Employee Profiles

Riffyn Spotlights with DevOps Engineer Sam Gawthrop

Embriette Hyde
Sam G Volunteer with Seals horizontal
Photo credit: Bill Hunnewell - The Marine Mammal Center

At Riffyn, we are proud that our customers see us as scientific partners. That’s because our mission is to help solve their deepest process and data challenges, and to deliver transformative long-term value. That commitment starts with people who care.

In our “Riffyn Spotlights” blog series, we’re giving you the chance to get to know the people of Riffyn that make our mission real. Today, we talk with DevOps Engineer Sam Gawthrop about his past in aeronautics, Riffyn’s culture of “assume best intent,” and his volunteer work helping sick and injured seals and sea lions. Please note that answers have been edited for clarity.

Q: What is your background what did you do before joining the Riffyn team?

I got my Bachelor’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech, and then took a break and spent a couple of years giving skiing lessons at Lake Tahoe. I then moved to the Bay Area and did data analysis for the California Solar Initiative for a little bit. After that I worked at Planet Labs, assembling what was then the world's largest constellation of spacecraft.

I then worked as a contractor for a couple of small robotics companies before moving to 3Scan, which is where I gained experience in biotech. They were using a microtome for staining and slicing tissue samples, and I was digitizing and adjusting the images. After that I took a crazy departure and worked for a company called the Open Lunar Foundation, a moon exploration company started by astronaut Chris Hadfield. When he asked me to work on his team I couldn't say no, and then, unfortunately, they closed the engineering department when COVID hit.

Q: Why did you decide to join Riffyn?

At 3Scan, I worked with AC Gillette, who is now a Front-End Engineer at Riffyn. They reached out and gave me a great reference for Riffyn. At 3Scan, working with histologists, I saw how the status quo was notebooks and Excel documents, with some compound description requiring that the person reading it be familiar with someone’s PhD advisor. The lab communication was very relative and required a lot of context. As an engineer that just struck me as abject madness and not what I imagined science to be. So having something that makes it so that labs can actually communicate, like Riffyn does, make sense.

As an engineer that just struck me as abject madness and no what I imagined science to be.

Q: Describe Riffyn in three words.

Steadily advancing quality.

Q: What personal values do you get to fulfill through your work?

Riffyn is a place that increasingly values engineering integrity. I have a mini soapbox about the difference between the state of most software developers and what “real” engineering is. I’ve worked with a lot of mechanical engineers, aerospace engineers, and propulsion engineers who have a responsibility for adherence to safe practices, and personal responsibility for delivering safe work. I think we can treat software as an engineering discipline similarly. We need to work at a level that validates all of our work as a skilled profession. I really value that and I see that happening at Riffyn more and more.

Q: What part(s) of Riffyn’s culture do you enjoy the most?

Riffyn is a place that has internalized and socialized “assume best intent” really well. Every company I've ever worked at has always said “our policy is to assume best intent,” but inevitably hackles get raised especially with teams that you don't interact with as much or if a team's work impedes yours. It's very easy especially under deadline pressure to not assume best intent.

At Riffyn we check in if something doesn’t make sense, we might hop on a call really quick to clarify, and we actively make the effort to talk through things and understand where each person is coming from. It's culturally ingrained in us that we will succeed or fail as a team. At the end of the day it doesn't matter how good our data export library is or how clean this one particular module of code is — what truly matters is all of our teams working together to deliver a unified product. If any part of that fails, every single one of us will not succeed.

It's culturally ingrained in us that we will succeed or fail as a team.

Q: Walk me through what a work day looks like for you - “a day in the life of Sam.”

I see everything that I do as a team job, so my day looks like pretty much any other DevOps engineer’s day. The DevOps team has an on-call rotation where one week out of three we’ll be on a 24-7 on-call where if something comes up we need to address it in a timely fashion. We also have two week sprints where we attempt to do the agile with the rest of the software team. Because we're also on the Infrastructure Response Team, anything can pop up at any time that we might need to help with. For instance, today a new deploy is going out to one of our customers. We are working with the testing team to make sure that this is done, and we are doing simulations to ensure that it will be done in a timely fashion with minimal impact to the customer. We are also currently working on a lot of infrastructure improvements to make the cloud servers that we run on faster and to reduce their cost. There is almost no end to optimizing, making our stuff run better, run faster, and run for less money.

Q: What is your best recommendation for being able to effectively work from home?

The thing that's hardest for us, and I think that we've adapted to pretty well, is responding to an emergency. In an office environment, we could all just go to a conference room and sit around the table and work until we fix it. But we can’t do that right now, so we've experimented with a number of different things. What we’ve found works really well for us is to have a conference call involving only the individuals that need to be involved, where we are very clear about each person’s role in implementing the solution and doing it without talking on top of each other.

Q: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your work?

I'd say a struggle in the software industry is, if something is new, is it better than what exists? At what point do you migrate to a new technology? I’ve learned that balancing the adoption of new technologies versus working within what we already have is a really difficult path to walk. The lesson I’ve learned is that there is a difficulty there that we all need to be aware of, and that there isn’t a giant prescriptive answer to that question.

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

For the last 10 years I've been a volunteer at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito where I help take care of sick and injured seals and sea lions and the occasional otter. We also just recently bought a house and so I’ve been doing a lot of repair work on our little fixer upper.

Q: If you could solve one major problem, what would it be and why?

A very big and very scary problem is how climate change is affecting the world’s oceans. It’s a problem of such scope that we don’t even have a concept of how much of a problem it is. We forget that our planet is three quarters water. We need to start to understand the scope and severity and begin to address our changing oceans with the changing climate. I see a lot of the effects of this through my volunteer work at the Marine Mammal Center and it’s just so sad.

If you're interested in joining a dynamic group of people passionate about helping scientists discover more, please visit our Careers page at riffyn.com/careers or send a letter of inquiry to join@riffyn.com