Getting to Know Ben Lai
Software Engineer, Engineering Blog Editor, Tech Talk Host
March 29, 2016
LinkedIn wouldn't be the company it is today without the engineers who built it. We have no shortage of talented individuals in technical roles across the company. They are the ones who create, build, and maintain our platform, tools, and features—as well as write posts for this blog. In this series, we feature some of the people and personalities that make LinkedIn great.
Ben Lai, Senior Software Engineer, works on the back-end infrastructure team, helping to migrate the email system to a more scalable, newer generation architecture. He's also the newest editor of this blog. Ben has been at LinkedIn since 2012.
Prior to joining LinkedIn, Ben worked at multiple startups (some predating the Internet), a state university, an Accenture-style boutique management consulting company, and a DNA biotech company. Throughout his diverse career, he has accumulated many different software engineering and entrepreneurship skills that have helped him become a better engineer and employee. Read on to learn more about Ben.
What is something about you not found on your LinkedIn profile?
Not many people know that I can put on some really awesome accents. I can put on a pretty good Scottish accent, something I learned from watching "Shrek." I can also do a pretty good Yoda and a Gollum impression.
What made you first want to be a software engineer?
I think I first fell in love with computer programming after I watched the original “Tron” movie—I wanted to be a videogame designer and programmer, so I taught myself BASIC by reading a book from the library. I would go into the local Kmart (for those of you who remember Kmart before it was a superstore) and write a program on the TRS-80 computers on display, to calculate all the prime numbers from two to 100. I got such a kick out of it that I would write the same program every time I went!
Eventually, my parents figured out that I really love computers, and they bought me an Apple IIe. To me, programming was the most powerful invention ever, because you could create so many different things with code—there was almost no limitation. It was only later that I came to appreciate that software engineering is a real craft, one that you can improve upon throughout your entire life, and one that never stops challenging you.
Why did you decide to become an editor for LinkedIn's Engineering blog and what do you enjoy most about it?
In addition to software engineering, I also love the art of writing. At first blush, writing prose seems like a completely different challenge from writing software, but they actually share a lot of similarities. In software engineering, you build an application from components, which are built from libraries, and then you employ an architecture that makes the whole thing robust against changes in requirements or scale. Similarly, in writing, you write a book with chapters, which are built from scenes and characters, and then use a plot to tie it all together.
I also love helping knowledge flow from one person to another—to me, that makes the world a better place. Technical communication is especially challenging because experts often have a difficult time explaining what they know to novices. I have a talent for figuring out how to explain difficult concepts in simple terms, so I feel I have a lot to contribute as an editor of LinkedIn's Engineering blog.
What types of engineering stories most interest you?
I like stories where there is some kind of mystery, where someone has a very difficult problem and you're rooting for them to solve it. It's like an episode of BBC's "Sherlock," or an episode of "House." Then, they explain how the system works, and they explain the "aha" moment where they figure out what caused the problem, and you feel so satisfied. You feel smarter because they taught you something. A recent story I worked on was Zhenyun Zhuang's Eliminating Large JVM GC Pauses; not only was it technically interesting, but it also kept me in suspense. The best stories are told by good storytellers.
I also like stories where people share a lesson that is universally applicable. Like I said, I love when one person makes everyone else smarter by sharing ideas that anyone can use. Some of my favorite blog posts, such as Keqiu Hu's Fixing iOS Test Stability, have lessons to teach everyone.
What are your favorite things to do when you’re not at the office?
I love biking to work—it’s great exercise, releases stress, and it’s the biggest way that I contribute to stopping climate change. I also like taking walks around my neighborhood with my wife. I know that sounds boring, but taking walks is a great way to relieve stress, and a way to catch up with my wife in our busy lives.
What other projects are you involved in outside of software engineering?
Because LinkedIn encourages career transformation, I have spent a fair bit of time on pursuits outside of software engineering. In addition to being an editor on the Engineering blog, I am also the host for the LinkedIn Weekly Tech Talks, where employees present technical topics to their peers. In my role as the host of Tech Talks, I also work with the speakers who would like feedback on their session before presenting.
I have also mentored many junior engineers on LinkedIn culture, tools, and technologies, including engineers on my own team and engineers in the StartIn program for college graduates. My mentorship and coaching skills have earned me an award for Outstanding Contribution to the StartIn Program.
Compared to other places you've worked, how do you like working in LinkedIn?
Every day, I'm blown away by the quality of the people who work at LinkedIn. I think we have a consistently high bar for employees, and I mean that not just for engineers, but for every department. I am also grateful that our culture allows me to pursue responsibilities that are outside of traditional software engineering. I want to add value to the company, and my team and my manager allow me to choose how I do so without forcing me into a particular mold.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part of my job is having enough time to pursue all of the different fun things I want to do. Like I said before, LinkedIn is allowing me to transform my career, to pursue everything I'm interested in. It can sometimes be difficult to balance hosting Tech Talks, being an Engineering Blog editor, mentor junior engineers, and participating in the Craftsmanship Initiative. But it’s a great problem to have—to be challenged and do all the things I love!