In the “Job Profiles” series, various members of the InterNations team talk about their role in the company and the work they do at InterNations. In the latest interview, Senior Frontend Engineer Eugene talks about his passion for web development, his own expat experience, and what makes his current job special.
Can you briefly tell us what your job is all about?
I joined InterNations as a Frontend Engineer in July 2015. As you may know, there are two sides to software engineering: frontend and backend. Frontend developers create the visual part — the user interface with the elements you can see or interact with, such as menus, buttons, animations, etc. Backend developers work on the business logic behind the scenes. Their work makes sure that, for example, the right InterNations members get sent an email notification whenever you click a button to invite your contacts to an event.
Our PXTs (product experience teams) normally consist of both backend and frontend engineers, as well as a product manager. And the one I’m a part of has two UX (user experience) designers and a UI (user interface) designer too.
How would you summarize your career at InterNations? And what are you currently working on?
Actually, the project I’m working on is closely related to what I did when getting started here. When I joined, the position that had become available involved taking care of our pattern library. This is a collection of design elements we wanted to reuse in the user interface. We can build the platform faster if we don’t have to come up with the same components over and over again.
As the new Frontend Engineer, I took over the task of maintaining the pattern library. At first, it wasn’t a full-time job — it took up maybe 20% of my time — but it gradually morphed into something bigger, a “design system light”. However, we didn’t succeed in setting up our team structure and processes in such a way that we really benefited from it. Neither the initial pattern library nor its immediate successor was used consistently, which kind of defeated the purpose of having them in the first place.
You’ve just mentioned a “design system”. This is the project you are working on right now, isn’t it?
Yes, everything changed in 2020 when a new design system was announced as one of our main engineering projects. A design system contains all the design principles, guidelines, and documentation, plus the components we use to build the user interface. Our system is based on Google’s Material Design.
While we didn’t have to create it from scratch, it was clearly a major initiative for an entire team. The team was set up properly, so that engineers and designers could work together as a cohesive unit. This was a true game-changer! Our new design system is my chief responsibility as a Senior Frontend Engineer right now. It’s not every day that you get the chance to develop a design system, and I’m very excited about it.
While I am the only engineer working on the design system full time, my PXT is chiefly responsible for building our new SPA (single page application). SPA is an approach to web app design and architecture where you don’t have to reload entire pages while browsing a website. It’s what we use to update the InterNations platform bit by bit.
In addition to developing the design system, I’m involved in other engineering tasks, for example, the upcoming changes to the InterNations profile page. But these parts of my job are never totally disconnected. While working on something else, I might realize there’s a component missing from the design system, and then I’ll go back to build it.
Can you just give us a quick progress update on these two important projects?
SPA is working — we’ve successfully proven the concept, which we are very happy about. Many parts of the InterNations platform have been already ported — i.e., moved — to SPA, and we are working on the rest. But the design system is an ongoing project. It’s a bit like a living being — you have to look after it constantly.
However, we have built most of the basic components, such as buttons, headings, dialog boxes, etc. To lay the foundation, you have to do these tasks, and you have to do them well, but the more interesting bits come later. For instance, we’re looking at fluid layouts right now. You stretch the screen, and instead of switching from one layout to another, the elements adjust themselves to fill the space in an optimal way. That’s only one example — we’re also eager to get into animations, and there is still so much more we could do!
How will InterNations members benefit from all these changes?
Thanks to the SPA architecture and the design system, our members will be getting a much better user experience: a cleaner interface, faster loading times, and more fluid interactions. One major difference is that instead of reloading the entire site each time they visit a new page, we’ll just be reloading content in place. We’re also doing our best to make the platform feel faster if the connection should be slow, by using so-called skeleton loading screens.
And speaking of faster: We’ll also be able to develop new features more quickly. If we have a great idea, our team can roll it out much quicker, and our members will benefit from it way earlier.
You’ve worked in frontend development all your career. Why did you specialize in this field of software engineering?
I think there are two kinds of beauty in software development. One is the beauty of engineering as such. You can have a beautiful solution to any technical issue. You can write the code, it looks beautiful, and you think, “I have solved this problem well.” I can write a piece of elegant code, and so can a backend developer.
However, I also enjoy things on a visual level. In frontend development, you actually get to see something on the screen, something which looks neat and elegant, which moves smoothly, which is well proportioned, etc. So, I get two different kinds of pleasure from doing the same thing. As a frontend developer, you also work with the design pros, which I consider a very enriching experience. And you are closer to the users too — in user tests, you can watch them interacting with what you’ve created.
