Featured image: Dan playing chess with his grandfather at 6 years old
A behind-the-scenes look at the people who make us great.
Welcome to the latest edition of the Cogent Crew series, where every month we’re inviting you to get to know a little more about the people at Cogent.
This month Alex spoke to Dan about his 13-year stint at Cogent, how he balances remote work from his home in Queensland and his thoughts on training as a Pilates teacher.
Name: Dan Tropp
Job: Principal Developer
Time at Cogent: 13 years
Hi Dan, thanks for joining me today. How long have you been at Cogent? Tell us a bit about your role.
I’m a Principal Developer, which means that I’m hands-on building projects as well as leading several teams as part of the Leadership group at Cogent. I joined Cogent initially about 13 years ago. I had been working for one of the founders, Steve Hayes at a previous company before that. Steve introduced me to agile and TDD during that time, but then he left that company and started doing other things, which included starting Cogent with Marty Andrews. Very soon after that I left where I was and started working for Cogent as a subcontractor. Only about six people were working for Cogent at that time; Steve, Marty and a few subcontractors. A few years later I became a permanent employee of Cogent and have been for 11 years now!
Nice! 11 years is a long time! What’s kept you at Cogent?
It’s almost easier to answer it in reverse – there have been no reasons to leave! So, each time I think “oh, what do I want to do next? Or what do I want to be learning?” I know I just want to be working with good people, want to be on interesting projects and Cogent has given me more and more of the things I want. There’s a handful of people at Cogent that I’ve worked with for years now, across different projects and at different times. It’s just that continuity of great working relationships, of connection to the people I’m working with, to know those people, and know that they know me. I really like it. It feels really nice to belong in that way and be known as a person. It means when we kick off a new project it’s like, boom, we hit the ground running, we know how to work with each other, we know who we are. Even if there are new Cogent team members on the project, we trust each other. That sets the tone and it makes things very efficient and effective, which makes the work really enjoyable and rewarding.
Talk us through your career trajectory at Cogent.
I started out doing agile consulting as a developer helping people adopt XP development practices, pairing, TDD and a bit of Agile coaching. Back then we used to work with bigger enterprises like Census, but then it got a bit stale and we started working with more start-ups. Then Rachel Morley joined and brought in more of a product focus and hired some of our early designers. We suddenly had product people and designers which made it really interesting. It wasn’t just backend engineering done to a really high standard, projects started to include product development. I then started learning about UX/user experience, affordance, user testing/research and things like that. There was just a lot for me to learn, which suited me well. I got to work on a few startup projects in different sectors (verticals like education and health, amongst other things). Then as I sort of got more senior again, I started getting involved in Cogent the business a bit more, which is a whole new set of things to learn. So, business development, sales and how to manage people. It’s been this great progression of more things to learn, new ways to grow, and at the same time getting to work with the same awesome people over many years.
Dan lives on the Sunshine Coast and works remotely for Cogent, which means trips to the beach are a daily ritual for his family.
It’s safe to say that you’ve seen Cogent grow and change as a company over the years, what do you find to be the most surprising thing about working at Cogent?
A challenge for Cogent, because we’re not a product company, is that we’re not altogether all the time. As a consulting company, we’re a bit more spread out, so those connections can be a bit harder to maintain, but that’s certainly the goal I think. The reality is that there will always be new people coming in and that adds new diversity, things stay fresh and interesting, but it brings in new challenges as well. I think that’s part of the fun of it too. We get to mix our teams up more often than perhaps in other organizations and we get to meet and work with new people on a regular basis. A good way of explaining it might be that we have this solid foundation, this backbone of familiarity and connection adds balance to the new people and ideas that are constantly coming in. I think it’s a good combination.
I totally agree with you. Now, going back to your role as a Principal at Cogent, how would you explain your role to your grandparents, for example, in one sentence?
Funny you ask that because I have tried to explain it to my grandmother, but obviously I’m not doing a very good job at it because she still asks me “What do you do exactly?” every time I see her! I’ve tried different ways of describing it, sometimes it’s “I build online businesses” or “I build websites” because I thought she would understand that. It’s quite funny! When I explain to my kids what I do, particularly now that I’m working remotely, they kind of just think I talk to people online all the time. For them, I’m part of a business that has these people in it that does something or other! So yes, I think it is hard to explain to a non-technical person what it means to build a digital product. There’s so much complexity and detail that most users don’t even think about, even users who are familiar with using web-based products.
Looking back, have you always wanted to be doing what you are doing now?
I had no idea I’d be doing this. In high school, I vaguely knew that I wanted to build things. I think the one consistent thing if I look back now, is that I’ve always wanted to create and make things, combined with a love of problem-solving. I think they’re the two driving forces behind my passion for solving problems and creating things in the world. I never wanted to be someone who was just selling something along, so to speak. I wanted to create, and I looked at science but that wasn’t creative enough, it wasn’t making things, so I looked to engineering instead. At first, I did electrical engineering, but because I’m red/green colourblind I ran into difficulties in the electronics lab where I had to read resistors’ colour coding, and I couldn’t. I realised quite soon afterwards that I wouldn’t be going into hardware and that I would focus on building software instead. But yes, initially I thought I’d be a highly technical kind of architect. It was probably around the time that some of those early product-focused projects began popping up that I got more interested in products rather than just engineering. Then startups became more of a thing from the mid-2000s and onward, so the idea of working in startups became more interesting too. At the same time though, I didn’t really want to forgo a salary for a year and work with a sleeping bag under my desk (what the early days of startups typically looked like) and so I’ve really enjoyed the exposure that I’ve had to them through Cogent.
