Cloudflare TV

This is What a Technologist Looks Like

Presented by Gretchen Scott, Linda Lai
Originally aired on 

From finance, to digital marketing to software engineer at Zendesk. Linda is another technologist who has taken a different pathway on their technical journey. We're looking forward to learning the details.


Transcript (Beta)

Hi, I'm Gretchen. You're listening to This is What a Technologist Looks Like. So we're doing a series of talks that go over six weeks.

And the whole idea is to show you what opportunities are actually available in the tech industry, what the people who hang out and spend all the time there are actually like, and how they got to where they are.

So very few of the people I've talked to have come through, gone through high school, got a computer science degree and gone straight out into the programming world.

There's many different ways to get there. And today, I'm talking to Linda.

She's gone from finance to digital marketing, and now software development.

Somehow she manages to find some spare time to help out with Muses.js and is actively involved in the community.

Thanks for getting up bright and early, Linda.

Thank you, Gretchen. Good to see you. So Linda, we've got, I mean, I've got so much to chat about with you.

So many questions to ask and so much to learn.

What do you currently do? Where do you work? And what is the job? Yeah, so currently, I'm an assistant software engineer at Zendesk.

I work in the web widget team.

So I work in a largely sort of like front end JavaScript team. And we work on sort of embeddable widget that sort of connects to all of our other apps that you see on all of our customer websites.

So the fun thing about like, I guess, working in that space as well is that there's like a tangible product that I can kind of point to my family members to actually try to explain to them what I do.

That's a great point, because so often, you're in tech and people go, what do you do?

And you're like, well, I can't show you. Yeah. And I do some stuff on a computer.

So your team's relatively big, isn't it? Relatively big. Or basically, it's split off from like one big team into like two smaller teams.

So a lot of the work that they've been doing has been like filling those out.

And we work pretty closely together.

So it's a good balance of engineers and like other teammates, but a pretty big team overall.

Oh, I love that point that you brought up. It's not just software engineers in your team, is it?

No, no. Tell me about the other people and what they do.

Yeah, I always actually really enjoy hearing about that, because like every company does a little bit differently.

And sometimes they'll have different names for some responsibilities that are shared over different roles, or it just really depends on like how a company decides to do like agile or how they decide to structure their teams.

So there isn't really like a clear distinction between like front end and back end.

Like you're pretty much like hired as a full stack engineer.

And you basically work in teams that basically work in entirely different stacks.

And some of them are more front end focused, some of them more back end focused.

Some of them are a mixture of the two. And you basically sort of have the opportunity to work with the team that you're working on and the domain that you're working on.

But there's never an expectation that you're purely working in either like one specific stack or one specific sort of area of focus.

Up until recently, we don't really have a distinction between QA testers and our DevOps engineers.

So, you know, everyone does a little bit of everything. You basically usually have like a product manager, you'll have a product designer, depending on the area that you're working on.

And then you put your team and tech leads.

So it's like a good mixture. Yeah, that is a good mixture of all the people involved and doing anything technical.

I think sometimes in my head, I separate it out so much.

I kind of feel like a software engineer and I don't know, a product manager or product designer don't ever cross paths again.

But it's not. I love how you've set it up.

So that's not true at all. You hang out together. It's good.

Yeah. Yeah. No, definitely. I think having them embedded in the same team means that sort of like constantly talking about the same problem, but just from a different perspective and you're all on the same page.

Otherwise, you lose so much time just trying to get like everything aligned in a really sort of asynchronous world.

And it's hard to kind of catch up retrospectively, right? So I guess in my head, I'm thinking that you build out your widget and cool, you put the button somewhere, but actually your product designer is like, no, that is not where the button went.

Backtrack. And you're like, I just spent three days. No. So it must have some efficiencies too, I'm assuming.

Certainly. Mostly because I think as well, like, you know, if like a lot of companies that you're sort of working at the scales and this is working out, like you make one decision and it isn't just sort of like one benign decision.

Like there's a huge amount of like consulting and huge amount of sort of like decision making that goes around like these very small decisions that impact a lot of different people.

So I think, yeah, you kind of realize that there's probably a good reason why some of these ideas have to be invented to that extent because there are just things that you're not going to be paying attention to that a product manager is sweating about at home.

Have you got an example of one of those little seemingly trivial things that you then learned was a big deal?

I think it's just like all of the sort of like classic kind of like gotchas and things like that.

Like a friend recently was talking about like deploying a change that, you know, was supposed to be like a CSS only, like it was a very, very small like bug or fix.