Oh, and there’s another good thing about frontend engineering: If you break something, it’s usually easy to fix. If I make a mistake, a button might move to the wrong place in the layout. If a backend engineer makes a mistake and tens of thousands of email notifications go the wrong way, it’s not that easy to get them back.
And how did you find out about the frontend development job at InterNations?
I was working as a freelance web developer in Berlin, but unfortunately, my career wasn’t going well. I’m a developer, not a businessperson, so I basically programmed myself into being broke. That’s when I realized I wanted to go back into a corporate job and focus on what I actually enjoy doing. When looking for open positions, I stumbled across InterNations. Since I was a member of the Berlin Community, I could really see myself working for a company with a great product that I’d been using myself.
How interesting! I obviously knew that you’re an expat, but I had no idea that you have been an InterNations member for so long…
Yes, I came to Berlin in 2006 or 2007, and I discovered InterNations through a friend at some point. Berlin is one of our biggest communities, and there’s a lot going on, so I went to some events. InterNations definitely helped me as an expat in Germany, especially in the beginning. It was a great experience to go somewhere where everyone would speak English and was really open-minded, where you could just talk to anyone. It felt a bit like a safety bubble for expats.
Where did you live before coming to Berlin?
I moved to Berlin from Canada, but I grew up in Russia. When I was 17 years old, my family emigrated from Moscow to Toronto, but the whole Canadian experience was sadly a big disappointment for me. Maybe I had set my expectations too high, or maybe I arrived at the wrong time. For me, 17 was a horrible age for a big move. You should move at 7 or 27, but not as a vulnerable teenager.
It took me several years to admit I didn’t want to stay because my family had worked very hard to leave Russia. Don’t get me wrong: Canada is a great country in many ways. My parents still live in Toronto, and I also benefited from moving there. For example, I got my bachelor’s degree at the University of Waterloo. But the North American way of life didn’t appeal to me.
During a European vacation, I suddenly realized in Barcelona that there were other places that felt like the “Canada” I had dreamed of. I then started planning to move back to Europe. I had a friend and colleague in Canada who was originally from Berlin — so when I decided to go for it, Berlin became the obvious choice.
You’ve been working at InterNations for about six years now, longer than at your previous corporate jobs. What makes this job special?
First of all, I really appreciate the people I get to work with and learn from — I simply enjoy our time together. And I also like our safe work environment. If something goes wrong, the policy is not to judge. We just think about how to fix the mistake and how to avoid repeating it. Of course, nobody wants to make mistakes, but it feels great that no one is going to blame you if you do. Your colleagues are there to help.
Also, we don’t have clients. InterNations is our own product, so planning is more flexible and forgiving. While we do our best to meet our deadlines, there’s no lawyer waving a contract at us. If we want to spend one more week on something, we have the luxury to do so. One of my previous employers in Canada was working for the automotive industry, where contracts are extremely strict. We knew that our clients were going to take the software and not implement it for another six months, but we couldn’t spend one more day on it. This caused a lot of stress.
What I also like about InterNations is that everyone is very open to new ideas. Anyone can propose a new tool or process for the team to consider. If we see that it’s a good fit, it’ll get implemented. Let’s take visual regression testing, for example. This is a specific method of making sure that code changes do not break any aspect of the platform’s visual interface. We were free to choose an automated testing tool. That’s not how it works everywhere.
And lastly, I appreciate the work-life-balance. We get things done, but it’s still an official policy not to spend all your time working or thinking about work. We’re interested in long-term, sustainable software development. What kind of life you have after 18:00 is up to you, but it’s important to have a personal life.
We’re currently looking for another Frontend Engineer. If someone asked you why they should join InterNations, what would you tell them?
First, you’ll get to work on SPA and the new design system while they’re being built. It’s still pretty early, and the most exciting things are yet to come. The second exciting aspect is the new tech stack. We are using the latest and greatest tools, so you’ll have some cutting-edge technology to work with.
And then there’s the freedom I was talking about. If you have some ideas that you want to try out, you should just go for it, even as a newcomer. Everyone will be open to hearing your opinions. We are looking for someone who really cares about the product and the technology.
Image credit: InterNations, iStockphoto, Shutterstock
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