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Get to Know Lark's New VP of Engineering

June 2, 2023
Q&A with Lark's VP of Engineering, Magnus Hedemark

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Please join us in welcoming Magnus Hedemark as Lark's new VP of Engineering! He recently joined our team of Larkers full-time and has been an incredible asset to our company since. We had the opportunity to sit down with him and get to know one of our fearless leaders.

Magnus is an experienced software engineering leader who is passionate about developing great teams and leaders as well as helping people fall in love with their careers again. He joined Lark with more than 30 years of experience in infrastructure operations and software engineering and has a talent for reinvigorating organizations. Magnus’s experience spans many industries, but it was during his time as Senior Director, Hybrid Cloud Engineering at Gap Inc. when he decided to refocus his career back to impacting health care outcomes. While Magnus enjoyed his team and tenure at Gap, his desire to join a mission-driven team was becoming too hard to ignore. Prior to Lark, he was a senior leader in Optum’s Health Care Cloud program. Magnus is a champion of Neurodiversity and member of the LGTBQIA+ community. He is proudly and openly Autistic, ADHD, pansexual and non-gender conforming.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

I haven’t figured that out yet. I know that’s not a very satisfying answer on the surface, but hear me out. Society typically favors specialists. There is a role and a job description, a nice well-defined box for you to fit inside of. But I think there’s also an important role for the polymath to play in this world, and that’s really what I consider myself. I’m very happily undecided on what I want to be when I grow up, even now, because that sets arbitrary boundaries on my curiosity that I’d rather not settle for.

So while I was never committed to a career path in technology, there were some amazing technology enthusiasts in my early childhood who made space for me to enjoy this exploration of early computer science with them.  Because of that, I went on to spend my entire life, even now, continuing to explore the possibilities.

If you wrote a book about your career so far, what would you title it? 

All The Things: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story

Do you remember those books? The ones where you read a page and it confronts you, the reader, with a decision? If you go through the door, flip to page 27. If you turn around and go back, flip to the next page. That non-linear path is very much how I have lived, including my career path. My LinkedIn doesn’t tell the full story because I found it confused people when they would see secondary roles like “Nightclub Security” or “Event Photographer” or “Seasonal Viking” (yes, crew on a reproduction Viking ship actually happened). I draw from learnings in these far-flung adventures. There are things that kept me from getting physically hurt as a bouncer that I draw from to help me navigate potentially difficult conversations as an engineering leader. The sensitivity that got me home safe in one role helps me to provide a safer workplace for others in my current role.

What is the most inventive or innovative thing you’ve done? 

Overall, there is a pattern of creative play in my work that I appreciate, make room for and try to incite in others. The thing about creative thinking is that everybody can do it. If you don’t believe me, give a child a cardboard box and then go away. Watch them from a distance. The child is going to entertain themselves with that box, and they’ll do it in ways that might surprise you or touch your heart. At some point in life, that gets trained out of us. There’s a lot of investment early in our lives to conform to a system, but the most amazing things in life seldom come from very constrained cultures.

There’s a science to innovation, but the science is very much grounded in play. Denise Shekerjian wrote a book that had a big impact on me, “Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas are Born”. She looked at a large pool of bona fide, consistently productive creative geniuses and looked for the patterns in what set them apart from “the rest of us”. Play was a huge factor in that. When we play, we learn new things. Nobody expects an outcome from us and, thus unburdened from expectations, we do it for our own benefit.

So, coming back around to answer a different question than what you asked. I always worked differently as an engineer. Even as a leader I don’t feel any obligation to parrot the managers who came before me. I’ve learned some great things from some great people, but being innovative in how I lead is probably the innovation I’m most proud of.

What drew you to Lark?

I spent five of the best years of my career growing as a leader at UnitedHealth Group / Optum. The scale of the organization is unfathomable, which creates an amazing learning environment.  Every kind of learning experience that a growing leader might want to test themselves with exists somewhere in that organization. I have a really positive view of my time there. It’s a mission-focused kind of team. The work we were doing led directly to people having better health care outcomes, living longer and leading healthier lives. While I’m not one to regret career moves, I did make a move out of that learning environment into the retail space. I was objectively successful as a leader there, however, even the best days felt hollow in retrospect when it was helping people connect with their new favorite pair of jeans. If I’m not excited, why should the people I’m leading be excited?

It was important for me to reconnect with that mission focus. I came to Lark first as a consultant and then as a very committed employee. I started falling in love during my first days with the team as a consultant and felt an instant connection with the amazing leadership team. When the opportunity came to join full-time, it really was a no-brainer. 

What is an underrated trait for engineers to have?

I’ll offer one that is underrated but often suppressed by poor leadership: curiosity

The other one that I place a high value on is empathy. Particularly for Lark, where the work we do has a very real impact on the lives of people who need us the most, it’s not the kind of place to silently suffer the stereotypical brilliant jerk.  In any organization they are a silent killer for the psychological safety of everyone else around them. However, in this mission in particular, the engineers who are the most valuable are the ones who can empathize well with people who might not be like themselves. Who can extend that thinking into a place where they are really solutioning the kinds of things they can do to better support the success of people around them - their own colleagues, the users we serve, and the partners who are working hard on their behalf.

