Interview: Ignacio Maronna – Data Engineer at Facebook

We sat down for a chat with Montevideo Labs alum, Ignacio Maronna, to discuss his career and experience studying in the US and working at Facebook (now Meta).

Ignacio or as we call him “Nacho” is Uruguayan and began his career at the University of Montevideo, studying Telematics Engineering (Electrical and Computer Engineering).  He was part of the early group of engineers who began working at Montevideo Labs with DataXu (acquired by Roku) back in 2017 and later decided to pursue a Master’s in Computational Data Science at Carnegie Mellon University.  

Nacho, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your experiences. It is always such a pleasure to reconnect with Montevideo Labs alums. So, you studied Telematics at the University of Montevideo. How did you decide to get into this career?

“Yes, I am a Telematics Engineer but never worked in electronics. Well, the first internship I did was in electronics, but I didn’t like it all that much, so I said to myself this is clearly not what I want to do. 

I have always been very passionate about mathematics, and software engineering has a lot of math, algorithms, and optimization. That niche was what attracted me the most, so I focused the last two years of my undergrad on software engineering. I enjoy the intersection of systems, mathematics, and business understanding. The rest is history, and I have worked as a Software Engineer ever since.

I also feel you have to have a lot of creativity as a Software Engineer and coding in general that many people are not aware. There are multiple of different ways of doing the same things – some more innovative than others, and newer ways of solving problems are constantly being developed. However, there is always a tradeoff, and you must work with the client to identify it as to frame, solve, implement and launch a new product.”

You mentioned your first work experience was not what you expected. Tell me a bit more about it.

“My first internship in electronics was not what I expected but it helped me define my career path, so in that sense it definitely helped.  After that internship I started working at Montevideo Labs and working there helped me find the concentration area for my master’s degree, Computational Data Science.  There are multiple focus areas as an Engineer, you can work on front-end, back-end, data processing, data infrastructure, applications for users, and so much more; and that is why I am grateful to Montevideo Labs because it helped me identify what I liked, which was large-scale data processing and how to harness data to produce meaningful analysis.  Not only did I find what I was passionate about, but I was also presented with a challenging and fast paced environment. Maxi (Founder and Chief Engineering Officer) is a genius, and I learned a lot from him, as well as from my other colleagues.”

Did you imagine that you would be in contact with clients from the start and working on a daily basis with people from abroad when you started at Montevideo Labs?

“I figured as much since many companies in Uruguay work with clients abroad. However, what I did not expect was the level of cutting-edge technology used in Uruguay. For example, developing a real time system to assign a dollar value to online ads at DataXu.  What surprised me was how most (if not all) was done by Montevideo Labs. Bidding in real time is one of the most canonical examples used in Machine Learning, so in graduate school, when presented with the example, I was able to share my first-hand experience. 

During my master’s degree there were people who had work experience and others fresh out of college. My previous work experience was key for my success at Carnegie Mellon University.”

You mentioned interacting with other Engineers abroad, did you feel there was a big knowledge or experience gap?

“I felt I was on par while working both with my colleagues and professors. For example, my previous experience with Apache Spark was one of the reasons I was invited to be a Teaching Assistant for Machine Learning with Large Datasets class at CMU.I really enjoyed it because it bridged the gap between academia and industry.”

What made you want to get a master’s degree in the USA?

“I told Maxi that I wanted to study abroad even before I joined Montevideo Labs, and he was supportive from day one – zero actually. I wanted to pursue a master’s degree to learn even more, particularly to learn about the things that I liked in more depth.  I chose Carnegie Mellon because of how strong their Computer Science related programs are, particularly the area of data science and machine learning. For example, in one of my classes, while doing a presentation, the professor told me that the library that I was using for my analysis was written by him. Like this there were many other stories, things that were invented at the university itself, books written by professors, and so much more. “

Tell me about that experience interning at Facebook

“My program required me to do an internship during the summer (May-August). Carnegie Mellon University has recruiting fairs where companies of the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon have booths, and go there to recruit students. 

One of the things I highlight the most from school is their alumni network. There are many former students working at these companies, and I contacted a few on LinkedIn to learn more about the roles and work that they do. 

In the case of Facebook, I contacted an alumnus from my program, and he was able to share about the work he did, and what the interview process looks like for Facebook. I applied, and after various rounds of interviews I was extended an offer for a Data Engineering Internship. Originally the internship was going to be in California, but because of COVID-19 it ended up being remote/online from Pittsburgh. Considering how the world was affected by the pandemic, the fact of having been able to do it was a great experience, nonetheless.”

How was the remote experience? Is it different to how we work?

“One of the things I noticed working at Facebook is that the nature of the problems they solve are the same as what I did back at Montevideo Labs – the main difference is the resources they have – be it people and infrastructure. 

For example, working at Montevideo Labs you have to wear several different hats. You work on the design, testing, deployment, capacity estimation, tuning and so much more. At Facebook, however, a lot of those nuances are handled by different teams, so you are able to laser focus on just what your team does. 

As an intern, the scope of projects is more limited given the little time. However, the experience helped me appreciate the infrastructure and how they are able to scale the work to thousands of engineers.”

How does the company work? Does it have a “Facebook way” of doing things?

“They have a strong culture of “fail fast”, push code quickly, try it out, and if it doesn’t work out, roll back and try something new.”

How was the experience in the USA with the pandemic? Has remote working opened the gates to the world?

“The pandemic caught me during spring break, and we quickly shifted to online classes. It was hard because I was in a foreign country, with very few friends, and I suddenly found myself spending a lot of time in my apartment. I wish I was able to have more face-to-face time at Carnegie Mellon, but it is negligible compared with what was going on around the world.

The pandemic made it pretty evident just how globalized and interconnected the world is today. I see the possibility of getting a job anywhere in the world so much easier now.  There was a shift in the industry, where now it became less about the physical place you are at, and more about sourcing the best talent anywhere in the world. This presents a very good opportunity for Uruguay, particularly since we are almost on the same time zone as the East Coast.”

Do you have any recommendations from your time abroad that could translate to Montevideo Labs? Something to add or modify?

“I think in terms of quality of engineering we are on par. The team at Montevideo Labs is extremely capable and talented. At school I even found myself asking for help from some of my former workers at Montevideo Labs, and they always knew how to help me and answered my questions.  I even wrote to some Uruguayan friends.”

What recommendations would you have for someone looking for their ideal job?

“One of the most important things is to find a job or an internship on something that you are passionate about – something that you really like. Use the Facebook “fail fast” mentality, try something new, get out of your comfort zone, take advantage of the internships and find what you enjoy. I am a living example of that since I started with telematics and switched to software engineering

Also, when looking for a company aside from the technical challenges, I feel the team and the people really make a difference.  If the people you interact with and the communication is not fluent and honest, it doesn’t work. It is important that the environment fosters communication, where even the most junior engineer is encouraged to ask questions, and learning is the most important thing. 

I am happy to have had this environment at Montevideo Labs.”