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You Can Go Your Own Way: Navigating Your Own Career Path



Erin Schnabel shares what she learned in the course of her journey to Distinguished Engineer, sharing insights and ideas that can be used to find and shape opportunities and create a career.


Erin Schnabel is a Distinguished Engineer and maker of things at Red Hat. She is a Java Champion, with over 25 years under her belt as a developer, technical leader, architect and advocate, and she strongly prefers being up to her elbows in code. Erin learns (and teaches) by coding ridiculous things, like "Monster Combat".

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Schnabel: My name is Erin Schnabel. I'm here to talk to you about going your way and navigating your own career path, the one that works for you. I'm a developer of things at Red Hat. I made Quarkus [gestures to the I made Quarkus 3.0 T-shirt]. I was an IBMer for 21 years. I'm a Java champion, a distinguished engineer at Red Hat. I prefer building absolutely ridiculous things.

Career Trajectory

I'm not sure how you thought about your career when you got started. Did you think about it as a path that just happened, maybe with some bends? Did you think about it as a timeboxed thing? If I've been here for two years, I should be getting promoted. Then maybe three years after that, and then maybe five years after that, and it just should progress that way. Or you could have been a little bit more like me, I cannot say that I thought about it right away. When I did, I can't say that I saw a single path. I did have to learn along the way not to compare my path with other paths. It was a difficult lesson to learn sometimes. You really want to keep up with the Joneses in a way, as they say. You want to keep pace with your peers. They're getting promoted, how come I'm not getting promoted? That's not me necessarily missing something every time, sometimes I know somebody else is thinking about that, because I got promoted. I have to say, with where I am now, that's a recipe for sadness, don't do that. Your path is your path. You have things outside of work. You have things inside of work. You have family things, other stuff going on, your own pace. Choose your own pace, and then achieve your goals as that dictates. Do what's right for the whole of you and don't worry about what your peers are doing. Because hopefully they're doing what's right for them, and that pace may be different, and that's ok.

The Great Reflection

A lot of these thoughts also gelled during what I call the great reflection. That's the COVID era. My move from IBM to Red Hat was over 2019 into 2020. It really happened in May of 2020, which is right when everything shut down. I found that being at home with my kids at home and my husband at home, it gave me a place to be like, what am I doing? I don't think I'm alone in that. I think that happened to a lot of people. You really got to check in with yourself, like, why am I doing this? I also learned because I had been at IBM, I knew it was going to happen, but it really did hurt to leave. Leaving, especially as I got to the other side, helped me really unpack what I was carrying. Relationships that exist for that long, you get baggage from them. They mean something to you, and that can bring feelings of obligation, and then you can feel guilt on leaving. Maybe not you maybe some of you. I really got the chance to unpack that and understand where that came from and to realize how self-imposed that was, and that emotional connection. I feel very strongly about connection with others. I hadn't fully appreciated the extra baggage that that connection can bring, and the fact that you can recognize that that's what that is and set it down so that you have a little bit more room to make rational decisions and not emotionally laden decisions. That all came out of digesting, unpacking, reflecting, thinking about where I was. I really highly encourage you to reflect on where you are, so you're good.

Essentials For Going Your Own Way

One of the culminations of all those activities, I have essentials that I think you should have in mind for crafting your own career path at your own pace that meets your own requirements. One of those is you have to know what your requirements are, you have to know yourself. You have to know what's important to you. You have to feed the tree. I will explain this in a moment. It's important to feed the tree. You also have to push your limits. You cannot remain static in a dynamic environment: you must change, you must grow. The question really is how to do that sustainably, and how to do that in ways that are challenging, and broadening, and purposeful. Why do I say you need to know who you are, and what makes you unique? When I was putting my package together at Red Hat, which I had been at Red Hat for that long, so I really had to be able to articulate the value that I bring that is different than others. I am also a bit of an anomaly. I had made the decision before leaving IBM because I was at the stage in my career where pursuing distinguished engineer at IBM was on the table. I had help. I had offers of additional people to help me review a package if I was going to put one together to try to get to DE at IBM, and I had more or less decided actually that I wasn't going to try. That was because the way the role is defined at IBM doesn't match who I am. I would have had to turn myself into such an unnatural pretzel that I felt that even if I crossed the hurdle, which I may have been able to do, even if I would have crossed that hurdle, I would not have been happy afterwards. I'm not sure I would have been successful. Because the way the role is defined, and the expectations of the role as defined, are so not me. I only know that because I know me.

