# Engineer Stories - An interview with Suhail Patel, Staff Engineer at Monzo
A common refrain we've heard from younger engineers is they have limited visibility into the path taken by more senior engineers during their careers - what did they learn, why did they make certain choices, how did they make important decisions to progress their career, and so on.
To help with this, we're taking some time to chat with experienced engineers currently working in tech. First up this week, we have Suhail Patel, currently a Staff Engineer at Monzo (opens new window).
Suhail is a Staff Engineer at Monzo. He develops and operates large-scale distributed systems with a focus on making them reliable and performant to ensure that customers have access to managing their money 24/7. Typically you’ll find Suhail with headphones, listening to electronic music while he works; some have noted a direct correlation between the beats-per-minute (BPM) of the music and Suhail’s thought process.
# The journey so far
How would you describe your journey so far in a few sentences? Have you always coded, how many years have you been working, etc
My entry into coding was primarily through online forums and communities. I checked out some books on PHP4 + HTML coding and that was my entry gateway by helping to maintain these forums and build community specific functionality. I didn’t quite realise that I was coding by writing little scripts and plugins purely for curiosity for forum software such as PHPBB and vBulletin.
I got my first professional job because I responded to a tweet from someone I admired in the web hosting industry. I was in the interview the next day and working for a company called OnApp (part of UK2 at the time) the Monday after as an iOS engineer. I am eternally grateful to the folks there for providing the freedom to explore and pick up skills in iOS/Android/Web/Ruby on Rails and much more! I love telling this story, something as simple as a tweet was the catalyst to us having this email exchange many years later.
My focus evolved from mobile apps into more backend apps over the past 6-7 years and now focused much more towards the hosting, operation, reliability, and performance aspects of deployment large-scale systems and server infrastructure for the past 2-3 years.
# A typical day
What does a typical day for an engineer look like at your company? How would you describe engineering practices at your company?
I think one of the beauties of engineering is that there is no typical day. Engineers have the power to automate the mundane daily tasks away into pieces of software that can do them reliably and without complaint. A few typical daily activities include having discussions with peers to figure out any dependencies or blockers, writing and deploying code, reviewing code from others. There’s also other responsibilities beyond engineering like taking part in interviews, writing technical documents, providing input into product design and development and more.
Engineering practices within companies play a significant amount to shape your experience as an engineer. Engineers can deploy code from week one at Monzo, we deploy over 100 times every weekday including Fridays, we don’t have Change Review Boards for every change that goes out. Much of this is a function of the kind of technology we continuously invest in. We spend a lot of time providing a reliable platform base, investing in our automated deployment tooling, automated static analysis, robust libraries, rapid CI/CD and good monitoring infrastructure.
We’ve been quite fortunate at Monzo to build a tech stack that has empowered all engineers to continuously and safely ship changes behind the scenes and grow really rapidly as an organisation. A significant portion of this has been building on solid foundations from the open source world like Go (the programming language), Kubernetes, Prometheus and more. We were one of the first UK banks to have the vast majority of our platform infrastructure on the public cloud (we use AWS). We’ve demonstrated that a highly regulated industry like banking can be innovated on with modern technologies and modern software practices right at the forefront.
Beyond the technology itself, we embody transparency in the work we do. We have a strong open proposals culture to share context and knowledge in the decisions we’re making across the company. All incident data is open to all internally and we share war-stories externally from time to time too about when things go wrong. All this helps foster a culture of openness and inclusivity.
# Differences after being promoted to Staff Engineer
Congratulations on your recent promotion! How has your work changed since your promo, how does it compare to before?
Thank you! I’ve been a Staff Engineer for about 9 months now. I still write code and engineer systems on a daily basis and my role is broadly similar to before from a pure engineering perspective. The extra responsibilities are more auxiliary such as taking part in broader architectural reviews and decision making, working on the technical direction for our platform, providing technical expertise across the company, participating in hiring committees and being a mentor and advocate for people across the company.
I think it’s really important for Staff Engineers to keep their ear on the ground and listen out for opportunities and projects that may be being started to potentially boost others from a completely different team who may be a great fit. Some of my favourite moments have been connecting two or more people who had a common idea but were on completely different teams and seeing them run with it together. My goal now is to help others achieve their personal and technical goals within Monzo.
# Promotion process
What was the promotion process like? Did you have to ask for it or was it a surprise, was it the result of a specific project or a long time coming?
At Monzo, your manager is ultimately responsible for your pushing for your promotion. That being said, I’ve come to learn over my career that progression is something that you and your manager should constantly be aligned on. Engineers should definitely be having conversations about salary, levels, goals, progression and promotion with your manager. It sounds potentially obvious but I speak to folks who routinely say that they don’t really talk about these things with their managers. Your relationship with your manager is a two way street, your manager has expectations for you but you should also have expectations for your manager for when they go to bat for you.
For my promotion to Staff Engineer, my focus was to understand and lean into the qualities of Staff Engineers at Monzo so it could be something to grow as an individual. Over time, I’d ask for opportunities with my manager to demonstrate those qualities. The vast majority of these qualities were focused around broadening impact beyond your specific team or area.
# Advice for earlier in your career
What do you wish you knew or learnt about earlier in your career?
Engineering in the industry is much more about collaboration and compromise than just programming. You can be the best programmer in the world but still not be the right fit at certain companies. It’s important to listen to all viewpoints and not let your biases or opinions strongly define you and your thought process as an individual. I like to keep a logbook of every time I’ve been wrong in one of my assumptions and thankfully that logbook has been ever-growing. Use feeds like Twitter and RSS to follow people and companies in your fields of interest but also others in broader fields. Your interests will change and shift over time.
Writing is a severely underrated skill. The best engineers I’ve had the pleasure of working with have been stellar writers and communicators. Others naturally want to go listen to them and that’s how they become technical authorities. If you want to become a better engineer, learn to write in a style that is approachable by all your peers (and even those outside if you truly want to broaden your sphere of influence).
# Wrap up
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Suhail! This seems quite aligned with our explanation of engineering levels, I hope Suhail's story helps inspire others in the industry.
If you are open to sharing your journey, please email us at mike [at] swepro.co.