Cortland Klein on engineering management at SmartNews
Cortland recently joined SmartNews as an engineering manager, where he leads a six person team. He talks about what drew him to the company, his role as a manager, and how they use matrix management to maximize their engineers’ success.
Cortland got his start as a software engineer in the United States, where he worked at both small startups, and a large tech company. When he first visited Tokyo, he fell in love with the city, and decided he wanted to live here. Since coming to Japan, he’s worked for large tech companies, both domestic and international subsidiaries. Six months ago, he joined SmartNews, where he’s an engineering manager.
I personally fell in love with the app. I use it every day. I thought wouldn’t it be cool to work for the same company.
Initially, SmartNews’ product itself drew him to the company. He said, “The product is a really great news app that can be used in Japan and also in the United States. Maybe this is a little bit personal, but as I’ve been in Japan, the political situation in the US has gotten a little bit complicated over the last several years. I feel like the SmartNews product is a great tool and resource that can be used by people to learn about what’s going on in society and what’s going on in the world.”
He continued, “One feature that specifically got me excited is the feature called ‘News From All Sides’. When you open up a political article for instance, the app will show articles from different political backgrounds or different perspectives. I personally fell in love with the app. I use it every day. I thought wouldn’t it be cool to work for the same company.”
There’s little bureaucracy, more chance to be part of conversations from the beginning, but it’s still a big enough company where we have a diverse set of people who have different skills and backgrounds, where we can support each other and build more complicated and complex exciting products and backends on the tech side.
Additionally, he saw working at SmartNews as a great opportunity to grow his career. He said, “Previously I’d been working at much larger companies, both domestic and international subsidiaries. The really great thing about working here is that it is still relatively speaking a smaller company, where there’s more opportunity to make a bigger impact in the product, and also how we’re going to do things from an engineering perspective. This is really more fun, dynamic, and creative. There’s little bureaucracy, more chance to be part of conversations from the beginning, but it’s still a big enough company where we have a diverse set of people who have different skills and backgrounds, where we can support each other and build more complicated and complex exciting products and backends on the tech side.”
Cortland currently leads the content platform team, where he manages six engineers. The team’s responsibility is fetching articles from the internet, extracting metadata like the title and author, performing content understanding, which classifies an article with a topic like sports, politics, or entertainment, and then indexing it into their internal index for other teams to use.
As a manager, much of his time is spent communicating. He said, “Most of my time is spent having a lot of one-on-one conversations, not only with members of my team, but also the members of other teams my team works with, as well as other engineering managers, product managers, and our business development members who are on the business side.”
One of the exciting opportunities working as an engineering manager at SmartNews is that we have a great chance to work one-on-one with engineers directly.
In addition to using his people management skills, his role also has him exercising his technical skills. He said, “One of the exciting opportunities working as an engineering manager at SmartNews is that we have a great chance to work one-on-one with engineers directly. It’s very hands on, directly being part of code review, system design planning, risk management around keeping our on call from going too crazy, and then finally, infrastructure planning, how can we build stuff that supports the features that we want to do today, while also scaling out in terms of the amount of data, the amount of users, and also the complexity of the features we want to build in the future.”
SmartNews has adopted a matrix management organization structure, and so each member of Cortland’s team is also a member of a cross-functional “squad”, that also has people from product management, business development, and potentially designers or machine learning engineers. He also plays a role in supporting and facilitating those cross-functional projects as well.
This organization structure excites him because it provides people with two opportunities to make an impact, both by learning from and sharing with engineers with a similar skill set on their team, and from contributing directly in a cross functional way, working with product managers or business development members. He said, “Most companies have one or the other. Engineers either work only with other engineers, and not have the chance to work cross functionally. Or they’ll work cross functionally, but they won’t have a lot of chances to work with other engineers. Because we have this structure, it gives people two chances to make an impact.”
Owing to SmartNews’ size, this structure doesn’t create too much overhead. He said, “Our company is still relatively small, so the amount of interdependent connections and dependencies are still not excessively limiting. For example, in an extremely large company, the amount of technical or project dependencies between different teams and organizations can really bog down and grind down the productivity of someone. Like you’re waiting for them to do something, and they’re waiting for someone else to do something. That kind of thing can be a little bit frustrating. In our organization, the benefit is that because we are very lean, we don’t block each other, so each team and cross-functional squad is able to move quickly.”
Because our company is still small and very lean, but we’re growing really rapidly, we’re always having opportunities to begin a new project or kick off a new initiative. This is always the most fun part: to get everyone’s crazy ideas.
Cortland also appreciates that he gets to frequently be involved in kicking off new projects. He said, “The thing that I enjoy the most about my job is sitting down with engineers and my team, with other teams, and product managers and our business development members at the earliest stage of a project. Because our company is still small and very lean, but we’re growing really rapidly, we’re always having opportunities to begin a new project or kick off a new initiative. This is always the most fun part: to get everyone’s crazy ideas. Obviously probably 80 or 90% of them aren’t going to work out, but having those conversations at the beginning, to really find what is the best direction for this project, to make something that’s going to be really cool for our users, is something I really enjoy.”
Summarizing why he thinks SmartNews is a good place to work, he said, “I think SmartNews is a great opportunity for people who really care about providing news and other important information to people. This is a great opportunity to work in an environment that is very diverse in terms of different cultural backgrounds and technical skills, and also a large enough environment that we have support to work on larger and more interesting complex projects. Every month, it’s always getting more and more exciting, so we always encourage people to reach out and talk to us, and see if this is a good fit for them.”