Who am I? Why do I not fit? I'll give you an example that explains a little bit. This is like a rule. We had an assignment. It was an art class, so it was not really a lot of rules, but it was an assignment. Come in. The teacher had the papers already on the desk, landscape orientation. Look at the person across from you. She happened to look a lot like me. Look at the person across from you, draw that person in the style of Picasso. She gave an example. She drew an example. Her example included the shoulders, the head, the other shoulder. Everyone, every single person in the class drew that. He changed the colors. There was definitely variation. It wasn't like everybody did exactly the same thing, but everyone followed that original outline. The page stayed in that orientation, and the outline of the head and shoulders remained constant through everything else. This was mine. I can remember people looking at me funny, because the first thing I did was I turned the paper around, I had the ruler out, I was trying to figure out how to bring this face into the whole picture. It's weird, because there's so much of my childhood that I don't remember. I remember, and you can see it because you can actually see the video that it's right there. I still have it [see minute 8:54 of the video]. It was a moment that I recognized that my brain is doing something differently than the other people in this class. It just came out cool. I'm so proud of it. I love it. The whole process, I just remember it being a realization that there's stuff going on in my brain that's not the same.

Core Values

There are things that I value that I know other people don't value. You will hear mention in some places of core values. I'm not talking about the corporate values. I'm talking about your values. What is really important to you? What energizes you, and what drains you? You really should know both because they are different things. I have a feeling if you go back and look through your career at projects, school or otherwise, school or career. If you look at those projects that you were really excited about, versus those ones that were a real drag, the ones that excited you are going to have ticked some box in an attribute that you find really important. It wasn't just that it was cool, it was that it did something for you with one of these values. This is a word blob. It's got lots of words in it. It is the most common way that I found to try to understand what your core values are. I personally, if I went and stared at the sky, I would never understand what my core values are. They sound very like mythical unicorn, sometimes. I did find several sites. There's lots of sites out there, several of which will have word lists. The idea with the word list is that you look through these words, and you find ones that resonate with you, that mean something to you. Then you can extrapolate meaning, and you can extrapolate importance from those words. That way, you're not like, I value family. Maybe you do value family, but you're not thinking about it in a vacuum, you really have all of these options.

I will warn, because I had this problem, and so maybe some of you will have this problem. If you're one of those people that grew up always wanting to do well on tests, you may have the problem where it's like, this is an important word because functioning adults need to do this. I recommend making a functioning adult bucket so that you can say, I know that one is important. I'm going to put it in the functional grownup bucket, because it doesn't actually do anything for me. I know I have to do it, or I know it's important, but it's not really me. If you need to do that, do that. The general gist is you come up with three to five things that really make you what you are. There are things that you bring to conversations. There are things that people notice about you. There are things that you feel strongly about. Once you start thinking about these words, you're like, yes, they drive my behavior. They are important to me. When they're not satisfied, I'm not happy. It's that kind of thing. I found it very useful. Even as I looked at actually going through my DE package, some of the themes, at least core values that I had identified about myself, are part of what we emphasized in my DE package, and they are things that were reinforced by my recommendation letters. It's stuff that I had been doing for a long time but I hadn't put it together. This was me. Please do that. Depending on where you are in your life, come back to it periodically, because I'm not sure I would have picked the same 5 words when I was 30 something. I'm not sure I would have picked the same 5 words when I was 20 something. You change over time. You grow. Some of your values might shift a little bit too. That's fine. Normal, expected, great. We grow, we change. All of that is good.

