Episode 110 – See the Big Picture and Look for the Overlap to Become a Better Developer with Lee Byron

 In Podcasts

Phil’s guest on today’s show is Lee Byron. He spent the first 10 years of his career working at Facebook. While there he developed several new tools, mainly for mobile. His work at Facebook led to Lee co-creating GraphQL. In 2018, he left and joined Robinhood. There, he is helping to lead web engineering and fulfill the company’s mission of democratizing access to America’s financial services.


(1.03) – So Lee, can you expand on that brief introduction and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Lee explains that he spent 10 years at Facebook, where he started out as a data scientist. Eventually, becoming a product designer working on Facebook Mobile, then on Front End Engineering, this led to him co-creating GraphQL. Lee has now moved on to Robinhood helping them to democratize finance by solving some of their technical challenges.

(2.04) Phil speculates that Lee must have seen a big difference between the cultures of Facebook and Robinhood. Lee agrees, but explains that there were also quite a few similarities. When he first joined Facebook there were only around 400 people working there. Right now Robinhood is a similar size, with around 250 people. Both companies are very product orientated. They both “lend trust to the team” and transparency levels are high. Facebook held weekly Q&A sessions where people like Mark Zuckerburg gave a roundup about the important things that were happening then took questions. Often, answering quite tough questions. A process that makes sure that the tough conversations are had, Robinhood does something similar.

(4.06) – Phil asks Lee for a unique IT career tip. Lee says he always looks for the overlap between two different skill sets. When you do that, it is possible to find a way into something new and can begin to solve problems in that field. He has very little formal training. Instead, he learns by doing. Lee has progressed mostly by seeing a problem, finding the end of the thread and pulling on it. This process leads him through the underlying issues and pushes him to find a solution to each of them, which, eventually, solves the overall problem. Over time, he has learned to get past his feelings of being an imposter because he has no formal training. Lee now realizes that when he is working with people who are smarter than him, that is a good thing. He can still contribute and, importantly, learn from everyone else, at the same time.

(5.54) – Lee is asked to share his worst career moment and what he learned from it. Lee said that while at Facebook he bet big on HTML and the web platform as a way to do mobile development. They built a mobile website version that had a higher level of functionality than the existing app did. The mobile website worked extremely well on touch devices on Android and iOS. All in all, they reasoned, the site was well received and worked. So, they doubled down on that way of doing things. When it was time to build the iOS and Android apps out they did it in a similar way. Basically, the apps were glorified web browsers loading pages. At the time, this seemed like the right approach. After all iOS had mobile Safari and Android had their own browser. It seemed logical that these would be developed over time and continues to get better. Unfortunately, the opposite happened they got buggier. As a result, the functionality of the mobile site lagged further and further behind the desktop version of Facebook. In the end, they had to change direction. At that stage, Mark Zuckerburg stated that focusing on HTML5 had been a mistake. Naturally, for Lee, this was hard to hear. But, the good thing about the whole incident is that they went on to put together an API to enable native iOS and Android apps to be developed. That in turn, led Lee and his team, to create GraphQL. One of the things he is most proud of.

(11.52) – Phil asked Lee if he now does anything differently to ensure that he will not pick the wrong technology, again. Lee explains that, nowadays, when working on a project he pauses at regular intervals and asks whether the choices he is making are still the right ones. Technology moves at a fast rate, so doing this is essential. In 2009, building a high-quality mobile website made a lot of sense for Facebook. But, by 2011, user habits had shifted significantly. People were now using their mobile phones far more than they were using touchscreen tablets and similar devices. That was the point at which Lee and his team should have switched from developing the mobile website to developing full iOS and Android apps. Instead, they doubled down on the work they had already done, which was a mistake.

