Adrian is a hands-on technical team lead at Last.fm in London where he works with a group of smart people focused on the services behind the scenes that power the popular music website. Prior to this Adrian worked in Amsterdam for 2 mobile startups (both of which failed), a bank (good money but dull), a content management system (even duller), a digital rights company (good in theory, evil in practise) and in South Africa for a multimedia company.
What is your job title?
Technical Team Lead
What is your role about?
I help coordinate the efforts of a team of developers working on parts of the back end infrastructure at Last.fm. Development is mainly divided between high availability services which need to respond to
thousands of requests per second and offline data processing of massive amounts of data. I am very much a hands-on team lead and spend a large part of my time coding and working on architecture and making
technical decisions with the rest of the team. I also attend meetings and communicate what our team is working on and get information about what others are doing, gather requirements and feedback and help out
with company wide decision making. I also spend a fair amount of time organising what the team works on by leading daily standups, getting and providing input on the priority of different tasks, managing
various planning meetings and creating, updating and monitoring tasks in our issue tracking software. The role involves a lot of context switching so I rarely have the chance to spend hours focused on just one thing. The main technologies I work with include Java, Hadoop, Spring, Thrift, Hibernate, PostgreSQL and more general areas like concurrency, scalability, service-oriented architectures, testing and clean, elegant code and design.
What are the best/most positive parts of the job/industry?
The digital music industry is exciting for someone like me who has been playing computer games and listening to music from childhood. Finding a job at a company like Last.fm that combines both those
passions is something that took me a long time to find and has made a huge difference to my motivation and engagement levels. Working on something I am passionate about more than makes up for the salary
difference compared to when I was working for a bank where the money was good but I didn’t really care that much about the end product. I remember the excitement on the day when Last.fm on XBox was launched
and we had a group of people in a room watching a huge array of digital “dials” as the number of XBox users rocketed up from tens to tens of thousands over the course of a few hours. Turning on the credit card voice activation software I developed for the bank didn’t have quite the same thrill.
What are the negative parts to the job/industry?
The flipside of being really passionate about one’s job is that it’s hard, if not impossible, to completely separate it from your time outside of work. If something goes wrong out of office hours and there’s some way I can help I often get involved. The digital music industry is also quite a mess in a number of ways – most parties are
struggling to make money including the musicians and the labels (OK, they still make money, but less than they used to) as well as the software companies trying to create new products and business models online. There are certain things outside of your control that limit or complicate one’s work – one example being how music is licensed and the legal nightmare this becomes when you’re trying to do anything with music in more than one country and with more than one record label.
What is the standard career path/qualifications?
For a technical team lead one’s career path has to have involved coding and getting hands on with technology. You need to be able to understand the issues and challenges your team face and help come up
with solutions and assist them when necessary. A degree in Computer Science is definitely a good thing to have as it can give you a grounding in the fundamentals which you build on in future. I have a BSc Hons degree in Computer Science and at my first job I remember working with a more senior developer who had never been to University and he commented that I was able to pick up on new things a lot faster than him as he was self taught and missed that theoretical foundation. Having said that, if someone has enough technical knowledge gained
through years of experience then this can be as valuable as a degree. I think you need between 5 and 10 years of experience in the “trenches” before being able to move on and lead a team effectively.
What are the prospects?
Technical team lead is getting pretty close to the top of the food chain in terms of jobs where one still gets to work with code. The next steps for a lot of people involve moving into a CTO or management role and doing more work in planning, strategy and high-level technology decision making. Other options are to take one’s knowledge and experience and start one’s own company or join a startup as the “main tech person” or move into consulting or freelancing. Another option is to stick with the hands on technical aspects and become a
technical “guru” in some field.
In your experience are you aware of any differences your role has between industries/sectors?
The online music space is very different to some of the other sectors I’ve worked in. The huge number of users of our product and the scalability challenges that come with this dwarf all the startups I worked at before. Things also move a lot faster than, for example, banks where one is often working with some parts of the stack that can
be decades old. It’s also generally fairly relaxed and fun and my co workers are people I genuinely like and would socialise with outside of work. It’s the kind of place where if you arrive at work a bit late the morning after a big gig everybody understands.
Reflection and The Future
What was it like coming into the industry?
My first job was in multimedia for a small startup that was doing amazing things with touch screen kiosks. It was a lot of fun and hard work at the same time. One surprise was how much time I spent doing things other than purely writing code but over the years I’ve learnt this stuff is just as important, if not more so in some cases.
Do you have any thoughts on the future of your role/industry?
The digital music space has been a bit of a roller coaster over the last few years and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. One needs to be prepared for changes in the legal landscape, new startups and ideas that seem to be launched every other week as well as the background noise of changes in technology and how people interact with it. I think the industry has a bright future and there is still room for lots of innovation and development. People are always going to want to create and consume music and this is going to happen more and more in the digital arena so it’s an exciting career path with good long term prospects.
What advice would you give someone entering your industry?
I would definitely caution someone considering entering the industry for financial gain only. If you’re not really interested in technology and don’t have a passion and aptitude for it then you’re just going to be bored and end up frustrating those who have to work with you. A great way to start out is to have some hobby projects on the side and where possible contribute to something that is open source. If a potential employer can see this level of interest and also look at some code you’ve written it’s a big plus. If you do intend to move in the direction of being a team lead you need to be a good communicator and be happy to work directly with other people a lot. You also need to be able to change your focus regularly and not get frustrated by constant interruptions and people wanting your input or advice.
Have you come across anything or anyone that has helped you move forward in the industry?
I have mainly been inspired by the people I directly work with. I’ve had the priviledge to work with some really smart and interesting people over the years and have learnt more from them than from any external source. Blogs, conferences, training courses, meetup groups and all the rest are very cool and can also be hugely inspiring but nothing compares to awesome co-workers.