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A Day in the Life of Ren Buenviaje: Engineer, Baker and Javascript Extraordinaire

Okta

For Ren Buenviaje, an unplanned career move (implementing identity management solutions) and years of experience developing user interfaces were just the background she needed to land a job at Okta. Now a senior UI engineer at Okta, Ren is helping engineering teams make their code beautiful and empowering people to work better and smarter, and embodies what it means to be a part of the user-centric IT initiative.
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In addition to bringing beautiful products to life with code for both Okta customers and employees, Ren helps Okta look and smell fantastic. You heard that right. From implementing a company-wide tradition of dressing up for “Fancy Fridays,” to baking delicious, gluten-free treats that have quite the following, Ren is instrumental in defining the aesthetic and snack habits of this company.

To learn more about Ren’s responsibilities and to hear about all her extra-curricular initiatives, check out the latest “Day in the Life” segment below!

What’s your current role at Okta, and what does a typical day look like?

I’m a senior UI engineer, but really there’s no such thing as an average day as an engineer. Our team has expertise in many different programming languages and technologies, Javascript, Java, Backbone, jQuery, Node.js and Jasmine & Selenium tests to name a few. And with that diverse set of knowledge, we’re tackling different projects. Most recently, I’ve overseen the implementation of our localization product, which involves extending language support in the Okta product from English to German and Japanese. (I don’t speak either language -- we have translators that do that!) I also help other teams to update their Java and Backbone code to support localization for their features. We’re also overhauling the code that “auto-magically” (her word, not ours) tests our UI to make it more maintainable.

How did you get into computer programming and UI engineering?

I began coding in HTML and CSS when I was in seventh grade. Both my parents were working in tech, so I fell into it naturally. I love UI engineering because I get to see the final result of my work. The marriage of technical and aesthetic also feeds my design side.

Why Okta? What first attracted you to the company?

ren_headshot My former manager had just completed an Okta bootcamp to get product certified as a system integration partner. Upon finishing the course, he contacted me because he knew I had a background in UI and I’d recently (and unexpectedly) been implementing identity and access management solutions as a consultant at Accenture. My UI experience and knowledge of the identity space would be the perfect match for Okta. And it didn’t hurt that I had a friend who worked in Okta’s accounting department, and could vouch for everything that my previous manager had said about the company’s vision and mission!

What's the best part about working at Okta?

I’m sure a lot of people say this, but the best part about Okta is definitely the people. For me especially, it’s the talented engineers. My coworkers are innovative, constantly churning out new ideas and think out of the box when solving problems. We’ve also got a lot of interesting personalities and enjoy each others’ company. There’s never a dull moment when we’re hanging out with each other. The other day, I walked by the engineering team during lunch – topics of conversation included fantasy football, recent podcasts and how to optimize a white elephant exchange.

But the friendships and connections aren’t limited to specific departments. We do a wine and cheese event every two weeks, which gives us a chance to develop relationships with people we wouldn’t normally interact with, like sales and product managers. We can find out what customers are thinking, as well as uncover mutual interests and build friendships that we can take outside the office. One of the folks from accounting regularly organizes hiking trips -- ambitious treks that can reach up to 45 miles! Though I opted out of that particular trip, more than a dozen people participated.

How else have you facilitated friendships and social events across departments?

ren_fancy_karaoke An engineer on mobile, Hans Reichenbach (on the far right) and myself decided to start “Fancy Fridays,” encouraging everyone to dress up the last Friday of every month. We brewed up the idea in response to Freddy, our COO’s “Hawaiian Shirt Fridays.” A lot of us didn’t own Hawaiian shirts and felt that our typical attire was pretty casual. Though I had to present our idea in a three minute impromptu speech at our all-hands meeting, it was well received. (Freddy even gave me a high-five afterward!)

On the first “Fancy Friday,” I thought there would only be a couple people dressed up, but when everyone came in, we had 30-40 people in interview attire. Todd (our CEO), Hector (our SVP of engineering and CTO) and a bunch of other executives walked around the office asking if it was interview day, thinking everyone had plans to quit! They were so confused, but it was hilarious to see everyone all dressed up in bowties, vests, pearl necklaces and high heels! We even fooled our VP of Engineering, Greg Salmon. When he accidently stumbled into an internal meeting of well-dressed Okta employees he apologized, “Pardon the interruption…” until realizing, “Oh! It’s just you guys.”

What stands out about Okta compared to other companies you've worked at?

fancy_fridays At previous companies, it’s never been the whole package. Either the people are fantastic, but the work isn’t too stimulating, or the work is invigorating, and the people aren’t that interesting. At Okta, we’ve got the whole package.

A lot of other products out there are just not that impressive – both in the amount of support customers receive or how it looks. I’ve worked on past projects where our product wasn’t very attractive -- and the users noticed. I love working at Okta because we like to keep things simple. Users are more likely to use a product that they like the look of and enjoy using. (As CSO David Baker said on the blog, “simplicity is the key to security” and as an identity management provider, security is essential to our customers’ success.)

What’s most rewarding about your role?

I get to touch a little bit of everything in my position because there’s an element of UI in everything. That means I see the code that all the different engineering teams are working on. One day, I’m refining CSS code. The next, I’m troubleshooting some Java code that another team wrote. I work on code that reaches our end-users and IT administrators, but I’m also developing tools for debugging, building, and running automated test suites -- what I like to call “internal stuff.” And because they’re internal, we get to give them kooky names like “Cavok” (which in aviation, stands for Ceiling and Visibility are OK) and “Oktamus Prime” (not to be confused with our friend Optimus Prime).

With my hand in so many pots, I become a better developer. In past positions, I received a lot of freedom doing front-end work, but I didn’t have much experience working on the back-end, and that limited the way I could solve front-end problems. Now, I have a better understanding of why the code works the way it does, and how everything fits together. And ultimately, I’m able to come up with more elegant and creative solutions.

What do you love about Okta’s customers?

Okta’s customers appreciate a well-designed product and they give us feedback constantly. They let us know what they like and what they don’t like, whether we’re attuned to their needs and what we can do better. More likely than not, we’re harder on ourselves than they are, but that open communication is crucial in helping us design a better product. This dialogue helps us to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes. (And according to Krista Anderson, our chief customer officer, we need to understand their problems before building the solution.)

We hear you have a side business that is quite popular amongst Okta employees. Can you tell us more about Renby's Sugar Shoppe? How did that all begin?

Renby's Bake Shop I’ve always enjoyed baking as a hobby. It got serious when I was working at Accenture. We were working on a tough project with low morale. To bring us all together in one room, I’d made cookies for a weekly coffee and cookies gathering. During the project, I saw one of my co-workers get diagnosed with celiac. Eventually, he couldn’t come to coffee and cookies. So I decided to make gluten-free treats that everyone would eat. Knowing that the cookies we’re gluten-free – but also didn’t taste like cardboard – the team actually convinced me they were good enough to sell. I now do that on weekends. It’s a refreshing way to take a break from coding and even make a little side money. David Baker, our CSO, is actually one of my regular customers!

Care to partake in “Fancy Fridays,” sample Ren’s treats, or join in user-centric IT fun? You’re in luck; we’re hiring. Head to our careers page to see all open positions – we’d love to hear from you!