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.

Want more of these interviews delivered directly to your inbox? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

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: Mike Hamilton, Senior Customer Support Manager at FiscalNote

IMG_3423

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

_DSC4446

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.

 

Want more of these interviews delivered directly to your inbox? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Role Models: Bushra Mahmood, Principle UX Designer at Unity

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 10.48.36 AM

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.

 

Want more of these interviews delivered directly to your inbox? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Role Models: Morgane Santos, AR Engineer at Mapbox

Morgane Santos

Photo credit: Samuel Unéus

Today’s Role Model is Morgane Santos. She studied computer science at Berkeley and has worked in tech for about five years as both a web developer and designer. Morgane is currently an augmented reality (AR) engineer at Mapbox, a location data platform. Since she is around computers all day, she likes to hike, read, and otherwise avoid technology in her free time.

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

We don’t have official titles at Mapbox, but I’d call myself an AR engineer. I’ve been at Mapbox for just under a year and have been on two teams in the time. Prior to being an AR engineer, I worked on our Unity SDK (also as an engineer).

What attracted you to this role?

I’m really interested in the growing 3D space in tech, and knew I wanted a job in AR or VR (virtual reality). I was tired of working on websites and wanted a fresh challenge. AR and VR are still so new that no one’s an “expert” yet, which can be daunting but it also means *you* can be the trailblazer. A lot of AR/VR roles also combine design + development, which I enjoy; I don’t like just doing one or the other.

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’ve actually written about my day for our company blog before. You can check out the post here

tl;dr though, there is no typical day for me. I *can* tell you that my days are a mix of 3D math, coding, sketching out ideas on paper, and drinking a lot of tea. I keep a fairly traditional 9-to-5 schedule, eating lunch at noon and getting tea with coworkers around 3pm. I never stay late. I work from home maybe once or twice a week (which I prefer; I don’t like open offices at all). Every so often my job requires going to a conference, so I may be traveling for that.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

I’ve used a lot of different tech over the years, but this is what I use now: Xcode (we program in Swift on my team); Unity/C#; Git; Figma…

As for skills, I think the most important thing is to be curious and willing to see an idea through. In AR, there are no answers. There’s no book you can read that tells you exactly what works and what doesn’t. You have to come up with an idea, sketch it, prototype it, and build it yourself to learn if it was ever a good idea. Of course it helps to already be comfortable with math and programming, but the curiosity is ultimately much more important. Are you willing to learn? Are you willing to fail? Being comfortable with so much uncertainty and ambiguity has been critical to my success in this role.

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

I literally get to think of what could be cool in AR, and then I make it! This is a role with lots of freedom and room for experimentation. It’s really exciting coming up with the very first solution for something and learning by doing. It’s similar to playing with Legos as a kid: you have a visionary idea, you have some basic building blocks, and you just go for it. Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid to do this.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

Everything that makes it exciting: there are no answers. I can’t easily research how someone else has solved a certain problem. I definitely can’t anticipate most problems I encounter. The tech is also nascent, so the limitations of the software and hardware can be frustrating at times.

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 team’s fairly insular, but we do work with the sales, business, and marketing teams to better understand what potential/existing customers might want in the AR space, and how we can make that happen. We also collaborate with other engineering teams sometimes to create specialized AR experiences.

While I can’t talk too much about the work we do for customers, I can mention a more individual collaboration. Part of my job includes writing tutorials for how our SDKs work. In those cases, I work closely with our documentation team to make sure my instructions make sense and are easy to follow. People like Heather Stenson (who you interviewed!) are really instrumental here.

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

I like teaching and mentoring; I want to focus on how I can share my work with others and help them get more comfortable in AR/VR. I recently spoke at Nordic.design about how designers can get started in this space, and it’s something I look forward to continuing.

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

I’ve touched on this above, but I’ll say it again: curiosity and being comfortable with ambiguity.

