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*APAC Heritage Month* This is Your Tech Leader Speaking

Presented by Gretchen Scott, Adel Smee
Originally aired on 

Adel is world famous in the Melbourne tech scene. Come along and hear what's new in her world.

APAC Heritage Month

Transcript (Beta)

Hi, I'm Gretchen. Thanks for joining us for today's session of This is your Technologist Speaking.

So this is a series of talks with local APAC industry leaders. And we've been lucky enough to curate a guest list that's filled with, I don't know, I just think they're spectacular humans that I get to spend time with.

But from Lonely Planet to Zendesk, today's guest has been continuously working on perfecting the special source of software development teams.

She is well known as having both technical and management skills.

And she takes actual true joy from ensuring that others succeed.

She's currently an engineering manager at Zendesk.

So welcome Adel Smee. Thanks, Gretchen. Lovely to be here. Adel, you've got drums.

I didn't know this about you. It's fabulous. I think everyone should have lockdown drums.

Highly amateur. That's my, I'm a solo drummer. My drum teacher said, do you want to join a band or do this and that?

I'm like, no, I just want to sit at home by myself.

I'm in hit stuff. Yeah, exactly. Sorry, that was completely off topic.

I'm just enamored with them. So I wanted to talk to you about a couple of different things in completely different directions today.

So let's start straight away with I know last year, I've talked to a few engineers at Zendesk in Melbourne.

You moved from in office work to working from home so quickly and so efficiently.

And it was done with a lot of care and consideration and people felt well set up.

They got the equipment they needed. It was all super fast and well supported.

What's happening now? Big picture.

This is how I've been thinking about it. Last year was the year we kind of, you know, went into the crash position.

We put our heads down and we just went, OK, we have to get through this.

And we got through it. Most of us, you know, most of us.

And now it's sort of, OK, what comes next? And I think this is where the real I don't even know what the this is where the trouble starts, I guess.

Right. You know, when we're in coping mode, then we just do what we need to do.

Now it's like, what is the world look like when we're forward? And so it's just a lot of conversations and a lot of questions.

And one of the things I really appreciate at Zendesk is there's as much as we can trying not to create certainty.

This is what it's going to be.

This is how it's going to be for you. This is, you know, because we don't know yet.

Right. And and the way that we had of working for, you know, Zendesk, I think 13 or 14 years, it doesn't apply anymore.

We had a really strong in-office culture.

Yeah. Now, obviously, we don't. So what comes next?

How do we recreate something like that? And it's hard because I know in the Melbourne scene, Zendesk was renowned for hosting meetups and having that in-person culture and connection.

And he was so well known in the community and everyone wanted to be there and be a part of it.

Even if you didn't work there, you felt like you were a part of Zendesk.

Can you even pretend to create that online or virtually?

That is a fantastic question. And actually, I was in our Melbourne managers meeting yesterday asking exactly that same question.

And I keep asking, keep asking it because obviously I was one of the people that, you know, was in that office and in our event space and welcoming people and meeting new people.

And I loved it.

And, you know, even if we look at the tech community and yes, there are still meetups happening and there's still connection, but it's what, maybe 5% of what it was, you know, two years ago, a year and a half ago.

So I don't think anyone's really cracked that yet.

And I wonder if, you know, one of the things that we used to attract people for and, you know, it was great is like people knew us as we're lovely.

And I love that, you know, people knew and we could show them that we didn't tell you can't tell someone you're lovely.

They come to your house and you give them beers and pizza and you have great conversations with them.

And then they're like, oh, Zendesk is lovely.

Now I wonder if we go to a world where in the absence of those cultural metrics, now people are just like, well, how much are you going to pay me?

And how often do I have to come into the office? And what's the technology stack?

And it purely becomes about the bits and pieces and not the connective tissue.

Yeah. I give you this, you give me that. And there's not a sense of belonging.

And I think, well, I know for me personally, lockdown took that away, that sense of community and being a part of a thing.

Yeah. I think you need that.

A hundred percent. And so here's the thing that I'm finding absolutely fascinating now, because I'm with you.

