Get to Know the Team That Builds Alto's Customer-Facing Apps

Aug 26, 2021


Alto Pharmacy

Imagine an app that allows you to buy things and have them delivered to you the same day, for free. Now take that app and put it in a highly regulated space like pharmacy. You face the challenge not only of building an e-commerce platform from scratch, but also of navigating medication pricing, federal and state regulations, and patient safety—and that's just the way the Patients Team likes it.

"It's a really exciting and fun problem to solve," says Mike Riess, the team's Engineering Manager. Software Engineer Angelique Nehmzow agrees: "There's a really strong product and design aspect, like more traditional startups, but then everything gets a little bit more interesting because it's healthcare."

Below, we chat with the team to learn what it's like to work on Alto's customer-facing apps, which projects are on the horizon, and who makes the best barbecue short ribs.

What does the Patients Team do at Alto? 

Ask anyone on the team why they joined, and chances are, they'll tell you they wanted to be on the product team closest to Alto's customers: "We really try to own the customer experience," says Peter Zeng, the latest Software Engineer to join the team. "If a customer is coming to the web app, or they're coming to our mobile app, we want to make sure that they're able to onboard with us as easily and conveniently as possible."

The team is also responsible for the customer experience beyond onboarding, from the moment a customer schedules a medication for delivery to the time that it shows up on their doorstep. "We already offer great services like free, same-day delivery and cost savings. The Patients Team empowers customers to make the most of our offering," Nehmzow explains. "You can see what prescriptions you have, check on the status of your order, and schedule automatic refills. In a more traditional pharmacy, you don't get that kind of visibility. You have to call them up or even wait in line in person. At Alto, it's a different experience."

What was it like in the team's early days?

Today, there are eleven engineers on the team working to build that better end-to-end experience—but it wasn't always that way. When the team first formed in 2019, it consisted of just three members: Riess, Brian McRae, and Andy Lau, all of whom are still on the team.

"The first priority for us was just stabilizing the foundations," Riess says of the team's early days. Every other week, the three team members, along with Alto co-founders Matt Gamache-Asselin and Jamie Karraker, would meet to audit the app's core flows. "For the first three months we probably didn't make it through some flow at least 50% of the time," Riess recalls. "There would be a ton of bugs in the onboarding experience, things that weren't working with the flows or navigation or deep linking."

Among the team's first projects was a redesign of the checkout flow. "There was a lot of work to be done to streamline the checkout flow, which is pretty much the main function of the app," says McRae, who initially joined the team as a software engineer and later transitioned into product management. "We had to make it easier to add a payment, add your addresses, everything you need to do to schedule your prescription for delivery."

What is the team working on next?

"The growth of the team, in terms of both size and stability of the platform, has allowed us to swing at more interesting bets for the company," Riess says. In particular, the Patients Team has turned their attention toward experiences personalized for specific medical conditions.

"Different customers have different needs. A customer who wishes to start a family will have a different experience than a customer who needs to order their routine heart medications that they've been taking for the last eight years,” McRae says. “The challenge for us is how we serve all these customers well through the app."

"I think that's where Alto can be such a differentiator," Riess adds. "A world-class pharmacy experience is about so much more than just dispensing medications. We want to build tools for customers that help them get the most out of their medications—everything from simple videos teaching them how to perform injections safely at home to the ability to synchronize deliveries for multiple prescriptions for managing complex health conditions."

With these new projects on the horizon, engineers have ample opportunity to focus on the areas that excite them most. "We're full-stack and mobile and web," Nehmzow says. "Part of the team focuses more on experimentation, iterating quickly, and using data to make decisions. Part of the team focuses more on platform work, tooling, and improving the developer experience. There are a lot of areas to explore and contribute to."

What's the team culture like? 

One spring night, the Patients Team gathered in a back yard in San Francisco’s Mission District for short ribs and an impressive spread of side dishes. "Kudos to Robbi, who's the grill master. I just provide the grill!" Nehmzow says, laughing. While the team barbecue was the first time some members had met in person, Zeng notes that the team has been supportive of one another even while working remotely during the pandemic.

"The first real project that I was assigned to was working with the communications system. Before writing my first piece of code, I spent two weeks exploring what already exists and understanding the different parts of the system," Zeng says. "I've been really impressed with how understanding my teammates have been. They make the space for you to learn all the different pieces of code we own."

That culture of support is by design, reflected in the six principles—complete with matching emojis—at the top of the #patients-team Slack channel: "Empower each other," "be an owner," "find the path," "learn by doing," "embrace complexity," and "foster trust."

While these principles echo Alto's company-wide values, they are unique to the Patients Team. "For a long time, we were the only external-facing product team at Alto," Riess says. "These principles were intended to be this motivation around how we win. It's a combination of how we treat each other, how we reason about decision making, and how we approach solving a problem that's never existed before."

As the team looks toward the future, those principles have never been more relevant: "We have a goal and an area we want to focus on, but in terms of which projects we're going to do, it's not a top-down thing," Nehmzow says. "It's very much, 'We're going to figure out how to solve this problem together, even when it's difficult.' That's my favorite part about the team."

The Patients Team is hiring! Learn more about open positions here.

Believe in a better pharmacy

Believe in a better pharmacy

Believe in a better pharmacy