I also want people who like collaborating and don’t have huge egos. My team is really supportive and kind; we judge each other’s *work*, not each other. I’d rather work with a “junior” person who’s thoughtful and excited to learn than a “senior” person who’s rude and stuck in their ways.

So how can you show that you’re curious, collaborative, and thoughtful? Maybe you have a few side projects that illustrate how you learned a new technology. Maybe you blog a lot about engineering or design. Maybe you volunteer somewhere on the weekends for a cause you really believe in. Maybe you have totally non-tech-related hobbies like learning a new language. I’m more interested in any of those facts than where someone went to school or if they’ve worked at a “famous” company before.

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

Being self-organized. I need to plan out my own work, including the metrics of success; I can’t rely on someone higher up telling me exactly what they need from me because no one knows what’s a reasonable ask in AR yet.

I’ve also gotten a lot better at understanding how people process 3D space, which is a cool perk of working in AR/VR.

In your role, what metrics define success?

Tangibly, it’s building a prototype/demo/app/whatever you want to call it that clearly communicates a certain idea. These demos are used by teams like the sales team to help convince customers to use Mapbox, specifically for AR.

Aside from the *business* success, we’re successful in our roles as long as we’re learning and honing our AR skills. The more we know about how to design and build something for AR, the better.

Want more of these interviews delivered directly to your inbox? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Role Models: Heather Stenson, Technical Writer at Mapbox

Heather Stetson is a technical writer for Mapbox

Today’s Role Model is Heather Stenson. Up until three ago, Heather was a librarian at an art school. Feeling burnt out and looking for her next step, she began to reflect. She enjoyed the more technical aspects of her librarian job and knew basic HTML and CSS, so she enrolled in a coding bootcamp. Upon graduation, she expected to look for a job as a developer, but a friend pointed her towards a technical writing role at Facebook. After researching the position, she realized that it was the perfect marriage of her library background and her newfound tech knowledge. Heather is currently a technical writer at Mapbox, a location data platform.

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

I’m a technical writer at Mapbox, a location data platform, and I’ve been here for about 8 months. Before that I worked as a hybrid tech writer/content strategist at a startup called CodeFights (now CodeSignal), and before that I was a tech writer at Facebook.

What attracted you to this role?

Mapbox is still a pretty small company, but its tool and product offerings are really wide ranging. I don’t like to work on just one thing, so the fact that I’d get to work on documentation for a lot of different products was really appealing. And the documentation team is really small – there are only two of us – so I knew that I’d have the opportunity to have a big impact on the organization. Even though the docs team is very small, there’s a really strong culture of documentation here. Everyone pitches in to make sure that our documentation is useful and thorough. It also helped that everyone I came into contact with at the company was super friendly.

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?

Mapbox has a lot of different offices spread out across the world – San Francisco, Washington DC, Minsk, Helsinki, Shanghai, Beijing, plus a lot of remote workers. Since we’re so distributed, we communicate a lot using Slack. We also use GitHub issues to coordinate a lot of work! So when I start my day, I check in on my Slack and GitHub notifications. I have keyword notifications set up so that I can always know when my coworkers are talking docs! I make a pretty detailed to-do list for each day so that I know what to focus on. Then I grab an almond milk latte and get to it.

I’m usually juggling several different projects, and if they have regular meetings/scrums I’ll join in on those so that I can keep track of what’s moving. If I’m just starting a big project, I try to have a meeting with the stakeholders (usually a combo of project managers and engineers) early on so that I can get a good sense of the project’s parameters.

I try to leave the office at least once a day to remind myself that there’s a whole world outside the office. At Mapbox, there’s a rich tradition of the“cookie walk” – folks taking some time in the afternoon to go grab a sweet treat – but sometimes it’ll be coffee instead.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

At every technical writing job I’ve had, the one constant skill that I’ve needed was being able to write markdown, a formatting syntax that can be converted to HTML. It’s the formatting syntax used in wikis, and it’s also pretty standard in a lot of documentation frameworks. Beyond that, it’s also been helpful that I know HTML/CSS. This allows me to have more control over how the documents I write are formatted.

