📺 CFTV Anniversary: This is Your Tech Leader Speaking
Michelle Gleeson is the Director of Engineering at A Cloud Guru, and the founder of Tech Leading Ladies. I look forward to learning what's front of mind for her!
Hey there, I'm Gretchen. Thanks for joining us today for our session of This Is Your Technologist Speaking.
We're running a series of talks with local Asia -Pacific industry leaders and I've been lucky enough to get what I think is the best list of guests around there.
So today's guest has worked in software development for quite some time, I was going to say 20 years, but I don't want to age you.
She's got leadership experience in what I think all the best tech companies in Melbourne and somehow in her spare time managed to set up one of my favourite community support groups for minorities in the industry.
Currently, she's a director of engineering at the next Australian unicorn, a cloud guru.
So I'd like to welcome Michelle Gleeson this morning.
Thanks for coming. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
It's great to get people up bright and early and chatting about technology in the world.
So we've got heaps to talk about today and we caught up briefly beforehand to to talk about which directions we want to want to explore.
So we're going to dive right in. A cloud guru has been in the news quite a bit in the last week.
It's super exciting for an Australian company. But for those of us who don't actually know what you do or what the business offers, could you give me a little rundown?
Yeah, sure. So a cloud guru is an online learning platform and we're really focused on cloud computing.
So about five years ago, when Ryan and Sam started the company, there was a real hole and probably a lot of the people you work with could attest to this as well.
And it was hard to gain those skills.
So they've created this amazing platform that offers really good content and courses to help people learn about cloud.
And also, there's a lot of hands on learning environments as well.
How fun, because education is one of my kind of secret favorite spaces to hang out in.
And so recently in the news, a cloud guru was acquired by Pluralsight.
That's I mean, that's huge, huge news.
It's been everywhere. I actually wanted to talk about pretty much everything other than that and stuff that happened before last week.
So a while back, a cloud guru acquired Linux Academy. And I mean, that's a huge thing to, to acquire someone who's kind of in the same space and have semi similar products that behave in different ways with different modules.
That's a lot of integration and migration work.
So what did they have that you wanted? How did, how was it?
Yeah, it's been quite a while, right? So Linux Academy and a cloud guru were probably pretty fierce competitors, you could say.
Our products were very similar.
So it was a lot of the, you know, hands on learning environment, right? Course content was available in Linux Academy, and then ACG had the same thing.
But one thing that ACG didn't have was the real rich hands on learning environment.
Like labs and playgrounds.
Labs and playgrounds. And yeah, be able to use things in, you know, sandbox environments.
So you're not racking up your AWS bills. When you're trying to learn something new.
So you can have a play in a safe space, which was great.
Also, they had a bit more breadth of content as well. So where a cloud guru had primarily been focused on cloud, so AWS, Azure and GCP, Linux Academy was more broader.
So a bit more of like the holistic software engineering offering.
A big growth project. So once you acquired them, for that pretty sound business reasons, how do you pull it?
Like, where did you even start in that journey of what do we keep?
What do we throw out? What's the Linux Academy stuff that's awesome?
What's our stuff that's awesome? Are we two different teams? Are we coming together?
How did you choose what to keep? It's my first question, I guess.
Yeah, this is huge. And that's the great thing about hindsight, I can look back and talk about the structured way in which we approach this.
And, you know, but at the time, we were just really flying by the seat of our pants.
So the first thing we did do once the acquisition was announced, was get well, so from my point of view was to get all the technical leaders from from Linux Academy and from ACG.
And we got in a room together. Not in that room. Yeah, it was in Keller in Texas.
So that's where Linux Academy's head office had been. The engineering team was remote across the US.
And as you probably know, a cloud guru has been based in Melbourne since it was born.
So we all got to fly across the world and figure out what great barbecue looked like over in Texas.
So you get in a room, you're in front of a whiteboard.
Yeah, lots of whiteboard. There was some robust conversations.
So this is funny. I was feeling nervous about how it was going to go down.
I thought there's going to be a lot of fallout from the first meeting and was prepared to deal with that.
I thought there'd be a lot of competition, like, you know, we need to keep our bit of the swan.
