Exploring Careers

How This Software Engineer Found a Job That Supercharged His Skills—and Built a Supportive Community Along the Way

Alan Johnson, Engineering Manager at Better.com
Courtesy of Better.com

Alan Johnson started building software when he was just 12 years old. “My dad would bring home computer games on floppy disks,” he recalls. “And then I would try to write the sort of games that were floating around.” 

Johnson studied computer engineering at Iowa State for undergrad and then Princeton for graduate school. He left the field for a few years to teach high school in Baltimore before returning to grad school to study music technology at NYU, where he launched a startup to create a fantasy stock market for music. “That fizzled, but the experience embedded me in the New York City tech scene,” he says. 

Then, a mentor told Johnson that he was joining the product team at fintech company Better.com. “He pitched me on the company and I was blown away by the business opportunity and the progress that had been made,” he says. “I was impressed with the sense of community, and I also felt like it was a team where I could both learn and make an impact.”

Johnson also felt a strong connection to Better.com’s mission to streamline the home-buying process and make it more accessible. “As my wife and I got married, bought a house, and started a family, I started paying closer attention to consumer financial services, for the sake of my household,” he says. “I was appalled by the product experience of most financial services, but also inspired by a lot of the work of challenger banks and consumer fintech companies.”

Read about Johnson’s path to success, get an inside look at Better.com’s technology and company culture, and find out why Johnson says building community and giving back to others has been so meaningful in his career.

How would you describe the interview process at Better.com?

Our engineering interview process is aligned with the interview design framework we are rolling out across functions company-wide. Given our pace of growth, it’s strategically imperative that our interview process allows us to hire strong contributors, quickly. We continually reflect on and invest in improving our process.

Before creating a job opening, we first analyze what success within a specific role could look like by capturing the unique engineering and business context of the work. Then, we design the evaluation methodology in relation to the analysis. This might seem obvious, but in past experiences, I’ve been in plenty of engineering interview sessions disconnected from the actual work done at a company.

Our process is as much about the candidate walking away with a clear idea of the job they’d be taking on as it is about us evaluating their qualification for it. During the behavioral part of the interview, all of the questions we ask are introduced with an anecdote about our work environment. The intention is partly to give them information about what they’d be taking on if they joined. In my experience, behavioral interviews are not heavily utilized in engineering hiring, and when they are, the questions are often bland—like “tell me about a time when you worked on a team”—which yields no interesting information to the candidate.

Finally, we spend significant portions of our interview process evaluating “soft skills” because the engineering work isn’t all purely technical. A few things that stand out include working within the complexity of mortgage lending as a business domain, our pace of growth and change as a company, and the learning curve of developing within our custom workflow engine.

How does the technology at Better.com set it apart from its competitors?

We built our business from the ground-up as a tech company, rather than trying to augment a brick-and-mortar operation with off-the-shelf IT. Our operations and technology are continuously coevolving as we revisit the underlying assumptions of a very complex lending process, looking for ways to provide a better customer experience and operate more efficiently.

I have seen a lot of technology in my day, and when I arrived, I was astounded by what was already built. Our core technology is a custom workflow programming engine, which gives us a framework for automating the lending process, while also allowing power users to completely manually originate a mortgage. This allows rapid experimentation and innovation.

What are you responsible for as an engineering manager at Better.com?

I manage two teams within our mortgage engine. One is responsible for the collection of borrower financial data and the underwriting processes that verify eligibility. The other is responsible for all of the processes related to the subject property, which serves as the collateral for the mortgage loan.

Being split between two teams is challenging, especially because each has a broad responsibility, many stakeholders, and lots of work in progress. My technical skills are largely used to understand how our systems work and help our engineers think through solutions, rather than building products myself. I have a lot of faith in my team members to help each other out and I try to ensure they have the right context to take initiative.

I also work really closely with the product managers on my teams to shape plans and allocate work. You could say we collectively serve the roles of being coach and general manager of a really talented team.