It turns out that building customer support software is fine.

I have no objections to it, but it was actually solving hard problems with lovely people.

That's what made me happy at work. And, you know, the drum kit is a force substitute for that.

But, you know, we again, we had this manager's meeting yesterday.

I don't know how many managers we are up to now in Melbourne.

It's got to be close to 50. It's nuts. And there's, you know, there was one manager that piped up and said, oh, you know, because we've started to open.

Well, we had started to open up the office until, thank you COVID. But, you know, one of the managers was saying his team was much more productive.

They were starting to come back into the office.

There was a lot more of that over the shoulder.

Hey, can you help me with this? Or do you know about that? Or let's work on this together.

You know, it was just, and productivity went through the roof. And then another manager piped up and said she saw the same, but when we went home, suddenly her team had all this focus time and they were working on it.

And so here's, you know, it's my question to the world, I guess.

I know you're supposed to be asking me questions, but like, you know, I know when I speak about missing the connective tissue and missing the people, I'm missing being in the office and missing all that stuff.

There's a whole bunch of people watching this. You're going to be going, don't you take away work from home for me, you know?

And so how do we create an inclusive, this is my real, I think the interesting question in tech management going forward, how do we create an environment that's inclusive for both those sets of people in a way that doesn't discriminate against one or the other?

How do we make it work, you know, for everybody? Can we make it work for everybody?

These are huge questions. I don't know. It is such a tricky question and it's one that tech can solve a little bit of, but not all of, right?

No. Yeah. Again, the information is exchanged.

The code is written, you know, that sort of, that happens, but there's, you know, my, my, again, another question is how much do the intangibles play a part?

Like I was literally just reading an article before I jumped on this morning because Google News knows that I am obsessed by this stuff about how Xerox hired anthropologists to work with their repair people on how to make their repair process more efficient.

And they realized that a lot of the troubleshooting actually happened in diners.

Like the repair folks would meet up for breakfast and they would talk about, I've got this tricky thing and blah, blah, blah.

And someone else would say, oh, well, have you tried this or maybe do that?

And that's where the problem solving happened. And so what is our equivalent in tech of, you know, a stack of pancakes, maple syrup?

It's an interesting thing because I've, well, for the last 10 years, always had some sort of a mixed model of working from home and working in the office.

And I've really loved that freedom.

But now I had this, whilst I know being around people, I get so much energy from that.

And I'm much better if I have that in my life. But I also have this absolute aversion to wasting my time commuting on public transport again.

And it's like, it's actually to the point of irrational. It's interesting as to where you put your, those kind of break points.

That's pushed me that much.

And I don't know why public transport is my one. That's yours. Have you tried it since?

Yes, it was. That's a whole story that would take half an hour. I got a train that got stuck in the tunnel.

And then I got a tram that got an unwell person on it.

And we got kicked off. And then I got another tram that I also got kicked off.

And then I had an Uber driver that got lost. The universe was like, stay home, just stay home.

But that's the thing. And in tech, you know, we are spoiled.

We are a spoiled cohort of people. And we're used to having our cake and eating it too.

And so can we create a world or who's going to be first? I don't like it thinking about it in terms of races, but to create a flexible enough system where you don't have to commute, and I don't have to work from my home.

And I don't know whatever it might be.

It's hard to because, you know, the initial simplistic responses are just make a team of the people that want to work from home, and they can work from home and just make that team that want to be in the office.

And that's fine.

Except if engineers are cogs, you can just move around like that. Yeah, that works well.

Ultimate group thing, right? You've just put personality types and one team building one product, you've kind of mitigated everything you've done to have diverse and inclusive work practices in one move.

Exactly. And then also what happens when you know, Zendesk is pretty big, like I've said, so we've got team A and B here in the office, and they go out to lunch together.

And they're talking about, oh, we could, you know, implement this solution to this dependency problem we have between us.

And then you've got team C that's all working from home, and they're not having those lunches.

Again, that's that connective tissue, right?

That's that all that implicit problem solving and implicit, I don't know, hard stuff.

