Many of us seek out work that offers more than a paycheck. We want purpose, or as Dustin Jackson, SVP of Engineering at Celonis, recently told me, “a team and a mission that I can believe in.”
Jackson knows a thing or two about building developer teams with purpose. He has multiple degrees in computer science from Stanford University and more than 20 years experience in software development and engineering leadership. Before joining Celonis, Jackson led a global customer engagement engineering organization of ~500 people with large teams in Irvine, Mountain View and Shanghai.
I spoke with Jackson while I visited the Celonis Los Angeles office, located in Silicon Beach. We discussed why he became a software engineer, his first computer and the first line of code he ever wrote, or “plagiarized’ as he said.
More importantly, Jackson walked me through the tough technical challenges that he and the Celonis team are tackling, what excites him about the work they’re doing and shared the “best piece of advice” he was given as a new engineering leader.
The following is a transcript of the interview edited for readability.
Bill Detwiler: Dustin, what made you want to be a software engineer?
Dustin Jackson: Well, I have to say it took me a little while to figure out that I really wanted to be a software engineer. As a kid I loved computers and grew up at a time where in order to play games on them, you had to really fiddle with them and figure out how to make them work. I always really enjoyed that. But I have to say, I always saw it as more of a tool and I went to college thinking I was going to study physics or something like that.
And then I remember when I ordered my very first computer, that was all my own, that showed up in the dorm room, my roommates remarked they'd never seen me more excited about anything in the whole time they'd known me than when that computer showed up. And that started the wheels turning a little bit that maybe I should take it a little bit more seriously. And once I took a few computer science classes, I was hooked after that.
[I] would painstakingly transcribe the programs from the book over into the Commodore 64 and hit the run key and stuff would happen.
Bill Detwiler: What was that first computer?
Dustin Jackson: Well, the very first computer was a Commodore 64. The one that you could play real games on that didn't work so much was probably an IBM 386, something like that.
Bill Detwiler: I had a Tandy 1000, a Trash 80, a TI. I had everything in there. I love the old stuff.
Dustin Jackson: Yeah. You used to have to play a lot of games to optimize how the memory was set up in order to get the games to load. That was a pretty good education.
Bill Detwiler: You learned how to run HIMEM.SYS really well. Didn't we?
Dustin Jackson: Yeah.
Bill Detwiler: Do you also remember the first line of code you ever wrote?
Dustin Jackson: I do. And that was for the Commodore 64. Maybe I should say it's the first line of code I ever plagiarized because what I did was, I remember riding my bike down to the public library and checking out a book that was full of basic programs. And I had no idea what any of it meant, but would painstakingly transcribe the programs from the book over into the Commodore 64 and hit the run key and stuff would happen. And it was pretty cool. And then you would study the program and try to reverse engineer and figure out what this code was doing to make the graphics run that you were seeing.
Bill Detwiler: I remember that so well. You used to get the code in the back of the magazines.
Dustin Jackson: Yup.
Celonis Engineering Blog: Handling API errors with Problem JSON
Bill Detwiler: What do you like best about the work you're doing now?
Dustin Jackson: I think at the top of the list is just how productive and rewarding the work is. And how at the end of the day, I feel like I've accomplished an incredible amount. A lot of that just comes from the fact that we are building products and a team here from scratch. And you know that all of the decisions that you're making are going to be foundational to years into the future.
Having worked at larger companies in the past, I know how this goes. I know how the leaders that I bring in now and the products that we design, while it all seems very novel, in 10 years is just going to feel how it's always been. And getting to be part of those decisions and understanding how every minute of the day is making such a difference, going into the future for this company. I just love it.
Bill Detwiler: What do you like best about working at Celonis?
Dustin Jackson: I am somebody who loves to be part of a team and a mission that I really believe in. And the Celonis EMS is a product that does incredible things for our customers. And also, I think it is a really powerful tool for good in this world. The more that we can find and detect inefficiencies, help companies improve their processes and detect things like wastage in their CO2 emissions. It's something that makes me proud at the end of the day that that's how I spent my time.
And then it's just the people that you're working with. It's a great set of leaders and founders who, have a vision that I really share and I'm proud to be a part of. And then to be able to build this team here that you're getting to speak with today. So many amazing people who I feel honored that they've decided to come and join me here. And it's just a lot of fun to be on that mission together.
