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You could say that Rich Leland spends most of his time with developers on his mind. Whether he's overseeing his team of developers, creating developer relations strategies, or writing content for developers, he's working to make sure SparkPost's developer community is the best it can be. We caught up with Rich to learn more about how he started coding, his experience with recruiters, and where he sees the world of technology going in 10 years.

When and how did you get started programming?

Back in 1997, I was lucky enough to get hired at a design shop that had some web clients. The web was way different back then, so the only “programming” I was doing was HTML. By 2002 I was working for an ad agency and started delving into JavaScript and then server-side programming with ASP and PHP.

Tell us a little bit about your current role. What does a typical day look like for you?

I’m currently the Director of Growth Engineering at SparkPost. I head up the team that’s responsible for the developer-focused self-serve business and developer relations. On a typical day, I work with my team and coordinate with our product management, marketing, and support teams to ensure that the SparkPost community continues to thrive. We have a daily standup where we talk about the day ahead and then get to work. On any given day we’re working with our community via Slack, building and deploying new features, performing R&D, and talking through user experience (among other things).

What are the unique challenges you face as Director of Growth Engineering?

Having a good balance of keeping our current community active, engaged, and successful while looking forward and ensuring the growth of our service and its community is challenging for sure. We’re very focused on our community of developers, which takes time and dedication. There are only so many people on the team, which means we have to be disciplined about how we spend our time working with our awesome community as well as building the features/functionality they are asking for.

Communication is challenging as a team grows as well. I’ve seen the team grow from four engineers to a small army. Keeping everyone in sync, from a code as well as a general information perspective, both within the team and across the company, is something we’re constantly working on.


Tell us a bit about your previous roles and how they lead the path for where you are today.

I started my career as a designer doing identity, print and web work. I was at a small design shop in Baltimore that actually had clients who were paying for websites so that naturally led to building up my skills with web development.

From there I moved on to Planit, an ad agency that’s still around today, as an interactive designer and developer where I got to work on a wide variety of projects from Flash-based websites to event kiosks to learning tools. It was at Planit that I first started getting familiar with JavaScript and I also became obsessed with the web standards movement thanks to Zeldman’s awesome “Designing With Web Standards” book. I continued to hone my web development skills over the next few years and started dabbling with server-side programming, starting off with PHP.

Next, I landed an awesome gig at Discovery Channel where I worked with their internal ad agency. It was here that I really started growing as a developer. An interactive team was formed within the agency, and I was doing a mix of design, development, sysadmin - you name it. We were in many ways like a mini-startup within the company - nimble, fast, execution-focused. I started working with Python, which would become my primary language for the next few years. I spent some brief time at National Geographic working on their Django-based CMS before heading back to Discovery to do some great work on their main web properties including Discovery, TLC, and Animal Planet.

Through this experience I met Chris McFadden, who years later would get me to my current position at SparkPost. My first two years at SparkPost were spent architecting and building the service out using technologies including Node.js, Angular, RabbitMQ, Cassandra, Vertica, and AWS. All of these past experiences have helped me transition into my current role directing a team of consisting of engineers, dev advocates, and designers.

What’s your favorite part of being a developer?

Two things - first, the people, by far, are my favorite part of being a developer. I’ve been really lucky to work with some of the smartest people on the planet from varied backgrounds. I love working with people who challenge me to be a better developer and aren’t afraid to try something new or challenge assumptions.

Second, the challenge. I love the art of building something complex enough to handle scaling while remaining maintainable. I’m a huge fan of using the right technology for the task at hand, and I let the challenges inform my technology decisions.

What has been your experience applying to jobs, interviewing, and working with recruiters?

In my experience, working hard and building a good network are the single most important aspects of keeping your options open when it comes to finding a job. Once I built up a network, showed that I could do the work, opportunities tended to present themselves.

Interviewing is super inconsistent. I’m a huge fan of evaluating cultural fit and potential as higher priority than raw experience or skill. That said, I’ve been in technical interviews where I totally bombed based on questions around computer science fundamentals (I don’t have a college degree), and others where I felt the interview process was a cakewalk. Each company has its own way of finding talent. Most of the time it comes down to a good fit in both directions.

Regarding recruiters, I got one of my best jobs through a recruiter working at Discovery, which I see as a taking-off point for my career. I can empathize with recruiters - they have a very hard job to do. If you’re using a recruiter (or being pursued by one), try to understand if they’re genuinely interested in finding a good fit for you or just making a quota. The best recruiters I’ve interacted with have focus and a depth of understanding of both the company they are recruiting for and the type of candidates they’re looking for.

What’s something you wish employers knew about developers?

We get bored really easily. I’ve been lucky enough to find a place that is extremely mentally engaging and open to new ideas. Maintaining an environment where there are lots of opportunities to grow and be challenged is key to retaining talent.

Where do you see the world of technology in 10 years?

I think AI and data analysis will continue to expand. Automation around intelligence has some pretty cool, albeit scary, implications. I also like what I’m seeing regarding the swing back to functional programming languages like Haskell and Elixir and I think you’ll see that impact the scalability and breadth of web applications. One thing I’ve been impressed with in recent years, both as a developer and a father is that there are a whole lot of people learning more and learning it sooner than I ever did, so I’m excited to see what the next generation of developers does with all that knowledge.

To keep up with Rich, you can follow him on Twitter.

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