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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

How This Music-Focused Tech Company Nurtures Engineering Talent and Encourages Experimentation

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Mark Yoon, an engineering manager at Reverb.
| Courtesy of Reverb

If there’s one thing that Mark Yoon has taken seriously throughout his career, it’s the way he has approached each job as an opportunity to learn—and then used those lessons to inform his next move. This careful consideration is what led him to Reverb, an online marketplace for new, used, and vintage musical instruments where he’s currently an engineering manager.

Yoon’s previous role at a consultancy, for example, showed him that inclusive teams create workplaces that thrive. “I had a direct hand in working on all the pieces that make a workplace welcoming of a diverse group of people: strong values, inclusive communication, a culture of feedback and continuous learning, a clear career ladder, and more,” he says. “Once you see how critical these functions are to employee engagement, you look for them in every future career opportunity.”

Enter the Chicago-based Reverb. “It turned out to be the only place that intrigued me enough to leave a job that I loved,” he says.

Here, Yoon shares what it was like to be hired and onboarded remotely during the pandemic, how Reverb encourages employees to take ownership of their work, and what it takes for an engineer to succeed at the company.

What attracted you to work in engineering, and specifically at Reverb?

At my core, I love puzzles, and engineering offers a nearly limitless supply. At Reverb, a company with such an expansive database of musical instruments, there are countless puzzles of varied complexity for me to solve. On our platform, we have to help musicians around the globe find exactly what they’re looking for to help them make music. That means navigating not only different instrument types—from guitars and amps to drums and synthesizers—but also navigating how within each category, instruments vary by model, year, color, condition, and much more.

In addition to the opportunity to solve unique problems, I was drawn to the company’s mission to make the world more musical. All employees, whether musicians or fans, share a passion for building a product that positively impacts musicians, music shop owners, and more.

It also matters to me that Jason Wain, Reverb’s Chief Technology Officer, sees the product and engineering organization as a “lab” for experiments. Whether we’re testing how the location of the “add to cart” button impacts synthesizer sales or experimenting with the number of guitars a player sees at a time, each experiment either improves our marketplace or teaches us something new. I really like framing our work that way. It aligns well with my approach to career growth and to life.

What was the remote onboarding process like at Reverb?

I started working at Reverb shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the entire office began working from home, which means I started the job fully remote. Before I started, I was welcomed with a box of Reverb swag along with a computer, keyboard, and everything I needed to get started.

When it comes to onboarding, everyone at Reverb—no matter if you’re an engineering manager or a junior accountant—gets trained to buy and sell gear on Reverb. Part of that lesson includes going through a simulation in which you list a Shure Beta 58 microphone for sale. It was a great crash course on how to use Reverb, and I’ve referenced the training materials multiple times since then. As someone who has worked on setting up onboarding for another company, I deeply appreciate the thoughtfulness that was apparent in my first experiences with Reverb and how it started me off on the right foot, especially as a remote employee. My team was very gracious in welcoming me with a fun virtual social activity and in helping me understand how the site works. I had concrete goals for the first 30, 60, and 90 days that felt attainable, and I loved how it felt like the role was well defined, with reasonable expectations and room for growth.

What are you responsible for in your role?

My role is to foster an environment where engineers on the product and engineering team can grow, connect with each other, and align with the values of the business while doing meaningful work that supports Reverb’s mission to make the world more musical.

“Embrace creativity in all forms” is a Reverb core value. I love getting creative in helping my team plan the arcs of their careers and mapping out the steps they each need to take to follow them. Another value is “We work in harmony,” and I help maintain a check-in ritual at the end of each week that opens space for us to talk about and connect on what’s happening in our lives.

What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?

One thing I love is the variety—a mix of foundational work to help us unlock big features, experiments, and investments in our infrastructure. This year, my team worked to improve the basic data that helps you compare the traits between two musical instruments. Take audio interfaces, which allow players to connect gear like microphones and guitars to a computer. Reverb has dozens of choices for audio interfaces, and we made it possible for a curious musician to see, at a glance, the differences between each option they had. Then, we ran experiments on how to highlight the best deals, like calling out 20% off on a used audio interface in mint condition.

