The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile Series is focused on the individuals who are driving the Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
Jen Boulware is Senior Director of Engineering at Snagajob, located in downtown Charleston. In June of 2016, Virginia-based Snagajob, which connects hourly workers and hourly employers, acquired Charleston startup PeopleMatter, a workforce management platform for the service industry. Snagajob has about 100 employees in Charleston.
Where did you grow up? What was life like and your memories from there?
I grew up outside of Atlantic City on the same island, about a block from the beach, in Ventnor, N.J. It was a very small town. Every summer, the population would triple because of all the tourists. The actual people who lived there were a very small, tight-knit community. Everybody worked. It was a really different experience than a lot of the people I know. Because of all the tourists, by the time you were 14, you got your first job. It was a huge part of our social network through high school, where you worked and who you worked with. It was really a good experience for the real world.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
In between graduating with my bachelor's degree and going to graduate school, I worked for Clemson for a semester, and I came to Charleston and visited and just loved it. After graduate school, my husband and I were looking for jobs in the Southeast and just lucked out and both got offers here. So we moved here, and we haven't left.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
Casel's supermarket in Margate, N.J., when I was 14. It was my first job, but I worked there all through high school. It taught me that if you're willing to work hard and willing to learn, there are no barriers.
I worked in every department in the store. Worked with everyone – I mean, I worked in the butcher shop – and I was one of the people that didn't get kind of siloed into a certain role. I actually got asked to set up their customer rewards program and go work in the office because I was more tech savvy than other people. I did data entry and configured the program and did everything else. And it never really clicked that that was something that I would be doing my whole life. I was probably 15 or 16.
In your own words, what does your company do?
We connect the hourly worker to hourly employers. We help hard-working people find the work they want to lead fulfilling lives. We help employers by providing tools for them to recruit, hire and manage the workers so that they can run more efficient businesses.
What drew you to this company?
This was a complete departure. My undergraduate degree is environmental science. And my graduate degree is geography with a specialization in techniques, so my thesis was actually designing great web-based maps. I had a great professor who said, "If you want to be in this field, you will learn GIS," which is mapping. You do a lot of data analysis. So I started on computers then, and you just had to learn to code for that.
I left the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center Office to come here, and it was a little daunting because I hadn't been in a straight SAAS business, software product. While I've been coding for over a decade, it was very different. But it was an interesting challenge, and I wanted that experience.
A colleague of mine had switched jobs to come here, and he kept trying to get me to. He was like, "You should come over and talk to them." I was like, "No." It felt like it was completely out of my wheelhouse. But once I actually talked to some of the people here, I realized it's still coding. So the transition has been great.
How would you describe your organization's culture?
Passionate, gritty, fun, caring and orange – a lot of orange. One thing I will say about working here is I have never been in a situation where someone, if you're in the weeds, if you're drowning, someone, even if they can't help, they're going to offer to help. "What can I do?" That has always struck me as something really positive about working here. It's really a team feel and a collaborative feel, and people are willing to drop what they've got to really make things a success.
What is your management style? Why is that your approach?
At each company, I have really tried to build a learning organization. I love making things better. I like building teams. I like to look at each individual. I'm definitely a mentor. I like to look at what each individual is doing, how they want to grow in their career, and then give them opportunities to challenge themselves and grow. With a lot of humor in there.
Here, everyone's in our conversations. If we're talking about a technology change, everyone's in the room and everyone's part of the conversation because, as a junior, you have something that you can learn just by listening to the conversations, the things that you have to consider from a business perspective. And then they also ask great questions. Everybody should be engaged. It matters to all of us, and we're all in this together.
What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?
Good bosses know what each person contributes individually and what their goals are, where they want to grow, and they provide honest feedback – positive, negative. Bad bosses are disengaged and just look at the team as a whole. The worst bosses I have had are just there trying to put out fires. They never actually look at the big picture and see what root causes are. They're very reactionary and they never kind of pop their heads up to look at the landscape and see how the team is growing and learning.
What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?
Both the hardest and probably the most important lesson in tech – I think it's in everything – is that sometimes you have to do things that you may not really want to do or think are the best long term, but there is a business reality that it needs to happen.
That's something I think that a lot of people lack when they come out of school: an understanding of the business. It's a business. You're here to make money. There are decisions that are hard, and it's sometimes for the better of the entire company. You may not love it, and they're hard decisions, but good leaders make those decisions.
Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?
I try to get up before my family and walk for about an hour a day. It clears my head, it helps me start the day on the right foot, no pun intended. There are times when I walk, and if it happens to be sunrise, it's a great chance to take my mind out of work and out of life and appreciate just the seasons. We live in a great town, beautiful place. I'll walk along the water, and there's nothing like that to start your day. It just sets the tone for the rest of the day.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
Intellectual curiosity – people who want to know why – that's a big one. And a willingness or desire to collaborate. The brilliant jerk will not work in my organization. I want people who want to help, want to grow, want to learn, want to help others grow and learn, and want to be collaborative in delivering the vision of our team. That's our culture on my team, and that cultural fit is really important.
I've interviewed people and asked why they picked a technology, and they'll say, "Well, someone told me that's what to do." And they never go beyond that. I'm not saying you have to question it all and have a say, but just at least wonder why and want to learn enough to understand why the decision was made.
