What it’s like to be a product engineer at HumanFirst

Today, we’re catching up with product engineers Giselle Rogers and James Ward to learn more about what it’s like to work at HumanFirst, an organization on a mission to enable the seamless incorporation of digital health technologies & digital biomarkers into clinical research, resulting in better, differentiated treatments that improve health outcomes for all humans.

Let’s start with a simple question: how’d you end up here?

James: It actually almost didn’t happen: I was about to take a six-month vacation when, all of a sudden, somebody from the Recurse Center engineering retreat reached out and said, “ I think there’s somebody you need to talk to.” I talked to a bunch of friends who were like, “Andy [Coravos]? Yeah, I know Andy.” After chatting with her, I knew I had to be part of the team.

Giselle: For me, after college I went into clinical research for a while. Then I made the move to change careers and learn how to code, and applied!

I had two goals going into a software engineering role: I wanted to focus on growth and I did not want to lose the human touch, something I was not so sure was possible in this career, but I was determined. With HumanFirst I knew I’d be challenged, and that Andy and James were dedicated to my growth: they promised they wouldn’t offer me this job unless they could dedicate a mentor to me to help me reach my full potential. In terms of keeping the human touch, HumanFirst was the perfect choice. The humans who make, use, and are supported by our products are the center of everything we do.

What did that support look like? What are some things new hires might expect to see?

Giselle: James and I pair programmed frequently early on to learn the ropes and get exposed to things that I might not have been doing on my own. The team has constantly challenged me to level up. They’ll give me something, and I’ll be terrified, but it doesn’t matter because I know I won’t be stuck on my own, and that we’re all in it together to try to bring to market this product we all believe in.

Another element is our ‘360’ reviews. When I first heard that we had them every six weeks, I was scared straight. We’ve all had feedback at jobs, and I love the idea of getting feedback, but I don’t have a lot of experience giving it. 360s teach you to communicate more effectively and give feedback to more senior people on the team. It’s so valuable to be given feedback from all different levels of the company, and be able to turn it around and see results in the next round [of 360s].

HumanFirst waited a long time to hire a traditional product team, partly because there was a lot of product and entrepreneurial skill on the engineering team. How do you now think about your interactions with the product team?

James: We work closely with them — nothing’s just “tossed over the wall” to engineering. It’s important for us to have some say in the development, which is why we could work so well when we didn’t even have a product team: we all actually look at the product and think about how we’d operate it.

We always talk about the Helpful Hierarchy, “levels four and five.” It’s a framework that everyone at the company is thinking about on some level. It’s something we’ve ingrained pretty well.

What’s one thing you didn’t expect when you joined?

Giselle: Honestly, I didn’t expect everybody to be so cool. I remember joining and thinking, “How did they curate this group of individuals who are all so interesting and good at what they do?”

The team is also collaborative. I didn’t expect there to be intra-team competition, but the way people work together, there’s no fear of falling behind. It feels like there’s one goal, versus a bunch of individual careers. At the same time, people aren’t afraid to try new things, even if you’re going to make a mistake here and there. There are always things that can go wrong, but our culture is one that welcomes mistakes, because they’re something to learn from.

Another thing I didn’t expect was to be shipping code on my first day. We love getting code out there and shipping new features and fixes to our customers through daily deployments to production. It’s terrifying but rewarding to see what you’re building go online later that night. In clinical research we’d be working on drugs that would come out five or ten years later, but here we’re seeing an impact immediately. Our platform is being used to make things better for individuals right now.

Giselle, what do you see as some of the benefits of working at HumanFirst?

Giselle: One that comes to mind is the build weeks, hackathons, and design sprints aimed at showcasing cross-team collaboration. We develop some pretty extraordinary things in under a week. I used to be terrified of these events, but it’s been extremely rewarding to work with non-engineers, and to develop outside-the-box ideas that we didn’t expect to have on our standard product roadmap. As a company HumanFirst prioritizes making space for this sort of experimentation: we’re always looking to hone our craft and not settling for what’s already on our “tool belt.”

James: We’ve talked a lot about how people are excited to be here, but the company also pushes for work-life balance. You end up with a passionate team that’s also empathetic in terms of keeping each other in check. It leads to people feeling like they actually have time outside of work to be themselves and live their lives.

Giselle: I was coming from a job that had pretty high burnout, so that was definitely something I was looking to avoid. Here we encourage boundaries. It’s amazing to see how effective you can be when you’re in the right environment, with the flexibility to stretch your schedule the way you need it to be.

What does a day in the life of a HumanFirst product engineer actually look like?

Giselle: We’re not ticket eaters — we’re looking not just at the technical aspects of software engineering, but how to actually solve problems for real users. There’s a lot of autonomy: every day I work on projects involving the full tech stack and the UX/UI decisions, as well as product decisions if I want to. I didn’t expect to have that sort of experience so early in my career.

One thing I’ve done on the product side is spearhead a project to bring in a group that we’re calling “data integrators.” It’s been pretty cool to work on a project from the very beginning of planning, to starting to talk with vendors, to getting it into our platform. On the engineering side, one of my goals this quarter was to work on our infrastructure to improve the reliability of our application through separating our background tasks from our api server. It’s been incredibly rewarding to stretch myself in different and challenging ways.

Some people are afraid to join an early-stage team. How did you think about the risks of joining a Series A company?

James: It’s inherently risky, but compared to other startups that I’ve seen, where the risk is, “Well, we ran out of money,” [at HumanFirst] we have a strong runway, and we’re very cognizant about that.

The other risk that you will often see is startups not uncovering what their customers really want, and just trying the same thing over and over. Most startups fail because they don’t find that market fit. I think we’ve shown that we’re not going to be just completely tied to our ideas — that we’ll follow new threads, and if something isn’t working, we’ll stop doing that.

Giselle: Everybody’s going to have their own comfort level with risk, but I feel like it’s the right risk-level for me. I feel we have a solid team, and a solid product, and solid evidence that our product is wanted.

What is one of the things you’re most proud of at HumanFirst?

James: Can I say “hiring Giselle”? (laughs)

Giselle: Good answer. (laughs)

James: I mean, there’s all the coding stuff, and the product stuff, and the API, and that’s all great — but at the end of the day, to me, it’s always the people. I’ve been thrilled seeing the team grow. When I joined we were four or five people. I’m proud of how we’ve been able to keep our values even as we’ve scaled four or five times in size.