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InfoQ Homepage Presentations Optimizing You Panel: Path to Awesomeness

Optimizing You Panel: Path to Awesomeness



The panelists discuss their own choices and events from their histories that propelled their careers, improved their circumstances, and generally helped them achieve awesomeness in one or more areas of their lives.


Christie Wilson is a software engineer at Google. Daniel Bryant works as an Independent Technical Consultant and Product Architect at Datawire. Justin Ryan is Playback Edge Engineer at Netflix.

About the conference

Software is changing the world. QCon empowers software development by facilitating the spread of knowledge and innovation in the developer community. A practitioner-driven conference, QCon is designed for technical team leads, architects, engineering directors, and project managers who influence innovation in their teams.


Moderator: Welcome to the Optimizing Yourself panel. This is an opportunity for some people on the panel who I know are really humble and have a ton of gratitude about where they've come from and where they're going. I know as a person who used to attend a lot of QCons before I got involved that sometimes you can take these people and put them on a pedestal, which we literally have done, by the way. You can also say, "That person is so smart, I can't get there. That person has had all the breaks in their career, that can't happen for me. I will never know this one thing as much as this other person does."

It can be sometimes a little defeating, but also if you look at it the right way, if you went to the last Optimizing Yourself about stress it can also be something that you can use to inspire you. What I have found is that largely these wonderful people who participate in QCon, and InfoQ for that matter, are human beings, and they've had the same struggles, trials, and tribulations, but they've chosen a different path. They had options that were presented to them. They had opportunities that were given in other cases, but they've taken it and they've invested in it.

That's what I want to give everyone here the opportunity to do, is to allow these fine people to share their experiences, their hero stories possibly, and how did they get there.

Ryan: I'm Justin [Ryan]. I most recently have been at Netflix for the last eight years. I will try not to dwell on that too much. The real key thing is when I got started I grew up in a small town that just happened to have a little startup that I interned at, and that startup got bigger, and got bought out, and grew, and bought out, and I just rode that wave all through college. It really just set me up to go work with my coworkers from that startup, and I just kept working with those. It was a very networking career I had going from group to group.

I was also a consultant for a while and I realized, "I have a kid on the way. I want a W2 now," so I had to get a boring job at a big company and stuff. That lasted about two years, but there were some things that I did there. It was me expressing myself there that really rose me up and made me think, "Ok, I got to go somewhere bigger, somewhere where I can express myself and people will be able to listen." That ended up becoming Netflix for me.

Wilson: I'm Christie [Wilson]. I'm currently a software engineer at Google. I've been at Google for about two and a half years, but before that, I think I've got about 10 years of experience altogether professionally. I've worked in a bunch of different things. I started off working on mobile websites right before smartphones became super big, so that was a lot of browser compatibility stuff, which was awful. Then, from there I tried to do a startup with some people that didn't go super well. I mean, they're still going so I guess it's still going well. I don't know what's happening, but I wish them luck.

Then, I did foreign currency exchange, and then I spent a really long time working on video games actually, which was a weird industry to be in. I was lucky because I was in the online side and not in the game development side. I have a lot of opinions about that, but yes, games are very cool. Now I work at Google on a project called Tekton, which is all about CI/CD, which is a weird thing to specialize in. I feel like it's never the core business thing that you're making, it's always something on the side that supports making the thing, which is something I've always been interested in but sometimes have trouble convincing the people who fund projects to care about.

Bryant: Í'm Daniel Bryant. I work as a product architect at Datawire, Boston-based company, but you'll recognize probably by the accent I actually live in the UK. I'm also the British version of Wes, if you like. I look after QCon London, so next year you'll see me at QCon London. I also am the news manager at InfoQ. I like to collect job titles, as you can probably see there, but I also like the variety, and that's been the key thing in my career. I started as an academic with a PhD in artificial intelligence and non-monotonic logics, which sounds as exciting as it was. Then, to pay the bills I started doing Java development and consultancy. Really enjoyed it.

I liked the practicality of doing development more than academia. I still love my academic roots. I learned so much from academia, but I wanted more practical. I then did a bunch of architectural stuff, did some OPS stuff, trained at a DBA. I love learning, that was part of the motivation. Got involved with a couple of startups as well, couple of failed startups, couple of ok startups, and then did a whole bunch of consultancy. That's when I met Datawire, met the InfoQ team, and that's what I've been doing for the last two or so years now.

