A day in the life of a Zego Data Engineer: Ken Payne

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At Zego, we love putting the spotlight on the people who help make our product amazing. We chatted to Senior Data Engineer Ken Payne about how he builds his Google calendar schedule for maximum productivity and how Zego allows him to nurture his love of data.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role here at Zego.

I’m a Senior Data Engineer working on Zego’s core data infrastructure, and I’ve been here for just over a year. Previously I worked in a similar role at Amazon as a Business Intelligence Engineer. The main difference is that while working at Amazon I worked on a single data product, whereas at Zego I touch anything data-related.

Starting from when you get into the office each morning, what does a typical day look like for you?

I usually arrive between 8 and 9am. I prefer to be in early if I can - there are usually a small handful of people around, and it’s a great chance to catch up before the work of the day takes over. Depending on the day of the week, I either have meetings or big blocks of ‘getting things done’ time. I try to push meetings to the beginning and end of my week and reserve the middle of the week for implementation work. If you don’t schedule time for it, it won’t get done!

Meetings are a mixture of 1:1s, interviews, project/design sessions or training. I spend a lot of time helping people at Zego with their data challenges - I really enjoy this part of my job, and find it immensely satisfying to help someone pick up a new tool or technique and apply it to our work.

My ‘getting things done’ days focus on whatever project I have in-flight. As is best practice, the data team here tries to scope and schedule tasks so they can be delivered without interruption, so this time is an opportunity to put headphones on and crack through a chunk of technical implementation or documentation. I typically only break for Pull Requests or critical slack alerts.

I reserve the last slice of my day for ‘personal comms’ (emails, slack and catching up with the rest of the team in person). My commute is almost two hours door-to-door, so I get an extra 45 minutes on the train to work through side projects, my reading list or an episode on Netflix.

What’s your favourite part of the day?

I really like the office in the early morning. It’s a really great environment to work in, and the quiet gives me space to think. It’s also a great time to catch-up with people I wouldn’t always have much direct work with day-to-day. I especially enjoy chatting to product engineering and ‘TechOps’ team members. There is a lot of overlap between our functions, and they are always working on cool projects!

What’s the best part of your job?

Data is often described as the life-blood of a modern tech company, which puts Data Engineering at the very heart of Zego. I enjoy using software engineering techniques, which are difficult to master, to solve tangible problems and answer real-world questions.

Apart from the work, I really enjoy the ‘company building’ aspects of life at Zego. We are growing incredibly quickly, and with that growth comes opportunities to shape our teams and tooling. In true start-up form, there is more work to be done than there are people to do it. This affords us the opportunity to help in areas that we wouldn’t ordinarily touch. In my case, this is our interview processes and our technical architecture but there are loads of examples of people across Zego taking up projects that would be out of their job scope in other businesses.

What would you say is the biggest challenge you face in your day-to-day work? How do you resolve it?

The toughest part of working at Zego is balancing investment in the future with more immediate priorities. I regularly have to decide whether to patch a bit of our system that was built years ago or to replace it entirely. We manage this by having a clear plan and vision for the future of Data Engineering at Zego, which allows us to make strategic decisions against that long-term backdrop. Is it really worth investing time in patches when this particular part of the codebase will eventually be retired? How soon will it be superseded? These questions are more often than not easy to answer as long as we continue to maintain a coherent plan and roadmap.

What opportunities for learning and development do you have here at Zego?

A large part of maintaining continuous improvement of our systems is managing our team skills and development to match. The reality is that almost every tool and system we use today will be refreshed, rebuilt or replaced in 2020. Replacing tools tends to create a learning curve and therefore provides development opportunities as we up-skill in those tools. Zego considers learning to be a major component of our investment in the future of our system and our function.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I am fortunate that my day job also happens to be my favourite hobby. When I am not working on data problems for Zego, I like to work on data problems of my own. At the moment I am working on what books to read next, combining data from both ‘the crowd’ (Goodreads and Google reviews data) and from the reading lists of authoritative experts (like Tim Ferriss, Derek Sivers and Bill Gates). Outside of my projects I spend time at the gym, playing club volleyball and catching up with friends and family.

What’s the social side of Zego like?

There’s something going on every week at Zego, ranging from running challenges to baking competitions and holidays (like Chinese New Year or St Patrick's). We also have regular lunches, drinks and off-sites to allow teams to unwind and socialise.

A major highlight of my time at Zego so far was the 3-day offsite on Osea Island in Essex. It was a really amazing break, and has had a lasting impact on the teams that were here at the time. I’m looking forward to the off-sites planned for this year!

What’s your favourite thing about working here and why?

Above everything (the amazing people, all the perks, the fantastic building, dogs in the office) I value the autonomy that Zego offers. We use company-wide objectives to frame our direction as a business, but our teams decide what to work on and how to go about it. This scope and freedom is truly liberating, particularly when compared to large corporate organisations, and allows me to push forward and develop at my own pace. I am growing so much faster at Zego than I could anywhere else.