Growing with Appian Engineering
Hear from three employees on what contributed to their positive long-term journey.
A recent article by Learning Hub shares that 73% of job seekers won’t apply to a company unless the company’s values align with their own and 77% of job seekers consider a company’s culture before even applying for a job. With our ever growing organization, it’s our goal to share insights and behind-the-scenes stories so you have all of the information you need to see if Appian is the right place for you.
Today we sat down with three employees within our Engineering department to learn more about what has kept them energized, engaged, and fulfilled throughout their individual journeys at Appian.
Q: Before we get started, can each of you give a brief introduction for our readers?
Abdul Sowayan: I’ve been at Appian for 7 years. I’ve had a wonderful career journey at Appian. I started as a Lead Software Engineer, became a Product Manager for a few years, and now I’m a Senior Manager of Software Development leading our Mobile team. I have a masters in computer science from Vanderbilt University.
Suvajit Gupta: I’ve been at Appian for almost 8 years and as Executive Vice President, I lead the Appian Engineering department. It’s been an exciting journey so far scaling the department 10x while helping Appian go public on a growing base of happy customers and partners. I have a masters in software engineering, have worked on enterprise software for over 30 years, and Appian is the third IPO I have been through.
Q: As we know, there are many opportunities and organizations in the tech industry for Software Engineers to consider as their next employer. Can you share your journey to Appian, and what was it that you were looking for?
Abdul: From an early age, I was curious about how things work. I had a particular fascination with how computers worked, and also found a lot of fulfillment in building things. That led me into a career in the software industry. We spend the majority of our time at work, so it’s important to make sure you’re doing something you find both fulfilling and rewarding.
I came to Appian (NASDAQ: APPN) through the personal recommendation of my colleague, Lyndsey Ferguson, who was enjoying his new journey at Appian. I was intrigued, but was also very “comfortable” with the role that I was in at the time. Ultimately, I knew that if I made a move I’d want to work somewhere that filled two areas that were missing: driving direct impact and a strong community.
So I set out to interview Appian! I asked Lyndsey if I could spend half a day with him at work and he was very welcoming to my request. I arrived shortly before lunch time when everyone grabbed their food and headed into the kitchen area for “Indie Time.” That’s where I learned that Appian encourages engineers to innovate and spend up to 10% of their in-office hours on projects and ideas that interest them. The event was focused on Engineers showcasing their innovations and ideas on how to enhance the product.
Engineers get up to 10% of their in office hours for “Indie Time”
Others showcased the art of the possible, and some of those projects ended up being adopted as an official project on the Engineering roadmap. I remember sitting through this event and thinking wow, I really can make things happen here. After the Indie Time event, I socialized with many Engineers and was impressed with how passionate they were about their work. I walked over to another group of Engineers that were talking about an upcoming Engineering Happy Hour and the next Appian movie night. I concluded that there is a thriving community and those people knew and cared about each other on a personal level, which was a win for me.
Incidentally, I met Suvajit that day. I spent almost an hour in his office, where we talked about the company and the product. He showed me the product roadmap, which is a living document that Engineers directly influence. I was impressed that the company had a multi-year vision and that its ambitions outstripped its size. I knew that I would not be bored if I joined and that I could influence what I work on. I applied the next day.
Even after 7 years at Appian, I still love going to work every single day. In fact, there are many people at Appian with 15+ years of tenure in a 20-year old company. Appian has preserved a low rate of attrition despite having scaled massively in the past 8 years.
Appian Engineering in 2014
Appian Engineering in 2020
What intrigued me back in 2014 still excites me today, which is that Appian is a software platform company that faces interesting technological challenges for curious minds to solve. There is always something new to learn. And with Appian’s meteoric growth, there has been tremendous career growth opportunities both for myself and the department at large. Appian Engineering emphasizes a “supporting structure” instead of a “reporting structure,” which allows Engineers to drive innovations and transformations and be more fulfilled. In my case, I joined Appian as a Mobile Engineer, but I had a passion for understanding how customers use the products I was building and how to better serve those customers. With that passion, I moved into Product Management for a few years.
My role now is a Senior Manager of Software Dev., I lead a large team that delivers features that delight our customers. Guess you could say I’ve always been passionate about the end user’s journey. I’ve been working professionally for nearly two decades, and prior to Appian I had never been afforded the opportunity to explore and contribute in vastly different roles. But here, our company culture encourages it. What I was looking for is what I get to experience everyday at Appian: opportunity, growth, community, and a chance to really drive impact.
Q: Suvajit, for curious minds, can you share an example of challenges that Appian’s Engineering team was able to overcome?
Suvajit: One example that comes to mind was when we transformed the Appian User Experience. Appian’s Low-Code Automation Platform allows our customers to trade a bit of flexibility (compared to custom code) to gain a lot of speed (up to 20x faster) when building and deploying enterprise-grade applications. Before I joined Appian, the user interface (UI) for our users was quite a rigid experience. Interfaces specified by the Appian developers would be automatically extracted and made available to users. While this removed the need to spend time specifying the UIs, customers couldn’t achieve the experience they desired.