U-Turns in Careers

Participant 1: I just wanted to ask you simple questions, all of us being in QCon, and you guys are sharing your success story. Out of these sessions, a few guys talk about only one thing that changed your life, or what scenario you [inaudible 00:06:00] from there you took a U-turn. If we can learn from your mistakes and your experiences what we should do in any scenario to go up. I'm talking in general. I'm not talking about [inaudible 00:06:19] my application was [inaudible 00:06:20] and I put the AI into it and started working. I'm not asking that thing, but in general, which I think can help all of us.

Moderator: It's what's the watershed event in your life that has propelled you forward?

Participant 1: Yes, and takeaway from it – learning which all of us can take if we face this.

Bryant: One of the things I think has been massively influential in my career has been communities. To Harry's [Moderator] point, I had the opportunity. I missed a couple for sure, but I also got involved with a couple and made them communities. One will be the London Java community. Two of my good mentors, Ben Evans and Martijn Verburg, I met them at the meet-up 10 or so years ago, and they just connected me with folks. They helped me understand where I was at, my skills, my weaknesses. They have just been super influential, and that community has been super influential.

Likewise, shameless plug, of course, but with InfoQ. When I joined the InfoQ team five, six years ago, again, it was people I looked up to at the QCons, looked up to when I read InfoQ site. Just joining that community has been fantastic, like a work family to some degree, people that call you out when you do bad stuff. They help you when you're down, and they also give you a glimpse of what you could become, so I think the community thing has been the biggest. I call them inflection points in my career where I was really enjoying and doing ok, but when I joined the LJC suddenly my opportunities went up. When I joined InfoQ my opportunities went up again, so that's really important for me.

Ryan: I had also had an inflection point. I mentioned earlier I started a startup, and I knew people there, and it got me other jobs, and that was going pretty well for me. There was this one conference I went to that happened to be an Open Space conference. It was called the Java Posse Roundup. It's now the Winter Tech Forum. I really, for whatever reason, made myself go to that conference, and what I found out, half of them were public speakers. People I had heard on the podcast, I'd seen present, and I was just hanging out with them and I realized they were just like normal people. They were just engineers like me, just someone put a mic in front of them and they started talking.

This would've been many years ago, maybe 10 years ago at this point, but that was a big change for me. That really started me thinking about interacting with them more, not being afraid to interact with them, and in the end I reached out to one of them to get a job and that was the job that got me into Netflix. Initially I stayed away. I'm "There's no way I'm going to get into Netflix," and it was just talking to them gave me the confidence to go and actually ask, and I got it. I think at this point my Pinned Tweet on Twitter is "It's not as hard as you think, you just got to try." In this case I am available to help someone try, but in that case it was me getting to realize it's not as hard, or there aren't these boundaries that I thought existed. They really just didn't exist.

Wilson: For me, I don't think it's really an inflection point so much as just something that I keep learning again and again, but I think all of us should realize how lucky we are to be in tech, and how much opportunity there is. Don't let yourself get stuck somewhere for too long where you feel like your skills aren't being appreciated or people aren't listening to you. I think that all of us have some very interesting perspective to offer, and there's no point wasting yours somewhere where people aren't listening. Just look around and see what else there is and I guarantee you if you are feeling afraid of leaving where you are, or afraid of trying something else, it's not going to be as hard as you think it is.

I can't think of a single person I know who has decided to switch and then been "Ah, man, I really wish..." Even some people do go back but they don't have any regrets about having left and tried something else. If you feel like you want to try something else, then try something else because you can.

Moderator: That's great. I remember one of my mentors gave me advice early on, which was, "If anybody tells you not to code it's time to leave." That is your tool for expression as an engineer and as a human being. Yes, you have a responsibility for what you code, but that is what you should be doing, and for me, that was always, how do I create an opportunity for others to express themselves? How do I create an opportunity for me to refine my expression so that I'm not inflicting my opinion or my code on anyone?


Moderator: What about mentorship? Daniel [Bryant], I think you mentioned mentors. How has that affected you? How did you find your mentors? How did you build a relationship with them?

