Two Opower engineers talk careers, problem solving, and women in tech at Grace Hopper 2015

This week, more than 12,000 tech leaders are meeting up in Houston, Texas, for the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. It's the largest gathering of women technologists on earth — and a crew of Opower engineers are on site to learn, make connections, and share their expertise. To mark the occasion, we caught up with two leaders here at the company: Jennifer Brown, a Data Infrastructure Engineer, and Malina Kirn, our Lead Software Engineer for Analytics. We talked about their career paths, the problems they're solving, the challenges they've met, and what they've learned as engineers at Opower.

Opower: Why are you writing code at Opower? As an engineer, what makes our problems worth solving?

Jenny Brown, Data Infrastructure Engineer: I work out of our San Francisco office, and I grew up in Silicon Valley. There are a lot of places around here where I could sling code for another app — Uber for refrigerators, Taskrabbit for Twitter. There are a lot of places that, from what I can tell, solve problems that only people who live in San Francisco have.

"There are a lot of places that solve problems that only people who live in San Francisco have. Opower is different."

Opower is different. We build software for people who are totally outside this world. From the beginning, we’ve focused on utility customers — which is to say, almost everyone. We provide a service that’s actually useful to them, that they don’t have to opt into, that has a strong business model. We’re helping utilities in places like Malaysia and Japan and the U.K. make huge upgrades to their energy infrastructure. How many other tech companies deal with stuff like that? And because we’re solving unique problems, we’re solving unique technical issues, from doing massive offline batch processing to printing millions of paper reports. As an engineer, this is really compelling work.

Malina Kirn, Lead Software Engineer for Analytics: For me, the choice wasn’t between one Silicon Valley company or another. It was actually between Wall Street and Silicon Valley. I didn’t want to gamble with people’s money! I wanted to do something that helps people. I work at Opower because we’re solving real problems. We’re making a real impact on the future of the world.

Opower: What were your paths here?

Malina: Our paths were almost identical! It’s really surprising. We both came from physics — both of us did research at CERN [the European Organization for Nuclear Research], with the Large Hadron Collider.

"I get to answer questions that are impossible to solve without big, massive piles of data. I get to use my tools for good."

Ever since I was an undergraduate, I’ve been interested in solving computationally difficult questions. I got a Ph.D. in scientific computing. As a doctoral candidate, I did research on particle physics. When that came to an end, I went looking for other interesting questions to solve using the toolkit I had. I worked at Palantir for two and a half years, which I enjoyed, but I wasn’t doing work that was data-oriented enough. And then I came to Opower. I’m on our Analytics team, so I get to answer questions that are impossible to solve without big, massive piles of data. I get to use my tools for good.

Jenny: I did my undergraduate thesis in computational physics. I was looking at particulate matter and phase transitions, and I got to run jobs on supercomputing clusters. I was in DC at the time. Once I graduated, I had to make a choice between coming to Opower or going to a certain three-letter agency. I chose Opower. I was hired as an Implementation Engineer — someone on Opower’s front lines who helps new utility clients take our system and make it work for them. We do data integration, customization, handling edge cases, and so on. I worked on Baltimore Gas & Electric’s Peak Time Rebates program, as well as our launch at Tokyo Electric Power Company. After about a year, I joined our Systems Engineering team. And now I’m about to move onto our Data Integration team. I’m not a junior engineer anymore, but I’m still learning a lot. It’s really exciting.

jenny Jenny Brown, at the 2015 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Opower: Thinking back on how far you’ve come, what’s an important lesson that you’ve learned on your career path? What do you know now that you didn’t used to?

Jenny: If things seem really disorganized — like no one is in charge — then maybe no one is in charge. Maybe you should be in charge. In any job, I feel like there are a lot of emperor-has-no-clothes moments like that. If you see a problem, it’s usually not that someone is neglecting to solve it — it’s that they haven’t even seen it. So you should come up with a plan, have confidence in yourself, and create a solution.

