Welcome to this Spotlight on Essenters! Today we will be speaking with Tom Voigt – Jansen, a DevOps Engineer Frontend at Essent IT.
CAN YOU SHARE A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AND HOW YOU GOT STARTED IN IT?
After finishing high school, I started an HBO program in 'Commercial Economics'. However, it did not take long for me to realize that there was not a promising future for me in this field. It lacked the kind of creativity I hoped for (although creativity might exist in Economics, I could not seem to find it). So, the following year, I made a change and enrolled in a program that promised to stimulate my creativity: 'Communication and Multimedia Design' at Avans Hogeschool in 's-Hertogenbosch. This program had a wide-ranging curriculum encompassing communication, (media) philosophy, User Experience Design, Human-Computer Interaction, and even Front-end Development (back when jQuery was still cool and React had not emerged yet).
During my studies, I learned about Frontend Development and UX Design. This eventually led me to start an entrepreneurial journey, starting my own self-employed venture. My company focused on developing small-scale websites using various open-source content management systems. I believed that this path would not only allow me to earn extra income but also provide a platform to apply the theoretical knowledge I had acquired.
After graduating, I ambitioned to expand my company. However, I soon realized that the frontend landscape was undergoing a significant transformation. The emergence of AngularJS and React led to richer front-end applications, which became more complex to build. While my education in Communication and Multimedia Design had equipped me with valuable skills, it lacked the in-depth programming knowledge that a dedicated Software Engineering program provides.
In light of this, I had to reassess my career path and personal goals. Consequently, I decided to take a position as a front-end developer at a small web development agency in the Tilburg area. This role provided me with my first hands-on experience in building complex frontend applications, along with exposure to the Sitecore CMS. Our client base ranged from small and medium-sized enterprises to government agencies, including the Dutch municipal health services and 'safety regions.' I vividly recall the contrasts in product development approaches. Working with government agencies with strict requirements, such as accessibility standards, was a distinct experience compared to collaborating with smaller enterprises. These differences required varied approaches to quality assurance in frontend development.
HOW DID YOU END UP WORKING AT ESSENT?
Well, I initially joined Essent in 2017 as a consultant. At that time, Essent's acquisition channels, which included marketing pages and sales funnels for energy and gas services, were quite different from what they are today. I became part of a development team tasked with modernizing a set of legacy sales funnels. During this process, I discovered my passion for working on multiple iterations of the same project and brand over extended periods, rather than repeating the same project.
This newfound enthusiasm for long-term projects led me to apply for a permanent position at Essent in 2018. Joining as the only developer in a team composed of marketers, analysts, content editors, designers, and other specialists, I, along with the two other front-end developers I collaborated with, had to devise our own solutions for the specific needs of our stakeholders and team members. This experience proved to be a valuable learning opportunity in modern front-end development.
However, the structure of front-end development within the marketing department changed, and I began to feel a sense of stagnation in my personal development. Recognizing the need for a fresh challenge, in 2021 I decided to apply for a new function within Essent, within IT.
COULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CURRENT ROLE AND YOUR PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITIES?
My transition from the Energy Sales department to Essent IT coincided with a significant shift happening within Essent IT itself. We were transitioning from a traditional separation of Development and Operations teams and responsibilities to becoming a full-fledged DevOps company. This marked a pivotal moment in my career
As a DevOps Engineer specializing in Frontend, and as a member of the Sitecore+ Platform Team (which is responsible for one of the platforms we utilize for delivering our digital acquisition and self-service channels), my scope of responsibilities expanded significantly. While I continued to be involved in front-end development within our Nx Angular mono repository, my primary focus shifted towards addressing a critical question: How can we empower not only ourselves but also all the developers, content editors, designers, and analysts working on this platform to implement changes swiftly? It turns out that making changes quickly is one thing, but doing so safely, securely, and reliably is an entirely different challenge.
