Name: Matt Herbst
Role: Data Engineer
Hire Date: Intern Summer 2013, Full Time July 2014
Fun Fact: Has traveled to 30 countries (and counting)
“When it came to looking for a full time role, I was looking around at different companies and had interviewed and received some offers, but I couldn’t find a culture that was the same as Chegg’s. There was one company that I had spent a lot of time with and they made me an offer, but they were very closed up. Coming from DC, I was used to a traditional work environment, but after interning at Chegg, I couldn’t go back. Here, I interact with people and I can always see everyone. There are no cubes. We have our desks, but I can see everyone when I stand up. I knew I’d be doing things I’d be interested in, and I knew I loved the people who would be on my team, so I came back.”
What did you do before coming to Chegg?
I was finishing my Masters degree in Computer Science along with my Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), in Political Science and History at Miami University, which I completed in five years. I came to Chegg as an intern that summer after my first year as a graduate student and started working at Chegg full time once I graduated.
Why did you decide to come to Chegg?
When I was applying to internships, I probably applied to about one hundred internships all over the country and I got a few offers from companies other than Chegg. I had actually accepted an internship with a defense contractor because I had previously spent a lot of time in politics working in DC, and I thought, what’s a good way of merging tech and politics? Oh, I’ll go ahead and work for a defense contractor. It all made sense. I had dropped the internship search at that point, but then Chegg reached out in regards to my application with them. I then decided to continue the process to see where it would take me. Speaking with Tammi (the manager who hired me as an intern) on the phone got me really excited about Chegg. Chegg was (and still is) a 300 something person company versus the defense contractor, an 80,000 person global enterprise. I kind of liked the idea of working for a smaller company and not being based in a cube somewhere. Chegg also has very competitive benefits.
When it came to looking for a full time role, I was looking around at different companies and had interviewed and received some offers, but I couldn’t find a culture that was the same as Chegg’s. There was one company that I had spent a lot of time with and they made me an offer, but they were very closed up. Coming from DC, I was used to a traditional work environment, but after interning at Chegg, I couldn’t go back. Here, I interact with people and I can always see everyone. There are no cubes. We have our desks, but I can see everyone when I stand up. I knew I’d be doing things I’d be interested in, and I knew I loved the people who would be on my team, so I came back.
What are you proud of?
I was extremely proud of the project I did during my internship. A lot of interns are given tasks, where you do learn a lot of breadth, but not depth. I kind of had the opposite experience as an intern, where I was given one project on day one and I was to design, mock up, build, and test the project, completely by myself, essentially. The project entailed visualizing Chegg’s data warehouse and the data connections within it. We have a big in-house program in Data Engineering that we use to manage our ETL jobs. It was getting very complicated to manage all of those data flows, so I created a visualization tool where you can see, filter, and organize all of them. I did all of this using a technology I’d never used before. It was interesting because I had so much control and I had very little oversight. It was tough in some ways because I wanted more management, but it was also nice not having someone micromanage me. I was really proud of myself in the end when I went to present this because I had successfully completed my project and was able to show that, yes, I did this! I managed my time, asked the right questions, and executed the project properly. A lot of the things I’ve done at Chegg are things I’ve taught myself. My education at Miami certainly helped give me the ability to teach myself, but they didn’t teach me the technology itself. Currently, I’m finishing a project that utilizes the same technology I used last summer, which served as a stepping-stone to get to where I am now.
Because I was so focused on that one project during my internship, I wasn’t exposed to everything the team was doing. Even now, I’ve been here a few months and I still don’t quite know everything because there is just so much. I have an analytics and software engineer background, but not a traditional data engineer, data warehouse, or database background. This makes the job more interesting, since I am constantly learning new things but also being able to apply other skills to the role.
What have you been working on lately?
One of the projects that I’m working on is a central dashboard UI that will hopefully replace all of the other ad-hoc and random dashboards and reports that Chegg has. Right now we have a lot of different reports in different formats. We want to get all of our reports into one format that we can easily see on one dashboard. We want to unify the data experience; both on the front end and back end by unifying how we get the data and how do we serve that data. I am primarily working on the front-end of that application.
Another project I’m working on is the enhancement of the ETL tool that I worked on during my internship. We are hitting the point where we have to be very careful with our work, where even the smallest mistake can have major downstream impacts. We don’t scale very well right now. So what I’m looking at is to see what paths are open to us. We have the choice of modifying our tool to an improved version, or maybe adopting an open-source solution instead. Our tool was created a few years ago because nothing existed then that met our needs, but now there are a few tools out there that might be good candidates for replacing, augmenting, or adapting our existing toolset.
Has anything surprised you about working here?
