How Karat’s engineering chief gets things done and runs effective meetings by talking less
Zach van Schouwen, vice president of engineering at Karat. (Karat Photo) Zach van Schouwen, vice president of engineering for Karat, landed his job through a Craigslist ad.
It was 2016 and he was on sabbatical, living in Brooklyn in New York City. He’d left Google after six years, leaving a role as the technical lead for the web survey tool Google Forms. On the other side of the country, Seattle-based Karat was building a platform for conducting technical interviews for companies seeking employees. Van Schouwen had plenty of experience interviewing candidates at Google and was particularly excited by one of the job’s features: he could work from home. He got the job and did 1,300 interviews for Karat from his apartment, sifting through back-end developers applying at companies including MuleSoft and Pinterest. “I was sucked in immediately,” van Schouwen said. He loved the nature of the challenge, finding a smarter way to hold interviews to assess how technical candidates thought and worked. In 2017, van Schouwen left New York for the Northwest and now leads the product, engineering and content functions for the fast-growing startup. Karat has raised $41.6 million in venture capital since launching in 2014. I’m a big believer in saying as little as possible in meetings where I’m in charge. I like to have a clear agenda but do less talking. While van Schouwen graduated with a computer science degree from Columbia University’s engineering program, he has a dual passion for something less ephemeral than lines of code or, as he sometimes calls it, “electrons in a box.” Van Schouwen loves the literally more concrete world of the urban environment. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he briefly attended the University of Washington’s Urban Planning master’s degree program, though he dropped out after taking a job with Google “to pay the bills” and finding it a good fit. Van Schouwen still indulges his interest in the cityscape in his free time. At one point, he became captivated by a five-story tenement on Manhattan’s Eldridge Street where his great-great-grandfather had lived. He researched the decade-by-decade history of the city block that included the tenement, beginning with a farmstead in the 1780s and ending with the public housing structures erected in 1985. For a project he called The Block, he built a hand-drawn, short film showing the street in profile with links to details about the structures as they came and went. “Seeing the way that they changed over time, and the degree the landscape reflected social and political changes, is a really interesting project,” he said. Now he’s considering an even more ambitious initiative dubbed “Under I-5” that aims to discover all of the buildings razed for the construction of Interstate 5 as it cuts through Seattle. Work on the highway began in the late 1950s. A manifestation of van Schouwen’s passion for cityscapes and urban planning is his project, The Block. (Image courtesy of van Schouwen) At some point, van Schouwen said, he might seek a career that weds his tech skills with his urban development interests. For now he’s happy to dabble in the space off the clock. Another of his hobbies is building a Minecraft city complete with road and highway infrastructure, a project he describes somewhat jokingly as “a very long game of solitaire.” We caught up with van Schouwen for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire. Current location: Seattle Computer types: I’m a Windows user, although I use Linux and Windows pretty interchangeably. Mobile devices: Hardcore Android user. I’m currently using the Pixel 3. I got my first smartphone — the Nexus One — while I was at Google and have been Android ever since. Favorite apps, cloud services, and software tools: I’m a true minimalist. My entire life is in Gmail. My garden is in a Google spreadsheet that tells me what to water and when to fertilize. I try to use as few apps as possible — except Twitter and Instagram. I’m a newsfeed junkie. Van Schouwen is an avowed fan of working from home. (Photo courtesy of van Schouwen) Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I’m a big proponent of working from home and do most of my best work out of my home office. It is a really bright outdoor-facing area. As a programmer, having a quiet focused workspace is key to productivity. Lots of candles and cactuses. Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Big believer in productivity consultant David Allen’s “getting things done” method. Write every task down and have a deliberate way to think about it. I’ve been doing it since my freshman year of college. Everything is in my Gmail, and everything is an actionable task. I don’t have a perfect track record, but I’ve found it really valuable, especially for super distant goals so there’s always something on the horizon. Van Schouwen likes to pound the pavement, or in this case a board walk, to the tune of eight miles a day. (Photo courtesy of van Schouwen) Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I use LinkedIn for business. Instagram for personal. I like that Instagram can be a non-interactive social network, keeping it more community-driven as opposed to broad. And I’m a Twitter listener. Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “Oh God [buries face in hands].” It’s like 120. Maybe an all-time high. This job is the first time it’s been like that. It’s stressful for me. I used to laugh at people who declared email bankruptcy — and now I regret my earlier reaction. Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? Too many. 42? I need to hire a lot of people. How do you run meetings? I’m a big believer in saying as little as possible in meetings where I’m in charge. I like to have a clear agenda but do less talking. And “leave when bored” is one of my favorite meeting philosophies. Everyday work uniform? Pure Seattle. Plaid shirt and jeans. I’ve outgrown wearing hoodies, though, so that’s gone. How do you make time for family? Balance is really important. I set hard boundaries for the day and turn off communications. I’m a heavy believer in Slack’s snooze feature and in deleting Slack from my phone when I go on vacation. I really try to take that seriously with my team and try to be visible with this approach because it rubs off on the team and culture. I think Karat excels at this, and it comes from the top down. We all work very hard — but not when we’re not at work. Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? I like to exercise. I walk eight miles a day. I’ve walked all around Seattle, every neighborhood in the city. I also get up early and spend time in my garden. Mostly perennials: roses, rhododendrons and succulents. I have an all succulent-themed Instagram. I also like to take old photographs and re-shoot them today. Same time of day, same angle, etc. Van Schouwen presenting at a CTO Connection conference. (Karat Photo) What are you listening to? Vintage soul right now, And early ’90s hip hop. My girlfriend is a music industry vet and is our music curator. She has much better taste than I do. Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? I try to avoid this stuff like the plague at work. If I read the news first thing, then all I think about is news. It’s too distracting. I try to catch up on the news in the evening. Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? I’m re-reading “The Thirty Years War” by C.V. Wedgwood. Night owl or early riser? Definitely early riser. I used to live above a fried chicken restaurant in Brooklyn that was open ’til 3 a.m., which kept me up all night. Now I’ve completely reverted. I wake up at 6 and go straight to the garden! Where do you get your best ideas? Other people. I’m at my best when I can bring ideas to life by synthesizing things that I hear and finding ways to apply ideas that are in the air. Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy is my nerd-hero. He wrote the vi text editor for Unix. Probably one of the most productive people in software history. I love his quote when someone asked him how he implemented the TCP/IP stack (Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol). He said “it’s very simple. You read the protocol, and you write the code.”