Lauren Jacobs’ career has brought her to some of the biggest sports and entertainment stages in the country — albeit in an unexpected way.
In her former role as an account manager at Appetize, Jacobs helped implement the cloud-based, point-of-sale (POS) technology at many venues the Playa Vista-based startup counts as clients. Over time, Jacobs unearthed a passion that would change the course of her career with the company.
“After understanding the solutions we offer, and speaking to all our customers, I knew I actually wanted to be on the product side and help create,” Jacobs said.
Inspired and determined, Jacobs shadowed a product manager, learning Scrum essentials, absorbing Agile methodologies and writing user stories for an in-development product suite. Her efforts paid off: Jacobs was promoted to a product manager role after showcasing her efforts to Appetize’s CIO Jason Pratts.
“He recognized the passion I had and my aptitude for the product,” said Jacobs, who has since become a solutions architect.
Meljason Abalos and Justin Flores (Jacobs’ colleagues) have experienced similar trajectories at the 350-plus employee organization. Abalos, a senior QA engineer, began his career as an implementation account manager. Meanwhile, Flores swiftly climbed up the ladder to a senior-level engineering role.
The trio spoke with Built In LA on how cultivating employees’ soft and hard skills, taking an active interest in career progression and presenting new learning opportunities have created a learning-first culture at Appetize.
A culture of mentorship
“Very, very green.”
That’s how Justin Flores describes his engineering prowess when he first joined Appetize nearly three years ago. Thanks to thoughtful management, Flores said he developed a robust engineering toolkit — crediting exposure to Kubernetes, Helm, gRPC protocols and other tools and methodologies — on his path to becoming a level-four engineer. Complementary experiences — like attending KubeCon, a Kubernetes conference, courtesy of Appetize — helped round out his engineering knowledge.
“Having the opportunity to learn new skills while still being able to contribute my experience was definitely the type of environment I wanted to join,” said Flores, reflecting on what initially drew him to Appetize.
At what point did the chance to grow within the engineering team present itself?
First on, I was learning the Appetize platform. We have a hands-on team that handles customer support, and I was put onto that team to address immediate opportunities for improving our customers’ day-to-day use of our system so we could offer quick feedback and fast updates to continually improve performance. As a result, I had many opportunities to learn how all the Appetize products work.
I gained a lot of experience, and about six months later, I was chosen to move onto a team that was enthusiastic to go to the next level. We started integrating or migrating our systems into Kubernetes in an effort to be more modern, and it was a huge success.
Were there any managers or individuals that helped facilitate that growth for you?
Yes, our Principal Architect Stuart Prillaman. I saw him as someone I’d learn a lot from. When I joined the new team at the six-month mark, he was leading it. Senior Software Engineer Ethan Totten was also a big inspiration to me.
Both of these managers have thrived in their careers. I’ve been able to ask them questions about navigating my career, and learning and growing in terms of a developer or software engineer. Stuart gave me a lot more freedom and chances to prove myself and take on more projects. It’s an absolute pleasure working with them.
- LA natives Max Roper, Kevin Anderson and Jason Pratts first planted the seeds for Appetize at a Los Angeles Lakers game in 2011.
- Clientele includes Live Nation, the New York Yankees and San Diego Zoo.
- The company has raised more than $50 million in funding.
What do you envision as your future at Appetize?
Excelling in my leadership role and continuing to learn how to lead and build up people around me. There are really interesting problems to solve at Appetize. As I continue to grow, I’ll get more experience with new technologies, like continuing to work with streaming data and more tools that continue to come out. All of the projects I work on give me tremendous exposure. Being where I am today, and having the opportunity to run these projects, I’m naturally going to continue to learn and grow, and I’m truly excited for that.
From stadium suites to Scrum meetings
Jacobs has exercised a lot of autonomy over her career growth at Appetize. She’s shifted from account manager to product manager to solutions architect, a role she describes as relatively new within the company.
Equally helpful? Her supportive and hardworking team. As a newcomer to the product side, Jacobs credits her lead engineer, Bobby Nishimura, as invaluable in helping navigate the intersection of business and technical considerations.
“Because I was new, he was super patient with me,” Jacobs said. “I would discuss my high-level feature and explain how I’d like to do it. He would constructively say, ‘If you do it this way, you might touch A, B and C, and I don’t think you want to do that.’ He was always one step ahead and a true expert.”
How would you characterize the tech culture at Appetize?
The culture between product and engineering is super constructive, productive, and creative. I meet with my lead engineers and review the new features at a very high level. Then, it’s a collaborative effort, where all the parties have equal input and can express their approach with the utmost confidence. After everyone offers their feedback, a strategy is outlined and we get to work. We’re in constant communication to track progress and understand any areas where the team needs to pivot.
Does the newness of your department let you shape strategy?
That’s one of the greatest parts about it. We recently had a meeting about how we’re changing a process because we all came together and agreed it’s not really working the way we want — and we quickly improved it. I love that my role is not just a cookie-cutter position. My boss has been awesome and encourages innovation and thinking outside the box.
The culture between product and engineering is super constructive, productive and creative.”
Does your growth speak to Appetize’s culture of keeping employees engaged?
At the rate that Appetize is continuing to grow, the opportunities are endless. My department, solutions architecture, only sprung up a few months ago. If you were to ask me this last year, I might have been a senior product manager — but Appetize created this new department, and it seemed like a great fit and a new opportunity for me to learn a new path. With growth comes new opportunities.
Making the leap
Similar to Jacobs, Meljason “MJ” Abalos tapped into his curiosity to navigate a cross-functional role. Leveraging the expertise he gained through his initial capacity as an implementation account manager, he moved into a QA engineer role — even relocating from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to do so.
Experiencing first-hand the client woes of learning to use a new system made for a logical progression to a QA role. Also helping to facilitate that transition? “An environment that prized approachability and collaborative exchange,” Abalos said.
“It’s easy to find help within Appetize,” Abalos said. “Everybody’s always willing, especially in my team, to help out and give as much knowledge as I need.”
Did Appetize help you get the skills to make a career pivot?
Definitely. At the time I started, my team comprised only two people, which was my lead and another colleague. They gave me the tools, and I just shadowed every single thing they’ve done. It was easy for me to learn because I already knew the functionality of the product — I just needed to learn the code base and how to use our QA test software. My journey has been exciting and rewarding, and I’m proud to work with my colleagues every day.
Everybody is accessible whenever anyone's looking for help.”
What is the tech culture at Appetize like?
At the office, we work in a very open environment where nobody is in a closed-door office. Working remotely, everyone has continued that culture of collaboration, using video conferencing and instant messaging to stay connected. Everybody is accessible whenever anyone looks for help or is willing to learn more skills or knowledge. Within our QA engineering team, my teammates and I have lunch-and-learn sessions. This is because there are so many aspects of our product handled by our team that some colleagues don’t touch certain areas in their normal workloads. We want to keep everyone informed and knowledgeable of what we are all doing.
Appetize also gives us time to showcase and demonstrate our methods, what we’re working on or what we’ve accomplished. Executives give us the resources to test and work on our day-to-day scope of work. Everybody on our team knows what everybody’s working on, and that helps the workflow — and also fosters a great team spirit.