Technical Services Engineering at MongoDB: Meet Alex Bevilacqua
October 12, 2020
I've been a technical services engineer (TSE) at MongoDB for two years now, but I wanted to share what the journey of getting started in this role looked like for me. I'm also going to dive deeper into what a TSE actually does and why it is both a challenging and fulfilling career.
First, a Bit About Me
I have been writing software since I was a kid, starting with some automation tools for my mom's business. I then moved on to building tools to help me cheat at various games I was playing at the time, and eventually I got more into emulator programming and reverse engineering. I guess you could say I've always loved solving problems programmatically, and I've especially enjoyed identifying opportunities for automation and custom tooling.
This led me down an informal DevOps track, because I was finding a need for optimization in the infrastructure layers to which my applications were deployed. And that led me deeper into Linux internals, system administration, and network operations. While I was gaining these new skill sets, my primary focus was always on application development and delivery.
Before coming to MongoDB, I was working as a development lead/system architect, but I found that my focus was always being drawn back to solving performance challenges at the infrastructure level.
I started working with MongoDB on a number of "hobby" projects around 2012. At the time, I really only had experience with RDBMS's, but due to the unstructured nature of the data I was working with, I decided to give this new technology a whirl.
I fell in love with the database almost immediately and have since carried it forward to multiple new employers, as well as to contract opportunities and consulting agreements. The low barrier to entry from a development bootstrapping perspective made it ideal back end for proof-of-concept development through to production deployment.
As a result of this increased activity with MongoDB, I found myself doing a lot more investigaiton into performance issues and internals (links are to blog posts about challenges I encountered and resolved).
Why Technical Services?
This was initially very challenging for me, because I had preconceived notions about what "technical services" actually implied. The first thoughts that popped into my head were "technical support," "client support," "tiered customer support," and so forth.
While researching this position, I came across a two-part blog post from 2012 by a MongoDB employee who blogged about his experience as a support engineer.
I found his reasons for joining MongoDB, such as the kinds of challenges the job poses on a daily basis and how there is a constant push for self improvement and continuing education, aligned with what I was looking for in a new career.
What's a Technical Services Engineer on Paper?
To answer this question, let's start off by analyzing the job posting that kicked off this journey for me in the first place.
So, they're looking for people who are able to solve problems and communicate clearly. This could be a call center gig after all...oh wait, experts in MongoDB, related database servers, drivers, tools, services...hmm, maybe there's a bit more to this.
Architecture, performance, recovery, security -- those are a lot more complex than what you would face in a traditional support role. What really sold me, though, was the "contribute to internal projects" statement, which aligned perfectly with my desire for process improvement through custom tooling.
By the time I got to this point in the job posting, I was already sold. MongoDB is either trying to staff its first-tier support with ridiculously over qualified employees, or technical services really isn't what I thought it was.
I proceeded to fill out the application, attached my resume and cover letter, and crossed my fingers that MongoDB would reach out to me.
What's a Technical Services Engineer in Practice?
After working with other TSEs for the past two years and having had an opportunity to handle customer cases on my own, I think I can shed a bit of light on what this role really entails.
How is it a Support Role?
A TSE interacts with MongoDB's clients via a support queue. This allows incoming "cases" to be prioritized and categorized to allow engineers to quickly identify what form of subject matter expertise may be required (indexing, replication, sharding, performance, networking, or drivers, for example).
As a TSE, You're responsible for claiming cases from a queue and providing feedback in a timely fashion that is clear, concise, and technically accurate.
The types of problems can vary from "How do I...," to "We are preparing for a major sales event and want to ensure we're properly configure" to "OMG EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE!!!" I've had the privilege of leveraging some of my past experience to assist customers through data recovery exercises, and of using new skills I've learned to help with query optimization, programming challenges, performance troubleshooting, and diagnostic analysis.
With experience also comes the opportunity to become more integrated with key clients that require more attention. As a trusted advisor, you act as the liaison between the client and MongoDB Technical Services and are more involved in long-term planning to help customers prepare for major events.
How is it an Engineering Role?
Here's the juicy part of this job. Although replying to client requests is the "deliverable" for a TSE, how you go about reproducing the clients' issues requires a very deep understanding of MongoDB internals, software engineering, network engineering, infrastructure architecture, and technical troubleshooting.
Depending on the type of issue, a reproduction is likely in store. These involve re-creating the environment (locally or in the cloud) to either benchmark or replicate the identified client challenge. There is a vast library of tools available to TSEs for these kinds of tasks, but on some occasions, the right tool for the job may not exist. In these cases, you have an opportunity to write your own scripts or tools to parse logs, measure performance, record telemetry, or verify a hypothesis.
Although MongoDB doesn't require TSEs to have any programming experience, for those such as myself who come from product engineering, it's refreshing to know there's still an opportunity to scratch the development itch.
How Does it Feel Working Here?
MongoDB has set a high bar for TSEs with respect to the level of experience and expertise required to join the ranks. Although I'd already had a multi-decade career in software development and architecture, I definitely felt some imposter syndrome as I got to know and interact with my team.
Everyone I've had the pleasure of working with up until now has been welcoming and helpful. I've learned a lot about MongoDB's suite of applications, services, and drivers and continue to learn daily.
As a programmer I have access to like-minded developers. As an author I have access to like-minded bloggers and writers. As an individual contributor I have access to a wealth of resources and knowledgeable individuals who are willing and able to help me continue achieving new personal and professional goals.
The TSE role continues to be redefined and refined as new MongoDB products come on board and new challenges present themselves.
What will likely remain constant, though, is the need for new engineers with the following characteristics:
- A passion for continuing technical education
- A willingness to step outside their comfort zone
- A interest in software engineering
- A interest in network operations
I encourage you to check out MongoDB's available jobs if what I've described here interests you (I swear HR is not putting me up to this), because we could use more engineers like you in our ranks!
Feel free to read my personal blog or shoot me an email at email@example.com if you have any questions.
Interested in pursuing a career at MongoDB? We have several open roles on our teams across the globe, and would love for you to build your career with us!