If you want to know the history of Ontra, Gerry Cardinal is your man. As one of the company’s earliest employees, Gerry has witnessed and enabled the company’s meteoric growth. When Gerry’s not solving hard engineering problems and delivering elegant solutions for internal and external customers, you might find him in a foreign country, chasing his favorite Pokémon in Pokémon GO.
You started with Ontra over 7 years ago, when it was InCloudCounsel. Now that Ontra is in hyper-growth mode, how has your employee experience changed?
Initially, I was part of a small crew in the San Francisco office. I knew most everything going on with the product and company. For a long time, I literally wrote or reviewed every line of code we shipped. Now it’s hard for me to keep up with my amazing teammates on the architecture team, much less the entire engineering team.
In many ways, the company is growing beyond what we imagined in the early days. A combination of hard work and luck enabled us to break through as we have. While the company has reached some early goals, we still haven’t reached what we call the BHAG — the Big Hairy Audacious Goal, which inspires the team and keeps us rowing the same direction on a daily basis.
What inspired you to join when Ontra was the startup known as InCloudCounsel?
I’ve been friends with Lane Lillquist – the co-founder and CTO of Ontra – since high school. We dreamt back then of moving from northern Minnesota to San Francisco and working at tech startups and seeing where that would take us. We worked together at one company and Lane left to co-found InCloudCounsel. Nine months later, I joined because I saw the opportunity to achieve that dream we shared in high school.
What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about being an engineer at Ontra?
Most people probably think the hardest part of engineering is writing code to solve a complicated problem. But it’s really about clear communication. It’s so important to communicate clearly with the business team, product team, and other engineers.
Sometimes you can feel insular when you’re an engineer off alone working on a hard problem. But it takes collaboration with many people on many teams to deliver a product. Many Ontra employees use our product every day, so interacting with them is key to building a good product. My favorite features to work on are ones my coworkers use because I like knowing I’m helping them.
I also enjoy learning from my teammates on the architecture team. We all have different backgrounds and areas of expertise, one of mine being that I know Ontra’s history. It’s also a big part of my job to mentor and assist engineers across the app teams and help establish best practices. I’ve always enjoyed the mentoring aspect of software engineering and seeing folks grow, take on bigger projects, and own them through our whole process to delivery.
Describe a typical day for you at Ontra.
Each day features lots of collaboration, mainly on Slack and Zoom, with my teammates on architecture, the rest of R&D, and teams beyond our department. To deliver value, we need to align with company leadership and the business team. And then we need to ruthlessly prioritize.
I spend a lot of time reviewing code and pairing with other engineers on their projects. That way I gain a good view of what’s going on across teams and can spot patterns and share learnings. Occasionally, I still get to write code. At the end of most days, I deploy a release that delivers all of the app team’s work to our users, which includes paying customers, our legal network members, and our internal users.
I also support account management and finance. Sometimes it’s putting out fires, such as troubleshooting a problem with an automated process so people can go about their day. To help account management, we identify common issues and put a solution in the Ontra app so they can self-serve. I get involved with support requests fielded by our support team in Slack, and with complicated problems that the support team is struggling to resolve.
What’s been the highlight of your career at Ontra to date?
The best part is the people, and a highlight has been low turnover in the engineering group. Engineers are in high demand, yet most stay at Ontra, partly due to the culture I helped establish and maintain.
The engineering team embraces Ontra’s company values, especially continuous improvement. I think people often leave jobs because they don’t see a way to improve the situation or get their ideas embraced by the organization. Ontra’s engineering team does a good job living the value of continuous improvement by considering everyone’s ideas and making changes to our processes as a result. It’s an empowering environment that promotes autonomy.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I’m an avid Pokémon GO player. The game launched in 2016 but it’s a lot better now, and has a really strong worldwide community. The game gets me outside, away from the desk and computer. It also takes me to in-person events all over. This year, my wife and I went to an event in Spain and one in Seattle. It’s really fun to trade Pokémon with people from other countries at these global events. There are also monthly community days and official meetups in bigger cities, like Austin, Texas, where I live.
Who is your biggest inspiration and why?
I’m a big fan of Mark Rober. You may know him from his glitter bomb YouTube videos where he gets revenge on package thieves. He’s an amazing engineer and his fun videos are inspiring the next generation of engineers. I am inspired by his passion for engineering in general, and the hard work he puts into both crafting his projects and perfecting his videos.