At Mapbox, we use GitHub for everything, so it’s been critical for me to know how to use git and GitHub, and to feel comfortable doing things in the command line. Knowing how to “read” code is also useful – I can look at a snippet of code and get a sense for what it does, even if I don’t know the language it’s written in.

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

Every new product that I write about means another new toy that I get to learn how to use! Before I can write an effective guide or tutorial, I need to use the tool or product so that I can unearth potential user pain points and guide them to a good outcome.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

One of my biggest challenges is juggling lots of different projects at once. Docs never stop, so I usually have at least five projects that I can work on at any given time! It’s really important for me to be able to weigh something’s potential impact against the time required to complete the work, and prioritize accordingly.

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 documentation team at Mapbox works with nearly all of the product teams! When a new product is released, or a tool is updated, this means that we’ve got work to do. We typically collaborate with a combination of product managers and engineers when we’re working on documentation – they provide background, technical details, code examples, and just generally help guide the work we do. We also work really closely with the support team. Since they are constantly interacting with Mapbox users, they are able to identify ways in which we can improve our documentation.

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

Right now, we are in the process of moving to a new documentation framework that uses React. While I don’t need to know React in order to use the system, I’ll need to know it in order to build my own components! If I think of a cool new UI component that I’d like to be able to use across various documents, I really want to be able to build it myself.

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

Good technical writers are naturally curious people! They want to take things apart and see how they work, then share what they’ve learned with others. Being detail-oriented and organized are helpful as well.

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

I have a tendency to try to power through problems to find the questions myself. In some ways this is a good thing. But when the subject matter expert for the problem I’m working on is a mere Slack message away, a lot of times it doesn’t make sense for me to spend hours struggling with a question! So I’m getting better at timeboxing problems – if I don’t reach the answer myself in a reasonable amount of time, I reach out to someone who knows the answer.

In your role, what metrics define success?

As a team, we’re still working on defining what “success” for a piece of documentation is, and how we measure that. We’re exploring a lot of different ways to capture user feedback and user actions, and then turn that data into a way of measuring success. Anecdotally, though, we get a lot of feedback from different channels that people love our documentation and find it to be really helpful, so that’s a good way of knowing that we’re on the right track!

Want more of these interviews delivered directly to your inbox? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Role Models: Una Kravets, Direct of Product Design at Bustle Digital Group

Una Kravets, Director of Product Design at Bustle

Today’s Role Model is Una Kravets. Una is an international public speaker, technical writer, and the Director of Product Design at Bustle Digital Group, where she oversees UI/UX of Bustle, Elite Daily, Romper, and The Zoe Report. Una has written for various online publications such as A List Apart, 24 Ways, Smashing Magazine, and SitePoint, and started both the DC and Austin Sass Meetup groups. She also co-hosts the Toolsday developer podcast and has a Youtube video series which features videos about about life, fashion and tech.

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

I’m the Director of Product Design at Bustle Digital Group, and I’ve been here for 9 months (having started January 2018)

What attracted you to this role?

I was really interested in taking a more involved and overarching approach to product design in my next role (which led me here). I also loved that I get to work on the Engineering team and get to use my multidisciplinary background (in both design and web engineering) every day.

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 mostly designing via writing code during the day. I work on both large and small projects. Larger projects include redesigns, the visual aspects of product migrations, or ideating and building new products that will be used by designers and editors across properties. So when I’m doing this kind of work, I’m checking in with product management and stakeholders intermittently.

Some days though, I’m just fixing UI bugs, resolving support tickets, and making sure everything is in place. I don’t have a lot of meetings, but the meetings I do have, I try to keep short, concise, and end with an action item. Lunch is usually in the office, with the engineers getting together to chat and work in the same space for a little while.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Having a background in computer science and graphic design (I went to college for both) certainly helps. Continuing to learn web development as its evolved over the last couple of years has been important in keeping up with technologies and trends. Learning new interaction patterns and design trends is critical, as well as having a foundation of web accessibility and the render tree.

