Engineering Leadership with Tess Rinearson

I sit down to learn from Tess about Blockchain, engineering leadership, handling remote teams, and leading during a pandemic.
Tess on Twitter:

George Stocker  0:00  
Hi, I'm George Stocker, and this is the build better software podcast. Today I'm joined by test rynearson. And we're here to talk about engineering and Engineering Leadership tests. Welcome to the show. Hi, thanks for having me. Thank you for being here. Now for people who don't know who you are or what you do. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Tess Rinearson  0:19  
Yeah, absolutely. So I am the VP of Engineering at a small blockchain company based in Berlin, which is called interchange. GMB H. GMB H is like LLC or Inc, but in German.

And I've been working in engineering management at blockchain companies for the last while I've been in the blockchain space for the last five years or so. And for about the last three years that I've been in, in management positions. Before that, I was a software engineer at medium and before that I was a computer science student.

George Stocker  0:54  
Okay, now let's let's start backwards. You're working in the blockchain space now, as someone who's never been in the blockchain space and doesn't really know what that's like, describe, you know, developing new products in that space. 

Tess Rinearson  1:09  
Yeah, totally. Um, it's a really fun space to work in because lots of things are new. And because the, like most blockchain projects have a bit of a unique funding model where

not necessarily all of the funding but often a lot of the funding comes from token sales. And so a lot of the people who are sort of like, like invested in your product are also your users are also like, like regular people in a lot of ways. And so there's, there's a different kind of like, like product development and funding cycle from a lot of other like software tech companies, I would say, and I think that gives you like a lot of a lot of latitude and also like a very community oriented

way to do your work. When you're building software,

George Stocker  2:01  
and you're in a nascent market, I mean, we like we don't know the full potential of blockchain. We at least seen it realized yet. So how do you as a leader, how do you work within that that largely unexplored territory?

Tess Rinearson  2:18  
Yeah, totally. That's a really good question. So when I got started in the blockchain space, it was 2015. And I joined a tiny blockchain company which is called chain because this was early enough in the sort of like blockchain, you know, lifecycle that you could actually call your blockchain company something like that. And chain worked on like a really, really wide range of products built, you know, first of Bitcoin and then kind of like our own blockchain product, and some stuff with like cloud blockchains, like explored a really, really wide range of products that you could build with block chains. And none of them really stuck. And the team ultimately got acquired by another blockchain company, which is a whole other story. But anyway, what I learned from that experience was that even though I am personally super, super excited about the technology behind blockchains, I don't really think I'm like the person who's going to build like a great product from it, at least not a great End User Product. And it's funny because I think that is like kind of the thing that needs to happen for the blockchain industry to really advance like, like when we get when we finally have something that you know, is used by, by regular people, by everyday people, not just by like, crypto nerds. I think that that will be a huge milestone for the whole industry. But I'm not sure that like, I am the person to work on that particular effort. What I realized is that I'm really excited about the infrastructure and like kind of the lower level stuff. So what I work on now is mostly a consensus algorithm, which is basically like one of the key building blocks for building block chains. No pun intended. And so it's just like a lower level thing. And so most of our users are other engineering teams that are also in the blockchain space. And they are building. Most of them are building products that can be used by end users or again by like non blockchain teams. So I'm kind of like one step removed actually from from, like, the product product process. And so what we think about really is just like, you know, what do we what do we need to do to make this tool basically, this piece of infrastructure, as stable as possible, as secure as possible? as standard as possible is actually a really big thing because there's so many things you can explore and do and innovate on in the blockchain space. Like we want to keep everything that we're not trying to experiment with as standard as possible. So that's like something else that we've been really driving towards this year is trying to standardize You know, it As much as our own pieces as much as possible. So yeah, again, just trying to like build really good software for other engineers fundamentally.

George Stocker  5:09  
Okay. everything I know about blockchain, I learned from the show Silicon Valley. And so I probably know next to nothing, what is the consensus algorithm and how does it work?

Tess Rinearson  5:19  
Yeah. So, this is one of my favorite subjects actually. So if I, if I get too deep, please cut me off. But basically, consensus algorithms, let a group of computers come to consensus on a value, right? And you can do this in a centralized way in a really easy way where you say like, okay, one computer is, you know, the canonical source of truth and if you need to know what value you should be having, just go ask that. Just go ask that computer for most blockchains or really for most like open blockchains on open networks where, where anyone should be able to join And it's like truly meant to be decentralized. You don't want to have one machine that is like the only source of truth, because that's, you know, very vulnerable to malicious behavior from that, that single entity. And so broadly speaking consensus algorithms are Yeah, how you get here you get a bunch of computers to come to agreement on a value. But in the blockchain space specifically, we really focus on consensus algorithms that are Byzantine fault tolerant, which is a term that means like, you know, able to withstand behavior from from the machines from the computers where they may tell like part of the network one thing and another part of the network, another thing you know, some people say like malicious behavior, which is roughly correct. And yet you want to be able to protect against that in a blockchain network. Because if you can have anyone join, you know, you're sort of inviting potentially bad actors into your system. If needed to be able to withstand a certain amount of that kind of like, Melissa, malicious or inconsistent behavior.