Bryant: Mentoring is a slightly overloaded word, I think. I mentioned Ben and Martijn, who have been definitely active mentors who I met through meetups in London. Again, I think if you go to these community events people will present themselves, and you do have to seek them out, too. I've also got a bunch of unofficial mentors, people that I've met over the years that I can reach out to when I'm stuck. There's many reasons that mentors are useful, but the two biggest opportunities are to ask them from their experience if I'm struggling with something. I explain the situation, they can echo back to me "Do you mean this? Do you think this?" I think that's super helpful for my career.

Also, just giving me a view of where I can be in the future, I think that's really good. I'd like to echo the point [inaudible 00:11:57] when I first started coming to QCons almost 10 years ago in London, I looked up to people on the stage and was thinking, "I could never be that person. That's crazy. They work at Netflix. They're doing all this cool stuff in the JVM." I realized, when I chatted to them afterwards they're totally normal people. More than that, if you ask for someone to help at a QCon, because we're a general friendly bunch, people will say, "Yes, sure." That is just putting yourself out there saying, "I'm a bit stuck. Can I get some advice?" Mentors have really helped me in that space on my journey.

Wilson: It's a hard one to answer. I would maybe take this opportunity to say that the first thing that comes to my mind is actually a sense of frustration, but one thing that I find really difficult is that there are some very cool women in tech to look up to, but I feel like there is definitely a shortage of women to look up to. I wish that there were more of them. That's not exactly a mentor, though. I definitely have had people mentor me in the past and that's been really useful. On that note, I would say another thing that's really useful is people sometimes make the distinction between mentoring, sponsoring, and I feel like coaching is maybe another one. I feel like people who have sponsored me in my life really made a big difference. People who could see that I could do something and believe in me enough to put me in a position where maybe it won't work out, but they're going to take a chance and see what happens. That's been super useful.

Ryan: In a little bit of similar vein, I don't really have a bunch of examples of mentors. It just has not come across for me. I think I've leaned heavily on role models, so looking to other people and what they do, and try to map that to me in my experience and finding ones that are similar, and that I did have them completely available. I've been very lucky to have some good role models just at work, but honestly, listening to podcasts and following certain personalities out there in open-source space via a community that I'm watching and stuff and using that a model. I have never put a lot of weight into walking up to some expert that you look up to and say, "Give me career advice," and in 10 seconds they're going to give it to you. We just mentioned they're normal people, they don't have magical answers.

The best conversations are ones where I have friends in the industry and I can talk through the stuff. They might not have the right answer, but they can just let me talk through it. That is definitely something that I enjoy. I don't work well just by myself. I need someone else to talk to, and so having a coworker in that space. In my case my spouse is also in tech so she understands the space, too, so that's another person to talk to.

Wilson: Maybe I'll just add one thing. Back to the inflection point thing, something that made a really big difference for me and didn't lead to mentorship exactly, but maybe something similar along the lines of role models is – I forgot to mention I'm actually Canadian, I am from Vancouver, Canada, and at one point there was an amazing conference that was put on for two years in a row and hasn't been since, I think, because it was a lot of work. It was called AndConf. It was an intersectional feminist software retreat, and there was something else in the title as well.

It was basically like going to the woods with a bunch of people who were all intersectional feminists, and then pair programming, and having unconference discussions, and it was amazing. It was near San Francisco, and I traveled there and I met all these cool people who were in San Francisco, and I realized that there were these communities that are available. It just made a really big difference for me, and suddenly I remember driving back from that to the airport and I was just "Maybe I really could do it. Maybe I could work at a company like Google. This is really neat." It was just really inspiring.

Stepping out of the Comfort Zone

Moderator: I think each one of you has said something like "There was a point in time where I had to step out of my comfort zone to do something." Does anybody want to tell a story about that? You had the idea driving back or flying back. What made you act on that? Because everybody's got this idea, but how do you act on it?

Wilson: I think actually acting on it took a while. I felt inspired, a whole year passed. I went to the conference again, I felt inspired again, I didn't really do a lot. I think I was enjoying my current job enough at the time, and then I think what happened is hard to describe. I just decided to try it. Maybe a key part of it was I decided to be ok with failing at it as because I just assumed that there was no way I could possibly pass the Google interview but I might as well try it. Also, if I was trying to prepare for that I'd be ready for any interview, so I was like, "Give it a shot." Then, it actually worked out, and I passed it, and I got the job, and that was pretty cool. I think accepting that I might fail in that was an ok thing, it was a really big part of it.

