Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Jillian Garber of Sonos tackles complicated issues in software program and on rock partitions

Jillian Garber scales a climbing wall at Stone Gardens in Seattle. (Matt Miller Photo)

When Jillian Garber was studying physics in college, she learned how to break down and approach problems in general, not just execute the specific challenge at hand. She applied that practice to multiple research projects focused in astrophysics and geophysics, including her senior thesis of a 3D kinematic model of Supernova Remnant Puppis A.

As an avid rock climber, Garber also enjoys putting her brain to work to solve problems, and believes the sport is as much about how you’re going to work your way up the wall as it is about physically executing the movement to do so.

When she graduated from school, Garber didn’t think a career in academia was the right match for her and she had enjoyed the programming she learned through research projects — so she climbed into a career in software engineering. Almost 10 years later, Garber, our latest Geek of the Week, is now applying her skills at Sonos at the smart-speaker maker’s rapidly growing Seattle office.

“I’ve written software for everything from classroom education tools, to a defensive missile system, and helping people fill their homes with music,” Garber said. “I’ve been at Sonos for five years now and have worked on many dimensions of our software. My career here began with working to build a completely redesigned iOS and Android application. Since then, most of my career has been focused on our work with partners through designing and building APIs as well as developing deep integrations.”

Garber listens to a wide variety of musical genres on the Sonos devices she gets to help develop. And she has an equal desire to tackle a wide range of tasks at the company, shifting from app and desktop development to embedded and communication protocols.

“I’m not someone who can do the same thing every day so the fact that there’s a great group of people to collaborate with and learn from, and that I’ve been able to build the trust to be given things out of my comfort zone keeps me interested,” she said.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Jillian Garber:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I am a software engineer because I love problem solving. I like keeping my mind active. It’s one of the reasons why I also love rock climbing. It’s a physical pursuit but it’s also as how much you work your way up the wall as actually executing it. Software is similar: there are many ways to write a piece of code to do the same thing, but how you execute it is just as important. My favorite thing to do at work is build more complex algorithms; I like to take a step back and architect the big picture of a problem and then see it through to working out the details.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? It is very creative. Many people think of engineering as being a purely technical endeavor, but there is a lot of design that goes into it. Determining how to structure your code, design your interfaces, and create a user experience all have artistic aspects. When a piece of software comes together elegantly it is much more satisfying (and maintainable) than a solution that just works.

Where do you find your inspiration? In a sense, what we do is very trivial, we’re building a consumer product, but affecting how people live in their homes and with their families can really impact what they do in the rest of their day. When I joined Sonos and they sent me a speaker, it completely changed how I lived in my home; I would then come home and immediately put on music. I did not do that before simply because the added step of getting the music plugged in just seemed to take too long. It’s finding those moments and use cases that inspires me to make a good and easy listening experience.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I honestly think I could learn to live without just about any piece of technology. What I would have the hardest time without is probably a phone (and I don’t mean a smart phone, an old school landline will do). My friends and family are spread out all over the country so not being able to keep in touch and talk to them periodically would be hard.

Jillian Garber and her dog Biggie in the lounge area at Sonos in Seattle. The dog has become a mascot around the office and has his own Instagram. (Matt Miller Photo)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Probably the most noticeable thing about my workspace is that I sit on a ball. When I’d been with Sonos only a few months and I started meeting people outside my immediate team, many would say, “Oh, you’re the one who sits on a ball!” I started sitting on a ball years ago when my lower back wasn’t liking my chair and never went back. It works for me because it keeps me moving all day.

Other than that, I have a lot of speakers around my desk and on the rack behind it and I use my dual monitors to switch off between my Mac and Linux machines depending on the task at hand. I also have a large whiteboard behind my desk that I use for sketching out ideas and software designs, making notes while debugging, and reminders of what to do when I get in tomorrow.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Whatever you need to do for your sanity (exercise, a building project, work on your car, etc.), plan when you’re going to do it ahead of time. For me, it’s making it to the climbing gym about three times a week. On gym days, I plan ahead and commit to having a hard ending time at work so I can get there. Otherwise I’ll end up staying late and being too tired and out of brain power for climbing, but that revitalization is key.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac, though Linux is quickly growing on me. I came from the research world and Mac is very common because it melds more mainstream, user-friendly computer where you can get most applications that you need for your day-to-day in academia, but also has easy access to a Unix-based command line. I also grew up with a Mac in the house so I think I’m partial to it for nostalgic reasons.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I’ve always been partial to Jean Luc Picard, though I was never a dedicated Star Trek fan. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve seen it more, but I always did have a greater affinity to the set of characters on Next Generation like Data, Warf, and Geordi.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? I love travel too much to pass up the opportunity to have a transporter that lets me visit places instantly. I spent about half of March this year on a road trip around Spain and Portugal and just got back from visiting the Big Island of Hawaii. I just got back and am already trying to plan the next adventure. The front-runners so far are Morocco, China and Patagonia.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Assuming I have a million-dollar idea, I think I would start looking into environmental impact and how to preserve our national and state parks — what technologies can we use that would allow people to visit without degrading these kinds of spaces? Every year, millions of people visit these areas and when you bring in a lot of people you impact the environment — you create problems for the natural wildlife, impact of waste, and contribute to erosion. I’d like to work on how we can allow people to enjoy these spaces without impacting them negatively so they really do get maintained for future generations.