And I actually found the opposite.
So it started off, each dev team went through their stack and spoke through, you know, drew architectural diagrams.
And then we spoke about the good parts and the bad parts.
Were your stacks even remotely similar? No, no.
In terms of technology choices, they were in terms of vertical slices of functionality and behavior.
So for example, you know, we each had course players and we each had content creation tools and such.
But Linux Academy really started as a Ruby on Rails job, whereas ECG was very much serverless, Node.js, React Finance and such.
So very different to the tech stack. And yeah, it was a very interesting exercise.
And what turned out to be quite interesting was it wasn't about, you know, the teams necessarily holding on to what they had.
It was like, who had the least amount of technical debt in that module?
And that's kind of where we went to.
So sometimes the conversation was actually, we've kind of let this piece rot.
Can we take your piece instead? And vice versa, which was great. That's awesome because not only is it good business sense, right?
You don't have to keep fixing something that's not great anyway.
But there's a lack of emotive kind of, it's my thing, I must have it that can kind of batter away at teams a bit.
What an awesome solution to that.
So once you picked, I guess, which modules you were keeping and which ones were just going to float off into the ether, then you had to write the code to join, glue everything together, right?
How did that go? Yeah, that was really interesting too.
So we formed teams that were cross-regional, so each squad.
So we actually pulled apart all of our engineering teams and we took a couple of people from each and we made this, what we call the one platform team.
So a lot of lead engineers from across both businesses and then we split into squads and they had, say, three Linux Academy people and three ACG people in each squad.
And then they worked together to try to bring the platforms together. So, you know, picking apart backends and joining them up to new frontends.
Yeah, it's been quite a wild ride, I would say.
Those are tricky problems to be solving and then adding into the mixed time zones.
I guess you had meetings all times of the day, did you?
Oh yeah, I'm used to getting up at 5.30am now and I never thought I'd say that.
So how long, where are you at in the process now? Is that integration complete?
Yeah, the integration is. It took us eight months and at the time, yeah, it felt like it was taking a long time but then when we stopped and reflected and we went, oh my goodness, we did this in eight months.
That's pretty phenomenal, I think.
Team were amazing. And once we'd done the integration, the fun started with data migration.
So how can we move all of our Linux Academy users over to the ACG platform?
And we're actually pretty much right in the middle of that at the moment.
So we've just migrated all our B2C users and our free community users and we're starting to look at migrating our organisations and our B2B users.
That's so impressive in terms of timing. It feels like a project that's really just kept momentum regardless.
What's been the biggest challenge with the migration process so far?
Cool. Well, yeah, there's been quite a few challenges. Probably the biggest one and perhaps one that we didn't expect to be quite so complex was the data around our users.
So we actually, it wasn't as simple as migrating users from one system to another.
Sometimes we had users on both platforms and sometimes they, one was a B2C user on one side and a B2B user on one side, or they could have been a paid user and a free user on one side.
So just the complexity of moving the data across was one thing, but also just trying to work out, well, how can we let people opt out?
How can we make sure that we're not bringing personal information over to an organisation's account if we're going to merge those two accounts together?
So the go-to-market teams and the legal teams worked really hard to help navigate that.
I love what you did there. So other people did that.
There's so much complexity there. I love that there was consideration of those things because I have seen personal accounts be merged into work accounts in that situation before.
People were like, no, no, that's not what I was looking for here.
So is there any, sorry, you go. I was just going to say one really important factor for us was making sure that the Linux Academy users had a really good experience on ACG.
So yeah, a lot of our, one of our guiding policies was how can we make this a seamless experience for those users to come across?
Yeah, if you come at it from that perspective, then you really consider all the edge cases as well.
I think sometimes there are a lot of edge cases. 80% of it was edge cases. Is it tracking along on a timeframe still this migration process that you're happy with?
Yeah, we're still flying through fairly quickly. Now that we've done all the B2C users and the free users, now we're uncovering the complexities of our business users, but we're hoping to have the whole thing wrapped up within two years of the acquisition.