Ryan: Circling back to the inflection point I was talking about earlier, also an Open Space conference, which gave me a lot of time with a lot of other people, so maybe that is a theme that comes up here. I remember that the person that gave me the job actually said, " I'm hiring right now." I said, "I'll talk to you in six months." I think I was just too comfortable in my existing job, and it's like some options on the table were nothing later. It was just very comfortable, but I did set up at least a timeline for myself. As much as I'm "I can't do it now but I'll do it in six months," I did do it in six months, and I think that that set it up. I also had told them I would talk to them in six months. They completely forgot about it, but for me, it was an internal goal I set up for myself.

Bryant: I think for me, most of my big change has actually been driven by pain. I'm riffing off of what you said, Harry [Moderator]. I'm the person I like to learn a lot, and if I'm not learning that's a warning sign. I'm "Maybe it's time to move on." Often I think by me, when I get a bit nervous about I'm not learning enough then it triggers the company to think, "Where are we going?" I've had a few awkward situations with, say, colleagues in the past, and that's then triggered me to look for other opportunities.

To riff off something I know that you said, Christie [Wilson], where I've been the most scared about something that I'm leaving a good job, it's a good salary potentially, there's no reason to leave per se other than my lack of comfort. When I've been the most scared, the best things have happened. That's not only making that jump, but also afterwards when I've landed at a new company. I'm "I'm totally out of my depth here. Everyone knows more about Java than I do." I was panicking for a bit, but luckily I had some friends and some mentors who I riffed off and they said, "Don't worry, give it a few months," and it was fine.

I think that pain for me, that awkwardness, or lack of comfort can be a signal to look around other things. Then don't be afraid if you do make the jump feeling uncomfortable. I've definitely been there. The worst situations more often not turned out to be amazing for other opportunities.

Ryan: I actually defined the first thing you talked about, and we call it resume-driven development. It's not exactly what you think. I share this with my coworkers and this is how we drive stuff. If you feel that your resume is getting weak you're more likely to leave. If you look back and you're "I got nothing new going on here," that's the sign of, somebody is probably going to leave. Something I want to do with my team and I consistently do is I make sure there's something they can put onto their resume. It doesn't have to be new technology, but just something so they feel that they are doing something new, and having that drive something. If you are at your current place and there's just no opportunity to grow that resume, that is a sign for me. You absolutely could stay in your company and add to your resume, but it's just something that helps drive me going when things are going well or they're not going well.

Breadth vs Depth

Participant 2: Just a follow up on that – the way that technology is evolving in this era of cloud native, it's a different definition of development than 10 years back, if you will. Being an engineer, being an individual contributor to grow in the career, do you think breadth is important, or depth is important? Do you want to go down JVM, Java, you want to know pretty much all the libraries out there, all the different version of Java and what's coming out, what's new in 11, what's new in 13? Versus, there's a lot of other interesting areas. Why don't I try Terraform? Why don't I try AWS? Why don't I try these new tools in my toolbox? What do you think is important in your career that has helped you when you interview at some company, and that you can say, "Because I had that tool in my toolbox that definitely helped, and that didn't help?" Or, "Because I went deep enough in this technology that helped."

Ryan: I would say there's a few orthogonal thoughts going on there. I mean, breadth versus depth, super important. Both are options. You could choose either one, there's no right answer there. I'd say the more critical thing is there are always going to be new technologies, and it is always about learning. I put a big, heavy weight on that. Just accepting I'm going to have to learn something new. The only way I'm going to stay in this career is just learning new things. I might learn new things on the side just to skew my brain.

I'm going to learn a little bit about Erlang just because they do things differently. Maybe it comes up in an interview, maybe that helps me break out of what I currently do and I can answer an interview question, but I wouldn't put much weight around saying, "There's this new, shiny technology. I should go learn that." I'm much more interested in making sure I can just think differently, and knowing that I'm always going to be able to pick up on some new technology later.

Wilson: Yes, 100%. I think that being able to learn is the most important thing. There's a Tweet that I included in my talk the other day from a person called Ali Spittel, and the content of the Tweet is basically that learning is the most important thing you can have as an engineer, and I totally believe that. If you can learn then you can adapt to anything that gets thrown at you later. Though I would say that I feel like having a pretty solid grounding in fundamentals of just how things work, like how an operating system works, and how lots of programming languages work.

It depends on what field you're in. I would say machine learning and artificial intelligence are something where I know almost nothing and have no foundation, but for me it's more running systems, and what is going on in a Linux platform. That kind of stuff just never goes out of style, because it's always at the bottom of everything and it's always useful.

