What is a Community Engineer in an Open-Source-Product Company
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Jun. 23, 2022

And why you may consider applying for this role at Prefect

Anna Geller
Anna GellerLead Community Engineer

There are many misconceptions about who a community engineer is. This blog post defines such a person as “someone who figures out how to help a community of people do what they want with what they have.” While this definition is true, it’s not entirely how we think about it at Prefect.

Our main goal is to help the open-source community be successful with our product, and there are myriad ways how we may achieve that goal. The channels of value creation include content, documentation, code reviews, live events, as well as direct support via Slack, Discourse, or GitHub issues. The mission of community engineers is to earn users’ trust in a healthy way at scale.

Community Engineers at Prefect are communicators, engineers, consultants, technical writers, teachers, and strive to be subject matter experts in Prefect, Python, data engineering, cloud computing, and containerized technologies. We thrive in ambiguity, wearing many hats and simultaneously growing skills in many areas.

We have empathy for understanding our user’s technical questions. We genuinely listen to users and help them solve problems.

We serve as a bridge between many teams and work closely with:

  • The growth team — we create content, write announcements, and organize events together with developer advocates.

  • The OSS engineering team — we create and participate in GitHub issues, help with code reviews, and every now and then, we contribute to the code base.

  • The customer success team — since many support requests are similar for open-source users and enterprise customers, we share knowledge and support each other in solving difficult issues.

  • The infrastructure and cloud team — when users face challenges with Prefect Cloud and related infrastructure, we collaborate to fix open issues.

  • The product team — we communicate feature requests and user’s expectations to build the right features that solve actual problems our users struggle with.

  • The integrations team — to design collections and building blocks of the modern data stack and review OSS contributions.

The ideal candidate is someone with experience in consulting or a similar role since — as silly as it may sound, you need to talk to people pretty much all the time. Communication is the most foundational skill you will master.

Based on your skill set, it’s hard to put you into a single “bucket.” You are more of a generalist or a T-shaped person with a broad skillset and more specific knowledge in the area of workflow orchestration and data engineering. You are bored doing the same thing every day, and you are ready (and excited!) to face any technical challenge. You want to see that your work generates impact and is genuinely helping others.

You don’t need to have that experience before applying, but you’ll get a unique opportunity to grow all those skills within a single role.

You’ll get the chance to help build the next generation of tooling that may change the entire data industry. In your work, you’ll keep practicing the two most foundational skills for any career — and for building relationships IRL — communication and empathy.

It may sound superficial, but you’ll never be bored! Every day brings new interesting problems to solve, and Prefect users will keep you engaged with new tools, as well as the current trends (and challenges!) in the data industry.

The short answer is a qualified “yes.”

Let me answer this question more clearly with a personal story.

Since my first data engineering consulting project, I’ve been involved (and quite obsessed) with workflow orchestration. I built data platforms, modeled data warehouse tables, implemented containerized Python-based backend applications and data pipelines doing ETL, trained deep learning models for NLP, and automated various processes with data. Why am I listing all that? To show I understand the struggles of a data professional and know the critical role of workflow orchestration in delivering reliable and maintainable data projects.

Having worked with the Hadoop ecosystem (including Spark and Airflow) and many enterprise workflow scheduling systems made me aware of friction points when the orchestration tool doesn’t fully address the end user’s needs.

Intrigued by Prefect’s product and vision, I checked their career page, but all open roles were listed as “Remote (US)”. One day though, Prefect published this blog post with the quote that I found particularly interesting (as someone with a passion for engineering and technical writing):

“We are seeking world-class engineers and technical resources. We prize engineers who can write prose as well as code”.

I asked the author (Jeremiah) if they would accept my application from Berlin, Germany. Then, I met Kingsley, and thanks to his great work establishing a process for international hires, I became Prefect's first non-US employee.

Why am I telling you this whole story? To show that, while Prefect is primarily a US-based company, we are willing to work with candidates showing initiative.

You’ll get to work in a positive, supportive environment with a high degree of autonomy. And you’ll work with an outstanding team. There are no Jira tickets and no daily standups where you need to justify what you are doing and why.

But it doesn’t mean that everybody does what they want and that you are left alone with your struggles. We set common quarterly objectives to provide a north star of what we try to accomplish.

We help each other via Slack, meetings (only when needed!), optional team lunches, and synchronous code reviews. We trust you to do the best work of your career, and we help each other while doing so.

To give you a concrete example: when you don’t know how to respond to a user question, we have a dedicated private channel in the Prefect Community Slack only available to Prefect employees. We use it to discuss more complicated issues before giving the final answer to the user.

Similarly, if you want to just chat with anyone in the company to solve a specific problem, you can jump to Slack Huddle to discuss anything.

To get more detailed insights into what it’s like to work at Prefect, you may read Creativity Inc., which shows the work environment Prefect aspires to build.

On the contrary! Often setting too rigid goals can get you stuck in what Prefect management calls inertial thinking — doing things only because we are doing them already. For example, only because we thought doing X was a good idea at the beginning of the quarter doesn’t mean it’s still a good idea today. Instead, everyone needs to constantly reevaluate if X is still the right action item to move their team in the right direction to accomplish our shared mission.

This applies even to small and seemingly insignificant things that many other software companies could consider insignificant — naming. When one person proposed changing the name of a single abstraction, we had a heated debate that led to a very productive outcome for the entire group. Everyone ended up with a better understanding of the underlying concepts, and we figured out a much better naming that clarified for everyone how to think about those abstractions. This was also a demonstration that engineers at Prefect genuinely care about building great software (not just working for the work's sake) and pay extreme attention to details.

It’s a matter of perspective. When looking at it this way, you may say that software engineers are people writing random characters in a text editor.

Sure, support can be tedious or overwhelming sometimes, but this is true for any job. But staying positive when interacting with users and remembering that they are just humans (who may be beginners knowing less than you do!), you may enjoy even the simplest user questions.

And community engineers are doing much more than providing technical support. We are rather teachers and consultants than a help desk.

While Prefect is growing rapidly and has matured as an organization, you still have plenty of room to grow if you are proactive and take the initiative (and there’s always more to do!). In Engineering, you may follow the technical or managerial track — regardless of what you choose, if you are great at what you do, there are always opportunities to steer your path in the direction you want to develop.

Speaking of ladders and hierarchies, Prefect has a unique view on the subject:

  • Prefect management views the corporate hierarchy as an upside-down tree — the higher you are in the hierarchy, the more people you need to support,

  • Inspired by Ed Catmull’s book Creativity Inc, we try not to confuse organizational structure with the communication structure — anyone is able to talk to anyone at Prefect regardless of their position in the “tree”.

If you’ve found any of that interesting, we are looking for extraordinary people to join our team as a Senior Community Engineer.

We hope this blog post will help you assess whether a Community Engineer role may be the right fit for you. If you still have any questions before applying, you can DM me via Slack or LinkedIn.

Happy Engineering!

Posted on Jun 23, 2022
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