So by the end of the year or, you know, as an engineer, I don't want to give you a timeframe, but we're hoping the majority of it is wrapped up by the end of the year.
Oh my gosh, that is a, I'm impressed with the whole, it's taken the leadership and the technical skills and the people from all the teams to pull this off.
It's quite impressive. Well done is all I have to say from over here.
But I did want to change perspective just a little bit. I know I've spent a lot of time in the last few weeks talking to different, quite senior people in technology in APAC, and a lot of my contacts have said, well, actually every conversation I have seems to fall into this little moment where someone goes, how's recruitment going for you?
And have you got any engineers? We're losing some, we're getting some, the market seems to be a little off its usual keel.
Have you been having similar conversations?
Yeah, the market's crazy at the moment. So a lot of people, and I've been speaking to my peers and a lot of people are finding that we've got high attrition at the moment.
And also that our engineers have been offered quite large sums to jump ship and go work for other companies.
And it doesn't seem like there's a lot of driver to stay anymore as well.
So yeah, it has been quite a challenge.
It seems to be completely across the board as well from people I've been talking to.
And I'm a very senior engineer who was let go early on when COVID first happened and we got locked down.
And my personal take is that the company that let him go made a knee-jerk reaction that they then went on to reject, sorry, went on to regret.
He went to a startup because he was really excited and doing a different kind of thing.
That startup got acquired and he went, oh, I don't want to be in a big organization again.
So I said to them, I'm going to leave. Like, no, there was nothing personal.
He goes, I just want to be in a small organization. And they offered him an extra, it was between 60 and 80K if he just stayed for another six months, like just a payment if he stayed so they could find someone else.
Have you heard anything that bonkers?
No, that's probably the most extreme. I've certainly seen a lot of people being offered wages that are outside of their capability, I would say.
So a lot of mid-level being offered very good wages that you would probably give to more like a principal engineer.
Yeah. I don't have a great solution to it.
And I'm still trying to work out in my mind where the situation came from.
And part of me goes, oh, some of the other companies that were really in office are now recruiting remotely, which changes the supply demand, particularly in Melbourne.
And I guess some international companies are also looking here a little bit more.
But I feel like that doesn't quite account for what's going on. Do you have any other insight into where all the engineers are going?
I also think that the fact that we were through lockdown for most of last year and the world was very uncertain.
Like, as you said, we had to change overnight how we did everything. We had candidates in the process that we used to have on-site interview process where people would come in and pair program with us for the day.
And that was just sort of the interview process.
And we had people lined up to come in the next day and went, well, OK, how are we going to do that remotely?
So it was a really strange time and unsettling.
So a lot of people who perhaps would have been looking to leave last year didn't.
So there was a lot of people that stayed around. And so that's resulted in this year when things are opening up a little bit more, people are a little bit more comfortable with remote.
It's much easier to look around and see what's out there.
Yeah, that's a really good point, actually. And I think, too, I've been quite vocal on this, partly because I used to teach a lot of juniors.
I think if organizations can and do support juniors and do it regularly, then they get a better pipeline coming through of people who know what they're doing.
But I also recognize it's really hard.
Your organization has to be of a size and have the capability to make that junior onboarding program work.
And it's gotten even harder with lockdown.
So I saw a whole heap of juniors coming in ready to go through that process.
And then the organizations they would have typically gone to went, we don't know how to do this remotely and we really don't want to do it badly and kind of just left them on the side because they didn't want to ruin it.
Do you look at doing supporting juniors or bringing them on yet?
I know you're actually too small to do that previously.
Yeah, so I'm also very passionate about this as well.
I think juniors bring a lot of diversity as well into the team. So if you're very senior heavy, sometimes people aren't really questioning assumptions or, you know, I also think that if someone has to teach someone else to do something, they can really think it through themselves and decide whether or not that's still the best way to go.
Yeah, I've run graduate programs in the past. So I'm a massive advocate for bringing juniors into our engineering teams.
We have very lean teams at ACG.
So three engineers and one dev lead who's sort of 50% on the tools.
So it means we can have a lot of juniors. And what we're looking to do is figure out, well, how do we actually get better at training up people that come in instead of having to hire in people with the skills already in place.
