Welcome to the Bear Flag Day in the Life blog series, in which we showcase our talented team members – and look behind the scenes at what it’s like to work at Bear Flag HQ. This week, we sat down with Bear Flag Product Engineer Manager Andrew Deal, who initially started as a software engineer at the company 18 months ago. Here, we talk to Andrew about his invaluable philosophy degree, how it ties to software development, and his first experience in AgTech.
You’ve been a software engineer for almost six years, but when did you realize you wanted to become one?
In a previous life, I owned and operated a fitness studio focused on empowering company executives and high-powered professionals to reach health goals and design sustainable lifestyles. To meet the demands of their schedule and offer effective habit formation tools, I spent much of my time researching digital tools that would enable me to measure and track behavior change over time. I quickly found a shortage of products to solve the pain points I wrestled with, so, I decided to pick up just enough software development chops to spin up a couple of prototypes.
What began as a small diversion became a full-blown passion in short order. Eventually, I realized that creating digital products carried a leverage and level of impact at scale that excited me. Shortly thereafter, I sold my business and attended a coding bootcamp in San Francisco – within months of graduation. I somehow managed to convince folks I could ship code and haven’t looked back since!
You graduated Cum Laude from George Mason University with a degree in philosophy, and also studied at Oxford University. Could you tell us a little bit more about your educational background?
Like most young folks, I knew I wanted to have an outsized impact, but I wasn’t quite sure what form that would or could take. In the absence of a degree that immediately spoke to me, I spent my first year of university exploring different options, and stumbled upon a Symbolic Logic seminar class that opened my eyes to the power of critical thought and thinking from first principles.
Without a ton of foresight, I knew that this introduction could expand out and inform me of how to think for myself. And so, I began a world tour into some of the most influential thinkers throughout history. The sheer gamut of mental models I absorbed during that journey gave me insights I previously didn’t know was possible. Unknown unknowns that once visible, fundamentally shifted how I saw other people, meaning itself and the kind of impact I could have on others.
At St. Catherine’s College in particular, I learned the nuances of rounding out major blind spots through Oxford’s tutorial system. Going head-to-head with seasoned thinkers brought a level of immersion that expedited my development into a level of comprehension I continue to push today.
“Philosophy is essentially thinking about thinking, or, as is in vogue today, metacognition. This domain is incredibly influential on how one approaches any other domain – including software development. Looking back, it’s probably the best degree I could have hoped for, relative to a career in Tech. Serendipity at its best!”
Prior to Bear Flag, you’ve had quite a bit of experience; but this is your first time working for an AgTech company, could you tell us more about your past experiences? How did you decide to be part of Bear Flag?
“Since entering Tech, I’ve focused on joining high-growth, promising companies where I can work alongside high-functioning folks and contribute towards high-impact missions.”
This directive brought me first to Twitch, an Amazon-owned live streaming platform, and subsequently to Over Inc. (acquired by GoDaddy), a digital design platform, with an intermediary period of independent consulting. Across these tours of duty, I learned the effort behind powering experiences for millions of users, the frameworks necessary to go zero-to-one in discovering product-market fits, and lastly the importance of delighting users. Luckily, I had a former colleague who cued me into his work at Bear Flag along the way.
“The value of autonomous tractors was, and is, self-evident that upon first hearing of the idea, I very quickly wanted to know more.”
After learning about the upcoming challenges and the assembled team to solve them, I knew Bear Flag had to be my next work home.
“Put simply, the magic of Bear Flag is the combination of great minds solving a problem that impacts billions.”
As the saying goes, everyone has to eat. And it feels incredibly rewarding to play a pivotal role in that unfolding story.
What is a normal day like for a product engineering manager at Bear Flag? Could you walk us through your daily routine, duties, and tasks?
We’re still a startup! And as such, our core team of engineers (robotics, web, and embedded) are very accustomed to working cross functionally to ensure the right problems are tackled to drive impact. We emphasize clear communication with varying audiences to ensure we don’t operate in silos. Tactically, this means that we collaborate often and early.
Through daily standups and weekly sprints, we make sure to talk through any blockers and surface pain points as soon as they arise. Then, we chase the pain down to ensure feature velocity increases over time. We’re also mindful that there is a huge priority on focus work, and minimize context switches wherever possible. All of our software engineers have the autonomy to set their own schedules so that others know when to engage or not. And we defer to async communication wherever necessary.
“At Bear Flag, we firmly believe that engineers should have the agency beyond schedules to surface problems, identify feature scopes and follow through with the execution thereof. This guiding principle enables us to match bottom-up and top-down situational awareness to avoid solving problems with no grounding relative to the real problems we face.”