Bryant: I think the answer is it depends. I think it definitely depends on your interests, but I'm very much a generalist. I've heard it say T-shaped, so riffing off what you were saying, Christie [Wilson]. I learned a bunch of stuff over my career at quite a shallow level, but I've gone quite deep in Java, for example. I personally really enjoyed that. I like going deep in a very well-defined domain, but also being able to knit things together. Partly that comes from my experience as a consultant. You're often looking to literally knit things together, and that's why I started getting into business. I started getting into other things. I was at a few startups in bits and pieces.

I found that the more tech I've learned, the more other things I've learned, I can pattern match at the higher level now. Exactly to the point you made, Docker was one year, Kubernetes the next, service mesh this year. You actually start to look for common patterns, and as an architect it's all about coupling and cohesion, for example. It took me about five different technologies to understand that. I think learn as much as you can and then you'll get a fit for what works for you.

There's a Venn diagram I've seen, and maybe it's a bit cliche, but in the it's what you're good at, what you enjoy, and what you can get paid for. If you get something right in the middle it's the sweet spot, and I think it does take a few years. Anecdotally, from people I mentor as it takes a few years to figure that stuff out, but if you can get that sweet spot where you actually pay the bills, enjoy what you do, and so forth, it's really good.

Moderator: That's good. I think a lot of it has to do also with the passion, that Venn diagram. Not only what are you good at, what are you passionate about, what you are paid for. No matter if you can get paid for it or not, if you're not passionate about it, it's not going to last. You're not going to succeed if you're not passionate about it.


How do you know what you're good at, and how do you know what you're really passionate about? Christie [Wilson], you're smiling, so I guess you know.

Wilson: I'm just smiling because I have a lot of opinions. I guess the one thing that I would say is that it's not that I disagree with you, but one thing that I feel a little bit differently about is that I used to think that being passionate about what I did as a software engineer was more important than I think it is now. I used to think it would be reasonable in an interview to ask somebody what software development they did in their free time, for example. That used to seem like a totally reasonable thing to me, and now it doesn't because I do feel like what's important is what you get done during the day and not what you're doing in your free time.

If you can be an effective software engineer and just not think about software engineering for the rest of the day, then that is totally reasonable. We have so much opportunity that if you are not feeling motivated by what you're doing and you think you might be by something else, then you should pursue that. If you do feel like you want to be a software engineer and you're like "I don't really care about this, this is just my job," but you can do it, I think that's fine, too.

Ryan: I have a little different experience with passionate in that projects come and go, and there might be technologies that I use and stuff. If what you're doing is a line of what the company is doing there's business value. If you believe in what the business is doing then you can get passion out of that, too. I mean, there's absolutely technology passion, there's no doubt about that, but I've had a lot of luck being at a consumer company that people like. That helps drive me in my passion stuff.

You might be on a project that you aren't passionate about. I don't think that's an end all, be all, if you can relate to what the business is trying to accomplish. Honestly, somewhat to the self-awareness thing, one thing I do know, I'm a little bit selfless, my manager literally gave me a little award I got for the Netflix value of selflessness. Part of it was I wasn't necessarily working on projects that I was enjoying the most but it was projects that that were really helping the business, and that helped drive me. It actually let me have opportunities where other people didn't, because people were so tied to "This isn't a fun project for me." I was "If it helps the business, and I want new TV shows to watch, so I'll work on this." I think it's just a slightly different angle of looking at what passion is and what you're willing to trade off.

Bryant: Yes, I think that's a great [inaudible 00:27:28] on passion. I'll look at the scales thing. One thing I saw a lot as a consultant in the UK, and Germany, and even in the U.S. a little bit, too, is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Don't know if people have bumped into that, but basically it's people that don't know stuff think they know more than they do. There's in the graph this very funny curve. I was just saying when I started off "I'm the best Java developer in the world." Then I started meeting other Java developers and I realized I was not actually that good. It's the unknown unknowns, to coin a phrase.

I would definitely say, if you're at the beginning of your career, definitely be a bit humble – something Harry [Moderator] opened up with. A great way for me was to go to the Java community. When I joined the LJC I suddenly realized there was people that were a lot better than me, and that humbled me quite a bit, which was great. I think you need to continue learning. It's really a key point. Things like getting involved in open source can often give you a different benchmark as well. There's a lot of very smart people all over the world, and when I started doing a lot of open-source stuff that really opened up my eyes. Again, some people just really get certain things on another level, and that, I found, was really inspirational.