Dan’s family arriving at Sunshine Coast Airport in 2019, ready to call Queensland home.
What does the future look like for you?
I don’t quite know where I’m going next, but I’m here for a while. I think you try different things and you work out which bits you enjoy and which bits you’re good at and that just seems to open new possibilities. I find that when you try and plan too far ahead, it’s probably something that is too far removed from your known experience to really know if you’re going to want to do that anyway.
Makes a lot of sense to me, just let life surprise you! It definitely sounds like you’re where you want to be professionally but what else would you want to do if you weren’t working in software development?
So I’ve got two answers to that and one is something I actually tried. Back in 2009/10, I decided that software was too far removed from helping people and I wanted to be closer to people and working with them more on a day to day basis. So I retrained as a Pilates instructor and taught Pilates for six months part-time, but I decided that didn’t work so well with family life so I went back to software. I realised that through product development, I could influence users more, be closer to users and have more impact. I got a renewed passion for it then. I also have half a dream of retraining as a psychologist, but that may never happen. I’m really interested in issues of mental health and wellbeing, and that ability to help people through that process has always appealed to me.
Cool. You’ve talked about what you do at work, can you now give us a snapshot of what a typical day for you looks like?
I’ve got two girls that are in primary school, so on most mornings we wake them up and try and encourage them to get out of bed, get them ready for school. If they get off to school early with my wife then sometimes I can go down the beach before work for a swim or a surf and get back for standup. I’m usually on a delivery project, so I’ll have a standup meeting for that. After that, I’ll try and get some hardcore kind of flow work done, hands-on delivery for that project in the morning. I try to push my meetings to the afternoon so I tend to have a couple of afternoons a week where I have a handful of meetings with Cogent people blocked out.
I’m guessing this next question will be easy for you, with 11 years to draw from, tell us a few of your Cogent highlights.
There’s certainly been some stand out moments. Project wise, there’ve been a few different projects which have been really fun to launch. Melbourne Business School and Tribal Habits come to mind, both education-related projects – education’s pretty dear to my heart, so they were really fun to work on. Watching Fresho grow from its first supplier up to have hundreds of suppliers and hundreds of millions of dollars was pretty cool, to be really right in the middle of that growth for a couple of years there. Another, more recent highlight is actually the work I’ve been doing with Covidence (Living Evidence Consortium), whom I first worked with back in 2013. They’ve been a long-term Cogent client, and me coming back to work with them again after all these years feels like I’ve come full circle.
If you could be in your early twenties again, is there anything that you would do differently?
In my early twenties, I was in the last couple of years of university. I took six months off uni to go and travel around Europe. That was pretty good, and I met my wife on the trip. What would I do differently? I mean, possibly at that time I would have pushed to go to the U.S. and to go to Silicon Valley. I almost moved to New York at one point, the first company I worked for was a U.S. based startup. That was at the end of the dot-com boom and the company went bankrupt just before I moved, which was good because if they’d gone bankrupt just after I moved, that would have sucked! It would have been interesting to be part of some of that crazy evolution that was happening in Silicon Valley at the time. Maybe learning more about product management and UX stuff early on. It would have been interesting to have that exposure and that might’ve taken me down more of a product route earlier on.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in their career?
Probably look at yourself and work out what kind of environment you tend to thrive in and learn the most from. For example, in a really small organisation, you’re going to be in the thick of it from the get-go and have to do everything yourself, you’ll discover whether the hands-on experience might help you learn really quickly or it might really frustrate you. Or you can aim to find an organisation with a good culture and practices and try and work there to get a foundation of good habits and good practices before you explore more of the world. Surrounding yourself with good people (people who have good habits and believe in best practice) early on in your career makes a world of difference.
Okay, we’re getting jealous now. Lucky Dan has this beach on his front door step.
Flipping the previous question around, what’s been the best advice that anyone has given you?
Two bits of advice stand out for me: the first is from my dad, he said to me very early on that it’s really common for parents to try and get their kids to live out the things that they didn’t get to do themselves. His dad forced him to be a lawyer and he hated it, so he said to me, “Do whatever you want to do in life, but don’t become a lawyer, because it’s horrible!” And also, “I’m going to probably try and push you to be a research scientist because I wanted to be one, but you don’t have to.” It was part advice and part permission for freedom. The second one was from my grandmother. My family is Jewish and a lot of my grandmother’s generation perished in the Holocaust and she escaped with her brother and her parents. But instilled in her and the way she grew up was this idea that you can lose everything, but there are also certain things that you can’t lose. You can’t lose experiences, and you can’t lose what you’ve learnt. When I was going through university and I was trying to decide if I should travel or not because I was worried that it would cost a lot of money, her response was “you can’t do anything with the money later, just spend it and you won’t regret it.” And I did. I went to Europe for six months and spent all the money that I’d saved and had an amazing time! That trip gave me a firsthand connection to all these different places around the world from a simple perspective of having a beer here and a meal there, seeing people in the markets; all those little things connect you to the world and gives you an intuitive sense of the planet being a global thing, more than just your local neighbourhood, which I believe is invaluable. But having said that, I’m still not very good at spending money!
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