George Stocker  7:08  
And because the work you're doing is, like I said, largely unexplored, you're relying a lot on theoretical papers and computer science research. You know, how do you how do you find ways to to learn more about this topic? And how do you? How do you level up to where you are with understanding how blockchain works?

Tess Rinearson  7:34  
Yeah, totally. So we have actually like a, like a sister company that has a lot of researchers in it. And a lot of those folks are from like, have an academic background. And they largely are the ones who kind of like design the what's the right way to say this, like the protocol, and especially like the finer kind of like binary details of the protocol. They do a lot of that design work. And they actually also are in the process of formally verifying it using TLA plus. So TLA plus lets you like, kind of write out your specification, not using English but using this language called TLA plus and then like run it through like a proof checker. And that checker will tell you if, you know, conceptually, your algorithm holds. It doesn't test the implementation or anything like that. And that implementation piece is actually really where my team comes in. So, you know, we have a protocol, we have a spec that we're implementing to make a lot of like design decisions around, you know, our implementation details and choices and things like that. But we, my team, as it is is not really like designing the algorithm.

George Stocker  8:51  
Okay, you're taking those designs and you're implementing and testing them. How do you test something like this?

Tess Rinearson  9:00  
Yeah, so there's I mean, the formal verification piece, the TLA plus piece is a huge part of making sure that this is correct. There's a lot of kind of like standard, you know, unit tests, integration tests, things like that, that my team works in. And then there's also kind of this like, novel sort of emergent way to test these open networks. That's emerging, which are these. They're called incentivized test nets. So a test net generally is like a blockchain network. But you say, okay, it's gonna be like short lived, the value on this network isn't actually worth anything. Often you like reset the network periodically to make sure it doesn't accrue value, you know, test networks, right. And incentivized testnet is one where someone basically like organizes a competition on top of that test net and says like, okay, anyone who can execute a certain kind of attack on this network will give you a bunch of money. Basically, anyone who can, you know, make sure that their node conforms, you can run a node on this network and make sure that it conforms to certain constraints for a long enough time, we'll give you somebody and so you kind of set this up. And so in the cosmos ecosystem, so I work on a project called tender mint, but tender mint. Tender Mint is the consensus algorithm and it underpins this network called the cosmos network. So most of these test nets are sort of through the cosmos network. In the cosmos network, there have been to kind of like major incentivize test nets that have been executed one pretty recently a few months ago, and then another one about a year before that. And each of these have had, you know, like, on the order of, of dozens, or maybe like 100 teams participating in it. So they each run, you know, a node that runs all the software and then they try to like attack each other. And so that's a really great way to like, basically, yeah, incentivize people to see if they can, if they can do damage to your stuff if they can break your stuff. Obviously that's not like the the beginning and the end of it. And that's kind of what we do all all these things, you know, again, starting with formal verification with the specification and then kind of like building up. But yeah, I think the incentivize test nets are are one of the cool things that have come out with blockchain space.

George Stocker  11:26  
Cool. Now the dive back into the the people part because if I stay on this track, we could be here forever. Yeah. Are you in in my own efforts as an engineering leader and as an engineer, you'll projects that have failed or experiments that have failed, especially when there's business that runs on those experiments, or those projects or those products not failing? It's difficult and it's it's hard to maintain morale and to, you know, pick back up and keep going. Especially if you know, you You're finding a lot of ways that don't work. And the business is concerned about cash flow and about, you know, actually turning a profit as an engineering leader in an unexplored space. You know, how do you handle the inevitable setbacks that will occur? And how do you motivate your team when those setbacks do occur?

Tess Rinearson  12:20  
Yeah, that's a great question.

