Flatfile

5 Questions with Shannon Burns, Head of Engineering at Flatfile

Sheila Lahar

Posted 5/14/2021

As we continue to grow our team, Flatfile is excited to have Shannon Burns on board as our head of engineering. In this role, Shannon will lead a team of amazing engineers who are tirelessly working to create the best data onboarding solution ever! 

Let’s dive in and get to know Shannon.

Q: Why Flatfile? (And what do you do here?)

A: I’m the head of engineering at Flatfile, where I’m accountable for creating and fostering a healthy engineering culture. 🌈

What sold me on joining was Flatfile’s dedication and investment in its employees. When I was told of Flatfile’s ambition to be the best place in the world for remote first work culture, I realized I needed to be a part of that. Early on in my life, I saw so many people unhappy with their work, and considering how many hours over a lifetime we spend in service to a paycheck, this struck me as an incredibly high leverage way to make a difference in the world. I realized early on that I wanted to work on this problem; how to create a workplace that enabled people to thrive. I’m getting the opportunity to craft this vision with the engineering team here and it’s literally a dream. 

Since I’ve arrived, there's been an inherent sense of trust that I haven’t encountered in any place I've worked before. There’s this incredible empowerment and trust on day one that is honestly unexpected and also extremely refreshing.

Even in healthy workplace environments, there can be a lot of friction to get things done. Oftentimes there’s lots of layers in place to review things and these layers are intended to create a sense of safety. A downside to this approach is the unintended implication that this safety net is necessary. This sends the subtle message that you can't be trusted to do the right thing. Flatfile is striving to create a culture with a sense of security, inclusion and belonging with the knowledge that people are going to fail. And they are allowed to do that. But, with trust built in employees can learn and grow.

Q: How did you get involved in engineering? Tell us a little bit about your career path.

A: It’s a unique journey. I went to San Francisco for college and studied recreation in my undergrad. When folks hear that they think, “Oh you studied to be a PE teacher.” It’s been a very useful degree because the program was broken down: one third psychology of group dynamics, one third leadership studies and theory and one third business classes. It was all about learning how people interact and how to get things done. So, it’s been great preparation for my career. 

After college I really didn’t know how to answer “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and I worked a lot of odd jobs. From makeup artist in the film industry to dressing up as Alice in Wonderland to host tea parties for children. At one point I was working for a startup in San Francisco. It was the typical startup cliche - 10 of us stuffed sitting in an attic in a terrible neighborhood working long hours. It dawned on me. If these guys could do this, so could I. 

I had an idea and started talking to some investors. But then a couple of them were taking me seriously and the nerves kicked in. I was trying to build a technology company yet I didn’t have any technical skills. I stepped on the brakes and decided I needed to learn how to program. I initially taught myself how to code and fell in love. A mentor of mine then suggested that I apply to a coding bootcamp. 

The bootcamp sounded like a great plan until I realized that I didn’t have the money to pay for it. I looked around and there weren’t scholarship foundations for such a thing so I ended up creating the first scholarship for women going into coding bootcamps. I crowdfunded the cost of my education and then accidentally created a nonprofit in the process! I partnered with women who code and now it’s the women who code scholarship. They’ve taken it over and it’s magical to see what it has become.

Q: You’ve been involved in evangelizing coding for women. How do you think we can get more girls involved in coding today and in the future?

A: There's already a lot of effort to solve what people designate as the pipeline problem which is getting enough girls and young women excited and interested in programming while also showing them that they’re capable of doing it. This is critical because girls can now increasingly see themselves represented. This is an area where we obviously need to continue investing because that’s the future.

But what frustrates while simultaneously motivating me is women who are “grown up” in their careers being left out of tech because they never believed it was or still is an option for them. For me, I needed to be exposed to enough people telling me, “hey, you might be really good at this” to try it and then ultimately make a career move.

That’s where I want to see change. I want to continually speak to women who are thinking about tech and tell them to join us. It’s a beautiful time to be a woman in tech right now because there’s such a burgeoning community among other women. Women are welcoming other women into tech. We want you here. If you’re interested and able, making a career change to tech offers incredible benefits.

Q: You spent a few years at Slack, a fast growing technology company (prior to Salesforce acquisition). What are some of the lessons learned and/or career milestones you achieved during your time there?

A: There were definitely some valuable lessons learned that I took from Slack related to how the company managed and worked with their employees. 

As companies grow and change over time, the individuals that you hire will also grow and change. Something that went particularly well at Slack was recognizing when folks had phased out of a role. Even though that individual may be progressing well in their career, in terms of promotions, the role no longer seemed like the right fit for them anymore. In many companies that individual solves this by looking for work at another company. 

This is a huge loss for the company because not only do we lose the institutional knowledge, there’s also a loss when it comes to company culture since we’re not creating a workplace where people are empowered to grow and change as individuals and get the most out of their work experience. 

Slack tackled this challenge really well - recognizing individuals who needed this change and providing them with alternative paths and opportunities for them in different areas of the business. 

Another area where Slack led the way was in fostering a sense of psychological safety and belonging for employees. It takes a lot of thought and intent to do this properly. Companies today talk a big game around diversity but diversity is the outcome. It’s about inclusion. How are you providing and thinking about the structure of the environment that you’re putting employees in? How can the business be really thoughtful about making sure people have safe spaces to bring their full selves to work, unapologetically? How can we encourage better communication skills? And how can we build spaces that are culturally sensitive? 

This is important because when employees have a sense of belonging and feel safe, they’re much more apt to speak up and share their views. A perfect example of this is when we were designing a feature in Slack where we were going to add a circle around usernames. Somebody on our team in Japan immediately spoke up and told us that a circle around a name in Japan would signify that the person is deceased. Our colleague spoke up quickly and confidently because the culture of the company encouraged this behavior.

Q:  What’s been your favorite travel destination?

A: Thailand is a must. How can you not love a place that offers beautiful beaches, world class rock climbing and super cheap (and good) massage?! Thailand is also a special place for me because it’s where my fiance proposed.

Want to join Shannon and her team? We’re hiring! Learn more about Flatfile and our open roles.