Goal Setting

I also want to mention goal setting. I don't want to talk about goal setting in a stringent sense. I'm not trying to give you homework, really, or give you chores, but to the Cheshire cat's point, if you don't know where you're going, then it doesn't matter what road you take, because you're going to get wherever you get, which since you didn't know where you wanted to go anyway, it's fine. When you're doing these goal setting stuff, you're looking for things that still align with your values. Where you can, you do want to look at how this next career move, or taking care of your family, or making it a priority to spend time with your kids, within a time horizon, three to five years, do I want to go for this promotion now, five years better? Do we need to actually spend more time over here? Do I need to find a project that will still grow and stretch my skills, but that won't be quite so intense because my attention is needed elsewhere? It's that kind of goal setting, the big picture stuff. Know what you want to do, revisit it, but maybe a three-to-five-year time horizon.

My husband and I actually, we started dating when we were in college, and this kind of thing just happens. It's not a formal thing, but we will check in like, what are we doing? We don't know. Maybe we should be thinking about this in the next couple years, or I'm thinking about this, or my manager's talked to me about that. We try to fit it. How does this flow? How are we moving forward? The whole picture. What's the whole picture? What do I want out of this picture? What do other people need from me out of the picture? It allows you to be a little bit more deliberate about what opportunities you take. If you do need something else, then it helps you have a more concrete conversation with your managers, but also with your mentors, too, about what else you might try, or what else might fit better with where you are and what you want to do in the next couple years. You can start laying groundwork for then that long term horizon thing. You have to be able to articulate those goals.

Push your Limits (Feed the Tree)

Pushing your limits. You can do more than you think you can do. There are limits, but you can do more than you think you can do. You're only going to find that out if you try. There's another part to this pushing your limits part, and that is feeding the tree. I have a real hard time separating these two concepts. They're very different things. They're very closely related in my mind. I call it feeding the tree. It's probably more commonly called networking. I don't like calling it networking, because networking to me feels like it's transactional. I want to meet that executive, so that that executive knows who I am. I really don't like that. There is an element of truth to it. It definitely helps if you've met that executive. If I'm just saying hi, so that they say hi, it doesn't actually mean anything. I collected mentors for a long time. Every person I met, anyone that was interesting, I would have conversations with them, like what do you think about this? Here's where I am. What are you doing? Learning from them, and sometimes bouncing ideas off of them just to get a different point of view on whatever I was thinking. I'm thinking about this, does this make sense? To try to get that feedback to validate my own perspectives about how things were working.

I was really resistant to the whole networking concept for a very long time. At one point, I met a few women in a leadership program, and they were like, what you do with your mentors and how you learn this, that's what networking is. I was like, yes, ok. It was something about the conversation that we had, where I've realized that this living system, this interconnection between people, this fabric of humans that I had met and grown relationships with over time was in essence a muscle I could flex, not in a negative, I need to use you way, but in a, how can I impact the business way? How can I improve our outcomes? How can I get people to the table that are disagreeing? How can I get them to come to the table with a different idea, a different framing of the whole problem, so that we can leave the table with a different answer. It took my friends, took some of my peer mentors to open my eyes to what I had built, which was a nice interconnected system of trusted relationships. I can't emphasize how important that is. We are all humans, and we need each other.

I am chaos walking. I have no concept of time. I think many things at once. I have a terrible time focusing. Do not ask me to estimate or size anything because I don't know time. I don't know how long it takes. It takes how long it takes. I can tell you this is harder than that. That's more complicated than that. I can't tell you how long it's going to take, because time and I don't get on. When working on a project, I need a partner. I know I need a partner. I function much better with a partner. I need that partner that can build and focus and understands all of the stuff that I don't naturally do. The person that catches the I's and dots the T's, that understands the legal requirements. I need that other person with me. I know that, and then they know that. Then we work together. I can give them more ideas than they had themselves. They can give me things to do that I will do. We feed off each other in the most positive way. Alasdair Nottingham was my man, and we did amazing things. We were a great team. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. I miss that dynamic all the time, because we were really good for each other, in that we pushed each other, and we supported each other. We built something really great with a whole bunch of people because of the dynamic that we shared. That's one kind of tree, but there's more than that too.

