For many of us, changing jobs seems like the best way to grow professionally or advance our careers. Not so for Edd Morgan, Senior Director of Engineering at BiggerPockets. During his first year in college, he became the startup’s first employee. Twelve years later, Edd reflects on his unusually stable career path and how he’s helped to grow the company into a thriving business with two million users.
In 2008, Edd began studying computer science at the University of Bournemouth in the U.K. Like many college students, he needed to find a way to make money for rent and living expenses. Edd came across a job posting from a startup that needed some programming help, and he thought, “Why not apply?” He says, “It seemed cool to be paid for doing this thing that I was doing all the time as a hobby, which is programming and making websites.”
Back then, he didn’t consider this decision to be a first step on a formal career path. It was only to be a short-term, convenient solution to pay the bills while in school. Little did he know that the job would offer Edd so much more. “It’s kind of funny, and surprising, that I got my ‘life job’ before I even left college.”
In 2004, Josh Dorkin wanted to get into real estate investing, but he quickly found that the industry was fraught with scams and “get rich quick” schemes. He couldn’t find a good source of reliable information anywhere, so he did what entrepreneurs do: he started his own thing. BiggerPockets launched as a simple community forum for people to share their real estate investment knowledge and experience.
By the time Edd joined, BiggerPockets had grown to serve a couple of thousand users. Josh needed help with taking the site to the next level — from forum posting to a more interactive, integrated experience that could also be monetized. At that time, Facebook had taken the world by storm, and social networks had become the new way to build community. Josh envisioned that the expanded BiggerPockets platform would allow investors to build friendships and network with each other, as well as access the lenders, agents, and other services needed to make a successful deal.
Josh and Edd got started on this vision from different sides of the planet. As Josh was in Colorado, and Edd in the U.K., they would open up a Skype call and just work side by side for eight hours, mostly in silence, to simulate a shared office space. Edd says, “I didn’t meet Josh face-to-face until about five years ago, which is pretty crazy.”
Edd continued as the only engineer at BiggerPockets for the first few years. At a certain point in the company’s growth, it was time to also grow the team. “We found our first engineer in the same way Josh found me,” says Edd, “And he stuck around for a very long time. We wanted to find people that we could get along with since we’d be working together so closely.”
Fast forward a few more years, and today, Edd leads a team of 13 engineers. His own career trajectory has come as a bit of a surprise to him. “When I was younger, I never saw myself becoming a director of anything. But by staying at the company for so long, it’s forced me into a leadership role that I have gladly embraced. I feel lucky to have learned so much in this role.”
Most engineers are located at the company’s headquarters in Denver, Colorado, but a few are remote like Edd. Typically, he travels to Denver every quarter to get some face time with his team, but the global pandemic has made that difficult this year. So, Edd and team have had to get creative with maintaining the team’s culture. One of their first experiments was to schedule “water cooler time” over Zoom, however it felt too much like forced social interaction. Adding a purpose to the gathering made all the difference. Now, the team meets regularly to discuss a particular problem or to do some group coding together, and the socializing in between feels more natural.
Learning on the job can bring both pitfalls and opportunities. “We’re still dealing with the consequences of some decisions I made ten years ago,” Edd says. “There are definitely a lot of things that I would say to a much younger me.” Some of those lessons have come out the fire of experience and others from industry thought leaders:
A team is a network of brains. Going from one engineer to a team of many requires a shift in mindset. The problems are no longer purely technical; organizational and people problems arise as well. Edd refers to Jean-Michel Lemieux, CTO of Shopify, who thinks of his engineering team as a network of brains. “As a leader, you want to optimize communication across that graph of brains, each with a million edges that could connect with others,” says Edd. “And it’s a hell of a lot harder than writing code.”
Less is more. To Edd’s younger self, every business challenge could be solved with the right code. He’d ask himself: “What software can I bring into the world to solve this problem?” However, that approach didn’t always take into account the full scope or nature of the problem. Now, Edd tries to “get out of his own way” and focus on the bigger picture. “I say ‘no’ to more things and try to work out what’s the best direction for the product. And that’s not always about writing more code.”
Product management is a thing. As Edd began to focus more on the product, he had to make decisions that straddled both product management and engineering management. It wasn’t until the company began hiring dedicated product managers that he fully understood the role. “It is a different way of thinking: why are we writing this code? Why work on this and not something else? Those questions were always in the back of my head, but I didn’t act on them in the early years.”
Innovation is expensive. Part of saying “no” to more things is the realization that time and resources are limited — and precious. Edd is inspired by Dan McKinley, who introduced the concept of “innovation tokens” as engineering currency. Every company has a set amount of tokens which can be spent in any way. “We have to be very intentional and spend our tokens wisely, so we’re always focusing on the right things. In the early days, we spent them like crazy and probably went into innovation token debt!”
Today, product discovery is a requirement at BiggerPockets before significant time or energy goes into something new. The team leverages zero code solutions, like user feedback and data, to help them make decisions, rather than relying purely on assumptions. “In this way, we’ve become less of a stakeholder-driven company, and more of a product-driven, or even customer-driven, company.”
For the first six years, BiggerPockets managed its own infrastructure that was located at a data center in California. One day, Josh called to report that the site was down. Edd looked into it, called the data center, and found that the database server had crashed due to a failure in one of the RAID controllers.
The prognosis was bad. “They told us: ‘You’d better have some backups.’ Then, I realized that our most recent backup was six months old.” It was the most stressful day of his career. “We had three engineers at the time, and it wasn’t anyone’s official responsibility to do all those backups because we did not see ourselves as an infrastructure engineering company. We’re a product engineering company, and we didn’t know it until this happened.”
Luck was on their side, and the data center was able to recover the data (after a full 12 hours of downtime). But this was a major wake up call, and Edd was determined to not let it happen again. BiggerPockets is primarily a Rails app, and Edd understood that Heroku was the best platform for running Ruby apps. The team decided to spin up a copy of the app on Heroku, with data living in Heroku Postgres, to see how it worked.
They tested the two apps in parallel for a couple of days, and the Heroku app performed flawlessly, so they moved the domains over. “It was a very smooth process, and we haven’t looked back since.” Now, Edd and team can leave the infrastructure worries behind them and truly focus on being a product engineering company.
For lots of businesses, the global pandemic and recession in 2020 made it a tough and confusing year to navigate. But the BiggerPockets team are excited to come out of it with a greater sense of purpose and direction. They’ve even begun hiring again, opening a front-end engineer role to help them with plans for mobile apps in 2021.
When Edd thinks about his own career path over the next five years, two things come to mind. First, he wants to grow the team so that this thing that he’s been working for so long can reach its full potential. Edd looks forward to expanding the platform with new capabilities, such as big data and analytics, that can help customers make even better investment decisions.
Secondly, as his team builds exciting new features, Edd wants to be coding along with them. In between his management duties, he still writes code on a weekly basis and actually sits on one of the project teams. “I never want to lose touch with actually building stuff, because that’s why me (and lots of other nerds) get into this industry. There are companies larger than us where the CTO writes code. It doesn’t prohibit you being hands on in a leadership role, and I think in some cases it should be mandatory.”