And, you know, it went out on a Friday afternoon, they were at work drinks and then they see their, you know, phone lighting up and realizing that even just like the seemingly most simple change is never like simple and how unfun it is to like spend your weekend or your Friday night trying to like debug something.

So I think stories like that, they're like a rite of passage, but they're also like good traps to avoid.

Very good traps to avoid.

So on a given day, how much time do you think you spend writing code? Struggling a little, like I think like that seems to also be like the main thing you hear when you talk to like people who are sort of like fairly new to the industry.

Because I think, you know, learning how to code is like so, is such a different abstraction from what the day-to -day actually looks like in a team, in a bigger company.

So, you know, you're often sort of like hacking away the problem or just trying to sit there and figure it out for yourself and just really sort of like persisting.

And I think that attitude really is important to actually make you enjoy it and to learn it enough and to figure out if you enjoy it enough on your own to want to like do it with other people.

But then once you kind of get into a job or into a team, it's much more collaborative.

Like you're not just sort of figuring things out by yourself.

Yeah, it becomes more of a team sport all of a sudden, right?

Yeah, no, it really does. Like I think just like the amount of like, like your ability to like ask for help, but also I guess just like, you know, you're often working on products or like problems that like take multiple, multiple people to actually solve.

And, you know, there's never really going to be like one problem that's necessarily going to be like only able to be solved by you.

These things have to be solved by many different people.

So, you kind of have to like think in terms of that kind of scale.

And I think that's also really nice. You kind of realize that there's no like, there's always like a bit of a safety net or it's never just falling onto like one person or one team to deliver.

It's not you holding everything up on one hand and balancing it.

And being expected to know how things work or knowing how to do things automatically.

Like there are all of these little assumptions that are built into like what we perceive that job to be that ultimately adds up to people just like never really like teasing that thread or like discovering like something else that they think they might be good at.

Is it really interesting point you brought up earlier around knowing when to ask for help or because I agree with you in that learning phase when you're learning how to write code, there very much is an encouragement for some tenacity and sticking with something and kind of pushing through it.

And I think that needs to happen to a point.

But then actually when you're in the, what the better skill I think you learn is when to stop doing that and when to start asking for help.

So, you can get a quicker answer or a better explanation.

Did you find that asking for help a tricky thing to do?

Because I think our school system doesn't encourage it the same.

Yeah, like definitely. And I think there are like a lot of workplaces that don't necessarily encourage that attitude of like freely admitting like what you don't know and then asking for help and like and things like that.

I think there's a big push for like self-sufficiency and resilience and grit.

And I think to a certain extent like that's true. Like I think you know going back to the whole like fixed and growth mindset like I'm not going to rehash it because it's like pretty well-trodden territory.

But I'm also really wary about like those kind of attitudes where you know people are sort of like told to either like to put up with like either toxic behaviors or behaviors that make them feel like really negative and like and to have low self-esteem.

Like I don't think self-hatred is like a effect like is a long-term motivator even if in the short term it can be something that like really pushes you and drives you.

It's not sustainable.

Yeah, and I think those kind of in those situations it does fall on like both people.

It falls onto like you know the person who's learning who has you know I guess a certain kind of like responsibility or accountability we have to take over their learning.

But at the same time I don't think it's just purely like a problem that they need to solve on their own as well.

If you're finding it hard to like to solve a problem whether it's because you don't know how to ask for help, whether it's because you don't know how to like articulate the questions that you want answered.

You know that you're completely new to your career but you have no guidance so that if someone's telling you generically to ask for help if you need anything, if you don't know what the questions are.

I know what I'm asking. That advice while really well-intentioned is not specific or helpful.

So I think there are also like things that people who are more experienced in the industry who'd like to who'd like helping more junior people can do.

And it's a real skill. Like I think it's something that like as many like engineers should try and learn because I don't think it should just fall on people who have good people skills, who are good teachers to always do that work.

But I do find that the people who advance pretty well in their career are people who are good at that sort of thing.

They're good at explaining things not just to engineers at their level but people who are not technical but very business-minded who have a pretty solid understanding of like pretty complex systems and behaviours but at the same time you know aren't engineers and you know have very different concerns and may say things that I don't know like that don't make immediate sense as to why they're asking but usually there's a pretty good reason behind it.

And like more junior people like. That's an art.