Active Participation

Again, this is my early career mentors, and I'll talk about some of them. I needed that hand up. Then I also needed the catch. I did make the mistake, and I needed the catch. This whole growing of an organic ecosystem, it helps you take risks, it helps you push your limits, because you have support with good mentors who understand how to support you. Even people at senior level still need mentors. Then when you get to senior levels, you are that mentor for the juniors, they need it too. They need the hand up. They need the encouragement. They need the push to form their own opinions, to get the big picture, to put things in perspective. Most importantly, to be encouraged to be themselves, to find themselves, to understand how they can contribute and to feel supported enough to do so.

This all started with my dad. I never expected to be a grown person talking about my father, but it really did start with him. I am way too much like my dad. I get concerned a little bit about what my 70s are going to look like, because he's a lot. The conversations that we had around our dinner table, were maybe a little different, but also fundamentally formative. My dad is not a passive person. He's an active participant in shaping direction. He's high school educated. He had an apprenticeship at NASA. He's a tool and die maker. He went into a mechanical engineering career, essentially, in a way as an influencer, but also as a builder. He would design the machines in stamping plants that would take the blanks and turn them into roller rocker arms most of the time. That was most of the output. Although there was a whole period of time where it was corrugated cardboard with laser cutters. There was the water jets later and laser cut. It was crazy. His unique contribution was how he thought about a problem, his ability to visualize, his ability to come up with a unique solution that helped solve the customer's problems, and in the process made the company successful.

He challenged rules all the time. He challenged practices all the time. He did it for the right reasons. He did it in the right forums. Some of this was in the '80s. He really did not like bullies. I got my fair share of office stories where the bully would come into the office and dad would do, depended on the situation, it wasn't like reverse bullying. It was just, whenever the opportunity came to knock this bully down a peg, or to let other people understand that this was bullying behavior, my dad would take it, so that people would start to understand that this person who's bullying everybody around is not worth fearing. Those were the stories that I heard in my formative years. By the time I entered the workforce, I don't tolerate bullies either. I will talk to anyone at any level, at any time. The content of the conversation will get scary, I will get nervous based on the content. I will try not to waste time. Executives don't have a lot of time. If I'm going to go and talk to a person that's at a much higher level than me, I do try to make sure that I'm focused because their time is precious. If you just waste it, you're not getting anything done, really. You're not accomplishing anything.

I just learned from him not to fear authority, and that really changed how I've gone through my whole career. It is a little different. I also never waited. I would try to encourage my friends, again, like this whole comparing people to each other, the whole thing. I can remember some of my friends when we were still young, I haven't been given a leadership role yet. What do you mean given a leadership role? Be a leader, you don't have to wait. I don't understand the whole giving thing, when are they going to give you, tell you you're a team lead? How does that work? It was such a foreign concept to me, because to me, you just do the thing, you become a leader. Then maybe a team gets formed because you need to do the next thing. At that point, it's the obvious answer. It happens because that's what's supposed to happen. It's the natural thing to happen, I should say, not that it's supposed to. I never waited for anyone to give me anything. That was largely because of my dad's impact on my formative brain.

Funny story to show you how differently he thinks. He does this kind of thing now with FIRST Robotics as a mentor. Even now in his retirement, he's working on CAD, teaching high schoolers how to design robots. When I was in high school, my engineering class, we had a king of the mountain thing. It was a bunch of cars, you had to get to the top and stay there. Everybody hot-rodded their cars. My dad asked me a few questions, do the rules say how many wheels the car has to have? He just opened the box, like, what do you mean how many wheels? It was just a real different way to think about the problem. He didn't tell me what to do. He just asked me brain opening questions. When it came to competition day, I showed up with this, which is the weirdest thing ever created. I still have it. This is actually a recent picture. The back wheel with a water chestnut can with Velcro loops on it. This thing would crawl the mountain, get to the top, drop a trapdoor with nails into the carpet. It was a beast. The whole competition was hilarious, because we had a couple of the guys that had cars that were supposed to go real fast. They just went like trying to get to the top first, they would hit that plow blade and go to the other side of the room. It was funny. It was a great time. It was another one of those like, my father's questions helped me shape a different idea about what was possible to build. Then I built this ridiculous contraption [see minute 27:53 of the video]. It still cracks me up to this day. That's what came out.