We don't have that anymore. We don't. And how do we balance it?

I don't know. It is really complicated. I was just you're talking then I was thinking, I've been in organizations that are international, and that same gap of communication or knowledge happens across time zone.

So we have been practicing this for longer than we think.

But I don't think we've solved the time zone issue either.

Time zone issue. And let's face it, it's about influence, right?

I also work in a company that's run out of San Francisco. And that's where the decisions are ultimately.

I mean, I can do whatever I want. But they're the ones that are, you know, setting global direction.

And that's, you know, if you have someone's ear, and what we used to have is those folks were great.

They would fly out to Melbourne and Dublin and Copenhagen.

And, you know, all the very different other Montreal, all of our other engineering centers, and you would have that chance to make that connection, have those chats, talk about what was important to you.

Now, and it doesn't feel the same. You can have all the team meetings via zoom.

It doesn't doesn't quite do the thing. Yeah. I also read another article a year ago, and I'm, well, would have been slightly less than a year ago.

But I'm really interested to see it was one of those prognosticators. This is what's going to happen.

I've never been good at predicting the future. But they were saying, you know, if I, the barrier to entry to moving, just almost disappeared overnight.

So again, you talk about our lovely offices, if you were going to leave Zendesk, you'd have to leave our lovely offices, our beautiful snacks, the socialization, just everything to do with the company and the people and the work, of course.

Now, if I want to leave Zendesk, I log out of Zendesk Slack, and I log into Cloudflare Slack.

You know what I mean? The barrier to moving is tiny.

And we've started because it's gone on for so long. I know of people who are happy in their job, but they're not having the in office experience at all.

So I'm looking at seriously buying houses interstate and moving across the country and working remotely forever.

They've got zero intentions of going back to the office.

Yeah. And there's a, I think we've done, we're doing, you know, we're trying to listen to what the people want at Zendesk, and we're running a bunch of surveys.

And it seems, you know, nobody wants to come back into the office full time, pretty much, there might be one or two people.

Yeah, most of them are, you know, like us, I would imagine, right?

Like, I like three days in the office a day at home, but we all have our different, you know, magic number.

But there is a strong percentage of people, I can't remember what it is, at Zendesk, it's like, 40%, maybe that are like, No, I'm good.

Thanks. And they will move to the country.

And yeah, I wonder if it feels so far removed from what we've done forever, that if you've got a little taste of being in the office, you might go, Oh, yeah, it's actually quite nice.

Yeah. I like what we do. Yeah. Well, this is what we found coming back into the office is the first week or so is weird.

Everybody's in three dimensions.

I joined a new team in the middle of last year, and I've never actually been in a room with all of them.

And so now when I see that I've seen a couple of them in person, and my brain is like, taller.

Exactly. I'm a lot taller than everybody.

I didn't know that. Neither did they. Anyway. But it takes about a week or so to get over that.

And then and then it's just it's just well, again, I like working in the office, but it's a delight.

But I think there are people that won't put themselves through that first time.

And then of course, I want to call out to all our folks out there, you know, who might have social anxiety or who might have practical, you know, five kids, and it's just so much easier to work or whatever it might be.

Right. Like there's this is what I mean by true.

Yeah. How do we create an inclusive culture around this? It's really important question to answer because we want people's quality of life for a certain group of people has drastically increased during this time.

And it is on us if we can.

Right. We're in tech. We that's so true. We have given so much more opportunity to groups of people that we were not particularly good to all the time.

And back there either. I know, I've got children and the absolute flexibility with not commuting at all is just unbelievable.

It's, you know, it's a game changer, right?

I see that. Yeah, absolutely. You can sneak off to school assembly or an awards thing without it being, you know, a two hour chunk out of your day.

It's a 20 minute back. It's there's a beauty in that. But gosh, I miss change direction on this for a bit, because, but also, if anyone listening has a solution to this problem, let us know because clearly, we haven't got something built out just yet.

So Adele, you are so well known for supporting your team. And actually, I'd say just supporting anyone that kind of comes into your little orbit, you kind of suck them in and go, Hey, what about this?

