Role Models: Diana Lopez, Digital Designer at Pixelswithin

Today’s Role Model is Diana Lopez. Diana is a self-taught freelance digital designer and developer. She specializes in web design, including marketing and UI/UX design, and web development. Throughout her career, including before and during full-time jobs, she freelanced because she eventually wanted to go down an entrepreneurial path. Diana spends her free time improving herself and her skills (largely through reading business, self-development, and technical books), traveling (last two trips were Japan and Hawaii), and side projects like Kawaii Tarot, a deck of cards and a mobile app she designed and developed.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I’m a freelancer so I don’t have an official title. I change it depending on what the client would prefer to call me. For example, I’m Software Developer to some clients while Web Designer to others. For what I call myself as head of my company, Pixelswithin, I switch from being Director to Principal to Consultant.

What attracted you to this role?

I like being a freelancer/consultant/entrepreneur because there’s no boundaries and really no one telling you what to do. If I want to solve a problem, there’s a variety of tools I can use, whether from a business, design, or whatever perspective. I have a lot of faith in myself as a figure-outter, so I like this role because there’s not a ceiling on what I can impact or earn. In the full-time roles I’ve had in the past, there was definitely a limit to how much I could impact (as a designer I couldn’t touch production code, things like that) as well as a salary limit.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

First I wake up at around 7AM. I go through my morning routine of getting ready, then a bit later, I do my bird’s morning routine. I take her out of her cage, feed her, all that. I make some coffee and, most of the time if I’m being honest, I browse Twitter or check my email while I finish that off. On some mornings I will write with an app called Cold Turkey Writer that locks you out of the rest of your computer until you hit your writing goal, in minutes or words. I write because knowing how to communicate your thoughts is key when you’re remote. Plus I’m a Virgo moon, so I’m obligated to write.

At this point, I check my calendar to see what tasks I have blocked off. I love calendar blocking! It takes so much off my mind. I do it often as “pre-work” so I don’t have to think about it. For projects, I’ll create a new calendar at the beginning and map out the project milestones and tasks to the deadline. For personal or miscellaneous events, I’ll do the calendar blocking thing the night before and a week out. For meetings, I’ll link people to my Calendly so they can find themselves a slot that works for both of us. Meetings are usually with stakeholders to discuss the beginnings of a milestone. (The rest of the process is over email.)

In a day, I’ll have client-side design tasks, such as user interviews or designing a few screens, and client-side development tasks like building out components. I’ll also have business development tasks like blogging or smoothing out processes, plus side project design or development tasks.

Lunch is around 1, or the time when I start getting unfocused and realize humans need food. I work about 6 hours a day, sometimes up to 9 if there’s a lot to do. At the end of the day, I’ll wind down with a book or something, but I’ll occasionally grab my laptop and touch some things up, especially on the business development side which really excites me when I have something good going.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Knowing how to learn and how to Google are probably the most important skills for me. I will sometimes get asked how I know so much about a topic, when the answer is I read a single book dedicated to it or just found one great overview article. Curiosity over a range of topics helps too because then I can connect dots across disciplines.

Dubsado is my project manager, CRM, and more that keeps me organized. I have a lot of little tools that help me in significant ways as well, such as TermHere (right-click to open a terminal in the current folder), Jumpcut (clipboard history—amazing while coding), Cloud (automatically uploads screenshots to cloud), and Sip (global eyedropper tool). For clients, RecordIt helps with easy-to-share screen recordings. I also like WriteMapper, a mind-mapping tool for creating documents—awesome for strategy thinking. I love single-focus tools like this for efficiency. I find these design and development tools largely through aggregators like Sidebar.io, Panda, ProductHunt, and Twitter. Twitter is indispensable for keeping up with design and tech news and people.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

Most of my job is super fun and creative for me because that’s how I set it up! Design & development is 8 out of 10 on that scale. Once the initial strategy (thinking and writing) is in place, the actual creative work is more about putting the pieces in the right place than being something like an artist. I do like putting care into the details, but you can’t get too “out there” when it comes to somebody else’s business.

Client relations and business development is a 9 out of 10 on the fun & creativity scale. Reading or otherwise getting more information on how to keep growing is super fun. As for creativity, I’m continuously tweaking my portfolio and onboarding & diagnosis processes so clients and prospects get the most value possible out of our interactions.

10 out of 10 would be those once in a blue moon rushes of inspiration to get a side project done and out into the world. Kawaii Tarot was one of those for example.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

Getting into situations where I myself am the bottleneck is a downer. Like when I want to write a blog post for my business but I have client work that is more urgent. I hear that delegating is the answer to this, but therein lie more challenges: finding people who are a good fit to help me plus working on being a good manager.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

I sometimes work with development teams as a contractor. The last time was at a tax software company, working on switching their main product from a Flash interface to React. It was an amazing experience because I got to work with people who were better than me at their particular thing. I learned so much. There’s also nothing like a team effort to make real big strides. And the Slack channel was fun!

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I am currently focusing on getting better at the branding & product thinking that comes before graphic or UI design. I looked over my portfolio and found that for clients, what I did for their product design was the game changer—not development and not making things pretty. So I am phasing development out of my offerings and going all-in on design thinking, even though I think I’ve gotten farther with development skills.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

Being able to bounce back from failures. Not being afraid to put yourself out there.

