Next year, I’ll be very hard to find. I’ll be crossing the ocean on a boat with no GPS, taking the Rum Route from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean.
To chart my course, I’ll use an old-fashioned navigational tool called a sextant, the stars, and a pat of butter. I’ll head down the coast of Africa, and when the butter starts to melt, turn west.
This month-long adventure is my choice for Intermission, a four-week leave for Shopify employees that have been with the company for five years. I’ve been leading the company’s engineering organization for that long now, but my journey to get here started years before that.
In fact, it began in high school. I really wanted to compose music. I’m a bit of an introvert, but I convinced myself to go to band class. I got tired of how long it took to get everyone warmed up and down to business, so I thought to myself, “How can I play music, kind of like with the band, but alone in my basement?”
I taught myself how to record music sequences on my first computer, an Atari 1040ST and Cubase, and I was hooked. I never specifically wanted to spend my life working on computers; they were just useful tools for the outcome I wanted.
I’ve been creating music and using computers ever since, and I no longer do it alone. I’ve learned that being in a band of people just as passionate as you are is far superior to remaining solo.
To me, Shopify is a really interesting musical score that we’re writing together. Learning how much the people here love building software was the deciding factor for me to join. It’s so much fun being surrounded by people who want to jam together.
When I officially joined the team, onboarding involved learning the specific musical notes that make up the company. I spent a lot of time with our support team learning the ins and outs of the product. What immediately struck me was how self-guided much of the journey was. Outside of the onboarding experience, each employee is given a lot of autonomy to figure out their path here.
This method of learning is the exact opposite of how we’re trained our entire lives. Our education system revolves around being given direction. Your tasks are provided to you; you have homework and tests that will be graded for your report card. They tell you, “This is what you have to do, and here’s how you do it.”But what happens when the curriculum is yours to define?
At Shopify, we don’t tell people how to solve problems. And that’s difficult for a lot of people, because of how counter it is to what we’re taught in school. It takes time to get used to. Your performance reviews aren’t about, “Did you do what we told you to do?” Instead it’s, “What did you discover this year? What should we be doing that we’re not? And how are you helping us make progress in that direction?”
“There’s a blank canvas here. The people who do best in this environment are the ones who are intrinsically motivated, and good at self-directed learning that never ends.”
There’s a blank canvas here. The people who do best in this environment are the ones who are intrinsically motivated, and good at self-directed learning that never ends. There is always more to find out. Our programs like Intermission and Own Your Own Development allow you to choose your own adventure when it comes to professional development. Some people attend conferences or workshops; some invite guest lecturers into our offices; some dive headfirst into new technology or tools to figure them out. Making time to take ourselves out of our day-to-day workload is incredibly important.
Because at some point, in order to make that great music, you have to head back to the studio. You have to try entirely new things, and take some time for reflection. Recently, I took myself out of my day-to-day to figure out how to build a game on a new piece of technology. I haven’t created a game in a long time, but it was so much fun. There came a point when I was waking up at 4:30 AM and saying to myself, “Oh, now I know how to solve that problem!”
As much as it’s important to be self-motivated to learn, a sense of community is important too. Every person in the company needs to be moving in the same direction in order for us to make progress. One of the best ways we’ve been able to keep this forward momentum is by coming together for collective learning. We kick off every year with Shopify Summit, an internal conference for the entire company to discuss what we want to achieve in the year ahead. Recently, we launched an additional event called RnD Summit where our research and development organization comes together to talk about how we’re going to achieve those things. Ideas come from everyone — from our most senior leadership to our 18-year-old Dev Degree interns who are completing their education in a work-integrated learning program we’ve pioneered over the last few years.
We’re at a point now where we’re big enough to tackle really large problems, but small enough that we haven’t figured them all out yet. Not by a long shot. If you’re a builder at heart; if you want to take all of your life experiences and apply them to a blank canvas with some really powerful tools at your disposal, Shopify is the sweet spot for you.
“Ideas come from everyone — from our most senior leadership to our 18-year-old Dev Degree interns.”