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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

This Tech Leader Quit Law School to Become an Engineer—and the Career Pivot Paid Off

Andrew Shen, an engineering manager at Column
Andrew Shen, an engineering manager at Column.
| Courtesy of Column

Andrew Shen was in between his first and second years of law school when his curiosity got the best of him—and changed the course of his career path. During a summer law clerk position, he was writing a legal brief and found himself frustrated with the technology at his disposal to help him complete the work.

“Being curious and enterprising, and—perhaps more importantly—naive, I convinced myself that I could teach myself how to program quickly enough to hack together a software solution to help me with some of the more tedious tasks,” he says. “I completely overestimated myself and it ended up being a lot more difficult than I imagined.”

Shen never did finish writing that program—but the exercise ignited a passion for solving real-world problems through software. Instead of returning to law school, he pursued a career in engineering (and even founded and sold his own startup). Today, he’s the Engineering Manager of Data Utility at Column, a growing company that is modernizing the public notice process for newspapers.

“Interestingly enough, during law school, I did have first-hand experience with public notices, so joining Column was almost like coming full circle,” he says.

Here, Shen talks about how he’s helping to solve a real-world problem, why managers should own up to their mistakes, and Column’s approach to work-life balance.

What initially attracted you to apply for your role at Column?

Initially, I was drawn to the problems that Column is solving. Public notice and public information are both incredibly important to maintaining a healthy democratic society and I was looking for the chance to work on something that could have a tangible positive impact on the world. I actually have had less than stellar experiences placing public notices in the past and when I found out that Column was on a mission to make that process better, I reached out right away. The chance to help build and manage a new team within Column seemed like the perfect opportunity for me!

What are the core responsibilities as the Engineering Manager of Data Utility?

The engineering manager role is a very interesting one and it constantly changes. Some days I might be heads down writing code, another day I might be researching or meeting with stakeholders and partners, and yet another day might be dedicated to recruiting or project management. Most days I have to be very deliberate in identifying where I’ll have the greatest impact at any given time. In the end, my most important responsibility is making sure the team is aligned on goals and that everyone is empowered to be able to do their work, whether that means removing roadblocks, providing technical guidance, or having one-on-one meetings.

As a recent hire at Column, what were the interview and onboarding processes like? What can engineering candidates expect?

The interview and onboarding processes were very smooth and there was a great degree of personal touch involved. I had the chance to meet with folks across the organization and was able to get a good sense of the culture through various conversations. We want all interviews to be positive experiences and I can say that mine definitely was!

An engineering candidate can expect to learn about the problems we’re solving and our engineering processes and culture. There will be a couple of practical and technical sessions aimed to give a feel for what it would be like to work here. These tend to be fun and challenging.

What are your short- and long-term goals at Column?

In the short term, my goal is to lay the foundations of a strong team that can grow well into the future, which will require recruiting the right folks and helping to set up the right processes. In the long-term, I’d like to have done my part in building out a data platform that truly adds value to the world through making public interest information more accessible.

What makes Column a great place to work, especially for tech professionals?

When I think about what makes a company a great place to work, the first things that come to mind are the people, the mission, and the problem space. Column has all three in abundance! The problems we’re working on aren’t easy to solve, but they are incredibly important and address real problems. Everyone I’ve met at Column is talented and brings their own experiences to the table. Moreover, everyone is willing to share and help others grow. We’re a very mission-driven group of technologists and it’s an absolute blast to collaborate with everyone here. It’s the combination of these that really gets me up in the morning.

Tell us about your experience founding a startup. What did you learn from developing a company, and how do you apply these lessons in your current position?

Working at a startup requires wearing multiple hats and that applies just as much when building and managing a new team. At any given time, there are a number of different priorities demanding my attention, from researching and keeping up to date with the latest trends to recruiting, project management, code contributions, etc. To be able to accomplish anything not only requires laser focus and grit, but also the flexibility and agility to pivot when our hypotheses aren’t correct. But most importantly, building a successful startup or team requires hard work and dedication from talented people working in concert to achieve a common goal. It's hard to build great software or a great company without great people.

How do you practice work-life balance? Are there any related benefits or perks that you take advantage of at Column?

I really enjoy the outdoors—running, hiking, or biking—and listening to and playing music. At Column, we take work-life balance seriously and we’re supportive of folks that need a break. I feel empowered to take time off to recharge whenever I need it, whether that means going on an afternoon walk or taking a day off to spend time with loved ones. We also have a company perk called Column Adventures, which is essentially a stipend to let us pursue things that make us “whole.” For me that usually means buying a new piece of audio gear like a guitar pedal or a nicer pair of headphones.

What are the keys to being a successful manager?

I’ve done a lot of reflection on what it means to be a good engineering manager. An effective EM has to have the requisite skills to lead a technical team, the resolution to make decisions and execute on them, the flexibility to adapt to situations while remaining calm in the middle of any storm, the experience necessary to navigate the entire product cycle, and the project management skills to keep things on course.

But most importantly, I think being a truly great manager requires empathy, transparency, and honesty. I’ve found that the best managers have fostered an inclusive environment where folks are able to not only do their best, but are also empowered to grow. To do so requires leading by example, and I believe that it is incredibly important for managers to be transparent and not pass the buck. This means being open about the decisions we make, holding ourselves accountable, and owning up to our mistakes when they inevitably happen so that everyone can learn from them. A successful manager has the trust of their team and vice versa and that is something I aspire to achieve.

What’s one positive change you’ve made to your workday routine since COVID?

Eating breakfast. Historically, I have not been a big breakfast person, but now my wife and I have made an effort to wake up earlier to make a nice hearty breakfast to start the day and it has made all the difference!

You’re organizing a dinner party with your biggest role models. Who’s invited and what will you talk about?

My late dad, Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, and Homer Simpson. When I was a kid, my dad ran a video store and he was a lifelong fan of Forrest Gump, Coming to America, and The Simpsons. I would love nothing more than to sit at a table with them and talk about nothing important.