I think there’s a tendency to only try at things we know we’ll get a good result from, but with freelancing, anything worth doing is probably uncharted territory (if it weren’t, everyone would be doing it and then it would be “old news” or devoid of value) so you have to risk something… a lot of the time though, “risky” doesn’t mean risky like trying to do something illegal or dangerous. That’s different risk. Risky here probably means risk of losing face, being embarrassed, or looking like a failure. I think that’s what stops most people from pursuing a freelance lifestyle, not lack of time or anything.

That’s not to say lack of time is not a real problem you can have, but most of us, in this area of work at least, have a spare hour or two a day to watch Netflix or whatever, so we can theoretically use that time to build our own reputation or business. Not that there’s ANYTHING wrong with wanting to watch Netflix in your downtime (hey, you earned that!) but yeah, I would say freelancing takes a lot of confronting one’s own fear-based decision-making.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

My business skills. When I first started freelancing, I didn’t get the value of my work. I thought, well, I would probably be doing this anyway for fun so it’s not fair to charge more than what I need. Now I can see the bigger picture of where my services fit and can negotiate, price, and work accordingly. To be honest, my design and development skills fare better in a team environment. If there were a chart of when my skills have improved, there’d be clear spikes every time I got a full-time job. Getting better in that aspect is something I’ve sacrificed by being on my own. My master plan is to become a more valuable person overall though, not just as a pixel pusher, so that works for me!

In your role, what metrics define success?

The number of leads coming in through my portfolio OR word-of-mouth, the number of proposals accepted, and the profit I make on each project.

Role Models: Hope Pettway, Director of Program Management at Skillz

Today’s Role Model is Hope Pettway. Hope is the Director of Program Management at Skillz, which was named the fastest-growing company in America by Inc. Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in film and has spent over a decade working in the gaming industry – spanning the gamut from console to web and mobile, before transitioning to eSports.

Prior to Skillz, Hope worked at LucasArts and Zynga as a producer before transitioning into project management at Machine Zone. Today she can be found evaluating, refining, and establishing processes and best practices across a wide range of teams and projects. As a film, TV, and games fanatic, there is no doubting her passion for the industry!

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I’ve been the Director of Program Management at Skillz since February 2018. When I joined Skillz in August of 2016, I was a Senior Program Manager.

What attracted you to this role?

I was attracted to working on a platform that provided a different set of challenges than just working on specific games, which is what I spent the majority of my career doing. I wanted something where I could leverage my experience working in gaming, but also find new opportunities for growth – an eSports platform checked all those boxes, and I knew Skillz was the top company in this space.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

I get to work around 8:30 in the morning, which normally leaves me with about 30 minutes to update my to-do list, catch up on emails, and respond to Slack messages. As a general rule of thumb, mornings typically consist of team syncs and one-on-one meetings to ensure the goals for the day are clear and to help my team with any challenges. I break for lunch around 11:45, mostly to avoid long lines at the local food trucks or sandwich spot.

My afternoons vary between breakout sessions for brainstorms and blocking out time to work on hiring, project tracking/status review, and making sure we’re continuing to document best practices and processes. I also try to make myself available for people to come ask me questions about the latest releases and help remove any blockers for the team.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

I think the biggest skill has been being able to multi-task and keep multiple plates spinning – no two days are ever the same, which is why I love this role so much.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

I love building complex project timelines – it’s like putting together a 1000-piece puzzle. Everything has a place and needs to line up perfectly. I also love being around such creative, talented people that bring features we envision to life.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

The biggest challenge is balancing my day-to-day work while also thinking about the long-term strategy for the Program team. We’re growing fast here at Skillz, and my team needs to be focused on making sure we continue to be productive and efficient as we scale.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

I work with a number of cross-functional teams on a daily basis – it’s really the nature of my role. Typically I work with Product, Design, Engineering, and QA for features during development and then Marketing, Developer Success, and PR to get those features into the hands of our players and developers.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I’m currently working on my public speaking/presentation skills. It’s never really been my core area of focus, but as I progress in my career it’s becoming increasingly important that it comes naturally (and doesn’t stress me out).

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

I’d say that communication, organization, and passion are the most important personality traits for someone in my role. Every day you’re working with a lot of people in various disciplines who are all talking about the same things, but from different angles. The objective is to understand how to get everyone on the same page and focus on a single end goal.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

As a result of working at Skillz, I’ve gotten a lot better at automating my tracking and reporting. I used to think about everything on a very manual level. However, being the only Program Manager for my first year or so really forced me to get creative with spreadsheet customization and script formulas. I’ve also been able to work on my hiring and team building skills. I’ve had the opportunity to find, hire, and manage a great team and I’m looking forward to continuing to flex that muscle.

In your role, what metrics define success?

For me, it’s about not repeating the same mistake twice. This means being able to recognize what is working well and what needs to be adjusted. If the team is missing deadlines, my success is defined by working with them to understand what’s going on and creating a plan to fix it. Likewise, if we’re really hitting our stride and everything is working according to plan, I need to be able to recognize the things we’re doing right and replicate them again and again. At the end of the day, success is hitting the deadlines we set for ourselves.

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Role Models: Emily Withrow, Director of Quartz Bot Studio

Today’s Role Model is Emily Withrow. Emily is director of the Quartz Bot Studio, where she writes, designs, and builds narrative experiences for messaging and voice platforms. Her work examines how people and bots interact, and how to build meaningful relationships with audiences on these emerging platforms. She’s also faculty at Northwestern University, where she taught for six years prior to joining Quartz. Withrow spends much of her free time talking with robots, rock climbing, and researching recipes she will eventually abandon for nachos.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

My official title is “Director, Quartz Bot Studio.” I’ve been at the Bot Studio for almost two years, and in the director role for about six or seven months.