I hate the term benchmarking, because that's not what it is, but just to level set, I definitely now look towards other people and other projects to match where I think my skills are at. I encourage that in people I mentor and people I lead to do the same. It's very tempting when you're junior in your career to think you know way more than you do, and I've totally done that.

Ryan: There's something I want to layer onto that, and this is my years of experience. I only have anecdotal evidence there, that as much as there are people out there you will meet that are really good at what they do, there is something they will not be good at. I know I joined a team that is all serverless, and they're very good at serverless and they know it, but as I look around I know that they have weaknesses and I'm just going to fill in those gaps. I have no problem filling in those gaps because they always have them, especially because we're working on teams.

I think if you want to go deep on a subject, then yes, there's just a pure skill on, let's say, Java, or JVM. On a team, if you get into a team and "Oh, my goodness, these people are amazing," I promise you they have some weaknesses. They probably don't like to write emails, or docs, or maybe the build isn't looking so great, or something. There are always opportunities to stand out on a team of what would be experts or people who are really good at what they do. They'll recognize the value in that, and then that helps you get absorbed into the team and stuff. I always found that to be an interesting angle.

Wilson: I would say maybe related to that, and also related to self-awareness, the teams that I have enjoyed working on the most are ones where you get to the point where you feel like you trust the other people enough to let them know the things you're weaker at, like being able to be vulnerable about the fact that "I tried to figure that thing out and I can't. Can someone work with me on that?" That's a really big thing, and I find that it's hard to get to that point, if you're in a position where you feel like you can safely take the lead with being vulnerable about that stuff it makes a huge difference to other people on the team who might be struggling and maybe don't even want to say something about it.

Bryant: The Google project, the project Aristotle, the psychological safety. I think definitely riffing off something I said earlier, some of the teams where I ultimately left is where I didn't feel safe, or I'd almost ask for help and people would be "Just power through. You'll be fine." I was "That's not what I want to hear." Psychological safety is really quite an important topic, I think.

Learning in Startups

Participant 2: All three of you mentioned that you've worked in startups. I've never worked in one. I worked with big organizations and worked as a consultant, but never with a startup. I'm curious what you learned from being in startup. I'm from Midwest, sorry about that, but there are a lot of people who don't have as many startups as the West Coast or East Coast does have. I just had an employee who left for a startup, and what I'm curious, what can I recommend to my team who's willing to actually learn and grow? What do you learn at startups? Should I recommend it to them before they set up in their career in my wonderful company? Or they should stay here and continue working with us?

Ryan: I can answer that in two different ways. One is a real quick story, which is, when I first started at Netflix and some people were leaving, and when they announced it they were clapping. I'm like, "What is going on? Why are you clapping for them leaving?" It took me a while to realize, but essentially they were just happy that they were going to where they wanted to be. Netflix just couldn't offer what they wanted, either a shorter commute, or startup environments, or big company environments.

For some people that's just the right thing. If I see someone leave for a startup, it doesn't mean anything to me. It just means they want something else, so let's talk about what that something else is. For me, it was one ruthless prioritization. The company has to be aligned. If you aren't aligned in getting work done towards that goal of delivering the company goes out of business. Some people who are really, like I mentioned earlier, liking what the company does and adding business value, at a startup that is just paramount. Everyone is very much aligned in what has to happen, and if you're not you'll burn through all your money and stuff. To me, learning that was really interesting.

The other thing that happens at startups is there's a million things to do and you can only do one of them. That's the prioritization part, but someone has to do it, and if you don't do it no one else will. I think I've been very lucky at the companies that let me continue to do that. If they're not a startup but they let me work on the projects that I think are the most important, those are the ones I like the best. That gives you the most opportunity for growth because you can push out in whatever direction. They're just happy because there's 10 things to do and no one else is doing it, so at least you did it. They recognize anything that you do. That's the one thing I did get at a startup is whatever you worked on, everyone is happy that you worked on it. Now get onto the next thing.

