In the Binoculars: Michelle Darby, Senior Manager of Software Engineering
Meet Michelle Darby, Senior Manager of Software Engineering.
In her four years at Corvus — four years and a month, if you’re counting — she’s seen the company and her own team grow exponentially. With previous experience founding a company, Michelle talks us through why her background helps her approach the expansion of her team, and how she fosters a positive culture for incoming and long-term employees. For Michelle’s insights, you can read our latest Q&A below:
Corvus Question & Answer Session with Michelle Darby:
How did you start your career as a software engineer, and what drew you to it?
Both of my parents are engineers, and I’ve always liked trying to figure things out, which may be a little cliche, but true. In college, I majored in electrical engineering with a focus on embedded systems, which is about as close to software engineering as you can get and still be an electrical engineer.
After school, I started in a software engineering role at a start-up in Kendall Square in Cambridge, and that was the end for me and electrical engineering. I’ve been in software ever since. I love to see a problem a customer is having, and understand it well enough to build something that actually helps them. With software there’s a really quick turnaround time to do that.
Before Corvus, you founded a company. What was that experience like?
My first job was based out of was at the Cambridge Innovation Center, a startup co-working space. They had an in-house tool for booking conference rooms and were looking for help building it out. I ended up taking that project over from the original engineer, and was given the opportunity to spin the project out as a company (Roomzilla). There were several people who had seen our tool at CIC and wanted to use it at their own office spaces, so we had early customers to help us get off the ground. I became the CEO, but at that early stage, it meant I was writing a lot of the code and doing all the sales and customer support calls. In that kind of position you get a strong understanding of the end-to-end process of delivering a software solution.
What led you to work at Corvus?
Through my experience with Roomzilla, I learned there’s a difference between what you’re capable of doing and what you love doing. So when I decided to step back as CEO, I took some time off before I started looking for my next thing. I put a lot of thought into what I enjoyed most, and that was building software — and building teams who build software.
As I started talking to people in my network about opportunities, I discovered that I had three different connections to founders at this insurtech company Corvus that had just started up.
I met with everyone, which was only a handful of people at the time, and I enjoyed how they were thinking about the technical side of things. I’d had experience with the business side of founding a company, and knew I didn’t want that to be my responsibility -- but I wanted to know it was in good hands. I had great conversations about the business and our brokers with Phil and Mike. All of this convinced me Corvus would be a good fit and an exciting place to focus on exploring how to scale up a solid engineering organization for the next chapter of my career.
Has your experience as a founder changed how you approach work now?
Being a founder left me with a deep understanding of the mechanics and motivations of a business, including frameworks like OKRs, and why these things matter. Being able to connect the dots between high level strategy and our day-to-day work — and understanding how even everyday decisions can impact strategic success is something that I continue to appreciate about my prior experience. This perspective is so helpful in ensuring that at the end of the day we are building something valuable and impactful to the business and our customers.
What has been a highlight of working at a company that has grown from 10 people to more than 200?
Getting the opportunity to build our engineering team throughout that growth. We have evolved so much and learned through various growing pains along the way. I feel lucky to be a part of that, and to be able to do it with these people. We care deeply about our team, both the people we work with and the culture we’re building. And we learn and build understanding from each challenge we experience, whether it’s the point where the whole team doesn’t fit in a conference room anymore, or it’s unrealistic to read every new line of code — we adapt and experiment until we find what works for our new size and growth phase. It’s exactly what I’d hoped for when I joined Corvus.
Software engineering is a field with a stark gender gap. What has your experience been like as a woman in engineering, and how have your personal experiences determined how your team handles culture?
Based on my background in rowing (I was a coxswain on a men’s rowing team) and electrical engineering, this is something I’m very used to. For my major, I was one of two women in a sixty person electrical engineering lecture. At Corvus, I’ve had nothing but a great experience in that respect. I’ve always felt heard and supported by my coworkers. This has always been top of mind for us, and we have been able to keep our team representative of that.
I’ve also learned that not everyone is lucky enough to have an experience where they can say “I don’t really notice this” or “I can’t point to times where this hasn’t impacted my experience.” As a manager, I think it’s important to be more cognizant of that. I’ve learned that each person is different. Even if people’s external experiences are very similar, their internal experience — how they perceive things, and what they struggle with, what blocks them from accomplishing a task — can be different for each person. It can depend on a lot of things and gender is only one of those. I aim to pay attention to all these perspectives to support my team in the best way possible.
What I’ve loved about Corvus is that I’m not the only one thinking about this, whether it is gender diversity, some other underrepresented demographic or another challenge; there’s a lot of conversation in all regards. If you’re not talking about it or thinking about it, it won’t change.
As Corvus — and your team, specifically — continues to grow, what are some goals you have for the Engineering team in the next year?
We’re lucky enough to be continuing to grow, so we aim to continue to support the team and make sure that our values and culture stay intact. At the core of that, we care a lot about continued learning on the team and supporting each other in those endeavors. We do talks every other Friday where people can share what they’ve learned and it's a very collaborative environment. We’re also very experimental and iterative, so we make sure to keep trying new things that can improve each engineer's experience.
What else should we know about you?
- I was a coxswain for a Division 1 Men’s rowing team (University of Washington) and was a national champion three times.
- I have two dogs, a 105-pound Bernese Mountain Dog named Jackson, and Fenrir, 5 month old English Cream Golden Retriever.
- My dad’s family is Irish and we go to Ireland to celebrate Christmas with them every year, only missing the trip twice (once being last year, due to the pandemic).
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