My daily routine now revolves around maintaining the health of our project, optimizing the Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery pipelines, and observing and monitoring our production environments. The ultimate goal is to ensure that both our customers at home and our internal customers (our colleagues) enjoy reliable products and services. This task is undeniably challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding and, most importantly, enjoyable. Every day brings new and exciting challenges, and I thrive in this dynamic environment where no two days are alike.
WHAT PROJECT OR INITIATIVE ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
ARE THERE ANY SETBACKS YOU HAVE ENCOUNTERED IN THIS ROLE? HOW DID YOU NAVIGATE THEM?
My biggest challenge was the lack of formal education in Software Engineering. However, I have overcome this with the belief that I should not compare myself to others, but only to myself. At Essent IT we have many skilled engineers who are always open to provide feedback, coaching and mentoring. If you are open to it, you will learn something new every day. I no longer want to learn everything. I want to become good at skills that are not fully represented at Essent so that I can teach others.
I have come to believe that setbacks exist in many shapes and sizes. They are also a natural part of any job. Learning from them and making sure they stop happening in the exact same way is what makes this job fun and challenging.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE CULTURE WITHIN YOU TEAM OR DEPARTMENT?
Within Essent IT, there is a big focus on providing a healthy and safe environment for Engineers to thrive in.
Within my team I have observed a remarkable openness to new ideas and contributions, provided they align with one's current level and expertise, of course. While we all have different opinions on how our products and services should be built, we understand that we need each other to deliver the quality that is expected of us. This helps us put our differences aside and focus on the long-term objectives.
WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU THINK ARE MOST IMPORTANT FOR SUCCESS IN YOUR ROLE OR TEAM?
We must understand product development. Yes, we build software. Yes, there’s tons of best good practices to follow. But more importantly, we need to understand the context and culture of the company. Not every solution that is a success in a specific environment works for us, because we must deal with problems that are unique to our culture and way of working. Understanding these problems is the basis for building working software for our platform.
HOW DO YOU ENVISION THE FUTURE LANDSCAPE OF YOUR INDUSTRY AFFECTING YOUR ROLE?
With the release of Github Copilot, ChatGPT and LLM’s in general, you often read how the days of developers are numbered. Product Managers will only need to write a good prompt and they will get a complete working product solving the (unique) problems within their domain. Right? No, I do not believe that to be true. These are tools for us to use and apply in our domains and problem spaces.
As for front-end development, I believe applications will get increasingly smaller to enable total autonomy for teams. While the individual applications we work on may become smaller and more straightforward, the prospect of orchestrating a cohesive fleet of these applications to power our products and services is genuinely thrilling. We look forward to working on it soon!
ARE THERE ANY HABITS OR ROUTINES YOU HAVE ESTABLISHED THAT CONTRIBUTE TO YOUR EFFECTIVENESS?
I am sure this is hard to believe for some people but working less makes me more effective. Being an effective problem-solver and programmer 8 hours a day is not possible for me. There is a 5–6-hour limit I can really focus on a problem. The rest of the time I usually spend getting inspired and learning about what is happening in my areas of interest: front-end development, cloud, DevOps and UX.
Next to that I have learned from actual experts in the field (thanks Prof. Scherder!) that a healthy mind needs a healthy body. Taking care of myself by doing low intensity sports (such as hiking in the woods), high-intensity sports (such as lifting weights) and sleeping enough have helped me more than grinding on problems for hours and hours on end.
ANY ADVISE FOR PEOPLE ASPIRING TO WORK IN YOUR FIELD OR IN A ROLE SIMILAR TO YOURS?
- Do not compare yourself to others. If you are passionate about what you do you will achieve your ambitions at your own pace.
- Find something you enjoy doing, put in the effort to make it your own and excel.
- One of the best ways to learn is by teaching. Find experienced engineers around you who want to mentor you. Then pay it forward by sharing that knowledge with engineers that are less experienced than you are.
- Move out into the world! Join online communities (Reddit, Discord, to name a few). Attend conferences and get inspired!
We would like to thank Tom for the time he took to speak to us, and for the insights he shares.
If you have any lingering questions for him, do not hesitate to drop a comment below. We will ensure you are promptly connected.