When I was an intern, the company was still private. Now that the company is public, a few things have changed. We now have to worry more about things such as SOX compliance, and the quarterly financials. There is also a significant auditor presence every now and then.
There are also just many new faces at Chegg since I was an intern, many new people to meet. It really shows you the demand in the valley, and the creativity of the people starting their own ideas, and how people believe that coming to Chegg will let them do something different. I also don’t think I fully appreciated the diversity of the company as an intern – I mostly stuck with the other interns. However, now as a full-time employee, I work with significantly more people, and it amazes me at that we have all these unique backgrounds. Especially in regards to the number of international employees we have, it really adds to the culture of the workplace and makes for some awesome unique events and experiences.
How did you get into your field?
As a big video game fan, I’ve always been doing computer stuff and have always been interested in politics and history. When I started in school, I started out as a political science and history double major. That summer, I worked on a political campaign in Cincinnati and also took the Intro to Computer Science class. At the time, I was thinking about doing a minor in computer science, or just taking some classes that I thought would be fun since I’ve always been interested in it. I used to be one of those guys who would make those MySpace themes with flashes everywhere that would kill your eyes. That’s how I first got my feet wet with programming. The next year, I studied abroad in the fall and then in the spring I spent the semester in DC as part of Miami University’s Inside Washington program. Part of the program was doing an internship in the Beltway, and I managed to get one in the office of the just-elected Speaker of the House John Boehner (who happens to represent the congressional district my school is in, OH-8th). I loved it, and I decided to stay the summer and I interned with another congressman from Ohio that summer.
When I got back to Miami in the fall, I spent time looking back at what I’d gone through, I realized that even though it had been a fascinating experience and I had learned a lot, it also really disillusioned me. At no point during my internship did I feel ownership of my work and certainly not recognition for any of the work I did. The work I was doing was work that I could have done in high school. And I know how the political trajectory works, where you basically continue working in Congress doing the same type of work for a bunch of years. Most people burn out after two or three, go back to school, or start working in a lobbying or communications firm. Working your way up in the congressional staff is long hours and low pay, and then after a bunch of years you can make your exit into the private sector and get that six-figure salary.
I started thinking that I really wanted to try and do something else. So I thought about a triple major, adding Computer Science to my existing studies. I did the math and it basically came down to my normal four years plus an extra semester. That extra semester would have just been doing gen-eds for the bachelors in computer science. I thought I was going to do that and so I started school junior year and took a computer science class and I was talking with my professor about my experience and what I wanted to do and she said something along the lines of “instead of spending an extra semester for a bachelors, why not spend two extra semesters and get a masters?” She convinced me that once I had the masters, no one will care that I didn’t get a bachelor’s in Computer Science because no one will see that. And so I started doing that and here I am. I hope to eventually be a policy maker in tech, but how can you make policies for something if you don’t know how it works? So I eventually hope to move into a position where I can make policies decisions. That’s why I really like the head of our Data Engineering/Business Intelligence unit at Chegg, Dax Eckenberg. If you start telling him about an interesting problem or bug, he’ll just sit down and start coding with you. Not every manager does that and not all tech managers have the skills to do that.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start in a role like this at Chegg?
I think the most important thing is to be able to understand how data systems can scale. That’s the challenge that every team at Chegg is facing right now. It’s a growing pain that I think every middle sized organization faces, when you have to come to terms with the “let’s get it done” attitude of the code base created when the company was small.
I think you can pick up SQL, you can pick up learning different tools, but I think you always have to have that mindset of “What’s the bigger picture here?” and not just focus on the one little component you’re working on. For example, the data engineering team is kind of in transition. Before, people would come to us and ask us “Can you please do this and that?” What we’re doing now is to develop tools to automate many of these tasks, and to allow people to do it themselves. We’re trying to allow tools that allow non-technical people to do technical things without having to rely on us for requests. One of the problems that medium sized companies have, and this isn’t a bad problem to have, is that as different teams grow, supporting teams often need to grow as well. For example, if every other team grows and we start a new product, and we hire ten people for that, they’re going to start making requests from our team. Doing things the old way, that means that eventually, with enough new people and products, we’re going to have to hire someone new. Our goal for our team is to think, let’s get these things automated, or empower any developer to do them. Think of data as a service where all the data you want, in the format that you want, is available all the time without having to ask for it.
What excites you most about Chegg’s future?
I think we have a real chance at actually being able to get someone from that high school level to that first job. People are thinking about how do we make this all into the Student Hub? And that excites me! The idea that we can actually help people find jobs from start to finish, that we can help you find that school, help you attend that school by helping find the funding that you need and really help realize your success.