Yeah yeah absolutely and just like being able to teach juniors and mentor people well and explain your thinking to someone who doesn't understand the topic like you know it's really easy to get hung up on like the technically precise way of like doing things or defining things but if you can't explain it to someone who is less junior is more junior or someone who isn't from tech then I don't think you're doing your job very well.

Well I agree we have um you know famous scientists who can explain black holes to people with no science expert you know no knowledge in the domain so tech could start leading that leaning that way a little bit more I think.

I think so because like you know the people that we look to for like guidance in the software industry like I don't think they're people who were like are particularly like open about their view worlds but you kind of look at like the things that their platforms tolerate or like lack of activism in a lot of areas and that also speaks volumes.

It does indeed. I just wanted to go back a little bit to kind of how your work is at the moment and what you're doing.

Are you fully remote or are you in the office a little bit?

Um so I've been fully remote for like the better part of a year um so yeah as soon as like COVID hit we immediately sort of just transitioned to working from um working from home so we got a lot of like um you know nice little sort of like allowances and things to make sure that we like could really invest in a good setup um and then up until recently before Melbourne just had like a very short-term snap lockdown um I was doing about a day in the office a week and um moving forward we were kind of given the option to be fully remote or to do like a couple of days in the office and I opted for the latter and was doing that really happily.

What do what would be your favorite mix of of the work setup at the moment?

Yeah so my team at the moment like I really like how they structured it so we keep Wednesday as like a flow day um so when it's like a work from home day it means that you just try to minimize the meetings so everything's asynchronous and it just clouds out really big blocks of time to like work on things yeah and we try to respect that as much as possible um but at the same time like things do pop up but it's like a conscious effort to just try to like keep things manageable for people um and then when we were going back into the office the team was using that as a day to go in together and like have some team lunches have some team meetings um you know do some pairing um just basically make the most of like not being in the office and actually being able being able to get together.

I think um and we talked about this briefly before we started streaming around there's a going to be a time period of teams coming back together and it's going to feel not overly productive or not like unit producing but I think building that team cohesion can only make your team more productive that's that's my very vocal opinion what do you think?

Yeah no most definitely I think it's kind of like you know for so long extroverts have had it the best or like you know the world has really been like primed for them um so I think like taking a step back for the past couple years if you've been able to and you know you've been um like able to sort of focus more on like work and family and have and be in that kind of position to not be sort of struggling or worrying like I think you know that's always like um really that's yeah that's always really good.

I agree. Hey so I haven't actually talked about how or even asked about how you got into technology I know yeah you didn't at high school go cool I'm gonna go study maths or I want a PhD in computer science what what were you thinking when you're at high school?

Yeah like it's never a short answer when I try to explain this but like I never like I never would have pegged like you know when I was in high school I had all these very strongly opinionated ideas about like what I think I'd like to do but you kind of realized like now that they're not based on anything sort of like real or tangible but but at the time you have such a limited information that you're kind of just going off for like guidance counsellors, television and a little bit of like introspective, extraspective questioning of adults who you don't really trust to like you know fill out your answers and you know I chose my degrees because I couldn't really decide what I wanted to do so I did like an arts degree and a commerce degree which were like very broad business and like humanities degrees so I didn't really have to choose.

Non-decision I like it. Yeah I made like I've majored in like subjects that like I found interesting rather than I rather than like being necessarily like particularly useful or immediately kind of employable but it was just like a good balance of like just trying to learn for the sake of learning but also you know trying to learn I get I guess some areas about like how businesses work or how the world actually works which is why I kind of majored in like management and politics and sort of like very random kind of topics.

What was your favourite paper? Oh I wrote so many like random ones like I wrote ones about sort of like you know bioethics and like the human body and the international marketplace.

I wrote about like global terrorism and like you know the different contexts that it kind of springs from.

That's cool. Yeah really kind of random topics that were very interesting and then after I got out of uni like every job that I worked in was like wasn't qualified in that area like I didn't have a degree in that and you know you kind of just learn on the job so I did like accounting and I did marketing and I did a few other things but like all of that was just kind of like a training ground to kind of like figure out what I wanted to do and it wasn't until like very late into the game that like coding and software development sounded interesting.

You're saying very late in the game. You're still very young.

Yeah. Yeah no no I think it's just like I spent the majority of my 20s just trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and kind of knowing that I didn't really want to do what I was doing currently but not having not having any idea of like what that meant and it wasn't until like trying a bunch of different things that being a software developer started to like I actually started understood what that meant and that actually sounded very appealing to me but I never would have pegged like I don't know I had friends who were studying computer science at the time that I was in university and I never like it never attached to me as like that would be something that I would ever end up doing at all.

