Here at Sprout, we believe that part of a meaningful career is knowing the impact your work has on the big picture. As an engineering manager and Head of Infrastructure, Blake Smith often works on projects that customers will never actually see—but his squad’s work helps our engineering team work faster and smarter to build the always-evolving Sprout platform.
Blake places a strong focus on individual, team and company growth. In this Meet Team Sprout interview, we talked about what keeps him motivated, why he loves living in the suburbs and his advice for new software engineers. Check out the video to get to know Blake, and read on to learn more.
Name: Blake Smith
Started at Sprout: April 2015
How did you become interested in engineering?
I’ve been programming since I was around 12 years old. I loved to fiddle with computers. I started making websites, little video games and text adventure games, and I was just coding in my spare time. I went to school and actually got a degree in business, and from there, I wanted to take my technical skills and apply them to harder and harder business problems.
What brought you to Sprout, and what’s your role here?
I’ve always loved software as a service (SaaS) businesses. If you look at other companies in the SaaS space, there’s a lot of hype going on. People have cool ideas, but they may not be building sustainable businesses. I had heard about Sprout several years ago when it was just a few people, and it sounded like they were doing some great stuff in a newer space. Now social media has exploded and become a bigger industry. Sprout has good, steady growth, and it’s in a cool market space that continues to grow.
I lead our infrastructure team here at Sprout. Infrastructure does a lot of things, from data center operations to managing our data pipeline to building tools for developers. When you want to get your code out into production, we’re the people who help make sure that happens.
What motivates you?
I’m attracted to really big engineering problems. I still geek out about hard distributed systems problems and big cloud scale architecture issues and data problems. That’s where my technical mind goes, but how do you marry that with good teamwork, people who have a mission and giving people vision? I love coming to work every day, working with my team and helping grow everybody I’m working with, all while I’m growing too.
In the day-to-day, my big thing is being customer-centric first. You can build technology for technology’s sake, but that’s not really interesting to me. We build tools that empower our customers to do their jobs better and to reach their customers.
What’s been your favorite project so far?
We recently finished a big overhaul of our data pipeline system, which was really fun. Some people like to focus their efforts in one part of the stack, and that’s great—we need that depth. But I really gravitate toward problems that cut across the entire organization.
Anyway, we shipped it a couple months ago, and we had cake and champagne to celebrate the big milestone. It’s something that our customers never even see, but it’s enabled our engineering teams to move faster and to get the data they need.
What aspect of your day-to-day do you enjoy the most?
One of my favorite things we do here is code review and design review. It makes our code so much better in a fun and collaborative way. For people who have never been through it before, it can be an intimidating process to have your code displayed to others and open to critique. But everybody here is very encouraging, and it helps ensure that the work is top notch and that you can use the review to improve the work you do next time. It highlights the importance of our team here.
We make the code better when we sharpen each other.
Head of Infrastructure
When you aren’t at work, what do you enjoy doing?
I like to run; I’m a long-distance runner. I live in the suburbs, and while we live in an actual town, if you go a mile or two away you can go for long runs in the countryside. It’s nice being able to work in the city and still have a little piece of the country—peace and quiet. I learned to ride a unicycle in college, so sometimes I do that.
I’m also a new dad. My son is a little over one year old right now, so I like just playing with him and having family time. We live in the same town as my family, my wife’s family and some of my brothers. I’m excited that my son will get to grow up with family nearby.
How do you pass the time on your commute?
Usually I read on the train as a way to decompress. I read everything from leadership books to technical books as well as science fiction and fantasy when I need some fiction. Recently I read “High Output Management” by Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel. He’s an engineer by trade and he talks about how to think about management in terms of systems. It helped me approach it from the angle that I was already familiar with—thinking in systems and how to approach an organizational structure and teams from that approach.
Do you often make into the city on the weekends?
I’m kind of a homebody, but we like to come down to the city and see shows. We took a nice staycation downtown after we had my son. But there’s a lot to do in the suburbs, too. My wife is really into flea marketing, so we like to do that together. There’s the Kane County Flea Market in St. Charles, which is huge. Now my son comes too, and it’s a whole experience.
Last but not least, what words of wisdom would you share with a new engineer?
One of my great engineering mentors is Dave Hoover, and he talks about how empathy is one of the most important things you can have as an engineer. The technical chops are important, and you can learn those, and if you come work here at Sprout, we can teach you. What’s harder to teach is how to have empathy, how to work well with a team and how to help the team achieve goals.
Technical solutions in a vacuum don’t get us anywhere. And technical genius is good, but if you can pair that with a strong, cohesive, well-knit team…wow, you’re going to get really far.
Jim Conti: Jim Conti leads Sprout Social's ambitious talent team. Affectionately known as the "Cruise Director" while in the office, Jim can be found exploring the streets of Chicago and planning his next international adventure when not growing and caring for Team Sprout. Give him a follow @SproutJim.