Climbing the engineering ladder at Azavea - Technical.ly Philly

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Climbing the engineering ladder at Azavea

Engineer James Santucci reflects on how he got started and how far he’s come at the geospatial software company after five years.

Azavea's Callowhill office.

(Courtesy photo)

In 2015, a presentation by an Azavea engineer on Norwegian taxi data changed the course of James Santucci’s career.

“I was fresh out of college and really excited about new technologies and big data,” Santucci said. “It was really impressive that someone could any sort of problem and bundle it up into a presentation because of what Azavea’s technologies enabled.”

The presentation, held at a GeoPhilly event, introduced Santucci to Azavea and its mission: leveraging geospatial data to help problem-solve issues and do good in a wide range of communities.

In June 2016, he officially joined the team — and even made an impression by presenting his own web app, “Tour de Taco Bell.” As part of Azavea’s interview process, Santucci presented the application he built, which mapped cycling routes based on nearby Taco Bell locations.

Santucci was promoted in February of this year and is now a senior engineer on the Raster Foundry team, which analyzes aerial shots of land to deliver partners actionable data that answers agriculture and infrastructure questions. His senior position also allows him to mentor new engineers and help them grow into their roles, similar to the guidance Santucci received when he joined Azavea.

Not only has Azavea given him the opportunity to move up the company’s career ladder, but also the flexibility to move west so he can live with his partner, whose job industry includes frequent relocation. Santucci was based in Philly when he started at the company but has since transitioned to full-time remote work in Chicago and now Denver, where he enjoys climbing on the weekend. He even spent a few months working in Naples, Italy.

The positive environment at Azavea helped Santucci transition to full-time remote work across different time zones, he said.

“Once you’re established and you’ve got a good rapport with your team and you’ve proven you can work well with everybody, then it’s pretty easy,” he added. “People largely just want you to do what’s right for your life.”

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Santucci shares more details about his day-to-day as a senior engineer and, overall, what it’s like to be an Azavean.

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What does your daily workflow look like? 

My days start with our team’s scrum and talk about what we’re working on. I’ll chat with our team’s apprentice in the afternoon about his learning process. We’re onboarding a new engineering lead as well, so there’s a lot of collaborative problem-solving happening. I’m also on the frontline for user support, since I’ve been on the team for a while, and outside of that, I focus on normal development and write code to solve problems.

James Santucci. (Courtesy photo)

Coming from a non-technical background, what was your learning process like when you were onboarded? 

I have an economics degree and taught myself a good chunk of Python. I didn’t have people to learn from at previous jobs, and that was really frustrating. Having someone to learn from at Azavea was intimidating but also magical. Instead of having to sit down and bang your head against something until either it gives or you do, having somebody to whom you can say “Hey, I’m having trouble with this” was extremely significant for me.

It was the first time that I worked in an environment where I was expected to need time to learn and also given time and people to learn from.

What’s one trait potential Azaveans should possess? 

An ability to evaluate tradeoffs for different options is important. You can learn technical skills, but it’s harder to look at a complex problem and break down the different pieces and how the solutions to one or two of them might be at odds with each other.

We’ve been told Azavea is a community of learners. When you’re not working, what are you up to?

I like to play board games, like the Pandemic Legacy board games and have enjoyed the virtual board game nights that Azavea has put on.

Also, one of the reasons that we moved from Denver to Chicago in the middle of the pandemic is that we thought mountains might be better than the plains of the Midwest. We hike a lot on weekends, and my partner and I are also both climbers. Plus, I bought the parts to build a drone, but I never actually started. I don’t know if that one counts.

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