So you didn't feel like that was a space or a place you'd belong even though you knew people doing it?

Pretty much like I knew like all along I knew some people who had studied that I knew that those options were available but it didn't really seem like something that I would want to do and also because like I think like a lot of the guys that I knew doing it and they were guys, you know, they would kind of fit the typical profile of what you would think software developers are and you know they're like good friends of mine so that's not that's not like a negative against them at all but it just didn't really enforce any kind of like non-stereotypical ideas about who does it and what it involves and it being very heavy on math and all the usual kind of like things.

It's such an interesting concept the math part of it because like I studied a lot of math at university but have used very little of it day to day and part of that is because the math that's used a lot is really hard and there are crazy smart people that have written libraries that just pull in because there's no way I can write it better than them so it becomes this kind of moot point of a barrier to entry I think.

I think so because I think in computer science there are still areas that we're discovering but I think a lot of the like problems in terms of how they're explained from a mathematical perspective are largely problems that have like been solved or have solutions to them so I think like they do pop up in your day-to-day in the sense that like you know very occasionally like you know someone might point out like you know the performance runtime of like an algorithm so things like big O notation you know are helpful because you know it kind of gives context to that idea but at the same time like you know we understand you know those different kind of like problems so like you know engineers know this some of the solutions to them and how you deal with them rather than having to deeply understand the mathematics behind it.

I think if you're someone who really wants to nerd out and really like likes to dive into that like you can find articles or things to back up you know that that widely held view but I think from a mathematics perspective like I think it does play a role but it's also like not really an area that you need to solve necessarily to be able to work as a software developer.

Yeah it doesn't have to be a barrier to entry at the moment even if mentally it is.

Yeah like it sounds like it sounds really kind of trite because you see people writing code and you're wondering like what are you actually doing then because otherwise like you just see sort of things like magic when people sort of say like oh you're trying to like take real world problems and real life things and represent them in code it's like okay like until you actually show me like physically some code and what that actually looks like I still can't like connect it's more magical to me than when you were still talking about it in a more like yeah and that sort of like yeah you know what I thought it was just math basically.

So abstracted. So you were doing these other jobs and going yeah cool that's not the thing I want.

Do you feel like that was wasted time?

Um I think in the immediate here and now you that is wasted time because we're all very like impatient and we're all we've all got this like imagined trajectory of like how we think our lives are going to play out or like or like some sort of like deeply helded like uh life plan that we attached to ourselves like long ago when we were like you know and what success looks like right like in high school and yeah and all this sort of stuff um so I think like if that's really really hard to like let go um but at the same time like I you know looking at my trajectory I kind of realized like you know up until what three four years ago like it was just not something that I ever considered doing and it wasn't until I took a series of steps that you know that's what kind of like led me here and I think time and time again like in life you kind of just realize that the route to get to where you are now was never really like straight cut it was always very like zigzaggy um as so zigzaggy and and also like really a lot of it was really based on like luck and a little bit of sort of like you know um like fortuitous timing and things like that um you know yes when you decided you went okay so tech is a thing I'm going to go and start being involved in that what steps did you take to to change direction from what you were doing yeah so like for me like I think the great thing is that like tech is very egalitarian in the sense there are a lot of like resources out there to like to learn how to code for free that's it not everyone knows just like how readily available they are so it does require like either some connections or like a bit of adventure and like it's not particularly it's not super welcoming to people who are like who aren't in the loop with things I think once you're kind of in and involved in the community like it's kind of pretty active and it's pretty easy to follow along but I think like earlier on like yeah it's not really like something that you've kind of like considered and I think like you know um it's like you know boot camps are a really great entry point into like getting people like particularly career changes into the industry like quite fast um but but I think the important thing to emphasize is that you don't need to have done a boot camp or you don't need to have done these things necessarily but it is like a it is a competitive market out there at least when it comes to people who were like trying to sort of switch careers or trying to make that move I think there's a lot of like yeah marketing out there about like why it's a great industry and how many roles that there are and I definitely think that's true but I think um for junior developers like who are trying to sort of like get a foot in the door and distinguish themselves from other people who come from like quite similar backgrounds at least from the context of like I didn't know how to code you know x months ago I'm transitioning from like doing many different careers over the last like decade or x amount of years like I bring a lot of valuable like transferable skills but I need someone to give me a chance to let me kind of really develop and flourish and you know.

