“What engineers are not getting at their current jobs”: an interview with Lynne Tye

How do you find a job with work/life balance? Most companies won’t tell you “we want you to work long hours” on their careers page, it’s hard to ask, and it’s not like you can go to a job board and search for work/life balance. Until now, that is.

Key Values is a newly launched site that lets you filter jobs by values. Instead of the standard boring “at X we’re passionate about doing Y with technology stack Z” (more on that below), you can search by the things that make a job work or not work for you. That might mean work/life balance, but you can also search for companies that are good for junior devs, or have a flat organization. Different people have different values, and Key Values reflects that.

It’s still early days, so there aren’t a huge number of jobs yet, but I love the concept and wanted to hear more. So I got in touch with Lynne Tye, the creator of Key Values, to hear how she ended up creating such a different, and useful, approach to hiring.

Q. Could you share your background with our readers, how you became a programmer?

LYNNE: I studied brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, then went into a PhD program in neuroscience at UCSF. Two years in, I realized it wasn’t for me, and I dropped out. Then I had a couple of odd jobs while I was soul searching, and a few months later I started working at Homejoy, as an operations manager for the Bay Area, a people manager.

While I was working at Homejoy, I noticed how powerful the engineers were. They could make so much impact with just one line of code, and I always felt frustrated when I needed them to fix a small bug that was making my life a nightmare. What I was doing just wasn’t as scalable, like having lots of 1-on-1 meetings. So after Homejoy, I decided I wanted to learn how to code.

Q. What did you learn from your experience before starting Key Values?

LYNNE: Scientific academia is one of the few industries where there’s a master/apprentice relationship, a very clear structure of mentorship. I think that the way you view relationships, the way you make decisions about joining labs is based on the idea of working relationships that need to be as compatible and symbiotic as possible. A lot of times these mentors stay with you your whole life [like family], your mentor’s mentor is your “grandfather”. I noticed this was lacking when I started doing web development.

After grad school, I was feeling pretty lost and really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I had basically been laser focused on becoming an academic professor and research scientist for the last 6 years and hadn’t once looked up to consider a different career. One of the main frustrations I had with research was how slow it was, and slow it was to get feedback.

The environment at Homejoy gave me all of that. It was intense, exciting, fast-paced, and there was constantly feedback from all directions. At the time, it was my dream job. And I think it just also made me realize that it wasn’t for everyone, but it was perfect for me. It made me realize that everyone has their own set of personal values/goals and it’s so important to find work that aligns with those.

Q. Doesn’t sound like there was much work/life balance at Homejoy.

LYNNE: Hahaha, there definitely wasn’t. But, I didn’t want work/life balance! When I left grad school, I genuinely thought work/life balance was a proxy for laziness, or a lack of passion. Of course, after grinding it out at Homejoy for a year and a half, I burned out quite a bit. Afterwards, I wanted work/life balance for the first time. And I found it in the lifestyle I had as a web freelancer.

Ironically, after a couple of years of having so much work/life balance, I started to miss the excitement and sense of urgency of working a lot. That’s where I am now: I’d feel a little sad if I was on a team and the only one working past 6pm or 7pm.

All of this sharpened my views on finding a new career: you need to know what you want, and you should be picky and demanding when you’re evaluating your options.

Q. As an operations manager at Homejoy you did some of the hiring. What did you look for?

LYNNE: It’s funny to look back at it. I didn’t have the language at the time, I didn’t have the framework or language to say what we were. And hiring was so new to me, I didn’t have any experience with it, I hadn’t really articulated the actual values we had.

It was very [intense], we were not shy about it. Everyone worked really late, really early, and on weekends.it felt really exciting, and I don’t think anyone felt like it was work. We all enjoyed spending lots of time together and had all decided we were willing to make that commitment. At the time, I think I was always looking to hire people similar to the existing team.

Q. It seems many companies can’t articulate what they want?

LYNNE: They can’t. Many employers and job seekers have not taken the time to evaluate who they are, where they’re trying to go in terms of culture, and how that impacts hiring. I view my job as helping teams articulate values. And not only helping them articulate them and write them, but also to challenge them, asking whether they’re translating them into actions, or whether they’re things they just write on their website or on their walls.

Q. One my pet peeves in hiring is the focus on particular technologies. Why do you think hiring managers focus on this so much?

LYNNE: In general I think that job descriptions and the way that people are approaching recruiting and sourcing is outdated, given how much information we all have access to now. Previously it was harder to get information about different employment opportunities, so the biggest differentiators were salary, and do you have experience with hard skills we need today. As time has gone by these things are still important, but people have the ability to compare more teams and have more information to compare them by, and job descriptions haven’t reflected this change.

