Solutions Architect, Coda
Al Chen is a Solutions Architect for Coda with the primary responsibilities of helping users and enterprise companies build tools to streamline data, learn about the solutions Coda provides and become empowered to improve upon their existing workflows.
Pre-Covid, Al woke up by 6:00 AM to get to the gym by 7:00 AM or meet up with a college friend to play one on one basketball and lift weights. Following the workout, Al would swing by a local grocery store to pick up eggs and a protein shake before heading into his co-working space.
Post-Covid altered Al’s routine slightly, as he wakes up a bit later and gets in a workout at home utilizing kettle-bells and resistance bands. After his workout, he makes the same breakfast to eliminate the mental energy of deciding. Normally, his plate consists of an omelette with steamed broccoli on the side, oatmeal, cereal, a banana and yogurt; he prefers his first meal to be a big one.
Al attributes many of his productivity habits, including his workouts, to The 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris. He finds that pushing his workouts to the point of exhaustion shapes his mindset to handle anything else after that point with an easier demeanor.
“If you attack that frog of finishing an incredibly challenging workout first thing in the morning, you feel like you can do anything afterwards. That’s my mental hack to get the day going at full speed.”
Al relies on his adaptability to counteract missing his pre-Covid activities. A component of working out in public spaces is the drive and motivation to work harder with the presence of a unified community. Without that, relying on independent motivation is the foundation. The transition has been challenging, but he finds solace in his Peloton and through Youtube tutorials.
Pre-Covid, Al hopped on the subway a few steps away from his gym and arrived to work shortly after his morning workout. During his commuting time, he listened to podcasts
After finding a new podcast, Al has nailed down a practice of the following three steps:
By listening to varying episodes and determining if there is a desire to stick around, Al gives the content a fair chance without spending too much time organizing through loads of channels. He filters out what he likes and what he doesn’t pretty seamlessly.
Pre-Covid, Al worked from a small desk in an office at WeWork with “a few other randos.”
WeWork allows for a sense of community for those working remotely or with coworkers in varying locations. Al enjoyed this space. He communicated and spoke often with other’s working in different industries to keep the fresh ideas flowing.
“Some of the best ideas have come from ‘water cooler conversations’ of collaborating with strangers in shared working spaces.”
He stresses the importance of interacting with others, especially as a remote worker or with bicoastal teams. It’s easy to become socially isolated but with that, comes a lack of new perspectives.
“I try to minimize the days where the only person I speak to is a security guard. It’s easy to get chained to your desk, but it’s imperative to remember the human element.”
Now, he works off of his dining room table after shuffling all of his office equipment home with him. He hasn’t encountered any serious issues and has also found his water consumption to have increased out of pure resource convenience. Again… it’s all about adaptability!
Because Al’s colleagues are on the West Coast, the time difference allows him to utilize the mornings to knock out a few of his independent tasks before meetings in the afternoon. First on his list, Al built a few Coda docs.
To explain Coda’s functions, Al gives an example of planning a wedding. You have your guest lists, contact information sheets, vow samples, venue options, invitations, save the dates, menu designs and offerings, table arrangements, the list goes on.
Without Coda, this process would result in 10+ separate docs, sheets, and tabs to organize the data causing you to have to flip back and forth. With Coda, each bit of information can be consolidated into one space and organized through Coda’s building blocks of words, fonts, tables, buttons and automation’s, etc. Coda allows the user to create a home base for an entire workforce of data without programming. There are also over 300 templates for users to choose from that align with this same principle—a ‘one-stop-shop’ for data analysis if you will. This not only allows for work to be completed faster, but for streamlining a plethora of data cohesively.
Coda falls in line with the “no code, low code” trend, meaning, user-friendly and full-fledged applications without the need of a developer to implement. The movement embodies users creating their own tools and specializing the functions to fit their personal needs. The integration of Coda itself lies in condensing existing tools in a way that makes sense for individuals or teams.