Bill Detwiler: Let's talk about some of that work that the team is doing. What are some of those tough technical challenges that you and the team are working on right now?
Dustin Jackson: What I personally spend a lot of my time on is thinking about how to set up the whole team organization. And I, at least, tell myself a story about how it's kind of like an engineering challenge and I still get to use the engineering skills that I acquired earlier in the career.
To set up a team that works well together you're establishing various components, you're setting up clean interfaces between them, clear lines of responsibility. And at the end of the day, if you can set up teams well with good leadership and clear charters and room to innovate, it is an ecosystem and all of these pieces will interact with each other in ways that maybe you didn't even anticipate to begin with. But the system all comes together and ends up creating something pretty magical at the end.
Dustin Jackson, SVP of Engineering at Celonis
Bill Detwiler: And what about your experiences and maybe even the team's experiences are setting you up for success in tackling those tough challenges?
Dustin Jackson: Sure. I mean, well, obviously I've built a lot of teams throughout the course of my career. But I think what's even more helpful is I have spent the vast majority of my career not being in the corporate mothership. I've always been in an office that was geographically separate.
And that forced me to learn a lot about what it takes for teams to be able to interoperate when separated by geographies or time zones. If you have 200 people that are all in the same location, from the executive leadership all the way down to the junior engineers, it lets you be a little lazy, I guess. You can just walk in every day and try to figure out what it is you want to do. And if you need more people, you just grab them. And if you have questions, you ask the man or woman upstairs.
But if you have teams that are on opposite ends of the globe, you have to really do a lot of planning up front and make sure you have the right leadership and the right resources. And those really clean interfaces between teams. Everybody has to know what their job is, so that all of these things will fit together at the appointed time. And that's something that I really had to learn the hard way. But now, as I'm designing the execution management systems user platform team, it's really helping to inform how to set those pieces up for success.
Bill Detwiler: And how does the team work together and how do you maybe help facilitate that process for solving those tough challenges?
Dustin Jackson: Yeah. I'm blessed with a number of great leaders and engineering directors that are on my team and they all have unique experience and their teams have their own passion projects. And what I get to do is understand what are these external requirements that are maybe coming from our senior leadership or from our customers? But then also sit and spend a lot of time with the teams themselves and understand what their ideas are and what they see as the low hanging fruit or the next most important problem to challenge?
And then try to synthesize all of that together and create a stack ranking of the problems that we would like to solve. And then compare that to the resources we have. For better or worse, there's always more incredible things we would like to build than we actually have the resources to do. And that's probably the hardest part of the job is to draw that line and tell people what's not going to happen.
Bill Detwiler: And I'd love to wrap up our interview there, which is, what advice would you give to new engineering leaders as they try to build teams to tackle tough challenges?
Dustin Jackson: I think the best piece of advice I've ever given, that I've ever been given, I should say and that I've found incredibly useful over time is, you have to have a sounding board. You cannot do it all yourself. And even if you think you have a great idea, having somebody that you trust to run it past, makes all the difference in the world in terms of validating whether or not it's actually as good of an idea that you think. And usually you'll find there were some gaps that maybe you didn't see along the way.
Even if you think you have a great idea, having somebody that you trust to run it past, makes all the difference in the world…
And then if you're stuck, if you're at a point where you just don't know where to go, having somebody you can turn to and walk through the problem and see what ideas they have are, honestly what I found is, you can be stuck and then just the act of telling somebody, just explaining the problem to them, all of a sudden, the ideas pop into your head halfway through too.
And that's something that I think it was a lot harder to do during the pandemic. When everybody was working from home, you couldn't just turn around to somebody next to you and say, "Hey, what do you think?" And that would be my advice, is make sure you always find yourself in a position where you're surrounded by smart people that you can bounce ideas off of. And it'll make you a lot better as a result.
At Celonis we’re building a new type of enterprise technology, called execution management. And, we’re recruiting the world’s best engineers to do it. Whether you’re a frontend or backend developer, full stack engineer, data scientist, DevOps specialist, QA analyst or engineering leader – we have technical challenges that need solving.
To learn more about how we’re pioneering advances in AI, machine learning, automation, analytics and data mining, and to see current engineering job openings, visit Celonis Engineering.