Let me make your life a better place.

And I don't know if you realize how much you do that to people. So you did it to heaps of my students at Kota Academy, and they had nothing to offer you, but you offered them ideas and support and encouragement.

And it's unbelievable. But so you know a lot about career development and planning and how that how that all plays out.

You've seen it from every angle. So if I was a mid-level kind of engineer on your team, I was pretty competent at what I did, I thought I was ticking all the boxes.

And I want to move to a senior role with some leadership stuff.

Do I just keep doing the things I'm doing? Because I know I'm doing good work, right?

I'm writing good code. I'm doing the stuff. I'm ticking the boxes. Should I trust that my manager, whom I adore, is going to go that Gretchen's doing a great job.

Let's promote her and put next performance review. Is that how this works?

No. That's how it should work. I think I've been having a lot of career development conversations this year.

I wonder if it's one of the things that people are starting to feel more insecure about because they can't see the people around them every day.

Actually, they're operating more in a vacuum. Anyway, let's not go back to that.

Oh, I think I agree. But I think that one of the issues that I see with people over and over again is getting stuck in how it should work.

But it should, it should, it should, it should.

So first, I want to say, as a manager especially, the thing that I love most of all is when people tell me what they want.

How do you do that if you don't? Okay, let's say I came to you and said, Adele, I want your job.

Yeah. Great. Because I don't get to get promoted. I don't get to get promoted until I've got someone who's good, who can do my job.

Otherwise, my boss is going to be like, no, why would I?

You're doing well there, right?

Is that what you say to the person below you? Cool. Fill your job. Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Yeah. So I strongly, it is, it was one of my kind of middle ground manager lessons, I guess, is, you know, people coming to me and going, but you know that I want this.

And I'm like, why would I know that you've never said the words, right?

And people, you know, there are options in tech, right? You can go individual contributor track, you can go manager track.

We are getting better at Zendesk now at formally saying to our reports, what do you want, you know, so they don't have to start the conversation.

But again, that's how it should work. I want to talk about how it does work.

And the thing I want to say most of all to people with career development is you are the only one that cares about your career as much as you do.

Your company doesn't, no matter how lovely they are, your boss doesn't, no matter how lovely they are.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, you get to decide what you care about, what you want.

And then you may have to make decisions, hard decisions to go and get those things.

So first step, first step is tell people what you want.

And if you have a... What if you're a bit like, I think I want a bit of a promotion in this direction, kind of technical, but also I like helping people and making the team better.

What if you don't know? Yeah, sure.

And so this is where I say to folks, your first goal for yourself right now, I'm not talking about the future, I'm talking about today is be good at the job you have.

It is very hard to get any kind of promotion if you're not good at the job that you have.

Even if we can all see this person would probably be great over there. If they're not good over here, then it's much trickier.

Some people still do get the promotion, but it makes everyone else feel a bit upset.

So, you know, so be good at the job you have.

So, you know, if we're talking mid-level developer, and I want to go back to that one because that one is really, it's an interesting one, especially I talk to a lot of women as well, who may, you know, focus a little more on what we call the glue work.

Is that a phrase you think your people will know?

I think they will. Just to paraphrase glue is the stuff that holds everyone together, it's making sure your team's okay.

It's kind of keeping an eye on whose birthday it is and making sure everyone says happy birthday or not so much, you know, getting the cakes in the office because no one's in the office.

But that idea of supporting and bringing people together, which is actual work and takes time.

Yeah, it does. And again, in an online world, you know, I appreciate anyone who's doing glue work for me.

But, you know, that isn't the job of a software engineer, really.

There are other people in the team who can do that work, especially your manager, but the more senior people.

So as a software engineer, focus on being competent and producing quality code and being a good peer reviewer and understanding the tools.

You can't skip that step if that's where you are.

If you decide I want to go be a PM or I want to do something different, fine, this does not apply to you.

But I'm assuming you either want to go up the individual contributor track or the manager track.

Smaller companies, this advice might be slightly more skewed, but still, be good at the job you have.