So in a lot of ways, our stakeholders are our community members. And so, we, I think a huge part of what we do is, you know, trying to communicate as actively and as openly, with, with community members as possible. And you know, it's it's community members who run these incentivize test nets, ultimately, because everything we do is open source. community members make a lot of contributions. So we really are like building all of this in public and we just try to be as transparent as possible with our community, which is to say, with our stakeholders. Just be as transparent as we can be, and share, you know, what's going on. If we've had any setbacks, things like that, you know, I think I think setbacks are pretty inevitable. Especially when you're like building with technology where you can, you know, there's a lot of unknowns. Like, frankly, right now we're in the middle of a bit of a release delay, because someone realized that, like a certain kind of attack could be executed, you know, when we introduce this new feature, it like, opens up the surface area for like a new kind of attack. And so we're like, you know, working again, with our sort of our research partners, to make sure that we have like, covered we're going back and forth with them, you know, and that's the kind of thing we're like, we're going to be really transparent with the community about why that's happening and what and how that's happening, while also trying to do things like so like tender mint, the consensus algorithm is kind of at the bottom of the stack in a lot of ways like, like a lot of other pieces in the ecosystem depend on tender mint and tender mint doesn't really depend on most of the other things. So we try to like, you know, produce artifacts that are downstream dependent products can use to, to to move forwards, we're not blocking them. So even though for example, in this case, we don't have a release out, like we wanted to have a release out a couple weeks ago, it's been delayed, but we managed to give them all what we call an integration target. So it's kind of like a release candidate, where you know, the API's are exactly the way they're going to be, when we actually do the release. The features are all the same, it's just missing this, like protection against this one attack. So we're saying like, don't, you know, don't use the integration target, in pump in production, right. But if you want to, like upgrade your software to use our next version, you know, this is a thing that you can like play with, to get to that point. So we do a lot of things like that. Where we, you know, just try to like unblock people in creative ways? Well, so you know, making sure we're covering our butts in terms of things like potential attacks and other like security issues.

George Stocker  15:12  
Right. Now, as a as an engineering leader, as a VP of engineering, how do you spend your time? what's a typical day for you like,

Tess Rinearson  15:20  
it varies a lot.

Right now, because we're sort of at the end of this like release cycle, I've been spending a lot of time. Honestly talking to other leaders at different orgs and trying to figure out like, what we really need to make sure is in our next release, so it's a mix of like, talking to, you know, the other engineering leaders at other companies in the ecosystem, talking to people on my team. It's honestly it's a lot of a lot of talking and a lot of writing, I would say, in the writing actually, especially since we went I mean, everyone is like remote now, right? And so since since I spend all my time sitting at my kitchen table, and I'm not necessarily like, like trying to have a lot of zoom meetings to get everyone on the same page, I found myself just writing like a ton of Google Docs that can be like, circulated and dissected. And like, that's kind of the the thing that I've found has been effective in this environment, in terms of like building alignment, especially again, in an ecosystem where like, you know, we're one team building one, one thing, basically, but we have lots of community members, we have lots of other engineering teams, who are our users and our collaborators. Again, we have this like sister team, that's like doing the research side. So there's just a lot of people who kind of need to all get on the same page. And we do. We do do zoom meetings sometimes. But you can't do that every time you need to make any decision. Right. So I spend a lot of time in Google Docs.

George Stocker  16:56  
Yeah. And that's that transition from the company. You were was all in person before the pandemic.

Tess Rinearson  17:04  
It's It's funny, it

wasn't exactly all in person. But we had, we had a few remote people. And in fact, my and like the tendermint core team that works on this consensus algorithm was was kind of split. So it was about half co located in Berlin, and then a few folks in other places around Europe.


but we still were having, you know, a lot of our like planning and kind of like decision making meetings are all happening in person. Right. And obviously, we can't do that anymore.

George Stocker  17:39  
What's that transition been like?

Tess Rinearson  17:43  

I think it's mostly been easier than expected.

You know, I think to be totally honest, like, I think, you know, Europe has just not been hit as hard. And so I talked to a lot of friends in the city. Dates where they're managing a lot of emotional stress, as well as like logistical stress, because there's so much uncertainty. And at least in Germany, at least in Berlin, from what I've seen, you know, the logistics are still challenging, but there isn't the same sense of like, kind of like uncertainty about the future, overall, if that makes sense. No, that's just been it's been managed a little bit more directly in Germany than in the US.

George Stocker  18:33  
That's true. And one of the issues that we have is that as you know, the 50 states 50 different ways of doing things you would hope for a coordinated national response to this point, but we don't have it. And right now, we're about to start back to school and I have, I have two, I have two kids that are school age. And, you know, my wife is a teacher. And so they're planning on going back in person. That's what you know. their school decided to do yet all the other schools around us are staying remote for the first thing virtual for the first month at least. So there's a lot of uncertainty around that. And as you said, it's it's emotional uncertainty. And the mental and the mental load is makes it more difficult to concentrate on, you know, important your day to day activities. Because always in your mind, there's this thought that Yeah, like we could be three weeks away from us having COVID from my wife getting it from my kids getting it from me getting it. Yeah. What, what do you do? And so that's only to only to paint a picture of what it's like over here right now, at least where I'm at, in the Washington DC area. That's, that's what we're feeling and that's a common sentiment that I've heard from your friends or neighbors as well.

