A Q&A with Omar Torres on being the Founding Engineering Manager at Chessly

Each week we talk to people we admire to learn about how they work: their processes, the tools they use, and what drives them. It's an opportunity to get a sneak peek into how other builders and makers do their jobs. So you might get inspired and learn something new, or, at the very least, get a song recommendation.

This week we talked to Omar Torres, the Founding Engineering Manager at Chessly, a highly anticipated new chess learning platform co-created by one of the all-time most watched chess streamers Gotham Chess.

p.s. – Omar’s current working background song on repeat is this Wagner symphony, so feel free to listen while you read to put you in the mindset 🙃.

What is the story of how Chessly came to be?

I guess I kind of have to go back to high school. That’s when Levy and I met and became friends. He has always been a chess instructor, teaching people in person or in a classroom setting. But after college he expanded his audience and became the Internet’s chess teacher.

One day, when we met up after college, he told me that he was selling chess courses on Dropbox. People would send him money and he would give them access to a Dropbox link where all the video files were being stored.

When he told me about this I immediately thought the process could be improved. So I asked what if we built a website? One that hosted all your videos instead of having people download the files. And that's what we did. We set up the website, and within a week it was running. It’s gotham-chess.com.

It's doing well, people really like it. It's a more streamlined version of what he had before. People can go to the website, pay and then everything is automatic. He no longer has to manually provide people access to a Dropbox.

But then we had the idea of taking things to the next level. We hopped on a few calls and discussed how we can improve the courses, how we can make them more interactive and engaging. And that’s how Chessly was born.

Why is building a Chess learning site important to you?

I love the idea of the game and how it applies to life. To me, life is like a chess board. You're always thinking about the next move. You're always looking at your position - your resources and what’s available to you.

More than that, the game helps people think more critically.

I see this a lot. For instance, I taught my little brother how to play the game when he six years old and I noticed that his thinking and decision making process improved. So the effect that it has the human brain is incredible. I think everyone should learn the game.

How has it been stepping into a managing role for the first time?

It’s a startup, so I've been wearing a lot of hats. I took care of all the initial backend work, and even the design. Day-to-day I would consider myself more of an engineering manager.

The transition was interesting. A lot doubts cross your mind when you're first walking into a managerial role. But then you grow into it.

I think you adapt, and within a month, I would say I felt a lot more comfortable.

What is the engineering culture you are trying to build at Chessly?

Quality is a big part of what I try to push. Writing code that is free from bugs, that is well tested.

From my experience as an individual contributor, I’ve seen that the lack of quality and lack of reliability stops or hinders growth and progress.

It stops you from creating new products because you have to take care of bugs and issues from the previous product.

Besides that, I tell my team not to be afraid to challenge us. Levy and I don't have all the answers, it’s our first time running a company. So, don't be afraid to voice your opinion on anything, not just things that are engineering related. If you think there's a better way to do something, feel free to speak up. It’s important to me to create that environment where everyone on the team is able voice their opinions.

What’s one habit that has changed your productivity and work life for the better?

Exercising every single day. It's necessary.

I recommend this to every engineer. Actually, to anyone in a role that requires them to be seated for long hours.

One, you get better quality sleep. Two, you have more energy throughout the day. Three, you don't put on those extra pounds. Four, you’re more sharp, more alert and able to stay focused for longer periods of time. And fifth, for longevity. There are tons of studies out there that show that it's not good to be seated for long periods of time.

What’s your advice for an engineer or anyone on how to get started with exercise?

So a lot of people think you need a gym to exercise. You don't. That's one of the things that stops people from exercising. They think that they need a gym. They think that they need weights.

You don't need that. It helps, but it’s not necessary. I recommend setting up your environment so that it encourages you to be more active. For instance, I have this pull up bar over here, and this mat over there. It's all about proper setup. If you can set up your environment so that it encourages you to be more active, you will do that.

What’s a favorite feature of your desk setup?

This may come as a surprise, but I only have one small monitor.

I got this from Linus Torvalds, the founder of Linux. He says that using one monitor helps him focus on the one thing that he's doing.

When I was an engineer at Wayfair I had three monitors. I would have Slack open on one monitor, my browser open on another, and my code editor on another. I was constantly context switching. Not easy to focus.

What's the one tool you swear by in your work as an engineering leader?

Jira. Especially now being on the other end - where I'm no longer being assigned tickets, I'm now the one creating, assigning and organizing them. Jira is very useful.

Jira gives me visibility into what we are all doing, and also helps me plan out our team’s days, weeks, and months.

The team is geographically distributed. Levy and I are in the US, but the two other engineers are not – one is in Croatia and the other one is in the UK. So a tool like Jira is even more useful because it helps our organization run smoothly even when we’re not operating on the same time zones.


That's it! Hope you discovered a new tool or workflow you love. Follow Omar on LinkedIn or check out what he is building at chessly.com.