Meet the Innovators: Jonathan Fontaine

Innovation happens all around us, in big and small ways. One employee at Octo exemplifies this, practicing innovation daily. Meet Jonathan Fontaine, Principal Software Development Engineer in Octo’s Department of Defense and Intelligence Community Business Unit. Jonathan joined Octo in 2019 and shares with us today what he has learned during his journey.  

Jonathan, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s start with your position in the company. How would you describe the work you do for Octo?   

I am the technical lead on my contract, and as such, I wear many hats. I function as a system architect, chief technologist, Scrum Master, mentor in addition to contributing to our product codebase. I like to say my role is to be a force multiplier, enabling both individuals and the team to meet our objectives.

In your role, how would you define “innovation,” and how do you practice it? 

A lot of people talk about innovation in the bigger sense – a new whiz-bang idea or something vastly different, like AI. This is one form of innovation, but I also recognize and appreciate small, critical innovations. For example, when I did installation software back in the day, one customer complaint was how time consuming and painful the initial software configuration and installation took to complete. So, I automated the problem away. It was a new way of attacking a technical hurdle and offered the customer unexpected value.

I lean on this as an example of innovation because it is a prime example of small innovations leading to big benefits. Just for our internal teams alone, it led to a team of 10 people saving 30 to 40 minutes a day. When you think about tool innovations like these, even if you save people just 10 minutes a day, that can add up to a ton of savings for the organization. So, innovation isn’t always novel or huge. It is sometimes providing value in an area no one has thought about before.

These small innovations are often done without us even thinking they are innovations. Little tweaks and decisions that create hidden innovations ultimately provide big meaning to our customers and to our engineers. At Octo, we do this kind of thing daily. We look at code, we look at day to day work, and we make choices that provide something new that innovates on something that has already been done or already existed. Day to day, I take what is already known in the technology stack, and I apply my craft to solve problems in distinct and refined ways.

What does that innovation or “tweaking” process look like? 

Sometimes it’s as simple as asking, “How about we try something different?” If we decide to go in that direction, we make a change and continue to evaluate the change. That can lead to continuous innovation, and sometimes it even grows to something bigger and more refined.

At Octo, we provide consistent innovation and innovation refinement. We look at customer problems, and we help make choices. We take action. The real innovation is, we don’t settle for what’s out there. We ask how we can make it better within the boundaries set by the customer. We are ever striving to produce something better.

For the past several years, Octo’s tagline has been “Jump the technology curve.” What does this mean to you? How do you help customers jump the technology curve?  

We’re helping customers jump the technology curve by working together with them and ensuring they are educated, involved, and informed. This is important. Jumping a curve can be dangerous if you don’t have the right information to do it safely or you don’t know what’s on the other side. We want to help our customers jump the curve, not push them off it.

We make careful, thoughtful, informed recommendations to get customers where they want to be. This means knowing the right technology and keeping up with it. When the customer comes to me and asks me about doing something new, often my answer is, “I don’t know.” And that’s okay. My job is to find the answer. What is this technology they are asking about? What does it do? Should we use it? I research and bring information back to the customer and provide a safety net to move forward. We take the journey together.

What is one project or challenge you have taken on, and what is your approach? 

How you approach challenges can be your most defining moments. Personally, I like challenges because they are always changing. Think about it. You never get the same challenge twice because once you solved it, it’s not a challenge. I like this – it’s something different all the time.

The most interesting and common challenges in the overall industry are usually ones with a lot of undefined factors. A customer will come to you with a symptom of an unknown larger problem or even a loose idea of where they want to be.  Challenges that have well known or understood parts aren’t such a big deal. These are day to day challenges. But we are asked all the time to be detectives in cases where so much is undefined. We are given a small or common symptom and asked, “What’s wrong?” It’s like someone saying to a doctor, “I have a runny nose. What is it? A cold? Flu? Something bigger?”

This is where perseverance and innovation come in. Sometimes that requires hours and hours of effort and manual labor. But it’s important that these things work well and do what they are supposed to do. People depend on it.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry? Mid-career?  

For someone who is just starting out as an individual contributor like a software engineer, I’d say volunteer. Take on challenges in areas you’re not comfortable with. Take on something you don’t know much about. Make mistakes and learn. You might need hand holding, but overall, it will be beneficial. I have never found a company that does not appreciate people who volunteer to step up to challenges. Be honest, be hungry, and this is how you will distinguish yourself.

For mid-career folks, remember that software engineering is both a science and an art. It is crucial that you keep practicing and learning. If you find yourself at a plateau, not being motivated or being complacent, just coasting along, you need to get back to engaging. Find someone or something that inspires you. Don’t just settle and stagnate. Find bigger questions and propose answers. Be the differentiator, even if you’ve not seen the problem before. That’s how you transition from mid to senior level. That’s how you continue to make an impact.

Are you an innovator at heart? Does the thought of finding solutions to challenges and innovating every day appeal to you? 

Whether you support business or technology development, Octo has positions for professionals dedicated to helping federal customers meet important missions. Learn more by exploring our Careers page. Veteran? Start your search here.