Tess Rinearson  19:57  
Yeah, totally. I mean, I've heard from Many friends in the US who have you know, who have kids of school aged kids. And it's, it's like a no win situation, as far as I can tell. So one thing you know, that, frankly is like, I guess, a sort of privilege in this, in this unusual circumstance is that we don't actually have anyone at my company who has school age kids. One person has like a, like a baby, but everyone else is like, pretty young and doesn't really have families. So that's another aspect of like transitioning and to sort of the like, you know, pandemic situation that we haven't had to deal with. So in a funny way, I think that's been kind of a kind of a privilege for my team. But, but yeah, it's made things a little bit easier.

George Stocker  20:52  
Yeah. Now, there was a recent, I think it was on the orange side. I think it was on Hacker News. But basically the founder of the orange site, you know, tweeted out, that, you know, effectively that in five years, you know, the person who comes into the office is going to be the person that gets promoted. And the people that stay remote are just basically not going to not gonna get promoted. And then of course, as usual on the internet, it bounces around some people think remote work is the way of the future other people think that Yeah, I know you're gonna have to be in person to get promoted, you know, or there'll be a healthy split. What's your view on you know what you see the trend towards his remote asynchronous work, where things are headed or is it really a stopgap and things will go back to in person as soon as the pandemic is over?

Tess Rinearson  21:48  
Yeah, I mean, I don't really want to make a prediction for the whole industry, but I bet a lot of teams will stay remote and I bet it will work for them. You know, I think the the one thing that is cool is that We all have learned how to work remotely now. And so, you know, even if that doesn't end up being like, the thing that everyone does, if it doesn't, even if it doesn't end up being the default, it's a skill, right? And we've, we've sort of like, across the industry, everyone has, like, practice that a little bit. And so my hope is that, that basically creates more flexibility and more options for for everyone, like both for you know, for for workers as well as for companies. So, yeah, I wouldn't I wouldn't say that I have a I'm definitely not on on the like remote work is the only future side of things. But I also think it like can work can work pretty well. And I think it will work for a lot of teams. So

George Stocker  22:45  
what has helped you as an engineering leader during this time, you know, communicate with your team and to keep your team's morale up and keeping them focused on the direction you're taking.

Tess Rinearson  22:59  
Yeah, So,

we do,

we do have regular meetings. And you know, we begin every team meeting with some time for people to just talk about, like, how they're doing, you know, what, what's on their mind what they did over the weekend. And, you know, that's something we've had been doing actually since before the pandemic started, but I think it's really useful in terms of kind of like, trying to foster some connection. We've also been experimenting with a number of sort of, like, remote. I don't want to say team building activities exactly, but just like, like opportunities for people to connect remotely as well. I'm not sure that any of those have been a slam dunk. We've tried a bunch of stuff. You know, we obviously tried the like zoom happy hour a couple times. We tried, doing like a cooking class together. We tried doing German lessons together. But But yeah, it's it's, it's it's tricky. And I don't have a great answer. I'm still experimenting and trying to figure out what the right way to connect people is.

George Stocker  24:14  
Yeah, I'm, I'm helping a client right now. freelancing for a client and they have monthly required happy hours. And it somehow doesn't feel like it doesn't feel as fun when it's a required happy hour, right? But it is something at least right, it's to it and they and before this, they were very much in person all the time. And so this has been a real shock to the organization. Everybody's handled it really well. But it's still a shock to the organization because you know, the organization's DNA was in person, and now everybody is forcibly removed. And so that that changes the dynamic. And you know, the first few months are really people adjusting to the new dynamic While you're in a pilot in a pandemic, which is difficult enough without the pandemic, Mm hmm.

Tess Rinearson  25:07  
Yeah, and one thing also that we have been aware of that, you know, I think our leadership team wasn't necessarily aware of at the beginning, but it became clear over time, was that there is, again, like almost like privilege associated with being in Europe rather than being in the us right now. And so we have people who are we have a few people who are in the US, like on the East Coast, and the most of the team is in Europe, and most of the team is in Berlin. And, you know, for a little while, people were like, Oh, you know, well, we can travel around Europe, which is technically true. I don't know if it's a great idea, but it's the future. We can travel around Europe or like we can meet up in person in Berlin. And this just, you know, when we started talking about it just seemed so unfair to the Americans. And yes, and the Americans are actually like, yeah, we're really unhappy. And we're really stressed out and like really sucks to see people on the other side of the Atlantic, like, going to the beach or whatever. So trying to have more sensitivity and awareness around that dynamic is something something we've done too. And so like Actually, we started planning you know, getting getting everyone together like our our operations person sort of started making some plans and I was like, Look, we can like talk about talk with you about this, but we cannot commit to anything until the borders open with us and people feel confident traveling, like, like we can put these plans in place, but like no one is committing to anything until we know the borders open. So yeah, it's been a new dynamic as well.

