Meet Etsy's 'office hackers': 'It's seriously a dream job'

EtsyZhi-Da ZhongEric Beug (left) and Corey Benning (right).

Eric Beug and Corey Benninger get paid to make their coworkers’ lives easier and their office a more fun and efficient place to work.

They share the title of “office hacker” at peer-to-peer e-commerce website Etsy, where they work in the engineering department and use technology and creative thinking to make working at Etsy “more effective and inspiring” for employees, says a spokesperson.

“Our job is to improve the physical spaces where Etsy employees work, including our global offices and the overall remote employee experience,” says Beug. “Whether it’s integrating software and hardware to improve office security or teaching employees how to use a 3D printer, we’re reimagining the workplace.”

Most recently, Beug and Benninger built a system that weighs and tracks all the waste, recycling, and compost Etsy generates in its offices around the world so the company can track its progress on sustainability. They have also created occupancy sensors for Etsy’s conference rooms, made to detect whether or not people are actually using the rooms when they say they are, which helps the company refine how it schedules and uses its meeting spaces.

We recently spoke with Beug and Benninger to find out how they got their jobs and what they really do all day. Here’s what they said:

Responses have been edited for clarity.

Life before Etsy

Zhi-Da Zhong

Eric Beug: 'From pretty early on I had my heart set on pursuing some kind of life in art, music, or film. I studied multimedia in the 90s, interned at a graphic design/printing company in Los Angeles, followed by another internship at a recording studio in Seattle, then went back to school at the Evergreen State College to study film and later did graduate school at NYU.

'Through a serendipitous string of events, I ended up joining Etsy in its early days and produced editorial videos. After five years, I transitioned to the engineering side of the organisation shortly after the 'Office Hacker' job appeared on the Etsy careers page.'

Corey Benninger: 'When I went to college, it was the first time I had my own computer, so I was fearless about reconfiguring it or taking it apart.

'By my junior year, all my elective classes were in computer science and I was working part time at an internet service provider near Harvard. After college I moved back to California and a friend helped me find a job at one of the top new internet security firms at that time.

'But over time, I started to get burned out on breaking things and contributing to, what I felt, was an unhealthy fear of technology that many people had at the time. I was having more fun programming the lights at home to turn on when I opened the front door or writing a chatbot that told jokes and kept track of who was leading in our dart board tournaments. Basically, I was looking for a day job that was less about breaking things and more about building them.'

Becoming an office hacker


Beug: 'Before I applied for the office hacker job, I often dreamed I could do the sort of work I'm doing now, but only had time to do so through side projects after work.

'Early on in my career at Etsy, one of the founders asked me to research if it would be feasible to get a pneumatic tube messaging system (you know those air vacuum tubes people used to use to deposit their checks at the bank back in the day?) installed in the office. Sadly, it was too far out of the scope of my day-to-day as a video producer (also it definitely wasn't feasible for our office) and I was bummed I couldn't work on projects like that more regularly.

'I've always been interested in using technology and creativity to improve the workplace; for instance, I coordinated a project where employees decorated one of the office walls in our Brooklyn headquarters with a paint-by-numbers mural. This was done over a weekend on a budget that only covered the paint. Funny story, a couple people even came to our halloween party that year dressed as the mural, and won the 'Most Etsy' award. Making the Etsy offices fun, inspiring places to work has always been an interest of mine since I started working here.'

Benninger: 'I wasn't sure what I wanted to do for my next job, but I knew I was ready for a change from the security consulting I was doing. My fiance works for herself making handmade knitted and felted accessories, which she's been selling on Etsy for many years. She was the one that planted the idea about checking out Etsy's job listings, so I did.

'The office hacker position had already been posted when I applied for a different role on the security team. I remember thinking, 'That job sounds amazing, I hope I can do something like that someday!' A few months after Eric got the job, we went out for coffee and started talking. We realised with my security hacking background and some of the projects I had already worked on in the office, that it would be a great fit if I joined the team. I feel very fortunate that we both had amazing managers who believed in us and helped make it happen.'

Landing the job

Zhi-Da Zhong

Beug: 'The interview process was pretty difficult, to be honest. For one thing, having already worked at Etsy for five years, it felt strange to be interviewed by people who I had known and worked with for so long already. I was also terrified to join the engineering team after spending a significant time away from doing that kind of work in any official capacity; it was also intimidating because I knew just how top-notch my peers would be. The interview itself lasted about half a day and was fairly rigorous. One interviewer was the CTO at the time, another the VP of Ops (who would later become my boss). But being an insider, I knew how to wow pretty much everyone. I really wanted the job and it was totally worth it.'

Benninger: 'My office hacker interview was basically over coffee with Eric as we chatted about working at Etsy. There were a few projects I had done with hardware around the office (I had graphs from our deploys showing up on a tiny Chumby computer screen and an early version of our device library checkout system). I think we realised we had complementary skill sets where we could learn from each other, and that we were following similar paths.

