The allure of start-ups
John Hayes posted on June 26, 2013 | 3859 views

Name: Travis Kaspar
School - Undergrad: Computer Science University of Texas at Austin (1999)
School - Masters: Masters in Software Engineering at Cockrell School at University of Texas (2005)
Job Title: Systems Engineer
Employer: iControl Networks
Industry: High Technology
Compensation level: $75,000 - $115,000


The Job of a Systems Engineer
Travis works at iControl Networks, a relatively new home automation software company. Their technology includes in-home touch screens and networking hubs that provide remote access to cameras, window and motion sensors, light and thermostat controls and more. You’ve probably heard or seen local ads from service selling home monitoring based on iControl Networks software (Comcast - Xfinity Home, Time Warner - IntelligentHome, Cox - Cox Home Security).

Since iControl Networks is a relatively young company, Travis has an opportunity to give feedback to the software design team rather than just write bug-fixes against code. He has direct input into how the company codes and ships software and products. The response cycle is really fast. They can find issues, patch them, and deliver fixes in weeks or months rather than years. That makes for a rewarding and more immediately gratifying environment as compared to the defense industry where he used to work.


What does a Systems Engineer do all day?
Travis is a member of the support team, so he investigates defects as they come in from the field and hands those off to the development team. If there is a severe issue, Travis helps triage the situation and get things back up and running.

For example, the night before we spoke, a set of customer accounts could not be properly deactivated. Travis had to log into the database, manipulate records, and then go to the UI and manage the records individually.  In another case, he was given an incorrect assessment from the customer's engineering team who thought that the problem was something else. The internal support team echoed the customer view. But since those teams were unable to resolve the problem, Travis used his special combination of engineering process skills and educated insights/hunches to get to the solution faster.

Here are a few other activities that round out his daily task list:

  • Validate and correct existing documentation to match the current versions of the software.
  • Participate in lots (too many) meetings, including critical issue reviews.
  • Write test protocols for new hardware platforms.

Travis likes working as part of a larger team who can collaborate on challenges. However, even with a small company, Travis says, "There is still team member resistance to hearing out some ideas and to experimenting, which can be a bit frustrating." This isn’t too surprising in an environment where everyone is working lots of hours – there's not always time to explore a nuanced scenario.

Travis is not currently managing anyone directly, and that’s his preference for the time being. The freedom from management allows him to focus on technical issues and team priorities. As he says, the promotion path often "takes outstanding engineers and turns them into mediocre managers."

Travis works more hours per day than he used to. In fact, now 50 hours per week is the norm, and that can blow up to 60+ hours when there is a push around a new release. However, the work is rewarding, so he doesn’t mind.


Was your Masters degree worth it?
According to Travis, the Masters in Software Engineering was critical. The Masters program provided a breadth of perspective to understand the underlying principles of software architecture and design and the structure and process you need to minimize errors. He also found value in meeting classmates and learning from their career experiences.


What advice would you give to people who would follow?
Travis suggests that aspiring Systems Engineers, "Get involved in as many parts of your project as possible. Don’t just focus on the component you own. Strive to understand what the system is supposed to do so that you don’t become overspecialized and develop tunnel vision."

He notes that things are going to change in your industry, whatever it is. "You will only be valuable so long as you keep current with the various technologies."


What’s next?
Despite the occasional 3 a.m. call, Travis really likes his job and the team he works with. "I honestly don’t think I could have found a better fit".

His only hope is that the innovative, start-up culture of the organization doesn't change as the company grows larger.  While this sometimes happens to successful, growing companies, Travis isn't a big fan of the bureaucracy that comes with it.

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