George Stocker  26:47  
Yeah, we in our area. Everyone wears masks, which is nice, because it's not true even if you go 45 minutes south of here. Yeah, it changes really quickly once you get outside of the That is Washington DC. But, you know, as a family, we've stayed home since March since mid March. And we went to one vacation, but it was to a remote isolated place that we normally go to. And we know well, and we know that we can quarantine ourselves there. But for the most part, there's a lot of anxiousness in the Americas about, you know, we want to do things that summer, we want to travel we want to, we want to be normal, and this won't let us be normal. And so there's a lot of built up. anger, resentment, a little bit of jealousy, about you know, other parts of the world where, hey, they did what they were supposed to and now everything's fine. We're not fine, but you know, it's close to fine. Yeah, where's here, you know, we're dealing with that plus, of course, the the the Black Lives Matter, protests against police brutality, which are long overdue for us to do something about For us to improve our justice system. And so you've got all that. And then you've got, of course, in the Americas it's election season. Yeah. And, you know, that is, you know, with all of these things coming together as a software developer, it's actually I hate to say this, but it's really hard to concentrate on building software right now. Mm hmm. So I'm glad you I'm glad you all have it, you know, a better but I understand that with the, with the regional differences. It's very tough as a leader.

Tess Rinearson  28:35  
Yeah, totally. I mean, I can even see so like, I'm probably obviously I'm American. And I actually only just moved to Berlin last year. But my team is really interesting mix of like, you know, Americans living abroad and then a bunch of Europeans. And it has even been interesting to see the difference in kind of like the, I don't want to say just stress level but kind of like general posture towards the world. Between The Europeans and the Americans. So it's not just like where you are in the world, but it's also like, you know, like, I'm worried about my friends and my family in the states I'm worried about, I'm very worried about the election, like, in my one on ones with every with every American on my team, I'm like, are you registered to vote? Do you know how you're getting your ballot remotely? Like, tell me what you're doing? Like, let's make sure that that you're ready for this. So yeah, I think you know, even even to be physically removed from the situation where we're feeling it too, in a way.

George Stocker  29:29  
Now, you, you as you said, You're an American, you moved to Berlin. You know, when you join a new company, they're every new Every company has its cultural differences, but now you're also an American, you're moving to Germany, and they're their cultural differences there. What was that experience? Like?

Tess Rinearson  29:50  
Yeah, so that's something I've been thinking about a lot. Not really, because it felt like a huge change for me. I mean it in a funny way, obviously. was moving abroad, that was a big transition, I was changing teams and changing. You know, a lot of a lot of change happened, obviously. But because I stayed in the same industry, I kept basically the same kind of role. And because my team is very international, and we have a lot of Americans and our working language in the office is English, and all these things like that. You know, and and also, frankly, because I came in, in a leadership position, and I could say, like, we're going to do things this way, you know, I could kind of set Not that I tried to be a dictator about anything, obviously, but like, you know, I can, I could definitely bring my preferences in my kind of American way of doing things to the table. Which has also been an interesting challenge in I'll give it go on a slight tangent here. But one thing we've been talking a lot about on my team. And partly honestly, in light of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US has been about being more hands on and like, like actively working on diversity and inclusion practices in our company and on our teams. Now, the interesting thing for me is that I think I was fairly, like, I would say, like fluent or competent with this subject in the US. You know, I, I built an engineering team that was headed had an equal gender split, I had some idea of, you know, what, like a racially diverse team should look like. And I had some avenues and organizations to work with to help make that happen on my team. I show up in Germany, and I'm like, I don't even know what a racially diverse team in a German context should look like. I mean, I know what a homogenous team might look like. But, you know, in the US, for example, there's a there's a big emphasis on black and Latino engineers specifically. And that doesn't necessarily make sense like in the German context, you know, like Like, like Latinos as an ethnic group or not, are not a big part of Germany. But there are a lot of people from the Middle East. There's a lot of people from Turkey, there's a lot of people from North Africa. And so like, even just like shifting my sense of what racial and ethnic diversity looks like, or what you should be, should be targeting has been a really interesting, kind of, like, cultural learning experience for me. And I'm still I still have so much to learn and honestly probably, like, all listen to this in a year and I'll be like, wow, I really had no idea what I was talking about, even then, like, I'm really at the beginning of my journey. But that's been been something that, you know, I kind of have to learn from scratch when I came here. Okay, so to go to go back, though, to your original question about sort of, like making the cultural leap. I've had a number of friends and other you know, other people in my network asked me like, you know, what's it like, and frankly, I know A lot of people who are looking at the situation in the US and they're like, maybe it's time to try living abroad for a while. So I think this is a is a is a question that's on a lot of people's minds. And one thing that I've been asked is like, you know, is it possible to come in as an American, maybe, especially as an American who's only worked in the Bay Area, which is true for me, basically, I come in and lead like an engineering team at a German company. And I think the answer depends so much on like, first of all, how open minded you are, you know, are you willing to like, try different things and like, learn some things from scratch, like the diversity stuff I mentioned, or even like, you know, hiring practices. You can bring a lot of stuff over but not everything. And then also, it depends a lot on whether or not the team you're joining is like, international or German. So like, I would say, My team is very international. Germans are a minority actually. But there are also teams They're like, you know, the founders are German most of the employees are German, the working language might be German. The way that people communicate even if you know you can speak English or speak the same language, like just the general level of enthusiasm or positivity is like, radically different, like a lot of Germans are like yeah, I've had to work with Americans and everything is awesome. Why is everything awesome? All the time for Americans so just like a different you know, there are just like differences in in communication and things like that, that come up. But I would say there are so many companies here and probably all over Europe that do have that really, really like international bent that are, I would say, like very, very accessible and very easy to to jump in on as an American.