What do you enjoy most about leading an engineering team? 

I really never had ambitions to lead a team, but I had a really amazing mentor, Mark Porter, CTO at MongoDB. He saw that potential in me and helped me to see how I could be the kind of engineering leader I always  wanted to work for. I know I can never pay back Mark for what he did for me, but I can pay it forward. I can try to be that person for others who will succeed me. So I really enjoy that. I really enjoy helping the people I lead to see their own potential and to give them opportunities to rise to it. 

In my work as an engineer it was all very deterministic, command and control, because that’s what computers like, but that’s not what people like. So I really enjoy puzzle solving with people and figuring out how to tap into each one to get them to see their place in something bigger than any one of us. When I do that well, the rest of my work is easy, and it’s super satisfying.

What opportunities are you most excited about for your team over the next 12 months? 

I’ve got an amazing team. When you think about it, conversational AI is having a moment right now when you look at things like ChatGPT, right? But these folks have been at this for years already. They've been creating better health outcomes for real people with the help of technologies like AI long before the press or the Valley were paying much attention to the space. So I’m really excited to build on that history of being first in this space. Being the early innovators and real problem solvers and imagining what questions we’re going to answer next that nobody else is even knowing they should ask yet.

If you weren’t in engineering, what career would you want to pursue? 

As a polymath, you might get a different answer from me every day of the week. I don’t think I’m ever going to properly retire. But when I’m ready to punctuate the end of my tech career, I’m looking forward to spending time as a novelist.

If I never got into tech as a career, I could see myself writing and directing movies. I think some over the top, low budget horror films would tap into my resourcefulness and creativity, and when I watch them they look like they were probably a lot of fun to make. I’d also love the satisfaction of investing years of my life into an overly ambitious  sci-fi franchise. 

I’m not making films now. I’m not writing novels now. I’m leading engineers who are building exciting new technologies. So I’m looking forward to bringing resourcefulness, creativity and a sense of playfulness, but also taking pride in our craft and role modeling it in this space for the people we serve.

What’s the one word people who know you best would use to describe you?

I had to ask my friends and family because I was curious about this myself. I felt pretty satisfied when my oldest daughter blurted out, “creative” without hesitation, and the rest of the family gave affirming grunts and nods. If that’s how they see me, I’m proud to have earned that one word.

What is something on your “bucket list”?

My bucket list is more of a kanban board. Nothing stays there for long. I get an idea of some experience I want to have before my time is up, and I don’t like to let dust settle on the idea. When you see an opportunity, you have to invest in it happening and not get caught up in excuses.

Let me give you a very personal, very recent example of how I don’t let excuses stop me.

“2023 is the year of flight”. I have a prior coworker and great friend, Ken, who is a pilot in his personal life. His love of flight had always inspired me to learn more and experience it. That curiosity turned into passion, and that passion turned into obsession.

This is a really common thing for people who are wired like me. I am Neurodivergent. I am Autistic, and I was more recently diagnosed as also being (very) ADHD.I think this obsession with interests is a cliche about people like us that has a lot of grounding in reality. 

However, while I was getting ready to sign up for flight school, I realized that I had to have a medical examination done to be certified as fit for flying. But there are specific requirements in that certification that gave me pause.  If you have ADHD or a history of ADHD, the FAA will proceed with caution. But if you are pharmaceutically treated for ADHD, such as taking amphetamines, you can’t pass the medical examination and won’t be certified to fly.

For about 10 minutes, this got me down. I’d put a lot of thought into this, and to find out it was over before it could begin was too much to take in that moment.  then the creative side kicked in. There are many ways to leave the ground. Airplanes are the most common, but many innovators before me perfected other ways to fly which  don’t require any kind of certification from the FAA. With that being said, I’m really looking forward to learning to fly a paramotor. 

It’s also a convenient opportunity to share that I’m proud to be an openly Autistic and ADHD leader. I’m really happy to bring my passions to a place like Lark where the strengths that come with being Neurodivergent are seen and valued as a competitive advantage. The success that I’ve enjoyed in my long career came because of, not in spite of, being Neurodivergent. And I only hope I can do a good job of breaking stereotypes to make it easier for other talented Neurodivergent folk to explore ambitious career paths while also being authentic about who they are.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not helping Lark make the world a healthier place? 

I like to say, “my hobbies have hobbies.” We live in an amazing time where someone who’s lucky enough to live in circumstances of relative abundance can learn anything they want to learn or try almost anything they want to try. I love motorcycling. I keep aquariums and many strange pets. I’ve gotten into 3D printing and houseplants in the past year. I love comic books and comic book movies. I think the next hobby I’m going to try is rockhounding which is something I learned about when I came to Lark. 

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