Building an Engineering Career at Alto
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Elnaz joined as Alto’s third software engineer in 2016, coming from Lob. She has since gone on to shape Alto’s culture and recruiting efforts and rose to become an Engineering Manager. In this interview, she shares how her background and experiences, from her nomadic upbringing to serving as student body president in college, led her to where she is today.
You’ve lived in 8 cities spanning 5 countries and 3 continents! Tell me more about that and how it shaped you?
My family started moving around from a really early age. My dad was a chemical engineering professor in Iran for around 25 years. When my siblings started going to college in the United States, we started moving around to pay for their college tuition. He did a sabbatical in Australia (where I learned English!), a short stint at his alma mater Oklahoma State, time at a research institute in Kuwait, and a few other locations.
As a result, I’ve been exposed to such extremes in my life in moving from the Middle East to Oklahoma, or between Chicago and San Francisco. I’ve just been exposed to such a variety of people that’s allowed me to both blend in with a lot of different folks, but also be able to be a bridge and a translator. Regardless of whether it's in work or my personal life, I think “passionate” is maybe the most consistent way I would describe myself. I'm either passionate about the work I'm doing or passionate about getting outside for camping and traveling. There's an intensity in all aspects of my life.
What brought you to Alto?
From my past roles, I realized I loved working on cross-functional problems. I stumbled across Alto, eventually realizing that working cross-functionally was such a unique and fundamental opportunity with this company. We would not succeed if engineering sat in one corner and operations in another - we had to work together. The other piece was that I knew I wanted to work on something more meaningful. I felt like I was able to close the loop on what started off my career – working in civic tech and on public interest projects – and do that as a more effective person in the healthcare business. Finally, I wanted to learn more about the business side of things. What I learned in my first job out of school was that nonprofits and civic tech are great, but they don’t work unless you can fund them. I really wanted to find businesses that were viable and also added value.
You were Alto’s third engineer. What was that like?
In retrospect, it was fantastic. I was able to shape the culture, see the evolution of the company, and develop a lot of relationships. For example, I was really passionate about engineering being a partner to the rest of the organization and for us to go into the trenches to understand how the frontlines use our product to figure out how to make things better. I was given a lot of unique opportunities, including working on recruiting to make sure we were building a more equitable interview process, and also ensuring that folks are successful once they got here. I was able to influence Alto’s diversity and inclusion efforts and grow as a leader to pave the path for more people after me.
How was the transition from engineer to management like for you?
The first feeling was just sheer excitement. So much of what I’d been passionate about up until then had been done on the side: building an onboarding program for new hires, building out better interview questions, improving our on-call process. Becoming a manager was validation of how things that I'm good at are not just pure engineering skills, but also things that make engineering more effective. I'd been worried about being perceived as not technical enough, or that the soft skills didn’t matter, and it really validated that what I wanted to work on was valued. The second feeling was, “How do I actually know if I'm doing a good job?” I think that's one of the hardest things when you first become a manager.
As an engineer, you have these tight feedback loops: you build something, the test runs, and you see the product and the impact. As a manager, you might have a conversation or make one comment to someone only to find out months later what the actual impact of that comment was on the person. I had to get accustomed to slower feedback loops and being more comfortable with less structure.
You were your college’s student government president. Tell me more about that and how it relates to what you do now?
What I quickly learned from that position was that defusing tense situations was my superpower. When there were disagreements between the students and the university, I felt like I could speak to both sides and bridge the gap. That was the first time I really began to appreciate my upbringing of having been exposed to a lot of different cultures and different people. This becomes relevant in basically every intersection at work: how engineering and operations relate to each other, how engineering and design relate to each other, or being able to see different perspectives within the same discipline.
In particular, I think it was helpful for me to spend time with a design and development firm because I saw the anxiety that designers can have around not solving the problem at the core or being forced to make sacrifices about the fidelity of their solution. Now when I'm working with a designer I make sure they understand when I’m talking about velocity, but I can also put that hat aside and talk about what's possible given a longer timeframe.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I've always felt like I've seesawed between coming on too strong or being too shy. The advice I received was to not think about them as binary aspects, but rather celebrate that I have both of those attributes. So when I was weighing the idea of whether I’m really great at people management, does that make me less of a technical person? Or if I'm technical, does that mean I can't be good at the people side of things? I think this advice was really helpful for me to stop seeing it as an either-or choice and recognize I can be great at both. It makes me think of a clip of Dave Chappelle where he talks about advice that his mom gave him that really resonates with me. His mom told him, “Sometimes you gotta be a lion so you can be the lamb you really are.”
What are you most excited about at Alto in the next year?
Personally, I’m most excited for my parents to be able to use Alto as we expand our service areas so they understand what I've been doing the past three years! Professionally, I'm excited about the big dent we can make in technical scalability, as well as making it easier for our operations team to provide a consistently excellent patient experience.
If you have any questions about Alto, or are interested in joining our team, please reach out via LinkedIn.