And that can take many forms, I guess.
As you're talking then, I was thinking that's not just actually taking juniors and upskilling them.
That's taking people that have just played with different tech stacks completely, right?
And giving them the space to come over and join in.
Is that kind of how it's being looked at? Yeah, that's also how we're approaching it now.
So people who have been senior on a completely different tech stack, yeah, they can bring a lot of great experiences, especially as we're trying to mature and we want to get some of the good, you know, non-functional requirements or site reliability practices in place.
They can bring that wealth of knowledge, even though they don't necessarily have React or Node experience.
I like that. It means you're looking outside of the typical box. Like it's not just a checklist of things that they must have.
You're looking for, I guess, a capacity and a willingness to learn and be part of the team, which opens up the world to a way more diverse team.
I think there's been this shift to remote work, particularly in Melbourne.
And I've always worked a little bit at home, a little bit in the office and really enjoyed it because I could separate the two things out and do, you know, at home days where that deep work of being productive.
Personally, I miss, I never want to be 100 % in the office, but I miss that office connection and the cultural aspects, right?
When you're hanging out in person and you have maybe a Wednesday lunch together or just coffee and like you hang out together with other humans and have those conversations and energy.
Do you think that now we're all remote, that employer-employee relationships becoming, I guess, a bit more transactional?
So it becomes pay me lots of money and I'll do the thing and don't pay me enough and I'll do less of the thing?
Is it becoming that broken, do you think? I don't see that necessarily.
I think we certainly have to be a lot more proactive about building those relationships now.
So where it could be a water cooler conversation or you might look over and say, oh, that person doesn't seem to be doing okay, maybe I'll just grab a coffee and see what's going on.
Now it has to be more deliberate. So lots of one-to-one meetings on Zoom, catching up with people more regularly, getting involved with some of their team activities, just to gauge how everybody's going and also proactively maybe taking surveys, some surveys going on at the moment, but how they're feeling and looking at things like the team health check a little bit more closely than perhaps we used to.
I agree, sometimes that health check, you go, oh yeah, cool, and it moves on, but I think we need to pay attention now.
Yeah, so I think you can do remote very well and a lot of companies have proven this is possible.
That's usually been off the back of relationships formed in person though.
So when you, perhaps you're remote and you can come together once a year or twice a year, whatever that looks like, and you can build those relationships that you can then use, but because of lockdown and the fact we can't travel, there's no way to create those foundations in person.
I think that's tricky.
Do you have some plans for that going forward? What are you hoping to do?
Well, since Linux Academy and ACD came together, we've been stirring our leadership team saying we want to get together in Hawaii.
I endorse this if anyone wants my opinion.
And I feel like the more we say it, the more it becomes reality.
No, not really. We've just been saying, for now, we're creating a lot of remote team building activities, like we do code retreats.
I'm looking at running a capture the flag or say a hackathon that's cross country.
But yeah, we'll have to wait and see when we can get everyone together in the future.
Those remote events and team building things, that's really intriguing.
Are you doing them in -house or do you outsource that to people that just specialize in that?
I should outsource.
So in my last role, I used to do a lot of this. I was more of a practices coach.
So I would work with different teams and help them with their engineering practices, which I absolutely loved.
And part of that was running larger events like this.
So yeah, I have been running them. I don't necessarily think I have capacity to do that.
So I'm gonna look at outsourcing them. Do you send out snacks as well and swag and fun stuff?
Like does it come? I'm excited. Well, because I'm organizing it, not so much.
Yeah. I try to keep it lean and agile and as simple as possible.
But we get a lot of that from our people and culture teams.
So they send out snack boxes quite regularly, which is great. Because that is, I know it sounds so silly, but that, you know, the fruit bowl in the work kitchen has so much value, right?
That you're still doing that remotely.
That's cool. People chat about the quality of the snacks and which ones they like.
Is there a list of things that you'll never be bought again? Controversial foods?
Probably some of the healthiest snack options. Yeah. We had a vegan cheese board once and it was really amazing.
And some bits you were like, I don't know if that's actually food.