The baseline of Al’s job description is helping build the Coda docs, but a large portion of his time is spent devising solutions for the users of the product. Since we know the user has the creative freedom to build an unlimited scope of tools, concepts, functionality and organization for Coda docs are vast. Examples range from project management trackers or custom feedback tools to interactive companions to a popular book.
An entertainingly memorable doc Al recalls building for a mainstream author and her book encompassed a tongue and cheek flow chart, where the user participates in a set of questions that leads to figuring out if a situation is “worth giving a f*ck about.” Gifs, images and sarcastic memes accompanied the chart—a fan favorite (to say the least.)
To implement something as unique as a “worth giving a f*ck about” flow chart, you need skilled solutions architects with the background and creativity necessary to make it happen. That’s what’s great about Coda—there’s freedom to color outside of the lines.
Al considers company objectives when partnering with clients for Coda projects. A certain level of prioritization comes into play, to strategically choose projects that will align with a common Coda effort. Al can move through 10 to 20 docs a day depending on the complexity of the project. Some are simple, with only a few-hour turnaround, while the specificity of others may require more time. The involvement of the client here contributes to the project’s lifeline as well. From time to time, a client will be proficient in Coda and lean on Al for support and conversely, other cases will require Al to build the project entirely. He instills a level of empowerment if the latter occurs, as Coda strives to provide a level of self efficacy to users relating to creating their own tools.
Al also thinks about injecting the Coda name into the community through these partnerships. Building relationships aids in propelling the developing company forward while simultaneously creating legitimacy in the space by expanding the awareness of its benefits. Al keeps his network thriving by following up with previous projects, in conjunction with establishing new partnerships. He also pays attention to common projects and might archive a template into Coda’s gallery that could benefit multiple users. Creating these universal templates that can be customized or slightly tweaked spotlight single projects for accessibility of a wider spectrum of clients.
Al spent time creating content—a competitive, yet profoundly promising new feat.
Al started a YouTube channel to feature video tutorials of different templates for users to further education and gain more familiarity of the functions Coda provides. He has recently learned to create thumbnails, subtitles and syndicate the content with different platforms. Alongside this, he writes blog posts for Coda as alternative educational references and tries to utilize LinkedIn’s video features (which he believes to be an under-tapped method of reaching new business).
Although a self-proclaimed novice in the world of content creation, Al finds creativity to be an essential component to any role, STEM-focused or otherwise, even if may not appear to require it on the surface. Putting on the hat of a concept marketer bridges the gap between someone who is creating for hands-on experience and educational value and someone who is learning hoping the concepts will click when the time comes.
“The goal is to be able to communicate a great idea to the right audience so that they’ll want to read about it and eventually try it.”
Al followed up on messages—they seem to have migrated way beyond email—and responded to various support requests through Intercom, Twitter, YouTube etc. He also took a few calls with potential users in Europe and the east coast for a chance to pitch the product, learn more about the use case and see how Coda might fit as a solution.
Messages Al receives are both internal and external. Internally, Al responds to project status requests from colleagues, updates of Coda docs and filters data. Externally, Al receives questions from users or a customer looking to jump on a phone call for support. He also utilizes email for sales messaging and outbound marketing efforts to pitch or follow up with different partnership opportunities.
When speaking with a potential user, Al almost always begins with observing what the client is currently using to solve their problem, which is usually a messy Excel file. By doing this first, Al can take a birds eye view of what needs fixing, or adjusting and how Coda can streamline the data to function more efficiently. He more or less plays a detective during this stage.
With many clients coming to Al unfamiliar with Coda’s building blocks, education is a huge layer to the process—he hopes his YouTube channel can support this. Normally, all it takes is one individual from the company or team to champion Coda and buy into the solution to then empower the rest of the team to integrate it with what has been done before. With new processes to adapt to, teams run the risk of experiencing flaws and inconsistencies when getting used to using Coda. That’s when Al swoops in to help the teams adapt and address any errors.
Coda is applicable to almost any industry with a broad spectrum of potential users. Al does, however, find ‘tech-forward-thinkers’ leading the way. Those interested in replacing old tools with Coda are the individuals who are unsatisfied with the current solutions basic excel sheets or docs provide. These users don’t normally adhere to the boundaries of the status quo and are empowered to build things on their own. To note, Coda strives for everyone to achieve this mentality!