Bryant: The big thing for me – I worked in the UK government and I did research before in academia spaces. The UK government, I worked there for 18 months. I worked in a project. It was heavily waterfall. I wrote code for 18 months and the project never saw production, so I got no feedback from actual users. Then my next gig I went to work for a startup. The second day I pushed code into production. This is back in 2010, so it was quite a big thing back then, and the next day a customer came in and said, "This new feature is really cool." I was "That's my feature." That was amazing, getting that feedback of actually delivering value. That's what got me hooked on startups.

The second thing, where that was amazing, that feedback loop, but it was exactly as we've said already. There were so many opportunities popping up as the company was scaling out. The database is falling over. We need someone to learn to be a DBA, and I was "Hell, yes, bring it on." I literally got a book over the week, read the Oracle DBA book, did the DBA exam. I was a DBA, brilliant. I would've never done that in the UK government, that just wouldn't have happened. I'm not negging on my government – I love my government – it's just any big organization is somewhat like that.

Then I was hooked, and linking into then I was actually delivering business value, and the rewards were bigger as being candid. That, for me, was that fast feedback loop and the ability to learn is just who I am. There are my core values, so once my values aligned, or the company's values aligned with mine, both ways, that was awesome.

Wilson: My startup experience was so brief, I think the only thing I learned was that I liked to actually get paid, which I was not getting at the time. I would say, though, mostly based on what you were saying, the size of the company really influences what you can work on and how closely the thing you'll be working on will be aligned with the business value for the company. The larger the company is the more chance you could work on some weird, obscure thing, like an open-sourced CI/CD system. Versus a company that only has 50 people isn't going to pay some, it might, but is less likely to pay someone to work on that. It depends on what you want to work on, I think.

What Do You Wish You Would've Known 10 Years Ago?

Moderator: This is the cliche part of the panel, which is, what do you wish you would've known 10 years ago?

Bryant: I think we've already said, and Christie's [Wilson] already said it, don't be afraid to fail. I think that is one of the key things to be honest, but failure means many things. Sometimes it is taking that leap to a new job, sometimes it's staying in a job. I hang out with a lot of Bay Area folks, and the amount of job hopping I see in the Bay Area compared to Midwest, or compared to even on the East Coast and in the UK is very different, and that's just the Bay Area culture. It is what it is.

The not being afraid to fail is many things. You have to introspect on what that means to you. I think – is it Reed Hastings? I can't remember who exactly – maybe it was Jeff Bezos who has this notion of type one and type two decisions. I know the Netflix crew talk about it quite a lot as well. One of the decisions is ones that are irreversible, and the type two ones are ones that you can easily wind back. There is not many things in life that are a irreversible decisions. There are a few. Recognize those, act accordingly, but many things if you do take the wrong job, you can always go back. If you do pick the wrong language to learn you can always wind it back, so don't be afraid of failure is my takeaway.

Wilson: I think the thing that I wish I knew 10 years ago is something that's very specific to my experience, so I hope it will be useful to other people. Something that I feel like I'm still figuring out is that my working style is very different from other people that I work with. I feel like I've spent a lot of time giving myself a hard time because the people I see around me are approaching their work differently "That person just got that thing assigned to them, and then an hour later they have the pull request open," and "Why am I not working like that?"

I think I'm starting to realize that we all approach work differently and have different patterns to how we work, and different some people don't mind being interrupted constantly and some people it really bothers them. Some people like to plan their days out, and some people don't. Some people like to hear about a new tool and try it immediately, and some people like to focus on the thing that they're doing for a longer period of time, and just being willing to embrace my own working style and not try to force myself to be just like somebody else because I feel bad about it, and just own it. That's been really important for me.

Ryan: I can think back to exactly 10 years ago and where I was. I had really jumped from company to company, and I really was just working on projects and working at companies with no real focus on what I wanted to learn. I think it goes a little bit back to the resume-driven development, which is I would tell myself, "Find something to get really deep on and dig into it." That I did do after that point 10 years ago, and I think that's been pretty successful for myself, really having a goal. "In four years I want to be really good at this. What job is going to set me up so that in four years I will be good at this?"

The four years come, "Great, did it. What's the next thing? What else can I add to the resume to make sure I'm always going forward?" Having a path, and driving yourself down that path. Asking yourself, "Does this get me down that path or not?" because you're going to be faced with 100 jobs, and you do have to wean it down to one. You can wean it down on culture and you can wean it down on a bunch of stuff, but the one that's going to feed into some guiding light for you, I think, will be very beneficial.


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Recorded at:

Mar 10, 2020