(14.25) – Phil asks Lee what his best career moment was. For Lee, that was the open sourcing of GraphQL and building that community. GraphQL was written in Hack a dialect of PHP that was developed by Facebook. The language was open source, but still not widely used, so Lee was not sure about open sourcing GraphQL. The other problem was that GraphQL had evolved over 3 years, so it was not a crisp, clean tool. Fortunately, despite these issues, the Relay team still pushed to share GraphQL. Relay is a piece of software that ties React together with GraphQL. People in the open source community were really interested in Relay and wanted to build data-rich tools for Facebook, using it. So, the Relay team wanted to talk more publically about GraphQL more. In the end, everyone agreed to make it public. So, Lee’s team went through every item explaining what it was for and how it worked alongside and listed that information alongside the appropriate piece of pseudo code to produce an in-depth specification. Then they built a JavaScript library, so that everything could be more widely understood. They also built a new version of Graphical using JavaScript. Finally, they open sourced all of this. It was extremely well received. Within 6 months, the community had replicated everything in nine different languages, including Ruby, Android, iOS and Python. Naturally, for Lee and his team this was very gratifying, a real highlight of his career.

(21.56) – Phil asks Lee what excites him about the future of the IT industry. The fact that so many technologies are becoming democratized is something that Lee finds exciting. He is especially excited to see this happening with technologies like AI. Lee predicts that within the next 10 years we will be using machine learning in ways that are currently unimaginable to us. He is also excited by the fact that we are finding effective ways to collaborate and work remotely. This change means that regardless of where a developer lives they will have the chance to work on all kinds of projects. As a result, everyone will have more IT career opportunities.

(25.13) – What drew you to a career in IT? Lee was always interested in computers, but art, architecture and design were his passions. Lee had built websites in High School and found it really boring, so he really did not want to do that. But, when it was time to find work the financial crisis was in full swing. So, there was not that much work around. Luckily, through a personal connection, he got taken on as an intern at The New York Times. It was in the data graphics department, work that turned out to be very interesting. One day, the head of data science from Facebook contacted him and offered him the chance to work for them. But, he was not sure. At the time, social media was not that big and Facebook was still at the startup stage. Plus, the role would have had him working on building a website. But, when he talked to them, he was impressed. So, he took the job. Lee was supposed to be mostly helping the data science team, to interact with the press and explain what they were learning to the rest of the company. But, he was not kept busy enough just doing those tasks. So, he started doing small jobs for the design team. In time, he was asked to join them full-time. At first, he said no. But, when he was given a bigger mobile related project to work on, he was inspired and started working in design full-time.

(29.34) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Lee said it was – “back up and look at the big picture.” This does not come naturally to Lee. But, every time he has made the effort to follow this advice, he has been able to pick up major issues. Spotting them sooner rather than later created the chance for him to fix things. If he had not stepped back, he would never have spotted those issues.

(31.32) – If you were to start your IT career again, now, what would you do? Lee thinks he would probably have ended up doing something totally different. Just because he would have seen something interesting and gone off and explored it. Right now, the intersection between machine learning and the interesting new things that are happening in technology and education particularly interests Lee. He would love to work on the design of interactive exhibits and educational tools to produce exhibits and educational materials that are truly immersive.

(34.13) – Phil asks Lee what he is currently focusing on, in his career. Right now, Lee’s main focus is helping Robinhood to grow. He believes that their mission is genuinely important. Finances and financial services are extremely complicated, even for someone like him, who is a bit of a nerd and a spreadsheet fiend. He really wants to be involved in demystifying things for ordinary people, so they can make the best decisions. Once they understand the options and how to access them they can invest and borrow without having to pay over the odds to do so.

(36.44) – What’s the number one non-technical skill that has helped you in your IT career? Having a good understanding of how people interact with things has always helped Lee. This is a skill that he began learning, during his design studies. A lot of the principles that he learned then apply equally to digital and physical products.

(38.18) – Phil asks Lee to share a final piece of career advice. Lee reiterates what he said earlier. He said that finding the overlap between skills and chasing that is what has helped him in his career. When you do that, one thing leads to another and it is easier for you to step into what are sometimes very different roles.


(4.15) LEE – “The thing that has helped me the most is looking for the overlap between two different skill sets.”

(5.09) LEE – “Learn to get over imposter syndrome.”

(14.08) LEE – “Just spend a month or so just evaluating technologies before you move forward.”

(22.58) LEE – “I think 10 years from now, a lot of the software that we write will use machine learning in fascinating ways.”

(39.38) LEE – “If you can find two things that you’re good at that you don’t think are related to each other, figure out where they overlap. There’s almost always something really interesting there.”


Twitter: https://twitter.com/leeb

Github: https://github.com/leebyron

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