George Stocker  34:52  
Cool. I have no experience in that so I have nothing to add there. But you going Back to you were your VP of engineering now you were an engineering manager previously. Mm hmm. What was the biggest part of that transition for you from just an engineering manager to now you're the VP of engineering?

Tess Rinearson  35:12  
Yeah. So, you know, I've had the VP of engineering title, a few places. And they've all been small. Right? So it's not I would say there's, there's definitely been a transition. And it's mostly been in kind of, like the scope of what I've been doing, but it's, it's not. It never felt like a huge leap. And I think for me, a lot of that also, is that the other engineering managers, you know, even if they are reporting to me, I really have worked with them as like partners, right? So, you know, maybe, maybe, I might like coach them through a few things. But typically, like I view them as Yeah, my partners and like leading the engineering org and kind of making decisions together. So I think that that is been sort of the, the way that I work as a VP. I'm trying to think what the biggest, I mean, yeah, the biggest difference really is just that, like, when I was responsible just for a single team, or maybe like two small teams, I was a little bit more hands on with like, the product or like, sometimes like specific engineering decisions, or like reviewing code or things like that. And in a VP role, I tend to be a little bit more oriented towards like, all of the engineering teams, right. So like, making sure that

you know, like, our feedback structures across the whole org


working well and stable, making sure that like, you know, if there's a leveling system that's like fair being applied fairly, making sure that the recruiting processes are, again, fair, you know, being executed well, and kind of meeting everyone's needs. So it's like more of a that. Yeah, I would say the transition has been more about kind of taking more responsibility for just like a broader scope of things, which for better or for worse means being a little bit less hands on often with the like, nitty gritty details of certain, you know, engineering decisions or things like that. Interestingly, right now, I you know, I'm, I am the VP for interchange mbh. And so I do a lot of the stuff that I just described, sort of for the whole company. And actually, because interchange mbh is like 90% engineers, a lot of the stuff I do is actually really for like the whole company, not just the engineering teams. But But I'm also kind of like the the engineering lead for tenement core, this consensus algorithm. So, I do have to balance being as hands on as I can be with tenement core, as well as keeping an eye on the larger engineering team, which is a tricky balance, I would say I'm still, I'm still learning how to make that work.

George Stocker  38:07  
How often are you able to open up your ID and commit code?

Tess Rinearson  38:14  
Really, it really depends on like everything else that's going on, right? And like where we are kind of in the development cycle. And so the the reality is that that's almost always going to be like the lowest priority thing. Because there's always going to be someone who can someone else who can do it and probably someone else who can do it better. Right? So So it varies widely at this point, because we've been kind of in the middle of like really trying to get like a release out the door and I've been doing a lot of planning and a lot of talking to people. It's been a while since I committed any any real code, but I do I do spend, try to spend a decent amount of time doing code review and just like keeping keeping an eye on things and trying to Help out.

George Stocker  39:01  
I had a pure mentor. Back when I was a solutions architect, I had a peer mentor, who said to me, you know, optimize for, optimize and do the things that only you can do and delegate everything else. And which meant, of course, that No, I didn't push production code, like, I was needed in the strategy meetings, I was needed in the design meetings. Right, I didn't get a chance to do the things that actually produce software, but the things I do were necessary to produce software. As an engineering leader, you know, what's your, what's your version of that? Yeah, I