And isn't risk for an organization in many risk is the wrong word actually it's an investment from whoever takes a junior on because they start out knowing that you're not going to be producing anything probably for a year or so so they're investing time and effort from the rest of the team to bring you up to speed and teach you and and encourage you and support you and that's a that's a huge investment and I think great point that you brought up that the junior market's really competitive and COVID and lockdown made it even more so because the organizations that were doing a lot of um support for juniors were very aware that it's harder to do remotely and they didn't want to bring people on and and do it poorly and kind of scare them out of the out of the industry.

Would you have um I mean that was just a whole heap of statements but would you have any advice for a junior trying to get that first job or anything that you've seen that worked really well or kind of helped you stand out?

I mean so much of it is luck and timing but there's some other stuff.

Yeah um I think people always go on and on about like networking and I guess I'll co-sign to that just a little bit I think that's like near like almost near impossible to do nowadays with like COVID restrictions but I think you can go out of your way to just like start to build up relationships with people in the industry either from like like people who work at companies you admire or people whose trajectories you admire like I think you know just having those people kind of like to bat in your corner not necessarily that they're going to like get you a job but just like be able to sort of give you good advice and steer you kind of through the through the company well like I think that's really really important um but I suppose the other thing is just like for me like the code like I think I'm just trying to look at like the smartest ways where I can demonstrate my care or my like my care or like level of detail accordingly and to not try to do everything all at once so for me it was like getting involved in like the tech community and getting involved in like meetups and trying to sort of like either help organize them or to basically um to support those communities because it's something that I naturally enjoy doing I think like my enthusiasm for that really really shows but then when it comes to like writing code like I know that the code that I'm going to write being a really a real newbie to the industry is probably not never going to be very very good it's going to be very messy or it's going to be like relatively inefficient so I think rather than focusing too much on writing like doing things like that completely well off the bat I think do the best that you can and like you know try to make consistent and all that sort of stuff just like do things that demonstrate your like empathy for other people so like ask sort of important leading questions to make sure that you're explaining things well right right read me's because you can explain your thinking you can really like spell things out for the person who's assessing your code and they feel confident about your ability to communicate your ability to learn your ability to be self-aware about um your strengths and weaknesses like I think those are the things that show sort of like emotional maturity and that show sort of like people who are very open to being vulnerable who are used to sort of like um admitting that they're wrong and who have like strong opinions that are like loosely held I like that it's good so much um I think early on for me there was a part of me that viewed my code as part of me like and you need to learn to hold it loosely because a lot of it's going to be thrown away or it was probably a bit rubbish or you had a lot to learn and if you can hold it apart from yourself or aside from yourself you're way more open to the feedback and the changes and learning that was a tough one for me oh it's like such like it's really easy for you to like to think that in practice now once you've trained yourself to do that but I think earlier on like it's really hard to do that just when you're really early up but I think for women in particular like they really struggle with like if they're given a task that's like you know really complex or like or like or you know near impossible to mount either because of like imperfect information or just or just like the sheer scale of the task women will almost inevitably always sort of like blame themselves rather than like maybe rejecting like questioning the premise of the question or not realizing that it's like a it's deliberately vague in order to like tease out more like leading questions but you're sitting there feeling crappy about yourself because you don't realize if you think that it's something that you're expected to know or something that you expect to know how to do and really you know what they want to see is x and y yes so much that hey we've got time for one final question um and it's a bit of a loaded loaded one could go in any direction yeah what do you think the biggest myth about technology is right now um biggest myth that people have is that it's like benign or that it's like objective i think tech is basically a reflection of the people who make it like i'm not gonna like go expound the numerous research around like you know algorithms and how they code encode bias or just like the different like levels of like concerns that have that happen um in different teams but basically just that like the like it's guided by human beings at the end of the day who um like who basically build in their own like life experience and biases good and bad so um it's important to have diversity in people who are building them because um you know we live with the decisions that we see every day and if you read invisible women um you'll basically learn about all the different ways in which the world has not been designed for half of the world's population and one of my favorite lines out of that book because i've also read it starts off with women use cars wrong and so it's a great provocative topic to start from and it turns out they do because the cars were not made for them to use in the right way so so interesting um i love that that's not the answer i thought you were going to going to say and i'm going to need to stew on that one and contemplate yeah thank you everyone for coming along and listening

Thumbnail image for video "This is What a Technologist Looks Like"

This is What a Technologist Looks Like
What does a technologist actually look like? And, what is it they actually do?
Watch more episodes