Malina: That’s good advice. Especially if your work culture permits it. And I’d suggest that engineers should consider going to companies that do let you take the initiative and make change. It’s so valuable to be able to do things because you think they need to get done. Here’s what I’ve learned: you cannot be the amazing person that you’re capable of being if you’re not in an environment that makes you happy.

You cannot be the amazing person you’re capable of being if you’re not in an environment that makes you happy.

That requires a lot of things to go right. You need a good company culture. You need a good team. You need a good boss. And you need a good role. And if any one of those is deeply wrong, or none of them are very good, you can’t do well. And I love doing well! It makes me happy to know that I’m performing to the best of my personal ability. I would suggest to anyone that if you’re not in an environment where you can do that, you should change your environment.

Opower: What are you most proud of achieving at Opower? What has success looked like here?

Malina: I’m so excited about what I’m doing now. When I was a scientist, I did a lot of things that were hacky from an engineering perspective. When I was a full engineer, I wasn’t doing much science. At Opower, I’m an engineer supporting scientists. I get the best of both worlds. So earlier this year, the Analytics team created new software to calculate how much energy our utility clients save during Behavioral Demand Response events. I built a lot of the engineering infrastructure, and analysts on our team wrote their models and implemented the science. That’s a really hard thing to do: combining solid engineering practice with good science. I was worried that we might be throwing something over the wall to one team, then throwing it back, feeling friction, getting frustrated. But that’s not what happened at all. We did it together. We were extremely successful and collegial from start to finish. And I’m so happy with the product we built.

Opower: And as a company, we use your product a lot.

Malina: It takes a lot of work to compute those energy efficiency and demand response numbers, just so you know! new mexico_768 Jenny: Here’s my success story. Right after I started on our Systems Engineering team, we had huge turnover. I became the most senior person on the team within a year of joining it. It meant that I was on call every third week. I was losing a lot of sleep. As a team, we were facing a morale crisis. So I did one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my career: I stepped up as a leader on my team. I made changes to keep our team together, to keep us sane. One of the things I’m most proud of was changing the on-call rotation so that the handoff happens on Thursday during our stand-up, and once you’re done, you get Friday off. It was unprecedented, and it was something I just thought of. It made a huge positive impact. Today, Systems Engineering is strong. We have a large team in Virginia that impresses me every day. We have a great team here in San Francisco. We’re so much healthier than we were. And I’m really proud of how far we’ve come.

Opower: What are you looking forward to most about the Grace Hopper conference this year?

Jenny: I’m really looking forward to going and doing all of the things you do as an engineer at a conference, but not having that moment where you look around and realize you’re the only woman. At Grace Hopper, I’m not going to be able to make eye contact with every other female engineer in the audience. I’m looking forward to that. It’s going to be very different.

Malina: There’s a whole bunch of technical content, and career content, that I’m excited about. Technical talks on data science. How to handle maternity leave. I’d like to know more about how people have successfully done that.

Jenny: There’s a talk about how we could be more energy efficient at data centers. I’m super interested in that. Opower helps utilities achieve massive energy efficiency savings, but sometimes I remember that all of our software is running on a bunch of plastic and metal boxes in a center somewhere. I’m just delighted about the talk.

Malina: You know, Jenny, it sucks being a systems engineer who goes into the data center when you’re female. I did this when I was at University of Maryland, I maintained my own rack of hardware. At one point, I had to go in and repair a dead node, and I was wearing a skirt. And cluster rooms have air that blows up from underneath! I had my own personal Marilyn Monroe moment. And to rub salt in the wound, usually server rooms are completely unoccupied, but for reasons unknown to me, it was completely full of men. So I was holding my skirt to just bring the [redacted] node online!

Jenny: Those rooms are cold, right?

Malina: And noisy. I worked in a server room for a month, and I had hearing loss.

Jenny: I’m going to go to a server room soon.

Malina: Don’t wear a skirt! You might forget. But don’t do it! Actually, on that question about what I’ve learned, that’s my answer. No skirts at the data center. That’s my sage advice to all women.


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