Gerard Spierenburg on being an Onsite Engineer and an automation visionary

Gerard author
Gerard Spierenburg
Aug 17, 2023 · 5 min read
A day in the life Gerard

For this edition, we sat down with Gerard Spierenburg, an Onsite Engineer who also answers to many calls of duty offsite and behind the screen. He lives in Nootdorp with his wife and their Australian shepherd named Sabo.

Working life

Formally, you call yourself an Onsite Engineer. How does that title translate into your everyday work?

I’m a member of the Workplace Team within the Services Team. The Workplace Team is responsible for the ordering of laptops, iPhones, and specific accessories, but we also do the whole configuration and management of those machines. We create accounts for the users. We set up security policies for users, but also for devices. We grant access to people in forms of application access, but also authorization access. We handle vulnerabilities on devices. We configure conditional access policies. To be fair, I’m not sure if “onsite engineer” is the correct title because it implies that I’m just doing onsite work with physical hardware, like desks and monitors, but it’s bigger than that. My role has a very broad function, which makes it very dynamic, but also adds a lot of responsibility because you’re an admin with full control. You’re touching a lot of assets within the company that are related to IT. And that is also the reason I’m enjoying the role. Because every day is different – you have so much you can do and touch and so much freedom and management that you can take ownership of – it never bores me.

What is a typical day like?

It’s quite different if you’re comparing working from home and going to the office. When at the office, it’s best if you go without a plan because if you’re working on some sort of project and someone comes by needing help, you need to drop the project you’re working on and pay attention to what that person needs. That happens very often, and that distracts a lot. But it’s part of the job, so at the office, the focus is mainly on being there and applying physical help where needed. What we as a team always do at 11 is a standup. We mainly spend time assessing is there something that needs attention? What should be picked up? What is the status of that project? Other than that, we have a dashboard filled with tickets with requests, such as “Hey, I need my laptop replaced because it’s broken,” or “Hey, I need access to application X. Can you help me out?” We usually scan the tickets that come in to see what has priority, pick those up or ask for additional information, and then see if we can work those out of the way. As a sidenote, we recently joined forces with the team that handles functional business analytics to automate most of the tickets that involve manual steps. And then next to the dashboard, we also have the Slack channel used for questions or incidents that need immediate attention because they’re usually more urgent.

Observing the steady stream of IT questions makes that Slack channel seem like a hotline. Do you ever experience it as stressful?

No, I don’t think it’s stressful, and I don’t think I’m someone who gets easily stressed. But when IT questions come in, it also depends on who says what and how that colleague says it; sometimes it can feel like a lot of pressure is being put on you, because they are in a hurry while we are doing our best to pick their question up ASAP. It’s also a matter of finding the correct way of talking or replying to someone, to slow someone down or have that person understand that we cannot help immediately. But as part of the Workplace Team, you should be someone who knows how to talk with people. When someone is angry because something’s not working, you need to understand how to work with that and imagine that even if you cannot fix an issue for a specific colleague, you can at least respond to their behavior in a way that defuses the anger, even if their issue hasn’t been resolved yet.

When not troubleshooting, the Workplace Team does a lot of behind-the-screen work. What’s a project you’re especially excited about?

I created a fully automated enrollment workflow for MacBooks. What this basically means is that if a new MacBook comes in from the vendor, we just keep it packaged and don't need to touch it in any way because the setup is fully automated. So I configured all kinds of policies and linked configurations so that if you boot up into that MacBook, you get an automated window that says: “Welcome to Schuberg Philis. We’re going to set up your MacBook.” Then once you sign in, which is all guided onscreen, you get more information on what you need to do to further configure your MacBook. It explains what apps are currently being installed. If you’re an existing colleague, I added some automation rules so it gives you less information because you already know your way around. But if you're a new hire, you get a bigger subset of information to get to know the tools that we use and how you should set it up. That is all based on automations and conditions. I find it so cool because our help is not needed. It saves us a lot of time for provisioning a laptop, and the user doesn’t really need us because it’s all self-service, it’s all automated, and the guidance is clear. I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback on it.

Company culture

Was the automation initiative one you took on your own or was it a response to a voiced need?

I saw that we had to perform multiple manual steps to provision a MacBook. So I dug into a solution. It was time-consuming, but I saw myself growing into the process, setting it up, and improving it down the road. That’s why I decided to keep on going and started building and implementing it. It still needs management of course, because if there is an update, you need to update that tool I used to provision the whole automation. But that’s just recurring management. Having this sort of automated process in our company saves us hours on a daily basis. We have similar setups for Windows laptops, which I was involved in setting up as well. I would say this is the pillar of our team: to get rid of most manual work and automate it away. That way we have more time to work on new projects and don’t constantly click on the same button to perform a job or fix a ticket, but at the same time, make it easier for our colleagues to continue doing their work.

What’s kept you working at this company?

It’s the culture that I like. When I started at Schuberg Philis in 2017, I actually resigned shortly after because I wasn’t used to working with all that freedom and responsibility. I had felt like no one was watching over me. There were no managers. I’d ask my teammates: “What am I supposed to do?” And they were like: “Do whatever you deem important.” I was not used to working this way because with previous employers, usually someone would tell me what needs to be done. So then I spoke with some Schuberg Philis colleagues who didn’t want me to go and explained what was bugging me. They told me: “Let's find a solution that fits your needs.” We openly discussed my feelings about the way of working at Schuberg Philis. The buddy I had assigned at that time asked me to come sit next to him from that moment onwards, working closer together and helping me adjust to the way of working. I needed that little push to not feel like a fish out of water. And after, I was able to find my way around. I just needed time to figure out for myself that I was actually capable of working with that freedom and responsibility and deciding for myself what I felt was important to start a project. Then I decided to give it another shot. It sounds a bit weird, but I don’t think I ever want to work in a different way, and that has a lot to do with the freedom that I have in deciding what I do on a daily basis.

Passion project

What do you like to do when not working?

I like gaming a lot. I often play video games because it helps get my mind off things. If I’m worked up about something, I can just focus on the game and let other personal issues go. I love role-playing games like Final Fantasy and The Witcher, but one of the games I often find myself playing is Call of Duty, which I often play with my brother. He plays from his home and I play from my home and we meet online in a battle royale against about 100 people. The ultimate goal of the game is to stay alive as the only team or the only person. It may sound as though you do the same thing every single time you start the game, but it’s dynamic because every single round is different. You get dropped out of a plane in a different town or on a different part of the map. Then you encounter a different enemy. That is what keeps it fun.

The variation in duties and tight teamwork sound similar to your job. Does a gamification mindset help at work?

Definitely, such as when you think about how to automate something. An example is in that MacBook automated enrollment project. I programmed an old-school game next to the app installation overview, which colleagues can play to cut some time while the apps finish up. All our team members are gamers, to be honest.

Curious to know more about how more colleagues spend their days? See the whole series here.