Stephanie Sheehan sitting in an office chair facing the camera with paintings visible on a wall behind her.
Stephanie Sheehan. Image: Workhuman

Why platform engineers are the Formula 1 mechanics of tech

5 Oct 2023

Workhuman’s Stephanie Sheehan tells us about her career ups and downs and why the world needs platform engineers to solve problems that are not easy fixes.

Early in Stephanie Sheehan’s tech career, she accidentally deleted a database that was in production. “You can imagine the stress. I couldn’t sleep for two days afterwards,” says Sheehan, currently a senior director of platform engineering at Workhuman. That title tells us that this horror story has a happy ending; Sheehan has had an impressive career trajectory by most people’s standards. Before she joined Workhuman she was a VP of operations and a VP of engineering. More on the successes shortly.

But first, back to the database deletion debacle again. “What I realise now is that I was working in a start-up… we were winging it… we had three live customers and we learned a lot about backups and access control,” Sheehan recalls.

Like anyone, she says there have been “many ups and downs” in her working life. “What I’ve learned is every moment is a teaching moment (even if it doesn’t feel like it). We recover from even the worst interruptions to our best-laid plans and everything will work out okay in the end.”

A different perspective

Engineering is Sheehan’s main passion and her time working as a VP of operations helped her realise that. The role did give her an appreciation for business, which she thinks stands to her and makes her different from other engineers. “Sometimes in engineering, we can be removed from the coalface and lose perspective on what’s important,” she says, adding that “equally sometimes the business can lose sight of what’s important or needed for a healthy productive engineering organisation.”

Her experience as both an engineer and a business manager has helped her a lot at her current role at Workhuman. “My day-to-day role includes people management of the management team and principal engineers within our group. I oversee activities across all our groups, so this includes anything from planning and coordination to resourcing to communications and troubleshooting.” She also works quite closely with other stakeholders such as product partners, architecture and product engineering leaders.

She says that most days are a juggling act between leading her team, liaising with clients and working on projects. “My days can become meeting-heavy so I try to prioritise and be present where there is most need for me. The platform teams are pretty autonomous but sometimes projects need a little more attention or unblocking.”

‘If I was to sum it up, a passion for technology and problem-solving is the key to working in platform engineering’

Sheehan says there are a lot of definitions of what good platform engineering is. Her team assists Workhuman’s product development teams to build out features and improve functionality. “Our goal is to enable those product development teams to go faster by removing or abstracting away some of the low-level concerns to allow teams to fully concentrate on building customer value.

“An example of that would be if a product development team is ready to build a new service, we provide the tooling to stand up the infrastructure, we generate a template service and a deployment pipeline for that service so that engineering teams are up and running in minutes.”

Sheehan’s team also offers “horizontal services, like, for example, Kafka messaging which has Workhuman best practice around observability, security and monitoring built in so that teams do not need to worry about getting all that in place”.

Passion for problem-solving

There is a lot of problem-solving involved in being a platform engineer, and Sheehan believes that a key trait of a good platform engineer is enjoying that process. “I think good platform engineers love solving hard problems. We often work on projects that are less shiny to the rest of the business but from a technologist’s point of view are critical and very rewarding projects. If I was to sum it up, a passion for technology and problem-solving is the key to working in platform engineering.”

“Sometimes, of course, we miss,” she points out. “It can often feel like changing the tyres of a Formula 1 car without the pitstop. So one of the most important factors of platform engineering is a solid trusting relationship with our partners and the understanding that we will work together to get it right.”

Happily for Sheehan and her team, there is “a huge focus on platform engineering in the industry at the moment”. Systems are getting more complex and product teams rely on platform engineers increasingly when it comes to providing value to the customer. For anyone looking at platform engineering as a career option, Sheehan says there is “a lot of variance” in the types of roles.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea joined Silicon Republic in 2021 as Careers reporter, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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