Bret Ehlert joined WiseTech’s Sydney office as a Senior Software Engineer more than 14 years ago, and says the freedom to pursue interesting problems, the positive culture and the opportunity to develop high quality products in a scalable way means that there’s never a dull moment at WiseTech.
In this interview, Bret shares insights into the software development process, his thoughts on the importance of knowledge sharing and collaboration, and why he’s stayed at WiseTech for so many years.
Can you share a bit about your career journey and how you came to join WiseTech?
I’m originally from the US, but prior to joining WiseTech I’d been living in Paris and working as a team lead for a small software company for about five years. I’d met a couple of people from Australia and was looking for a new challenge, so in 2009, I decided to move to Sydney.
When I moved here it was just after the global financial crisis, and as a result, a lot of companies were in hiring freezes. I used to go to this pizza place in Manly about once a week, and I’d chat to the guy behind the bar who eventually mentioned that his dad was the development manager at WiseTech (at the time). I was looking for opportunities, so I sent my CV to him and got an interview, and the rest is history.
I remember when I interviewed at WiseTech, they said that they were using this time as an opportunity to recruit good engineers and build their talent pool, because they knew there were a lot of great people looking for jobs. I thought that was a very positive sign, to have a company that was actively growing and investing in talent during a time when other companies weren’t hiring.
You’ve been at WiseTech for more than 14 years, what’s kept you here?
The exciting growth is one reason, and the second is the freedom to work on interesting and challenging problems. I feel like I've been able to contribute to interesting problems that I can see have an impact, and for me that’s the most important thing.
I've never really been interested in my title; I'm more interested in my contribution. So for me, having the ability to change teams or change projects is really important and WiseTech does a great job of that.
I enjoy working in a flat structure where I can work on problems that I know will affect a lot of people. I can work on those and help other people work on those and make a visible impact to the product, the process and the team.
WiseTech has a very strong strategy and as a business, we understand how to build software. We've developed a lot of processes and a culture around building high quality software. We've tapped into a particular enterprise software market, which is very large and has a lot of potential, but it's more about creating the culture and the environment in which we can create very high-quality software in a scalable way. For me, that’s what makes it interesting to work at WiseTech.
What are some of the interesting problems you've worked on?
From the day I joined, I was really interested in DAT, which is our homegrown continuous integration and delivery platform, which existed before I joined 14 years ago. At that time, it was a new concept and there weren't a lot of products out there, but WiseTech had built their own. DAT stands for Distributed Auto Tester and it distributes the tests for CargoWise across thousands of agents to run in parallel.
That's one of the things I was very interested in from the beginning and was able to have the opportunity to work on. When I joined, there were a few 100,000 tests and there's now 1.3 million tests, so just continuing to scale that system has been really rewarding.
How do you think our mantras shape our culture and way of working?
Quality in software is important to engineers, because their job is to create a high-quality product. A lot of times in businesses that don't understand how that's done, there can be a lot of pressure on developers to sacrifice quality in order to gain other things like delivery to market or cost.
I think our mantra slower today, faster forever’ addresses that directly by saying actually quality is important and we're willing to invest in that. That means it's okay if something today is going to take a little bit longer, because we know that by doing it correctly now, it's going to help accelerate the development. By doing things right the first time, it's going to improve the quality, which reduces the effort to fix things in the future.
How important is it for you as a software engineer to have a team of people around you that you can continue to learn from?
Most good engineers will always want to learn and improve, and the easiest way to achieve this is to have people around you who have knowledge and skills that you don't have. At WiseTech, one of the easiest ways to learn things is through code reviews. Part of the process of the review is to check the quality of what you're doing, but another big part of it is to share knowledge.
If someone's reviewing my code, and they notice something where I could’ve done something better and they're able to convey that to me, I’ve learned something new. I think being surrounded by people who are intelligent and have knowledge and skills that you can learn from is really important to engineers.
Being a mentor is another way that I convey all that knowledge and information I have from working here for so long to my peers. As we grow the team, if all the knowledge those senior people have about how we're doing things, why we're doing things the way we're doing them and what we want to achieve gets passed down to new team members, then we know we can continue to build on our vision.
We also have the rotations program for new people coming in, which gives them exposure to different teams and lets them choose their place based on what they want to work on. For me, WiseTech has been great because whenever I’ve shown interest in a project, I've always had the freedom to pursue that without any resistance.
What excites you about the future of WiseTech?
It's been amazing to see the company grow and change over the last 14 years, and to see how well WiseTech has adapted to its growth and to being more scalable. For example, we have leadership training which is really positive. As we grow, we need to make sure the leaders have the right skills to be able to be a good leader for their teams, so this training is more important now than ever before.
WiseTech has been a fast-growing company for a long time, which means there's a lot of opportunity to work on interesting and complex problems. We have a very strong culture, we understand how to create quality software at scale, and as an engineer, you're able to focus on that. We value great engineers and great engineering, and we have everything from business software to machine learning and big data, so there's a lot of opportunities to find your path and choose the problems you want to work on.
I’d say I'm excited and motivated by what WiseTech is doing and seeing it grow and seeing the problems we need to solve as it continues to grow. I’m also excited to see more talented people join the company who have interesting ideas, and to help our students on their career journey as well.