So develop your technical skills, spend your time on that.

There will be time, this is the way I think of it, junior developers, we don't really want to let you loose without a bit of supervision because you don't know anything.

That's fine. Your job is to learn.

Mid-level developers should be competent in your sphere, whatever that is, right?

The things that you build and ship, the PR comments that you make, the design sessions you participate in, that is your, you should, you know, work on being an expert at that.

And then when you get to senior, that's when you look beyond yourself.

That's when you're like, OK, well, I've, you know, for a version, mastered this thing.

Now I'm going to help everyone else do it. So that isn't to say don't mentor and don't help other people and don't do stuff if you're a software engineer, but your primary focus needs to be good at that.

Don't skip that step because then it makes all the other steps much, much harder.

Or impossible even. I think just quickly back to the glue work, there is an assumption based, well, in Australia, I think there's an assumption based on gender that glue work will go to the woman in the team.

Yeah. Have you got any advice for how to say no to that or how to kind of push back on the unspoken or the actual explicit ask that you do the glue work?

Yeah. So again, I'll talk about the way it should work, but there's also the way it might work for you, right?

Which is different. So the way it should work is you should be able to sit your boss down and go, look, I find that, you know, I'm the one who's ending up with all the documentation cards and that's not really fair.

I would really like to be, you know, building out, you know, our Kafka connectors or whatever it is.

And that is something that hopefully your boss will hear in a world.

But what I say to, I actually had this conversation with a young lady two weeks ago, is like, if you're interested in that individual contributor track, if you feel like that's where you're tending and look, it can always change later on, you're not hurting yourself at all by doing this, but you are going to have to stand in your, in your place, right?

You are going to have to say, I am, you know, Adele, and I don't want to be a manager.

I have one of the best senior staff engineers I ever worked with, female engineer.

And she had to have that conversation three, four times a year, every year, because she was extremely strong, technically, she's also good with people.

And so she was constantly getting pulled to, are you sure you don't want to, and she's like, no, this is what I want to do.

So you may have to repeat that, record yourself saying it, make a sign, you know, and then the other thing I want to talk about super quickly is if things aren't working the way they should, if you sit down with your boss and say, hey, I'm doing all this, you know, basically spade work, that's not growing my technical skills, and the rest of the team isn't, can we please make it more fair?

And they look at you and go, but you're so good at it, of course, you know, or whatever it might be.

That's when you might need to look around. Because that's the other thing I want to say about all career development is you can't change how people feel about things.

So if the people responsible for your career development, don't feel the way about you that you need, they don't believe in you, they don't respect you, they don't see your special sparkly awesomeness, then that's where you may want to think about moving.

Oh, I really love this. And that you started with the, you're the only one that cares about your career to that degree, because it's right, it's, it's your responsibility to steer that ship.

And sometimes you have to steer it in a different direction.

And if I was talking to any other group of people, I wouldn't be able to talk like this.

But this is our privilege, right?

If you are miserable, and your boss doesn't appreciate you, and you're not getting the opportunities you need to grow your career.

Oh, my God, there's a lot of work around at the moment.

Seriously, go any like, I mean, I'm not on seek or any, but I just in in the slack channels, you're wearing a few slacks together, and the jobs coming through are exciting and interesting.

And there's a ton of them.

And, you know, that does mean yes, you're gonna have to do the awful thing, you're gonna have to interview, you know, don't apply for the first job somewhere where you're like, this is my dream job, apply for some companies get some practice under your belt.

It's not the same skill as the work you do every day.

I'm sorry, you'll know this and it sucks. But yeah, get some practice interviewing and then and then go get a job where people will see you for who you are.

And they will appreciate your skills and your talents. Because you don't have to stay in a lot of other industries right now a lot of other places in the world.

Take what work you can get. It is not true for us. And a little bit lucky and privileged, isn't it?

We really, really are. And also, here's my dream. And maybe I'm naive, I probably am.