Years at IBM

I went directly to IBM out of school. I had a manager that I felt I had a good rapport with. She actually interviewed me on campus. I went on site to IBM and I interviewed with a bunch of other managers, I felt she was she was the one I wanted to work for first. As a woman going into engineering at that time, there were not a lot of other women there. There was a company that I interviewed with, and it would have been basically a straight extension of my master's thesis, I could have gone right there and just kept working on what I was working on. It was like a direct mapping. When I went to that site, as a young 20 something woman, every person that I met that was an engineer was a white male. It was a while ago. Every single one of them. The only other woman that I met was a technician which was an hourly position. No. I'm all about challenging barriers, but that was not a dynamic I wanted to be in the middle of. It just didn't seem right. When I came to Poughkeepsie, this manager introduced me to her manager who was a woman who introduced me to her manager who was a woman. It was three or four levels up where it was all women in the management chain, which I was working with men. I'd always worked with men. Computer science curriculum is for men. I'd had no problem working with men, but knowing from a support perspective that I was going to be managed, that there were a lot of women in management, was awesome.

I know that can make people uncomfortable talking about gender in that way. I discovered as my career went on, having managers that understood the impact of having children. I had a man as a manager, just after I had my first child, and the questions that he asked me were not ok. I frankly unmanagered him, because I could not trust him to have my back. I was part time as a mother. I was still contributing. I was still participating. I was still working. You'd have to trust management to ensure that your relative contributions are accounted for correctly. This manager is the one that said to me, your being part time shouldn't matter except that it does. Which is a nonstarter. That's not ok. I challenged that. I did. I took it to his manager. He also asked me if I was going to have any more children. You're not allowed to ask that either. No, out. That's being proactive about myself, knowing myself, knowing where I wanted, knowing why I was still working, and making sure that my contributions counted, and would continue to be credited, so that I could continue to move forward, even as I was on reduced hours, so I could be with my young son.

There were so many good mentors and experiences for me. I started on the mainframe. I got all kinds of interesting opportunities from that team early on. I had some projects, they were mainline. If I would have messed it up, everybody would have known, projects very early. I was encouraged to try them. I had a lot of support. Everything went great. I did have the big mistake. I almost think like that interaction with that manager was almost like an offshoot of this earlier mistake. I should have escalated someone for not doing work basically that I needed to have done. It was another team in another area and I should have escalated that I am not getting this work done, and I didn't. It was a big catastrophe. A lot of people knew about it. My name was in the wrong places. I had, again, this feeding the tree thing. I had great mentors who were like, "Making mistakes is ok. You got it done. We met the dates. Nothing slid. No permanent harm done, but right now executives know who you are, and it's not for the right reasons. We have this research that we want to have done, we want to understand what our choices in this area should be. While we wait for the executives to forget who you are, how about you go work on this?" That was a huge opportunity. That grew eventually into WebSphere Liberty, which was amazing. It was a really cool experience to take an idea with recommendations into a prototype with 7 people back into an organization of several squads of like 50 people, which then grew to 100 people, which then grew to 300 people. It was just the coolest thing.

