Working at Nava

A day at Nava as a senior engineer

Kat Tipton, a senior engineer, describes the joys of software archeology and Nava’s strong culture of mentorship.

It’s hard to describe what a typical day at Nava is like because no two days are ever the same. Every day brings new projects, challenges, and opportunities. So we’re sharing just a glimpse of what work is actually like for different people at Nava. Here’s what Kat Tipton, Senior Engineer, has been up to lately.

Kat Tipton poses outside of a row of hedges.

Kat Tipton is a senior engineeer at Nava.

Photo by Kristin Lewis

Current project

Right now I’m on the bench, which is our holding space when projects have a gap between them. There’s a handful of things we do on the bench, such as general admin and project clean up that you don’t get to do when you don’t have downtime. So I’m doing things like double checking that all of the docs are archived in a nice way, or personal cleanup of my system and my editor environment.

I’m also working with a few others on the bench and the Business Development team, researching technical recommendations for proposals. Then, I’m doing some personal research into the project that I’m going to wind up on, such as that agency’s tech environment. I’m also taking this time to catch up with folks that I worked with on previous projects or folks in the ERGs.

On crunchy technical problems

My favorite thing to do is software archeology, which is a good skill to have in government software engineering. I really love diving into an existing codebase and debugging through what’s going wrong or, if we need to implement a new feature, figuring out how that is going to interact with all of these existing components. I like the challenge of implementing a new feature in a way that makes a cohesive whole with what already existed instead of just tacking it on.

Of course, sometimes you do have to just tack it on because the deadline reigns and you accrue technical debt in an intentional way. But a lot of times you can avoid more technical debt by being really thoughtful and really immersing yourself in the existing system. That's really important for preventing existing software from becoming legacy software: being able to keep a full vision of a piece of software even as you add in new features.

On the best part of a day at Nava

I love the morning when I’m working on my own. I get to sit down to do work and get so involved in a problem and hit that flow state and make really solid progress. Being in that space of solo productivity is one of my favorites.

But I also really like pair programming with a colleague that you’ve developed a rapport with on a problem that you’re both engaged in. You’re both throwing ideas and solutions at it and sort of hitting breakthroughs in an hour of work that if you had to do alone would take maybe a full day. Having a colleague who is in the same space on the same problem can super speed-up your thought process and reasoning on a hard problem.

On maturing skills

I really appreciate that Nava has given me a space to deepen my skill sets. Whenever I talk to my managers, I have a bad habit of saying “I’m not good at that, so let’s find a project to help me get better at that.” And my managers have always pushed back and asked me, “Do you actually want to do that? Is that a skillset that you want to cultivate?” And when I say no, they’ll tell me, you don’t have to learn every skill. You have a lot of colleagues with a lot of different skills. My managers have supported me in focusing on the things that I love and fuel my passion.

One skill that I felt like I’ve matured in is mentorship and feeling more confident in mentoring beginning-career engineers. Nava has been a great place to do that, between our apprentice program and our willingness to hire all levels of engineers when we can.

On Nava’s mission

The work keeps me here pretty reliably. As computer scientists and engineers and technical people we have a lot of choices of where to work. But I feel like if I’m going to spend 40 hours a week doing a thing, I want it to help. I have this skill that can really multiply my effect on the world and I really want to make sure that I’m doing that in a thoughtful way. Building services for people in this country seems like a decently good way to do that.

I also really love my colleagues here at Nava. Everybody at Nava is passionate about the work, but also really conscientious about how they use that passion in a reliable way. I don’t think we are perfect at avoiding burnout, but I think we are better than many in that space.

I also like writing stable, reliable code that’s still running in a decade and has evolved alongside the needs of users. I want to write code that users love today and that’s maintainable and still running and loved in ten years, and then lovingly decommissioned in 15 for better code. I think you find that more in the public sector than you would in commercial spaces.

Outside of work

When I’m not at work I can be found bicycling around DC, paddle boarding on the Anacostia, a beautiful river here in DC, and playing complicated board games.

PublishedFebruary 23, 2022



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