Software Development

Why Bennet Huber is leaving Philly to work at Amazon [Exit Interview]

In his Exit Interview, the programmer tells us about his new gig at Amazon, his proudest accomplishments at Azavea and why he was ready to leave.

Bennet Huber’s scariest moment in tech?

Standing in front of a room of 80 women technologists and confessing his initial fears and insecurities about joining the Philly tech scene.

It was at the second LadyHacks, the women-only hackathon, where Huber was a mentor.

“It was scary as hell, but I felt like I got the message across and maybe even inspired a few to overcome their own fears,” he wrote in his Exit Interview.

After four years as a software developer at Callowhill mapping firm Azavea, Huber, 26, is leaving Philly’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood for Seattle to join Amazon.

Below, he tells us about his new gig, his proudest accomplishments at Azavea and why he was ready to leave.

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How did you come to live and work in Philly and at Azavea?

I grew up in Lower Merion and after graduating from Penn State in 2010 I was unemployed and a little burned out from four years of academia, so I moved back in with my parents in Rosemont.

Over the summer I was ostensibly looking for a job, but I didn’t particularly want one and I had some money saved up from internships so I wasn’t looking very hard. My father, William Huber, had actually known Azavea CEO Robert Cheetham for several years at that point, as they both work in GIS. He saw Azavea had an opening for a software developer there and encouraged me to apply. After reading the job description, I immediately dismissed it as a possibility, as I was qualified for approximately half of it.

Come fall I had started looking for work a little more seriously but still hadn’t found anything that really excited me. My father was attending Azavea’s 10th birthday party and invited me along: “Even if it doesn’t work out you’ll still get free food and beer.”

I was immediately introduced to Robert and eventually started talking to Abby Fretz, who was then a project manager at Azavea. I told her my background and mentioned I hadn’t applied for the Software Developer position — which was still open — because I didn’t feel qualified. She informed me that the job description was more of a wishlist than a requirements list and highly encouraged me to apply.

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I was very excited about the culture, office space and developers I met at the party, so a week later I did. The rest is history. Azavea was the only place I applied during my job search.

What will you be doing at Amazon? How did you decide to make the move?

I will be working on a machine-learning team on the retail site responsible for setting prices and choosing sellers for the “Buy Now” button. I don’t know much beyond that.

Towards the end of my time at Azavea, it became clear to both me and Robert [Cheetham] that it was no longer the right place for me. I never really enjoyed web development, I much prefer algorithm development, optimization, high performance computing, that kind of thing. While I was still learning how to do it, the learning itself was fun, however, the more competence I gained the more boring it became.

Azavea does some pretty cool algorithms stuff behind the scenes on many of their projects, but there wasn’t enough to keep me happy. A web developer who doesn’t enjoy web development is not a very good combination.

As for leaving Philly, I’ve spent most of my life here and decided it was time for a change. I’m unemployed, my lease is ending and two of my best friends are moving to England, so now is the perfect time for it. I still love this city, but I’ve become too comfortable here and need a change of pace.

Anything that could have been done to keep you here?

Probably not, see above.

What was your proudest accomplishment at Azavea?

In May 2013, the Justice and Election Services team at Azavea shrank to two developers — me and Kenny Shepard, the tech lead. We had way more work in the pipeline than we could accomplish ourselves, so over the course of the next year Kenny and I hired and trained four more developers. We worked hard to increase team cohesion and define our core philosophies about software development so we could work better as a team. By the time I left a year later, it was far and away the best group of people I’ve ever worked with. I’m immensely proud of the quality of the team we put together — both the individuals and as a unit.

What’s your favorite tech scene memory from your time in Philly?

In March 2013, I participated as a mentor in the women’s only LadyHacks hackathon. I was barred from participating because of my gender (how sexist of them!) so I figured that was the next best thing. The entire experience was very enjoyable: I’ve always liked teaching and explaining things, so a room full of people eager to learn something I’m very good at was a lot of fun.

One thing I hadn’t realized when I volunteered, however, was the mentors were each expected to speak for a few minutes about their experiences at hackathons. I had hoped this meant we’d all sit at a table while people were working and nobody would be paying attention. Alas, they had us stand on a stage in the conference room one at a time with a microphone during lunch.

The primary goal of LadyHacks is to get more women involved in the tech scene, and one of the biggest obstacles to this is overcoming the fear that one isn’t competent or knowledgeable enough to warrant inclusion in something like a hackathon, where all the other participants are supposedly expert programmers who dream in code. I decided therefore to talk about my own fears and insecurities about joining the Philly tech scene, which prevented me from doing so until I had been a professional programmer for over a year.

When my turn at the mic came, I did exactly that. I stood in front of 80 women as the only male in the room and talked about my personal fears and insecurities I had never shared with anyone. It was scary as hell, but I felt like I got the message across and maybe even inspired a few to overcome their own fears.

Can you share a lesson with us that you’ve learned during your time in Philly?

Don’t waste your time doing things you don’t like. Identify the things in your life that suck and change them, even if those changes are difficult or painful. Don’t wait for the perfect time to do so — months turn to years, a temporary situation to a permanent one, all in the blink of an eye. Life is too short to waste waiting for it to get better: make it better.

Will you be back?

My parents, most of my friends and about a dozen members of my extended family live in the Philly area. I’ll be visiting for sure.

Companies: Amazon, Azavea
People: Bennet Huber
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