Later in the afternoon, Al participated in a few meetings with his team.
Team meeting agendas vary depending on the time of the quarter. They can be simple status check-ins or company-wide planning sessions to outline goals for the future. Coda is a flat organization, with the group of eight individuals tackling solutions, partnerships and marketing as one. The daily meetings allow the team to stay working towards company objectives as a unit while highlighting projects coming down the pipeline. Each individual contributes independently, although working in the same direction.
To measure the success of the business, the team measures the hard metric of ‘big influential docs’ which are pinnacle docs created in efforts to link Coda with key players in certain companies or communities. The team strives to create about 10 of these each quarter. Outside of this, other goals are more subjective like encouraging communities to think about Coda or hosting events to get the word out.
With less time for deep work in the afternoons, Al tries to fit in building a template here and there or writing a blog post. If he’s not tackling another template, he’s learning about his field by reading articles and newsletters relevant to the industry or catching up on a peer tutorial.
Al admits to finding it challenging to get longer blocks of time to focus on one task in the afternoon so he utilizes multiple facets of work to contribute to his overall success. Keeping up with relevant news allows Al to stay up to speed on what’s happening in the B2B productivity space along with the growth and marketing tactics his peers use at other companies. He enjoys the relatable, human-like content and refrains from diving too deep into archaic concepts.
Fun Fact: In one of Tim Ferriss’ newsletters, he shouted out Coda for a template Al created; a profound and exhilarating moment. (Check it out!)
Watching peer tutorials allows Al to scope out how his peers are innovating spreadsheets to fuel his process of thinking outside the box. This research also gives Al new ideas to position Coda to stand out from the competition.
To wrap up the day, Al works on his passion projects.
For Al, an all-around successful day revolves around taking a user’s rough and/or ambitious ideas and transforming them into technical specifications built into Coda. This process of building a template from start to finish provides grave fulfillment and reiterates the solution mogel that Coda represents.
In addition to this, Al views success in watching users create solutions for themselves through Coda, which also proves tutorials he creates to be impactful. Empowering individuals to turn ideas into solutions, without feeling required to stick to a formula already provided, is an underlying mission of Coda’s.
“The cherry on top of my day is sending a finished Coda doc back to a user and experiencing their resulting excitement. No amount of money can match that feeling of gratitude.”
The project Al worked on at the end of this day was editing his podcast episode he recorded the Friday before. If he’s not recording, he is leading training sessions for Coda in NYC.
Al’s podcast, Dear Analyst, features topics on data analysis, Excel and spreadsheets geared towards, you guessed it, analysts of the aspiring and thriving kinds! Sometimes, he finds speaking easier than writing as his ideas flow freely while expressing thoughts outwardly. Utilizing productivity skills by a few of his mentors (Tim Ferriss,) he has condensed a 30-minute podcast episode into just 45 minutes of work, allowing it to fit comfortably into Friday afternoon’s agenda among an otherwise busy schedule. The back half of Al’s podcast covers comments and reviews on other content creators, serving as a reference point for listeners to continue learning. Outside of his podcast, users can connect with Al’s Twitter (@bigal123) and keep up with his field commentary.
Al has the opportunity to step outside of his co-working space and lead in-person training sessions (pre-Covid) to connect with users for a personalized experience. He collects feedback on the product and witnesses user interactions first hand for a direct perspective to witnessing Coda live from a consumer lens.
Al is also involved in a cohort of remote educators utilizing the online learning community of Skillshare to teach students all over the country. His classes focus on data analysis via tools and applications. This opportunity fulfills his passion of data literacy while allowing him to connect with potential Coda users and continue examining the feedback cycle.
To combat the sometimes inevitable solitude of Al’s work day, he thoroughly enjoys attending meetups after work to connect with like-minded and passionate individuals.
On other days, Al is tackling his long list of shows and movies to catch up on (Westworld, as of lately.)