I once waited in line for … Growing up I was really into baseball. I played on my high school team and attended close to 20 Oakland A’s games per year. In the early 2000s, the A’s began giving away bobbleheads of a player to the first 10,000 or so fans to a game. One time, a friend and I showed up super early and waited in line outside the Colisseum for hours to get a Jason Giambi bobblehead.

Your role models: I don’t really have one or two specific role models; I sort of crowd source them. I look more broadly at the people in the world and take bits and pieces of their passion or dedication or approach to things. I don’t think any one person gets everything right, but there is plenty of opportunity to look at a whole group. Find the pieces each person has figured out how to do well and use that to educate what you do. It could be someone I meet while traveling, someone from work, an athlete, or an entrepreneur.

Greatest Game in History The Snow Bowl or the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders. It is also known as “the tuck rule game” because a late-in-the-game call justified using the tuck rule and led to the Patriots maintaining possession and going on to score a game-tying field goal with seconds left. They went on to win the game in overtime and ultimately the Super Bowl that year. The so-called tuck rule has since been abolished.

Best Gadget Ever: A Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman. It’s a tool that you can make work for whatever you need in a pinch. I would have been a Boy Scout if they would have let me. Always be prepared!

First Computer: The first computer that was just mine and not a family computer was a Macintosh Quadra 900. The first computer I used which was our family computer was a Macintosh SE.

Current Phone: Google Pixel 2 — I’m a purist when it comes to Android. I don’t like the software layer most of the phone manufacturers put between you and the Android system so I stick to the Pixel (and previously Nexus) phones. It’s as close to strictly an Android system as you can get. On top of that, it just has a fabulous camera which is a nice addition for when I am traveling.

Favorite App: I don’t really have a favorite, apps are more utilitarian for me. The apps I use most are Reddit and the built-in Google news feed. I also use Google Play Music during the day when I’m working, and I like Pocket Casts for podcasts when I’m traveling.

Favorite Cause: Environmental preservation. Especially under the current administration, which is undoing many federal land protections like Bears Ears in Utah. We need to work now to preserve these places so they can be enjoyed and appreciated for generations to come.

Most important technology of 2019: I would lean toward environmental causes. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been funding efforts to find better solutions for toilets. It makes for a comical discussion if you just want to talk about poop, but how we manage our waste is a very important issue. These technologies not only help mitigate the effects of human waste on our environment (both in terms of contamination and excessive water usage from our current management systems), but also greatly helps people in the developing world to gain sanitation with less infrastructure. There’s also a technology that pulls Co2 out of the air and repurposes it into fuels that can replace gasoline. At some point, it would be amazing to see a world where our car exhaust goes back into fueling our cars. I think these types of technology will really push the world forward rather than the latest phones.

Most important technology of 2021: I think the biggest thing for the future is scaling many of the technologies I mentioned in the previous question. Developing a new technology is a big achievement, but bringing costs down to make them affordable and accessible is how they ultimately get adopted and where you see the greatest benefits. We are seeing this unfold right now with solar panels. They started very niche and were primarily purchased only by wealthy, environmentally minded people, but as demand grows and costs decrease they’re becoming more widely adopted and make a bigger impact. With any of these technologies, we first need to prove that we can do it and to execute it in a large enough scale in order to make a global impact.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Who you work with is just as important as what you’re working on. It is your coworkers who will push you to be better, help you continue learning, and motivate you to do your best. It is easier to be passionate about what you’re building and motivated to make it the best it can be if you’re surrounded by people who are passionate and take pride in their work. It doesn’t matter how interesting the project is, if you’re not working with good people, find a better place to work.

Website: It’s still a work in progress — one of many projects I haven’t gotten to yet.

LinkedIn: Jillian Garber

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