Sixer Spotlight with Tanner Heffner
^ LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW ABOVE ^
Today's Sixer Spotlight features software engineer Tanner Heffner. In this episode, Tanner engages in a candid conversation with us about his journey into civic tech and the challenges and experiences he's faced in this unpredictable landscape, including his departure and subsequent return to Agile Six. We'll dive deep into the significance of values in this space and explore why Tanner considers Agile Six's culture, which is rooted in self-management and trust, to be the secret sauce. Join us as we uncover the valuable lessons and perspectives Tanner brings to the table on the value of trust in navigating the challenges of government contracting.
Tanner’s Background and Journey
Who is Tanner Heffner?
I live in Portland, Oregon. I've been a software engineer for nine years now, in the civic tech space for three. When I'm not staring at screens for work, I like to play in the garden, play in the kitchen. I play a lot of disc golf. Living in Portland, I'm blessed with a lot of just really wonderful natural beauty nearby. So I try to get outside every weekend, whether that's the backyard garden or out to a course or going for a hike or something. I like to get out and do things.
What drew you to the world of civic tech, and tell us about the role you currently have with the company?
Right now, I'm a tech lead for a project at the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs). When I initially came to Agile Six, it was also for a role at the VA, but a different project, and that is what drew me to it. Initially, I'd never worked in civic tech prior to Agile Six, but I have a number of family members who are Veterans. And I saw contributing my skillset to the VA as a way to carry that family legacy forward a little bit in a way that agreed with my sensibilities.
What were you doing before civic tech?
I've been a software engineer for nine years at a variety of different agencies and private sector places. Mostly working for digital agencies on projects for larger companies and have done projects for Twitter, Google, Pinterest, and smaller hospitals and colleges. I've contributed to a lot of different industries. But Civic Tech seemed like a way to use that skillset in a way that was more beneficial to society as a whole. Something at the scale of the VA is exciting to work on and feels more impactful to me.
Navigating The Challenges of Government Contracting
What are some of the challenges working in this space?
Government contracting can be unpredictable. I think there are both big and small challenges. One of them that was tough for me at first was adjusting to the pace of things. Government contracting, working with government agencies, just going through the bureaucracy of government, it's much slower than working in the private sector where you hear the mantra like "ship fast, fail hard, ship again." That sort of mentality is fine when you're building a random website, but not when you're providing and maintaining services for medical health records for Veterans or information for VA facilities. Adjusting to that pace of work delivery is a challenge, especially if you've been in other spaces that move much faster. Even for a simple code change, you're still going to have a day or two of those bureaucratic hurdles to go through to make sure all the tests are going and make sure all the other integrations are passing – there's just more precautions you have to take.
Another challenge is that government contracts are unpredictable. You have a timeframe on them, but you don't know beyond that. For full context for the listeners, the project I'm on, the main contract was up for a one-year recompete to get to the next contract vehicle. And we didn't win. So it kind of threw a wrench into multiple roadmaps across these teams. Here's what we had planned out for the next year, and now we need to pivot because we only have two months or four months. What can we do in that time to keep things running smoothly, to ensure the transfer of knowledge? That's tough because it changes the whole roadmap, the whole plan. You're on a team. You've got your project, your scrum, your roadmaps, your here's what we're going to do in this quarter, the next quarter, the quarter after that. And then you find out you actually don't have the runway that you thought you had. So, how do you pivot rapidly? That has its own set of challenges.
Navigating Through Unpredictable Times
How did you navigate through this experience?
There are a lot of layers to navigate through when something like this happens. And, I don't want to say I'm lucky, but [in a way] I'm lucky that I've gone through it before. I've been on prior contracts at the VA that were either cut or didn't get funded for the next round or whatever. It's not an entirely new experience for me, even if it is still unpleasant. Nobody wants to lose a job or a contract that they enjoy working on. And I really enjoy the team that I'm on and the project that I'm working for. It's been something that I've wanted to accomplish at the VA for some time.
You've been here before - a contract ended and you left Agile Six.
You came back to Agile Six.
I did that too.
There's a short answer and then there's a longer answer. I think the short answer is, I really wanted to work on this project that I'm on now, the accelerated publishing effort at the VA. It was actually the project I was on before funding ran out, which contributed to me leaving. They downsized the team, and at the time, there wasn't a clear fit for me on other projects. They moved me to other projects, but there wasn't a great fit for me and my skill set. I wanted to stay here and keep my job, but there just wasn't a project where I felt I could operate at the capacity I wanted to. So I ended up switching to another company in the Digital Services Coalition and worked on a project for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for about six months. About halfway through that project, some folks from Agile Six reached out to me and said, 'Hey, we're getting funding for Accelerated Publishing back. Would you be interested?' I had some conversations with them, and they brought me back as tech lead.
When I was weighing [staying at the other company] versus coming back to Agile Six at a project that I knew I wanted to be a part of, it heavily went to Agile Six's favor because there are a lot of great people here, a lot of nice perks. They take care of their people as much as they can. I really appreciate a lot that Agile Six has to offer.
