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Why Flow Labs: August

May 13, 2022

In our "Why Flow Labs" series, team members write about their work at Flow Labs, what initially drew them to Flow Labs, and what they like about Flow Labs' culture, mission, and vision. Today's post is by Principal Software Engineer August Brenner.

What I was doing before Flow Labs

I studied to be a Chemical Engineer in college, where I was particularly interested in doing research into nuclear fusion, and was working in a lab to discover new ways of measuring the temperature of plasma columns. It was fun and exciting, but when I talked to people in the chemical engineering field about pursuing this career, I was consistently told that I’d need a PhD. The prospect of staying in academia for another 6 years didn’t quite appeal to me.

Both of my parents are software engineers, and I’ve been coding since I was seven, so instead started building websites, and then data pipelines. After a few years of building pipelines and applications for law firms and real estate companies, I was interested in exploring something new. After weighing my options to work at big tech companies and exciting new startups, I joined up with two former Apple employees and co-founded Wheelwell. I was the CTO for 4 years, and over that time I learned an immense amount about management, business, and customer acquisition. We were eventually acquired by AutoAnything, the world's largest online parts distributor. 

After that, I worked on a number of projects before a friend told me about Flow Labs. Never before in my life have I come across a job that’s had so much impact in improving people’s lives.

Why I initially joined Flow Labs

I joined Flow Labs for three main reasons: the impact I could make on the world with Flow Labs, the people I would be working with, and the incredible technologies I could build.

When you’re stuck in traffic and looking at the traffic outside of your car, it’s this very personal thing. You’re thinking to yourself, “How much time am I wasting?” and that number is bigger than you realize. Now multiply that number by billions of people. It adds up to tens-of-billions of minutes, and the way I think about it, that's equivalent to thousands of lifetimes wasted every day. Not just that, we’re literally saving lives, and because traffic is a huge source of emissions, we’re saving future lives. To give that value back to society is rewarding. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the greater community. 

The team at Flow Labs is small, but extremely high caliber. They’re brilliant, passionate, and driven. On top of all that, they care about other people. They’re putting those talents to good use. It’s really inspiring. 

We’re also using cutting edge technologies. We're using time-series analysis methods that the finance industry is only just discovering.  We are developing our own machine learning algorithms and integrating them with powerful stochastic simulations. We are writing software that directly interacts with hardware controllers at intersections, and we are creating beautiful front-end maps and dashboards that would be unable to render without modern hardware acceleration. I love how at Flow Labs, you don’t get to interact with just one cool technology your company is using—you get to interact with all of them. Every month there’s something new and exciting and we’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what software can do.

What do I do at Flow Labs

As Principal Software Engineer, I lead the Software Engineering team. We are a very flat organization and our team is super talented so I don’t “run” the engineering team, I simply help people who already know what they’re doing stay aligned on goals and stay informed on everyone else's progress. Everyone at Flow Labs contributes, so beyond this I work on everything from semi-automated ingestion of configuration data, writing virtual hardware controllers, developing our distributed data pipelines, and designing our general system architecture. Right now, I'm working on improving our data transformation pipeline, so we can query data with more granularity.

I also do a lot of work around how we can make our systems more cost effective. This is one of the reasons why other companies in the past have failed to achieve what we are doing right now. It can be very expensive to optimize traffic networks with machine learning, and we've put a lot of effort into making this as efficient as possible, from software to hardware. It's really fascinating work, and we're proud of the solutions we've developed.

What I like about Flow Labs culture

What stands out to me most is that everyone is friends, we all have a common purpose, and we all respect each other. Also, there is no such thing as time wasted, only lessons learned: that concept is fundamental to our culture. Sometimes, things don’t work out, and experiments go awry but if you internalize these as personal failures, you won’t be able to reach your goals. Here, you’re encouraged to reframe a failure as a learning moment, an opportunity for growth, and after you’ve reflected on it, you can then just get things done. Here, people aren’t afraid to try things. More than that, they’re given opportunities to try things. That’s what makes us so efficient. 

Humanity is a core value at Flow Labs: people are treated as humans, not as resources. At our company, when there’s a new problem for the team to work on, the person who’s most capable of solving it tackles it, but, if there’s another person who’s really interested in the problem, they can be involved as well. Our policy is that if you’re curious about something, you can learn a new skill or about a new technology and you can go outside of your wheelhouse. As an example, one of our data scientists, Tommy McKinnon, wanted to learn more about DevOps and even though he didn’t have a background in it he was able to learn about Kubernetes and managing databases, and now he’s managing our ETL pipelines. 

By allowing people to work on projects they’re passionate about, we build velocity, we build more social connections within the team, and we build institutional knowledge. You have a happy team that genuinely enjoys coming to work.

What I like about the mission

At all my previous jobs, the mission of the company has been to make money. Here, it’s to improve the lives of others. Now, you do need to have a functioning business to do that, but at the end of the day, everyone is fundamentally motivated to help people. We want to be part of the rising tide that raises all boats. As long as congestion is a fact of life, we’re going to keep trying to get rid of it.

Where I see the company heading and why it excites me

Right now, we have a pilot in Utah, and our technology has already been extremely effective. Expanding this technology nationally and globally will help us to improve more lives and to further strengthen our platform. We’re excited to cut more emissions, prevent more crashes, and save citizens even more time. We’re already leading the field in predictive analysis, and I’m looking forward to refining those algorithms even further so that we can perfectly optimize traffic flow every single time. I’m also excited about our technology’s potential to help departments of transportation with urban planning, such as where they should build roads and put new public transit routes.

Interested in joining a team shaping the future of transportation? View our current career openings here.

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