What are some notable wins at Better.com, and how did your team accomplish them?

We have digitized the entire mortgage process so homebuyers can get rates in seconds, pre-approval in minutes, and upload and e-sign documents. We have eliminated commissions so homeowners can save an average of $3,500. That makes a significant difference in what homes and communities the homebuyer can access.

My teams work on automation and efficiency. Thanks to the lending framework we maintain, Better.com was able to quickly adapt to the complications brought by COVID-19, such as the inability to have interior appraisal inspections. We have also shipped countless improvements to ensure our processes scale with our rapidly growing company. All of these things support our company-wide goals of driving down cost and turnaround time for borrowers.

What are some high-level trends in developer tech and engineering management that you are excited about right now?

I’m most excited by things that allow developers to focus their coding work directly on business problems, rather than purely technical ones. When I first started programming, I needed to learn how computers actually work to an incredible amount of detail. Today, this level of knowledge is something that a few specialists need, but most engineers can get by without.

One area of software I’m deeply intrigued by is workflow programming, an approach for modeling and implementing business processes directly in software. Tech-enabled companies rely on a combination of interactive apps, data processing software, and automation to operate. Typically, engineers build each of these three types of software using specialized toolkits. However, it becomes awkward to glue these pieces together into coherent business processes; instead, the business processes are emergent from the interactions of independently developed pieces of software. This disconnect creates operational problems at the business level in terms of reliability, observability, maintainability, and performance—even when the individual parts appear to be working effectively.

In much of the software industry, this issue is taken for granted as an inherent challenge of engineering. At Better.com, we do not have the luxury of suffering these problems since our borrowers trust us to provide financing for a complicated, high-value transaction. This business process is composed of hundreds of tasks performed by dozens of individuals, and takes days to complete. It is no exaggeration to say that our customers’ dreams depend on us being able to deliver.

In the workflow programming model, decision-making, automation, and data processing logic are developed together, in a unified framework. We built a custom workflow engine to accomplish this because there were no freely available tools for this when Better.com was founded. To my knowledge, there’s nothing out there quite like it. It’s exciting to work at a company that is pioneering tech within our industry and the broader field of software development.

What do you like about the company culture at Better.com?

I have found Better.com to be a place where good ideas win. For example, I noticed that the same set of people were being asked to meet one-on-one with every engineering new hire for onboarding. Almost off-hand, I mentioned to another manager the idea of organizing classes to do this orientation, and he ran with it and made it happen. It’s amazing to be in a place where people aren’t territorial or only interested in their own ideas. Openness and bias towards action are our superpowers as a company.

You’re very involved in the organization /dev/color. Why is it so important to you?

For those not familiar, /dev/color is a professional development program for Black software developers. I joined about four years ago as a charter member of the New York City chapter. Outside of my work, it was the single most impactful move I have made professionally.

Within my /dev/color squad, we effectively serve as each other’s advisory board. We talk about career strategy and our personal lives. It’s an invaluable outlet. Through the program, I’m also an active member of a network that now spans four major tech cities.

As a Black person, I’m used to trying to present myself as having everything figured out, to preempt prejudice. It took some reflection, but I have retrained myself to understand /dev/color as a safe space, in which I can ask questions and reach out for help. That has had a major impact for me, as my career progressed past the point where I can figure most things out on my own.

Tell us more about your role with Pursuit, a non-profit training program for people to get their first tech jobs.

Over the past several years, I have volunteered with Pursuit in a few different roles. I was a member of a curriculum advisory board, which gave me an outlet for some of the skills I learned as a teacher. I also have judged hackathons and was a commencement speaker for one of their graduating classes.

What inspires me most about the program is the impact it has on the lives of its graduates. The curriculum is much longer than most bootcamps and the support extends for a few years after graduation. Many of the graduates of the program see their incomes multiplied by more than four times from their previous lines of work. That has a tremendous impact on their lives, their families, and their communities.