Tess Rinearson  39:41  
would say very much the same. You know, and I think, actually, like, so. So one thing that I think hasn't been mentioned on this podcast is that interchanging mbh is actually like a really young company. So it's actually only founded in February. And it's a funny situation. This is the kind of thing that you can do. In the blockchain space, I mentioned earlier like there's often an unusual funding model. So one thing that can happen and happens somewhat frequently in the blockchain space is that like product or engineering teams can like detach from one company and then like, go to another one, or or start their own. And so that's actually what happened in this case where we had been working for the tenement core team had been working for a different company that had started the tender mint core project and and fostered it for a long time. And then they kind of wanted to like move in a different direction and do some different stuff with their product and their work. And we were like, you know, what it's like would be better to just have a place where we can really focus just on this core technology. And so we so we floated over. And the funny thing is that because of that, we've been in the process of like, like rebuilding a lot of our processes, and things like that. And so kind of sense that transition happens. You know, a lot of my work has been around. Yeah. Again, like rebuilding a hiring process, rebuilding feedback systems, things like that. And so my hope, when I anticipate is that as that stuff sort of starts to settle, I'll have a little bit more bandwidth to like, get back into tender mint, you know, tender mint engineering, and that project. But yeah, a lot of what I've been focused on lately has been like, like hiring and like, yeah, we just we just went through our first like feedback cycle as a team, which was, which I think was fun. A lot of people were like, I've never gotten formal feedback before. This is really cool. This like, validates a lot of things that I thought were probably true about myself, but I wasn't sure. So yeah, I think I think once a lot of that stuff kind of settles. My hope is that I'll get back into touching the code a little bit more.

George Stocker  42:00  
Now your, your feedback process. Is it a 360 feedback? What does it look like?

Tess Rinearson  42:05  
Yeah, it's a 360 feedback process. And I like it's the same process I ran at chain and Interstellar. Actually, I just brought it over wholesale. And I had copied that from someone else. Someone that the former think former VP at nihlus had walked me through it was really like, he like gave it to me. I've sort of been adopting it and tweaking it ever since. So it's kind of this this process that I think is like floated around to startups for a little while, but it's a 360 process. People sort of like nominate people who they think are their peers to write them peer reviews and then managers compile the feedback. And they also like write reviews, other managers. And so managers get feedback from their direct reports. But that feedback from the direct reports is like compiled by, you know, another person who can kind of Qt is like a filter, like help anonymize anything that might be sensitive. And the interesting thing about this feedback process, the thing that I think is really important is that we've really directly explicitly decoupled this feedback from any kind of like compensation or leveling. Like we're like, okay, the goal of this process is for you to learn to literally just get feedback from your teammates, on how you can grow and how you can be better. And we want to incentivize people to be as as honest as possible. And we know that you all like each other, respect each other want to help each other out. So if I say, you know, hey, go write a review of your teammate. Oh, and by the way, if it's too negative, like they're not going to get a promotion, like no one's going to be give the constructive feedback in that environment. So we really like narrowed the scope of sort of like what we're trying to achieve with this feedback process. And we were like, Look, this is Just like to get, you know, personal feedback for your own professional development. And we're not going to use this as a management team to decide like, if you're getting promoted, or like what level you are or anything like that.

George Stocker  44:13  
That's wonderful. I like now that you say it, it seems like Yeah, everybody should be doing that. But they don't. What so what how do you determine leveling? How do you determine compensation increases?

Tess Rinearson  44:27  
Yeah. That is one of the things to spend a little bit honestly like a little bit tricky with a new company, because you're like, yeah, I kind of had a blank slate. We'd do get our funding from a Swiss foundation. I'm laughing just because I know it sounds like complicated and like I keep introducing pieces to this picture. But again, blockchain companies all kinds of funny stuff happens. All of our funding comes from a Swiss Foundation, which is called the interchain Foundation. And they have a model that they recommend for compensation. They have people in teams all over the world. And so they sort of, you know, it's combination of like, people's level, their role, the cost of living piece, which I know is like a really hot subject right now, with so many people being remote and moving around, but they do have like a cost of living multiplier in there, kind of like calculator. And so they recommend that we use that and we more or less follow that, that doesn't answer the leveling question. We have a ladder that again, I like, borrowed from my previous company, which I'd like in turn kind of borrowed and adapted from like another engineering leader. So again, one of those things that I think is kind of like floated around a number of startups and and kind of gets adapted and tweaked to everyone's use cases. So we've used that as like a rough a rough guide to get a sense of where people are Or should be. And the one thing that I would say is interesting about that is there's pretty heavy emphasis on how you. Like, if you're just a really great engineer, like a really great programmer, you can only get so far, you really have to be a great like team player and help level the people up around you and ultimately help level the whole company up, if you want to, like proceed all the way through that that leveling system. So that's kind of the one thing that I would say is kind of interesting there. But yeah, so we have we have like a rough a rough leveling system, combined with this, like standardized kind of calculator, I suppose. From our funding organization.

George Stocker  46:41  
I'm really gratified to hear that because in tech, the idea of the core skills, new Essential Skills being as important if not more important, than the technical skills, you know that that transition is still happening where we're, we're coming from the old school programmer, good old boy network of if you're a technical hacker in your basement, then you're fine to know you actually have to be able to handle other people and to work together to build software that has a has a good outcome. And so I'm really glad gratified to hear that. That's the approach you're taking.