What attracted you to this role?

The mix, and the freedom. We’re a small team with a mandate to explore, which is an incredible thing. My job is a mix of writing, editing, design, observation, play, code, data/analytics, direction, and management. I get to exercise different parts of my brain, and I love it.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

My day really begins the night before. I review my calendar for the following day, and then write out everything I plan to do, hour by hour. I block off time for big-ticket items that will require a lot of attention, and I even write down what to eat for lunch and reminders to drink water. That way, I can follow a script and focus my decision-making on deeper work when I’m fresh. If I start my day by saying, “What should I do today?” I’m sunk.

So: My days always start with a Slack check-in with my team. I’m remote, so I post what I’m up to and read their statuses. From there I usually dive into a large task—this could be working on the conversation design for a new project, reviewing and giving feedback on a project proposal, putting together a project budget, editing a giant feature, or working on a prototype for something more experimental.

My meetings are typically stacked on Tuesdays—one-on-ones with people on my team, strategy meetings, pitch meetings. Lunch, I totally shut down and eat without a screen (unless it’s our team lunches on Wednesdays!) and often read a book. This is crucial because the rest of my day is spent looking at a screen.

Afternoons I typically reserve for more creative work—writing and editing, building. Sometimes things are derailed by an urgent issue—something’s broken or not functioning as expected, etc. Then I help triage and troubleshoot. I typically check email twice a day, beginning and end, and respond.

I keep water-tight boundaries on home vs. work, so when I log off, I stay off until the next day. (There are periods in which this is not possible, of course, but mostly it works!)

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Creative problem-solving, killer observational powers, and a can-figure-it-out attitude. There’s nothing I love more than hard problems with no obvious answers. The learning curve for me, therefore, over my career, has been a slowww understanding that not every difficult problem is one that needs me, or one that advances the ball. So that means getting choosier and more strategic about what problems I work on over time.

That, and my path has been paved by picking up new tools or technologies when I’m curious about them. Understanding the guts of something is quite powerful. You understand the thing’s potential and limitations, and when everything breaks, you’re more useful.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

Literally all of it. Our team is amazing, and I’m constantly inspired.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

I think it’s continuing to fight the easiest answer. (Note that I’m not saying simplest. Easiest.)

Working in a new space means you’re working so hard to find good answers. When you find one, it’s hard to resist the urge to keep doing that one thing—to rest and repeat the solution you found. But this field is also constantly evolving, so there’s a real danger in not continuing to push your thinking forward, or to revisit things you’d rejected before.

And of course, as you form opinions, you become less open to other ideas. So I think that’s the main challenge—constantly checking myself to make sure I’m finding fresh ways to look at the problem, and to really listen and observe.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

Our core team is already a crazy mix of people, so that’s a daily for me, in terms of interaction with design/creative/editorial/product/analytics/etc. And then of course we have a commercial arm, so I’m also working with our business development and sales teams.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I’m always working on truly listening, and on giving and receiving better feedback.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

It’s hard to know where to start, but I think the largest bucket is around communication—understanding your audience and writing/speaking directly to them, both in the work we do, and in how we frame our work.

The second would be around how to function in a remote role, and how to best balance a demanding job with an active personal life.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

Thoughtfulness, high analytical/critical function, unbound curiosity and enthusiasm for the unknown.

In your role, what metrics define success?

I think if we’re doing it right, everyone feels comfortable putting out new ideas, giving open feedback, and jumping into new projects. Failure would mean people are holding onto their thoughts.

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Role Models: Sarah Withee, Software Engineer Generalist at Arcadia.io

Today’s Role Model is Sarah Withee. Sarah is a software engineering generalist for the data pipeline team at Arcadia.io. She recently relocated for the job to Pittsburgh, PA, after living in Missouri for her whole life. At her job, she works on the odds and ends of each project and is the “glue” that holds the other components together. Outside of work, she’s an international tech conference speaker, a teacher and mentor for a variety of organizations that teach people to code. In addition, she’s a robot and hardware tinkerer and conference organizer. Sarah is currently the Director of Programming for Abstractions, a technical conference that will be held in August 2019.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

At my current job, I’m a Software Engineer Generalist.

I tend to summarize my job by saying I’m a Polyglot Software Engineer (as in multiple programming language-speaking).

What attracted you to this role?

After a couple of jobs that weren’t as mentally fulfilling to me, as well as wanting a location change, I started looking for jobs across the country. A friend brought this role to my attention, and the requirements originally seemed like a lot of tech I had never used. I interviewed anyway, and they liked me; they saw I had a resume of all sorts of random projects in different fields and tech stacks. They figured if I could learn the tech, then I’d be great for the team. I haven’t worked on the same type of thing more than a few months and it’s been fun to jump around every so often.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

My team is a “local remote” team, basically meaning we’re local to the office (in Pittsburgh), but we work 4 days a week wherever. I typically worked in a co-working space that I liked the people in. My day usually starts with a standup status meeting around 10:30am, then we go about our tasks. Sometimes if we’re stuck or need two brains on a task, we’ll pair program together (usually over video chat with screen sharing).

We have a meeting every two weeks to go over our work, reflect on what went well or poorly in those weeks; then we plan out the next two weeks. For the most part though, we don’t have a lot of meetings. Lunch is usually whenever we feel like it, but I end to head out between 1pm and 2pm.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Problem solving is a HUGE must-have with the type of work I do. I’ve always loved logic and math puzzles, so software engineering has been great at that. While learning specific programming languages helps, knowing more how programming concepts work and how good systems are built helps more because I can learn languages and frameworks to suit the task at hand.

