Engineer to Engineer — The Importance of Communication and Connections
Written by Sierra OBryan
In this edition of Engineer to Engineer, Sierra OBryan, Leadership Fellow at Women Who Code, interviews Ayo Suber, UI Engineer at Square. They discuss creative roles in tech, the importance of community, and work culture in relation to mental health.
Talk about your journey in tech, where you started, the roles you’ve had and how you ended up at Square as a UI engineer.
I got my first taste of tech while working at an organization in Memphis. I was their marketing coordinator and had to update their website. I got a job in San Francisco at Accenture, which is in management consulting. On the side, I was making websites for small businesses. Living in San Francisco, there were so many resources for women to learn how to code. There were free classes everywhere. I was really interested in the work. I asked my manager one day if I could switch into doing engineering work. I found a project with Junior Achievement and helped create an app to help kids learn how to get jobs.
What does it mean to be a UI engineer? What is your role and why do you like it?
I have a background in art and creative work. I think it’s really cool that you’re able to think about how something should look and then you can make it happen, and make it interactive. With UI engineering, you are building out either the systems or the components for making that website look good. There’s also a component of shuttling some of that information back to the back end.
At Square, I’m in this new group of creative technologists. We do Chain Link animations. I’m really into projection mapping, so I think that’s something that I would like to do. We’ve been looking into AR/VR stuff as well. There are so many things you can do as a creative engineer.
Over the course of your career, you’ve worn a lot of hats. You’re a founder, you’ve worked in a non-profit space, you’re a writer, you’re a public speaker and now you’re a UI engineer at Square. Can you talk about how these different experiences have made you a better engineer?
I work on a creative team, no one is technical besides me. You need to be able to communicate and understand what they are asking for. You need to be able to communicate the best route of doing something in a way that they understand. Having the background of having interviewed people before, having been talking to them before being in a creative world, it really helps me to understand what makes sense to people. It makes it easier to collaborate.
When you’re in a collaborative situation and there’s something that you, as an engineer, disagree with or there are technical limitations, how do those conversations go? How do you manage, keeping the UI side happy and building the product?
I like to offer alternatives, reframe what they want into something that makes sense to do. Once you get to a point where you have trust with your team, they’ll understand that you know what you’re talking about and listen to you.
Your past roles have been very communication-focused. How have you continued to grow those communication roles in your current role? Do you have tips for anyone else who might be struggling with how to improve their communication skills within their team?
Having conversations with your managers or your teams about the best way to communicate is very helpful. Figuring out tools or things that make it easier for you personally. Everyone is different in their communication styles. What would make your life easier and what tools can you use to do that?
How do you stay creative doing the engineering side of these UI projects?
The creative technologist role got started last year at Square, or design technologist is actually what we call ourselves. We have been embedded in the creative teams from the start. We all have very different backgrounds. We all talk and give each other tips. It’s helpful to have that team of people around you that are also creative.
The other thing is I take classes. I enrolled in Immersive at Gray Area, which is an organization for creative technology. You get tapped into a different type of a community of engineers or not even necessarily engineers. A lot of them are either sound or visual artists, sculptors and filmmakers. It’s a really cool way to view technology from a completely different lens. It does help you grow and it helps keep your creative wheels turning.
Do you ever find it challenging to be on the engineering side and not on the creative side of your team, or is that like a fluid relationship for someone of your background?
Recently, they split up all the design technologists and put us each on a product. I was so used to working with people who knew what I was talking about and understood all the processes. I find myself explaining a lot of what I’m working on and how I work, so that they understand what I’m doing. I feel like that helps people, not only the designers I’m working with, design things a lot more efficiently for me and for the end users, but it just makes the whole process of working with a creator easier.
As for your community involvement, why did you decide to get involved and why do you think it’s important to be involved in your community?
I feel like that came from my parents. My dad is an activist. My mom always took us to volunteer events. I carried that into adulthood. I like to be involved wherever I am. I want to be involved in the community and learn about it. Even though I’m not a working artist anymore, I’m most drawn to art organizations. I’m on the boards of art organizations. It is a way to keep in touch with the art community and also make sure that the arts are funded where I live. It brings great events to the community. That’s always been something that I’ve been interested in.
Becoming one of the ERG leaders at Square fell in my lap. I’m pretty outspoken. People will DM me about issues that they are having and I’ll bring it up, as a voice for those people. Because of that, I was encouraged to lead.
Why do you think that ERGs are important?
It helps to have a community where people feel comfortable being themselves, or just as a way just to connect employees. From a business standpoint, it builds culture and community, which helps with retention. I think from an employee standpoint, it’s nice having someone there.
Last year, everybody lived through George Floyd and everything that happened in 2020. Having a community where you can go, vent, and be in a safe space is always good. Especially black, Latinx, and other under-represented communities, we show up to work, while it feels like the world is burning down around us. It can lead to burn out. It’s really good to have a space where people understand exactly what you feel.
For organizations trying to support their employees through traumatic events, what does a good company culture look like? What did Square do?
I was so happy I was at Square last year. We were one of the earliest tech companies to implement remote working. They were really good about bringing in therapists and giving us time off. At the beginning of the pandemic they hit the brakes on everything, to slow down and give us time to process what was happening in the world. I was glad that they recognized the mental and emotional impact that the pandemic was taking on employees.
I think we get 20 sessions of free therapy now. That was something that got added last year. Even coming into Square, they were always focused on health and meditation. I’ve never been at a company where they have a meditation room. They give you the Calm app and a book about meditation. That’s part of your onboarding. It does pay off for companies to tell their employees that mental health is important. You will end up with a lot more productive people and not have as much turnover.
Are there any tips or things that you did to take care of yourself and at least try to keep burn out at bay?
I take a week off every six weeks. Last summer, I took every Friday off. We have unlimited vacation, so it’s easy to do that at Square. I think it’s important to take advantage of it. It is a really nice privilege to have. It’s great that I have a team that understands that.
It was pretty hard to actually feel turned off. Not just work, you also had the President at the time and something crazy in the news cycle every single day. Everything felt very overwhelming. It was great to be able to turn off one facet of my life. I still do the every six weeks thing and actually feel like I get rest when I take off.
What has been your greatest accomplishment? What is the one thing that you’re most proud of?
I’m starting to realize people view me as a mentor. I’m a connector, I’ve always been a connector. I’m proud that people trust me enough to allow me to help them, to come to me with questions, and allow me to speak on their behalf. It’s nice to know that people view you as trustworthy.
What is a piece of advice for people who are interested in transitioning from their current role into technology?
I would say do it. Especially women, there are so many resources out there that can help. Find someone that can give you that community so that you have support. If you don’t end up coding, there are so many career paths in tech. Once you get into a tech company, it’s pretty easy to pivot into engineering.