FSQ Faces: Sean Kilgore, Distinguished Engineer

We are excited to announce that Sean Kilgore has joined Foursquare as our newest Distinguished Engineer!

Learn more about Sean’s experience in this edition of FSQ Faces.

Can you tell us about your background and experience that led you to this role as a Distinguished Engineer?

This might be surprising to some people, but I don’t have a degree and I’ve never had a Software Engineer title. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m highly technical; I’ve got code in some high-scale systems, and I’ve had a fair amount of experience with building and operating distributed systems and platforms at scale. I’ve been a manager multiple times, and I think that’s helped me understand the business context of the work that I do.

I got my start in IT and eventually jumped to operations in the gaming industry where I had my first experience with burnout. I was able to get out of that situation and spent a lot of effort trying to make sure it didn’t happen to me or people I work with again.

Because burnout had such a big impact on my life, I’m always asking myself, “How can I help organizations make choices that don’t harm people?” The answers are generally big, org-impacting things that aren’t always engineering related. Often the decisions that best prevent harm for people are also decisions that are good for the company’s success! Learning to make those decisions, and using influence without authority to persuade others to make those decisions, has given me the background and skills needed for the role of Distinguished Engineer.

In your opinion, what sets a Distinguished Engineer apart from other engineering roles, and what excites you most about this distinction?

The role of a Distinguished Engineer is often about more than just technical prowess. It’s about creating effective systems (for technology and for people) that strike the right balance between simplicity and complexity. This position isn’t about one person being the linchpin; it’s about elevating the entire company. The essence of being a Distinguished Engineer is the ability to foster collaboration and collective achievement. It’s a role that demands versatility and adaptability, and I’m excited that this means I won’t ever do the same thing two days in a row.

What do you believe are the most significant challenges and opportunities in the tech industry today, and how will you address them in your new role?

In today’s world, challenges lie in balancing rapid innovation, reliable systems, regulatory oversight, and customer trust. My focus will be on steering our strategies and building our platforms and products in a way that aligns with these evolving demands.

What technologies, methodologies, or best practices do you think will be critical for our company’s success in the coming years, and how do you plan to incorporate them into your role?

Since I’ve only been at Foursquare for a few weeks, it would be difficult (and arrogant!) for me to think that I know which of these things we need yet. Part of the responsibilities of my role include determining which ones are right for the company now and in the future, and implementing them when we need them.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

A previous CEO I worked with once made a choice that very clearly seemed to be the wrong one to me from a technological point of view. When I shared my POV with my then boss, he asked me, “Have you thought about all of the other inputs to his decision?” And of course, I hadn’t. He then spent an hour with me talking through all of the things that the CEO had considered. It was an eye-opening experience.

That conversation taught me to ask two questions:

  1. What had to be true for that decision to be made? 
  2. What needs to be true for a goal to be achieved?

The answer to the first question is how we got to where we are. The answer to the second question is how we get to where we want to go. Together, they help you understand the past and present and plan for the future of an organization.

In short, the best advice I’ve ever received is to think about the why behind the decision(s).

When employees join Foursquare, they’re always asked to share a fun fact. What would your fun fact be?

My fun fact is that I like fun facts, so here are a few:

  1. Scallops can have up to 200 eyes, and they’re all blue.
  2. Sharks have been around on Earth longer than the North Star has been a star.
  3. “I” is the shortest complete sentence in Latin. It means “Go.”

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