As one can imagine, this kind of workflow results in a flexible daily flow that has engineers engaged in technical design discussions, customer interviews, pair programming sessions, or deep work periods, based on the needs of the moment (but ideally not all in the same day!). We have found that our engineers thrive in this environment as it certainly keeps things interesting and dynamic.
What’s it like to work at Bear Flag? Which Bear Flag software development domains are your favorite and least favorites?
To sum it up in two words: never dull. Our core domains span Robotics, DevOps, Networking, Cloud Computing, IoT, and Frontend Applications.
“Far from unique, I have found a deep passion for each of these areas. We often say that we hire T-shaped individuals here at Bear Flag — deep expertise in a given realm while curious about many others. Folks who understand and develop in a few-to-several key domains tend to build better software. This domain interdependence enables us to thread systems together, understand, and manage dependencies while tying all our effort back to customer value.”
A great case study of this is our telemetry / teleoperations relay architecture, which is built with websockets to facilitate real-time communication to/from field operations for remote monitors. The relay touches each part of the stack from the customer to our onboard robotics software system. Paying into this setup requires intimate awareness of the subtleties around the cloud compute leg, the client-side leg, and, of course, the onboard tractor software leg.
“Each part of the journey reveals a different set of assumptions and constraints that challenges any and all to understand the whole picture before effectively building atop its parts. It’s hard to avoid becoming impassioned when you understand that the sum is worth more than the parts. You have to be dynamic in thought, tying all these contexts back together. That challenge alone gets me excited everyday!”
You’ve been a Bear Flag software engineer for nearly two years; what has been the most difficult challenge you’ve encountered?
As an early employee, I joined Bear Flag in the throes of going from zero-to-one. This meant specifically that we were finding our product/market fit and coming out of R&D. In previous roles, I was accustomed to building a digital experience towards a well-defined customer segment and set of behaviors.
“Discovering who our customer should be and how to build value for them at the ground level was a challenge I hadn’t previously encountered. I quickly learned to develop a product manager mindset in understanding the market we were in.”
What kind of customers could we build for? What pain points do autonomous tractors solve? What should autonomy look like on a farm? The sticking point here was, that these questions don’t have clear answers to them. My responsibility was, and is, to help define the right frame, so that my team and I can develop software to ensure we provide business value for farmers, as well as for ourselves. Overall, this kind of thinking has made me a better engineer. Working backwards from the customer is incredibly powerful in designing systems because it necessitates feedback loops and continual refinement of your working paradigm. To this day, this mindset has been the biggest growth area and I’ve been all the better for it!
Which recent software engineering trends are you following? Have you implemented any of them lately in your work with Bear Flag?
“Real-time communication is at the heart of many Robotics applications. We’ve leveraged MQTT, WebSockets, and WebRTC across a range of use-cases to ensure our software is responsive to the needs of our users. These are meaty topics and can easily engross an engineer for years.”
These protocols have been around for awhile and have histories that are incredibly fascinating and useful to know. Looking out to the future, one can anticipate how these will continue to evolve, and hopefully, ensure even higher resilience and effective software. We’re mindful to keep abreast of not just what these solutions offer today, but emerging alternatives that answer a sub- or super-set of the use cases currently addressed. Knowing the competitive landscape is integral to sense when these solutions no longer offer the value originally conceived.
What advice do you have for aspiring engineers and those interested in a career in agriculture technology?
“First to the broader audience, I’m a huge believer that software engineering is ultimately by and for people.”
Cultivating a product-focused mindset is central to staying grounded while building digital experiences and software systems. Without it, I find that it’s incredibly easy to build architectures that are performant and technically sound that few find useful or add impact. Which brings me to AgTech and the value one needs in grokking the farmer mindset.
“Farming can be incredibly challenging with the sheer number of jobs to be done and constraints to operate within. The crux is to find the ripe opportunities to exploit that add ease and reduce the farmer’s cognitive load.”
This means understanding what a typical day looks like for a farmer. Developing a sense for how they see the world is crucial to orienting where technology can at large answer the mail for them, and where it cannot. On the operational front, it’s a game of constraints: ones that are common in IoT more generally, but especially so as you have hardware running out in the field that requires flexible software to respond to rapidly changing conditions. This is the backdrop of the space we’re in and is very useful to immerse oneself within.
“Over the long haul, I think AgTech solutions, us included, will become more software-driven and less hardware-focused. However, a deep understanding of the underlying hardware goes a long way.”
Keep an eye out for future staff feature blogs. Learn more about Bear Flag Robotics’ autonomous tractors, and sign up for our newsletter to receive regular updates and news.