Mike Brittain is well-known at Transfix, serving four years as VP of Engineering and last month, moving into the role of CTO. Brittain brings his software engineering chops from Etsy, where he shared leadership of a 300 person team of engineers. In our interview below, Brittain discussed the importance of meeting shippers and carriers where they are with technology, using ChatGPT to automate scheduling, and how he empowers his team of engineers.
Congratulations on the new role! How is the transition going?
Thank you. I joke that my ultimate goal hasn’t changed significantly, because I’ve been doing this aspect of the work for a long time. Now, I’ve got a group of folks at different levels to collaborate with on decision-making around technology. Leading teams of engineers is central to the success of the business and that means identifying them, attracting them, bringing them into the right teams, and building careers for them. We’ve been very deliberate about building teams at Transfix with people who are smart, positive, collaborative, and who work with a sense of urgency.
ChatGPT. Automation. What’s your take on the recent proliferation of language processing? How can it help the freight industry?
The critical question to consider with automation and AI is not only can we do simple tasks with fewer people, but rather can we enable people to pursue more creative or complex work?
For this year’s hackathon – our highly anticipated annual event where we combine tech and operations to collaborate on new ideas for two full working days – I was looking at automating scheduling carrier appointments at shipper warehouses, especially considering how much time and labor goes into scheduling. If automated, we could reduce the time our team members spend sending emails back and forth for appointment times for thousands of shipments.
In the past when we’ve thought about trying to automate scheduling, the conversation always includes changing the person’s behavior on the other side. If they’re just accustomed to emailing, let’s build tools that allow us to email and then interpret what is coming back in an automated way. To automate scheduling, we should meet customers where they are and not assert that they have to use a different system or behave in a different way. ChatGPT presents an opportunity with language processing that I haven’t seen in the past.
As someone who has moved from being a software developer to a manager of teams and now sitting at the executive table, how do you prioritize each of those roles and your employees’ individual trajectories?
A software developer is a builder of products and uses software and code in the way that somebody else might use paint or construction materials. It’s a problem solving endeavor. There’s a whole career around being a maker of things. And many people in this profession are passionate about their craft.
That’s completely different from managing people and directing them in terms of setting strategy. When I was a hands-on software engineer, it was extremely rewarding from the standpoint that every day I felt like I was making something and developing something new. In leadership, what I’m trying to do is ensure that there’s an opportunity for people to be happy and enriched. I aim to align those folks to problem spaces and areas of our business that can be built out in a really productive way where it preserves their ability to do something that they love doing.
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