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

I feel like my role is generally very creative. Designing new features is just as creative as coming up with resolutions for bugs.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

Some of the projects I work on can involve complex visual systems. For example, a part of what I do is make sure every type of component works in every type of containing element, on every type of page, without breaking anywhere. With growing codebases, this becomes increasingly challenging.

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

I’m always working on improving my technical skills to make me a more effective developer across the stack. I think in today’s world, having the ability to code gives a designer a lot of power.

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

The ability to creatively solve problems and be organized is important. I use to-do lists to keep my life in order.

In your role, what metrics define success?

That really depends on the goal of the project! And the metrics that determine meeting the project goals are probably the most important. Time management and shipping on time play a key role as well.

Want more of these interviews delivered directly to your inbox? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Role Models: Trucy Phan, Senior Product Designer at Yello

Trucy Phan, Senior Product Designer at Yello

Today’s Role Model is Trucy Phan. Trucy is a self-taught designer and developer with Mechanical and Civil Systems engineering roots. She was born and raised in Iowa to Vietnamese immigrants, lived and worked in the Bay Area in California for 10 years, and just moved to Chicago last year. Some of her favorite things include: grocery shopping when traveling in other countries, handwritten cards, and koalas. Currently, Trucy a Senior Product Designer for Yello, a talent acquisition CRM.

Give me a quick summary of your career thus far. Where did you get your start? How do the dots connect to where you are today?

It’s hard to do a quick summary of 9 years but here we go:

  • After a year and a half doing odd jobs during the recession that hit in 2008, I finally got a job at a government research lab (LBL) doing energy efficiency analyses.
  • After that, I ran a company with a business partner for 4 years in San Francisco designing and building websites, apps and data visualizations for city planning and transit agencies. At that company, I was a designer, developer, and project manager.
  • In the last 5 years, I’ve worked for a handful of seed stage startups as their only full stack designer and front end developer, and working as a full-time product designer at larger startups.

If you want to hear more about each of these bullet points, I spent a lot of time detailing how I got into tech for The Techies Project!

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

I’m a Senior Product Designer at Yello and have been here for 7 months.

What attracted you to this role?

Yello had most of the things I was looking for when I was interviewing! Some of those were:

  • A data-heavy application with an abundance of design problems to solve
  • An existing design team (i.e. I wouldn’t be the only designer in-house)
  • A company without a robust design system (so I could help create and maintain one)
  • An existing product (i.e. not something with 0 users) that could be improved, since I had previously worked places that only had new features and few users to get feedback from

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?

Here is a sample of things I might do in a given day:

  • Sync up with engineers, my PM, and other designers as needed
  • Heads-down design time during which I might sketch, explore medium and high fidelity prototypes, or modify something in our pattern library
  • Participate in phone screens and onsite interviews for front end engineering, product manager, and product design candidates
  • Pair with another designer for an hour on a design problem
  • Give feedback to other designers on their work, and go through feedback left on mine
  • Chat with clients and summarize client feedback
  • Write surveys to send to clients

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Technologies: Outside of the normal suite of tools our company uses (Slack, Confluence, Jira, G Suite, Zoom, etc.) I love Figma. I use it for everything from designing, illustrating, prototyping, and dev handoff to maintaining a shared pattern library across our team and using their commenting and sharing features to collaborate with PMs, engineers, and other designers. If you’re a designer and haven’t used it, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s free, works in the browser and as a native app on any Mac or Windows computer.

Skills: Since designers at Yello are responsible for doing so many things: recruiting, user research, and full stack design (wireframing, info architecture, visual, interaction design/prototyping), time management and prioritization is crucial.