Communication, especially for remote-based teams, is a really important skill, too. We want to be quiet, but when you’re not always face-to-face with the people you work with, you have to speak up more so everyone’s up to date with what everyone else is doing.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

One of the difficult parts of being the generalist on the team is the ramp-up time to working on a new part of the project. It means several days of working but really having nothing to show for it while research and learning is going on.

However, after I’m up to speed and I understand what I’m working on, seeing it finally work and plug in with the rest of the project just makes me excited. And knowing that I really am being the glue that’s holding the other parts of the system together makes me feel not just creative but important.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

The more obvious challenge is the actual learning. I didn’t really know much devops going into this role, but I was thrown in and ended up Dockerizing one of our products, figuring out how to set up some message queues on Amazon Web Services, and writing some Terraform scripts to automatically deploy and scale some services. I learned Scala despite not knowing it when i got started (turns out it is a lot like Haskell, a language I used in college). And in general just the learning curve of a lot of new things is a challenge.

The less obvious challenge is the mental task. My coworkers were very regularly completing stories/tasks daily, and I wasn’t. It felt very unproductive, despite knowing I was actually working and actually contributing to the team. My manager was great though and regularly reminded me that he was aware of my work, even of my daily status updates weren’t nearly as full as my teammates’.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

For the most part, our project is sort of independent of other teams’ work, and so we didn’t have to work with many others. We are building a data pipeline though, and that pipeline sends that data off somewhere, so there was some consultation with another team to make sure they could take in the data we were sending along.

We also had a security audit at one point and one part of our software resulted in several bugs or security issues we had to fix. We ended up working with a consultancy group to try to fix those rather quickly so we could get back to our main work.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

When I joined our team, most of the architecture had been designed already, so it our job to implement it. I really would love to be able to get back to not just working at the small daily tasks but helping design larger systems. I had a lot more involvement on these kinds of things in the past, and haven’t at my last job and this one yet. I would love to have a larger role in that and get more experience as well.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

If you want to be a software engineer, definitely an enjoyment of taking large tasks and breaking them into smaller ones and building those. Also being able to look at a task and seeing it as a set of math or logic steps. That’s the building blocks of programming: taking something rather complicated and breaking it down into really small, simplistic instructions for a computer to do. Once you learn the core concepts of programming, and have used a language or two to do them, I think you’re suited for most programming roles.

If you want to be more of a generalist, I think there has to be some deep desire to always be learning and always want to be experimenting with new things. I used to think this made me feel lazy or look like I’m constantly bored with my job, but I learned that’s some of the key aspects of multi-potentialites (also known as polymaths). They are someone with many interests and creative pursuits, and don’t have a “true calling” per se. And that’s kind of been me: I will never stop wanting to learn new things in tech. So this sort of role was perfect for me, and hopefully for some readers out there too.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

Technically, I learned all sorts of things about DevOps, or learning how to automate software deployments and systems with code. I knew a tiny drop before, and now I believe I could probably automate about anything I work on by myself. I feel like I was what I’ll refer to as “classically trained” in computer science, so I learned all the tried-and-true things that people have worked on for decades. But at this job, I had to start becoming what I’ll call “modernly trained,” so learning about web-specific tech and for software designed to scale really well. It’s not things I learned in school but have been immensely helpful.

More personally, I’ve been learning how I work, and how to build an environment that fosters my own productivity. I learned in past jobs that sitting my butt in a chair from 9am to 5pm isn’t productive at all. I feel like I get, at most, maybe 4 hours of work from that. I work better doing some work, taking a break, doing some more.

The problem is that as a remote team member, there’s no expectation to be somewhere at a certain time. I am my own willpower here. So it’s taken some time to figure this out. During the first two months, I hadn’t yet moved to my new city, so I worked remote in a different time zone than my coworkers. When I moved, things got a bit easier, but it’s still really on me to get myself going in the morning.

In your role, what metrics define success?

It’s interesting because I haven’t had a lot of “greenfield” development (as in building things from scratch) in my past, and so when you’re building something new, metrics are hard to define until more of the thing is built. One big metric was being able to take our project into production, which we’re about to do soon.

Another metric, I’d say, is being able to hit a “start” button (if you will) and watch all the pieces get deployed out automatically to the cloud, then just start working. The more pieces we could get working, the better we knew our whole system was generally working since we were still building all of them.

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Role Models: Kate Caldwell, Software Engineer at RateBeer

Today’s Role Model is Kate Caldwell. Kate pivoted into software engineering after starting her career in the publishing industry. Having worked in the tech industry for a few years now, she’s been thrilled the similarities between working on a written project like a novel and building software: both require an initial vision, a flexibility in approach, a dogged work ethic, and the ability to willingly seek out and incorporate feedback into your work.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I’m a Software Engineer working to re-platform legacy features into a new web application for RateBeer. I started as a contractor in the summer of 2017, and then the company extended a full-time offer to me in the fall of 2017.

What attracted you to this role?

This role stood out to me during the interview process because of the challenges of the product and the people I would get to work with as we tackled them head on.


Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

On a day that’s largely left uninterrupted by meetings, I pretty much work on engineering tickets by writing code the whole day (with breaks to each lunch and grab coffee and mull over particularly complex problems by stretching my legs). Our engineering sprints are two weeks in length, so every other week we have a few meetings to wrap up and prepare for the upcoming couple weeks (e.g. ticket grooming, demo, retrospective)

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Because up until quite recently I’ve been the sole engineer focused on building out a web application for the product, I spend most of my day writing React Components in Javascript. If I ever come across a problem I’m not sure how to solve on my own, I’ll often start Googling and end up somewhere like Stack Overflow or a helpful blog post.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

I love working closely with the design and product team to prototype and build out a feature quickly. Since my job is specifically focused on re-platforming legacy code into the new React codebase, I’ve gotten to build up the complexity of the repository over time which is has been a fun challenge.


What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

The product that I work on has a group of very dedicated power users who have been experts on the platform for years. As we try to build features we need to balance the needs of these expert users with the needs of more casual users we’re trying to court to expand the reach of the product.


What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

The product that I work on is pretty self-contained, so I don’t really work with other teams in the company. Within the team itself we’re rather specialized to a particular part of the stack (so for me that’s the web front end). We are very friendly and collegial to each other, always willing to answer questions someone may have, but as the owner of my sphere of work I’m expected to be able to speak to it and answer technical questions to product managers and other engineers.


What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I’ve become really specialized in the specific part of the product that I work on, so for my next challenge I’d like to work on a team where there’s a bit more cross-functional work happening.


Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

I’ve found that communication and project management skills are essential to my role. Oddly enough, my background as an account manager in academic publishing prepared for a whole part of my role I didn’t anticipate when I started.


What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

I’ve learned a ton on the engineering side, since this has been my first full-time engineering role. I got the opportunity to build a web application from scratch, so every single step of that journey has been a huge learning experience!


In your role, what metrics define success?

We have a bunch of different sets of targets. Some come from a pretty corporate level, and some we set for ourselves. Knowing what success looks like for our team is actually something I’d say has been somewhat of a challenge for our team since there are so many different stakeholders with different priorities internally. I feel most successful when I build a feature and get it to market and users start using it and responding to what we’ve built.


Role Models: Brook Shelley, Senior Partner Engineer at Slack

brook shelley

Today’s Role Model is Brook Shelley. Brook lives in Emeryville, CA, with her cat, Snorri, and works for Slack. Her writing has appeared in Queer Quarrels, The Toast, Lean Out, Transfigure, and the Oregon Journal of the Humanities. She speaks at conferences on queer and trans issues, and is chair of the board of Basic Rights Oregon. She loves reading, traveling, and eating bacon. Currently, she works as a Senior Partner Engineer for Slack, a cloud-based set of proprietary team collaboration tools and services.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

Senior Partner Engineer since October—Senior Developer Relations Engineer before that.

What attracted you to this role?

I love helping other engineers and developers build cool stuff, answer hard questions, and make a platform better.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

My day usually starts at around 8 am, when I make breakfast and catch the bus across the bay to work. I try to have my first meetings at 9:30 am so I have some time to settle, and spend the bus ride catching up on email or reading a book. Between meetings about projects, or talking to partners, and working on documentation or answering partner messages my mornings go by quickly. Lunch is around noon, and I often eat with coworkers or teammates but try to talk about non-work stuff. I usually have a few big projects in flight at once, so status meetings and coordination with our business and engineering groups is a big part of my week.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Project management and time management are huge in my role, and every role I’ve had. Overall priorities get set by leadership, but it’s my responsibility to determine how I accomplish them. Knowing how to collaborate, and also when to enter Do Not Disturb and write or work on a project is important. Technology-wise, I use Slack a lot for work, as well as Javascript, Markdown, Atom (my IDE), and api.slack.com.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

When I’m solving a challenge for a partner, or testing a new API feature, I often get to make a silly bot. I recently made one that responds as my cat to various queries to test some our Conversation and Events API.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

Getting to the heart of the question. Often when partners ask about Slack API features, or integrations, it’s vital to get to the layers of questions, and help steer them towards their goals. Knowing best practices, and having a quick-recall of various capabilities is a must.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

My team works with our business development group, engineering, and many other teams. Since we help partners integrate with and build on Slack’s Platform, we talk to most of the company at some point.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I started recently at Slack, so my next few months is still settling-in, and learning how best to fit in to an incredible, growing company. In the future, I’d love to move further into leadership, or mentor more engineers.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

Partner Engineering rewards folks who can think on their feet, communicate clearly, organize themselves, and work with many groups at once. Someone who enjoys a shifting role, and shaping the future of partner applications and of a platform would be a great fit. I think DevRel and Partner Engineering are also great fits for tinkerers and puzzle-solvers. Personally I find it helpful to know memes, and have favorite emoji.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

My communication skills have gotten even better due to this work, and so has my bravery at speaking up when I know something. Folks depending on me for answers means I need to be confident, but also know when to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” and “I was wrong”. I’m much better at building bots now than when I started off, and I’ve gotten even better talking in front of a crowd as well.

In your role, what metrics define success?

More than 155,000 weekly active developers build for Slack Platform, more than 8.8 million apps have been installed and 90 percent of paid teams use apps. Success for me is seeing those numbers grow, and ensuring the apps our partners build are helpful, fun, and amazing.

