One of the most powerful abilities one can possess is the ability to reflect on oneself and one’s past. As such, I sat down with Matthew Constance - the first firmware engineer at Switchee. We wanted to reflect back on his work and talk about how far we have come as a team and as a company.
This is the first blog of its kind at Switchee, but certainly not the last. We hope this interview will pave the way for a series of conversations with our world-class team.
What was the biggest thing that has motivated you to begin working on Switchee’s first product?
I worked as an engineer for many years, but I had never worked for an early-stage startup with only a few people in it. This appealed to me because it was a challenge I had never dealt with before. Aside from the change of company size, it was the product itself and the mission that really pushed me towards jumping on board. The fact that it helps people and the environment, as well as the fact that the company is led by a team of motivated and inspiring founders, was a huge inspiration. I could really see that everyone believed in the mission and that made me willing to help them turn their vision into reality.
The opportunity to build something and be the main engineer responsible for that project’s completion has also really inspired me to give it my all. I dedicated my evenings looking into the challenges Switchee faced and working on solutions to solve them. This really helped me to get an understanding of what working for Switchee really looked and felt like. I enjoyed it! There was a lot of trust there. They trusted me and I trusted them - which really helped me make the job switch at the time.
Furthermore, Switchee’s culture has always allowed me to work from home. In my career that hasn’t been very common and so Switchee was such a great opportunity for me to try something different. The flexibility really appealed to me at the time. I still find the flexibility very convenient for my working style.
How has your professional experience helped you on the path to achieving Switchee perfection?
Firstly, technical - without my technical experience I would not have been able to do it. In the early days, there was a lot of pressure and we didn’t have a lot of time to complete the work. Coupling this with the fact that I was working on my own really meant that without my previous technical experience I would not have been able to produce the results we needed. My ability to write firmware and create complete designs rather than just a part of them was also crucial. I knew I could write programs that would allow people to add functionality in the future and could withstand that, but I also had a good amount of experience of hardware. For Switchee this was very important as the firmware and hardware work so closely together in a typical embedded system.
Secondly, although firmware is obviously a strong part of my experience, thinking more holistically, I can not underestimate how important it was to be resilient in the face of adversity. My resilience has been built through years working on multiple projects, with a large variety of people and characters in companies both big and small. You certainly need those qualities as well as the power to overcome your personal feelings when it comes to remaining calm and collected and delivering great projects that will impact the whole business. It is also that resilience that has helped me when challenges arose. Being in a small startup meant that there was a very thin line between myself and the direct customer, who would be receiving the products I had been working on. Therefore, every bug and every miscalculation would bring with it unfiltered feedback straight to my desk. It is not always easy, but you have to take full ownership over your work. This has ultimately encouraged me to work harder and keep our customer in mind at all times.
While working on Switchee, what has been your proudest moment?
My proudest moment was in December 2016, within weeks of the company’s deadline for a product launch. There was no time to waste and the initial batch of Switchees had to work! We had been testing the units amongst ourselves and we were fixing the faults and the bugs we saw. Working on those took us a few months to make sure we were ready for the release. At the time, any small issue would create real internal pressure as we strove for a successful launch. Making our customers happy was and is the main motivator for producing our best work as a team! I can not describe the relief and the sense of accomplishment I felt in the end when that first batch of Switchees sent us back clear and correct data. This was the first huge win for Switchee as a product and definitely one of my proudest moments. Of course, things were by no means finished and there was still plenty of work to be done, however, we saw this as a meaningful first step in the right direction.
Have things always been smooth and easy?
No, absolutely not! No piece of software is ever perfect and once things are released the work is never over as there will always be bugs and things to fix throughout its lifetime. I have frequently had to deal with new features and old bugs simultaneously. In the early days of a startup, when processes are still being established, it can be challenging to ensure consistency and alignment. Every member of the Switchee team has all worked very hard to get to where we are now. What has really helped us is creating robust processes and frameworks that enable us to fulfil expectations.
When we are dealing with any project it is important to have all hands on deck. I would say for me, the most challenging part of this was the lack of resources we had in the early days. As a team, we had to overcome this with true dedication and resilience. From where we were then to where we are now is a huge contrast - we have a great team across our R&D department and that is an incredible thing to have! I would say another important part of my journey was understanding that any issues happening with our device would affect a real person in a real house. The level of impact any change we make might cause to a resident has always kept us on our toes!
Looking back and seeing how much work has been completed, how do you feel?
I feel very proud of what I have achieved in my role. There are now thousands of Switchees in people’s homes across the country. I am incredibly proud of how far we’ve come. This is a personal and professional achievement as there were certainly times throughout the journey when I have struggled and had to pick myself up again to see things through. However, for me, the more challenging a problem is and the more I stick at it the more rewarding it feels when things finally work as they were meant to. It was all worth it as I have that experience for life now! I hope the experience that I’ve gained and the features I have helped build will influence the product as it grows and develops. As a company, we have certainly learned a lot through this journey. Now as a bigger and better team we have a more focussed idea of what we need to do with our smart devices and cloud infrastructure to make the most difference in the social housing space. Things can only improve now as the challenges we have overcome have paved the way to a smoother and better product. I am excited to see what’s coming next!
What advice would you give to a firmware engineer who is thinking of building something like this?
Admit your mistakes and be honest - I guess this could apply to any person from any walk of life really. Try to be honest about how long things are going to take! Don’t say it will take a week if it is going to take a month - you are not doing anyone any favours. Saying that, I have definitely got some time estimates wrong in the past so just work extra hard to try to meet them as best you can - but don’t cut corners or rush things!
If someone reports a bug, then look into it with an open mind - Never assume anything and work to get it resolved. It is always a good demonstration of a person’s character how well he or she acts when things don’t go to plan and the pressure is on! It is also very important how your colleagues and management act in these situations as well and I’m happy to say that at Switchee there has never been any hint of blame or untoward pressure.
Be ready to receive feedback on the devices that went into the field from our users - It might feel like you are only getting complaints and without the right mindset, this can be extremely negative. I have learnt to be resilient and accept feedback for what it is. The main objective is to make the resident’s life easier and that is what matters the most, not your pride.
Be prepared to finish things off - 80% of the effort in programming is in the last 20% of the task! When you do not have a big team around you, you have to be prepared to follow through with it and be ready for any post-release challenges. When things go wrong with a device that’s in the field, you have to be ready to tackle those issues.
Keep things simple - Complicating your firmware will create more challenging problems, so my advice to other firmware engineers is to keep it clean and lean.
Finally, I strongly believe that we should never give up on learning, Be prepared to learn and adapt to things. You can’t just apply the same old knowledge repeatedly. Life is surely going to put you in some situations you’ve never dealt with before and having a growth mindset will help you to go a long way! Above all, learning is fun and in the world of tech startups, you’ll never run out of things to learn!