Work is fun if you’re curious and are also learning (not just in execution mode) so I try to investigate new tools and more exploratory designs when I can. A good designer can understand when to focus on the details and when to zoom out to get perspective, so I’m practicing that, too.

When it comes to people, being a nice person goes a long way, as well as being patient and having empathy for both your team members and the people who use the software.

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

I love talking to clients and getting feedback! I also love meeting other product designers over coffee, talking to them about what drives them, and seeing how I can help them in their career. When I’m designing, I love the exploration phase early on, and creating a functional, high fidelity prototype at the end. The middle stuff for me is like a bunch of crap and terrible ideas I’m embarrassed to show.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

I used to be the one who implemented my own designs, so if I changed my mind it was very quick and easy to change the code and push it to prod. The traditional designer/dev handoff happened in my head, so nothing was lost in translation. Now, I have to be a little more sure of a design before I give it to a developer to be built and iterated on, and be sure of what’s an exploration vs. more final.

I used to work in much smaller companies, where I would sit just a few feet away from the CEO, CTO, VP of Product, VP of Engineering, and customer support. At one particularly scrappy place, I literally shared a desk with the CTO. As a result, at those companies I usually felt like I always knew what was happening, and if I didn’t know, I was a quick conversation away from knowing.

Now, one of the challenges I’m facing is getting all the context and information I need across different departments from people who all have busy schedules and still feeling like I can move forward and make the right decisions without having all the information all the time.

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 cross functionally with engineers and my PM on a daily basis. At least once a week I might touch base with PMs on other teams, and people who work in our customer support group and sales.

Recruiting is a good example. Since designers help interview for front-end engineers, product managers and product designers, I’ll also chat accordingly with other engineers, other PMs, other designers, and our in-house recruiter to discuss each interview and align on interview guides, on-site questions, and post-interview discussions.

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

I want to become better at coming up with more design explorations in the beginning stages of a new feature, and better at interaction design. I want to spend more time exploring beyond what low hanging fruit is, or an MVP, and actually thinking about what an ideal user experience would be, starting with understanding a user’s journey and pain points instead of jumping right into nitty gritty high fidelity work. I’ve always had a more technical approach to design, so I think I could be better at stepping back to understand where a user is coming from a bit more.

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

An ideal product design candidate is able to take information — both quantitative and qualitative — and solve a user problem related to a company’s goals. Each design choice should be intentional, and always link back to the user.

It’s an overused term, but the ability to work in a cross functional team goes a long way. Knowing what strengths people bring to the table, understanding where someone is coming from when they disagree, and having fun are all important to me.

An ideal candidate also should be self-aware. How do your decisions impact your team? What about others at the company? How do your choices impact users?

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

Hands down, recruiting. I’ve interviewed so many candidates for Yello since I started, I’m getting better at assessing hard and soft skills of product designers in a way that’s fair to them (and more useful for us), which include coming up with better interview exercises that allow them to shine.

Hiring my own manager is something I never thought I would do either, but we definitely wrote a job req and created on-site interview exercises for that role. (P.S., if you want to be my manager you should apply!)

Lastly, I think I’m always going to be a huge advocate of changing ineffective tools and processes at each company I’m at, so I’m currently learning how to balance making others feel included in the process with also getting things done. What you don’t want, is too much change too fast, which could backfire because someone perceives it as a threat. But at the end of the day, we should all be working together because we’re all on the same team!

In your role, what metrics define success?

That depends. If it’s a new feature, is it being delivered on time? Is it sellable by the sales team? Do a greater number of prospects become customers after the launch of the feature, or do people fail to renew their contracts despite being given the new feature?

In terms of the recruiting we do, does a candidate accept the offer? How did they view their interview and on-boarding experience?

Yello was, and is, going through a lot of change, so it’s really exciting to be a part of that but also hard to measure success when all the variables and constraints are changing.

Want more of these interviews delivered directly to your inbox? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.