Perks of Working at Agile Six
What are the perks at Agile Six that you really like?
There are three biggest ones for me personally. I love the lack of a management layer. It's refreshing to not have your salary negotiations tied to performance reviews. We hold each other accountable. You don't need to go through a process every three months or every six months to determine if you've met your goals. That all feels like a waste of time to me. I would rather focus on the work. So, I appreciate that the lack of a management layer eliminates all of that additional bureaucracy, which I find less useful for my time.
I think having separate wellness days from paid time off (PTO) is one of the greatest perks at any place I've ever worked. It's refreshing to be at a place that understands that people are human, and life happens. Sometimes you just need to take a day or even just a half-day to reset. For example, if you have doctor's appointments, you don't need to dip into your PTO. I really appreciate that flexibility and the understanding from teammates, other company members, and fellow Sixers. Nobody judges you for taking a wellness day. Last week, I didn't have power for four work days, but I didn't have to use PTO for that. I simply marked it down as wellness. We understand that unforeseen circumstances occur, and you can't always fulfill your work duties. However, when you're ready and back to work, we're here and ready for you to dive back in.
That's a lengthy answer, and I've only covered two of them so far, but the lack of a management layer and the availability of wellness days are huge for me. Another perk I genuinely appreciate is the absence of negotiation around pay, promotions, and raises. It's reassuring to be in a place where I find the work fulfilling, and I still feel that they value me and compensate me appropriately. I can't recall a single instance where I've had to negotiate or haggle over my pay, yet I've seen a 10% increase in my compensation since I started a couple of years ago. I haven't had to request anything; it simply happens. So, I appreciate the transparency in this regard.
Adapting to a Self-Managed Environment and Its Benefits
Was it challenging for you to acclimate to this self-managed environment? And what benefits do you see from working this way?
For me personally, no, it was a very easy adjustment for me. I love collaborating and working with my team. Having those conversations there and then also reporting to a manager who's not connected to the work, who doesn't have insight into what you're doing day to day or have that visibility - that's the part I don't need as much. I love asking people on my team for feedback. I still find a way to get that feedback cycle. You don't need a manager to tell you, “Hey, you're doing good,” or “You need improvement over here.” Ask the people you work with, just use your sprint retros. There are places for those things without a management layer in a way that's more applicable and effective for your day-to-day.
Agile Six has five core values: purpose, wholeness, trust, self-management, and inclusion. Which one resonates with you the most and why?
It's interesting because I don't think about them that much, but hearing that list, I see pieces of all of them every day. You just don't think about it because you're in it. I think the one that resonates with me most though is trust, on several different levels.
At the project level, I trust my team. I trust us to figure out the problems that we have in front of us and come up with a solution that works at the scale the VA needs it to. At a team level, that's huge. You have to be able to count on the people you go to work with every day, the people that you're in the trenches with, that you're doing the work. You have to trust them that they can do the job, or if they can't, or if they hit a blocker or something, that they're going to speak up, and we're going to solve it together. I think my team in particular has that trust. There is a lot of good collaboration and communication back and forth, and that only happens with trust.
Can you share a moment that exemplifies the culture in action?
I mean, the simple, sweet answer for me personally is what I was saying before. My power went out for six days last week, and my team just rolled along fine without me. I was still available on Slack, 5G, just low data. I could try to answer questions, but the power was still out.
I didn't have internet, and the roads were icy. I couldn't get to a coffee shop to work. Yet, there was no anger, no visible frustration from my team. It was all about taking the time you need, being healthy, safe, and warm. We'll be here when you're back. Mark as wellness days, not PTO; it was a power outage. We trust that you'll get the work done when you return.
It all goes back to how we build better by putting people first, and what you just described is precisely that.
There was no judgment, no pressure to get to a coffee shop for x, y, z meetings. It was more like, "No, we'll handle it. Be safe, and when you're able to work safely again, be here."
What makes Agile Six different from other companies in this space?
I think the huge thing is the self-management and the trust. When I was at other places, and even just seeing it with other subcontractors that we work with on various projects who are also in this civic tech space, there are a lot of other companies that do not have self-management. It's not that I dislike hierarchy, but if I have the option, I prefer to go to a place that trusts you to do your work, rather than do your work but report to x, y, z, fill out your quarterly goals, and do all this stuff. I'm going to take the self-management approach every time. It's far more appealing to me. That's a huge thing.
And then, just the other perks like the wellness days, the ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), all that good stuff. When you have such nice perks here, you don't want to voluntarily give that up.
Any final thoughts you'd like to share?
The unique thing for me at Agile Six is the self-management layer, and that couples really closely with trust. Those two things together, I think, are the secret sauce.
It's nice to be at a place where I find the work fulfilling, and I still feel like they value me. I really appreciate a lot of what Agile Six has to offer. It's a great place to work, and it is really rewarding to work in this problem space for the betterment of society.
Sixer Spotlight is an ongoing series to share the stories of our team. If Tanner’s story piqued your interest in a career with Agile Six, explore our open roles.