Al received his undergraduate degree in Finance and Marketing from NYU’s Stern School of Business. During his Junior year, he interviewed for a slew of banks and struck out after recognizing his mere lack of passion for the roles. This understanding led him to bid a heavy hand on an interview with Google—literally, NYU had a point bidding system for student interviews. After a few mishaps (and too many drinks the night before), Al assumed he’d been rejected from his first round with Google. But to his surprise, Al was invited back for a second interview a few weeks later.
His authentic and somewhat natural demeanor with the panel moved him forward and he was offered an official role with Google as a financial analyst upon graduation in 2007. During his time there, he learned the ins and outs of Excel spreadsheets. On the side, Al picked up a side hustle after creating KeyCuts, an educational company that sold silicon rubber keyboards cover for MacBooks with Excel shortcuts for keyboard functions. From here, Al continued to expand in various directions.
About five years later, Al resigned from Google and went on to start his own Excel consulting and teaching company, helping clients build dashboards and models. He dipped his feet into web development and influencer marketing, but fell back on his innate passion for helping people organize, structure and analyze data. He co-founded a startup, Coopertize, in 2013 matching influencers (bloggers, twitter influencers) with companies and agencies looking for partnerships and grew this organization for almost three years, full time.
A few years later, one of Al’s former Google colleagues reached out for the two to link up. His colleague had a new product launch for their company, Coda, and wanted Al’s input. After spending time in the California office, Al participated in a recorded user-test and offered honest advice to the launch. As Coda progressed into beta, Al became personally involved in the product—he was using it for his own tasks and data organization while becoming active in the online community. While in search of tech. roles and a new opportunity, he reached out to his colleague, and founder of Coda, to network. Shortly after, Coda extended an offer to Al to take on a remote position and Al now works as a solutions architect from his home in New York.
What would you suggest to someone who wants to learn Excel from scratch?
Al’s advice to learning Excel can be summarized with two key points:
Looking back, Al regrets not starting on Excel as early as high school. Even in college, Excel appeared to be an uninteresting “tool for adults.” But once starting in his role with Google, he quickly learned to swim after being thrown in the application’s deep end. He experienced a 10–day Excel boot camp but still credits most of his knowledge from working with the software day–in and day–out. Al recommends taking on roles or opportunities where using the software will be a component of the daily work. He believes the best way to truly understand and become successful at something is by using it continuously. He mentions early education lacking the incorporation of ‘real-world’ skills into the curriculum and advises individuals to get a head start on some of the specialized programs they find interest in.
“There is only so much learning that can be done from education alone; real experience coming from getting your hands dirty.”
How does someone gain legitimacy as a freelance consultant? What would you suggest for those interested in venturing out on their own?
There are a few ways to build a clientele as a new freelancer, like word of mouth marketing and leaning on referrals from an existing network. But a larger truth is the inevitability of taking on less than stellar work to build upon experience and craft a portfolio for larger projects. In the beginning, most work is merely a resume enhancer. Outside of that, Al stresses getting a head start on establishing an online presence through a blog, website or social content. Online marketing efforts are necessary in sharing the usefulness of your service. If no one knows about what you can offer… what’s the point?
Any tips on working from home or sharing a space?
For Al, working from home hasn’t presented any serious problems. He and his wife have established their own corners to stay focused and find a common meeting point in the kitchen. A productivity habit for Al is to dress in proper clothing, like he’s about to head into the office. This has tricked his brain into working like he’s surrounded by colleagues. He saves the sweats for the weekends.
What about general advice for someone looking to become a solutions architect?
A solutions architect is a niche role in a relatively small industry. A byproduct of the role is standing on the front lines to help people solve their problems. If someone lacks the interest in this concept, chances are it won’t be a strong fit. Along with this consumer–focused mentality, communication elicits the true value of a solutions architect. For someone in this role, there has to be a drive to comprehensively illustrate to a relevant audience what could be built and how an upgrade(s) helps improve their workflow(s). To speak on more specific qualifications, companies normally provide internally or pay for certifications—like AWS’s (Amazon Web Services) Solutions Architect certification for example—for extra training.