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From classmates to C-Suite: How &Open’s founding engineers rose to lead the world's first happiness platform

(hint: it was ours).

&Open7 min2021-09-07

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From classmates to the C-suite

Ross Shannon, &Open CTO, and Fintan Fairmichael, Director of Engineering, first met studying for their graduate degrees in Computer Science, back when &Open wasn’t even a twinkle in our founders’ eyes.

After further study and interning together in big tech (where they discovered what they didn’t like about being part of an engineering team), they instituted their own tech startup and consultancy before joining forces with an embryonic &Open, where they worked with Jonathan, Ciara, and Mark to build the platform from the ground up.

From classmates to founders to colleagues, these two have been through it all. And when it comes to creating a seamless, integrated, elegant SaaS platform, they really know what (and who) it takes to continue shipping great work.

We spoke to them about the challenges and joys of building the world’s first Happiness Platform, and what the future holds for our product and team.

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You’ve been at &Open since Day 1. What has it been like to work on a platform like this from the start?

FF: It was hugely exciting and hugely challenging to begin at the beginning. We built and technically designed the platform from the bottom, with no legacy code to build on top of.

It meant we could build with the best tech available at the time, and the platform we made in that first phase has stood the test of time — it has iterated and expanded, but the core modelling has all been maintained.

Building something from scratch gives a great sense of ownership and achievement. Seeing it have impact in the real world is very rewarding, I think it really makes you passionate about the output.

RS: As a team, we built a piece of software that I’m really proud of. I’ve loved watching it go from it’s very first version to the ever-evolving version we have now. The platform is so much more powerful now, and there’s so much scope. It’s fascinating to take a step back and see the progress we’ve made.

We’ve worked with a really great, diverse team with differing talents. I feel like we’re always learning from each other.

Tell us more about the team. It’s challenging to grow a world-class engineering team at a time when everyone wants to hire the best engineering talent. How do you make &Open stand out?

FF: We’re building a great product, with a tangible, real-world output, which is something people in the engineering space often don’t get the chance to work on.

When you’re solving difficult data problems in computer science, you’re oftentimes not doing it in service of delivering a great experience. What I love about our business is that you can apply complex computer science to create a wonderful human moment: sending the best gift at the right time.

Personally, as someone working in a generally not very well-understood field, I like being able to describe what the company does to non-technical friends and it being something they can immediately connect with.

RS: On the Product team, we place a high value on Collaborative Coding, which is our way of peer-reviewing &Open’s code. It means no one is working in isolation, and everyone has someone to bounce ideas off and take a fresh look at your code. It’s a very positive process; we’re all sharing information and suggesting better ways to do things, and of course celebrating each other’s work, too. It’s like a circular economy on code. We’ve found it to be a really valuable way to be trained on the job by your peers.

Most startups tend to be either enterprise- or consumer-focused. Enterprise can be a stable but boring product. Consumer brings together a great UX, friendliness, on-boarding speed, and a functionality that appeals. What we’re trying to achieve is to serve both of those audiences at once, so we have to solve for both of those audiences at the same time. We’re built on enterprise grade stability, but our product feels consumer focused as a user experience. That’s a really enjoyable challenge to play with and work on.

FF: At the moment, we have a great team and set of engineers who really complement each other. We’re always working on finding the right way to build around the existing team: bringing in new experience, competencies, and specialisations while maintaining our personality, product vision, and technical vision. Currently, we’re hiring across our department: QA, backend, frontend, dev ops, you name it.

We have several open roles on the Engineering team. What do you look for in new hires?

FF: Finding the right set of people to help realise our goals is so important. We are building a team that is passionate about what we do. That includes everything from how we collaborate and work together to building the right thing for a particular problem to constantly learning and iterating on the job.

We’re always looking for people to bring in their experience and have a hunger to try new things and develop their abilities to have an impact on what we’re doing. To not just be a cog in a machine, but someone who can show us a cog we never knew existed.

We use very modern tech and tooling in the most intelligent way possible. We love experimenting and are driven by curiosity, always asking ourselves, “Is there a better or smarter way to do this?”

If you’re someone who wants to be part of contributing to the development of a platform that’s bridging the gap between the physical and virtual worlds, this is the place you’ve been looking for.

From classmates to C-suite

You’ve worked together for so long, and before &Open you had your own company. You clearly have entrepreneurial spirits — what is it about &Open that keeps you motivated?

RS: For me, my main interest in any job is what I can learn. At &Open I’ve learned so much about areas I ordinarily would never have had exposure to. To work with experts in their fields — like logistics, design, buying — has been invaluable.

FF: That multidisciplinary aspect to the way the business operates has really appealed to me from the start as well. It isn’t just a piece of tech or a set of gifts, it’s the design, development, product, logistics, marketing, the sum of all the parts. Without each of these things, we’d be much weaker. I love that the tech connects all of these.

RS: I also really believe in the opportunity of the product: the markets that we’re going into and the potential of gifting as a strategy across different verticals and functions. A lot of customers have tried gifting themselves and have always reached a block that they can’t get over (i.e. logistics, shipping, storing, automating all of it) so they realise they need someone else to solve it. That’s where we come in.

So tell us: what’s next?

FF: We have so much more to do. We’ll be opening up new avenues of gifting, targeting the experience to be what customers want it to be, and connecting into other systems and workflows to enable gifting at scale.

RS: There’s a huge opportunity to build into marketing loyalty ecosystems and the potential to use the platform in tandem with marketing automation, CRM, etc. Prioritising integration and in what order is our challenge.

We’re also looking at scaling out the width of the offering — finding the right gift, what is it, where is it, can we engage with smaller businesses. We’re always broadening the range of gift options with new types of gifts and opportunities for new experiences. Airbnb Experiences is a new category of gift we’ve included this year, alongside supporting digital gifts and charitable donations.

FF: A core value for us is building with quality. We’re always striving to deliver something that works seamlessly, is enterprise grade, secure, robust, but also has that human side, still feeling personal and meaningful. Bringing that all together is our secret sauce (or the secret sauce we’re trying to achieve).

RS: While we maintain the human-to-human experience, there’s definitely scope for automation in applying machine learning to areas like email scheduling and building on behavioural profiles.

Everything we do aims to affect and increase the experience of joy for the person we’re sending a gift to. Our whole purpose is to create impact, be memorable and meaningful, and generate emotion. That’s why we love it.

Thank you, Ross and Fintan, for sharing your thoughts and giving us a glimpse into the &Open future. If you like what you hear, and are a talented, passionate engineer, check out our open roles here.

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