An interview with Michael Hutzli, Engineering

Sep 11, 2019  |  5 min read
Michael

Michael Hutzli is an engineering team lead in Alloy’s Vancouver office.

Before joining Alloy a bit over three years ago, he worked as a software engineer at Addepar in Mountain View and at AdNovum in Zurich, Switzerland. He holds a MSc in Computer Science from ETH Zurich.

  • What first interested you in software engineering?

When I was 11 or 12, I became really interested in building dynamic websites. Right before our annual family ski vacation, my dad bought me a large book about web technologies, which contained everything from HTML and CSS to PHP. 

Every day when we got back from the ski slopes, I would immediately go to my room to read that book, and I couldn’t wait to finally go home so I could boot up the computer and start coding. The first project I worked on was building my own simple CMS, and I’ve been hooked since then.

  • Why did you join Alloy?

There were a few different factors that came together in my decision to join Alloy. 

First, I’ve always been interested in the start-up scene, and Alloy afforded me the opportunity to join a promising early stage start-up as one of the very first employees, and to see a company grow from almost the very beginning. I remember, during my first visit to the San Francisco office, the entire company could fit around one of the co-founders’ kitchen table. It’s crazy to think that was just a few years ago, now that we’re almost 50 people across three locations and continuing to hire and grow at an impressive rate!

Second, Alloy’s ambitious mission—to align supply and demand by giving customers end-to-end visibility into their supply chain and making it actionable—really appealed to me. Physical goods will always need to be moved from A to B, and I believe that making the supply chain more data-driven, with visibility across every trading partner, also allows supply chains to become more sustainable. For example, it enables companies to improve their planning, so they can reduce warehouse space requirements, shipping volumes, and product spoilage and waste.

Last but not least, I was and still am really excited about all the challenging technical problems we have at Alloy. We deal with very large and complex data sets, which come with a lot of interesting modeling and performance problems, as well as fun algorithmic challenges that we get to solve.

  • What do you do at Alloy?

I am a hands-on team lead. That means supporting and helping out my team in whatever way they need, working with our Product Manager to clarify priorities, as well as spending a significant amount of time coding and working on technical designs. Most of my project work has been focused on the data pipeline and the server backend.

In addition, I am an engineering hiring manager. I introduce candidates to Alloy’s mission and technical challenges during information calls, run interviews, and coordinate with the rest of the team to ensure a smooth interview process.

  • What's the most exciting project you've worked on at Alloy?

It’s hard to narrow this down to just one! 

In the early days, we were very focused on laying the groundwork for the robust and flexible data platform that we have today. I was lucky to have been heavily involved in designing and implementing key parts of it. Some highlights include:

  • Introducing the Alloy file format—the common, normalized format that makes our data ingestion pipeline more robust and more easily extendable
  • Building support for EDI data
  • Implementing a very flexible location model
  • Developing the foundation to natively support metrics between locations (a.k.a. edge metrics), which really moves Alloy forward from retail analytics to connecting the supply chain network

More recently, my team has been working on connecting and visualizing the movement of products across complex supply chain networks. Teams can use Alloy to quickly identify inventory problems, and then drill down all the way to individual order transactions to understand and resolve issues. It’s been amazing to see how much progress our extremely smart team has made in a short time, and also how excited customers are about it!

  • What's been the most challenging part of your work so far?

As to be expected in an early stage start-up, we have to deal with a lot of ambiguity (though that’s also what makes it exciting!). We’re technologists first, so are still learning more about the supply chain space every day, and that can make it hard to come up with simple, flexible solutions that are easily extendable to multiple current and future customers. 

Because supply chains are usually quite complex, it can also be challenging to resist the urge to build a very sophisticated solution that covers every possible edge case on day one. We’ve made that mistake before, only to realize later that even though the solution was “more correct” than a simpler one, it was more confusing for our users.

  • What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a similar career path?

Always try to expand your own comfort zone by taking on tasks or projects that seem intimidating at first, or even scare you a bit. It can feel overwhelming at times, but it ultimately strengthens your ability to deal with ambiguity.

Also, seek out mentorship. I’ve always been lucky to be surrounded by great mentors, which allowed me to learn from their experiences and shape my “engineering intuition” much more quickly than if I had to experience everything myself.

Finally, just be open to new opportunities. When Joel, our CEO, first contacted me about Alloy, joining an early stage start-up in Vancouver wasn’t exactly what I had planned, but it has worked out really well for me.

  • How would you describe the culture at Alloy?

We really value transparency, and as a result, it feels like every team is in the same boat. Everyone is driven and willing to help each other out in whatever way we can, all while keeping it a fun place to work.

I also think we have a very welcoming culture. Typically just a few days after a new person joins the company, it’s hard to imagine the team without them.

  • What do you like to do outside of the office?

All sorts of sports that either involve nature, or keeping a score! In addition to the opportunity to join Alloy, another big reason I decided to move to Vancouver is the mountains close by. In the winter, you can find me on the ski slopes at Cypress or Whistler mountain. In the summer, I like hiking, playing tennis, and playing beach volleyball.

Michael (left) after hiking to the top of Meares Island, BC

Michael (left) after hiking to the top of Meares Island, BC
Posted by Alloy