Max and I met on the first day of “Appian Academy” (a multi-week onboarding program for all new hires) and have stayed close colleagues ever since. Early on, we both saw the opportunity to make Appian UIs more flexible while preserving our speed advantage. Since Appian UIs automatically run natively on iOS and Android in addition to the Web, this transformation would necessitate moving off of Google Web Toolkit (GWT) to more a modern framework like React/Native.
I first partnered with our Design Lead Charles Tsui, a 20-year Appian veteran and our longest tenured employee except our 4 founders. We jointly crafted and pitched our “Modern UI” transformation idea. Since Appian has a “may the best idea win” culture, we shopped our proposal around internally to refine it, eventually working with Founders for sponsorship. Engineering has a 2-day annual hackathon at which Charles led a project to demonstrate how we could deliver on our proposal.
The logo of the winning Hackathon project
Charles recruited Appian engineers who shared a passion for making beautiful UIs to form his Hackathon team. Since Appian is used for mission-critical applications by many large customers, they had to preserve our “backwards compatibility” guarantee. This guarantee ensures that older applications continue to work with newer versions of our platform while providing customers the benefits of upgrading.
Winners of the Hackathon project
After Charles’ Hackathon team won, the “Modern UI” idea got more attention and we were able to staff a multi-year mission to deliver it. We began by engaging some externally delivered training on React and then used our “Learning Time” (up to 5% of office hours set aside for engineers for professional growth) to further master these new technologies. All the Hackathon team members went on to play key roles in the UI modernization effort. For example, Steph Colen (pictured above, bottom right) went on to lead one of the core teams that worked on this mission. Max led some of the most complex portions of the UI overhaul. Abdul later brought the same modernization to our mobile UIs.
How we recommend using “Learning Time”
As the UI transformation wrapped up, focus turned to our platform’s data abstraction. Max, Steph, and others formed a “Discovery Pod” (a micro team tasked with exploring what’s possible in a problem space). Our platform had an existing data abstraction, but it was time for a major overhaul and some new innovation. In collaboration with Product Management and User Experience, the pod innovated rapidly, bouncing ideas off each other. The pod worked for several months to form the skeleton of a new no-code data abstraction, leveraging the latest Appian Data Server. The new concept showed promise and led to a multi-year, multi-team investment by Engineering.
Collaborative problem solving in the “Discover Pod”
Q: Max, I’d like to hear from you next! As you soon approach your 8 year anniversary, can you share what has kept you fulfilled and touch on what you’re looking forward to most as you continue your Appian journey?
Max: I think I can speak for all of us when I say we’re still here at Appian because we’re motivated by the combination of challenging problems and the opportunity to personally drive change. The work at Appian keeps me engaged and learning, while the opportunity to drive change makes me feel invested in our collective success as a company. I acknowledge that these attributes certainly aren’t unique to Appian, but also know that they are rare in established companies.
Let me elaborate on what I mean by “challenging problems”. I find the most interesting parts of a problem are often inherent to the logic of the problem, not the technologies used to solve it. As Suvajit mentioned, the core Appian product is a low-code platform for developing applications which may include data, UIs, process flows, integrations, and more. The core premise is to provide higher level abstractions over common computer science problems. Need a UI? Just drag and drop widgets and layouts. Need data? Use an interface to configure the fields, then transactional query / write APIs are immediately available to all parts of your application. It’s a huge challenge to create abstractions that are flexible enough for a diverse set of applications across industries from pharma to finance, while also maintaining enough abstraction to hide complexity. As an example, our low-code UI abstraction creates UIs which 1) automatically run on both web and mobile devices, and 2) automatically detect independent I/O calls and run them in parallel. By the way, these innovations have led to several patents held by my peers (UI patent, parallelization patent).
One thing I’ve learned is that it’s possible to find a job you genuinely enjoy while also cultivating a successful career. As Abdul said earlier, life’s too short to spend half your waking hours doing something you don’t find rewarding. Having found a job which personally meets that bar for me, eight years have flown by and I remain excited by the opportunities to make an impact on the software industry via Appian.
It’s not just that the time has flown by. Being intrinsically motivated in my job has also led me to deliver much better work. As a result, I’ve been honored with significant career growth and recognition. For one award Appian sent me on a trip to cater to my interests. It included dinner with my wife at Eleven Madison Park, one of the best restaurants anywhere. The effort Appian took to customize the award for me meant a lot.
Eleven Madison Park
I didn’t set out to “climb the ladder,” but being in a position where I was motivated to do my best work brought me success in my career. This is important. It’s more satisfying to be successful because you’re intrinsically motivated by the job than it is to take a job for the sake of being successful. Appian has multiple parallel tracks for advancement. For me, I found I was most interested in the management track, so my manager signed me up for training through the “Appian MBA” program (a year-long leadership development program designed to help individuals acquire skills needed for current front-line leadership roles at Appian) to coincide with my promotion. My manager and I worked out a balance so I manage 4 engineers and spend my remaining time hands-on in the code — perfect.
Customize your career journey at Appian
If you’re still reading, this content probably resonates with you. I encourage you to ask yourself the question “Why am I still here?”. Your answer may indicate you’ve already found a job you truly enjoy. If so, that’s fantastic. However, if you aren’t thrilled with your answer to the question, it’s time to consider a change. Remember, your ideal job is out there. It might even be at Appian.