross-platform mobile development) sits at the top of my list. Its developer tools are a step beyond everything else that’s out there for mobile development. I know developers sometimes have shiny object syndrome and tend to gravitate towards new things, but it looks pretty promising.