I recently sat down with Sayli Benadikar, founding engineer at Highfive. Sayli previously worked at Apple where she built audio systems for the Mac, Apple TV and iPhone. Here is my interview:
So, you designed the audio system for the iPhone, huh?
Sayli: Ha! That may be overstating it by quite a lot. But yes, I was a member of an incredible team of engineers that designed and developed the audio systems for the Mac, Apple TV, iPhone and iPad.
There is a lot mystique about life at Apple. How was your experience there?
Sayli: I had a wonderful seven plus years there. I joined the company in 2005, this was pre-iPhone, if you can believe such a time even existed in our lives! It was a time of immense growth at Apple and I was fortunate to work around and learn from some amazingly talented, extremely passionate, and oftentimes quirky engineers.
Working on such highly visible products as what Apple makes was exciting, but working at a company like Highfive, as I am now, has been great because you get this sense of being on the cusp of something huge.
Sorry, but I have to ask… what’s your favorite Steve Jobs story?
Sayli: There was a running joke at Apple that if you were in the elevator with Steve Jobs he’d ask you what you did for the company, and if you didn’t give a good enough answer before he got off he’d tell you that you’re fired. So here I am one day, walking up the stairs in a building on our main campus (IL 2) when I see Steve Jobs climbing the stairs right in front of me. He turned back and said “Howdy?” and then asked me “What do you do for the company?”. So this happens in stairwells too, I thought to myself! I told him that I was a software engineer in the QuickTime audio team working on audio import and multi-channel playback software systems. He asked me how many women engineers were on the the team, and I gave him some number which was quite small. He said, “You know, we don’t have enough women engineers at Apple. We should change that, why don’t you send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with some ideas on how we can fix this?” He didn’t respond to my email, but hey, I didn’t get fired.
Wow, that’s awesome. What was your motivation for leaving Apple?
Sayli: At a bigger company you tend to become an expert in one very niche category or technology, like a specific portion of an audio system in my case, but don’t necessarily get to see or work on the whole stack. Towards my later years, I began to get an itch to get a broader experience. It wasn’t just breadth within the software and engineering side, but breadth in how a company functions. To be sitting next to the sales, design and marketing teams and learn what kinds of things they tackle and solve was the kind of experience and big-picture view that I was seeking. And I guess most of all I wanted to think and act more like an ‘owner’ than a ‘worker’. As I’ve discovered, wearing multiple hats when you’re functioning in the ‘owner’ mode is enriching and exciting.
So how has the transition to Highfive been so far?
Sayli: Jumping on to the next adventure can be scary at times. So many things get in the way, comfort, complacency, fear of the unknown. But getting away from the safe and known to try something completely unknown but exciting and full of potential has been good for me. Having joined the team, one of the things I’ve noticed is that we feel like these rowers in a boat that are always in sync, compared to a big company where something or someone is often always unaligned. And that synchronization we can achieve at a small place translates into agility in everything, whether it is in the code you write or review or the various decisions that you make on the job.
What observations have you made about Highfive?
Sayli: I thought that mature companies were the only place where you have good engineering processes. But here it’s almost like a second chance. We have a set of great developers with a clean slate and relatively small code base. It’s not just a bunch of kids throwing some code together. Our software development processes, automation, code review process, code base and debug tools are way more organized and well-thought-out than I’d have expected to exist at a start up.
Another thing I noticed was the cross pollination. My teammates have worked at Google, Apple, Amazon, and numerous other amazing tech companies. Often these bigger companies may hire one type of person, but here we are bringing in all kinds of new people and ideas, and developing our own unique culture, processes and values by taking in the best from all our previous experiences.
How have your contributions have changed?
Sayli: I may never be able to work on something like the iPhone again, but in lieu of that I am able to make a huge impact on something that is small now, but could grow to the iPhone’s size in time. At Highfive, It definitely feels like I can make more impact in a short amount of time. All the middle layers, and numerous processes that take your time away from the actual task at hand at a big company are no longer there, so you have more time in the day to do more great work. Also, you can actually go out of your main area of expertise and help someone with or learn another topic. There is more opportunity for learning new things and getting outside of your comfort zone.
What advice would you give to engineers at large companies debating whether to take the leap?
Sayli: Having done it, I’ve come to realize that it’s just not that big of a deal. If you are passionate about the product, it doesn’t matter if it is a big company or a small one and if you find that there is a small startup working on something you really like and want to see built, and you feel excited and good in the gut about the team you’re working with and the prospects of the product, you should just take the leap and not let fear of the unknown stop you. Silicon Valley has such a conducive environment for entrepreneurship, and it’s mighty enriching and thrilling being part of a small startup. If there’s anywhere in the world to try it out, it’s here.
So, can you tell me what you’re actually building?
Sayli: Nope, not yet.
I’ll sign an NDA.
Sayli: In that case… just kidding. Still a no. I’ve been trained by Apple, remember?