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Collaborative Coding Culture: A Conversation with Company CTO, Keola Malone

The key to optimizing any company’s productivity and employee-satisfaction is grounded leadership. At Underground Elephant, the person charged with that important job is our CTO, Keola Malone, whose experience as a technologist has helped him to facilitate a workspace that encourages developers to push themselves and run with their ideas. We caught up with Keola to discuss the progressive work environment at UE, ways of handling the short and long-term challenges facing a growing company, and how his style of management has helped us evolve alongside the innovative, enterprise-grade solutions developed here.

What makes coding at UE exciting?

Our developers are really in-tune with the business side of things. A lot of that was born from the way the company has evolved over time. We weren’t a SaaS company to start with –we were building technology for our internal teams to use. The rapid fire iteration of technology had developers literally working alongside the users of the software, which allowed them to see what they were creating in real-time. As we’ve matured, that style of working closely with users hasn’t changed. To work with a business owner on an idea, and then see it in production weeks later is an exhilarating experience for a developer.

How would you describe the working environment for developers at UE?

It’s open and collaborative. Our developers aren’t tied to their desks or to set schedules. When I meet new candidates, I often hear about dev shops where management tries to control how you develop and what languages you develop in. Here, our work environment is structured in a way that allows anyone with good ideas the opportunity to run with it — or at least be heard and validated.

I like to make sure that our developers are always engaged. One of the things that I worry about and try to combat is complacency, by making sure that nobody here is stuck at a point where they’re not feeling challenged by what they’re working on. Part of making a good team is putting people in the right places.

All the developers here are very smart, and they have different strengths and weaknesses. It’s about communicating with each developer, making sure they’re where they want to be to magnify their strengths. You also want everyone to be in a place where they can work together without disrupting speed to market or deliverables.

Finding that right balance and including time for the developers to be free and creative is also a challenge. We work Dev Days into the sprints, to give them a chance to let loose without meetings or anything blocking that process, which is tough to negotiate with the business side of UE.

How difficult is it for you to separate being a developer from being a leader?

It was a challenge at first. Early on in the career of a developer and a technologist, but very specifically as a coder, you prove your worth and value through the code you write and the things you build. That used to be a very simple thing for me, because what I built had immediate value that was tangible. As you move from being a coder/developer into being a manager, you have to ensure that your whole team is producing value. It’s a challenge for any developer moving into a leadership role to pull themselves away from the keyword and add value at a higher level. It also helps to still find time to code, even if it is on nights and weekends.

Where I have really excelled as a manager is being able to hire people with strengths and weaknesses that complement one another, including my own. Each developer is able to hone his or her craft with the confidence that their teammates’ respective specialties will fill in the gaps. We have hardcore techs that are always on the pulse of new, bleeding edge technologies that range across the spectrum. Together we are able to continually adapt and innovate.

How would you describe your management style?

I have a good relationship with everyone on the team. I don’t like to be controlling and I don’t like to micromanage. As I mentioned, I’ve done a good job of hiring people that are smarter than me and part of that is letting them be smarter than me. Trust and transparency are important to me — I don’t want anyone to feel like they are just a cog in the machine.

One of the things we’ve always preached here is to look for ways to replace yourself. While it might seem counter-intuitive to “work yourself out of a job”, empowering people to take on more responsibility has allowed me to tackle larger, complex problems, and shape the vision and strategy of the company from a tech standpoint. So, delegating and looking for ways to replace yourself is a constructive criticism I have for everyone on my team. It gets people thinking at an elevated level, and it also creates an environment where everyone is looking to teach and learn.

What’s your biggest daily challenge?

Right now, it’s managing how quickly we’re scaling. We’re growing fast, which is a good problem to have, but we also want to make sure we are building things the right way. Part of that is finding and recruiting the right people, which is an ongoing process for us.

What can potential developers do to prepare for an interview at Underground Elephant? What qualities do you look for in a new hire?

There’s the normal qualities that everyone looks for: experience and the ability to learn and grow. Culture is obviously important to us as a company. We have this environment that is open and collaborative, so making sure they’ll play well in that environment is something that we keep in mind.

But there’s also intangible qualities that I look for. The best way to explain is to liken these qualities to music, where you have people who are multi-instrumentalists. When you talk to someone with that ability, you get a sense that they understand music as a whole. It’s the same with development. There are certain developers that you talk to and you just know they’re going to get it, no matter what programming language or platform that they’re in. Those intangibles are the things that really stand out.

* In 2015, Keola Malone was a finalist for San Diego Magazine’s Top Tech Exec Award. You can follow him on twitter @therealkeola

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