'I think it also helped that when I initially interviewed at Etsy, Eric's manager just happened to be the last one to interview me that day and his questions stuck with me the most. They were security-related, but there weren't any strictly 'correct' answers. It became more of a discussion around getting to the root causes of fear and uncertainty and how to address that. It was (and continues to be) the kind of thinking and problem-solving that I'm drawn to.'

What it takes to be an Etsy office hacker


Beug: 'I would say possessing a strong desire to help people and a knack for creative problem-solving. Because the job involves understanding and integrating hardware and software, you'd need to be comfortable learning new technologies and switching between programming languages.

'You'd also need to have a deep sense of curiosity and willingness to learn, explore, and experiment with technology and finding ways to use it in a way that was likely not intended. All in all, someone who loves to tinker and is always down for a challenge.'

A typical day on the job

Zhi-Da Zhong

Benninger: 'There's a lot of variation from day to day, but we typically start out by checking email for any new inbound requests and overnight alerts from automated processes. The DevOps team here has been great about giving us resources for managing hardware and alerts, but it's often up to us to make sure the tools we've developed are working correctly.

'Once we've attended to any alerts and new requests, we have a ticketing system that helps us keep track of ongoing tasks and priorities. I'll often work on two or three tickets on a given day, which can be a variation of software and hardware-related projects, or both. It's pretty common we'll be using a number of different programming languages throughout the day.'

The process


Beug: 'As far as the process goes, sometimes employees put in requests and ask for our help, and other times we walk around the office and make changes as we see fit.

'While we do spend time proactively thinking of ways to make life at Etsy more magical, often the best ideas come from our colleagues who have an itch to scratch. Typically we're approached in person, but colleagues can also file a ticket. The most rewarding is when folks come to us with a problem that needs solving. We may not have identified the problem ourselves, but once it's brought to our attention, we can help whoever reported the issue to dream up the solution.

'A slide from one our internal presentations includes the phrase 'We are all Office Hackers,' the premise of which is similar to the African proverb, 'It takes a village.' Office hacking is this thing that we all do in some way, and it's something we're all responsible for. Corey and I happen to have stewardship over implementation, but we want everyone to be empowered to enrich the workplace.

'One way we do this is by teaching Etsy School classes. Etsy School is an internal program where employees teach and learn new skills from each other -- ranging from basic electronics and soldering, 3D printing, using wireless microcontrollers, small scale CNC milling and creating virtual reality environments in Unity.

'Another internal program allows people to take a short-term break from their team (when appropriate) and join another team to get a different perspective. We've had a few such people rotate through our team, giving them a week or two to focus on something entirely different than what they're used to. This is another great example of creative collaboration, because it allows folks to bring their skills and ideas to our table, and we help them realise it. Being a small team, we definitely benefit from an extra set of hands even if it's only for a week or so.'

Best part of the job

Zhi-Da Zhong

Beug: 'Even though it's seriously a dream job, the best part of being an Etsy office hacker comes from two things that aren't directly related to my actual role.

'The first is Etsy's mission -- I never thought I could make a living as an artist, and so I spent most of my academic career trying to figure out how I could support myself and still do work that was creative and enriching. Finding a company whose primary mission is to help artists make a living by doing what they love on their own terms is a dream come true for me. The second thing is the people.

'But if I have to say something specific about my role, it's that I get to learn entirely new things every day, which is surprising and delightful.'

Benninger: 'I'd say, it's getting a chance to collaborate with creative people.'

Worst part of the job


Benninger: 'Coming from more of a software background, building physical things that hold up under the use and abuse of hundreds of people has been a new challenge. We've had to redesign one hardware project now over four times because it keeps physically breaking in new and interesting ways. For our waste, compost, and recycling tracking system, we're starting on our third version of the hardware. And that one gets sent to our remote offices so it needs to hold up in environments we're not as familiar with and don't access as often.'

Coolest projects

Zhi-Da Zhong

Beug: 'I participated in a thermal energy audit of our Hudson office, which is a beautiful old factory building, that can get quite chilly in the winter. Thermal cameras are pretty much the coolest thing ever, like in the movie 'The Predator.'

'Sometimes we work on zany props for internal events. For our annual talent show, we built a hotdog applause-o-meter out of a giant cardboard hotdog and multi-coloured LEDS. We also hacked an old CB Radio to make it appear haunted for our 'The Shining' themed Halloween party a few years ago.'

Benninger: 'I guess it would be the time we created a virtual reality video game to give people a sense of what our new office is going to look like (it was mostly bare bones, without all the beautiful art, furniture and decorations that will be added over the next several months). We worked with our building architects to get a 3D model of the office we'll be moving into later this year and imported it into a 3D gaming engine. From there, it wasn't too hard to make it work with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Watching coworkers enter a virtual reality space for the first time is a joy. It also gave me a great sense of the building's layout, so when I actually visited the new location I already had a good feel for the space.

'We presented the tour to the whole company set to the theme music from the Golden Eye video game. I then did a live play-by-play voice over, which was something between what you'd hear in 'Mission Impossible' and a pro-wrestling match. It was tons of fun, I learned a lot about VR and the new office all at the same time.'

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