Tess Rinearson  47:16  
I mean, I think it's especially important for blockchain companies and open source projects. And we obviously are both, because again, we have so many other teams that we're working with potential contributors. You know, like, if you're on like, every one of my team has to be good at collaborating and like, giving code reviews to or helping out, you know, external contributors who maybe they've never spoken to before. They don't know anything about maybe there's even like a language barrier. And so, you know, in order to be a successful engineer on my team, you really have to have really great collaboration skills and honestly like a lot of empathy for the people you might be working with again, even if you like never see them or To them outside of GitHub.

George Stocker  48:02  
Yeah, you worked at on the subject of you know where you're at today you worked at both valve and Microsoft as an intern. Now, what sort of impacted to working at those well established companies and valve with its, you know, internet famous handbook. What? How did that have an impact on you and where you are today?

Tess Rinearson  48:24  
Yeah, the, I think valve particularly had a had an impact on me. That was like my first real job. So I had nothing to compare it to. Right. And after, after I after I left after my internship ended, people would be like, what was it like? And I was like, it's just like, how you work like, I had never seen anything else. And what became clear to me and I could kind of see this at the time, but it became clear over time, was that, you know, in order to make that particular culture and that particular work style work for them, they really sacrificed a lot of other things. So Like hiring was really hard. I remember, you know, as an intern, I was not on any interview loops, obviously, but I would remember my whole team, like going out for interviews constantly felt like every week, there were like, multiple interviews happening. And I don't think they made that many offers. Because when you have a really, you know, when you have a culture where everyone has to be really, really self directed, you can only select for those people, that's a hard thing to select for in an interview. The cost of a false positive is like pretty high when you're when you have that kind of culture. So like, it's like hiring was was I think was pretty hard for them. And not for any shortage of like interested or smart people, right? They just were had a really particular kind of person they needed to hire. You know, I think sort of in the same vein, like the the workforce wasn't particularly diverse. And you know, at the time I didn't really like, understand why that was not ideal. But as I've learned more about, you know, why, why diversity inclusion are important. And, and honestly, like, as a woman engineer, you know, becoming more aware of what that means. It's, that's become more more important to me too. So anyway, the thing I would say that I learned there is that like, you can have a really particular culture. And you will ultimately you will find people who work and fit well in that in that culture. But you're going to like, like, the farther you deviate from the norm, the higher the cost you're going to pay is, you know, in a sense, that's like, one of the things that you're building and experimenting with is your culture. And so it's like, do you want to spend kind of like, like product energy, or like, like innovation tokens on that cultural piece? Or do you want to reserve that for like your actual product? And I'd say it's a mix, like I like I work in a situation now where we spend a lot of innovation tokens on like an unusual org structure, right? We've got this thing with the Was foundation. All of these other like sister teams that we work with, it's like an unusual thing. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to make that work. I think it's worth it. But and I think probably for valve like their their culture is is worth it. But it really did give me a sense of the kinds of trade offs you can make with your with your culture.

George Stocker  51:21  
And the innovation token that is from a blog post that I seem to remember, well, there's my guess

Tess Rinearson  51:27  
that is a blog post from a blog post by Dan McKinley. And I think about it a lot. I got innovation tokens a lot. It's one of my like, it's like a kind of like a mental tool that I break out a lot. And, you know, sometimes if we're thinking about like, adopting a new technology or like adapting a future or like,

you know, writing our own

civilization serialization format, or whatever it's like, is this what we want to spend an innovation token on? Just doing that little check has been like really, really, really helpful for me, and really helpful for my team, I think.

George Stocker  52:07  
And the idea is that you only get so many innovation tokens and you know, spending them immediately, you know, you lose that innovation token and now you have fewer to innovate with. And your goal should always be to not innovate, but use what's tried and true where you can. Yeah,

Tess Rinearson  52:26  
or just like, be really deliberate about it. Right? Like basically, I would say the thesis is you want to recognize that doing anything that is innovative, or unusual or different, is going to cost you more mental cycles, more energy as a team to figure out how to make that work and how to like blaze the trail there. And yeah, just be like, be thoughtful about what you choose to do that with.

George Stocker  52:50  
Now Tess, in our in our closing moments, if people want to learn more about you and about what you do, where can they go?

Tess Rinearson  52:57  
Yeah, so my Twitter Is underscore tests are someone else got tests are first. So I have the underscore in front. And our company website is interchange dot Berlin.

And the most interesting link of all, I think is our GitHub repo, which is at tender mint slash tender mint. So that's where I think the most interesting stuff is, is in there. 

George Stocker  53:24  
Awesome Tess. Thank you for joining me today. 

Tess Rinearson  53:27  
Thank you so much. This was this was super fun, and I had a great time. 

George Stocker  53:30  
I enjoyed it. Alright, folks, that's it for this time on the build better software podcast. I'll hope you join me next time. Bye.

Transcribed by

Join our newsletter

checkmark Got it. You're on the list!
© 2020, George Stocker