Role Models: Rebecca Poulson, Technical Program Manager, Emerging Platforms at Northwestern University

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Today’s Role Model is Rebecca Poulson. Rebecca studied art history and creative writing in college and then spent her early career writing and directing plays. She found herself being drawn towards technology enabled experiences and interactives and then started coding more seriously, working as an engineer at Kickstarter for a couple years. In her current role leading AR/VR projects in the journalism school at Northwestern, she gets to combine her background in technology and storytelling. Rebecca also speaks at conferences (she gave WebVR workshops on three continents last year) and enjoys cooking, knitting and playing with her dog.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

Technical Program Manager, Emerging Platforms at Northwestern University Knight Lab. I’ve been at the Knight Lab for 2.5 years and I started my current role in March 2017.

What attracted you to this role?

When I started at Knight Lab I was a web developer who did VR stuff as a hobby. I was lucky to join at a time when the lab’s interest and investment in VR was growing. About six months into my time at the lab, one of the faculty members I worked with really championed me. We were able to design a role that took advantage of my interdisciplinary background and combined coding, design and student engagement.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

I bring breakfast from home and eat it at my desk while answering emails first thing in the morning. (This period is the only time I look at my work email.) I like to do quiet focussed work in the morning and I like to start my day by learning something new.  After email, I’ll read a paper or watch a talk about AR or VR. Following that time, I might be investigating a new library or prototyping tool or debugging student work. At the beginning of the school year, I was doing a lot of interviewing and hiring. Before lunch I try to do a little planning work, pulling potential readings, adding comments to Trello cards for the projects I manage or getting things together for upcoming events.

I take lunch around 1-1:30, which is apparently “very New York” of me. Most of my colleagues eat earlier. I try to take a walk around campus if the weather’s nice or do a little bit of knitting. I try to do most of my “peopling” work after lunch. Two days a week that’s leading a project in our Knight Lab: Studio class; the rest of the time it’s checking in on the student fellows I manage. I’m usually out shortly after five but sometimes I shift my time so I come in later in the morning and leave around 7pm since it can be tough to coordinate a group of students when you’re only available 9-5.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Technically, I alternate between web projects which use Javascript and projects that use the Unity game engine, where I write code in C#. I also do a lot  of research and information design and mentorship.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

I love working with student fellows on experimental AR/VR projects. When I design a project for the fellows, I approach it from a place of “Okay, these are the technologies and techniques I’m interested in exploring; these are the skills and interests my student team has; and these are the experiences they need to acquire to be ready for the kind of jobs they want.” Those are really inspiring constraints to build around.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

The breadth. My role is really multidisciplinary, which is why I love it, but it’s really demanding to maintain such a broad skillset.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

The big tent pole project for our lab is the Knight Lab: Studio course, a multidisciplinary course that runs every quarter. It’s team taught by a journalism professor and a computer science professor and I and the other staff developers act as project leads. Before registration, we all pitch projects that we want to work on and then we open applications to assemble cross-functional teams made up of students all across the university. We just opened applications for winter quarter where I’m running two AR projects–one is a user research project where we’re play-testing an AR game about climate change, and the other is a prototyping project where we’re reimagining what different storytelling forms might look like in AR.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

I’m trying to be more strategic. In a role like mine it’s really easy to be like, “Ooh, shiny!” and start exploring something new. I’m trying to have more big-picture vision and purpose to the things my team works on.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

The ability to be self-directed and learn new things. A high tolerance for ambiguity and willingness to fail. Also the ability to persuade people that they’re capable of things that sound kinda crazy comes in handy.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

I used to struggle with feeling like my work had to be perfect before I showed it to anyone and I’ve really had to work on that in this job. Emerging technology moves so quickly that by the time you’ve done anything, there’s a better and faster way to do it. You can’t afford to be precious.

In your role, what metrics define success?

I don’t really have a quantifiable definition of success–which can be both liberating and anxiety inducing. I definitely consider any project we ship or research findings we can share out to be success. I also get really happy when students bring their parents in to the lab to try out VR.

Role Models: Mike Hamilton, Senior Customer Support Manager at FiscalNote

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Today’s Role Model is Mike Hamilton. Mike always preferred opportunities to work with people, especially when he got to teach or make something better. He initially pursued a career in public education but took a detour to a call center.  While working in that call center, he discovered that he could do the work he enjoyed in environments besides a classroom. That insight let him to his current role and inspired him to continue learning and evolving throughout his professional life. Currently, Mike is a Senior Customer Support Manager at FiscalNote, a DC-based software, data, and media company.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I am a Senior Customer Support Manager. I’ve been this particular role for a little over a year, with an additional 6 months of prior experience in a junior role at FiscalNote.

What attracted you to this role?

I get to help people solve problems and learn every day. Moreover, my role is highly interdisciplinary and allows me to flex skills in both client-facing and technical fields.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

I start my day with a team meeting in which all members of customer support identify our priorities for the day and quickly discuss any recent or impending developments. Throughout the day, I keep a window for Zendesk and a window for Slack open so I can communicate with customers and colleagues. Through those applications, I field questions about bugs and data as well as product feedback, training, or administrative concerns. I communicate with engineers or product managers through Slack or Jira to align on technical requirements for projects and updates. I attend weekly meetings to track the analytics of customer-facing resources and to stay on top of new developments with the company’s products.

 

Lunch is usually between 12 and 2. I tend to eat at my desk so I can catch up on work or read the news, but occasionally I’ll pull up a chair at a table with colleagues.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

I started using Zendesk in September 2014, and it remains the center of my work. It’s an awesome tool for managing relationships with customers because it’s incredibly customizable with great technical documentation that explains any task. It also just feels fun to use the software and watch conversations evolve from requests to solutions. My time in a call center opened my mind to working in customer support and refined the communication/analytical skills I developed for public education. Zendesk was my gateway to applying new technology to customer support. I’m using a lot of different software today, but Zendesk remains my favorite tool.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

My role is incredibly flexible, and I get to try something new every day. I might be helping an important client resolve a question. I might write content for our Help Center or manage an integration that will enhance the my team’s operations. I can start conversations with people across the company, from salespeople to engineers and peers to VPs, about key initiatives or projects. Never a dull moment!

