A behind-the-scenes look at the people who make us great.
Welcome to another edition of the monthly Cogent Crew series, where a Cogent person interviews another Cogent person and shares what they discover.
For February, our Office Manager Mary sat down with developer Andy to talk all things about everything from his hidden harpejji skills to AI and what keeps him at Cogent.
Name: Andy Nicholson
Time at Cogent: Just over 3 years
Mary: So Andy, how’d you come to join Cogent?
Andy: I joined Cogent just over three years ago now. I was really frustrated at my previous job — to the point of nearly quitting programming altogether! One day I had lunch with Matt Allen, who was at Lookahead at the time but is now with AWS. Matt said “I think you should give Cogent a go”. I’d never heard of them, so checked out the Cogent website and it was like someone had given me a glass of cold water. I thought it looked amazing and pretty much applied on the spot.
M: And got the job, obviously! How’s it been over the last three years?
A: Yes, got the job and time’s just flown. It’s been wonderful to see the company grow and change over that time 🙂 I’m part of our development team, so I turn the thoughts & hard work of our wonderful designers into shippable software! My motto is to build software and build people, so if I’m on projects that help people directly in their lives, then I’m at my happiest.
One of my favourite projects was building an education and training platform called Tribal Habits, which helps subject matter experts communicate and share their knowledge well with other people in their business. I’ve also worked on some really amazing projects at Hooroo and Culture Amp, and right now looking at doing some work in the solar/clean energy space.
M: Do you like that sort of variety?
A: Yeah, definitely. I’m a very curious person and love meeting people who are passionate about different topics, because you get to learn their accumulated knowledge from lots of years in a fairly short time. I’ve always enjoyed being something of a software generalist, but as each of the different strands of software development have matured as disciplines in their own right, it’s increasingly hard to do. It’s really frustrating to someone like me who wants to know all the things and enjoys being a ‘slashie’.
M: Have you always been involved in tech?
A: I’ve always had an interest in it. My dad bought his first computer the year that I was born, so I sat on his lap in nappies and watched as he tinkered and learnt to use it. I didn’t really know I wanted to be a developer when I finished school though. I actually spent several years working in real estate, where I learnt a bunch of useful professional skills and then decided that it was time to go to uni, and off I went.
M: What’s been your favourite thing about working at Cogent?
A: I’m consistently blown away by my colleagues, both as professionals and as people. It may sound cliché, but people are genuinely prepared to be authentic, vulnerable and real. There are no office politics or anyone trying to navigate or play games. Everyone’s really good at what they do, but there’s just very little sense of ego or façade amongst Cogent folk, which is really refreshing.
It’s also amazingly rare to work at a company that believes in living out its values for all to see, and holds itself accountable to improving on them. I remember seeing Marty’s presentation about open salaries being an example of Cogent living its value of transparency. If you can’t look at your values and describe how they influence what you do in concrete, real ways — then they’re bullshit values and you’re actually better off not pretending.
M: The values resonate with you then?
A: Yeah, I was so excited to see a company that knew why it existed and had a really strong sense of doing good, as well as doing well. In tech and start-up culture there’s typically so much emphasis on money and growth at any cost. That’s so one-dimensional.
M: I can totally understand where you’re coming from with that one. So what do you do outside of work that energises you?
A: Right now, so much of my time outside of work is taken up with parenting toddlers, so there’s not a lot of spare energy. I really enjoy playing music when I can though — I play piano, recorder, harmonica, and this weird thing called a harpejji that no one’s heard of.
I like to read too, but I often don’t finish books. It’s especially the case with non-fiction, where I’ll read a book until I think I understand its core message, and then I get bored & move onto something else. For short breaks I like to play chess or do cryptic crosswords as a fun way to think laterally and solve puzzles.
M: That’s very cool. If you weren’t a developer would you be a musician then?
A: That’s a great question, but I’m not sure. I enjoy working as a developer in order to help people and get alongside people, so I think I’d still need that people element. I feel like a very social introvert, in that I need space by myself, but if I’m alone for too long I get cabin fever. So if I wasn’t a developer I’d probably be a counselor, or something in education where you can help people grow and develop.
So much of what we do comes down to communicating or facilitating the exchange of ideas or processes and those are all really human activities, even if in five years robots will be doing them all.
M: What are your thoughts about that? Are you looking forward to when AI takes over our jobs?
A: At some level I’m skeptical, because humans are fundamentally behind it all — so I’m not sure anything we make will completely escape the effects of being human! That said, I think it could be really great and free up a lot of people to live lives without drudgery, provided we think about the people whose jobs will be taken. People will still need to put food on the table, so until everything is magically free, replacing people with AI without looking at reskilling or helping them get other jobs is a net negative.
M: Yes, there’s an ethical obligation, isn’t there?
A: For sure. It’s a sweeping generalisation, but technologists are typically dreadful at ethics. We spend so much time working out whether we can do something we almost never stop to ask whether we should or not. And even if we do, the thought that “somebody else will go ahead and do it anyway” somehow gives us moral license to be the person who does it. It’s a complete cop out. In my opinion, the world needs more technology ethicists that can actually drive technological progress in helpful ways.
M: I get what you mean, it’s an interesting concept. Is there a piece of software or an app you just couldn’t live without though?
A: I probably couldn’t do without Wunderlist, which is basically a to do list app on steroids, with sharing built in. Half my household runs on Wunderlist, the other half is in my wife’s brain 🙂 We have lists for anything from meal ideas for dinner, shopping lists, movies to watch together, date night ideas, people we want to have over, you name it.
M: I’ll have to look into that one. Finally, what advice would you give to your younger self?
A: Be less self-centered, look out for other people more, be more empathetic… and back yourself.
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