What is your biggest pet peeve in business or among colleagues?
I have two. The first one that comes to mind is negativity. I think it's toxic to a team. We all gripe. We all have bad days. There are things we get frustrated by. But if that is the overall demeanor, it is toxic and it wears people down. Find the right fit for you. There's a right fit for every person. If you're in a place that's not making you happy, then it's time to switch.
The second one is people who don't treat others well. Have a little common decency, awareness of others around you.
What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
Find a place that's going to foster your growth those first couple years. When you're looking for where you want to go and what opportunity to take, look at what you are going to come out with after a year. What are you going to learn? How are your skills going to improve? How will you be better a year from now? If you can't answer that, then that's probably not a great fit. Go into it with your eyes open, because when you start in a career, you want exposure, experience. You need to start learning how the business world works.
What do you see as the future of your company?
Over time, we are going to expand from simply helping employers with recruiting and hiring into actually managing shifts through scheduling and communication. For workers, we are going to power their needs to piece together enough hours from enough employers, whether it's part-time work or a gig through an on-demand model. We're going to grow to be a strong force in the Charleston technology scene, and we hope to continue our expansion here to help grow the Silicon Harbor.
Things that we're working on right now are that gig economy – helping workers pick shifts and manage schedules across multiple employers to make sure that they're making enough to support themselves and their families.
What one person has been the biggest influence on your business life? And why?
Jay Bredenberg, who actually used to work here. When my former colleague came here and was trying to convince me to come, and I was not convinced, Jay Bredenberg and I sat down and had lunch and talked through software development. I don't even think I realized at the time that "learning organization" was the term for what I was striving to create. He and I had a lot of similarities in those respects. Trying to grow the team and encourage people to push themselves and to learn and to continually improve things.
He got me to shift my career and come over to PeopleMatter, at the time. For an engineer and an architect, he has very different perspectives. It's all about what's the value of what you're building? What's the business value? What's the problem that you're trying to solve, and is what you're building the best way to solve that problem? Learning that from him, and working with him, has definitely changed my mindset about our projects, our features, making things that really matter to the customer.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
Growing up, I was Mac. I didn't touch a PC until graduate school. I was strictly Mac, and then I went to graduate school and everything was PC, and then when I got into the business world, everything was PC. And so now if you put me in front of a Mac, it would probably be a challenge. But I have an iPhone.
What is your usual Starbucks order?
I'm very plain. I just get a Venti, room for cream.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
My family. I have two young boys, 9 and almost 7, and a husband. We have an amazing neighborhood that's pretty active, and we have a house, so that's a never-ending list of things to do. But, we're lucky to live in Charleston. So when we get downtime, we go to the beach, we get to really enjoy everything in the community.
What has it been like building your technical team in Charleston?
I've been hiring and building teams here for a number of years, and some things are the same: It's hard to find people that will relocate here. It's gotten a little easier. But there's still that challenge. If you find someone that actually wants to be here, it's a huge win.
From a technical perspective, right now everyone on my team here is a full-stack engineer. It's hard to find someone with that full-stack experience, with intellectual curiosity and who wants to collaborate. It's important for us to find the people that fit on our team, that get excited about wanting to be on this team. I don't want someone who is going to just jump in and jump out.
But it's a small tech community. Everybody knows everybody else. And you kind of see, depending on what shop they came out of, you can almost see what their experience is going to be like. Whether it was probably very siloed where they came from, how much opportunity did they have, are they on old-stack. Even though there's so much tech, you can't just go from one company to the other because everybody's got different backgrounds and different experiences. We've had people that might have been somewhere for years, and they come out the same as they went in, very little experience and growth.
What do you see as some of the challenges recruiting tech talent to Charleston?
I don't think people (elsewhere) look at Charleston. If you're not from here, I don't think "Silicon Harbor" is that widespread. Unless they want to come here. We have someone that just joined, and they want to be in Charleston. So that was a fortunate thing. Or, they have a spouse who's coming here. But you don't usually see that. If you go to D.C., you can get a new job in a week or a day. There's just so much there. And I think we haven't quite gotten there. We're making progress, but it's not quite there.
So, over the years, I've had people accept an offer, say, "We'll come and scope," and then the spouse can't get a job because there's tech, there's medical and there's hospitality. Our schools are not great, and it's expensive to live here. So, they have to want to be here in this area. They have to see the beauty and everything that Charleston has to offer and want that as well.
Salaries around here have gotten better. But for years it was not competitive for what you can make somewhere else with cost of living somewhere else, and then what jobs here were paying versus what our cost of living is. It wasn't in sync. It's getting better, but I think we still have a little bit of that as well.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
It has. Years ago, if you think about where it was when the Charleston Digital Corridor started, we had a lot of Department of Defense contractors. I think you had big dogs, DoD, and then there wasn't that much else. There are so many more tech startups of all different flavors right now. Now you really have the gamut of different sized companies, different product lines.
So you're really getting to see a little bit more choice in where you want to be and what you want to work on. Code is code, but the benefit is finding the subject matter that you're passionate about, that you can apply that to. We're seeing more of that choice, where you can really marry your technical capability to what subject matter is interesting. Because those are the most enjoyable problems to solve, when it kind of marries those two sides of yourself.