Azavea, a mapping firm with offices in the Callowhill area of Philadelphia, is hiring a Software Engineer for its Geospatial Insights Team.
You’ll do client work — the team’s clientele includes the World Bank and the Nature Conservancy — and you’ll work on Azavea products, including law enforcement software Hunchlab (check out some of our coverage of Hunchlab here) and legislative districting software DistrictBuilder. You’ll join a six-person team, which includes Project Manager Tyler Gilcrest, Hunchlab Product Manager and Senior Data Scientist Jeremy Heffner, whom we spoke to for this feature on Hunchlab back in 2011, and Senior Engineer and hackathon participant Christopher Brown.
Take a look at Azavea’s job description for the role, and below, find the Technical.ly Talent take on the job description. We spoke to Azavea Software Engineers Derek Dohler and Alice Rottersman. Dohler works on the Geospatial Insights Team, while Rottersman works on the civic apps team.
Azavea employees get to spend 10 percent of their work time on research that applies to the company, which is defined broadly: You couldn’t spend it learning a foreign language but you could spend it learning how to use Zappa, which Rottersman is doing right now, or contributing to open source projects. Dohler’s first research project was trying to use genetic algorithms to design bus routes, which, he admits, “didn’t work very well.”
That’s a tell-tale sign that you’re a good learner, says Dohler. He says the Azavea team is full of people with interests outside software development: one person is a meteorologist, others are political science junkies (and hackathon frequenters), while Dohler himself has a law degree and likes studying the Georgian language.
Though engineers aren’t always working directly with clients (project managers serve as a buffer), they do have to be interested in a client’s needs and how best to fulfill them under certain constraints. Dohler and Rottersman explain it like this: Sometimes a client doesn’t know exactly what they want. Or sometimes a client thinks they want something but you’ll know that it’s not the best choice. And engineers are also thinking about budget constraints, like what’s the most efficient way to get this done in order to stay under budget?
Azavea’s different teams don’t have specific roles like “Front End Engineer” or “Database Engineer.” Everyone is expected to do some of each, Dohler said. He says it’s a mix of doing things that you’re good at and can do quickly and doing things that you’re not that comfortable with (yet).
“The B Corp stuff is not just a marketing gimmick,” Dohler says. “That actually influences the work we take.” He’s talking about how Azavea is certified as a Benefit Corporation, which means the company meets B Corp’s standards of a “triple bottom line”: social responsibility, sustainability and profitability. You don’t need to be thinking about this all the time, but these kinds of matters may come up in your day to day, Dohler said.
So we had to ask, are you testing for ethics and morals in an interview? Dohler laughed. No, they’re not asking any “You’re on a speeding train …” hypotheticals. But if you’re, say, rude to the company’s administrative staffers, that’s not going to be a good look.
Both Rottersman and Dohler said they didn’t have any GIS experience when they came to Azavea. “I didn’t even really know which direction north was,” Rottersman says, laughing. Similarly, she said her team uses React on projects and before joining Azavea, she had never used React professionally before. So don’t fret over not knowing certain frameworks or languages. What the team is really looking for is people who are willing to learn.
“We don’t have scaling issues,” Dohler said. “We’re more of a boutique shop.” If you want to work on a product that will be handling thousands of users, this isn’t the place for you.
Wrote Rottersman in an email to us: “I think there’s sometimes a spectrum of ‘old company with lots of legacy code written in a common language like Java or C#’ and ‘usually smaller company that uses maybe lesser adopted languages or whatever is ‘hot’ at the moment.’ Azavea, I think, has a balance. Some of our projects have been going for a while; my team, for example, does have a C# project. Most developers though stay in touch with what’s ‘hot’ (10% time is helpful for this), and we try to pick whatever language/framework is appropriate for the job when starting up new projects.”
— Juliana Reyes
Azavea is on the map for the company’s mobile and web geospatial data applications. Employees say the client-based and internal projects are the most challenging they’ve ever taken on. It’s not surprising; Azavea has taken on projects with the U.S. Department of Energy, The World Bank and NASA.
The 65-person company doesn’t view “company culture” as ping pong tables and happy hours, though both have a place in its office in the Callowhill neighborhood of Philadelphia. Instead, “culture” is a reflection of the values the company already has. When the company was established in 2001, founders Robert Cheetham and Rachel Cheetham-Richard considered forming a nonprofit company but came to the conclusion that it’s possible to be a for profit company that’s not only for profit. B Corp certified, Azavea is committed to improving the world. The commitment is reflected in projects like NYC TreesCount! for NYC Parks, GoPhillyGo for the Clean Air Council or OpenDataPhilly. If it harms communities or the environment, they’ll pass, even when evaluating new business opportunities.
The growing company treats its employees with the same respect. In addition to a generous set of benefits, team members successfully balance hobbies, family and friends — and take their vacation days. Azavea’s culture is democratic throughout the hiring process and allocation of profits — at least 2 percent a year — to nonprofit organizations. Every team member has a voice at the table.
The office itself is as open-minded and inclusive as the company. Meetings are held in the expansive kitchen or smaller rooms named after cities. Visitors may find Azaveans tucked in the library nook or collaborating in the open floor plan. Employees often stop to talk around the healthy snacks selection (an idea submitted during Azavea’s annual meeting to solicit feedback from employees) on the kitchen island.
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