Then I opted to leave that project. That was like a reverse feed the tree moment. I had been in that organization for a very long time. It was time for me to try something new. I knew that if I stayed whoever was the next leader was not going to get a fair shake. I was too embedded in everything. I was an admin of everything. I had been there forever. I took another small team. I told people this, I'm like, I have to disappear. I can't stay. We actually had fairly new people that we recommended to be the next leaders of the org because they were the right not like manager leaders but team leaders, technical leaders, because they had the right supportive attitude for all of the teams and all of the work that they were doing. We're like, no, these people need to do it. If I'm here, they won't get a fair shot. It was right as microservices and cloud native concepts were becoming the big thing. Let me take this team and we'll go over and investigate something else. I disconnected myself from all admin things and effectively disappeared. That's exactly what happened. That leader was allowed to grow. I was there for them. It wasn't like I left them totally high and dry. One of my dad's other aphorisms was train your replacement. I had trained my replacement. It was ok for me to leave. I didn't leave anybody high and dry or anything. I did effectively disappear to give that person room to grow. I knew if I stayed there, he wouldn't have been able to grow. I moved out.

We explored that year. Within the next couple years, we wrote books. We built a text-based adventure game to teach people cloud native microservices, which was super fun. We ran workshops. It was outrageously fun. It was a really good time. It was an excellent departure from the usual. Eventually we moved because of what we were doing, and our ties to microservices and cloud native development, and all of those activities. My small team of six, most of us moved to the IBM Cloud to work on that developer experience. In the process of that whole transition, I picked up the mission of bringing support for another Java technology, Spring, which is probably one of the most widely used application frameworks there is. I own the mission to actually get all of our new IBM Cloud technologies to support the Spring way of configuring things, and to make all of that happen, and even push that into some of our more traditional IBM products, which had never been done before. That all grew also from those initial teams. Some of the people that I worked with at IBM Cloud, and worked with at the beginning of Liberty, those were relationships that I had formed from the beginnings of WebSphere, and some of those early architecture board meetings. Even now, my relationships back still, because I still talk to my IBM friends and some of those people, are people I've known for 20 years. Those relationships are hugely important in terms of feeding the tree, and closing the circle and trying to make a difference based on who you know and who you've worked with, and how you can see that things should come together.

My move to Red Hat felt very natural at the time. It was a role I invented. It was time for me to go. It was time again for me to change. I realized, that the distinguished engineer role at IBM, I probably would have been able to get there but I don't think I would have been happy. It would have been painful, because I, as chaos walking, as someone that is a gluer, and a connector, and a bridger, the way I'd fill gaps and break down communication barriers, it's all very important. It's a force multiplier, but it doesn't directly deliver to the bottom line in the way that the IBM distinguished engineer package expected you to. I don't have a swim lane. I don't want a swim lane. I don't want to own things. I want to help the other people who own things build better things. I want to figure out how to get those things that other people are building to grow together, to evolve together, to ensure that we have a consistent story. It's a different kind of role, and getting that through at IBM would have been a real struggle, which is why I had more or less written it off. Being able to do that at Red Hat was empowering. Being able to bring what I know about myself to work and to work with it, and try to make a difference with whatever this is. It is amazing. I have great support at Red Hat, and I try to provide good support at Red Hat to keep that nice circle of growth going.


My summary to you, my go do the things and conquer the mountains comment is, understand what fills your cup. What makes you happy. Not just happy, because you can have outside things that make you happy, but what actively charges your battery at work, rather than draining it. Leverage that to find sustainable ways to stretch. You do need to learn new things. You need to keep your head up, understand the horizon, understand how anything that is in your near vicinity would fit with the other things that are going on either in the company or in the industry. Doing that in a sustainable way where you're not going to burn yourself out is really important. Always feed the tree. It's rewarding for you to have a mentee. It's also rewarding to have really good mentors. It's rewarding to have solid relationships with your peers. Do it. It benefits everybody. There's no reason not to, even if you're shy, and even if you at the end of the day find it tiring. I am secretly an introvert. I love people, but only for so long, and then I need to go take a nap. It's ok. You can do this. Those relationships are what make it safe to take risks. They make it easier for you to push your boundaries. They help catch you if you fail. Do that by all means.


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Recorded at:

Mar 01, 2024