We’re also investing in our “Feed” that lets buyers follow a specific category, like “Focusrite audio interfaces,” or a specific product, like a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen USB Audio Interface. This year, we’ve done work to reduce the time between a seller publishing a piece of gear for sale and a player getting a notification that the audio interface they’ve been waiting for is now available with free shipping. At the end of the day, Reverb’s job is to connect players with the perfect piece of music gear, and I’m excited to contribute to impactful work that does exactly that.

How does Reverb help nurture and develop young talent?

I believe there are three basic but rare ingredients that make Reverb a great place for folks who are “young” in their career, whether based on their age or their level of experience. First is a supportive environment that values everything a person brings to the table—not only hard skills like coding languages, but also their unique perspectives and backgrounds. This makes it so that team members can bring their whole selves to work each day.

The second is the appropriate level of challenge: for someone just getting started, that might be working on changes that seem small, but have a big impact. For example, testing how small tweaks to the shopping cart can impact how quickly a player buys a drum machine or synthesizer. For others, the challenge could be helping to rewrite our “suggestion” algorithm so that when a player is looking at a TC Electronic Ditto Looper guitar pedal, we can show them similar options.

The third is ownership and empowerment, which aligns with Reverb’s value “We own our performance.” You can own a feature from concept to rollout, and we’ll either see how it improved the site experience or we’ll learn something we didn’t know before. We have a career ladder, quarterly goals, frequent check-ins, as well as a learning management system—but I think those are just table stakes. I believe people can only take on risk when the environment is safe to do so, and I’m grateful that we’ve embraced experimentation for all levels of engineers in our work at Reverb.

What do you like most about the company culture at Reverb?

Even as Reverb has grown, it has stayed committed to fostering a strong sense of ownership among team members so that you can really see the impact of your work.

Our culture also benefits from the fact that we’re working on a product that our users rely on daily: to keep the doors of their small music business open, to find the perfect instrument to inspire their next song, and more. That means we get constant feedback from our users, so the product and engineering solutions we propose are backed by data and insights. This year, we’ve also benefited from increased collaboration with Etsy, which acquired Reverb in 2019. Etsy has been a great partner in helping us scale while also allowing us to stay true to who we are as a company, built by and for the musical instrument industry.

Finally, I appreciate Reverb’s focus on the well-being of its employees. In the past few months alone, we have had company workshops that cover topics like “How to Strengthen Your Emotional Health Skills During Challenge and Uncertainty” and “Transgender & Gender Nonconforming Essentials.” I am encouraged that Reverb takes a stand to enforce our policies on hateful speech in our marketplace and that leadership has been flexible in supporting employees’ needs during the pandemic—including providing us with a stipend to set up our at-home workspaces and providing us with monthly “well-being” days. While these things on their own don’t make a company culture, they do create an environment where people can bring their best selves to work.

What traits and skills does a software engineer need to succeed at Reverb?

We look for engineers who are interested in ownership—being accountable for their code and learning how to monitor its impact. Engineers should be eager to engage in creative thinking and explore the user and business trade-offs of a decision. For example, there are millions of pieces of music gear for musicians to explore on our site. We constantly have to ask ourselves things like, “We have this cool list of hip hop production gear for beginners—how do we make sure it gets in front of the musicians who want to buy it?” or “How can we show buyers that this Rickenbacker 4001 bass guitar is listed for a great price so that it sells more quickly?” We then have to plan experiments to test these types of questions.

The ideal Reverb software engineer is also eager to improve the quality of their coding practice, and excited to work in the context of a cross-functional team that collaborates with our customer engagement team, who are on the front lines receiving feedback from buyers and sellers every day. To maintain a supportive environment, we also look for those who take initiative in creating a more inclusive environment, encourage others to flex their problem-solving muscles no matter their skills or seniority level, and who are open to giving and receiving feedback.