My conversation with Peter Kovacs, December 2010

Peter Kovacs graduated from URI in 2001 with a B.S. degree in computer science. He is now a Staff Engineer at Visible Certainty and works remotely from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Peter standing in front of the Château du Plessis-Bourré,
 Loire valley in France.

FMC: You recently began work at Visible Certainty. Tell us about your present position and what Visible Certainty does.

PK: Visible Certainty is currently in the e-mail business.  We make a product called SaneBox, which categorizes incoming e-mail based on the sender’s importance to you.  We separate e-mail into several piles: things you should look at immediately, as soon as possible, and maybe someday.

I am currently a Staff Engineer, one of four people working at the company.  Because of the small size, I have to wear many different hats.  One day I may be debugging our IMAP client, another day I may be making changes to our website.  The wide variety of challenges keeps me on my toes and keeps me thinking in new ways.

FMC: How did you get your first position after graduation?

PK: I was hired by a startup before I officially graduated. A few of my professors had a connection with the company and arranged an interview. I was hired as a full-time software developer as I finished the last few credits for my degree.

Since that point, I've been lucky enough to not have to search for new employment too many times. When I have, the jobs have almost invariably come through the connections I made to my peers during my time at URI. Evaluating the skill of prospective engineers can be extremely challenging, so many companies find it easiest to hire people with whom they, or their employees, are already familiar. 

FMC: You've held several positions since you graduated. Give us an overview of your career path so far. Why did you change positions, and how did you move from one to the next?

PK: My career path has been typical for those who like to work at small startup companies. My first job lasted less than a year before the company ceased operations. Luckily I was able to find another job in the RI area almost immediately after by searching various online job boards. After that I knew that I wanted to move up to the Boston area, so I concentrated a job search in that region and found a position through a former peer at URI. 

FMC: What was this position? What did you do?

PK: I worked as a "Staff Engineer" for a relatively large, VC-funded start up. The company started off by making gambling software for satellite set-top boxes. Then we made a subscription gaming product for the UK market. Finally the company morphed into making software for casino and lottery promotions. I worked primarily in C++, PHP, and Perl.

I worked at this company for a number of years. After weighing the options of expensive city real estate, a long commute from the suburbs, and moving to an entirely different part of the country, my wife and I decided to move our growing family out of the Boston area. Since moving, I have worked remotely for three different companies.

FMC: Did you work for all of them at the same time?

PK: No, I held these positions as a full-time employee, and worked for each company serially. 

FMC: What's it like to work remotely?

PK: Working remotely can definitely be challenging. I think it takes a special kind of engineer and a special kind of manager to make it happen right. The biggest key is communication. There's no chance of striking up a casual conversation by the coffee maker, so you have to be sure to communicate all the time. We communicated via email, obviously, but we also had a chat channel. And when that wasn't enough, we picked up the phone. I would say that I am on the phone nearly an hour over the course of a typical day. These days the phone is iChat which has the added benefit of built-in video chat and screen sharing. That is especially useful when your entire company is based all over the country. (Visible Certainty, in as much as it has a location, is in Boston.  The company has four employees; one lives in Colorado, another in Michigan, I’m in Charlotte, and the boss works at the "headquarters" in Boston.)

To me, the benefits far outweigh the potential negatives: you don't have any commute, you can live where it makes the most sense for you, and you can really minimize distractions and get lots of work done.

FMC: How do you find a job that allows you to work remotely? Must the company be local to where you live, or might it be far away?

PK: While I'm sure it may be possible to find a job that allows you to work remotely straight away, in my case it was something that developed over time.  I worked for each manager for at least a few years before either of us felt comfortable enough in this arrangement.  So I guess to answer the question, I started by working at a local company to develop a good relationship and good habits before being able to work for a company far away.

Unfortunately, I've found that when you're local to a company (or to other employees of the same company), often times the company wants you to work in the same physical space.  It is, perhaps, the somewhat unusual circumstance of moving away from the Northeast that allowed me to work remotely for several of these companies.

What's interesting is I that I didn't really intend to work remotely for such a long time.  After moving down to Charlotte, I figured that after a few years I would just get a job locally.  As it turned out, the right opportunity kept presenting itself, and it really is a style of living and working that I quite enjoy.

FMC: In your experience, do software engineers typically follow a path like the one you've taken? Should our new graduates expect to change jobs as often?

PK: The path I've followed is a fairly common one, but not necessarily typical. For every person I know who's had several positions, I also know one who has worked for the same company for 10 years. I don't think new graduates should expect any particular career path. Changing jobs is sometimes forced on you, and sometimes it’s clear that the company you're working for just isn't right for you. Graduates should think about the balance of stability and novelty that's comfortable for them.

FMC: Is there a downside to changing jobs as often as you did?

PK: Well, the downside is that usually the first few months of a new job are the hardest. Once you get an understanding of the code you're responsible for, things become easier. So each time you change jobs, you've got to go through that hard adjustment period again. That and filling out all the paperwork at your Doctor's office again because you just changed insurance for the 3rd time in six months. :)

FMC: How hard to you work? Does your career leave you with enough time to enjoy life?

PK: Working at a startup, I do have to work fairly hard. This means that I sometimes have to work beyond the stated workday. In exchange, though, I get to work on some very fulfilling things. To me, being satisfied with my work is an easy trade off for an extra hour or two of free time.

FMC: Can you give some advice to our current students?

PK: Become friends with as many of your peers as you can. You never know who is going to help you get your next job. Get the widest variety of experiences you can, so you know what sorts of things you really enjoy working on. Finally, know your fundamentals; new graduates aren't expected to know everything, but they are expected to be productive. You need to lay a good foundation in school so that you're ready for the challenges in the workplace.

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