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

How I spend the most valuable resource – time! In support, a lot comes at me and everything can feel urgent. Keeping a to-do list is key. I try to get as much information as I can about the requirements and priorities for the things I’m working on so that I can separate the important-and-urgent from the important-but-not-urgent. Some things have to get done ASAP, and some things need to go to the back burner for a bit.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

Customer Support touches a lot of different teams across the company, from Sales and Account Management to Product and Engineering. For example, I receive product feedback from clients and it’s my job to make sure that feedback gets to the attention of the Product team. One time, after receiving a significant amount of feedback from a particular client in a short timespan, I connected with a colleague in Product and we determined that we needed to get a better sense of that client’s workflow. We both did research and held a meeting with a colleague from our Professional Services team who we knew was very familiar with the client. The information we gathered informed the way the Product team could prioritize development to fulfill the client’s most important feedback, and it helped me devise a workaround that the client could use in the meantime.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

Using SQL. Our software products involve a lot of data, and sometimes I need to find something for a client. There are times when I need to ask a data manager or an engineer for help with complex queries. My goal is to become more independent so I can turnaround queries quickly. Moreover, SQL is pretty fascinating.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

Patience: Sometimes it can take a while to get to the bottom of a problem.

Creativity: Everyone perceives technology in different ways, so it’s important to find ways to engage everyone.

Attention to detail: Gathering as much information as possible about a problem greatly contributes to a speedy resolution. This means I ask customers a lot of questions, including specific directions as necessary. “What’s the browser you are using? What version? Does a hard refresh help? What’s the operating system of your machine? What page were you on when that happened? Could you hover over that icon, then click on the menu option that’s second from the top?”

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

Before I started working in tech, I never opened Excel or Google Sheets. I found formulas to be intimidating and mysterious. Fortunately, I have had bosses who sensed this was an area for improvement and steadily assigned me work to ramp up my skills. At first, I got coaching whenever I hit a stumbling block.

 

But then I learned where to go online for resources and I felt comfortable practicing independently. After a while, I started using spreadsheets outside of work to organize data in my personal life. Now, VLOOKUP and CONCATENATE are tools I used everyday. While I still have a lot more to learn, I feel empowered to go after more spreadsheet knowledge.

In your role, what metrics define success?

First Reply Time (FRT): The difference between the time at which a customer opens a conversation with me in Zendesk and the time at which I send a message back to the customer. A low time is desirable since it signals that I am highly responsive.

 

Customer Satisfaction (CSAT): After I conclude a conversation with a customer, Zendesk sends a simple survey that the customer may complete. They can rate my customer service as “Good” or “Bad” and leave qualitative feedback. Zendesk converts and aggregates the feedback to a percentage. My benchmark is that 97% of customers who complete the survey rate my service as “Good.”

Role Models: Maria Schreiber, Solutions Engineer at Algolia

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Today’s Role Model is Maria Schreiber. Before entering the tech industry, Maria was a high school biology teacher who sometimes also taught math.  She had dabbled in web development starting in middle school when she made her own websites and took computer science classes in high school.  Inspired by some of her students who curious about coding, she began taking online classes in web dev and data science before attending the Grace Hopper Program, a coding bootcamp for women. Maria is currently a Solutions Engineer at Algolia, a company offering a web search product through a SaaS model.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I’ve been a solutions engineer at Algolia for a bit over a year now.

What attracted you to this role?

When I was looking for new job opportunities I was focused on traditional engineering roles.  But when someone from Algolia reached out to me about my current role and shared this blog post, I was intrigued.  I hadn’t actually heard of client-facing engineering positions before, and it seemed like a great use of my old and new skill sets: education and communication as well as coding.  It didn’t hurt that I had used the product before (we’re a hosted search API) at a hackathon and loved it.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

As the previous blog posts suggests, this is truly a role where every day is different. Some days I have back-to-back meetings with prospects and clients and others I might be able to spend several hours heads-down in a project — either building out a demo for a client or writing content for broader educational purposes, etc.  Usually it’s some mix of the two. Other than work dealing with prospects or clients, we have weekly meetings with the entire solutions team (we’re spread out in 4 time zones), bi-weekly meetings per region, and monthly meetings with product managers. It’s a very intersectional role. Lunchtime is whenever it works. 🙂

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Being a polyglot, or at least experienced and/or interested in multiple different technologies across the tech stack is necessary.  My role is to help vet out and convince the technical buyers that our product is a good fit for their tech stack and search needs. It’s impossible to do my job without being familiar with both back-end and front-end tech.. I also help customers integrate our technology into their products, which can mean helping with debugging or sometimes writing code snippets for them.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

I actually really enjoy when a customer comes to me with a difficult problem or something that seems on the edge of our product functionality.  It’s fun to brainstorm and come up with a solution — either with the product as it currently is, or through making a feature request.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

Prioritization and time management can be very challenging in this role.  Objectives are not as clear cut as in traditional engineering roles. You can get pulled in many different directions, so it’s a constant challenge to think about how my time will be used most effectively.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

