Why Vistar Media engineer Derek Mansen believes in 'floundering around' on a problem - Technical.ly Philly

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Jan. 23, 2017 10:58 am

Why Vistar Media engineer Derek Mansen believes in ‘floundering around’ on a problem

Mansen, an early employee at the adtech company, gives us an inside look at Vistar's engineering team.
Software engineer Derek Mansen (right) with Vistar Media cofounder Mark Chadwick.

Software engineer Derek Mansen (right) with Vistar Media cofounder Mark Chadwick.

(Courtesy photo)

Derek Mansen embodies what it means to be a software engineer at Vistar Media.

He’s bright, quirky and eager to share both his love for improv comedy and tact for technical problem solving. He’s been with Vistar for three years, since its early Center City rowhouse days, and he’s seen the company evolve from five developers to multiple project-based teams.

We talked to Mansen about how working at Vistar is like doing improv comedy, the team’s affinity for “classical software engineering practices” and how new hires have impressed him.

Vistar is currently hiring software engineers

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What has surprised you at Vistar? What have you learned from your experiences with the team?

I do improv comedy. Working at a startup is like being part of a good improv team. You generally know what’s going on with the business, but during the day to day, you don’t. Sometimes I’m going to come in and straight up do not know what I’m going to have to do.

You’re taking leaps all the time. I’m constantly giving answers to things I don’t know. I’m constantly trying as best I can before saying, “We’re just going to do this.”

You trust that your team will be able to support you when you mess up and you’re ready to change course at any moment. I think there’s a level of panic that happens sometimes that is also true on stage. We throw away code and ideas constantly because someone will come in and say, “Well, this is better,” and there’s no reason to stick to something if it’s not as good. Why are we so wedded to what we thought it was yesterday?

How would you describe Vistar Media’s work culture?

Our culture is different from many startups. We get our work done. It’s quiet, we have interesting problems and we cut out a lot of the hype. We’re a good company that works on solid projects. It’s as not as fun as saying, “We have slides.” We do have a lot of hobbyists doing different things at the company. We all get together for lunch around twice a week.

Tell us more about the day to day at Vistar. How are your teams set up and how do you solve problems together?

Anyone who has worked in an agile software company will be familiar with the day to day. You have your task for the day — you’re either writing code or addressing feedback you get from other people. The code review and peer feedback loop is an always-present thing.

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When I tell people about Vistar, I like saying, “We’re doing the things you probably learned about while you were in college that are classical software engineering practices that you read about in books written in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”

"You become a good engineer by making mistakes and finding the point where you messed up and understanding why."
Derek Mansen

Testing is so huge here. We have such strong checks on each other through code review. We don’t have the business [side] coming in and cutting the rug out under the engineering team, so we aren’t expected to deliver something that’s incomplete.

Our teams are very product-focused. There’s a shared base of technology that everyone uses, like our geospatial tech. One team is more of a UI team that could be defined by “here’s how our people set up their campaigns.” There’s also a team for how ad serving is handled and a future forecasting or inventory management team. We don’t have a Javascript team or a backend team. Rather, we expect everyone to do a little bit of everything. You affect other things when you write code.

We have a daily stand up meeting at noon where we do our updates. There’s a balance between letting people learn things on their own and getting the help they need. There are many communications channels available. You can get someone to sit down with you and work through something so that you’re not going to be in your own head. We think there’s a lot of value in floundering around and messing up and realizing why you took that path. You become a good engineer by making mistakes and finding the point where you messed up and understanding why. There’s time built in to do that.

Vistar is looking for software engineers to join the team. How could someone new joining Vistar be super impressive?

I’m always impressed when someone comes in and can very quickly diagnose a problem. That’s really impressive to me. It’s such a strong indicator that someone’s going to be talented and productive.

I’m always impressed by what people are working on soon after they arrive, especially if it’s a complicated thing I’d expect a more senior person to work on. We take pride in “anyone should be able to do anything.” People pick up difficult tasks here and it may take them a little longer.

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Companies: Vistar Media
People: Derek Mansen
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