This week in our Meet the Team series, we’re featuring Nathan Johnstone, Omnia’s Chief Architect and Oceania continent expert. A proud Kiwi with an entire closet’s worth of New Zealand-themed t-shirts, Nathan’s in charge of taking the Omnia technical architecture to the next level.
We sat down and chatted about Nathan’s work, what he looks for in new hires, and where he wants to take Omnia in the future.
Want to work with Nathan directly? We’re hiring. Check out our Careers page to see our open opportunities.
Hi, Nathan! Can you introduce yourself a bit?
I’m Nathan Johnstone, and I’m the Chief Architect at Omnia.
So, what exactly do you do at Omnia?
My job, in its most basic form, is to build the future vision for Omnia’s technical architecture. To do that, I work with a team of architects, engineers, and developers to determine what the priorities for the platform are and how we can improve the Omnia ecosystem. We are currently in the process of migrating high value pieces of the system to an entirely new architecture. All this hard work will help the Omnia system scale and grow, while also pragmatically improving and future-proofing the existing architecture for continued growth.
So it’s a lot more than just tapping on a keyboard?
It’s definitely a lot more than tapping on a keyboard!
What’s your vision for the Omnia platform?
Good question. When I think about the future of the platform a lot of different types of “-ilities” come to mind, mostly “stability,” “reliability,” “maintainability,” and “evolvability.” We also want to have “scalability” in there of course, but the bulk of my job right now is making sure we have a solid foundation that allows us to build amazing features for our customers.
How did you end up at Omnia?
Before joining Omnia, I worked on a variety of domains and systems ranging from distributed real-time control systems running aluminum smelting processes, embedded agricultural automation systems, document collaboration and large ecommerce environments. I was originally working for another company in the Netherlands, but after two years I felt like I needed something different. I wanted more responsibility for a complete system, harder technical challenges, and the ability to define an engineering culture within a company.
As I was starting to feel this way I met Herman de Jager, one of the co-founders of Omnia. After chatting with him it seemed like Omnia’s needs matched what I was looking for, so I made the switch. This was in April of 2018.
And what do you like about working at Omnia?
To start, I got exactly what I was looking for: freedom. This was a step up in terms of scope, and I have tons of freedom to do what I want and think is best for the platform. There’s also lots of other freedom such as the ability to work from home whenever I want or even from New Zealand when I go back to visit.
I also entered a new challenge at Omnia. We’re working in a legacy code base, so most of my day isn’t spent writing new code. Instead, we’re sorting through 8 years of old code to determine what works, then rewriting small parts of it and finding better ways to use what’s already there. I think the ability to take a legacy code base and safely morph it a better state is where developers find out how good they really are.
Lastly, though not unimportant, I am really happy with my colleagues at Omnia. It’s fun to work in an international office and with so many different viewpoints. I think we’ve done a good job of hiring smart, capable people, and it’s cool to learn from everyone else.
What do you think has been the key to your success
I think there are two things, to be honest. The first is the fact that I’m gritty and tenacious. I don’t give up, and even when I get what I want I’m constantly applying those learnings to reach a higher skill level. Software development is kind of like being a doctor. It’s a profession that is always changing, and we have to keep learning to stay relevant. So I spend probably 6-10 hours each week on my own open-source projects.
Second though, is the fact that I don’t actually come from a software background. I started my career as an electrician at an aluminum smelting plant owned by Rio Tinto, and a manager there realized I was pretty good with computers. They asked me to do some software work for them to help out with Y2K, and then from that point on I've been firmly on the path of software development.I think this gives you a broader set of metaphorical tools to use when you approach a problem.
What do you look for in new colleagues?
To me, the most important things are problem solving and critical thinking skills, and my advice to anyone applying for any role at Omnia, though especially for technical roles, is to come with examples of these skills. We’re at a scale up stage and everything changes, so anyone on the team needs to be able to think fast and break problems down in a systematic way that lets anyone else understand it.
I also look for people who will do everything they can to solve a problem before they come to me. We’re all extremely busy here, so it’s nice to know that someone takes initiative before they ask me to help. It’s respectful of my time and also presents the best learning opportunities for the person involved.
Do you give a technical assignment?
Yes, we ask someone to come in for a day and do an assignment. We like to see how they interact with the team and what sort of code they come up with. We then use that as a starting point for a conversation, and in follow up interviews will discuss someone’s choices.
Do you have any advice for people who might be applying to a development role at Omnia?
I’d say come prepared with examples of your critical thinking skills. I like to hear about experiences in the past where you figured out how to solve a problem that seemed impossible.
Now for fun questions! What do you like to do outside of work for fun?
Oh man. I'm a sports loving kiwi, so growing up for me it was rugby, then boxing while I was at high school until my earlier 20s. After boxing came ice hockey, and I played ice hockey back in Christchurch before we came here. I didn’t bring any of my gear over to the Netherlands though.
That's what I used to do, but these days I'm still involved with a lot of my kid’s sports. So this means I spend a lot of time practicing rugby and field hockey with my 3 boys, as well as going running and parkour. Admittedly with parkour I watch more than I participate!
I also love board games and computer games with my kids. So we play a lot of Catan, Zombicide, Minecraft, that kind of thing. I’m teaching my kids to code as well so they’re building their own games now.
Thanks for sitting down with me, Nathan! Happy to have you here.
No worries! It was my pleasure.
Want to work with Nathan directly? Head on over to our Careers page to see our open opportunities.
Grace Baldwin is a pricing and marketing specialist at Omnia Retail. Before Omnia, Grace gained experience in content management at EDIA and through a freelance content management business. She holds a B.A. in Government from Colby College.