When working on an account, I always have a business counterpart — that’s Account Executives (sales people) for prospects and Customer Success Managers for customers.  They are the ones to handle the overall relationship while I focus on the technical side of things. In addition to that work, I collaborate with product managers and core engineers to give them insights into the issues our customers are facing to help inform the product roadmap.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

While I am learning about many different aspects of tech at a broad level, it’s been hard to grow a deep knowledge about any particular tech.  I’ve been trying to set aside more time to do that, and my manager has been supportive, but it’s still hard to prioritize that kind of learning when it there are more pressing matters or quick wins at hand.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

Being adaptable, self-motivated, and good at communication are key for this role.  Communication is key for any role, but in this one, it is make it or break it. Being able to break down technical concepts and explain them to people of varying degrees of technical expertise is something I do on a daily basis.  Adaptability is important because of the multiple different hats that people in our role wear, and self-motivation and direction is key for anyone working in a startup. I also work in a satellite office, so I’m not in the same place as my manager, which means that I have to be more autonomous.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

I thought that I was a good time manager before this role, but I’ve definitely improved on that front.  It’s as much a function of the role as it is the stage of the company I work for. We’re a start-up in a hyper-growth phase and there are so many possible things you could be working on, it’s been important to take a step back and prioritize what will have the greatest impact.

In your role, what metrics define success?

At the end of the day, customer empowerment and success means that I have been successful.  Indirectly, my contribution to long term projects such as revisiting the hiring process for solutions engineers is also a demonstration of success.

 

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Role Models: Bushra Mahmood, Principle UX Designer at Unity

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Today’s Role Model is Bushra Mahmood. Bushra got her start in tech nearly a decade ago working in motion graphics and visual effects. She produced punk shows in Canada and worked on documentaries as a teen, which is where she developed her design and motion skills. She started doing motion graphics for advertising agencies and then gradually moved into product design. Bushra led design at a fintech startup that was acquired by Goldman Sachs and then moved to San Francisco to work for Adobe.

At Adobe, Bushra worked on several tools ranging from Dimension, Premiere Rush, After Effects and Project Aero. Bushra recently moved to a new role at Unity Technologies working in the Labs team. In her free time, she likes to hang out with her dog, write, study languages and work on her 3D art.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I am a principal designer in the advanced UX team at Unity Technologies. I have been at Unity since July of this year.

What attracted you to this role?

During my time at Adobe, I became obsessed over the idea of making tools for real-time content authoring. In my research, I had found that Unity was the go-to software for nearly every engineer and researcher working in emerging tech. When the opportunity arose, I couldn’t resist the chance to be a part of the company that is already starting to shape the future.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

I’m usually one of the first people into the office, getting in at around 6 am. I find that I do most of my best work in the morning without any distractions. During a product cycle, I have presentations that I give to stakeholders at the end of each week, and this lets me evenly distribute my workload into three stages.

I spend the first stage researching and sketching. Once I have a good idea or concept, I then go into prototyping and try to produce several variations. I spend the second stage doing check-ins to make sure there is alignment amongst the team. I work with some brilliant minds, so I always make time to collect feedback and iterate. This stage is also usually the longest and the most unpredictable.

The third stage is the final presentation in which I always have a deliverable that can be shared and documented.

I also always make time for lunch at noon, having an early day would be impossible without a mid-day recharge.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

My motion and 3D skills have been monumental in my career trajectory. They gave me the confidence to explore and discover non-traditional design paradigms. My entry into augmented reality was a lot less daunting because I understood how to composite video. My tools of choice have always been Keynote, After Effects and Cinema 4D. I feel empowered to do anything with these three tools under my belt. All of these tools deal with motion and interactivity in some capacity; this then allows me to communicate much more effectively.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

My current role involves predicting what the future might hold for creatives. I find myself continually navigating uncharted territories and dealing with a lot of ambiguity. My purpose, in a nutshell, is to understand and minimize complexities wherever I can. I love taking vague or difficult ideas and breaking them down into something more digestible for a broader audience. I aspire to make mediums like motion and 3D less daunting for any user.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

The biggest challenge that I face in my role is not having enough concrete data on which to base assumptions. In our research, we often find that the user is not even aware that they may have a problem that needs solving.  

The speed at which technology evolves can also feel daunting. Trying to stay focused but also pursuing innovation is a balancing act that can get tricky fast.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

My team works alongside several other groups within the company. We work on early research and help with product definition, as well as prototyping and experimenting with emerging UX and UI patterns for new mediums.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your role?

Although I have been enjoying the role of an individual contributor, I’ve started to become more interested in leadership roles. I feel lucky that Unity offers training to anyone who wishes to learn and pursue a leadership role and I plan to take full advantage of that opportunity.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

Gaming can be a grueling medium that requires a lot of love for the craft. In turn, the field attracts people who genuinely care about the medium. I get the opportunity to work with industry veterans who are still as excited about what they do now as they were on their first days.

The leadership in my team puts a lot of trust in us and champions a healthy work environment which has in turn made me much more patient. Being more patient has dramatically improved the quality of my work and overall productivity.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

The ability to write, present and communicate are often more valuable than the technical skills themselves. These skills help create understanding and alignment across groups which in turn extend the life of your ideas.

In your role, what metrics define success?

Success is a difficult metric to define when building for the future. There are always things out of our hands that can change the trajectory of a product overnight. The most valuable takeaway from an experimental project is what can be learned and then applied in a practical situation. Proper documentation and case studies become valuable for teams that may otherwise not have the time to experiment.

 

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