But I always think if, if, if in tech, where we have such freedom to choose the cultures, not just the products, but the cultures that we want to support with our time and intelligence and expertise, we can weight this system towards those companies and those managers and those whatever that make us truly happy that look after us as human beings that don't treat us as cogs in the machine.

And hopefully, if we do it for us, then we bring a whole bunch of other folks with us.

Because you can't have like engineers that send us being treated like this.

And then the marketing team, you know, has to work 12 hours a day and, and, you know, doesn't get any cookies.

I love that. That is such a, I often struggle with that some tech is not done particularly well.

But you're right, we have, even as individuals, we have huge power in that.

We do. And if you're staying and supporting, you know, some of these awful things that we then I'm on Twitter.

You know, and you're like, you know, and I'm not and you're not leaving because you don't like interviewing.

reconsider that. Yeah, I had a CEO I worked for.

He's fabulous. He, and this is while I was working for him. We were sitting side by side.

And I go, Oh, I just got asked for a coffee, which is the ultimate tech euphemism for a job interview.

How you doing? He goes, Oh my God, go.

And I was like, sorry, what? And he goes, go. I was like, don't you want me here?

And he goes, that is not what I'm saying at all. Said you should always, always, always have every conversation and practice every interview, because it's the only way you get better at it.

Yeah. And then I understand because you want to. Yeah, exactly.

Exactly. Is there any tips and tricks you do have for preparing for interviews and that that process, particularly for I know you do a cultural interview and a technical interview?

Is there ways to be better at that? Yeah, so I'm a little bit Buddhist.

Not very good. I'm a little bit Buddhist. And one of the things that they like to say in where I learned Buddhism was that everything becomes less scary the more you do it.

Yeah, everything, everything. And I swear to God, interviewing, especially, I mean, it's a little bit easier over Zoom.

It's a little less stressful, I think.

But yeah, everything becomes less scary. So practice with your friends, apply to companies that you would never want to work for.

Am I allowed to say that?

Apply to Zendesk if you don't want to work for us. We'll put you through our interview process.

It'd be lovely to meet you, right? And you never know.

You never know what's going to happen. But you have to practice. If you spend all day writing code and then you get up the next day and you have to talk about writing code to people who are staring at you and judging you and you haven't practiced, you're going to suck at it.

I'm going to suck at it. We're all going to suck at it.

So practice. And this is where rubber ducking really does work, right?

You know, we're all picky. We're all good at picking holes in things. Look at some code you've written and go, Adele, why did you choose to put that inside that function?

Surely, you could have extracted that into its own class. You know, whatever, right?

Practice saying the words. There's a muscle memory involved. And if you're just doing thinking it in your head and it's not coming out of your mouth, you're not going to be able to do it smoothly when you've got a bunch of people staring at you and judging you.

And I think too, if you practice that, it takes away how personal it feels when someone is critiquing your code.

Like it just becomes an actual kind of factual statement.

It needs to be better. Hey, we've got time for one last quick question.

What do you think is the biggest myth in technology?

Oh, gosh, that's right. You did send me this question. I looked at it and went, I can't answer that.

I'm going to change this answer because normally I would have said that, you know, wheeled out the whole, oh, you've got to be a genius to be a coder.

But I'm going to, I'm going to expand that a little bit more because I was having a chat with my boss yesterday and he was talking about how computer science enrollments are not growing.

And, you know, there is a real elitism to what we do. And that pains me because I want to say to the people watching this who are not yet in the industry, there's good money here and you don't have to be a genius.

Like the kind of, I feel like it's a cultural gatekeeping.

I don't think you and I are standing at the gate keeping people out, but there is some kind of gatekeeping having people don't want to come into this.

I studied law at university. I know I'm earning more money.

Yeah, no, I'm not a lawyer. It's okay. But I know I'm learning more money now than I would have if I'd, if I'd gone down the law route, right?

Like, I don't understand why people aren't giving it a shot, right? You don't have to be good at maths.

You don't have to be a genius. You have to be persistent and bloody minded.

You have to want to worry away at a problem until three seconds.

So we're going to just have to say goodbye. We're going to stop right there.

Good luck, everybody.

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