That was a controversial one, different textures.
Hey, so one of the other things you do with your copious amounts of spare time is run a fabulous group that I get to be a part of.
Did you want to tell me a little bit about that?
Please. Yeah, sure. So I run a meetup group, which started in Melbourne and has expanded to Brisbane and Sydney as well.
It's called Tech Leading Ladies.
And what we really try to do is bridge the gender gap in the technical leadership team.
So making sure that women identifying people in our industry have the resources they need to manage their own career.
So maybe managing up or figuring out how to write a good resume or interviewing well.
Also, how do you just become a great tech leader?
So a lot of leadership, coaching and mentoring, helping people build high performing, resilient teams.
And the other side is large.
How do you run a technical organization? So some of the bigger overarching issues that you might face as you move up in the ranks of technical leadership.
So what motivated you to start that? Yeah, great question. Really, I suppose my own experience is not having something like that available as a software engineer.
I think it was probably about five years ago now. I was feeling like I hated my job and I didn't like being in software and I didn't really see what else was there for me.
So I started investigating, you know, what can you do when once you leave tech and started seeing articles that suggested that women were leaving tech after 10 years.
And I thought, that's interesting. That's me. So I started to dig into a bit more and found out about things like unconscious bias and, you know, all the stuff we've been talking about, pipeline problems.
And I looked around me and I realized in my group of 35 engineers, I was the only woman.
And I had been involved in recruiting all of those 35 people. So I had to realize that I had pipeline problems and also probably a fair amount of unconscious bias myself because of the industry I've been taught in.
And so I started internally in that company running initiatives to help us improve and to bring more women in.
And just like you say, like leaning into having juniors instead of seniors all the time and getting really good at training people and making sure that as they came in, their companies were, well, it was more inclusive for them and, you know, they wanted to be there and they wanted to stay and that they had access to the same mentoring and same opportunities as well.
And the birth of tech leading ladies, I suppose, came when I had some team lead roles available.
And I've actually been really successful in leveling the gender gap a little bit.
So we've gotten up to 33 percent by that stage. Phenomenal. It wasn't just me, there was, you know, there's a whole committee around it which did an amazing job, but none of the women were progressing.
So they all came in as sort of junior or mid-levels and they weren't getting into the senior or the leadership roles.
And so I had two team lead roles available at the time and we opened the application internally and not one of the women in the engineering space applied.
And so I set up a meeting and sort of went, why did you not apply? And what was really interesting was they all had a different reason.
A lot of, you know, self-limiting beliefs.
I'm not good enough. I don't look like a leader. I don't have the time because I'm raising children.
I have been told I'm not leadership material.
So, you know, all of these things are quite concerning. And from that, we created a coaching circle internally.
So the idea was that we would support each other and help each other.
And the good news story is that one of the senior engineers did apply for the team lead role and she was successful.
And she's still in that role today and loves it.
For the other, yeah. That's awesome.
So what I enjoy about it the most is on Slack, there's a channel called Coaching Questions.
And the advice is, I think sometimes in the space, we can end up just having nice, happy, you're doing great responses that aren't overly helpful.
And the coaching channel, you can ask a question and get some really useful, actionable, and sometimes quite frank feedback.
So I really love the space that you've created.
And I'm so thankful for you seeing a problem and going, oh, I can fix that.
And off you went. But I had one final question for you in our little chat today.
And it's a little weird, sideways, different direction vibe. What do you think the biggest myth in technology is?
Well, I think there's a lot. One would be that it's a solo sport, I would say.
I find the best software is created by really diverse software engineering teams.
And I would say if those teams are using activities like pair programming, it's even richer and even better.
I love that. And you're so right.
It's not a solo sport. It is very much a team sport. And if you do it in a team that represents the people that are using the product, then it can only be a whole heap better.
I love it. That was so succinct as well. You took that big thing and pulled it down into one.
I'd like to thank everyone out there for joining us today.
There's a whole heap to digest. We went in a few different directions, acquisitions, unicorns, migrations, recruitment, support groups, and solving the world's problems with tech.
So I look forward to seeing you all next week when we're going to start discussing privacy.