Software development has changed over the years. I can’t speak from experience, but it’s easier to build things today than it was 20 years. The ability to learn technologies, it wasn’t the same conversation it was 20 years ago. I don’t think it makes sense anymore to talk about experience with a particular technology.

Some companies are happy to have people learn on the job, but people just follow the [job posting] template everyone uses:

  • Generic part about what the company does.
  • Generic part about how much you’ll learn, how much fun it is, how much impact you’ll make.
  • Bullet point with requirements, experience with X, Y, Z technology.
  • And then another set of bullet points about benefits and perks, and not-so-compelling reasons to join the company.

Q. Which brings us to Key Values, where you’re trying to do things differently. What exactly does Key Values do?

LYNNE: I try to help job seekers find teams that share their values.

Q. How did you come up with these values?

LYNNE: I interviewed dozens and dozens of engineers. I noticed it’s challenging for people to articulate or identify what they care about most. And I noticed that as people were telling me what they were looking for, it came with a story about a previous experience they had where their job didn’t have that value, and that brought to light why that was so important them.

After interviewing lots of engineers, I spent time thinking about values, and phrasing them in ways where they would apply to many teams, but not every team. For example, had I had “Mission driven” every single team would have selected it, and it wouldn’t help people differentiate between different teams. And I didn’t want to include values that were specific to one, or even zero teams. It was about striking the balance between those two extremes.

Q. How do you figure out what values the companies have?

LYNNE: Initially, I thought it would be more like research, I wanted to interview every engineer on the team, provide statistics. But I realized it’s not scalable, and I didn’t want to force teams to share information they weren’t comfortable sharing. You’ll never find a team that says “we never eat lunch together, we’re not friends, we’re really not social here” or “we have terrible code quality here.”

By limiting how many values [a team can choose] it tells you what they prioritize. Being limited and being forced to rank [the values they choose] is very informative, it discloses a lot of information implicitly.

Q. On your website you have job listings with these values, and you share with them with world. What can tell you from your data about what engineers care about?

LYNNE: The two things visitors pick most are work/life balance and high quality code base. This is both surprising and not surprising at all. [Next is] “remote ok”, although that is is a property, not a value, and I think that makes sense since I still don’t have that many team profiles on Key Values yet. I also think developers are more and more interested in remote opportunities. Close to that are “flexible work arrangements”, “team is diverse”.

To me, these are an indication of what engineers are not getting at their current jobs.

Q. Why is Key Values the only job board that lets you search based on work/life balance?

LYNNE: I don’t think previously there was a way for teams to truthfully tell whether the team really cared. By having a limited list [of values], and priorities, it lets you see who doesn’t prioritize it, otherwise I think most companies wouldn’t volunteer that information. How would you ask? If you poll companies, I can’t imagine any of them wanting to publicly state that they don’t.

At the end of the day, how you define work/life balance has implications, it’s difficult to categorize these things. Anyone who is reading about it, or talking about, it’s pretty divisive and polarizing. Some people think if you work more than 40 hours a week you don’t have work/life balance, but I would disagree. My goal is to give companies a chance to tell us how they interpret work/life balance, and expose people to different definitions of that term.

Q. What does a sane workweek mean to you?

LYNNE: A sane workweek to me wouldn’t be a good description, I’d say i’m looking for a sane work month. I love working, I consider myself pretty industrious, but the flexibility to decide when I work is more important. Sometimes I want to work a ridiculous amount one week, and then take a few days off, maybe have a long weekend. And that’s just in terms of when I’m working, and how much.

In general I don’t believe in 40 hours a week, because I don’t operate that way. I don’t have as regular of a schedule, and would 100% rather work 60 hours a week if I could decide when and where I can work, as opposed to a 9-5 at the same physical place with no flexibility. I’d feel much more suffocated with the latter.

In terms of a relationship with an employer, I think the most important thing to me is working someplace where they genuinely support and show interest in other aspects of my life. And that they share some of their priorities in life with me. [The means] having a network of people around you who understand who you are as a whole and support all of you, For me, it means a lot to not just talk about work at work, but to really interact with one another as friends too. I know for sure that this isn’t true for everyone, but I prefer to blur the boundary between professional and personal. I don’t like having complete work/life separation.

OK, back to Itamar here: that was my interview, and now I’d like to ask for your help. Key Values is as far as I know the only place where you can search for jobs with work/life balance, or other values you may care about. That’s hugely valuable, and so I want to see Lynne’s project succeed. If you agree, here’s what you can do:

  • Is your company hiring? Get in touch with Lynne and get your company listed.
  • Are you looking for a job, or plan to look for one in the future? Go visit Key Values and sign up for the newsletter: the more people use the site, the easier it’ll be for Lynne to get more companies on board.

You shouldn't have to work evenings or weekends to succeed as a software engineer. Get to a better place by reading The Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.


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